Written by Kaitlin Bellamy
For a moment Borric didn’t speak. He pulled the scrap of parchment message out of his pocket and smoothed it between his fingers. Finally, he said, “There’s been a fire. In Hammon, only a few days northwest of us. It’s not a big town, but it was prosperous. Now, it’s scarcely more than rubble and ash.”
“That’s all very tragic,” growled Armac. “But what’s it got to do with us?”
Borric worried the edges of the message over and over again with his fingertips. The more Fox watched, the more he realized that Borric’s face was lined with an emotion that Fox had never seen on him before: fear. Big, laughing Borric was afraid of something. And that, more than anything else, terrified Fox.
“The fire,” said Borric after a moment, “is not the problem. The fire is the outcome. The result. The end of a gruesome and bloody raid, at the hands of the Desolata.”
What little sound that had filled the room vanished. Breathing was muted, shuffling feet were stilled all at once. Even the merry and comforting crackling of the fire seemed to be swallowed in the abrupt and terrible silence that swept over the tavern.
Nobody spoke. There was simply nothing to say. After a few moments, Borric continued, and even his low and quiet voice seemed far too loud in the empty air. “The survivors are few, and scattered. Seeking refuge in the neighboring towns and valleys. Should some of them make it this far, we should be prepared to take them in. There is no obligation to any of you, of course. Times are tough for all, but I ask you to think on how you’d like to be treated under such a crisis.”
“Does this mean they’re on the move?” asked one of the waresmen. His voice was barely above a whisper, but it could be clearly heard across the entire room.
“Yes,” said Borric simply. It was just one word, but it brought despair to the faces of every man in the room. Except the Shavid.
“Not to intrude,” said Radda, “but might I ask ... who are they? These Desolata?” “They’re men,” said Borric. “They live to the far west —”
“They’re not men,” rumbled Moss. All eyes turned to him, hunched over his cold soup at his table. “They used to be. Hundreds of years ago, before the curse, they were. Then Sovesta’s wealth and beauty were taken from her. We became a barren wasteland in most parts, and the worst of it was the Avet Region in the west, now called the Desolate. Once a series of beautiful farmlands. But fruit began to rot on the trees, and calves died in their mothers’ wombs. The region tore itself apart from the inside out, but somehow the survivors grew stronger. And they strengthened with each generation. Now, they are the Desolata. The Desolate bandits.”
A collective shudder went around the room. Even Fox had known from a very young age about the Desolate, and the wild men that lived there. It was because of them that the caravan had to leave when it did every year. Too late in the season, and the Tessoc Pass would have closed with snow. Other than that, the only other open road led straight through the Desolate.
“They’re not men,” Moss repeated. “Men have mercy. Men have souls. Men can be brought down by the stinging cold of a harsh winter, but they survive it in scarcely more than rags and bare skin. They feel no pain, and have no fear. And they feast on the flesh of their victims.”
“And now,” said Borric, “they’re moving. They’ve never come this far east before. Usually they stay confined to the ruins of the Desolate, preying on travelers. Sometimes we get a report from the towns nearest the Desolate that they’ve started raiding, but it’s always over quickly. They never stray far from their homeland.”
“So what’s different now?” asked Radda.
“Does it matter?” said Borric. “The point is, this affects all of Sovesta. And that includes you and your company. No one is safe, least of all those who wander the road as you do, so take heed. I don’t know when you plan to leave us, but until then I encourage you to seek shelter within friendly houses here, instead of sleeping in your tents outside. I can offer you a handful of rooms at the inn, if you’re interested.”
Radda waved off the suggestion. “We can discuss lodging later. What about the survivors of the raided town, and the people here? What protection can we offer?”
“We need none of your protection,” said Armac, apparently no longer content with sitting quietly. “We survive the bitterest winters here, and we are men of strength and survival in this valley.”
“Every able man can help,” said Farmer Bracken. “We’ve never had to defend ourselves from any invasion in Thicca.”
“What of the survivors?” said another miner. “Those who will come here seeking aid? How many can we truly take in before we run out of food ourselves?”
Every man had his opinion, and now they seemed determined to have them heard. Half in turn, half shouting over each other, each of them voiced his own concerns or ideas about this new threat. Someone wanted to set guards out around the valley perimeters, but what farmer could spare an able-bodied young man? Especially around this time of year? Others wanted to barricade the whole valley’s population within the mines and wait out the raids. Armac spoke
out emphatically against this one, saying that while the mines were certainly safer than the open air, they had no way of knowing how long the Desolata would be on the move. Work could not be disrupted for any lengthy period of time. And besides, who knew if the Desolata would even come this way?
“There’s nothing for them here,” Armac said.
“Nothing for them?” spat back Moss. “There’s human flesh and houses to burn. They care nothing for wealth or goods. Any town, valley, or city is a target, no matter how small.”
“So,” said Armac, his voice raising again. “What do you suggest? We live our lives in fear, waiting for an attack that may or may not come? And hide away from the work that must be done for our valley to survive?”
“Easy for you to say,” broke in one of the younger farmers. “You and your people are safe in the mountain! But us? We who work in the open fields?”
“Ha,” said Armac. “A pansy profession anyway, farming.”
Every farmer in the room stood at that point, half of them starting in toward the miner, who gripped his ore pick again and pulled it free.
“Enough!” shouted Borric, in a voice that set the rafters shaking. “If you want to attack each other, you do it on your own time! Not under my roof!” He seemed to have grown even taller in his anger. “This is a threat to all of us! Farmers, miners, waresmen ... all of us! And our wives and children! And if one faction of Thiccan life goes down, we all do.” He glared around the room at them, and even Fox, hidden as he was, could feel the heat of his gaze and shrank away from it. “Fighting in a Council. Grown men, acting like a bunch of boys with winter fever.”
Slowly, and looking ashamed with themselves, the men sat back in their places, avoiding eye contact with Borric. In the uncomfortable quiet that filled the common room, they could hear the wind picking up outside, rattling the windows. Finally, Borric spoke again, the quiet in his voice almost more frightening than the rage.
“We have no right to demand anything of each other. But our valley has survived this long with family and community strong at its heart. Whether you choose to take in the wandering survivors or barricade yourselves in your homes, this inn and tavern will do as it’s always done. My doors will be open.”
The wind outside was growing stronger. Fox could hear it whistling through the frozen grasses outside, sharp and icy. He shivered. Talk in the Five Sides picked up again as the council started discussing strategies and plans, but to Fox they sounded as though their voices came from a great distance. It was growing colder, despite the roaring fire mere feet from him. He watched the mouths of the council men moving and talking, but every time he tried to hear what they said it seemed that their words were torn away from him on the wind. He shivered again.
The Desolata were on the move. They hadn’t stayed long in the ruins of their latest conquest. Now, smelling of charcoal and dried blood, they were heading south. Tracking the survivors of Hammon Town. They would catch up with the injured first, and then ...
The injured. Three collapsed near the river road but not dead. Hidden away by the tall grasses and terrified. One more almost frozen to death in the woods, pressed up against an ancient tree. And somewhere, the last storm of winter was gathering strength to strike. It would rip apart the survivors and tear its way through the mountain valleys. A panic filled the air. The sick, reckless fear brought on by hopelessness.
Someone was smoothing Fox’s sweaty hair away from his brow and saying, “Hush, boy. It’s alright.” And then, to someone else, “He needs water.”
He didn’t need water. He needed to throw up. Fox tried to speak but no words came out. Instead he blindly pushed away at the massive hand and rolled onto all fours, vomiting until he was empty. He was vaguely aware that his hands were not resting on the hard wood of the Five Sides floor, but instead on a fresh layer of snow. His face was stinging, pelted with wet flakes and darts of ice. As he finished, coughing raggedly, someone pulled him back and propped him up against what felt like a stone wall.
His awareness began to return, and he realized he was sitting up against the back wall of the kitchen. Just beyond the roof overhang, a thick snowfall was being whipped back and forth by the wind, blurring the kitchen courtyard in a haze of grey and white. A handful of faces swam into focus before him. Radda, crouched beside him and his two Shavid companions standing behind. Lai. Picck, bearing a cup of water and looking frightened.
“You’re fine now?” asked Radda. It had been his voice Fox had heard earlier. Fox nodded.
“I saw young miss Lai helping you outside, sneaking through the kitchen,” said Radda. “It seemed like something was wrong. When the opportunity arose, we excused ourselves from the council and came to find you.”
Fox wanted to ask why they had followed, but he couldn’t just yet. He’d met Lai’s gaze, and he couldn’t look away. She hadn’t said a word. She just sat, a foot or so away, staring at him. And she was furious with him. But a slight shake of her head indicated that now wasn’t the time to talk about it. And so Fox tore his eyes from hers and looked up at Radda. The time to keep his secrets was over.
“There are survivors, injured,” he said quickly. “A little ways from Hammon. Three by the river, one in the woods. Someone fast enough might save them before the storm gets really bad. And the Desolata are moving. They’ve already left the town behind and they’re headed south. Not directly for us yet, but things could change. And the storm ... by sunset in two days.”
Radda and Donlan exchanged the briefest of glances, but Radda didn’t question it.
Instead, he said, “How big of a storm?”
“You won’t want to be sleeping outside,” said Fox simply.
“And two days?” said the woman. “You’re sure?” Fox nodded, and she sighed. “Looks like Merrick was right.”
“Later,” said Radda, standing and massaging the back of his neck. “First things first.” He turned to Donlan. “Don, it’s your choice. No one will make you go, but if you do, be sure you’re back in time. This valley will be sealed off with snow and ice if you wait too long.” Donlan said nothing, but nodded sharply.
“Good,” said Radda. “Take Anthem, he’s the fastest. We’ll see you in two days.” And with that Donlan was gone, striding away toward the Shavid camp with his hood pulled up against the snow.
“What’s going on here?” asked Picck quietly. “Where’s he going? And Fox ... how did...”
“Donlan has gone to search for the survivors and bring them aid,” said Radda. “And as for young Master Fox ...” he turned his gaze on Fox and offered a hand. Fox took it, letting himself be pulled to his feet. “I daresay there’s more to this young one than meets the eye.”
“Merrick told you I could smell them, didn’t he?” said Fox. “He may have mentioned it,” said Radda.
“He’s scared of me now,” said Fox. And then, quietly voicing the fear that had been on his mind for so long, he said, “Just like everyone else will be.”
They could hear raised voices. Someone in the council had started shouting again.
Radda gestured with his head, and his female companion slipped back into the tavern through the kitchen door. Once she had gone, Radda said, “I think it’s time we talked. We both have questions, I’m sure.”
Picck laughed nervously. “You have questions? I have some questions, sir!” “Weren’t you supposed to be with Rose today?” asked Fox.
“I had to come back and fetch her scarf,” he answered. “She left it in the kitchen. And anyway, if I’d have known there would be so much fun happening here, I mightn’t have left at all!” He poured the untouched water out onto the snow and then tossed the wooden cup unceremoniously back into the kitchen. “Now, if someone would be so kind, as to tell me what in Dream’s reach is going on?!”
“The Desolata are on the move,” said Fox. “They’ve attacked a village, and they’re going to attack more. And I knew. Even before the message arrived, I knew there was a fire and that something was coming.”
“How?” said Picck. “How could you possibly have known?”
“Because I’m cursed!” shouted Fox, the words escaping before he could stop himself. “Because I know things and hear things and smell things I shouldn’t! I always thought it was something special, instinct ... but it’s a curse. And now everyone will know!”
“Woah there!” said Radda, but Fox kept going.
“That’s what happened to the Desolata. They can do things that others can’t. They can survive in the cold!”
“Now now,” said Radda. “Hold!” And as Fox opened his mouth to continue, he picked Fox up and hoisted him over his shoulder like a sack of flour, carrying him over to the goat barn with Picck and Lai following behind. Inside, Radda dropped Fox onto a barrel where he sat, wiping the beginnings of tears away from his eyes.
“Now, calm down,” said Radda. “Breathe. And stop yapping like a baby monkey. I can’t hear myself think.”
Fox took a deep shaky breath. It was warm in the goat barn. The messenger birds in the rafters fluttered and shifted at the new company, but seemed too comfortable to move much more than that. Fermia and Ally came trotting over to meet him, nuzzling fondly at the toes of Fox’s boots as his feet dangled from his barrel seat. After a moment, he said, “What’s a monkey?”
Radda chuckled. “Not important right now.” Then he sighed, running his fingers through his hair and pacing around the small barn. Finally, he said, “The Shavid have very ... unique magical gifts. Our Blessings are subtle and complex, and often give us a special connection to the wind itself. We hear things we shouldn’t, sometimes. We smell things. Sometimes even changes in the weather. Little things, but things that nevertheless make life on the road much, much easier.” He looked Fox right in the eye. “I knew something was coming. We all did. Just like we can all feel the storm on the horizon. But none of us could have told you exactly when it would arrive. Not the strongest or most Blessed among us.” He shook his head. “Sunset, in two days. That, my young friend, is not a curse. It is a gift. It is a Blessing.”
“No,” said Fox weakly. “Sovesta doesn’t have Blessings.”
“When you say smell things,” said Picck, “what do you mean, exactly?”
“Just what I say,” answered Radda, shifting his gaze to the kitchen boy. “Why do you ask?”
“Because this one here,” Picck said, nodding to Fox, “can pick out any smell in my kitchen. And he always knows when the snow’s coming. But it’s just a good nose on him, isn’t it?”
“Could be,” said Radda, shrugging.
“But that’s not all he can do. Is it?”Every gaze in the room was turned on Fox now. He could have sworn even the birds were watching him, waiting for his answer. Lai still hadn’t said a word, but she was watching him with a fierce intensity. Slowly, tremulously, he shook his head.
Radda smiled. Not a grin, or a kind-hearted laugh, but the self-satisfied smile of a man who has just found something he was looking for.
“I’ve been seeing things,” said Fox, and every word seemed to punch through the air like hailstones. “I’ve always had a good nose, and a sense for weather. But lately ...” How could he explain it to them when he couldn’t even explain it to himself? But he tried. “The first time I
felt something different, it was like I was feeling what the people of Hammond felt. I was scared, and cold, and I could smell things burning.”
“And today?” asked Radda.
“I could feel the Desolata moving. I could almost see them, even.” He shuddered, feeling sick again. Then he looked up at Radda, staring squarely at him. “What’s wrong with me? What’s happening?”
“I assure you, young Master Fox,” said Radda. “Nothing is wrong with you. You have a magical gift, nothing more. And it’s growing stronger.”
“Impossible,” said Fox. “Sovesta was cursed. There’s no more magic left in her.”
“There is a rare flower,” said Radda, “that grows in the deserts of Agazard. There is no reason it should be there, in such a harsh environment. But it is, and it is nearly impossible to uproot when it appears.” He placed a hand on either side of Fox’s barrel and leaned in, as though staring into Fox’s very soul. “And sometimes the strongest magic blooms where there should be none at all. You have been Blessed, Forric Foxglove. You are one of the Windkissed, those who are Shavid by nature and power, not by birth. And you are beginning to bloom.”
Fox’s eyes slid past Radda’s to see his friends, standing still by the barn door. Picck was still looking at him with an almost comical expression of dumb confusion. But Lai ... her face had changed. She was no longer angry. Instead, every inch of her radiated one emotion only: terror.