THE PREPARATIONS

Prologue

Stains

 

            In a windowless room stood a woman and a man facing each other. Close by, dying embers lay smoldering on the hearth of a stone fireplace. The glow did little to illuminate the small space, whose walls of hard-packed earth absorbed most of the light and warmth.

            The man was ancient, with shoulders so hunched that it was a constant strain for him to keep his head up. Thin strands of white hair grew from his head in patches. The garb he wore was simple: a plain, white robe tied with a black sash. The man leaned heavily upon a wooden staff, which was almost as twisted and gnarled as he was.

            The woman was his opposite. She was far younger, with long, black hair and ramrod straight posture. Her clothing was the same color as the man’s and included a matching cloak, lined with white rabbit fur. However, she required nothing with which to support herself.

            “What did you do in the mountain?” The old man’s voice was solemn, as though he knew and dreaded the answer.

            “Why do you ask me this?” snarled the woman.

            “Tell me,” was his only reply.

            Even though the words were meek, anger flashed in the dark depths of the woman’s eyes. “I have done only what was necessary. Not for us, but for our people and for their descendants.”

            “I feared as much,” the old man whispered. He turned away slightly, a haunted look in his blue eyes. “I will take no part in this any longer.”

            “We have a mission,” she told him furiously. “We have been entrusted with thousands of lives and the very future of mankind. Are you really prepared to turn your back on everything we’ve worked for?”

            “I am sorry,” the old man replied gently.

            “How can you do this? You promised me your help.”

            “I know I did, but I find now that I cannot. We were wrong. The path we have followed has always been wrong. I was blind not to see, and I will walk it no more.”

            “This is Adel’s doing,” the woman hissed.

            “She merely opened my eyes to the truth,” the man said sadly. “I wish—I wish she was still here to do the same for you.” A flicker of some unknown emotion crossed the woman’s face for a single instant.

            The old man hobbled a few steps toward the woman. She did not recoil from him as he reached out to embrace her. “This is all my fault,” he whispered. “I have failed you in every way, and I am sorry. So, so sorry.”

            The man closed his weary eyes and held the woman in his arms as if she were still the small child he had known all those years ago.

After a moment of stiffness, the woman returned the man’s embrace, bringing her arms up around his back. Something in her hand glinted as the glow of the firelight touched it.

            The old man’s face relaxed as he rested his weary head on the woman’s shoulder. His eyes remained closed, almost as though he were dreaming. The two stood like that until the woman broke the silence. Her words were soft, whispered directly into the man’s ear. “No, you have only failed me this once, and I am the one who is sorry, Father. I am so very sorry.”

            The old man gasped as the woman plunged a dagger into his back. His face contorted in agony, and a second later he was on the floor, convulsing, while a pool of crimson liquid flowed from his body.

            It didn’t take long before death claimed him. Even once the blood had stopped flowing and the eyes had grown dull, the woman still remained motionless, looking down at the man who had been her father. There was no emotion on her face when she finally turned away.

            Her feet carried her to the room’s only door. It was set several feet high in the wall and had stairs leading up to it. The woman produced a key and unlocked the door. She pulled it open but did not leave the room. Two men entered immediately, as if they had been waiting. Both took in the body on the ground with astonishment.

“Change of plans,” the woman said. “Take care of that,” she added, nodding at the corpse.

            Without offering another word of explanation, she walked past them through the door. Only once did she glance back to the place of bloodshed. The foundations had already been laid there for a great building. It was to be erected over the hidden room she had just left. The woman turned away a moment later, wrapping her cloak tightly around her body against the winter chill. It was now stained maroon with blood.

Chapter 1

Enemy

 

            “I had always wondered how I would die and what it would feel like. Death is the last mystery; nothing can prepare you. It only happens once, but you will die.”

 

            I was sixteen the year that the trials were announced.

            It was the middle of winter, and my feet crunched softly in the freshly fallen snow. My breaths made little clouds in front of me as I moved steadily forward. The sun was about to set, leaving the horizon tinted pink with her pending departure.

The winter was worse than usual. Normally, between two and three feet of snow accumulated during the year’s cold, dark months. However, before long, spring would always come upon the land, and the patches of white would vanish. But this year had been different. The storms had come early, and the drifts had piled up until there were some over five feet deep.

            It was those very drifts that I was using to hide from the enemy. I couldn’t see them, but I sensed their presence lurking close at hand.

My friend, Rasby, and I were bent double as we crossed the frozen land, traveling east.             It was hard going since there was no road or path to follow. At least we were kept warm by our exertion and the long, maroon cloaks we wore.

            I paused briefly for Rasby. She had fallen slightly behind.

            “It’ll be dark soon,” I whispered, almost to myself, as she caught up with me. She was gasping for breath and didn’t give any answer other than a nod. “We’ll be too late then,” I added, just as softly.

            It would have been better to wait and allow Rasby to catch her breath, but the sunlight was vanishing from the sky quickly. We needed to press on, there simply wasn’t enough time left.

            “Do you see anything, Myra?” Rasby whispered too loudly.

            “Quiet,” I ordered, pulling her to the ground and scanning the landscape for movement. After a few seconds, I relaxed a little; it didn’t appear that she had given away our position. I motioned for Rasby to remain silent as we continued forward into the most exposed part of the terrain. I was practically crawling on my hands and knees as we crossed the open patch of land.

            After traveling another fifty yards, I could hear Rasby behind me, wheezing even louder than before. Internally, I wished she hadn’t insisted on coming. She was going to get us both caught. She was only a year younger than me, but she wasn’t ready for this kind of challenge. Rasby was my friend, but sometimes she seemed more like the annoying little sister I’d never had.

            I glanced back and saw that her pudgy face was bright red. Several clumps of brown, frizzy hair were sticking out of her customary pigtail braids. If the situation hadn’t called for silence, I would have laughed. At least there was a somewhat determined gleam in her light brown eyes.

            The going was much easier when we reached the next snowdrift. It provided a barrier from hidden watchers in the south. I still had to bend over slightly to keep my head and shoulders from being seen. Rasby was nearly short enough that she could have walked upright. I glanced back to make sure she hadn’t carelessly decided to risk it.

            An abrupt noise made me drop to the ground again. Rasby followed my example. I closed my eyes to listen. There was the sound of crunching snow; someone was approaching our position from due south, where The Paramount lay. The Paramount was the village where I had lived the entire sixteen years of my life. It was the most important location in The Land of the Clan.

            The footsteps drew nearer and nearer. On the edge of my vision, I saw Rasby’s eyes dart around rapidly. I readied myself to run, hoping she was doing the same, although she had little chance of escaping a pursuer. I might be forced to leave her behind.

            Suddenly, a form came vaulting over the top of the snowdrift we were crouched behind. Rasby squeaked with fright. Before I could even get to my feet, the young man had seized my shoulder.

            “Got you,” he announced, with a mischievous gleam in his blue eyes.

            “Cole!” I gasped, somewhere between anger and relief. “What are you doing?”

            Cole laughed softly and shook his head to free it of loose snowflakes. Then he reached up to brush the hair off of his forehead. There were a few unusual golden highlights that streaked his black locks. The moment he removed his hand, the hair he had pushed back fell forward again.

            I glared at him, hoping he could see the anger in my gray eyes. But when he finally met my gaze, he just laughed again. “Come on, Myra. That was pretty funny.”

            “This is serious,” I insisted. “We have a job to do.”

            “All right, all right,” Cole said. “Let’s be serious.” I could tell from the wry smile Cole flashed me that he wasn’t being serious at all.

            I sighed and turned away, suppressing a smile of my own. It was impossible for me to stay angry with Cole. He was two years older than me, but he still had a childish joy about everything. It was frustrating and endearing all at once.

Rasby had recovered herself. “Is anyone else out there?” she wondered, nodding toward The Paramount.

            “I didn’t see anyone,” Cole told her.

            “Hopefully, they didn’t see you either,” I couldn’t help adding.

            Cole seemed unconcerned. “If they had, there’s no way we’d still be sitting here discussing it.”

            “Fine,” I consented. “But we should keep moving.”

            Cole nodded, and the three of us set out toward the east. It didn’t take long before Rasby was lagging behind again. Since the sun was touching the horizon, I didn’t slacken my pace to compensate for her.

            “There it is,” Cole whispered to me a moment later. He pointed to our destination, which lay sixty yards ahead of us.

            A five-foot tall stave had been erected in the snow. A long piece of maroon cloth was tied around the top, blowing freely in the wind. It didn’t look like much to the casual observer, but to me, it was a most welcomed sight.

            I glanced over my shoulder. We had fifteen, maybe twenty, minutes left.

            “Let’s go.” Cole started moving forward, but I grabbed his arm.

            “Wait,” I said.

            “No one’s there,” Cole argued.

            “No one you can see,” I corrected him.

            “Then we’ll just go really quickly.”

            I shook my head. “Wait,” I told him again.

            Cole sighed, but yielded to my will and plopped down in the snow. I sat beside him; Rasby joined us a moment later.

            At first, the landscape remained deserted. After what felt like an eternity, but was probably less than five minutes, I saw movement.

            “It’s Bala,” I warned. She was a small girl about my age, with short, black hair. If she saw us, everything would be over.

            “What should we do?” Rasby asked in a trembling voice. She was biting her lower lip in a way that she only did when she was afraid.

            “Maybe she’ll go away,” Cole murmured.

            I checked the sun; we were all running out of time. “We need a distraction,” I whispered. “If one of us can lead her away, the other two have a chance of making it.” Cole nodded his agreement, but Rasby looked uncertain. “Rasby, you’ll be the distraction,” I told her.

            “She’ll catch me!” Rasby cried. I was surprised that her teeth didn’t go through her lip with this exclamation, as they chopped down on it fretfully.

            “Possibly,” I admitted. “Hopefully, you can get far enough away that she’ll turn back. By that time Cole and I will have—”

            Rasby cut me off with a high-pitched whimper. “I can’t; I’m scared.”

            “I know,” I said, gritting my teeth and trying to be gentle. “But sometimes, sacrifices need to be made.”

            There was indecision on Rasby’s face. I wished she would just suck it up and accept the role assigned to her.

            Why did she follow me all this way if she’s just going to sit behind a snowdrift and wait for the sun to set? I thought angrily.

            “I can go instead,” Cole offered.

            The tension went out of Rasby’s body. “Thanks, Cole,” she said, smiling weakly at him.

            “We’d have a better chance the other way around,” I muttered, but didn’t try to argue. The sun would disappear any minute.

            Cole stole away from us, back the way we had come. Soon after, I saw him about twenty yards to my left. He was pretending to creep towards Bala and the stave, moving along stealthily, but being just clumsy enough to catch Bala’s attention.

It worked. She saw him and started forward to investigate. A moment later, she was running towards him. I didn’t wait to see if Cole would escape. Instead, I sprinted toward the scrap of maroon cloth. Rasby was somewhere behind me, trying to keep up on her short, thick legs.

            Out of nowhere, a figure lunged at me from behind a snow bank. I twisted away reflexively and locked eyes with the enormous young man who had tried to grab me. He was turning and preparing to give chase.

The blood roared in my ears as I pelted back the way I had come, desperate to escape his huge, outstretched hands. I passed Rasby, and she turned to follow me, her eyes wide with panic.

            I could hear our pursuer closing the distance between himself and us with gigantic strides.

            “Go left!” I yelled back to Rasby who was about four feet behind me.

It took her a moment to process my words, and then she swerved to the left, and I swerved to the right. Fortunately, the brute behind us went after Rasby since she was closer to him. I peeled away from them and twisted around, heading back toward the stave at full speed.

            The sun was almost completely below the horizon. It was too late to be cautious; I threw myself forward, heedless of danger.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a maroon-clad figure racing toward me from the opposite direction. I couldn’t tell if it was Bala, Cole, or someone completely different.

Putting on another burst of speed, I made it to the stave and reached up to seize the piece of cloth. It came loose in my hand.

            I held it up in the air above my head and cried out, “Victory!”

            The figure who had been charging—it was Bala—pulled up just in front of me. “No fair,” she muttered, spitting contemptuously into the snow.

            I ignored her complaint and called in a loud voice, “The game is over; I have secured the token! Everyone can come out!”

            There was a moment of utter stillness where Bala and I seemed to be the only living beings in the world, and then I saw Cole heading toward me. From the other direction, Rasby and the guy chasing her, Jase, came walking over. Rasby’s face had gone paler than the snow.

            Several more figures emerged from nearby snowdrifts, walking our way.

Counting them in my head, I turned to Bala. “Where are Larna and Flant?”

            She scowled. “They went home almost an hour ago.”

            “Again?” I asked with disgust. “Why do they keep ditching?”

            Bala just shook her head. She had a small face with a funny, little, turned-up nose. It twitched whenever she said something indirectly mean. Her nose twitched quite a lot. She was clever and could look anyone straight in the eye and tell them a bold-faced lie without batting so much as an eyelash, even though it was against the rules of our people.

            Cole reached us first. “You almost had me, Bala,” he said, giving her an encouraging smile. “If you hadn’t turned back when you did, I’m sure you would have.”

            “Wouldn’t have mattered much since Myra got past Jase,” Bala griped, before turning to glare at Jase. “Why didn’t you catch Myra?” she snapped at him.

            He had to think for a minute. “I was closer to Rasby.”

            Bala rolled her eyes at his simple answer.

            Jase was completely unremarkable in every way, save for his size. He was almost two feet taller than me, long-limbed, and covered in muscle. However, everyone knew Jase’s incredible strength came at the expense of his brain. There was a rumor that he had been planning to request a transfer to a new village when he turned twenty the following year and was considered an adult. Since the numbers and time management skills which ran The Paramount had never come easily to Jase, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it were true.

            I could see him going straight to The Barracks. The Barracks was the closest of the other villages to The Paramount. It was where our soldiers lived.

            We called them soldiers, and they did train for combat, but there had never once been so much as a real skirmish in The Land of the Clan. Mostly, they were responsible for transporting all the goods—food, clothing, wood, etc.—from village to village as the items were needed. Loading and unloading the crates and boxes all day kept them in good physical shape, as did all the time they spent traveling between the different villages in The Land of the Clan. It sounded menial and unimportant to me, but I figured Jase would be perfect for the position.

            “I told you Myra would be one of the greatest threats,” Bala growled.

            Jase wrinkled his forehead. “Oh, yeah. I’m sor—”

            Bala cut him off. “Why is it so hard for you to figure this stuff out? You should have caught Myra and then caught Rasby, provided she hadn’t run off crying.”

            It was rather amusing to see Jase being scolded by a girl half his height. Bala could be a tiny terror when the mood took her.

            “I’m sor—” Jase started again.

            This time it was Cole who interrupted.

            “Bala, lay off will you.” Jase was Cole’s best friend, and Cole hated when people picked on him. Cole turned to Jase. “Next time, just remember to keep an eye on that one.” He pointed at me, and I gave them a coy smile. “You really did a great job,” he assured Jase.

            “You would say that since he’s your team’s best player,” Bala announced. Her nose twitched.

            A second later, two more figures joined us. It was Tiera and Tirea, a pair of sisters slightly younger than Rasby. They could almost have passed for twins. Their eyes, mouths, and even the shapes of their bodies were identical. Everything except their noses. Between the two of them, they had exactly the right amount of nose for each, but it was poorly divided. The older one, Tiera, had a bulbous nose, too large for her face. The other, Tirea, had hardly any nose at all.

            “Where have you two been?” I demanded. The pair were supposed to have rendezvoused with Rasby and me half an hour ago.

            “We got caught,” Tiera started.

            “By Jase and Flant,” Tirea finished.

            I wondered if the two realized how annoying it was when they spoke in that way.

            “I got caught too,” Rasby announced. “It was scary!”

            “More like—”

            “Boring,” the sisters told her.

            “We’ve been sitting—”

            “In the snow for an hour.”

            “Waiting until someone—”

            “Got the token.”

            “Or—”

            “The sun set.”

             I turned away from the sisters and Rasby. I could only take so much of their “finishing each other’s sentences” thing.

            Several more maroon-clad figures joined us as the sun vanished from sight.

            “We should meet up with the others, and then head home,” Cole said.

            Everyone else nodded their agreement, but I cringed internally.

            “You may have won today,” Bala announced, giving Cole and me a malicious smile, “but tomorrow, it’s our turn to attack.”

Chapter 2

Midwinter

 

            Since there was no school the following morning, we were free to begin our game of Attack and Defend early in the day. It was just as well because it was also Midwinter, and there would be a Telling once the sun went down.

            Bala and Jase’s team was attacking, so they left The Paramount from the south, while Cole and I led our teammates in the opposite direction. Once we reached the place where the stave was still stabbed into the ice, I replaced the maroon cloth I had taken the previous day. After finishing, I turned to the others and began reviewing our strategy.

            It was more challenging to win when playing the defense. If any member of the opposition made it through our ranks and got a hold of the cloth, we would lose. Our only hope for victory was to catch every member of the other team. Once we tagged them, they would be immediately removed from the game. After the allotted amount of time had elapsed, if the token hadn’t been secured or the attacking team hadn’t all been captured, the game would end in a draw. I hated draws; it was just as bad as losing.

            “Maybe we should all stay here and ambush them!” Rasby suggested.

            “Won’t work,” I countered, shaking my head. “Bala’s smart. She doesn’t want to lose. I bet she’ll have a few players hang back. That way, even if she doesn’t win, we won’t either.”

            Cole nodded. “Bala has used that ploy in the past.”

            Technically, Jase was just as much of a team leader as Bala, but most of the time, I thought of it as solely Bala’s team. Jase might have been older and more experienced, but everyone knew who was really the brains of the outfit.

“We’ll need at least two groups to go and hunt for them,” Cole continued.

            “Tiera and Tirea?” I suggested, hoping to get the annoying pair as far from me as possible.

            “If you don’t mind,” Cole added, glancing at the sisters.

            The pair exchanged a long look, as though speaking without words. Both girls were good at moving along without being seen. They weren’t particularly fast, but they worked well as a pair and could use that to ensnare the enemy.

            In unison, the girls turned to us and nodded. A young, lanky boy, who had joined our team only a few days ago, volunteered to go with them. We sent three more of our teammates in the other direction. After circling The Paramount, the two groups would eventually meet up on the far side of the village.

            The rest of us spread out and hid among the mountainous drifts of white powder. The worst part of being the defenders was the waiting. Even sitting in the sun, wrapped in my cloak, I could still feel the chill of the snow all around me. The game was supposed to end at sun high, giving Bala’s team two hours to pick a strategy and recover the cloth.

            They took their sweet time. It wasn’t until after the first hour had completely elapsed that I finally saw some movement. Three maroon-clad figures were coming our way from the west. Judging by height, the one in the middle had to be Jase. The identities of the other two I couldn’t make out.

            Instantly, I suspected a trap. If those three were approaching from the west, then there had to be others coming from the east or south. I slipped over to where Cole was concealed.

            “We’ve got incoming,” I reported, pointing to my right.

            “Want me and a few others to go check it out?” he asked.

            “All right,” I said, “but don’t take too many. They’re probably meant to be a distraction.”

            Cole called Motik, a tall boy of fifteen, and Ashlo, a girl several months younger than I was, to join him. They were two of our most athletic players. Stealthily, the three began creeping toward the approaching figures. I gathered the rest of our team, Rasby and two others. We moved to the southeast side of the stave and took cover behind a low snow bank. It was a dangerous way to play, leaving the cloth so unprotected, but luring the enemy in was our only chance at true victory.

            Nothing moved in front of us. I pricked up my ears, but there was not a sound to be heard, save the bated breath of my teammates. Suddenly, a cry from Cole’s direction rent the air. Without hesitation, I broke cover and raced toward the stave, calling for the others to follow. We arrived just in time. It looked like Bala’s entire team was bearing down on us.

            Bala was inches from the maroon cloth, her hand stretched forward, reaching for victory. I leapt toward her and would have caught her before she could free the cloth from its tether, but she shoved one of the younger members of her team into my outstretched arms and fled.

            “No fair,” he whined, twisting free of my grasp. With a pouting demeanor, the boy went to sit in the snow a little way off, the first of his team to be captured.

            “Don’t get too far from the token!” I instructed my teammates. “They’ll try to tempt you away. Don’t let them!”

            Even while I was giving instruction, Bala had rallied her team, and they charged us again. We were hard-pressed to keep them at bay. We wouldn’t have been able to hold out very long just the four of us, but a minute later, Cole, Motik, and Ashlo returned.

            The wave of reinforcements caused a great deal of confusion in the enemy ranks, and three more of Bala’s team were caught.

            Now that the numbers weren’t so uneven, it was easy to keep them away from the token, but my instinct was to try to catch them. We had less than an hour left, and if we didn’t begin picking them off soon, we would give up our chance of victory.

            Our team had formed a tight ring, encircling the stave, while the opposition huddled around their leaders, probably preparing for another assault.

            Cole came to stand beside me, eyes never leaving the enemy. “You were right,” he told me. “It was a diversion. As soon as we got close to that group, the rest of them popped up between us and the stave. It was all we could do to yell before they were on top of it.”

            “Nicely played, Bala,” I muttered. She had almost won with the sudden charge.

            “Guess we’ll have to chase them down one by one,” Cole sighed.

            I nodded; it was never much fun when everyone was out in the open. Plus, the likelihood of either team winning was all but non-existent.

            Even so, we spent almost forty minutes trying to catch all the members of the other team. Rasby was useless when it came to running, and one of the other girls was too young to do much good. However, the rest of us took turns charging the opposing team.

            By the time midday rolled around, we had only managed to catch about half of them. Most disparagingly, the game ended in a draw.

            “We’ll have to play again tomorrow after school,” Bala said, as we headed back to the village together. I nodded in agreement.

            “Should we mix the teams up a little?” Cole asked.

            “Jase and I could be interested. Make us an offer we can’t refuse.” Bala’s eyes turned toward Motik and Ashlo.

            “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” I interposed quickly. Knowing Cole, he would trade away half our team just to give Bala and Jase a chance to win.

            The teams had been formed a long time ago. Traditionally, the two oldest players were co-captains. The teams took turns adding to their ranks when new kids were old enough to join. Trades could be made either for a short amount of time or permanently. In the past, the teams had sometimes turned out lopsided, with one team far better than the other, but, for the most part, our teams were evenly matched.

            After parting ways with the others, I reached my empty dwelling. The only person I lived with was my mother, Myna, for whom I was named, and she was not there. I assumed she was with the council, making plans for the Telling that night. Even when we were both inside the dwelling, it still felt empty. The place had not been a home to me since my father, Rilk, had died eleven years ago.

            Most days, I didn’t even think of his absence, but every once in a while, the sharp pain of his passing would flare up again. Somehow, I knew it would never completely fade away. Some wounds couldn’t be healed, and some things had to be carried forever.

            I couldn’t actually recall his face completely, and each year I lost a little more of the fragmented image. All I had left was an impression of his warm eyes and joyful smile.

            The things I remembered most about his character—the love and gentleness he had always shown me—were a far cry from Myna’s frigid demeanor. When I was eight, three years after my father’s death, I had fallen out of a tree and broken my arm. The tree grew on the outskirts of The Paramount, where the buildings ceased and open fields began.

            Several other children were playing in the tree, but I climbed the highest. I kept going even when the branches grew thin and weak. I wanted to show them that I was the best. To that end, I climbed so high that none of them dared to follow. I could still remember the horror of feeling the branch snap beneath me and the terror of plunging to the ground.

            The fear, more than the pain, was what brought tears to my eyes. I knew immediately that something was wrong because, when I finally caught the breath the fall had knocked out of me, I wasn’t able to move my left hand. I started screaming, and Cole ran back to The Paramount for help. It felt like forever that I sat there under the tree, my broken arm cradled to my chest, with a small group of children huddled around me, unsure of what to do.

            When Myna arrived, instead of coming to my side and holding me in her arms as I wanted, she just stood there, examining me with her cold, gray eyes. I reached my good hand out to her, but even then, she did not take a single step forward. Instead, she turned to Cole and sent him to find a healer.

            I continued to scream and sob until the healer, Gretch, arrived. He glanced at Myna as if he was unable to understand why she hadn’t approached me. The moment she finished explaining the situation, Myna left, deserting me to the care of a stranger.

            That was the day I had stopped turning to others for help. If my own mother didn’t care enough to aid me, why should anyone else? I decided then that I would survive by myself or not at all. I never asked her for anything after that, and I refused to even think the word ‘mother’ of her in my mind. I began calling her Myna, and she did not appear to notice the change.

            She was the Second Clan Leader, the second most powerful person on the council. From the outside, I’m sure people only saw her as one of the great leaders of The Clan. For nearly fifty years Myna had held the same position. There were few who could remember a time before her appointment.

            The obligations of leading The Clan kept her busy, and I had my friends and school, so there was little chance of interaction between us. It was for the better; when we were together, it just made her rejection of me that much harder to bear.

            Until the Telling began, there was little enough for me to do. I busied myself cleaning the main room of the dwelling. Every day, rations of wood and food were delivered to each family. Since neither Myna nor myself were around much, we used very little of the supplies, and they tended to pile up.

            I restocked our scant, indoor woodpile. The firewood ration from the past couple of days had begun to pile up outside, threatening to block the door. I lit some kindling to try to warm the room. The previous night’s fire had died, and it was practically warmer outside than in. The fire was made in our stove, a big, black box with a pipe attached to one of the dwelling’s exterior walls. It served as both a place to cook our meals and a heater for the entire dwelling.

            The two wooden shelves, where our food rations were meant to be stored, had been completely full for months. The extras had overflowed onto the table, still sitting in their crates.

            From the stench, I knew some of the supplies were rotten. I picked through and separated the putrid-smelling perishables into an empty crate. Once full, I hauled it outside, where it would be collected and disposed of when the new food rations arrived in the morning.

            It took most of the afternoon, but, eventually, the dwelling was spick and span, aside from the table filled with extra ration crates. As evening fell, I cooked myself some dinner. Generally, I just ate whatever happened to be lying around. But that day I hadn’t had lunch, so I took the time to bake a little bread, roast some meat, and even boil a potato for myself.

            After devouring the little feast, I cleaned everything up and set out for the Telling. It was almost completely dark, and the temperature had dropped drastically. Thankful for my fur-lined winter boots, I trudged through the deep drifts, wrapping my cloak tighter around my shoulders. Soon, I made it to a path that had been packed down by many feet, all going in the same direction.

            I saw others along the road, each bundled in a cloak similar to my own. Our destination was the same: the amphitheater. It lay just outside of The Paramount. As I drew nearer to my destination, the crowd around me thickened, until I could no longer see the hard-packed snow of the path before me. My view was limited to the multicolored splash of different cloaks ahead of me. Some were the same maroon red as mine, but most were different colors, representing all nine of the different villages.

            The Paramount was located in the very center of The Land of the Clan. It was where the council members, the scribes, and the clerks lived with their families. Out of all the villages, ours was the smallest, but we carried the greatest responsibility.

            Night had fallen by the time I reached the amphitheater. The twenty thousand members of The Clan were almost entirely assembled. The normally short trek had taken twice as long because of the great press of people.

            When following the northern road out of The Paramount, the path was level and straight, but the land at the southern end dropped away into a small hill once you left the village.

            The amphitheater rested on the eastern ridge of the rise. Spectators sat on the slope, facing away from The Paramount, and looking down toward the wide field beyond. The seats were long slabs of rock forming huge semi-circles, each tier with fewer stones than the one before it as they proceeded down the hill. The last semicircle, the smallest, rested on flat ground. A wooden, rectangular structure, a few feet taller than me, made the stage. The black night behind the platform was a perfect backdrop of darkness. There were four vacant chairs set up in the center of the stage and several dozen more lined up along the back.

            A huge bonfire blazed in the giant fire circle between the seats and the wooden stage. It illuminated the entire space with dancing, crimson flames. The fire’s heat reached almost to the top rows of the amphitheater, but still, the families seated in the back huddled close together.

            In all my sixteen years of life, I couldn’t remember any night as cold as this one, and I had no family to give me warmth. Myna would be on the stage with the other council members. As usual in this kind of situation, I searched the crowd for a familiar face, looking for someone I knew well enough that I would be comfortable grafting myself into his or her family for the evening. I didn’t really have many options.

            The first person that I recognized was Rasby. I enjoyed her company in general. Most of the time, she was relaxing and easy to be around. With Rasby, it really didn’t matter what I did. Even if she left crying one day because of something I’d said, she would still come back the next, ready to make up.

            However, I would have preferred to sit with Cole. His father was the First Clan Leader, the only person more important than Myna. Because of our parents’ positions, we had been thrown in together a lot. It was good for us to be seen together; it showed the unity of our families and of The Clan.

            I descended several rows, scanning the crowd in the dim firelight for maroon forms that might be either Cole or a member of his family. Rasby turned suddenly and saw me. She waved, and our eyes met. I sighed resignedly, knowing I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen her. Shoving my way through the assembly, almost to the very front row, I dropped onto the icy stone beside her.

            Rasby smiled brightly at me. Her blotchy complexion was redder than usual from the excitement, and her frizzy hair had been freed from the braids.

Our appearances couldn’t have been more different. I had straight brown hair, which I almost always tied back in a ponytail. My eyes were a clear gray, instead of a muddy brown. I had skin that was tan and flawless. People often said that I looked fierce. No one would ever say that about Rasby.

            On the seat beside her, I was close enough to the bonfire to feel the heat from the flames. I enjoyed the sensation and closed my eyes for a moment, pretending that it was summer and the sun was shining down on me. I loved the summer. Winter always felt dark and depressing. It was nice, even for just a fleeting moment, to bask in the warmth of a pretend sun.

My revelry was interrupted by Rasby. “It’s so cold, Myra!” she squealed, leaning closer to her father, who was sitting on her other side. “I hope they cancel. Do you think they will?” she asked.

            “No,” I said. “They never cancel. It’s Midwinter, and we can’t break tradition. They have to tell us the history of our people, no matter how cold it gets.”

            Rasby pouted slightly. She was the youngest of four and the only girl. It tended to make her rather spoiled. She didn’t like to be uncomfortable and was used to letting other people, including myself, handle problems for her. Most of the time, I didn’t mind too much, but it was frustrating that she couldn’t seem to do so many simple things herself.

            I glanced at the stage. What Rasby had said was true; it was bitter cold. From the number of people crowded into the amphitheater, it appeared that even those from the most outlying villages had arrived; soon the Telling would begin. Privately, I was hoping to hear something other than just the history of The Clan, which was told twice a year, at Midwinter and Midsummer.

            Rasby and I did not speak again. She was clearly unable to think of anything beyond the chilly wind that buffeted us, and I was lost in my own thoughts. Mostly, I was caught up in the hope that the trials would be announced that evening. The thought had been growing on my mind every year since I had turned twelve. The trials only took place once every fifty years, but I knew they were due again in the next decade. I just hoped they wouldn’t come too late.

            After several more minutes, the amphitheater was completely packed, with hardly enough room to fit everyone. The entirety of The Clan had assembled. There were some soft murmurs from among the seated people, but the majority were silent, like me. The fire crackled, the wind whispered, and we waited. I was focused forward, watching the flames lick the logs; the ruby patterns on the wood were mesmerizing.

            Finally, the time came. It could have been minutes or hours later for all I remembered, but at last, Core, Cole’s father, stepped onto the empty stage and waited for silence to fall before he addressed us.

            The crowd hushed almost immediately. Core, who was approaching seventy, was a hunched man with shoulder-length, white hair. He wore thick pants, such a dark red that they almost looked black from where I was sitting. On top of that, he had a bulky, maroon coat several shades darker than mine, trimmed with white fur. Despite his age, his voice still rang out loud and clear as he spoke.

            “Greetings to The Clan,” he called, not in the common tongue, but in the high langue, a second language that we were all taught but rarely used in day-to-day life. It was reserved for special occasions.

            We called ourselves ‘The Clan’ because we were a perfectly structured society. There were long lists of laws that dictated how best to live our lives in perfection and peace. I didn’t like all of the rules, but I always understood that their design was to keep everyone safe and all things well-ordered.

            “Greetings,” we replied to Core in the high language. It was incredible to hear twenty thousand voices speak one word at exactly the same moment. Core smiled. He must have felt our unity; even from a distance I saw his eyes all but disappear into the wrinkles of his face.

            Unlike Myna, Core was a warm and joyful person. He often left the council meetings early and rarely traveled to the other villages of The Clan. Instead, he preferred to spend time with his family. I’d often wished that he had been my parent instead of Myna. But that would have meant giving up the little bit of memory I still had of my father. I wasn’t sure it would have been worth it.

            Other than Cole, who was eighteen, all of Core’s children were much older than I was, most living in other villages with families of their own. Cole must have been a surprise to his parents since he’d come fifteen years after his last brother.

            Normally, on Midwinter, Core would launch excitedly into the history of our people after greeting us, but not that night. That night, his words were even and rehearsed. However, I sensed that under his façade, great emotion churned.

            “It is time for the six months of preparation to begin,” he said, speaking in the common tongue. There was dead silence. I closed my eyes and smiled as Core continued. “The trials will be held this coming year!”

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