After she’d sorted out her plan, Amia went straight to Jus-tin’s house. She was positive he would help her. He was her brother, after all, and if there was anyone who loved this clan as much as she did, it was him.
She followed him into his house. The three of them had built it about five years ago when he’d been engaged to Eliza-beth Wilk. He’d been pretty smitten, but then she’d gotten sick and all of the medicine they had tried had failed. Amia remembered how hard he’d cried and the three or four months of grieving and wasting away that had followed. When he’d finally gotten better, he’d moved in to the house, saying it brought back good memories.
She sat down at his small kitchen table in the chair they had made together two summers ago after breaking the old one. It’d happened during a training exercise that included jumping onto a horse, shooting an arrow, and then jumping back off of the horse and onto a chair without falling. Neither had managed it, and eventually the horse had trodden over the chair. The new chair legs were a little uneven. Justin joined her at the table in a chair a little more stable than the one she was occupying. The table was littered with arrowheads Justin had apparently been sharpening before she had knocked.
He picked one up and ran his thumb along its smooth edge. His face was calm and body relaxed. Amia was incessantly rocking back and forth in her chair. It made a strangely sooth-ing clacking noise. The plan, which had seemed so perfect when she was alone, refused to be put into words. “I want to dig up dead criers, pull out all of their teeth, and sell them to that man James was telling us about.” She ran over the words in her head. If James’ story was true, this was a simple and fast way to make money. Taxes were due in less than a month. It was logical enough. But the words wouldn’t come out.
“You trying to make that leg shorter than it already is?” Justin asked her, looking at her over one of the dull arrow-heads.
“Maybe,” she retorted. She took a deep breath. “Do you remember that story James told us last time he was here?”
Justin cocked his head and eyed her suspiciously. “Which story? The man’s a never-ending parade of stories.”
Amia ignored the sarcasm in his tone. “The one about the man who buys crier’s teeth.”
Justin stared at the arrowheads silently for a moment. “Yes. I remember the story James told about the man who buys cri-er’s teeth in Athens. You know half of what that man says can’t be true, right?”
“Why do you think it’s not true? Why would he lie about something like that?”
“To make conversation. You know how James is. Never one to stop a story at the end of the truth.”
“Sure,” Amia grabbed one of the arrowheads and contem-plated its keen edge, “but at least some of that story is prob-ably true.”
“Yeah, but which part? That there was a man in Athens? That he bought crier teeth? That he paid two pieces of silver for five of something?”
“What if the money part was true? What if we could get two silver pieces for five crier teeth? We’ve got hundreds of them over in the dump area. What if we could sell those? We’d have enough money to pay taxes.”
“And what if you get cut while handling those nasty things? What if you get killed on your way there? What if the man kills you and keeps the teeth?” He looked her dead in the eyes. “You try telling Dad about this?”
She looked down at her lap and shook her head. She felt her cheeks reddening. They both knew Thomas would be furi-ous.
Justin’s expression softened. “Look, Sis. You know I un-derstand, but I refuse. We’ll find another way to pay the tax-es. Leave dead criers where they belong… in the ground.”
Clack, clack, clack. Amia rocked back and forth in the chair trying to think of a way to make Justin understand. There was no way she wasn’t going to do this.
“Listen, Justin, I just, I can’t lose Armaria. Our family, our clan. I would rather give my life protecting them than live without them.” She paused, taking a long shaky breath, and continued, “You don’t live with us anymore. You don’t hear the stuff Dad’s friends say. But I’ve been listening to it for years now. The government collects taxes in silver and gold… and children. I almost lost those kids the other day,” the clacking intensified.
“Children?” Justin asked as his head jerked back.
“That’s what that man from over in the west said. Whole clan was destroyed and their kids were hauled off.”
“Mia, come on. You know how clan people are. Full of gos-sip and superstition. One of the fellows out in Daybile tried to convince me that the tax men eat the flesh of men a few years back.”
“It wasn’t just that one story, Tintin. You know they take people to the mines. The tax men are always kind enough to remind us when they come through. Why not children?”
“Because it’s crazy talk. Men in the mines makes sense. Just paying off what you owe. But what would the govern-ment want with kids?”
Amia’s forehead creased and her eyebrows slowly lowered until they forced her eyes closed. The clacking stopped ab-ruptly.
She slammed her hand on the table. “I don’t know, and I don’t care, dammit! Because it’s not going to happen. All of us are going to stay here, and we’re all going to be happy, have enough to eat, and Armaria is not going to be swallowed up by the Badlands.”
She stood so forcefully, the chair flipped backwards and clattered to the floor. “You help me or I’ll do it myself.” Her eyes were like ice, resolute and determined, even as tears swelled up and ran down her cheeks. After a moment she added, “But I was hoping you’d help me.”
Justin stood with a soft grunt and walked slowly over to the chair, setting it up right. He squeezed Amia’s arm. “Hey, we’re not getting swallowed by the Badlands. A few beetles and some bad soil, that’s nothing to get upset about. Imagine Captain Risk of the Crier Patrol crying like a baby about some little bugs.” He patted her back. “We can keep Armaria safe without the help of some nasty crier corpses.”
The anger in her eyes slowly faded, and she sunk back into the chair. Justin pulled his chair over and sat down next to her with a pained grunt. “Did I ever tell you about the first day I met you?” he asked. She nodded, unwilling to make eye con-tact.
He paused for a moment and continued, “I don’t remem-ber much, but I remember the day my mom died. I was sit-ting by her bedside, sobbing. This big, soft-spoken man came over and sat with me. Didn’t say much, just held my hand while I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, he asked me if I could ride a horse because I was going to go with him to your clan. He said that I could help him around his house, and he’d make sure I had food and everything I needed.” Jus-tin closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the corners were just a little wet.
“I didn’t really understand he meant that he was adopting me. I don’t think he ever said that. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing, but you know how Dad is. When we got here Dad took me to his house and told me it’d be my house now.
“We went inside and Mrs. Parse was here with this adora-ble three-year-old girl. Dad said, ‘This is my daughter, Amia. She doesn’t really like strangers, but just wait, I’m sure you two will get along great.’ Then you ran up and kicked me right in the shin. Honest to Governor.” He chuckled softly at the memory.
“But after a few days you were following me everywhere. You started calling me ‘Tintin’ within a month, and anytime you were angry or scared, you’d crawl up in my lap. I never told you this, but you were the thing that really saved me, Mia.
“Dad used to tell me I was the first person who ever made you laugh. It felt like such a big responsibility. Whenever I thought about my family, or whenever I felt sad or wanted to just give up, I would just remember that you were such a mean, horrible little girl, and I was the only person who was going to be able to help you not be so awful.” He laughed softly and took her hands in his.
Amia sniffled wetly.
“What I really want to say to you is, I’m not sure what I am in the grand scheme of things, but I do know that I’m your brother. I don’t know how this is all going to work itself out, but I do know that the Dome itself would have to fall down on us before I would let anything hurt you, Dad, or Armaria. Let’s find another way to get the taxes.”
Amia nodded, watching as her tears splattered into dark splotches on the soft green of her pants.
“Come on,” Justin said. He pulled her up and led her to his bed. She crawled under the covers and fell asleep for a few hours. Justin pulled out a book and sat in the kitchen reading.
As the evening fell, he shook her awake, and the two of them made their way to the Risk home. Thomas was already home cooking dinner. He glanced at Amia, frowned slightly, and then turned back to the stew he was cooking.
“Mr. Bixley managed to bring down a deer this afternoon. Brought around some of the meat,” he said, not looking up from the stew.
Amia wondered if the meat was specifically for her. She felt a twinge of guilt. Like Dad doesn’t have enough problems al-ready. Her moping around about a crier attack was just an-other burden for him.
“Smells good,” she said doing her best to sound cheerful.
“Been a while since anyone found deer out in the woods,” Justin said, stepping over to look in the pot.
“Maybe fortune is finally on our side,” Thomas said. His voice was strained. Amia tried to ignore it. Maybe she was just on edge.
“Have to get lucky sometime, right?” Justin laughed and pulled some bowls out of the cupboard next to his father’s head.
Amia willed herself to be drawn into the comfortable chat-ting of her brother and father. After Thomas finished prepar-ing the stew, and they all ate their fill, Justin headed home. He glanced once at Amia who tried to smile. The attempt at a smile seemed to make him more, rather than less, concerned. He sighed and walked over and gave her a quick side hug.
Alone with Thomas, Amia began running through her evening chores, sweeping, wiping, and scrubbing all of the nooks and crannies of their house. Her father was dealing with the plates and bowls from dinner. For a while they were silent, save for the clinking of dishes and the scratching of the straw broom on the ground.
“You feeling a little better, Amia?” her father asked after a while.
“Yes. I guess I’ll go back on patrol tomorrow night.” She turned her back to him as she swept, hoping he couldn’t tell she was lying.
“That’s good,” Thomas said. He’d always struggled to re-ally understand her feelings. Of course, so had she. They just seemed to jump up at her with no warning. There was more silence. She began scrubbing the counters with a rag.
“Mrs. Parse wants you to come over tomorrow morning. Said your hair was looking pretty unkempt.” Thomas laughed, and Amia couldn’t help but laugh with him. Mrs. Parse was always worried about her hair.
“She said she’ll braid it for you. Probably best if you let her. Be sad if a crier got the best of you because your hair was too out of control.” Her father might not understand her moods, but he knew how to pull her out of a funk.
“You never know, my hair might be the thing that scares a crier away.” She snorted as she straightened the chairs at the table.
“I think she just wanted to say thank you for Molly-” Thomas stopped short.
Amia gave him the most reassuring smile she could mus-ter. “I’m fine, Dad. I’ve had a couple of days to process, and I feel okay. It was just a big shock, them attacking mid-afternoon like that with the kids.”
“I know you’re okay.” Thomas patted her on the back. “Just make sure you go see Mrs. Parse tomorrow. I can only handle her nagging about your appearance for so long.”
Mr. Parse was outside trying to convince Maximus, one of the clan’s big field horses, to let himself be harnessed. “This dadblasted horse refuses to do anything except eat,” he grumbled as she walked up. She laughed.
“Morning Mr. Parse. I’d offer to help, but you know Max and I don’t get along so well,” she said. Max was a pretty bad horse in general. Huge, with a beautiful, shining coat, they’d all had such high expectations of him. Then he’d bucked and stalled when they rode him and bit at people when they tried to harness him. Amia generally avoided the massive beast when she could manage to; patience not really being her strong suit. She’d had flat out yelling fights with the dumb brute several times.
“Dalia and Molly are inside. Go on in.” Amia nodded and walked through the open door of the Parse’s home and bakery. The whole house always smelled like grain and bread. Not that Armaria had much luck with either these days. Mrs. Parse and Molly were at the long counter that made up much of their kitchen, rolling dough out. When Amia walked through the door, Molly looked up and smiled brightly. “Miss Amia!” she exclaimed.
“Hi, Mrs. Parse. Hi, Molly.” Amia walked over to where they were.
“Amia, it’s nice to see you.” Mrs. Parse motioned to a little table next to the counter. “We’ll be done in a minute. Why don’t you have some bread while you wait.”
Never having been one to turn down food, Amia plopped down in a chair and grabbed a piece of bread. Mrs. Parse’s bread had been a staple of her childhood. Every bite of nutty sweetness brought back memories. She looked around the co-zy, flour dusted home she’d spent much of her childhood in. They weren’t starving. Sure, the soil looked bad, but she’d find a way to fix it. Armaria was going to be fine. She felt the fears of the past three days slowly melt away.
Mrs. Parse finished the bread and turned her attention to Amia’s hair. “Governor save me, I don’t understand how you can walk around with your hair like that, Amia.”
Amia laughed sheepishly. “Seems pretty easy, honestly.”
Mrs. Parse sighed. It had been this way since she was a lit-tle girl. Ever since her mother had died, Mrs. Parse had seen to it that Amia was basically clean and well groomed. Then, once Amia had turned fifteen, Mrs. Parse had started talking about needing her to look her best in case ‘eligible men’ hap-pened to wander into Armaria. It was a bit of a joke at the Risk house.
For one thing, no man in the neighboring land would have considered Amia as a potential bride. Her dangerous temper, speed, and skill with a sword had assured that. For another, Amia had been less than taken with the men in her vicinity. Thomas had refused to force the issue, simply stating that Stephanie had also been a late bloomer. Then Amia had rolled into her twenties, and now, at twenty-three, she was quickly getting too old to consider marrying.
But that didn’t deter Mrs. Parse. For the next two hours, she cut a good six inches off of the bottom of Amia’s hair and put it into row upon row of tight, neat braids. Molly sat watching for a while until Ollie wandered over from next door.
“Hey, Ollie! You look a lot better!” Amia said. He gave her a genuine smile. The dark rings had faded from under his eyes.
“Hi, Miss Amia,” he said shyly, looking down at the ground. Justin was always joking about how Ollie was prob-ably shy with his own reflection in the mirror. He greeted Mol-ly excitedly, and the two kids slipped down behind the coun-ter. A few minutes later, Amia could hear the sound of them giggling and chatting. She smiled.
Hair finally deemed acceptable by Mrs. Parse, Amia grabbed another piece of bread and with a goodbye and thanks, she walked back out into Town Square. Armaria dur-ing mid-morning was filled with a dozen different sounds. The blacksmith’s hammer rhythmically struck metal. Max was finally attached to the mill wheel, and Mr. Parse was shouting at him to move. Out in the fields she could see a few of the older children busy between the rows of wheat. Things would get better. They always did.
In the late afternoon, she strolled up to the stables. The other two members of the crier patrol were already there, get-ting their horses ready. Amia nodded to them in greeting and walked over to grab the reins of Sampson. No one exactly owned horses in Armaria, but for all intents and purposes, Sampson was her horse. He whinnied, ever happy to see her. She stroked his nose. “Ready to go, boy?”
She slung a quiver of arrows over her shoulder and hooked her bow on the side of Sampson’s saddle. With a grunt, she pulled herself up onto his back. Sampson snorted, and she nudged him into a fast trot. As they neared the forest, she felt the same slightly anxious excitement that she felt every time she entered these woods.
There might be nothing. Often times, they patrolled for a few hours, found nothing, and headed back quickly. Some-times, they found bloody carcasses of animals that criers had attacked. That required hours of scouting. Once a crier was in the vicinity, it would definitely sense the people living there, and it was only a matter of time before it broke into a house and killed the residents. It had happened three times that Amia could remember. Four if you counted her mother.
The two men headed in the opposite direction of her. The three of them would have to make a full sweep of the woods before night fell. Criers were typically inactive in the daylight, which meant that the best time to search for them was a few hours before dusk, when they were rousing but still sluggish from the sunlight.
As she and Sampson entered the forest, Amia began check-ing for any suspicious activities. But there were none. She could hear a bird singing its evening greeting somewhere to her right. Out in front of her, she heard what she assumed was a rabbit scrambling through the brush. One of the many feral cats living in the woods howled at something up in a tree.
She continued her search for a little over an hour before she met up with Thaddeus, one of the other members of the pa-trol. They exchanged nods. “Seems like a pretty quiet night, huh, Thad?”
“Be glad if it was. This week had enough excitement for me already.”
She bobbed her head in agreement. Thad frowned and glanced to their right. “You hear that?” he asked. She turned her head and listened. What was that? Hoofbeats? It quickly grew into a crashing and pounding. Someone was riding a horse at a breakneck pace through the forest. She and Thad looked at each other.
“Let’s go,” she whispered sharply. They kicked their horses into a gallop and raced through the trees toward the sound. Why hadn’t the rider taken the path in? Any of the surround-ing clans would have known where it was. More importantly, why come this late? Almost no one rode in to Armaria past mid-afternoon, not with all these criers out here.
Five minutes later, they came upon a path of broken branches and trampled earth. She and Thad followed it. It led straight to town. As they approached town, they could hear shouting. Amia tried to make out what was happening through the trees. There seemed to be some sort of confusion right in front of City Hall. The horse rider they’d heard a few minutes ago was still astride his horse in the middle of Town Square. Several people had gathered around him. Someone seemed to be trying to help him dismount. The man slumped from the horse and fell heavily to the ground. Now someone was helping him to his feet. The stranger staggered to his feet with a bystander’s help. He was still shouting.
She and Thad cleared the trees. She squinted at the man. The whole right side of his shirt seemed to be blackened. One of his arms seemed too short. “Is that blood?”
Thad muttered something she couldn’t hear over the man’s screaming. “They killed them all! All dead!”
Before she could get closer, Justin was running up to her. “Who is he?” She hopped down off of Sampson.
“No idea. Just showed up a few minutes ago.” They hur-ried over to the growing mass of Armarians.
“They killed them all! Little girls! Witches! The children raised by foxes! The stories are true!”
Doctor Winters came running out of the hospital with Nurse Freesly. They sat the man on the ground and tried to calm him. He continued howling hysterically. Half of his left arm was definitely missing.
“We were only three silver pieces short. Great sky. Three silver pieces.” The man’s voice was a hysterical sob.
Justin glanced over at Amia. He motioned with his head for her to follow him. As they started to move away from the crowd, she heard her father’s voice, “David? Is that you?”
Justin took in a sharp breath. “That’s David Plainer? He’s from Greenview. That’s no more than an hour’s ride away.”
Over the din and chaotic buzzing in her ears, Amia heard Justin say, “Okay, Sis, I think we’re going to have to do things your way.”