Thunk. Adelaide’s dagger pierced the barn wall in front of the chattering men. It had the desired effect—they stopped talking and regarded her as she passed them and yanked out the weapon.
She slid the battered blade into the piece of cloth around her waist and faced the men’s justice-hungry eyes dancing with candlelight. “Has anyone secured weapons since our last meeting?”
“I took a bow when my cousin wasn’t looking the other day,” frizzy-haired Talbot said from the back of the barn.
Horace spat into the straw by his boots. “My brother made me some slings in exchange for cutting wood. They won’t be much help against a knight’s sword, but they can create a distraction.”
“I have a couple spears I once used for fishing,” Sayer said.
Silence. Adelaide leaned into it, hoping to hear from more of the men. But all she heard was the creaking of the barn in the wind.
“Is that all?” She tried to keep the panic from her voice. How was this ragtag group of peasants going to overthrow the king with one bow, a few slings, a couple of spears, and the dagger she had stolen several days before they began meeting regularly?
That had been nearly a year ago, and although she could now strike a tree dead-center with the weapon from forty paces away, she was nowhere near skilled enough to fight the king’s soldiers. After all, those men had trained their entire lives for combat.
Adelaide shivered. Each time she considered fighting, especially alongside these young men, guilt and fear pricked her. Each time, her sister’s words sprang up with the persistence of weeds in a drought: “Violence harms, not helps.”
But her sister was dead, and there was no other way to help their people.
“Some knights from Dhalion are going to be here tomorrow for the Fire Festival,” eleven-winters old Hubert, said. “We could steal some swords from them.”
“How do you know they’ll be here?” Bodin, Hubert’s older brother, asked.
“Some merchants in town were talking about it while I was getting oats for mother.”
Adelaide gazed at the blonde-haired boy in admiration. When he had tagged along with his brother to one of their meetings a fortnight ago, she had been suspicious of a blabbing mouth. She had made sure Hubert understood the seriousness of secrecy, since each of their lives depended on it. As far as she knew, he hadn’t spoken of their meetings to anyone, and now he proved that his brains were bigger than his slight body. She just hoped Bodin kept him home and safe from the eventual fighting.
“Good work, Hubert,” Adelaide told him, and his freckled face lit up.
Adelaide regarded the twenty-two young men and the only other woman, Rohesia. The men, for the most part, gazed at her with respect. It had taken several long, passionate speeches, the sight of her hawk, Cyr—mighty and proud on her shoulder—her friend Gunter’s frank words, and the steady thwack of her dagger into the back of the barn’s wall to show these young men that she had enough strength and determination to lead their rebellion.
But if they even guessed at the doubts and worries boiling inside her, they’d laugh in her face and leave. That was why she had allowed her sister’s murder to harden her—so she could be the kind of woman who could lead a rebellion to prevent the murders—whether at the Gyndilians’ or the kings’ hands—of other sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers.
“I’ll go into Alesfirth tomorrow and try to steal some weapons when the knights arrive, if they’re indeed coming,” Adelaide said.
“I’ll join you,” Gunter added.
Adelaide nodded at him, then gazed at the motley group. “The rest of you keep searching for or creating your own weapons. Everyone needs at least one good hand-held weapon before we can attack anyone. And make sure you know how to use it.”
She strode across the decaying floor. “Once I think of something to tell my folks, which will hopefully be in the next few days, I’ll leave and employ more people to our cause throughout Klinhun.”
“I’ll join you then, too,” Gunter said, and Adelaide ground her teeth in frustration. She appreciated his offer, but how was she supposed to keep her hard-earned respect if he kept acting like her personal knight in front of the others?
“What will I tell Father when you suddenly disappear?” Conrad, Gunter’s older brother, rounded on him. “You’re needed in the fields. In a few months it’ll be planting time, and we’ll need every hand we can find.”
Gunter’s light-blue eyes sparked in the beam of the candle he held. “Which is more important, Conrad? Freeing our people from the king’s grasp or doing chores? There are more than enough men in Alesfirth to help with the planting.”
“They must help their own families. And you still haven’t—”
“Don’t.” Adelaide raised her hands, not wanting to listen to them quarrel till dawn. “You two can finish your argument later.”
She glanced at the others. “This will be my last meeting with you, though you should continue meeting after Gunter and I leave. Since we probably won’t be able to communicate with you during our travels, plan on joining us in Dhalion when the first flowers bloom.
“Bring every weapon you can find and every man you can trust, and we’ll overthrow the king. The time has come to tear down the tyrannical king and lords after all these long, hard years,” Adelaide said, her voice escalating with each word that she had memorized on the way here. Speeches, however short, were one of her least favorite parts of leading this group.
“For our families! For our people! For our futures!” The men shouted as they always did after a meeting. Adelaide was glad, once again, that Conrad had suggested meeting in this old barn far from town and anyone’s cottage.
“Remember, we’ll meet in the King’s City when spring arrives and plans to stay,” Adelaide interjected into the clamor. This began a new round of cheering and shouting. Adelaide slipped out before the men could ply her for details she didn’t have.
Shout-filled, mostly fruitless meetings had filled the last ten months, frustrating Adelaide and many others. They had waited and planned long enough. They needed to do something now, before someone discovered their rebellious plans and doused the sparks. And before Adelaide lost her nerve.
The wintery night air nibbled her cheeks, and the frosty grass crunched beneath her feet. She gazed into the distance, wondering what awaited her beyond the corn, wheat, and cotton fields outside of Alesfirth. Seeing the copious country of Klinhun diminished to pictures on a map tossed across a merchant’s stall and listening to nobles’ gloating discourses was much different than actually setting foot on a dirt road she had never seen the end of.
What would it be like to visit other villages, see other peasants’ faces, and taste bread her mother had not spent half a day baking?
“Ade, you’re not going to rescue Klinhun by walking faster than a frightened chicken,” Gunter said behind her.
“Perhaps not.” She slowed her pace. “But it would help if you had longer legs.”
“Would that I could do something about that.” Gunter caught up and looked at her. “I only see you at these meetings, Ade. Why don’t you visit me at home anymore? We could walk along the river or climb trees like—”
“We’re not children anymore,” Adelaide interrupted. “We must help our families, and I have this rebellion to lead. That leaves little time to gallivant around the country.” Ever since her sister’s death, the rebellion had been her consuming passion; it gave her purpose when the emptiness her sister’s death had left threatened to swallow her. And she couldn’t return to ignoring her people’s plight, pretending like murder hadn’t occurred in their town.
Her stern face reflected back to her from the full moon’s light in Gunter’s eyes, and she glanced away. She wasn’t sure she liked the new, frosty woman staring back at her.
“We haven’t been children for many long winters. Stop using that as an excuse to push me away.” His voice softened, murmuring like the Lentasa River under its cover of ice. “It’s been a year since the attack, Ade. You need to live again. Your sister’s dead, and she’s never coming back.”
Adelaide flinched. She tried not to think too much of Emma, though inevitably a tree, a child, her house, would trigger a memory. Speaking about her out loud was a hammer to her heart. As if she could outrun the pain and despair bursting through the wall Gunter’s words had splintered, Adelaide sprinted past him into the darkness.
“Adelaide!” He called, but he didn’t give chase.
Adelaide couldn’t run far in the frigid air and soon stopped. She panted, her breath a white mist curling like a cat’s tail.
Spotting the thatch roof of her family’s mud cottage, she whistled. A dark shape took off from the top and landed on her shoulder.
“Ow. Cyr, you’re getting heavy.” She ruffled the hawk’s brown feathers, making them stand up comically. “Did you catch any voles today?”
He nipped at her hair, and she rubbed her face against his feathers. Unlike Gunter, he wouldn’t ask her to confront her pain. She glanced at the trees behind the hut—a patch of land that Lord Lambert hadn’t cleared yet. “I wish I could take you hunting tomorrow, but I have to go to town.”
She shoved the plain wooden door open. The scents of wood-smoke, straw, and goats filled her nose—the soothing smells of home.
“Adelaide, I don’t like you being out this late, even if it is just with Gunter,” her mother said from where she sat weaving a sock next to the fire.
Adelaide always used visiting Gunter as an excuse for the rebellion meetings since her mother loved him and his family. It also wasn’t a full lie, though it ate at her to have to stretch the truth even a little. “Forgive me.” She kissed her mother’s sunken cheek.
“Just make sure you’re home sooner in the future.”
Adelaide nodded, wondering what would happen to her mother if Adelaide never returned from Dhalion. She had already lost one daughter; what would happen if she lost Adelaide too? The thought was almost enough to give up the rebellion. But Adelaide had already counted the cost and made her choice.
“What did you and Gunter do?” Her father asked. The candle on the table in the back of the room revealed the tired lines around his eyes and the dirt smudges that never completely disappeared, no matter how often he washed. Adelaide went over for their nightly ritual and rubbed his back. He sighed in contentment.
“What we normally do.” Adelaide dug her knuckles into his clenched muscles. “We walked and talked along the river.”
“You two would make such a lovely match.” Her mother didn’t look up from her weaving, but a grin rose on her sun-darkened skin.
Adelaide gagged. “That’s more disgusting than eating cow dung. We’re friends, and we’ll always just be friends.”
“Adelaide, could you tell us a story tonight?” Odo, her eleven winters-old brother, asked from where he sat on the straw bed beside the fire. A wool blanket covered everything but his big ears and shaggy brown locks.
Adelaide’s fingers froze against her father’s back. Every night, summer or winter, spring or autumn, her sister’s words had woven tales while her fingers wove Adelaide’s black hair into a braid. She remembered Emma’s last story as vividly as if Emma had told it last night instead of more than a year ago.
“Are you ready to go on an adventure?” Emma began like always.
“Yes!” Everyone chimed, even their parents.
Emma’s touch was gentle, yet firm on Adelaide’s head, just like when she pressed her homemade poultices onto neighbor’s wounds. “Once, in the land of Riandoom—”
“That’s not a real land,” Odo said. Frowning, he turned to their father. “Is it?”
Their mother shushed him, keeping her gaze on Emma. “Don’t interrupt.”
“It doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t a real land,” Emma continued. She tied Adelaide’s braid with a piece of cloth and flicked it over her shoulder. Adelaide turned to watch her sister; the girl’s gestures and expressions were almost as entertaining as the story itself.
“In this land of Riandoom, there was an evil king who ruled everyone.”
“Like another land I know,” Adelaide murmured, and Emma winked at her.
“The people of this land knew they could never defeat the king on their own. They had tried before and failed and several people had died. So, they decided to enlist the help of others. Do you know whose help they enlisted?”
“Whose?” Adelaide and Odo chorused.
Emma paused, spreading her hands out. “Mice.”
“Mice?” Odo squeaked like one of the creatures. Adelaide laughed, and his ears flushed red.
“Yes, mice. But these weren’t ordinary mice that hide in shadows and corners,” Emma clarified, pointing to the far corner of their house where they had encountered mice attempting to steal their precious food. “They were small, yes, but brave at heart.” She laid a fist on her chest and thrust her golden head into the air.
“They had joined together for years to defend themselves against cats and dogs. But never men, for they knew they were small creatures.
“But then a lovely young woman came in secret from the king’s palace,” Emma placed a hand on Adelaide’s shoulder. Adelaide stood, attempting a curtsy worthy of a palace, and nearly toppled into the fire.
“She asked the mouse-king for help,” Emma touched Odo, who bowed to Adelaide, “and he and the other mice agreed to help.”
“Can I be a mouse now?” Adelaide asked. “It sounds like they’re going to have more fun than a woman from the palace.”
“Of course. You’ll need this.” Emma handed her a stick from the pile beside the fire. “As will you, mighty mouse-king.” Odo grinned as he received a stick from her. The acting was his favorite part, especially when fake swords were involved.
“Mice from all over Riandoom came to the mice-king.” Emma waved at Adelaide and Odo, and they stood closer together. “At night, in secret, on the outside of the castle gate, they made a tower by holding each other up so others could climb over them into the castle.”
Adelaide tried to lift Odo, but he was too tall, and they land in a gasping, giggling heap on the floor. Cyr shrieked indignantly from his perch on the bed post.
“Alright, Em, we’re in the castle now,” Adelaide said, grasping her stick like a spear once she and Odo recovered from their tumult.
“Good. You sneak into the king’s chambers, but he heard all that racket you just made, so he’s waiting to cut off your little ears. So you run up his legs and fight with all you have.” She pointed at their father, who grabbed a stick just in time to parry Adelaide’s and Odo’s thrusts.
“Take that, you vermin!” He shouted while Adelaide and Odo darted around him, trying to catch him in a vital spot.
Emma joined in as a king’s guard, protecting their father. Their mother fluttered about, shouting, “Be careful, dears. Watch the fire!” until Adelaide caught her around the middle and declared, “I have your wife, oh mighty king. What say you now? Surrender or death?”
Her father argued that since Adelaide was a mouse, she couldn’t take a human captive. Then Odo tripped over his feet and collapsed onto their father, exclaiming, “I have you now!” and Emma was laughing so hard in her high, hiccupping way, that soon everyone else joined in, laughing so much they couldn’t breathe.
A typical night in the Ferand household until it wasn’t anymore.
Adelaide shuddered. Her father squeezed her hand, which she squeezed back feebly. She walked past the goats, Emma’s absence as heavy as a mountain on her chest. “Not tonight. Sorry, Odo.” She tousled his hair and removed her outer garments.
“But Mother and Father never tell stories that—”
“Odo, leave your sister alone,” her father commanded. “It’s too late for stories, and tomorrow night we won’t get much sleep because of the Festival.”
Odo sighed, and Adelaide agreed. It had never been too late for stories before Emma died.
Adelaide curled up on the bed and pulled her blanket close. Like every night, she attempted to ignore the empty space beside her. She soon fell into nightmares of suffocating smoke and sobbing people.
While Adelaide scattered seed outside for the chickens the next morning, her mother called, “Come help me chop apples for the festival pie, dear.”
The sticky, sweet apple pie was a delicacy—only baked for Festivals—and their family had scraped and saved the flour for a year. Her mother hadn’t been able to trade her goat cheese for apples from Serle and Emeny, a nearby family who tended the orchard, because the family had used the fruit to pay the autumn tax. So Adelaide had purchased the four apples with chicken eggs and the prized meat Cyr sometimes delivered.
The thought of Lord Lambert’s knights galloping up to Serle and Emeny and demanding most, if not all, of their hard-earned crop while their stick-skinny children looked on clenched Adelaide’s heart. Even worse was how King Ganelon hadn’t sent aid last year when their town had been attacked and burned. She gripped the apple-chopping knife tighter.
Odo hovered near her and her mother, sticking his fingers into the dough and snagging pieces of sweetened apples until Galiena shooed him outside to work on the lord’s wheat fields with the other men.
Adelaide was anxious to reach town before the king’s knights to scope out the weapon situation, but her first opportunity didn’t arrive until after the midday meal.
“I’m going to town to help Gunter set up tables for tonight,” she said while sidling outside before her mother could order her to do anything else.
Adelaide squinted in the sudden brightness. Cyr wasn’t on the roof, so she whistled for him while walking. A moment later the hawk soared out of a stand of oaks near the lord’s wheat fields, his russet wings gleaming against the barren trees and grass. He landed on her shoulder, the piece of leather she had sewn beneath her dress protecting her from his talons. Fur stuck to his beak.
“You’re supposed to be hunting for my family, not just filling yourself, silly bird,” Adelaide teased.
The hawk just crunched his mouse, his piercing brown eyes focused straight down the dirt path. Adelaide had been relieved when he survived the first few nights after she brought him—a mere hatchling—home and fixed his wing with Emma’s help. Now, two years later, he no longer resembled the frightened, scraggly chick she’d rescued from the brambles outside her home.
Adelaide stopped next to a dog slumbering in front of a hut. A girl no more than six-winters with hollow cheeks and a ratty dress the color of dust rushed over from the side of her house. She held her hands out. “Food. Please, Ade.”
Those warm brown eyes looked up at her with expectation and hope. Besides Adelaide’s family, she was the reason for the rebellion—she and all those starving like her.
“Here you go, Eleanor.” Odo hadn’t been the only one to swipe apples from the pie. Adelaide placed a few into the girl’s grimy hand. She wished she had meat to give the girl, but Cyr’s last catch had helped pay for the apples. “Make sure you share with your siblings and eat lots at the Festival tonight.”
“I will.” The girl’s grin warmed Adelaide more than a summer day.
On reaching the newly constructed wooden wall surrounding the town of Alesfirth, Cyr ascended and landed on top of one of the beams.
“You’re sure to miss some excitement,” Adelaide told him. He preened as if he was the true lord of the town.
She followed the dirt path up to the thick doors that had been built along with the new wall after the attack from their northern neighbors. The Gyndilians had always lusted after Klinhun’s ports and fertile land, and the two countries had fought on and off for about a century. Alesfirth didn’t possess ports or exceedingly great land, but it had the ill-luck to be the closest town in Klinhun to the northern nation, and thereby, a stepping stone for Gyndilad to the rest of the country.
Adelaide stared up at the gates excluding the peasants, who would still have to rely on themselves if the Gyndilians attacked again. The towering doors now stood open to let peasants and visitors in to trade or purchase goods.
“What do you want, miss?” A heavy-set man in chainmail and black trousers growled from in-between the doors. He was new as well, though she had heard that other towns always positioned guards in front of their gates.
“I live on a farm outside of town. I’m here to help prepare for the Festival.”
The man eyed her simple brown dress and stepped aside.
The town bustled with activity. Merchants sold everything from raw meat buzzing with flies to creamy, nutty sweets, brightly painted wooden toys, and untarnished plows. They shouted at anyone passing near their stalls, beckoning them nearer. Yellow and blue flags—the colors of Klinhun—emblazoned with a dark blue dragon, snapped in the breeze from the tops of the stalls.
Well-dressed visiting nobles, merchants taking a break from yelling at the crowds, and other well-to-do people who made their living in town strolled along gazing at the wares spread out on tables along the village’s edge.
More of the buttery and azure flags hung from the lord’s lengthy cedar hall at the far end of the square, but these were embellished with a black buck—the symbol of Alesfirth. Red-faced men, probably colored so from drinking too much wine, could be seen guffawing through the hall’s open windows.
A long swath of grass, now brown from winter’s breath, stretched in front of the hall. A dozen noblemen clothed in summer greens, river blues, and other vivid hues and fuzzy hats aimed arrows at circular targets spaced at different intervals along the field. To the right, near the stables, two men parried and thrust swords at each other as if the other was a murderous Gyndilian.
Adelaide stared at the gleaming weapons flashing like light on water. They would be a much-needed asset for her rebellion. She would even take some of the bows and arrows the nobles were playing with. But it would be too difficult to grab them without anyone noticing, and besides, she was after other prey.
She strode down the hill to the center of the cobbled square where two men in black cloaks over matching purple and orange tunics entertained the crowds. The taller man juggled five blue balls while the other played a wooden recorder. Several silver klins shone in the recorder case at their feet. Why anyone would give the bright-clad men their coins was a mystery to her. No one could even hear the recorder over the jocund crowds.