Mother wrapped the last of the cheese and bread in a ragged cloth, and then dropped it into Father’s rucksack while he and Finnel, the oldest, sharpened the axes one last time. She moved as if in a dream, not speaking as she parted with the last of the household food. The bruise on her cheek was reminder of what would happen if she protested again.
“You can go to the temple and ask for some scraps for the children,” Father said, his voice strangely tender. “The boy and I will need the food, or we won’t have the strength to get the logs. Then we will all starve, as you keep making more mouths to feed.” He patted her swelling stomach.
“Yes, I know,” Mother replied, her voice almost a whisper. The little brother who had not yet reached his naming day toddled over to her on unstable legs. She pulled him up, and he greedily reached for her breast and the little milk they still made.
Harlan held little Geislett on his lap to keep her from interfering with the men as prepared to leave for a week-long expedition into the dark woods. While Mother bore the brunt of Father’s anger, Finnel shared his displeasure on all his younger siblings. Geislett was delicate, and he would choose to hit her with the handle of that long ax, she would be sorely injured. Father was in a dark mood this morning, and while he was taking all the food they had, Harlan would be grateful when he left and took the cruel Finnel with him.
After they left, she dropped down to the floor, still holding the baby. He fussed but soon settled into sleep in her arms. Geislett jumped up and ran to her side, leaning her head against her mother’s shoulder and stroking her hair.
“I’m hungry!” she said in her child’s voice.
“I know, my love. I am, too,” Mother said, her voice cracking as if to sob. No tears, though. Harlan had never seen her actually cry. Maybe there were only so many tears a person could cry before they were used up.
“I will sell that relic I found, Mother, and then I will buy meat pies for all of us!” Harlan said. “Here, I sold some little trinkets yesterday, it should be enough to buy at least a loaf of last week’s bread from the baker.” He handed her three copper coins he had hidden in his pocket.
“I don’t know what I would do without you, boy. You are the only flickering light in the darkness of my life,” she said, touching his cheek as he hugged her. “Be careful, though. The mayor was asking about you yesterday.”
“He saw what I had, and demanded I give it to him or he would tell the priest I am a thief. I didn’t steal it!” Harlan protested.
“If he tells the Temple you are a thief, accept it. If they discover you are a mage…,” she said in a warning tone.
“Nobody knows. I don’t do it in the village. I wait until I go into the crypts. No one can see me there,” he assured her. “Maybe I should go find something else, so the mayor can have that other stupid relic. It’s just a weird snake thing, anyways.”
“Be careful, my son. We need you,” she said to him, still sitting on the floor cuddling his little brother and Geislett.
He blinked his eyes, holding back tears as he gathered his waterskin, his pouch holding the lamp and candle, and a cloak. He turned back to look at the once, just as he was about to leave, and she raised one hand to wave goodbye.
There was no way for him to know that would be the last time he would see the home of his first decade of life.
In the village marketplace he used the one copper coin he had kept to buy a roll and hunk of cheese covered in mold. He nibbled on the bread but saved most of it for later in the day. He would have lots of work to do, climbing in the old crypts and catacombs of the big mountain.
He didn’t see the mayor watching him as he climbed the trail to those forbidden tombs.
(If you want to read what happens to Harlan next, check out the first episode of the serial: Betrayer Awakened, Season 1 Episode 1″Escape”.)
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“Harlan” copyright © 2018 by Richelle Sepulveda