Amid the Green Corn: Part Nine
by Cooper Young
“Come look at this.”
“In a minute.”
“No, now,” her father called. “What could you possibly be doing that’s…”
“Not important.” He swept into the yurt. “Put down the knives and find your mother and any older siblings you can catch.”
“But I’ll need…” He snatched the knife from her hands and threw it on the pile. “Don’t blunt them! I spent all morning…”
He seized her by the shoulders. “Tessie, listen to me. You. Are. Not. Going.”
“See, you’ve said that, but…”
“But that was an argument. That was an argument we had which you would like to continue. This is not an argument.” He held up a wrinkled slip of paper.
Sweeter Spring took it, looking from it to the quiet panic in his eyes. “It’s blank.”
“Hold it to the candle.”
She did. When nothing happened she brought it closer. A single dark, singed spot appeared, and she took it away. “There’s nothing. Why is there nothing?”
“Because that’s not my letter. The boys assumed it was, but it’s a plain sheet of paper. Someone has my letter, and it’s not your uncle Ryan.”
She swallowed hard, afraid. “You said ‘going’. You didn’t say ‘fighting’, you said ‘going’.”
“I did. I also said you won’t be doing it. Are we clear?”
“I’d keep your sisters home if I could. I’d keep….” He stopped, shut his eyes as though to collect himself, and gently took the paper from her shaking hand. “I’d do a lot of things, if I had the option. That’s not, however, the way we’re permitted to live.”
The Men of March moved early, and they moved fast. By late afternoon, as the chilly sun of early October began to sharpen into spears of blinding gold, Saturn High had begun to worry. If they continued tomorrow as they had today, he’d have to kill his cousin before that second nightfall.
It told him much that Fire in the Field had picked her to be the one to die. He was trying to hurt his father by driving a wedge between the two brothers–that much had been clear from the moment he approached him–which meant that of Triumph’s nine living children only her seven daughters would serve. Of those the eldest, Star Between the Peaks, was simply the easiest to pick out of a crowd. Somewhere between her mother’s black hair and her father’s white-blond she’d found the blaze of an autumn bonfire, and like Triumph had done in her own youth she made a habit of letting her hair fall free to her hips. It was a dangerous practice, Saturn reflected as they rode, and he was sure that she knew it, but he doubted she’d ever seen it as anything more than a potential handhold.
Now, it was Fire in the Field’s insurance against mistakes. And that was all. He might know some secrets, but he didn’t know that, Saturn assured himself. He couldn’t know that.
The rode in silence, Fire at the front of the party and Saturn at the rear, speaking neither to one another nor to the chattering flock of warriors between them. Saturn watched his leader, though, watched the speed with which he led them over the foothills, the nervousness, the odd twist to his scarred face that Saturn couldn’t help suspect was a smile. He wants her to die. He’s excited. He’s hurrying them on because he wants to watch me put a bullet in a pretty girl’s head.
Is she still as pretty as she’s always been?
Does that red, red hair still smell of dandelions and wood smoke?
Will it look any less pretty caked in blood?
He shook it off. He had been young. She had been younger. It was mad then and mad now–his first affair, her first love–even after the intervening years. It had been wrong in every conceivable way. Maybe it would be better to make an end of it–a real end, not the slow drifting that had finally separated them. Better to kill his greatest sin.
She’ll be what? Nineteen now? he thought, and for an instant saw her lying under the green canopy of the trees, a sprig of woodbine tangled in her hair.
“Worried?” Saturn jumped and turned to see his father next to him.
“Afraid of dying?”
“No.” He could see the edge of the forest now, rising over the last low hills at the base of the mountains. Fire in the Field signalled for quiet.
“Afraid of killing?” asked Mercury Rising, risking one last whisper before they were banned from speaking for the night. There would be no fires. They were too close now.
“I’ve done it before.”
Before he could answer the company ground to a halt. On the top of the last ridge before the forest stood a horse and rider–a horse too large and a rider too calm for either to belong to any clan but the Rilikan. “Scout,” he remarked to his father as his heart began to race.
“No. No, that’s no scout,” Mercury whispered back breathlessly. Saturn shivered. He’d never been certain before that he’d ever seen her, but from the old man’s tone he knew who she must be. He should have known without it. Her daughter had shared her beauty, but no living human could even imitate the way she held her head. “She’s angry. We’re going to die.”
Fire in the Field shouted something to her, but Saturn didn’t catch what. He’d only half begun to go over his plan again mentally when it became clear that Triumph Justly Warring wasn’t listening either; she threw back her head and whistled–rapid and warbling, like a bird in panic. As the ridge bloomed with Rilikan warriors he nodded, answering his father. “Yes, we are.”