ONE-HUNDRED and twelve years the homestead stood, an isolated dwelling east of Mavska village where the pines were sparse and the mountains steep. His great-grandmother had settled the land when it was but a patch of wild turnips. Through hard work and determination, she had raised a respectable farm: a broad field lush with oats and cabbage, a patch for turnips and beets, a sheepfold, a goat pen, a cow for milking, and hens for eggs. On sheer obstinacy, she raised three buildings—a storehouse, a barn, and a home—alone. A hardy woman, his great-grandmother, but if she saw the farm now, she would surely weep.
The farmer stood quietly in the middle of his yard, thinking violent thoughts as an Ochetski war party beheaded the chickens, slaughtered the cow, and cast out their bedrolls wherever they pleased as if they had been invited here. The War Chief had already commandeered his home.
Heathens. Savages. Primitive know-nothings hired by the Yellow Queen to fight in her war. He scowled. Their War Chief, a scarred woman with muscles bigger than his own, pulled her shashka through the neck of his prized goat. His uncle had given him that goat when he came of age.
He glared at her. She, who had no shortage of piercings in her bony face, wiped her blade clean of blood without so much as a glance in his direction.
There would be no consequences for this. There never were. The Upperbirths got to cower inside their walled cities, the lowbirths beneath them safe inside their hovels. But those beyond city walls? Those out in the country, the true heart of the nation once called Kandrisev? Nobody gave a damn whether they lived or died.
He crossed his arms, watching as two warriors appeared from inside the house with a chair in each hand. The Yellow Queen didn’t scare him. This war didn’t scare him. By the gods, he hadn’t even known there was a war until his family left to fight in it last spring. Mother, brother, sisters, all gone. He, the youngest, was left to watch the farm. But, for some jaw-clenching reason, this girl, this wild beast with her sharp sword and strong arms frightened him to the very roots of his soul. It didn’t matter if they were on the same side. It didn’t matter if the homestead laid in the western mountains of Chariv, where the Yellow Queen sat on her throne salivating at the thought of deposing a fifteen-year-old girl in the north. Nor did it matter if the War Chief had no reason to trouble him beyond quartering in his home. Yet here he was, soaked to the bones with fear.
A distant thought crossed his mind. Last he spoke to his mother, she mentioned a caravan of Ochetski traders who stopped at the homestead before heading to Mavska. Apparently, many skilled metal-weavers walked amongst their ranks. A flirtatious caravanner had presented her his dream amulet as a parting gift one morning. The emeralds alone had kept them fat over winter.
The farmer glanced around. Everyone seemed too busy rifling though his belongings to notice him. He shuffled inside his home. If three emeralds had kept a family of six in such good shape, surely whatever these raiders had would see him alone through next summer.
The War Chief had, of course, taken his bed. As he got down on his hands and knees, he decided the charge for such intrusion amounted to one emerald—or whatever other precious things he could find. He peered underneath the frame. Nothing but cobwebs and dust. He felt the mattress seams for metal or string. Empty. Grunting, he upended the mattress.
“Aha,” he said to himself. A leather pouch. He dumped it out on the floor. To his delight, a necklace tumbled out, along with some smooth stones and feathers. He picked it up. It was a simple ring of silver divided like eight wheel spokes with a knotted cord. A few beads were strung through the middle. One looked particularly valuable, what with the streaks of gold…
He stuffed it in his vest pocket and put the other things back in her pouch. Good enough for him. He’d given them food, beds, and more leeway than they deserved. This amulet would pay their debt nicely.
The door handle turned. The farmer jumped. The War Chief stepped over the threshold, dropping her cloak at the door. She began uncoiling her bun. The tail end of her braid nearly fell to her waist. He gulped. If Ochetski heathens were anything like other Candrish ren, long hair was reserved for those with particular status or wealth.
When she noticed him, she startled. Her face darkened. Each thud of her heel on the dirt floor sent a jolt of fear though his chest. She held within striking distance. Before he could move back, she grabbed his chin and pulled his face close to her own. Pain reflected in her violet eyes.
“D-do you need something?” the farmer stuttered.
She roughly released him and shifted away. For a moment, he thought she meant to leave.
“You look like my brother,” she answered.
“And? Which one’s he?”
“Oh.” The farmer’s eyebrows knit together. “Well, that’s unfortunate.”
The War Chief slowly turned to face him. “We lost many great warriors in this fight. Eight. Strong mothers, hardy sons. I failed them. All I can do now is mourn.” She looked him in the eye. “Do northerners mourn their dead?”
He chortled. “You’re not in the north. You’re in Chariv. Property of the Yellow Queen.”
“And it is with her your loyalties lie?”
“Anywhere but with that northern caste whore in Sarona.”
“Tell me. You are a farmer. Is it so?”
“And we are in Chariv?”
“And are farmers in Chariv usually thieves?”
His stomach lurched. “Thieves? What—” He paled. Shaking, he looked down. The necklace cord protruded from his pocket. Trembling, he slipped it out and extended it to her. “I—I was—you left it out on the table, I just—I thought I’d have a peek, but—”
She raised her fist. He yelped, covering his head with his arms, before she rested her hand gently on his shoulder.
“My brother. He was a thief, too. That is why he died.”
She said nothing for quite some time, just stared at him with her tired, violet eyes. The farmer trembled. Scenes of torture and death flashed before him. Did Ochetski savages believe in mercy? Did they have any kindness in their hearts?
Finally, she sighed. “Just…just keep it. Consider it payment for food and beds. I am sure your ghosts haunt you more than mine.” At the door, she hesitated. Just as he expected her to come charging back and throttle him, she shook her head and left.
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