The Journey releases this fall! A YA coming-of-age fantasy centered around a rather dysfunctional family unit, our story kicks off with a yawn, tragic reminisces, and a thrilling conflagration. Are you ready to read?
It wasn’t satisfying, though. How could a yawn be satisfying when one was trying to do it inconspicuously?
She felt it coming again, tried to stifle it. Either Great-Aunt Bridget or Marjorie would be sure to notice this time. You mustn’t yawn at mealtimes, Sandy dear. Then she looked at Great-Aunt Bridget and shook her head. No, she wouldn’t notice… It was Fred’s birthday again.
Sandy Thorne frowned and made a face at old goody-goody Fred, always attentive, always respectful and polite, no matter what Great-Aunt Bridget said. No matter what anyone said, ever.
“Ah me, what a sad day it was for us all.” Great-Aunt Bridget’s ramblings rasped endlessly over the otherwise silent breakfast. “Poor Ladeia, stark cold dead, and worse, on your birthday, Freddie. I can scarce believe she must pass on her own son’s birthday…”
Marjorie wouldn’t notice either; her head was down, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. Fussy, proper, prunes-and-prisms Marjorie.
Sandy leaned back in her chair and yawned, good and long.
She tried to remember her mother, but all that her memory dredged up was the same old thing: pretty. Sandy scowled. Eight years old when Mother died, and naught could she recall but pretty. Well, she sure wasn’t pretty, and she didn’t care.
Mother must have looked like Marjorie; after all, Marjorie was beautiful if anybody was. Other girls might have held animosity to her for it, but Sandy had none. It wasn’t as if Marjorie got anything out of her looks. No girl would associate with her, no boy would look twice at her, not when Father was the surly, good-for-nothing drunkard of the village.
He’d been so as long as Sandy could remember, and though some men turned that way when their wives died, he’d been little better when Mother was alive. He must have earned something back in those days, though. Now, no-one would hire him even if he tried to do it. Even Fred’s work they took grudgingly.
But they always did take it in the end; Fred simply looked so honest that most people couldn’t help hiring him. Yet she envied Fred his trustworthy appearance no more than she did Marjorie her beauty. Who wanted to look honest? For that matter, who wanted to work?
The usual time of Great-Aunt Bridget’s morning siesta was long past, and as she repeated the infinitieth variation of her woeful recollections, her head drooped. She heaved herself up and blearily tottered away from the table to sink into her chair in front of the fire.
Fred swiftly rose and crossed the room. The door shut behind him.
Marjorie, with a muffled sob, fled the kitchen and off to the cellar to cry for the rest of the morning, most likely. Sandy rolled her eyes. That was Marjorie on Fred’s birthday.
She sauntered to the back of the kitchen, where a ladder leaned against the wall. Mounting it to the loft, she settled down on the edge of her straw tick, smoothed out her threadbare linen skirt, and fiddled with its ragged edges. Oh, she hadn’t had to do it, maybe; but it was so much easier to climb things with the silly thing no longer swishing near her ankles. What an absurd fuss Marjorie had kicked up over it! If she would just hem it up like Sandy had asked, Sandy would be happy, and Marjorie would be happy. It wasn’t indecent; it didn’t even brush her knees. With a shrug Sandy stood, walked over to the east window, and rested her elbows on the sill.
There was Fred, out at the back of the house. If she climbed out that way, he would see her.
No matter; she had the south window still.
Frederick Thorne gazed out over the thick, wild grass that stretched flat for miles until the grey line of trees that marked the river and the border of Harotha.
Great-Aunt Bridget did not know how much she hurt him; should he try to tell her, still she would not understand… yet, it was hard. So hard.
It is not my fault. Not my fault that my mother died on the first of September, instead of any other. But he never spoke; it was only one day. The next morning, and all other mornings, not a single word on the matter left her lips.
The sun climbed higher into a cloudless sky while Fred’s thoughts ranged far through time and space.
Frederick, his mother had named him, but his father shortened it to Fred, and no-one called him more than that. He had grown too old to loath it as he had once, nor did he have time any longer for fretting over a name.
His father had shortened other names besides his: Sandra to Sandy, Gaius to Guy. Guy, small and dirty, fascinated by fire, who had run away when he was only six. Fred had begun to find it hard to remember him, to remember any of the sisters and brothers who were no longer here. Save perhaps Hunter—
No, it would not be quite the truth to say that he remembered even Hunter. Hunter, two years his senior, the boy who had run away so long ago, was nothing more than a shadowy figure in his thoughts. But Hunter had been the oldest. He was meant to have stayed the oldest. For every day Fred felt afresh how hopelessly unfit were his hands for the responsibility they handled.
If only Hunter would return— then he would not ask that Hunter reassume his role — nay, that would be too selfish, much as he might long to. He would only ask that his brother remain to give him counsel, to tell him what to do when he did not know. To be beside him.
He had never stopped hoping that Hunter would come back.
But he had never been wholly accountable. There had always been Father, Father in name at least, and Great-Aunt Bridget, and for that he was grateful. If ever he had to take total responsibility upon himself, he thought he would go mad…
Ten children his mother had borne that lived— there might be those that had not, but he was ignorant of them. After Hunter had come himself, and then Daren and Isabelle, a year younger. He thought they had been dark-haired, but no more could he recall. Where were they now, those dark-haired twins who had disappeared to see the traveling musicians one summer’s morning, never to return?
So few of us remained.
But Marjorie had remained. How hard she worked, striving to be mother to Sandy and daughter to Great-Aunt Bridget, striving to make their wretched cottage a home. It was more than any girl of eighteen should have to do. Dear Marjorie…
Younger than Sandy had been Cecelia, small and dainty but so aloof, the long, blonde hair of the Thornes. Gilbert, dark and hot-tempered. They never knew what came of him, whether his was the body discovered in the river after the spring rains. Fred held back a shudder. They never would know.
And little Gaius. Was it possible that he could be thirteen now? Was he still alive?
Were any of them still alive?
Gwenda—no — Gwenda — don’t think about —
But will was too late to halt memory.
It was nine years ago now. His mother had been dead less than a month; the grief was still near to him, still raw and very painful, and for it the tragedy had hurt the worse. Little Gwenda, the youngest, not yet two, had slept with Great-Aunt Bridget in a cradle by her bed. One morning, when Marjorie came to wake her baby sister, the door stood wide open and she was not there.
Beside himself with worry and sorrow, Fred had begged his father over and over to send for the sheriff. Even Great-Aunt Bridget had taken his side on it, somewhat attached in her own way to her dead niece-in-law’s babe.
At last, with bad grace, Brick Thorne had given in.
The sheriff’s words ran through his head, callous, indifferent. “Slavers; slavers is what it is. Too late now, they’re long gone. No good chasing after them in this country, anyhows. If you lived in Orden, or Rodron, maybe. But you don’t.”
Sandy gripped the sill firmly with her fingers, her feet braced against the wall. In movements coordinated and simultaneous she released her hold, shoved off with her feet, and twisted her body around, dropping a second later to her hands and knees in the grass six feet below.
It was a maneuver she had accomplished hundreds of times; with only the briefest ripple of satisfaction in her stomach, she rose and set off down the worn footpath and onto the road.
There was a keen bite in the air for the first days of autumn, though the sunshine was glorious, and she went at a brisk pace with the wind blowing this way and that against her. By the time anyone thought to look for her, she would be, as usual, long gone.
She thought of the tearful pleas that she would get from Marjorie when she came back, pleas that would end by involving not only her escapade but her hair, her clothes, and all else deplorable about her, and snorted.
Sandy saw, quite plainly, her older sister’s reasons for bringing up her rarely-brushed hair, her self-altered dresses, her pert attitude, her slang, and so forth. What she did not see was the sense in discussing all of them with every single incident. If Marjorie could stick to the matter at hand, it would all be so much simpler.
Sandy tossed her head scornfully and snorted again. Marjorie was annoying, but she could cope with Marjorie.
Fred wasn’t like that. She hated it when Fred talked to her. He said so little, and what he said came in the form of quiet, penetrating sentences that drove into her like spears; forcing her to do more than see his side of the problem. She did that easily enough, but to feel it as well.
She wouldn’t come back for a long time. Not until Fred had left to go seek some more work.
Her mind wandered to Mother again. Marjorie said Mother had been born in Fearnland, a country farther away than Sandy cared to think about. And when she demanded of Marjorie why on earth Mother had come here, if she’d lived hundreds of leagues to the east, Marjorie came back with a vague “I suppose she wanted to”.
“Silly,” Sandy had retorted. “People don’t come all the way from Fearnland to Harotha just because they want to. What’s there to want here anyway? Harotha is a terrible country and everyone knows it.”
Marjorie had sighed. “Ask Fred then. He might know.”
But Sandy preferred to keep a healthy distance from Fred.
She left the fringes of the village behind, the scattered houses interspersed with fields of scrawny wheat, coming into the clustered huddle of the town proper. The inn was on her left; she nearly turned toward it but swung away as a hum of activity reached her ears and she remembered. Today was market day.
She continued down the street, neither hurrying nor dawdling. In less than a minute she had reached the market.
Snippets of conversation danced through her ears as she weaved among the tangle of men, women, and children.
“Pity, she was a fine lass… ’Ow much milk did ye get from ‘er?”
“Nay, Anna, I won’t have you going about wi’ him, he’s no good. You be away too young to gad about the market wi’ a man in any case.”
“Where have you been, you lazy, worthless—”
Sandy paused with all the rest to glance at the cringing boy and his master raining down blows upon him and moved on.
“You don’t mean it!” exclaimed the sheriff’s voice so close to her that she jumped and veered to look at him.
“I surely do,” returned his companion. “Saw him leave, I did, with a bundle on his shoulder and a bottle in his hand. He’s clearing out of here. He doesn’t mean to come back.”
“Well, good riddance,” said the other, and there was heartfelt bitterness in his voice.
“What’s to become of his family, I wonder.”
“They can live the way they always have. ’Tisn’t his doing when they have food on their tables.”
They saw her then and stopped. And Sandy’s mounting suspicion was verified that instant.
“My father is gone,” she said flatly. “All right, I don’t care. Go on, talk about it some more.”
They shifted and eyed her. Sandy whirled and flounced away.
No, to say she didn’t care was not quite true… She hadn’t liked her father, but to have him gone was change. He had always been there, like a familiar picture on the wall; he did do something frightening once in a while but he was there. He couldn’t simply be gone.
And Marjorie would wail herself into fits, and be upset for days; and Fred would be upset too, in his own quiet way, and…
Sandy’s stride lengthened, her feet slamming against the ground, her eyes narrowed in swelling anger.
The call sheared into her fury.
He was at least three years younger than her, twelve or so. His face was sickly white and twisted into a leer. “Girl! What happened to your dress?”
“I cut it,” she retorted, “and my name is not girl.”
She realized her mistake as it left her lips.
“Why did you cut it, Girl?”
She cast about for something that would shut him up, and her gaze lit on the fence surrounding a nearby pigpen. “To walk fences, small one.”
“I’m not small!” he shrieked.
“Oh aye, you definitely are. How old are you?”
“I’m not small, and if you cut your dress to walk fences, you can walk that one right now!”
Sandy shrugged. He asked for it. Her confidence soared high as she executed a nimble leap onto the thin rails and began a steady walk along them.
Below her the pigs snorted and shoved, but she paid them little heed. It was important that one’s concentration be not broken by things of no concern. They could not be a concern unless she should fall, and she was not going to fall. Head up, body straight without tension, breathing deep and controlled, she rounded the first corner.
The second side, by appearance, was the favorite of the pigs to hurl themselves against and climb over. Broken slats overlapped one another and hung at crazy angles. The top looked fairly intact… but she slowed her pace ever so slightly, testing each step for the fraction of a second before putting down her weight.
She reached the corner without mishap.
With that behind her, the rest was almost too easy. She directed a scornful smile at the boy waiting a few feet away where she had begun.
And realized what he was about to do.
She saw his hand swinging toward her, recognized that she could not evade it, and, maddened with a swirl of all the thoughts that had caused her earlier fury, leaped over the hand and over his head. Her boot clipped his brow as she sailed over him, and they tumbled together into the muddy street.
Sandy remained there, dazed, for a second or two. The boy began to scream and sob, flailing beneath her. Then the cry came.
She knew the voice. Wrathfully she extricated herself from the hysterical child and wheeled to face Fred. Now she was really in trouble, unless she could start talking before he did.
He did not try to talk; he only looked at her.
“I can explain!” She said it too loudly.
He said nothing but waited.
She dropped her gaze from his, unable to hold it any longer, and mumbled sullenly, “Was walking the fence and he tripped me.”
It was a lie. She knew what he would say if she told him the truth. How he had been going to trip her, and she had jumped over him instead. He wouldn’t understand why she had had to walk that fence — walk it all — without falling off.
Risks, Sandy, she mocked him in her head. Don’t take foolish risks.
“Father’s gone,” she said and stared at him. She hadn’t meant to say it. The words had slipped off her tongue, all of a sudden, she hadn’t meant to, oh, she hadn’t, she was sorry…
He stared back at her, silent and a little pale. There was no need for her to elaborate.
For minutes there was only terrible silence, a broad sea of it that stretched for an eternity, and then in a moment it had spun itself out, and he drew in a sharp breath and turned, saying, “Come.”
She followed him wordlessly, now that the news was out feeling no more anger, no discomfort, no sullenness, but a cold gloom instead. Nothing mattered right now. Even the pigpen fence did not matter.
“Why’d you come after me?” she demanded for something to say.
Fred stopped, turned slowly, and gazed at her some seconds with a curiously blank expression, as though he had heard only her voice. Then the meaning sank through to him; awareness drove away the empty look and he spoke, but his words were as flat as a lesson learned thrice over. “Great-Aunt Bridget woke and noticed that you were gone. She asked me to find you and bring you back to the house.”
Sandy said nothing further. It was no use.
Father gone. Father gone.
He must stop thinking about it. It was done, and no use would come from brooding over what was done. He must think of how to break it to Marjorie in a way that would not make her cry, or at least not cry much.
It was not so bad, was it?
And the simple truth answered: it was not. All the unnamed fears wavered and began to unwillingly recede. He lifted his head and saw the house far down the road.
Aye, Father was gone. There was no more dwelling on it now.
He heard the sobbing first.
Then the crackling of flames.
His breath caught, caught in a gasp so hard it choked him, and he thought Marjorie, and a wave of terror sickened his stomach, but when he reached the house, he did not remember running there. Fire was sheeting up the walls, and inside the windows was only flickering red and orange, mingled with the black trails of smoke.
She was there; he saw her kneeling bent on the ground beneath the lone old apple tree that stood by the path, her head buried in her hands. She was weeping so hard that when he came to her, she could scarcely gasp out the words. “… Opened the door… gust of wind… spark… caught… fire… Great-Aunt Bridget… went outside… behind the house… can’t… I can’t go there…”
“Great-Aunt Bridget is behind the house?”
“Y-yes. Oh, Fred, she went ho-hours ago… said she’d… t-take a nap out th-there… oh, Fred, she’ll die…”
Without thought, without daring to think, he stood and ran around to the back of the house. If he thought, he would never go back there.
There was no fire — not yet — but there was smoke, thick clouds of it, and he could scarcely see her dim form slumped against the wall. She was unconscious or otherwise incapable of movement, for she did not so much as twitch when he took her hand.
“Great-Aunt Bridget,” he pleaded hoarsely and broke into a fit of coughing which went on until his throat felt torn apart and his chest was lanced with pain.
She shifted a little and blinked suddenly at him, and he jerked her to her feet, making her stand, making her walk, dragging her on when she faltered with all the strength he had.
He staggered as he reached the footpath and let her fall.
Marjorie burst into another flood of tears at the sight of them; Sandy asked him a question, which he could not hear through a further coughing spasm. But Great-Aunt Bridget sat, a solid shape blinking owlishly at them.
Recovering himself, he offered her his hand and helped her to lie down on her back. She coughed faintly. The house burned behind them.
“Great-Aunt Bridget, are you…”
“Let me be, Freddie lad,” she murmured.
He stood blankly beside her, staring at the fire as it licked over the sides of the house. He could not move; he could not think. There was only the smoke-thickened air, and the stinging in his chest and throat, and the roaring sound gnawing at his ears. He half-knew when Marjorie stumbled past him to fall to her knees by Great-Aunt Bridget. She stayed there, her face buried on Bridget’s arm, sobbing uncontrollably. Minutes rolled slowly on.
“Fred?” It was Sandy, in a vague sort of anxiety. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I—” he could not answer her without the coughs hacking through his chest “—think so.”
“You look awfully sick. Sit down.”
He sat, surprised he had not thought to do it before. Slowly the pain in his chest faded, though his lungs still protested at the poisonous air filtering into them; but the dizziness and pure weariness was fading, and he was gradually more aware of the things around him. He thought he heard Sandy sniffle once, but maybe it was Marjorie.
He had not the remotest idea how long he sat bent over, his head on his knees, but when he lifted his eyes a light rain was misting over the wild hay and Marjorie’s weeping had died away into little hiccups. She was still lying with her face hidden in Great-Aunt Bridget’s broad shoulder. He rose slowly to his feet and stood watching her, his back turned to the hissing ruin of the house, with the uncertain thought: what now?
Great-Aunt Bridget lay there, never stirring except for her faintly lifting and subsiding chest. Her breath seemed to grow raspier as he listened. Urgency filled him, and the last clinging fuzz of his exhausted fog faded away.
“Great-Aunt Bridget.” He knelt beside her, taking her hand, chafing it.
She blinked up at him and muttered some incoherence wearily.
Marjorie lifted her head and stared from her to him. “Fred?”
He said nothing but stood and went as quickly as he could force his tired legs the half-mile to the creek. The buckets were there, where Marjorie must have been washing their clothes just yesterday morn. He dipped the brownish water into one and ran back.
“Great-Aunt Bridget,” he said again, and sat beside her, cupping a little of the water into his hands. As much as he tried to get it into her mouth, most of it splashed out onto her face and the neck of her gown, and she blinked at him again. A whistling cough shuddered through her body and her eyelids fluttered heavily open a second time. “Fred,” she mumbled hoarsely.
He leaned anxiously over her, hoping the water had done some good. It was all they had.
Her breath came slowly in, and out again, in a whistling sound like the cough. “Where’s Marjorie?”
“H-here,” answered Marjorie, shuffling forward so that the old woman could see her.
“I’m sorry for you, Freddie lad. Marjorie.”
“Sorry…” he faltered.
She said nothing more for a short time.
“There’s a map in my skirt, Freddie.”
“What for? Great-Aunt Bridget, just rest. You are going to be all right.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Freddie lad. They won’t let you stay here when I’m gone. Take the girls to Menevace, to the refuge home.”
“Great-Aunt Bridget, no!”
“Freddie, stop your arguing. You used to be such a good boy about not arguing with me.” She moved, fretfully. “The refuge home is owned by Edgar Wiguel, a good man. The map is in my skirt.” Her words began to wander into one another. One more weak cough broke into them, and they did not resume for a moment.
“It’s your birthday, Freddie.”
They were the last words she said, and he knew that she was dead.
My birthday. He felt sick, and his head whirled, and whether it was from the smoke or the knowledge she was dead, or both, he had no strength to tell. My birthday … my birthday … the words she would never say again repeated dizzily in his head. It took all his will to blink away the darkness around his vision, to stand and think. What now?
The sheriff? He could not think what the sheriff would do, but he had some dazed idea that he could still hand this over to someone else, and he must have a thing to do, to keep him from realizing, from remembering…
The rain had grown to a light curtain when he returned with the sheriff and the fire was no more than embers. Yet it had done its damage; even as they approached, the house, with a creaking of timbers, collapsed in upon itself, smothering the remaining flames.
He could not bear the sight of it, a thing that had been good and useful, going up in flames to ash and ruin. He shuddered, leaning heavily against the apple tree, but he could not let tears come. Someone was jerking roughly at his sleeve.
“You’ll be Brick Thorne’s boy, eh? What’s your name?”
“Fred,” he murmured vaguely.
“He’s run off, ain’t he, this morning? Or yesterday?”
“I — I — don’t know.” He could not understand where the questioning was going. What did they want to find out?
“What’s your age, boy? Speak up.”
“I…” He found it hard to think rationally. “Twenty-one.”
The man appeared to be thinking deeply. “That’s old enough,” he said. He repeated it to himself, rather wonderingly. “That’s old enough.” He tossed his head back. “Oi! Sheriff! You was right, he’s old enough!”
“That’s all right, then,” said the sheriff, striding briskly over.
Fred felt something else then — something besides numbness and grief, besides the tickling in his throat and the dryness and pain in his chest. He felt a very small, very cold trickle of fear. “Old enough for what?” he asked, and his voice was a bare whisper.
The sheriff’s companion only smirked and tapped the side of his nose with a forefinger, but the sheriff smiled patronizingly.
“Why, lad, you can’t think that anyone in this village is just going to up and let their house to you.”
The other broke in. “There’s two places for them as is got no home—”
“The roadside,” finished the sheriff, “or the barracks.”
Fred stared at him, stunned into silence.
“The people of this here town have had it with the Thornes. They’re fed up as it is with you constantly wheedling work out o’ them, and they ain’t going to offer you a home with them out o’ the kindness of their hearts. They ain’t got no kindness left for the Thornes. You beg or you serve in the army. Your choice. One way or another, we’re rid of you.
“Tomorrow morn I send for the nearest drafting officer, so make your choice or it’ll be made for you. Be quick, boy.” Coolly he spun about on his heel.
“Wait—” Fred choked, and the sheriff halted, turning, impatience evident. “My sisters?”
“You can leave them to beg, or you can try to support them on what wages a soldier gets. ’Tis none of my concern.”
With that he left. His leering helper trailed behind, glancing over his shoulder, holding a meaningful forefinger against his nose.
The two figures dwindled into the gathering dusk, and all Fred could think was that there must be some way to stop this nightmare, if only he could find it.
He felt a light plucking at his sleeve. Marjorie was at his elbow, her face wet with tears and rain, her beautiful dark brown hair half-escaped from its coiled knot, her brown eyes enormous with horror. “Fred…” she whispered. “I heard him. What are we going to do?”
What were they going to do?
“I shall never earn enough as a soldier — not for three, Marjorie — you will starve. If we could leave the country…” He shook his head, hearing the words. Where would they go?
“Sandy!” Marjorie scolded querulously. “What are you doing?”
Sandy, on her knees in the muddy grass, turned her head, a wary flicker in her eyes. She sat back and pointed at the parchment spread in front of her. “Wanted to see if there was a map.”
“A map!” Fred gasped. Words flooded back to his head — her words. “Take them to the refuge asylum in the country of Menevace.”
“Marjorie. We will do as as she said to do. We will go to Menevace, to Edgar Wiguel’s place of refuge.”
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