The first five chapters of Exile: The Book of Ever (Volume 1). Buy it on Amazon today.
Ever Oaks’ Diary
First Entry, 19 Month of Gold
It’s two weeks since they breached the walls, and my hands still shake when I think about it. I think deep down I’m glad to be leaving. Bountiful doesn’t feel safe anymore—if it ever did. The High Council says the Marmacks will return, and in force.
I never thought of Sainthood as burdensome. Who am I to judge the gift that God has given me? I’ve always tried to do my duty, to be like the Savior, to help and love and heal my brothers and sisters as I know He would want. But with the journey to the North looming over us, I find myself scared, truly scared for the first time since my parents were killed. Even more so, maybe, because then I was too young to really know what was happening. Now it’s all I can do to keep focused on the present. Every minute of the day it’s a struggle to not obsess over all the possible outcomes, all the dangers that lie ahead of us.
We’re traveling into the Desolation, and I am afraid.
Elder Hales says the journey will be difficult, and that the snows will likely come before we reach the heart of the Maine. The Women’s Society have helped prepare our expedition in such a short time; it was hard work they insisted on doing themselves, leaving those of us who would be going to take care of other things. Most of our supplies have been inventoried and packed. There’s a small mountain of dry goods, clothing, medical supplies, and camping gear stacked neatly in Storehouse Three, waiting to be loaded onto the packhorses.
Horses are dear in Bountiful; it was a great sacrifice for the community to spare any at all. There was no question of making the trip on horseback. Not only does Bountiful need the animals more than we do, the roads are ancient and hazardous and filled with the rusting hulks of the motorized carriages the Old People used. We will likely be forced to walk at some point in any case, so it’s no great loss. The packhorses will at least lighten our load.
Erlan seems nervous about me leaving, now that we’ve come down to it, though he won’t admit it. I wish I could say that he was nervous about losing me, but I’m not sure it’s me he’s worried about so much as the future he expects for himself. I wish I could say that I’ll miss him, even so, but the truth is I don’t know. How am I supposed to feel, I wonder? We leave in three days, and I’m no closer to understanding what he expects of me, let alone who he is inside. We might have known each other since childhood, but for all intents and purposes we’re getting to know each other for the first time.
The advice my Sisters have for me is well-meant, I suppose, but it isn’t helpful. Bishop Royce began the ordinance of marriage but told us there wouldn’t be time to seal our union in the temple until I return in the Spring. The marriage won’t be complete until then. So I’m half a wife, and my husband is half a stranger.
Erlan accepted the Bishop’s decision obediently, as always, and seems to think it was just unfortunate timing. The sealing ritual takes time to prepare, and so on—better not to rush such an important event. I think Bishop Royce knew exactly what he was doing, but I can’t tell Erlan that. Since we were joined he’s gotten more and more touchy, as if it’s strange to him that I’m still the same person.
It makes sense, from a tactical perspective, as Elder Betenson would say: if we’re not sealed, we’re not really married yet, and there’s no chance of me getting pregnant. It was difficult enough to convince the Elders’ Council that I’m capable of making this journey as I am. If I were with child the matter would have been decided for me. But the fact that Erlan and I have been joined in the ordinance, and our union begun—our “betrothal confirmed,” as Bishop Royce put it—means that I can travel in the company of unmarried men without a chaperone.
Some of the girls I know presume I was disappointed—disappointed by an incomplete marriage and by having to leave my husband so soon. They don’t seem to remember that I chose this. They’ve all conveniently forgotten that I was the one who went into the Bishop’s chambers and told him I had to go. Their mothers see me as some kind of paragon of feminine courage, but the daughters think only of the fact that I won’t be able to make a home for my husband.
I didn’t correct them. I let the ones who wanted to believe that I was a victim believe it. There was no point in trying to convince them otherwise. Some of them—Cambree Betenson, for one—told me to pray to Heavenly Father for patience and help.
The truth is I’m relieved to be going. For all of his selfish anxiety, I think some part of Erlan is too. We share a bedroom now, if not a bed, but there is a space between us wider than Marvel Sound.
I always wake first, in the morning, and I look at Erlan and wonder what my future holds, and if it is truly meant to be tied to his.
Second Entry, 21 Month of Gold
Tonight our Society held a Thanksgiving dinner for us, since we will miss it, and we all stuffed ourselves on turkey and sweet potatoes and herbed stuffing. Bishop Royce blessed us, Elder Bingham, Elder Higbee, Elder Belnap, and myself, and tasked the Elders to keep a watchful eye over their “faithful sister.” Then he shook their hands, and when he came to me he took my hands in his and said quietly that despite the danger I must realize that it was the Divine Will that had chosen me for this journey, and that my light and love must hold our little group together. He said it just like that, my light and love. For a moment all of my trepidation was gone and I squeezed his hands and felt like there was hope, and that we would all come back safely.
After dinner I walked home with Erlan. Our cabin is on the Northeastern edge of Bountiful, near where the forest sweeps down to the ocean and you can see over the wall. On clear winter nights you can see the water through the trees from our little garden, sparkling between the bare branches like it’s winking at you. I know because the Bishop assigned us to the cabin I grew up in. It had been empty since they died, because it was smaller than some of the other open cabins and it needed some work, and when I asked the Bishop gave it to us. Erlan let me choose.
When we got inside Erlan poked the fire back to life and sat in his chair and began his nightly prayers. I waited for a few minutes to see if he would talk to me, but when he didn’t I went out back and looked through the trees for the water. The sky was cloudy, though, and all I could see was darkness. I sat on the pine log bench my father built so many years ago, wrapped in the woolen shawl Cambree knitted for me as a wedding present, and wondered why I couldn’t cry. No tears would come, even when I tried to force them. After a while I heard the back door creak and Erlan came out. He didn’t sit down, but put a hand on my shoulder gently. I looked up at him.
“I’ll wait for you, Ever,” he said. “If God wills that we be sealed, then we’ll be sealed.” The way he said my name it sounded like he was saying I’ll wait for you ever, like I’ll wait for you forever, but I knew that’s not what he meant.
At the edge of the forest, where the march of pines halted suddenly at the gentle slope of Brokeneck Beach, Ever Oaks stopped to remove the light coat she had put on to fight the morning’s chill. The sun had grown hot, and the woolen bodice of her dress was already damp with sweat. The Northeast Kingdom was beautiful in the Month of Gold and Ever loved the crisp weather that usually accompanied it, but this year the summer heat of Bounty Month and Harvest Month lingered. The weather could not seem to decide what it wanted to do, which was a problem when the majority of your clothing was made of wool.
Ever stuffed the coat into her already heavy satchel and slung it back over her shoulder. Brushing a stray pine needle off of her apron, she stepped down onto the rocky scree at the top of the beach and carefully began making her way down. It was low tide and several minutes’ walk to the water line, where green waves lapped gently at Brokeneck’s dark gravel surface.
The rocks at the head of the beach, a tumble of small granite boulders whose configuration changed with the tides, were not easy to navigate in a skirt, but Ever made a fine job of it until the screaming started. Her breath catching, she teetered precariously between two rocks, one foot in mid-step, and just managed to drop down onto a flat stone a few feet away without falling over. Ever froze, crouching behind the larger of the two rocks, and listened until the sound came again. When it did it was louder, a screeching noise halfway between a yelp and a gobble.
The sharp tension that had formed in her shoulders and her chest relaxed when she realized it wasn’t a person but an animal, and not far off from where she stood. Silently rebuking herself for being so girlish, she traversed the remaining rocks and hopped down onto the rough sand a few minutes later.
Why was she so jumpy? The fact that she had left the village without an escort was hardly a big enough infraction that she should startle like a toddling child at every noise. A healer had to have a strong constitution, Sister Hales had once told her, and Ever agreed. She had sown arrow wounds and helped bring babies into the world through cuts in their mother’s bellies. It wouldn’t do to let loud noises faze her, or worry so much about a walk in the woods.
The screech-gobbling continued, and Ever turned left, looking North up the beach. She had come out of the woods on the south side of a small point, where the beach stuck out slightly into the sparkling green chop of Marvel Sound.
She paused for a moment to catch her breath and enjoy the cool air blowing in off the ocean water. Nerves or no nerves, she was glad to be away from Bountiful this morning. The entire community was buzzing like honey bees in a hive over the upcoming return of the Haglund Mission, and every pair of idle hands was being put to work doing whatever was necessary. Ever was hardly a stranger to hard work, but the Women’s Society would expect her to spend every moment she had free from the infirmary baking cakes, decorating halls, and sewing party clothes for the welcome feast.
It wasn’t that she resented having to do women’s work, or so she told herself, but she did try to give her primary duties priority, and it had been over a month since she had last visited Elder Barrus.
She looked to the right, where the old wooden dock was just visible down the beach near the remains of the ancient causeway, then to the left, where the sound seemed to be coming from. It was only a few minutes out of her way to round the point and find whatever creature was making the awful noise. Whatever it was, it was obviously in pain. She hesitated only a moment before walking left, up the beach, around the rocky point of land.
The view northward was excellent: the broad water of Marvel Sound stretched between the peninsula where Bountiful sat and the long island known as Golden Neck. It was mid-autumn, and the old trees on the Neck were at their most beautiful: the island was a riot of crimson and orange and gold. An old memory suddenly came to her, and Ever found herself recalling a trip to that very beach with her father many years before. She couldn’t have been more than—what, eight years old? It must have been around this time of year. They were searching for smooth rocks of similar size and loading them into a wheelbarrow; her father was going to use them to rebuild their cabin’s crumbling chimney.
Is it called Golden Neck because of the leaves, Papa? That sounds like a good reason to me, dearest, her father said. But is that why the Old People called it that, Papa? she asked. Her father bent over to heave a rock into the wheelbarrow, then stood, massaging his lower back with his thumbs, and looked at the island. I don’t rightly know what the Old People called it, dearest. But I remember my greatfather telling me that in his greatfather’s time, before the Fall, lords and ladies of the Old People lived there. You can still find some of the foundations of their palaces out there in the woods.
And were the palaces made of gold, Papa? Her father had smiled. Maybe so, dearest. But they certainly had a lot they didn’t rightly need, and when the first Blessed arrived here after the Fall they named the place Golden, after the god those people worshipped. And so we see what happens to those who disobey the First Commandment.
What, Papa? Ever had asked. Her father narrowed his eyes and drew close to her ear. The trees devour them! he whispered, and tickled her belly suddenly. Ever had rolled in the sand and laughed until she could hardly breathe.
Ever stopped, her sturdy shoes sinking into the wet sand. She had wandered toward the water line in her reverie. Her father had never finished the chimney, she remembered now. Less than two weeks later he and her mother were both dead, murdered in their cabin by Marmacks. Ever licked her lips and started walking again. With an effort, she put aside the memory and returned to the task at hand. It had taken her years to learn to control the images, the sudden, vivid recollections that were all but waking dreams. She would not let them take back control now.
She found the bird lying in the shade of one of the huge immobile boulders that dotted the middle of Brokeneck Beach, flapping its glossy wings in a futile attempt to take off. It screeched again as she approached it, one glassy eye focused on her, thick, scaly legs clawing desperately at the sand.
Ever cooed quietly at it, met its eye, and slowly folded her apron under her knees to kneel down as close as it would allow. She hummed a little and brushed the nearest, long primary feather with her fingers, gently. The bird tensed, fluttered nervously for a moment, and then seemed to relax, folding its wings onto its body and waiting.
She thought it was a young male from the color of its feathers, but it was hard to tell. It looked injured and generally unhealthy, and as she stroked it the bird rolled slightly to reveal a dark stain on its breast. As it lifted the wound off the sand Ever wrinkled her nose at the unmistakable smell of rot.
She rolled the animal over gently and saw that its other leg ended in an awkward club. It had two eyes on one side of its head, both milky white and useless. Only the eye pointed at Ever looked functional. Its beak was strangely twisted. One of the Damned, then—a poor, twisted victim of the Fall.
Many in Bountiful thought all of the Damned were inherently evil, but Ever couldn’t help but pity them. There were even human Damned—crazed, rotting creatures that subsisted on whatever raw flesh they could find, truly dangerous only to those stupid enough to be caught alone and unarmed in a group of them. For every one that was fast and strong there were three who were stunted, slow, or crippled. But even they had some scrap of awareness buried in their twisted minds. Even they deserved pity.
And animals that suffered from it? Even more so, in Ever’s mind; the Adversary had infected them almost as an afterthought, it seemed to her, innocent creatures with no knowledge of right and wrong.
As she thought this she continued to stroke the poult’s rippling feathers, easing its wings against its body when it startled and making soft shushing noises to comfort it. She thought of how much the creature had suffered, how long it must have lain on this beach in pain. She saw the ragged edges of the wound and knew it had been attacked by something small and vicious, some cowardly scavenger only brave enough to attack it because it was lame.
Ever felt her palms grow warm, the soft-edged, comforting heat that soothed; she felt the crackling sensation grow, the same pent-up energy that children goosed each other with after rubbing their woolen socks on woolen blankets, the popping, cracking power….
The turkey was entranced, now, lulled by Ever’s hands, and as she pressed her palms onto its breast she heard a hurried shout from behind her. She straightened up, as startled as the bird, and got to her feet awkwardly, nearly tripping on her apron as she twisted to look behind her. Even as she moved she heard a sharp whistling followed by a soft thud and the poult’s frightened squawking cut off abruptly.
She had felt the wind of the arrow; it had missed her by less than two feet. It was lodged now firmly in the turkey’s breast. The long, wrinkled neck was slumped on the ground, and the young tom’s milky, mutated eyes stared up at her, dead.
She turned at the scrape of a boot heel on stone, where the archer was making his way down to her from the woods.
Jared Meacham was seventeen, one year her junior, and a close friend of Erlan Ballard. He treated her respectfully but there was something about him that made Ever want to avoid him. Which was difficult, since Erlan and his father kept sending Jared after her when she went outside the walls.
“Sister Oaks,” said Jared, stepping down onto the sand and gravel and slinging his bow over his shoulder. The bow was one of Elder Blackham’s new recurves, a single, sinuous piece of polished maple that shone beautifully in the midday sun. Next they’ll be giving him a rifle, Ever thought. There was something about the way he held himself—the cant of his neck, the look in his eyes—that made her dislike him. “You left the community without an escort again. Erlan asked me to look after you.”
“I’ll thank you to not shoot arrows in my direction, Brother Meacham. I doubt very much that Erlan would like you endangering the life of his betrothed.” Now that Ever had had a few moments to think about it, the near miss with the arrow had scared her. Jared’s sudden presence there scared her.
“You were never in any danger,” Jared said flatly. “I’ve taken the winner’s garland in Archery in the Harvest games two years running.”
Imperious, Ever thought. That’s why I don’t like him. He’s imperious. He acts like everyone should naturally want to obey him.
As if in direct contradiction to her thoughts, Jared grinned.
“It was a good shot, you have to admit,” he said. He looked like a little boy who’d caught his first fish. Ever felt herself frowning.
The meaning of something he said suddenly occurred to her.
“Have you been following me, Jared?” Ever asked.
“I caught up with you shortly after you left Bountiful,” Jared replied, as if this should have been obvious.
“You stalked me through the woods?” Ever was more than a little shocked, both at Erlan’s presumption and her own failure to detect him. She was considered to have good woodcraft, for a woman.
“Calm yourself, Sister Oaks,” said Jared. “I was only following Erlan’s instructions. Erlan knows you don’t like being escorted, but the Council has declared that all unmarried females now require an escort to travel outside the walls. He only wanted to”—here Jared seemed to search for the right words—“preserve your illusion of privacy.”
The various ways Ever would have liked to respond to this statement roiled in her brain like the sea in storm. Preserve my illusion of privacy? Who do they think they are? And why only “unmarried females”? Do they think I’m out here having some apostate tryst? With an effort that was almost certainly visible to Jared, Ever took control of her emotions and responded with as much decorum as she could muster.
“My person and my…virtue…are quite safe less than a mile from home, Elder Meacham,” said Ever. Jared tried to interrupt, but she spoke right over him. “However, if the Elders require it, then I will obey.” Obedience was a virtue among the Blessed; sometimes Ever thought that the Elders thought obedience was the only virtue that really mattered for women.
“That still doesn’t excuse you nearly skewering me,” Ever finished.
“Impetuousness doesn’t become you, Sister,” said Jared, squatting down to look at the dead turkey. Ever resisted the temptation to push his face into the rough, wet sand. She did not sound impetuous.
“What were you doing with this animal?” he asked.
“I was about to try to heal it,” she said, “until your arrow made that impossible.”
Jared looked up at her from his crouch, and for the first time since his face expressed something other than arrogance. He looked confused.
“But it’s Damned,” said Jared, gesturing at the bird’s twisted beak. The poult’s milky mutant eyes stared up at them. Ever shivered.
“So?” she said. “I might have been able to—”
“To what?” Jared interrupted. His imperious expression was back. “Heal it? Fix it?” He stood up abruptly, brushing sand and gravel off of the padded knees of his hunting breeches. “Even Saints can’t heal the Damned, Sister Oaks. If it was God’s will that this animal not be Damned, it wouldn’t be Damned. But as we can clearly see, it is.”
He folded his arms across his chest and looked at her, his dark eyes serious.
“You should be more careful,” Jared said. “This thing could have attacked you. And you were touching it. I got here just in time.”
“It’s a turkey, Jared,” Ever said. “And it was in pain. It wasn’t going to hurt anyone.”
“Then I spared it suffering,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter what looks like. It’s a creature of the Devil.” Jared squinted for a moment as if he were in pain, then looked at her again, pleadingly this time.
“I’m a hunter, Ever,” Jared said. “Even the meekest Damned can be vicious. Even dead they can be dangerous. This arrow’s useless.” He made no move to retrieve it. Ever waited until he looked away and rolled her eyes.
“What are you doing out here, anyway?” he asked. Ever collected her satchel, which had tumbled to the ground when Jared surprised her, said a silent prayer for the dead bird, and started walking back the way she had come.
“I was on my way to see Elder Barrus,” she said. “The Society sent me to check in on him. His heart gets weaker every year.” Elder Barrus was a surly old loner who refused the safety of Bountiful’s walls, preferring instead to live by himself in the thick woods of Golden Neck. He turned out for church meetings and the occasional funeral, but otherwise they rarely saw him. He subsisted on what fish and fowl he could catch on the Neck. He had already been very old when Ever was a girl; now he was downright ancient. He never asked for anything, but the women of the Society cared for the well-being of all the Blessed of Bountiful, even the ones who made it difficult.
“Something tells me they didn’t intend for you to go all by yourself,” Jared said, jogging a little to keep up with Ever. She realized she was walking very fast and made an effort to slow down. It wasn’t Jared’s fault that her overzealous husband-to-be had dispatched him to follow her. There was no reason to punish him for it. No good reason, anyway.
“They trust me to know my own business,” Ever said. If she was short, well, she was still getting over the fright Jared had given her, wasn’t she?
“I’m sure they do,” Jared said. Ever cut her eyes at him sharply, searching for signs that he was mocking her, but Jared kept his eyes straight ahead.
They reached the old jetty a few minutes later. It was early enough in the season that the small rowboat was still tied to the dock. It bobbed at the end of it, wood clunking hollowly against wood. Ever found the sound comforting. She tossed her satchel into the bow and hopped gamely in after it. She bent over to untie the aft lashing and stopped. Jared was still standing on the dock.
“Are you coming?” she asked him. He looked down at her uncertainly.
“We should go back,” he said. “It’s getting late.”
Ever looked at him incredulously.
“It’s barely past noon,” she said.
“There’s a storm coming,” Jared said.
Ever made an exasperated noise. “So?”
“Look there,” he said, pointing south. Past the ruins of the causeway, where Marvel Sound met the ocean, she could see a dark smudge of storm clouds near the horizon. They hung like a bruise in the distance. “It’s moving this way. We don’t want to get caught out in it.”
“A little rain never hurt anyone,” Ever said. Given the sweat-sodden state of her clothing, a little rain would not go amiss. “Look, you can wait for me here if you want. I’ll be fine. It’s an island, after all. And Elder Barrus isn’t that unpleasant.” She continued working at the knot, got it loose, and then moved to the forward lashing. Jared jumped in just as the little boat’s stern began swinging out into the water. Ever gripped the gunwales to keep herself upright and glared at him.
“If you’re coming,” she said, adjusting her apron as she sat on the forward bench, “then you can row.”
Twenty minutes later Ever jumped out of the boat into the shallows and splashed up onto Golden Neck. The cold water soaked into her shoes and stockings, but it felt good: the sun was still hot. She put her satchel over her shoulder and watched as Jared stowed the oars and beached the boat. He checked his bowstring, frowning at one point as he ran his fingers down its length.
A trailhead opened onto the short beach, marked by a boulder rolled into place for that purpose. When Jared was finished obsessing over his bowstring, they made their way up the beach and into the woods.
The path was flat and smooth, and there was gravel spread in the low-lying areas. They crossed two small streams, both of which were bridged with sturdy bound pine logs sawn flat across the top. Elder Barrus took good care of his home on Golden Neck, and as he was the only one who lived there it was a good thing he did. The rest of the Blessed of Bountiful thought the place was bad luck.
Ever shook her head as they climbed a short set of stone steps that looked like they had been repaired recently.
“Elder Barrus pushes himself too hard,” she said. “Living alone out here would be hard work for a young man, and he’s not young. His heart isn’t strong enough for this kind of labor. He’s going to kill himself.”
“It would kill him to stop working,” Jared said from in front of her. He had insisted on going first. “He’s an ornery old man, but his testimony is true. My father says he lives out here because he thinks living in the community makes you soft. ‘The slothful man’s desire kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.’ ” He turned his head slightly and Ever could see that he was smiling.
“He learned his scriptures from Elder Barrus,” Jared explained. “My father, I mean. The Elders say his recollection of the Word is closest to the lost books of all the Blessed in Bountiful.”
“I’m surprised to hear you speak so well of him,” Ever said.
“Why?” asked Jared. They reached another set of drystone steps; the trail mounted a small hill in several well-planned stages, making an otherwise difficult hike into an easy walk. The trees of Golden Neck were mostly hardwoods, and the midday sun shining through their bright fall foliage turned the trail into a colorful tunnel through the forest. “Because people think he’s strange?”
“It is a bit strange, wanting to live out here by yourself, isn’t it?” Ever asked.
“Perhaps he feels that God is company enough.” Ever took advantage of her place in the rear and made a frustrated gesture heavenward.
“He never took a wife, you know,” Ever said. “And we know what the scriptures have to say about that.”
“Who told you that?” Jared asked over his shoulder.
“Sister Higbee’s your age—”
“Not that Sister Higbee, her mother.”
“She’s still half Elder Barrus’s age,” Jared said. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“And you do?” Ever asked sweetly.
“My father says he did have a wife, a long time ago. She died when they were both still young—just a little older than you, I think. He never remarried.”
“I’ve never heard that before,” Ever said, honestly surprised. “Why don’t more people know that?”
“Probably because they listen to too much Women’s Society gossip,” Jared said, managing to sound both annoyed and like he’d won a point somehow.
“Well, I think it’s romantic,” Ever said. It was romantic. To think, irritable old Elder Barrus had spent his whole life alone, waiting to be reunited with his one true love.
Now it was Jared’s turn to roll his eyes, which he did, coming to a full stop and looking at her incredulously before shaking his head and continuing on.
“Sometimes I think I’ll never understand womenfolk,” he muttered. Ever smiled. And that’s exactly the way the “womenfolk” like it. She had a sudden image of Jared as a small bantam rooster, strutting around self-importantly, and stifled a laugh. He growled something she couldn’t hear. Ever didn’t ask for clarification.
They reached the top of the hill a few minutes later, coming out of the trees into a wide, grassy clearing. Elder Barrus’s cabin was small but well-built, of seasoned logs and pitch; there was a vegetable garden on the kitchen side and a shed built up against the trees on the other. Beyond the cabin a corridor of trees had been topped or cut down, giving the little house a view of the ocean down the eastern slope of the hill.
Jared stopped as soon as he entered the clearing and held out a cautioning hand to Ever. At first she was confused, and was about to ask what the problem was, but then she looked at the cabin again and saw that the front door was ajar. She had overlooked it in admiring the tidiness of the clearing.
Jared held a finger to his lips and quietly slipped his bow off his shoulder, knocking a black-fletched arrow from the quiver strapped to his back. He put tension on the string without drawing it fully, and started forward, motioning Ever to follow him with a jerk of his head. She knew enough to keep her mouth shut. Jared was probably being paranoid and overcautious, but it wouldn’t do to take unnecessary risks. For a man like Elder Barrus, leaving his front door open was like anyone else tracking mud into the Women’s Society meetinghouse.
The packed earth of the path led right up to the door. They made very little noise approaching the house. The clearing seemed very quiet; the sound of a cicada starting to buzz off in the distance was almost startling.
Jared held out a hand again when they got to the door and tried to peer into the cabin. After a moment he backed up, drew his bowstring to his cheek, paused, then abruptly kicked the door in hard. It swung open almost all the way with barely a creak, stopping when it banged into some obstruction they couldn’t see. A moment later Jared was through the door, sweeping the point of his arrow around the tiny house in all directions. He seemed to know what he was doing, but Ever couldn’t help but be scared for both of them. He disappeared behind the door and Ever waited, holding her breath.
Jared looked pale when he reappeared, stumbling slightly as he crossed the wooden threshold.
“What?” asked Ever anxiously. Jared only shook his head.
“I don’t think you should…” he began, swallowing, but Ever was already pushing her way past him into the cabin.
The cabin was a single large room, with a fireplace on the left side, a table in the middle, and a separate cooking hearth on the right, hung with iron pots and pans. A number of canisters had tumbled off of a shelf onto the floor, and a large sack of flour was torn open, coating the far wall and floor in a layer of off-white powder. Embers still smoldered in the fireplace. Elder Barrus’s single small table was just behind the open door; one of the chairs had been overturned.
Elder Barrus, or what was left of him, was on the other side of the table, stretched out in front of the cold hearth. Ever clapped a hand to her mouth instinctively.
His face was a swollen red mess; one eye was completely shut. His simple buff shirt was stained in several places from what looked like stab wounds, and a dark pool of congealed blood trailed out onto the clay tile that made up the bottom of the surround. Ever swallowed her shock and rushed over to kneel next to him. He wasn’t breathing. She turned his face gently and saw that the far side of his skull was horribly misshapen.
“Someone caved his skull in,” Jared said, sounding dazed. Ever jumped. She hadn’t realized he had followed her back in.
“There were no birds singing,” Jared said, as if that explained everything. “The whole glade was…just quiet. The woods are never quiet.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” said Ever. She had known he was dead as soon as she laid eyes on him. The blood on the floor, which had begun to seep slowly into the hem of her apron, was thick and cold. She took his hand gently; it too was cold, his wrist stiff and unyielding.
“He’s been dead for hours,” Ever said, feeling as useless as she’d ever felt. She stumbled to her feet awkwardly, her shoes slipping in the blood. Her apron was a sodden mess. Near Elder Barrus’s feet some of the blood had mingled with the spilled flour, creating thick pink sludge that looked uncomfortably similar to bread dough.
Healing was Ever’s calling, but this made her gorge rise. She had treated wounds before, even injuries Bountiful men had gotten in fights with apostates and Damned, but nothing like this. The sheer brutality of it…. She swallowed hard and turned away.
“We have to…” but the words wouldn’t come.
“We have to get out of here,” Jared said, seeming to come out of a trance. “Now.”
“But the body…”
“We have to tell the Council. They’ll send men. Right now we have to leave,” Jared said. “We messed up the tracks in the flour coming in, but this was more than one man. Whoever…whatever…did this could still be in the area.”
Ever didn’t object when Jared took her arm and hurried her down the path toward the trees, then stopped suddenly.
“What is it?” she asked.
“They didn’t take anything,” he said.
“What?” Ever said. Jared’s grip on her arm was comforting, but now that the horrible spell the scene inside the cabin had cast over her was broken, she wanted nothing more than to follow his advice and get off of Golden Neck as quickly as possible.
“Whoever did this,” Jared said. His eyes were unfocused, as if he were doing figures in his head. “Elder Barrus had three months of supplies in there, at least. There were dry goods on the shelves. The trap door to the root cellar was closed. He even had a bottle of firewater on the table. They didn’t take any of it.”
“Elder Barrus drank firewa—” Ever cut off mid-sentence and shook her head. It didn’t matter. Elder Barrus was dead. Who cared if he had broken a commandment? “So what, Jared? You’re right. We need to get out of here.” She tugged on his arm, but Jared ignored her.
He frowned for a moment, then nodded his head as if he’d decided something.
“Look,” he said, “I want to check around back of the cabin and do one circuit of the clearing.”
“Jared, no,” Ever said urgently. “You were right the first time. Let’s go!”
He took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes.
“We’ll stay together,” he said. “Keep close behind me. This could mean something very important. We’ve got to check it out. I didn’t see any tracks on the trail hiking in. There might be something…we might be able to find something to explain this. See where they came from, at least.”
Ever’s fear was mounting, and despite how sure he sounded Jared looked just as shaken as she was. Seeing that she wasn’t going to change his mind, she nodded. Jared spun around, knocked his arrow again, and kept his bow at the ready.
There wasn’t much behind the cabin other than a woodpile and a rain barrel. The hillside was steep on this end; there were fresh stumps along the edge of the hill where Elder Barrus had taken down more pines to make his view. Off to the left, toward the northern side of the clearing, was another trailhead leading north. This path was traveled less frequently than the trail to the beach, being useful only for Elder Barrus’s own wanderings around the Neck, and even the very beginning of it was muddy and partially overgrown. Several feet in Jared found boot prints in the mud and broken underbrush where someone had cleared the path.
He crouched above the prints and examined them closely.
“They don’t look more than half a day old,” Jared said. “They’re partly trampled, but you can see where they walked in and walked back out. At least three of them. Probably more.” Staying in a crouch, he looked down the length of the trail, which disappeared in a dogleg to the right after a few dozen feet.
“We need to follow them,” Jared said, looking up at Ever.
Ever squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for guidance.
“Jared,” she said, as firmly as she could, “I don’t even have the words to describe how stupid this is. What are you thinking?”
He sighed and rose from his crouch, transferring his bow and arrow to one hand and fingering the hilt of the hunting knife sheathed at his belt absently.
“You’re probably right,” he said finally. “It probably is stupid. In fact, I know it’s stupid.” The wave of relief that Ever felt was short-lived, however. “But if that storm passes this way, and it will, we might never find out where these tracks lead. The rain will wash all the evidence away.”
“It’s a trail, Jared,” said Ever. “On an island. Whoever the Council sends can follow it whether there are footprints or not.” Jared was already shaking his head.
“We don’t know for sure that they kept to the trail,” he explained. “For all we know they only came across it when they neared the clearing. They could have come from any direction on this side of the island. The Neck isn’t huge, but it’s big enough that even a large party could waste a day searching it for tracks. And they could be gone already, and we’d never know.”
Ever could see that he was convincing himself even as he spoke the words. She needed to reason with him.
“And if whoever did this is still out there?” she pleaded. “You said yourself there are at least three of them. Three grown men, by the looks of it, who could do the same thing to you that they did to poor Elder Barrus.” Jared’s face grew cold.
“I can handle myself,” he said.
“Don’t be foolish!” Ever said, raising her voice.
“Besides, they’ll never see me, even if they are still here somewhere. I know how to move in the woods.”
“But what’s the point, Jared? Why risk your life? For what? Some misguided sense of justice?”
“No, Ever—that’s not what this is about. Look, I think there’s more to this than it seems. You know how the Elders’ Council held a special meeting last week? About the Marmack Apostates?”
“So?” she said.
“Scouts have been reporting movement. There are new settlements within two day’s walk of Bountiful. The Elders are worried.”
“Get to the point, Jared!” Ever shouted.
“Keep your voice down!” he hissed in response.
“Look…this could be related, somehow. They could be scouting us. Trying to find a…a muster point. Somewhere to attack from. Somewhere we’d never expect.” He gestured widely, with both arms.
“Just wait here. Keep in sight of the clearing and the trail, but stay in the trees. I won’t be long.”
Before Ever could argue further, Jared turned and began striding down the trail. After a few dozen feet he disappeared into the surrounding woods and she couldn’t see or hear him any longer.
Suddenly feeling cold and not quite believing that he had left her, Ever wrapped her arms around herself and moved off the trail into the underbrush, trying to make as little noise as she could. She found a tumble of mossy rocks near a large pine and sat down, facing the direction Jared had gone.
Sitting there, listening to the occasional chirping sparrow—the woods had seemed quiet, now that she thought about it—Ever wondered how her foster parents would react when she finally got home. Would her foster father be angry? Elder Orton—whom Ever called Father, out of respect—was a kind man, if an unimaginative one, but he brooked little nonsense. His wife was caring and sweet, but she had the ferocity of a field mouse and the depth of a trout stream. It wasn’t a secret that Ever liked to leave Bountiful without an escort, but as it had never been an issue in the past—and because even years later most of the community still pitied her for the loss of her family—she had been allowed to get away with it. The Council changed the rules periodically anyway, depending upon how much of a threat the apostates were, though the most recent ruling did have a ring of finality to it.
Ever sighed, feeling overwhelmed at all that had happened today and not a little depressed at the fact that sneaking in a solitary morning hike might have cost her her freedom.
When the hand clamped over her mouth, she had no warning other than a sudden rank smell, which she realized in hindsight she had first noted a minute or so before. The man was suddenly on top of her, his grimy, crack-nailed paw gripping her face like a vise. She tried to scream, but he only squeezed her in a powerful bear hug until she felt lightheaded, and then she felt something sharp prick her side.
“Look down,” a husky voice growled. Ever’s eyes rolled frantically, hoping against hope that Jared was about to return, that God would strike the man dead, but all she saw was empty woods. They were alone.
“Look down,” he repeated. He wasn’t even lowering his voice. How had he snuck up on her so easily? Fighting down an overwhelming feeling of shame, shame at being caught so easily, shame at putting herself in this situation to begin with, Ever finally looked down.
Past the scarred, sunken knuckles of the hand over her mouth, Ever could just see the man’s right hand holding the point of a rusty knife against her side. As she watched, he pressed it slowly but firmly into her flesh just below her ribs, and she saw a rosette of blood soak the light wool of her dress. She didn’t even feel pain.
“Yeh scream ’gain, yeh move w’out my say-so, I shows yeh what yeh insides look like,” the man snarled. He pushed his face forward over her shoulder and she could feel harsh whiskers scratching her cheeks. His breath was rotten, not unlike the odor that she had smelled from the turkey’s wound a couple of hours earlier. “Yeh un’stan’, baby?”
Ever had never considered herself fainthearted, but for the first time in her life she felt like she might pass out from fright. Through a supreme effort of will that she did not know she possessed, she gave two sharp nods to say she understood. Her attacker cackled in response.
“Goo’ girl, baby, goo’ pretty holygirl, nice pure swee’ girl,” he murmured in her ear, almost cooing. Ever swallowed and focused on breathing through her nose and tried her best to ignore the man’s roving right hand.
“Now,” he said, spinning her to face him—he handled her as easily as he might have a child—while keeping his greasy hand over her mouth, “I take this hand off yeh pretty lips, yeh gon’ keep ‘em press shut, ain’t yeh baby?” Ever nodded frantically, snorting indelicately through her nose, unable to control the tremors rippling through her body. His hand was still clamped around the bottom half of her face, but she could see him now: his hair was long and greasy—it looked like it had never been washed—and the mangy black beard that obscured his face framed a mouth full of twisted brown teeth. He grinned when he saw her looking at them, running his tongue over them lewdly.
“So we straight then, baby?”
Ever nodded again and mumbled a muffled assent into his dirty palm. She found his apostate patois difficult to understand, but his meaning was clear. Slowly, his blade still pressing through the thin material of her apron and dress, he lightened his grip on her face and then slowly pulled his hand away, taking advantage of its freedom to scratch at his hairy neck. His hair was patchy and thin, and Ever could see where the scalp beneath it was red and irritated. He almost certainly had lice.
Now that she had a brief opportunity to look at her captor—for that was what he was, Ever realized suddenly; she’d been taken captive as certainly as a baby stolen in the night—she had to resist the instinct to recoil in disgust.
He was a short man, she saw, likely due to a lifetime of poor nutrition, but despite his general repulsiveness he was not one of the Damned. He wore a long, patched hide vest over a shirt of rough, dirty homespun and his boots were crude moccasins wrapped in rawhide thongs. Around his waist, however, he wore a finely made leather belt fastened with a bright brass buckle. It was the buckle that caught her eye, though the fine black tanning of the leather was also as good as a signature: it was stamped with the sun, moon, and stars sigil that Ever had seen every day of her life, in one form or another.
“Fine make, baby—you like?” the man grunted, fingering the buckle. “Yeh holy ones do da fines’ makes.” The Blessed limited their contact with the apostates as much as possible, but those who were called to duties outside of their communities had been known to do acts of charity for apostates who didn’t threaten them. Ever found it hard to believe that the man’s belt had been a gift, however. Likely he had robbed someone. It was a man’s belt. Which means he killed whoever owned it, Ever thought. Her eyes dropped to his knife involuntarily. She could see now that it was as crude as the rest of him: a jagged shard of metal sharpened on both sides with a cord-wrapped grip.
A strange trilling sound pierced the air suddenly; it sounded like birdsong, but not from a bird she recognized. The apostate looked up suddenly, scanning the woods around them, then grabbed Ever by the arm and began tramping through the trees toward the cabin. He could obviously move silently when he wished, but he made no attempt to do so now. Ever told herself it was because of her presence, because she couldn’t move the same way, if only to avoid thinking about the alternative: that there were enough other apostates on Golden Neck today that it didn’t matter whether anyone had heard him, now that he had caught her.
They broke out onto the trail, where the man dug in his belt and removed a small, carved wooden cylinder. He put it to his lips and blew, producing the same trilling sound they had just heard, except in short, staggered bursts of sound. The distant call came again and the man responded.
They reached the clearing, which was still deserted, and waited just outside the trailhead. Another whistle came, closer this time, and another, even closer but from a different direction. This one cut off abruptly, sounding unfinished even to Ever. The man stiffened, and then they heard the scream. Ever’s captor cursed foully and jerked her close to him, bringing the blade of his knife up against her bodice again. They backed toward the cabin until there was at least fifty feet of space on all sides. There was another scream, then shouting that couldn’t have been more than a few hundred yards away, and then there was silence.
The clearing was again empty of wildlife; they waited in tense silence for whatever was coming to reach them. Ever felt a dim surge of hope: could it be men from Bountiful? Had Jared gone for help? Were they coming to rescue her?
Her captor was growing increasingly anxious. After a moment he wrapped his left arm around her waist and brought his knife up to her neck. She gasped, feeling the sharp, rough edge against the delicate skin of her throat. Her gorge began to rise as she felt warm blood run onto her chest and all thoughts of rescue fled her mind. She could only hope the man wouldn’t slit her throat by accident. She tried to pray, asking Heavenly Father desperately for help, but her thoughts seemed to shatter as soon as they formed. All that seemed real in that moment was the knife, the stink of the man behind it, and the clearing around them, silent as a grave.
Just as the moment seemed ready to stretch into forever there was a dull snap from behind them, and for the second time that day Ever heard the controlled shriek of an arrow’s flight. There was a spray of something warm, a quiet gurgle, and then the apostate was falling sideways. Ever brought her hands up to protect her throat but the blade only nicked her knuckles as it fell away. She looked down and saw the man on the ground, an arrow neatly bisecting his Adam’s apple, the black fletching still quivering above his lifeless face. He’d been shot from the left side.
She turned and then Jared was there, only Jared, and he took her hand quickly and told her they had to run.
Sister Hales’ round face hovered over Ever’s own, her soft, motherly features pinched in concern. Ever let her dab her forehead with a cool, wet cloth and drank the broth that she foisted on her, more to appease Sister Hales than out of any real desire to drink it.
She could barely remember their flight back to Bountiful, though the trip must have taken over an hour. She had never been so scared in her life. There were only flashes: trees whirring by, their feet churning the sand on the beach, Jared heaving against the oars with all his might. Then more woods, the walls of Bountiful suddenly looming, and Sister Hales, Bountiful’s Mother Healer, wrapping Ever in a warm, doughy embrace and showing her onto a cot in the infirmary.
She had slept, she thought; the sun was low in the sky through the small, square window near her bed.
“There’s someone here to see you, dear, if you’re up to it,” Sister Hales said. The way she said “if you’re up to it” clearly implied her willingness to scare off any visitors Ever didn’t want to see. But the shock of her experience was already fading, replaced by worry that she’d been left out of whatever decisions the Elders were now making in response to the day’s events.
“I’m fine,” she said, hoping it was Jared, or someone with news. Sister Hales finished fussing at her forehead and took the broth away, disappearing through the doorway that led to the storeroom and kitchen. A few minutes later Erlan came in and approached her with a look of dramatic concern on his face.
“You’re awake,” he said, taking her hand.
“Yes,” she said, not knowing what else to say. “Has Jared reported to the Council?”
“It’s lucky I sent him after you,” said Erlan, as if she hadn’t asked the question. “Do you understand now why everyone is so concerned about your little solitary journeys? If Jared hadn’t been there you’d be dead.”
Ever withdrew her hand and tried her best to project the placid acceptance she knew Erlan wanted to see. It was hard. She wasn’t sure she succeeded, either, given the look on Erlan’s face. Beneath the surface, anger warred with a whipped feeling. After what she’d been through, this was how he greeted her—his future wife? She wondered suddenly if he’d even bothered to ask Jared the details of what happened, or if he had started blaming her for it as soon as he heard there had been trouble. Ever had never thought of herself as having a particularly fiery personality, but at that moment all she really wanted to do was hit Erlan over the head with a bedpan and walk out.
“I’m glad to see you were so worried about me,” she said.
Erlan squinted, his mouth a crooked line. She had trouble reading him at the best of times—was this rebuke? Confusion? He had plain features, an oval face, brown hair and brown eyes; he had never been accounted particularly handsome, but when Elder Orton had first proposed him as a suitable husband for her Ever had thought of his plainness as purity, and had transformed his stern countenance into nobility.
In the six months since their engagement, however—on the rare occasions that Erlan relaxed enough to actually talk to her—Ever had realized that what she had first seen as purity of character was in fact a distinct lack of curiosity about the world, and what she had thought of as noble seriousness was a narrow rigidity that now made her recoil. In short, she was having serious doubts about their compatibility as husband and wife, and spent most nights praying for guidance.
“Of course I was concerned about you, Ever,” he said reproachfully. “We’re…we’re promised.” Ever remained silent, looking at the fringe of the blanket covering her legs.
“Perhaps you need more rest,” Erlan said, after an uncomfortable pause. He fidgeted at his waistcoat, obviously ready to leave. Ever didn’t bother trying to explain how she felt; the time and effort it would have taken to make him understand would take energy she simply didn’t have at the moment.
“Maybe I do,” she said finally. “Can you tell me one thing, though?”
“What is the Council going to do?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Brother Meacham—Jared—told Bishop Royce and his advisors what happened as soon as the two of you returned. He’s giving his report to the full Elders’ Council right now. You know as much as I do.”
Would they call her to address the council? Somehow she didn’t think so. The feeling of being left out of something came back, stronger than ever.
After saying a polite, passionless goodbye, Erlan left. Ever counted to one hundred, then got out of bed.
* * *
The Elder’s Council building was one of the largest structures in Bountiful, second in size only to the chapel and the largest of the storehouses. The Council chamber itself was housed in a large hexagonal wing containing tiered seating around a circular chamber floor. It was large enough to house every worthy adult male in Bountiful, and then some. The Women’s Society building was much more modest, a fact which Ever found both troubling—why weren’t they the same size?—and appropriate—men thought power was all about size.
Ever trotted through the unoccupied anteroom—a simple entrance chamber with a couple of wide tables for Council secretaries—and down the main hall to the Council chamber.
The wide oak doors were closed, and guarded by a pair of Deacons. One of them was her foster brother, Dallin Orton. His eyes widened when he saw her. He took a step forward, then thought better of it and straightened up.
“Sister Oaks,” Dallin said, with a seriousness only a twelve year old boy could muster.
“Deacon Orton,” Ever intoned, in her best church voice. Then, knowing that Dallin was struggling between wanting to give her a hug and minding his duties as a door warden, Ever grabbed him in a bear hug and kissed him on the cheek. He blushed fiercely, though his fellow Deacon, a dark-haired boy whose name escaped her at the moment, didn’t seem surprised. Elder and Sister Orton often felt more like a dear aunt and uncle than parents, but she had loved Dallin since before he could walk. He was a bright boy, and dear to her, and had never seen her as anything but his big sister.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Dallin said, looking worriedly at the bandage on her throat. It was a shallow cut, but it had bled freely.
“I am too,” said Ever. “Dallin, I need to go inside.” Dallin hesitated.
“I can’t, Ever. It’s a closed meeting. I’m not supposed to let anyone except Council members in.”
“Look Dallin, they may not know it, but they need to hear from me,” said Ever. “I was there too, and Jared and I were separated for a little while. There might be something I could add, to help.”
Dallin chewed his bottom lip, looking conflicted.
“Do it for me, little brother,” she said, “I’ve had a heck of a day.”
“You’d never get past the inner wardens,” Dallin said after a moment. “But the balcony’s empty. I could get you up there. You could at least listen.” Dallin looked at the boy on the other side of the door, who shrugged apathetically.
“Good enough,” Ever said. Dallin took her hand, led her down a narrow hallway to a set of stairs.
“There’s a door at the top. It leads onto the viewing balcony. If you’re quiet they’ll never know you’re up there.”
“Thank you, Dallin,” said Ever, giving him a quick hug.
“If I get in trouble I’m telling them you beat me up,” said Dallin.
Ever smiled at him and winked.
“And they’ll believe it, too,” she said.
Dallin went back to his post as Ever crept up the staircase. The door at the top was ajar. She bit her lip as she eased it open, but the hinges didn’t creak. The viewing balcony ran along the section of the council chamber’s hexagon that was connected to the rest of the building; she was sitting right above the doors where Deacon and his friend stood guard.
It was lucky that Dallin had been on the door. In her hurry to get to the council building, she hadn’t considered the possibility that the meeting might be closed.
The balcony was the perfect spot to eavesdrop: it was unlit, deep enough to hide from view but open enough that she could see most of what was going on below.
Bishop Royce sat on a small dais with his advisors on the far side of the circle. The room was almost full; almost every Elder in Bountiful was here. The chamber had wide, low windows along the top of each wall, but the sun had sunken below them only moments before. A young Priest—the holy office immediately above Deacon in the priesthood—was lighting the oil lamps that lined the walls in sconces. After a few minutes the chamber took on a warm, if slightly eerie amber glow.
Jared was standing in the middle of the council floor describing the scene they’d found in Elder Barrus’ cabin, addressing his account to the Bishopric dais. As she settled quietly into one of the wooden chairs arranged in rows up to the railing, a collective gasp swept through the assembled Elders.
“His skull was caved in. It looked like they’d beaten him badly before he died. Sister Oaks…” here he paused before continuing, “Sister Oaks estimated he had been dead for some hours before we found him.”
As disturbing as it was to hear Elder Barrus’ body described, Ever was glad she’d arrived when she did. She still had no idea what had happened to Jared when he left her to follow the apostates’ tracks.
A few of the older men made disapproving noises when Jared described his decision to leave Ever in the clearing to follow the killers’ tracks, but were quickly silenced by a raised hand from Bishop Royce. Jared explained his reasoning, which seemed to mollify the dissenting brethren.
Jared’s father, Elder Tanner Meacham, sat on the Bishop’s right hand on the dais. He had been appointed to the Bishopric several years earlier as First Counselor, and so far had been very popular. Now, sitting above his son as if in judgment, his handsome face was unreadable.
“As you know, the back trail leading out of Elder Barrus’ clearing runs north along the island and comes out on the old ocean road,” Jared said. “The tracks led me from there down to Granite Head, the point next to the ruins of the old castle.”
“How did you manage to track them across the ocean road?” asked Elder Cardon, Bishop Royce’s other adviser, who sat to his left. “Is that road not still paved with the remains of the Old People’s tar cement?”
Elder Cardon’s face resembled that of a hungry rat. As unpopular as Tanner Meacham was well-liked, the rumor—among the Women’s Society, anyway—was that he only remained in the Bishopric because Bishop Royce hadn’t come up with a reason to release him yet. Even the oldest citizens of Bountiful found Elder Cardon’s views a bit “traditional” for their taste.
“It is, Elder,” said Jared, “but even the hardest surface can leave traces. The apostates’ boots were muddy from the trail, and left clear markings across the blacktop. Even if they hadn’t, it would have been a simple matter to search the far side of the roadway until I picked up their trail again. No mortal footsteps are beyond the sight of the skilled tracker.”
Jared sounded like he was quoting someone with the last bit, which, Ever decided, might best have been left off. Petulance has no place in Elders’ Council, especially when you’re talking to Elder Cardon.
“A skilled tracker?” repeated Elder Cardon. His voice was skeptical, almost snide. “Such as yourself, Brother Meacham?”
“Yes, Elder Cardon,” said Jared. “My father trained me well.” A ripple of laughter passed through the crowd. Elder Meacham seemed to be holding back a smile. Elder Cardon frowned, but waved at Jared to continue.
“The path leading to Granite Head was covered in tracks,” Jared said. “I’d say a dozen men at least, but some of the tracks were older. I kept to the trees from that point on, and when I came out at the point I saw them.”
“What did you see?” asked Bishop Royce. “Take care that you describe it in as great detail as possible.”
“Four men, all apostate, one of them Damned, and a beached longboat. They’d been there at least half a day.”
“How do you know that?” Jared’s father asked.
“There were no drag marks in the sand behind the boat from when they beached it. The tide was low, and hadn’t reached the high water mark yet. They’d also built a cookfire in a pit, small and tented to hide the smoke.
“I couldn’t see what if any provisions they had in the boat, though there were several parcels, and I wasn’t close enough to hear their conversation. I could tell from looking at them that they were grim, serious types, though,” said Jared.
“Fighting men?” asked Jared’s father. Jared nodded.
“I’d say so,” he said. “They weren’t well-armed, but each had a crude bow and at least one large blade. Their cloth was poor. They were bearded and unkempt. I saw no obvious tribal markings, but they had the look—they must be Marmacks.”
“Your place is to report your observations, not draw conclusions,” intoned Elder Cardon. Elder Meacham frowned and glanced at his fellow counselor sidelong, but said nothing.
“Respectfully, Elder Cardon, who else could they be?” asked Jared. “Of all the warlike tribes, the Marmacks are the closest and the most hostile. We know they want our land. And why weren’t they wearing clan emblems or sashes?”
“Perhaps because they are mere drifters. Perhaps because they wish to conceal their clan affiliation—”
“Exactly,” said Jared. “Why would vagrants from some distant tribe conceal their markings? They take pride in their tribes, their clans. Only Marmacks, who we keep special watch for, would take that precaution.”
Elder Cardon began to respond, but Bishop Royce raised a hand for silence.
“Enough,” he said. “I’m inclined to agree with the boy. We’ll move on for now. What happened next, Jared?”
Elder Cardon, far from mollified, sat back in his chair and glared at Jared. Ever couldn’t see Jared’s face from where she was hiding, but she hoped he kept it civil. Elder Cardon wasn’t one to take even a reproachful glance lightly. Jared cleared his throat.
“Well, Bishop, seeing as I was alone, and had Sister Oaks to think about, and there were four of them,” he said dryly, “I figured that was as good a time as any to get out of there.” There were chuckles from the audience. The Bishop’s smile was small, but it was there.
Ever fidgeted with her skirt nervously. By this time in Jared’s narrative, she would have already been taken prisoner by the unnamed apostate who now lay dead in Elder Barrus’ clearing. She tried not to think about the harsh smell of him, his gravelly voice, and the way his hands moved on her body, but images kept intruding into her thoughts. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on Jared. She still wanted very much to know what had happened to cause the shouts and screams she’d heard in the woods.
“I didn’t take the same route back,” Jared continued, his voice echoing hollowly up to where Ever sat. “I was on the lookout for scouts on the way down to the beach, but I didn’t find any. I found some on the way back.” The room grew quieter, the muffled conversations of the listening Elders dying down as Jared continued.
“They weren’t scouting the way we do, they were too close together. Like they were just wandering through the woods at random. They stayed in sight of each other. There were huge swaths of forest where they wouldn’t have seen me, but I just happened to go right between them. I tried to sneak past them, but the cover was sparse….”
“Go on, son,” said Elder Meacham.
“I…I shot them. They started whistling, some kind of scout language. After a few exchanges I realized they’d spotted me. I still don’t know whether they were better than I gave them credit for or just lucky. I stood up from cover and shot the first one I saw, the one on my left. I got him through the heart. He died quiet. The other one saw me and screamed, and then I shot him too.” Jared was silent for a long moment. Ever looked around the room from her perch: all eyes were fixed on him.
“I knew Ever could be in danger too, so I got back to the clearing as soon as I could, while still keeping to cover. She was—another one of them had her. He had a knife to her throat. I circled around to the side and shot him through the neck.”
Ever realized she had her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide and hot. Whether it was because of Jared’s blunt retelling of the killing he’d done, or because it brought her back to the moment the apostate had his dirty knife against her throat—or both—she didn’t know, but she had to clench her teeth and breathe slowly and deliberately for several minutes before the panic in her chest started to loosen and fade.
She must have been on the verge of swooning, because by the time she got herself under control Jared had already finished his tale and was waiting for a response from the Elders. Feeling not a little embarrassed, she tried to take hold of herself. Here I am acting like a little girl, and Jared is down there calmly describing killing people. The thought of Jared killing someone was outrageous to her. Jared Meacham, a boy she had known since…as long as she could remember, friend of her fiancé, the boy who won archery contests shooting at straw targets on feast days, had killed someone? And not just someone, but three someones—three Marmack Apostates.
She tried to think of what he must be feeling and didn’t even know where to start.
Down on the dais, the three members of the Bishopric were deliberating amongst themselves. Elder Meacham seemed to be arguing, quietly but fiercely, with Elder Cardon, but when the Bishop spoke they stopped. After a moment Bishop Royce addressed Jared.
“We will have to deliberate on this matter further, Jared, but for now I have just one question: were you followed on your return from Golden Neck?”
“No, sir,” answered Jared. “There were no other men that I was aware of in our immediate area when…when it happened, and it would have taken the men at the beach at Granite Head several minutes to reach the others. Ever and I were off the Neck within minutes—we ran back to the boat—and I used every method I knew to make certain there was no one pursuing us on the paths leading back to Bountiful.” Jared lowered his head for a moment.
“But there’s no reason to think that they don’t—”
“That will be all, Elder Meacham,” said Bishop Royce. The Bishopric thanks you for your honest testimony. Please make yourself available to members of the Bishopric at their request.”
“Sir,” said Jared uncertainly, “if I’ve given offense, or…or sinned, I—”
“Your actions were as God willed them,” said Bishop Royce, not unkindly. “Your choices were sound, given the circumstances. If you have questions or doubts, I urge you to address them to our Father in Heaven through prayer.”
Recognizing this as the dismissal it was, Jared nodded his head, turned around, and walked out of Ever’s view toward the entrance doors below.
Bishop Royce rose, and addressed the entire room.
“Brethren,” he said, “As you know, Brother Meacham only returned a few hours ago; the Bishopric has had barely more notice of these events that you have. With that in mind, if there is nothing else before us, we will recess at this time to discuss Elder Meacham’s account more fully. Please return to your homes and duties, and pray that Heavenly Father may guide us in our deliberations. This council will reconvene tomorrow at nine o’clock. In the meantime, I’m sure you all have as much to do as I do before Elder Haglund and our younger brethren arrive.”
With that, the Bishop seated himself. Elders Meacham and Cardon leaned in to speak with him quietly again. The rest of the Elders populating the council tiers began to rise—slowly—and make their way toward the exit.
As the men in the room prepared to leave the volume level rose; a dozen conversations began at once and suddenly the peace of the chamber was shattered. Ever found herself standing at the railing of the balcony, looking down on the chamber as it stirred and mingled in adjournment.
Her voice was small and faint at first. She had to repeat herself, almost shouting, before any of the men looked up. The buzz in the room grew and then began to subside as Bishop Royce looked up.
“Wait!” she yelled, surprising herself with the volume of this final cry.
“Sister Oaks,” said the Bishop, when the clamor had died down. He alone seemed unsurprised to see her. “It would please me very much to speak with you. If you would see me in my office—”
“There is something else, Bishop,” Ever said, unable to keep her voice from quavering. “Something Brother Meacham didn’t share, because he didn’t know.”
“Are we to understand that you have been eavesdropping on this entire council meeting, Sister Oaks?” asked Elder Cardon, which produced a rumble of disapproval among the gathered men.
“Yes, Elder Cardon, but—”
“You are old enough to know better, Sister Oaks. The deliberations of this council are not for the ears of women. You—”
“Elder Cardon,” Bishop Royce said quietly. Cardon broke off and looked questioningly at his superior. “Under the circumstances, I think we can forgive Sister Oaks this small infraction.”
“What would you say to us, Sister?” said the bishop, looking at Ever and nodding. Ever was too nervous to feel grateful to Bishop Royce for his patience and forbearance. Instead she focused on getting out what she had to say before she lost the opportunity.
“The man…the apostate who…took me,” Ever said, searching for the right words. “He wore a belt. A belt of Blessed make. It bore the symbol of the Three Kingdoms, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”
“An Elder’s belt,” said Elder Meacham, looking at Bishop Royce.
“Is that all, Ever?” Bishop Royce said.
“He was a dangerous man, Bishop,” Ever said. “Not the sort who’d accept charity, even if offered, if he could take what he wanted by force. He stole the belt.”
“Did he admit that to you?” asked Elder Cardon.
“No, Elder Cardon,” said Ever, looking down at him. “But if you’d been there, if you’d seen him, felt his knife at your throat, you’d know it too.”
“With all due respect to women’s intuition, Sister Oaks—” began Elder Cardon, but Bishop Royce again stopped him midsentence. This seemed to be a frequent occurrence; none of the assembled Elders seemed surprised.
“Thank you, Sister Oaks,” said the Bishop. “If you will return to the infirmary, I will visit you there shortly.”
Her cheeks warm with embarrassment now that she’d said her piece, Ever quickly excused herself, hurrying down the stairs and out of the building before any of the Elders could corner her.
The back of the Orton family cabin looked out on a small cove on the western side of Bountiful, its yard a mossy, level patch at the top of a tumbled slope of sea grass and granite that ran down steeply to the water. The wooden walls were a bit lower here, arranged on a ledge of cliff below where Ever stood that still allowed a decent view.
Ever stood at the top of the slope, watching the dark waves crash against the rocks as the sun sank into a molten puddle in the western sky.
After leaving the Council chamber, Ever had returned to the infirmary and submitted herself to the remainder of Sister Hales’ treatment, which mostly seemed to consist of pushing broth, bread, and vegetable pasties on her until she was so full she could barely breathe.
Bishop Royce had been as good as his word: less than an hour later he had walked in the door, pulled a chair up to her bedside, and listened to her tell her entire story. When she was finished he apologized that he hadn’t been able to see her sooner, and said that he had been concerned about her condition. Ever felt relieved and satisfied for a moment, until it occurred to her that, good intentions aside, the Bishop was merely humoring her. He evaded her questions about how Bountiful would respond to this new threat, and had encouraged her to put her trust in the priesthood. Thinking back on it now, Ever only felt more determined than ever to make sure that her voice was heard. If the Elders weren’t taking this seriously, someone had to make them see sense.
She sighed and wrapped her arms tightly about herself. The air was growing chillier. She considered going back inside, but quickly rejected that notion. Her family was just sitting down to dinner; she had begged off, explaining to her mother and father that she was stuffed from Sister Hales’ ministrations, and needed time alone to clear her head and pray. Elder Orton had agreed on the condition that she not leave the cabin grounds. There was a very serious lecture coming on the dangers of traveling unaccompanied, Ever knew. Up until know she had avoided it, and would avoid it for a day or two longer, most likely, if only because her parents and everyone else in the village were worried for her sanity after her encounter with the Marmack. But it was coming, as surely as were the first snows of the new season. The days grew shorter and colder as winter loomed, and perched over the ocean as they were, Bountiful could be a cold place to live.
The community, a holdfast village home to over three hundred souls, was situated on a point, a thick, drumstick of rocky, wooded land jutting out into Marvel Sound from the larger peninsula that stretched out north and east from the mainland. The walls that surrounded the village were stout and thick. On the three sides that were open to the water the land fell away in treacherous, craggy rock tumbles and sheer cliffs.
The community of Blessed that had become Bountiful had not always been located in this spot, a fact every child of Bountiful learned in Primary. It was the relentless harassment of the Marmack Apostates that had driven them to this, the eastern edge of the Northeast Kingdom. The Marmacks were an inland tribe, strangely cautious around the sea; when her people had first settled this spot and built Bountiful, many had believed they had put themselves forever outside the reach of the Marmacks and all others who would harm them or their way of life.
That had proven sadly wrong, as the more pragmatic brethren of Bountiful had always known it would be, but for many years there had been relative peace. It was only in Ever’s own lifetime that the Marmacks had finally found them again, making their way from their river communities inland and conducting periodic raids. Testing their defenses, Elder Betenson, Bountiful’s Master at Arms, said. Aside from the raid that had killed Ever’s parents, the Marmacks had never breached Bountiful’s walls. But even the most devout among them, those who believed that Heavenly Father would literally defend their lives with choirs of angels if need be, had begun to realize that they were no longer as safe as they once were. We’re living on borrowed time, according to Elder Betenson, she remembered Father—her foster father, Elder Orton—saying once at dinner. If Bountiful is to survive, we can’t stay here forever.
“I wonder where we’ll go? I wonder when it will happen?” Dallin had said, around a mouthful of bread, his eyes wide with excitement. His most prized possession, a crude wooden model of one of the Old People’s flying machines, sat next to his plate. Their younger sister, Airie, barely three years old at the time, made a comically frightened face. Ever had put her arm around her and whispered comforts in her ear.
“Don’t scare your sister,” Father had said, and changed the subject.
Ever no longer had to wonder when it would happen. She knew. That apostate and his knife had shown it to her, as clear as day. She had an unshakable feeling that everything she knew—everything she had ever known—was about to change.
She heard a twig snap behind her and turned to find Jared standing there.
“Getting a little sloppy, aren’t we?” Ever said, with more humor than she felt.
“I didn’t want to scare you,” said Jared. “Where’s Erlan? I thought he’d be with you.”
“He’s come and gone,” said Ever. “I told him I wanted to be alone.” Which wasn’t precisely true. Erlan had indeed visited again after she returned to her family’s cabin, but upon discovering that Ever still evinced the same lack of remorse for her actions that he had encountered earlier, he had begun lecturing her. Ever ended up telling him that if he couldn’t offer her comfort, she would rather that he left. After a few moments, he left.
Erlan was strangely literal; Ever tried not to take it too personally. She chose to believe that he was being respectful by honoring her wishes, even though part of her knew all too well that what she really wanted was to be held and to have someone tell her everything was going to be all right.
Jared looked troubled.
“He’s my friend and all,” Jared said, scratching his head awkwardly, “and older than me, and about to be an Elder, but sometimes….”
Ever gave him a resigned smile. Jared seemed to understand. He was good that way, Ever realized suddenly; it didn’t take much on her part to get her feelings across to Jared. Sometimes, speaking to Erlan felt like trying to communicate with a crab, or a spider—something totally alien, something with whom she shared little common experience beyond gravity, or the need to eat food. With Jared, she could always just…talk.
“Look, Ever,” Jared said. He moved next to her and looked down at the water. “I wanted to say that I’m—”
“Don’t,” she said suddenly. Ever would have been lying if she had said that she hadn’t felt annoyed, even angry at Jared at first for leaving her on the Neck, but in hindsight the issue seemed much clearer to her. “Don’t apologize. You saved my life. I should be thanking you.”
“I shouldn’t have left you,” Jared said stubbornly. “I should have gotten you off that island, and then you would never have…he would never have….” He trailed off, as if the wind had gone out of his sails. “I’m sorry, Ever.”
“I said don’t say that,” Ever said. “You were right.” She turned and looked at him. “You were right, Jared. If you hadn’t followed those tracks when you did…we’d know nothing about those men. And you saved me. That’s all that matters.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Jared said. “Scouts reported in an hour ago. They found tracks less than a mile west. Half a dozen men, at least. About two days old. They explored the whole base of the peninsula. Looks like they came by boat, too. Made shore at Red Rocks.”
“The same men? Or others?” Ever asked.
Jared shook his head. “No way to know.”
“The Elders told you this?”
“No,” Jared said. “You know Brother Snow? Elder Snow’s son? He was the one scouting that area with his father. He told me.”
“What are they going to do?” asked Ever.
“Bishop Royce sent out to scouting parties: one back to the Neck, the other to the south to investigate Red Rocks and patrol the area. Both were heavily armed. Other than that, I don’t know,” said Jared. “There’s something else, though.”
Jared took her gently by the elbow, looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was nearby, then leaned in close.
“My father let something slip earlier. About the Haglund Mission. The Bishopric is worried.”
“Worried about what?” asked Ever. “They’re not due back until at least this Sunday. And they’re coming from an entirely different direction—they made it to Serai in one piece, why wouldn’t they make it back?”
“I don’t know, but I get the sense there’s a lot more to it than we know,” said Jared. He was quiet for a moment.
“They wouldn’t let me join either scouting party,” Jared said.
Ever glanced at him worriedly: she approved, but didn’t say so—Jared was still young, after all—but she knew it must be a huge blow to his ego.
“I’m sorry. I know you must be disappointed,” she said.
“Yeah, I suppose,” he said. “Mostly I’m just worried. Something’s about to happen, Ever, and I don’t think it’s going to be something good.” His words were so close to her own feelings just before he arrived that she looked at him sharply and felt a surge of fear return.
Jared checked the horizon, saw that the sun had all but set, and gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze. She looked at him, trying to read his face.
“I’d better go,” he said, turning to leave. He got a few steps then stopped.
“If you ever need to talk…about Erlan, or…anything,” he said, “You know where to find me.”
“Thank you,” said Ever. Looking at him now, limned by the last rays of the setting sun, Ever wondered how she could have thought him imperious. In the fading light he only seemed kind.
“And Jared?” she said suddenly.
“Let me know, will you. What happens. With the Scouts, and…with whatever else.” He nodded once, then walked around the cottage toward the lane that led into the village proper.
After he was gone, Ever felt strangely restless. It wasn’t just anxiety over the frightful events of the day—that was certainly there, but buried away, forced down by her need to regain some semblance of safety. It wasn’t ripe for feeling yet, was one way to put it; Ever could only hope that when it was it wouldn’t be too burdensome.
No, if she was honest with herself, the main thing she was feeling was frustration. She couldn’t get past the feeling that her part in all of this—whatever this was—was over. She was just a young woman, not privy to the councils of the Elders; her opinion was no longer relevant, if it ever had been. It was a powerless feeling, like being in a boat with no oar. It shouldn’t matter; she was being selfish.
But it does matter.
The clink of plates through the small, shuttered windows reminded her that her family was enjoying dinner without her. She didn’t really want to go back in, but she didn’t want to stand outside alone, either.
Looking at the warm glow that shone through the slats of the shutters, her family suddenly seemed symbolic, as if they represented her entire people, not only Bountiful but the Blessed as a whole: the thousand men and women scattered among the last three holdfasts of God’s chosen. She wondered suddenly if there was another girl in Serai, or Camora, or even among the apostates, who also felt like she was outside looking in.
And if there is, what does it matter? I’ll never meet her. I’m here, now, and my options are what they are. Why is it so hard to choose?
Up until that moment, Ever couldn’t honestly have said she was trying to choose anything, but now that the thought had occurred to her, she couldn’t shake it. Inside she was trying to make a decision. Both the question and its answer eluded her, but the feeling was there nonetheless. Why?
Maybe because you’re not trying to choose anything. You’re just bellyaching.
Ever couldn’t help but smile. There was always a little voice that told her the truth, deep inside. When the Bishopric talked of the Spirit, and letting it guide you, that voice was what Ever always thought of. Everyone had it, in some form, though the trick was learning to hear it. And then learning to listen.
For Ever, the voice was almost always her own, and it usually came in the form of a nagging whisper in the back of her mind, mild but persistent, trying forever to lead her in the right direction.
The gift of being Blessed is that you always have a guide, Ever reminded herself. Trying her hardest to keep the dry humor she suddenly felt out of her voice, she whispered aloud to the darkness behind her house.
“Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters,” Ever recited, “and thy footsteps are not known.” Unless you look for them.
Lost in her thoughts, she walked slowly back into the house, sat down at the table amidst her loud siblings, and helped herself to a piece of bread.
* * *
By the time she finished helping their mother with the washing up, both Dallin and Airie, who now at five years old still snuck into Ever’s bed some nights, were asleep on the narrow cots in the room the three of them shared. Ever often lay awake for an hour or more, but tonight she fell asleep only moments after she lay down.
The dream, when it came, was quick and powerful, more a sequence of images than a running narrative. They came in rapid flashes, as if with each blink of her eyes she was whisked to some new place.
She saw a little girl with ice blue eyes. She smiled, blinked, and became something else: the same girl, but translucent like white crystal, her hair like needles of captured moonlight, her eyes featureless fields of deep cobalt that glistened like tide pools. The girl that was not a girl blinked again and she was holding a bough, though from no tree Ever knew. Its bark was smooth and silver, with trefoil leaves the color of spring. Its parent tree was nowhere to be found, but the bough was alive anyway. As the girl held it, several of the perfect green leaves fell from the branches and disappeared.
She saw a great field of ice in front of a forest; a mountain loomed purple and white in the background. Ever knew somehow that the mountain was the destination, if not the goal. Beneath it was a sea of stars, first midnight blue and gold then black and silver. Ever felt herself drawn into it. There was a rushing sensation, then silence.
She saw a figure—male, though how she could tell she didn’t know—born of hate clothed in love. She could perceive these things with her senses, in the manner of dreams, though she would be unable to describe them in detail later.
She heard a child’s voice calling from a deep well, and the well was surrounded by wolves, and the wolves were lean and hungry.
She saw a strange vessel, a ship of some kind, and a great blossom of flame. She saw three saplings torn from the earth by a strong wind and cast into darkness. She saw a spider’s web torn apart and rewoven.
She saw the great ruins of the cities of the Old People, carpeted in rust and green and crawling with Damned.
She saw Jared in pain, and the children of Bountiful, Dallin and Airie among them, naked and wild-eyed, living like animals in the forest.
She saw the walls of Bountiful, riven and burnt, a horde of Marmacks rushing through the breach to terrorize the faithful within.
Then she woke up, to screaming and the smell of smoke.
Jared put an arrow through the eye of the first Marmack to reach the gates. He made the shot despite an odd angle: he was positioned a few dozen feet down the wall east of the gates, aiming almost horizontally. The main archers’ group was deployed to the western side, where Elder Betenson thought the largest force would come from. The walls were weakest there, where the terrain was uneven, and from that side they had the clearest approach to the gates.
The Marmacks had appeared with the sun, and Bountiful’s fighting men had responded with impressive speed. Elder Betenson’s drills were showing their value today.
Depending on how you looked at it, the Elders had ordered him to the eastern wall either because they wanted to keep him out of the worst of the action or because they trusted him to pick his own shots. Jared was one of the most talented of the archers of Bountiful, but he was also one of the youngest. It didn’t really matter; he preferred to choose his own targets anyway. Firing volley after volley with two dozen or so other men from below the walls was frustrating in comparison.
Elder Betenson called out for the first volley a moment later, and the archers released a rain of projectiles with a harmonious thrum. They were angled high, and well, and a few seconds later they fell amongst the onrushing Marmack attack party to a chorus of screams that made Jared want to sing a hymn.
He didn’t rebuke himself for taking pleasure from the battle; there was time enough for that when it was over. He had never killed a man before he and Ever got caught on Golden Neck. The shame and fear he had felt hours later—only last night, which was difficult to imagine now—were still sharp in his memory, but now, just as then, he felt only the need to draw his bow.
Firing a few more shots over the edge of the wall into the first rush, Jared scuttled farther away from the battle and scanned the woods to the east.
Bountiful’s rampart was a stout wooden affair, built from hardwood logs planted vertically into the ground and joined together with tar and heavy iron spikes. The walkway that ran along the top of it was just wide enough for the men that manned it to be able to fight without fear of falling off the back. The parapet was chest-high and crenellated. It was from these convenient notches between the tarred logs that Jared aimed his bow. The wall was over twenty feet high, with a hundred yards of cleared ground on the landward sides. To the Marmacks, whose own settlements were usually unfortified or at best surrounded by heaps of rubble, it was a formidable barrier.
Or so Jared told himself, if only to keep his mind on what he was doing. The Marmack tribe were unsophisticated warriors. Most of them were brawlers and berserkers rather than real fighting men. They charged into the fray wielding whatever rusty piece of sharpened metal they could scavenge, screaming war cries that chilled the blood until you realized that half of them were drunk on the white liquor they distilled from wood and roots and corn and the other half were too stupid to do more than slash at the first man who presented himself. They were frightening, and loud, and fearsome, but they were unorganized and valued brute strength over precision.
Nonetheless, they had the numbers. The numbers and enough fear of whoever leads them to storm our walls when they could be hunting easier prey. The fact that they had attacked Bountiful at all was worrisome. The community had withstood worse raids than this one, but not for many years. If the Marmacks were getting this desperate, they had bigger problems than one raid on the walls.
Movement at the edge of the forest caught Jared’s eye and he scanned the treeline again. Nothing moved. The Marmacks’ main force numbered around fifty men, aside from a few loners who hurling rocks and shooting small arrows from weak bows at isolated parts of the wall, hoping, no doubt, to distract the defenders away from the gates. A larger force than they’d seen in a long time, but nowhere near as large as the one that had attacked the community and breached the walls when he was only a boy. Ever’s parents had been killed during that raid, Jared remembered. He wondered where she was, and if she was all right.
He tried to put everything out of his mind but the battle, tried to find the center that he relied on to make the shots he made. Aim, draw, release. See, pull to cheek, let go. Nothing else mattered.
The first two volleys from the archers had weakened the Marmacks considerably, and now the Elders manning the section of the wall over the gates themselves, where the majority of the Marmacks were massed, heaved heavy baskets of stones over the parapet and onto the heads of the grisly men below.
They appeared to have no real plan of how to enter the village. Jared made out two shoddy ladders being brought up to the wall, both of which were thrown down easily as soon as they slapped against the parapet. Where’s the battering ram? Are they even going to try getting through the gates? Even as he watched, a small group of apostates hauled something up behind their main force. He shook his head in disgust.
They had indeed brought a ram, but it was a single tree of no great width, its bark still on, its tip inexpertly torn and hacked away. They held it by the stubs of broken branches. It was almost comical. The gates were indeed the weakest part of any wall, but Bountiful’s gates were six inches of solid oak, barred with a heavy oaken beam strapped in iron. If there were even enough of their men left to provide cover when they got it up to the gates, it would take them hours to break through with that. It seemed almost…
…too good to be true. A line of men was emerging from the eastern woods, where he’d been looking only a few moments earlier. There were at least as many of them as were in the group already attacking the gates, and unlike their ravening companions, these men stepped out from under cover as one unit, as silent as they were unexpected, all of them carrying longbows. The man at the head of the line knelt, did something with his hands, and with startling speed a line of fire leapt up in front of the archers.
The forest’s edge was farther from the walls where they emerged, perhaps a hundred and fifty yards from where Jared perched, but he could still see that they were dressed similarly in dark, dun colors. Camouflaged.
He watched, frozen, as they nocked arrows to their bows. The arrowheads seemed oddly large to Jared, and it was with a dawning horror that he realized their plan. Even as they knelt, as one, and dipped their arrowheads in the line of flame, Jared began screaming.
He turned and stood, giving up his own cover to wave his arms and yell for Elder Betenson. They needed to get men to this side of the wall; they needed to…do something. What? He saw Betenson acknowledge him, saw him wave a detachment of Elders toward Jared’s position, but even as a dozen men set off in a run Jared knew it was too late.
He turned back just in time to see the bowmen loose. Their arrows had become flaming missiles that streaked the morning sky in bright orange, arcing up in slow grace over the cleared ground between the woods and the wall. They weren’t aimed at the men on the wall, Jared saw; the archers’ target was farther away than that. A substantial portion of Bountiful’s homes and buildings were well within the range of those bows.
He turned, dropped, and slammed his back against the parapet out of instinct, facing the village of Bountiful from atop its walls. He sat and watched as the arrows alit in the roofs of the Blessed, setting old thatch and cedar shingle afire with ease.
The bright flames that had begun spreading over the village were oddly beautiful. Jared felt as out of breath as if he’d just sprinted a mile, though he had barely moved since seeing the line of bowmen. He felt nailed to his spot. For the first time since the attack began, which could only have been a matter of minutes earlier, though it felt like hours, Jared had no idea what to do next. The battlefield analysis that had been running through his mind moments earlier was gone, replaced by numb immobility.
The dozen men that Betenson had sent his way were pounding down the wall toward him now. Women and children too young to fight were already mobilizing to fight the flames in the village below. Elder Betenson was nowhere to be seen. The men that had manned the sections of wall near to him were either busily engaged with the enemy or gone.
Taking a deep breath, Jared wrapped his fingers around the grip of his bow. With a strength he didn’t feel, he made himself get up and face the Marmack archers, who had leapt over the quickly fading fire trench and were now advancing on the wall. With a strength he did not feel and a focus he was surprised to find he still had, Jared bent his bow and began firing into the line of men who were coming to kill him.
* * *
Ever’s foster father had sheathed a large knife at his belt and was checking the bore of his rifle when she emerged from her bedroom. Dallin was holding his leather shooting vest and staring at him wide-eyed while Airie cried in their mother’s arms.
“Father,” Ever said. Elder Orton looked at her and smiled ruefully.
“I’m sorry to have to wake you, Ever,” he said. “God knows you need the rest.” To hear her him use Heavenly Father’s name so casually surprised Ever. Elder Orton was among the most devout of the Blessed in Bountiful, and he kept the commandments strictly.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“The Marmacks are here,” said Dallin, who looked more excited than scared. Airie hid her face in her mother’s neck.
“A large group of them are attacking the gates from the west,” her father explained as he loaded precious cartridges into his rifle. Ammunition was almost as invaluable as firearms in Bountiful. Most of the guns they did have were well-tended antiques, relics of the Old People kept in perfect condition over the centuries since the Fall. The carbines Elder Betenson and the village blacksmith had been able to reproduce were inferior and unpredictable; metal was scarce enough that they had a hard enough time replacing the bullets they lost. Which was why they only used guns when absolutely necessary.
“I have to report to Elder Betenson,” her father continued. He had taken his vest from Dallin and buttoned it up, rolling the sleeves of his homespun shirt up past his elbows. Securing a pouch of ammunition to his wide leather belt and slinging his rifle, he ruffled Dallin’s sandy hair and put his arm around their mother.
“Aethan,” said her mother, her face betraying her concern.
“It will be well, Dalee,” he said. “Pray for us. Keep the children in the house. Make sure they all have a weapon. Dallin, you have your bow?”
Dallin hefted his half-scale flatbow hopefully.
“Keep it at hand in case you need to flee,” said Father. “Don’t try to draw it inside, or in haste.” Looking back at his wife, he said: “You remember the escape plan?”
Ever’s mother nodded. All of them knew it, and knew it well; they practiced evacuating the cabin and village regularly. Not all of the Elders were so conscientious with their families, but there was a reason Elder Orton was on the High Council.
He came to Ever and hugged her briefly.
“Be safe, daughter,” he said. Pressing her cheek to the old leather of his vest, she realized she had to go with him.
“Sister Hales will need me at the infirmary,” she said.
“I’ll check in with her soon,” said Father. “For now I want you to stay and help your mother.”
Ever only hesitated for a moment.
“No, Father,” she said. Elder Orton, who had turned to leave, looked back at her in mild surprise. “I have no business hiding in the cabin while I could help with…I’m either a Saint, or I’m not,” she finished. “It’s my duty.” Hardly as eloquent as she would have liked, but it got her point across.
Elder Orton looked at her appraisingly, then nodded.
“Very well, Sister Oaks,” he said, and laid his hand on her head. “I bless you in the name of Heavenly Father. May he keep you safe.” With that, he walked through the door of the cabin briskly and closed it behind him. Sister Orton stared after him for a moment as if he had just walked off of a cliff.
It only took her a few moments to gather the things she would need in her satchel. Putting on a fresh apron, she slung it over her shoulder, hugged her mother, kissed Airie, and gave Dallin a kiss on the cheek. Less than five minutes after her foster father left, Ever was out the door herself, striding with purpose toward Sister Hales and the infirmary.
Making her way down the lane toward the village common, she heard the thrum of bowstrings and the muffled shouts of men beyond the walls, followed by a series of thumps and hoarse cries.
None of it seemed real yet. Except for the occasional cry of pain—whether from inside the walls or outside, Ever couldn’t tell—the sound of the battle was rather like the commotion of the Harvest Fair. The steady roar of the crowd, the snap of bowstrings…. A comforting illusion.
It was cut off as something bright and orange flashed through the sky over her head. Fire arrows. She saw the flaming bolts soaring in a neat flock high over the wall, dropping from the sunny sky toward the houses and cabins of Bountiful clustered below.
As the first roofs caught fire, and the screams of Bountiful’s children began, all thought of fairs left Ever’s mind and she started running.
* * *
When he felt the bowstring slap hard against the bracer on his left wrist, Jared reached for another arrow and realized his quiver was empty. He’d lost track of the men he’d injured or killed, a fact that still hadn’t quite sunk in, but all of his shots had found flesh. He hadn’t wasted any arrows. The line of Marmack archers had advanced to a position closer to the walls, fired another volley, then disappeared back the way they had come. He wasn’t surprised, given that they had neither cover nor any kind of siege equipment, but the damage was done. At least a third of the village was on fire. The Women’s Society had formed a bucket brigade starting at the village well, but they were fighting a losing battle. At this point, unless someone else had any bright ideas, they’d have to rely on the firebreaks built into the village to keep the flames from spreading.
The group of Elders that had rushed to relieve Jared at the appearance of the Marmack archers had spaced themselves out along the eastern wall. The volleys over the gate had decimated the main assault force, the remains of whom had retreated to a safe distance. They appeared to be trying to construct some kind of protective shelter over their battering ram using cut pine boughs.
Jared took advantage of the lull in the action to squat down behind the wooden parapet and take a long drink from his water skin. The sun had risen higher in the sky and the air was growing warmer. It promised to be another unseasonably hot day. Jared had already sweated through his shirt and waistcoat. Wiping his damp brow, he looked toward the village green. He could see his father’s tall form assembling a group of riflemen beneath the big maple near the well. He hoped it wouldn’t come to wasting ammunition, but so far nothing had gone as expected.
Elder Betenson hadn’t been completely unprepared for a split assault, but the Marmacks had never shown any such sophistication in the past, so the men posted at sections other than the gates where minimal. Like Jared’s, their purpose was more to warn and inform than fight, so that the appropriate forces could be maneuvered.
At least they didn’t have to worry about the seaward sides of the community. The wall surrounded the whole village, but the cliffs of Bountiful’s peninsula were a formidable obstacle all on their own.
Jared let the man nearest to him know that he had to leave the wall to restock his quiver, then climbed down the closest ladder and jogged to the green. Elder Blackham, who served as both bowyer and fletcher to Bountiful’s bowmen, had set up a resupply station near the center of the green. The lanky old greybeard, who was several inches taller than Jared’s father even with the hunch that age had given him, was in the process of sorting a large basket of arrows into bundles when Jared came up.
“I’m out,” Jared said, without preamble.
“Already?” said Elder Blackham pleasantly, looking up. “I don’t why I’m surprised.” He gestured at the bundles as if Jared had asked him for an apple and bent back to work. Jared passed over the shorter, softer arrows issued to the rank and file brothers who had yet to distinguish themselves with the bow and filled his quiver with a dozen of Elder Blackham’s finest black-fletched poplar shafts—a privilege the old man reserved only for those archers he deemed worthy.
Bishop Royce was deep in conversation with Elder Betenson near the assembled riflemen, and after he finished preparing his men Jared’s father joined them. Elder Cardon was approaching with Elder Ballard—Erlan’s father—and Erlan himself. Seeing Erlan standing awkwardly outside of the circle of Elders as his father and Cardon joined the others, Jared walked up to him.
“Erlan,” he said, waving. “Are you all right? How’s your family?”
“Our house wasn’t hit with the fire,” Erlan said.
“Good,” Jared said. “I don’t know if your father’s got you doing something for him, but we could certainly use another bow on the walls if you’re—”
“I’m observing,” Erlan said. “And taking notes.” He brandished a small, leather bound notepad. “For the minutes.”
“The minutes?” Erlan was a year Jared’s senior, but he had only recently received his first calling as an adult member of the community. Unlike Jared, who had shown interest and aptitude for scouting and shooting early on, Erlan had always been more…bookish. His father had recently secured him a position as secretary to the High Council. Had Erlan been instructed to “observe” the Bishopric’s administration of the battle, or was he just avoiding having to pick up a weapon?
Jared felt some guilt at the thought—Erlan was his friend—but he set his teeth and didn’t dismiss it. It made no sense to ignore your friends’ flaws, even if you were willing to overlook them. Jared bit his tongue and stood awkwardly for a moment, during which time Erlan returned to eavesdropping on his betters.
Jared was about to return to the wall—the Marmacks might have been temporarily stymied by the village’s defenses, but they weren’t broken yet—when he noticed Ever hauling buckets of water from the well toward the infirmary.
“Did you know Ever’s out here?” asked Jared.
“What?” said Erlan. “Oh. Yes. I think she’s helping Sister Hales in the infirmary.” It made perfect sense: Ever’s abilities were…miraculous, to say the least. But she was a Saint; miracles were to be expected around the Saints. There was a Scout who lived near the southern wall who could make his skin like tree bark, and he wasn’t half as well known as Ever.
“Have you…talked to her?” Jared asked.
Erlan looked at him as if he had sprouted wings.
“I mean, have you…you know…asked her if she’s okay?”
“Jared,” said Erlan, “I’m sure you’re needed back at your post.”
He wasn’t wrong—Jared himself didn’t entirely understand why he was wasting time questioning his friend about whether he’d comforted his own betrothed in the middle of an apostate attack—but he couldn’t help himself.
“Very true,” said Jared, and left. Erlan didn’t appear to notice. Jared ran across the green to the infirmary, where he caught Ever just as she was about to enter.
“Are you all right?” he asked, taking the heavy buckets from her and carrying them inside. She was flushed and sweating, like everyone else, but otherwise she appeared to be alert and focused.
“Yes. Thanks,” she said. Jared put the buckets down near the big hearth, which already had a big fire roaring within.
“Your family?” he asked.
“Fine. My father’s with the riflemen.”
“Good,” said Jared. “Then be safe. And make sure you’re the one who tends to me if I get wounded.” He squeezed her shoulder, smiled at the expression on her face, and walked away.
He had just begun climbing the ladder back to the top of the wall—no one was moving up top, so the Marmacks must not have reappeared for a second go, yet—when he heard a woman scream.
* * *
The water had already begun to bubble in its cauldron before Ever was able to clear thoughts of Jared from her head. Why had he suddenly appeared like that? Just to see if she was all right? In the midst of all this? Was it bad that she now felt like judging Erlan, whom she had seen near his father across the green, for not even looking in her direction? Her supposed betrothed?
Sister Hales appeared from the main wardroom as if by magic. Her doughy face was red with exertion and several damp tendrils of her brown hair had escaped her tight bun to plaster against her forehead.
“Is the water boiling yet?” she asked.
“Almost, Sister,” said Ever. The water was in fact just reaching a rolling boil. Ever collected a variety of jars from the shelves nearby and put them on the large work table. Willow bark for pain, calendula flowers for dressing wounds to prevent infection, honey for burns. They hadn’t received many wounded yet. Only two men lay in the beds in the infirmary ward: one for a superficial arrow wound through the shoulder and another, an old Elder whose name Ever was blanking on at the moment, who had begun having chest pains at the onset of the attack. One sister had come in for a dressing for some mild burns but had left quickly to rejoin the bucket brigade. Ever knew there would be more serious injuries yet, however.
The scream split the air like lighting, even from inside the infirmary building. It seemed to come from the back of the village, near the cliffs. But that didn’t make any sense, there was barely anyone left in that area. Everyone was either on the green, or fighting the fires, or on the walls, fending off the apostates.
“Heavenly Father!” exclaimed Sister Hales. “That’ll mean more for us, no doubt.” Collecting a bundle of the clean dressings Ever had cut and laid out, she disappeared back into the wardroom. A few minutes later two young brothers burst through the door carrying Sister Flowers, a beautiful young woman slightly older than Ever who was four months pregnant with her first child and who appeared to be unconscious.
“She was clubbed over the head,” said one of the young men. Ever didn’t look closely enough at them to even determine who they were.
“Bring her in here,” said Ever, leading them into the ward. “Lay her on this bed, carefully. How long ago?”
“Was the she the one who screamed?”
“Yes,” said the first boy, who she now recognized as Brother Smoot, an older boy Dallin liked to follow around, when he wasn’t busy idolizing Jared Meacham.
Ever felt Sister Flowers’ pulse, which was weak, peeled back one of her eyelids, and called for Sister Hales. The plump woman hurried over, leaving the man with the arrow wound, who was convinced he was dying despite their most fervent assurances to the contrary, to moan in despair.
Sister Hales bent over Sister Flowers’ prone form from the other side of the bed, feeling tenderly at her head through her golden hair. It was matted with dark blood on one side of her head.
“What’s happening?” asked Ever while Sister Hales assessed the situation.
Brother Smoot swallowed.
“They’re coming over the northern walls. Near the cliffs,” he said. His companion stood in dumb silence, staring at the pregnant woman on the bed before him in horror.
Ever had no time to respond.
“Her skull is broken,” said Sister Hales, her voice flat and grim. “Badly. I’m afraid her brain…I could try to relieve the pressure, but the child….” Ever had rarely seen the unflappable Sister Hales unsure of what to do, but that, she realized with shock, was exactly what was happening.
“Let me try,” said Ever quietly. Sister Hales looked at her worriedly.
“Can you…but it doesn’t always come when you want it to,” she said.
“Does she have a chance otherwise? Or the baby?”
Sister Hales thought for a moment, then shook her head.
“Even if I try to drill into her skull,” she said, upon hearing which the younger, silent brother promptly hurried into the other room with his cheeks bulging and a hand over his mouth, “there’s no guarantee the damage to her brain isn’t already beyond helping. And the child is too young to be born.”
“Then that makes it an easy decision,” said Ever. Sister Hales nodded.
“What do you need?”
“Just space,” said Ever. Sister Hales took Brother Smoot by the arm and led him away, leaving Ever alone with Sister Flowers.
“Heavenly Father give me strength,” she whispered, then grasped the pretty face before her in both of her hands, her fingers reaching into the hot, wet blood that defiled her hair, and closed her eyes.
Ever breathed in deeply through her nose, then exhaled through her mouth, and focused on the woman’s breathing. She could feel the thready pulse, the damaged tissue of her scalp, the seeping, slowly-congealing blood, the horrible broken landscape of her skull. She focused harder, and she could hear her heartbeat itself, beating slowly, as if with difficulty; and beyond it, a faint echo, a second heartbeat, a tiny flutter of the life that grew in her womb.
The power never came in exactly the same way. She couldn’t always predict how well it would work or whether it would come when summoned at all, but when it did, it was almost always in response to a strong emotion on Ever’s part. Looking at Sister Flowers, the girl that had been Harvest Maid two years running when Ever was still in pigtails, the young woman who had married the handsome Brother Flowers to all the village girls’ envy, the radiant mother who had announced her pregnancy to the Women’s Society only weeks before—looking at the mess some Marmack savage had made of her perfect head, Ever felt only anger.
It swelled in her chest like fire and swept upward; she could feel it in her cheeks and behind her eyes. She clenched her teeth together until they felt like they would break against each other. And then it came, the warmth, the Spirit, and it flowed from the place deep inside of her where it lived and ran down her arms and through her dry palms and into the woman beneath her. Ever was aware of a sharp intake of breath, and a deep moan, and a quiet cry. Vaguely, as if at a great distance, she heard the sound of gunshots and more screaming, but filtered through the golden light of the power as words through a waterfall.
Then there was only darkness.