Ruthanna set the candle on the windowsill.
A cool spring breeze blew in, tickling her face. Outside, in the darkness of the night, the melting snow gleamed a warm orange under the candle’s flickering glow.
“Papa,” she asked, “Why do we have to put candles out every night?”
“Because the King will smoke us out of our home if we don’t.”
“Garet! Watch your words.”
Her mother set down the blouse she was patching for the third time now, since Ruthanna grew into it, “It’s because the Lady leaves the sky at night, so we light candles to protect us from the dark,” she said softly, gently, smiling at her daughter.
Ruthanna frowned, “If the night’s so dangerous, why does she leave us then?”
Papa chuckled dryly, “Because, it’s not that darkness she defends them from.”
“The darkness they fear is us.”
“Where are you from?”
“No stuttering. Again. Where are you from?”
“Better now, but say it with more surety. Where are you from?”
“Good,” Papa slid the knife down the deer’s stomach. Blood spilled out over the grass, “Now, you avoid them, but if they ever ask you where you’re from, just tell them that. You’re a traveler, hailing from a tiny village north of the capital.”
Ruthanna nodded sternly. It was her seventeenth birthday. She spent it scooping up innards.
“Where should I bury them this time?”
“By the blackberry thicket. We haven’t dug around there in a while. But wait,” Papa was the only person Ruthanna knew who could carve up a deer from head to toe and hardly land a splatter of blood on his hand. Then again, she didn’t know very many people.
Papa, Mama, and Petyr, her little brother. They were her entire world, and she was happy with that.
She wasn’t sure why Papa was bothering with all his “how to blend in” speeches. He repeated them to her, bits at a time, between lessons on tracking elk, or warding off bears, although together, they were strong enough to take one on. They’d done it once, when they stumbled across a den while chasing a herd of deer. What did they have to fear of a few measly villagers?
Best to avoid trouble if you can, Papa always said.
“Here,” he produced a small wooden box. It was so roughly finished, Ruthanna could see the splinters she’d get from rubbing it the wrong way.
“I can’t take it now,” she said, holding up her dripping hands. She’d never grown used to the heavy stench of blood. It was thick and warm, and nauseating. She wished he’d hurry up, so she could bury the entrails, and wash it off.
“Right, sorry about that,” She thought he’d tell her to come back later for them, but he didn’t. He opened the tiny box himself.
Inside was a beautiful knife. Small, sleek and lithe. It had a straight, tapered blade that glinted under the sun. Its handle was smooth wood, intricately carved vines spiraling up the hilt, complete with neat thorns, a single budding rose on the verge of bloom at the guard.
“T-that’s, for me?”
“Of course it is,” Papa grinned at her fondly, flipping the knife expertly between his hands. It tapped rhythmically against his ring. “The swordsmith left out the thorns on the rose,” he said, “I asked him to add them in.”
Ruthanna returned his smile.
“Here,” Papa held the blade out to her, “It’s yours.”
“I can’t take it now—”
“Of course you can. It’s a knife, it’s bound to get blood on it sooner or later.”
Ruthanna gingerly took the blade in her hand. The crimson seeped down her skin into the vines along its grip, dripping along slowly, the budding rose blooming red.
“Wait, Ruthanna!” Petyr came running out of the house, Mama at his heels, “Please, can I go with you?” He bent over, panting. He coughed, “I want to see if I can find those crickets again—they chirped in the day!”
“No, Petyr,” Mama and Ruthanna said at the same time.
Mama reached him first and looped her shawl around his shoulders, “It’s still so cold out,” she said, “And your cough hasn’t cleared yet. Maybe some other time, alright? I’ll take you to my flower meadow, where the tansies grow.”
“You always say that, Mama, but we haven’t actually been there in moons. And my cough’ll never clear up. Can I please go with Ruthanna, now?”
Mama shook her head sternly, but her eyes were soft as she leaned down to cup his face in her hands, “I promise it this time, Petyr. Spring is in the air. We’ll be able to go once the snow melts. You didn’t think flowers grew in the snow, did you?”
“No, of course not, Mama!” Petyr cried indignantly. Then he slumped, sighing in resignation.
As Mama headed back, Ruthanna knelt and whispered to her little brother conspiringly: “I’ll see if those crickets are out, okay? I’ll catch a few for you to study at home. Don’t lose sight of them though! Mama would throw a fit if she caught them munching away at her herbs.”
They shared a giggle. Ruthanna ruffled his brown hair, dense and springy like hers.
She buried the cooling heap of innards, only barely resisting the urge to gag the whole while, and hunted down Petyr’s crickets. They put up a real fight, and Ruthanna found herself leaping and scrabbling under the blackberry thorns for the better part of an hour, before she finally headed back across the river, the crickets trapped in her fist.
As her nose cleared, the scent of smoke wafted along the breeze.
Is Mama cooking something? She hoped it would good. That was a lot of smoke if she could smell it from here.
Ruthanna made her way out of the forest and broke into a run.
She could see home from here, and something was very wrong.