An excerpt from Chapter 5, Root, Book 1 of the Peacebringer Trilogy
FIRST DRAFT of a partial rewrite – to be revised and copyedited
Skopia tossed the mash in abrupt jerks. The chickens scrabbled for it, charging each other for the same bits of corn like there wasn’t plenty for them all to choke on. When Gunny pushed Mina aside a third time, Skopia booted the big white hen away. Gently, though she hankered to kick the devil out of something.
She shoved the cup back in the feed bin and took the egg basket off the hook. She had to leave the shelter of the wattle lean-to to get to the coop’s opening. If she had to build it again, she might do it differently. She hadn’t spent a lot of time planning–not that she could have thought straight so soon afterward–because she’d needed the steady sawing and chiseling and twining of withes to keep her hands busy.
And Ike brought one of them to the compound.
She collected the eggs. One from Gunny’s nest, one from Daisy’s, one from… She felt under the straw. There it was, back in the corner. That Banty always tried to hide her eggs. Skopia gathered the rest. An even half dozen; those brainless hens had laid like all was right in the world.
She let herself out of the chicken run, closing the gate and smacking the wooden latch home with a satisfying thunk.
Sitting on her back steps, she changed from her boots to sandals. The sun climbed past the feather trees that separated her cabin from Doc Joyce’s, but no ball of fire was going to wring a welcome out of her that day. She grabbed the basket of eggs and set off.
She looped around to Miz Ines’s house on the way. Not even eggs, Mackin had told her the night before.
“Hello!” She rapped on the screen door of the back porch.
Lugene held the door open. “Morning, Skopia. Come on in.”
She thrust the basket in Lugene’s free hand. “These are for you. Give your grandma my respects.”
“You want to come in and–”
“Not today.” She backed down the steps and strode off.
For a wonder, on the way to Mackin’s she didn’t meet anyone in the lane. When she got there and let herself in the back door, the kitchen was empty and untidy. The battered wooden table was spread with crumbs and a spoon sticky with jam, the chairs turned every way but upside down, the pantry door left open a crack. She checked the sink–crusty dishes and a pot of burnt oatmeal.
Mareya’s doing, she’d bet a marble. That girl had an appetite that wouldn’t quit, come hell or high water.
She lit the single burner and set the kettle to boil some water for tea.
Mareya had to clean up her mess. Skopia wasn’t going to let any of those– She wasn’t going to change what she did for anyone.
She went into the hall and called up the stairs. “Mareya!”
An answer came from down the hall. “We’re in here, Auntie Sko! In the parlor!”
“Mareya!” she called again, sharply.
Mareya tumbled out of the parlor. Alone, thanks be. “Yes, Auntie?”
That child. Still in her pajamas, jam on her chin, and that big hank of hair she’d chopped short for bangs pulled out of her braids and whipping all around.
“You eat yet?”
“We just had–” Mareya’s eyes turned to the kitchen door, and guilt as bold as that jam showed on her face. “We’ll clean it up, I promise.” Mareya seized her hand. “You have to come meet Jazlin.”
She let Mareya tug her into the parlor. No sense putting it off.
Domita slid off the windowsill. “Auntie! She’s doing it again!”
Mareya dropped her hand and bounded over to the window. “What…” The words faded to a buzz.
She couldn’t have moved if sweet Jesus called her by name. So that’s what their young looked like.
Thin as a stickbug, sharp angles at cheek and chin and shoulders. Muscles quivering like a plucked string, plain as day even through the borrowed clothes. Two soot-black eyes darted looks everywhere around the room, wild like a cat fixing to birth and searching for a den. Its skin was leaf green, green as grass, the green of corn stalks. Unnatural green. Freak green.
And Mareya was touching it, pulling it away from the window and Domita, and toward her and the door, eyes frantic, begging, “Something’s wrong, Auntie…”
The front door banged and Akilah whisked into the room. “I think her folks just rode–” She saw it and stopped dead.
“Miz Akilah!” Mareya hugged–hugged!–it to her. “You can’t let them take her,” she whispered.
For a long heartbeat Akilah stared at them, thought blanking her face, then she nodded. “You girls get upstairs and stay there till I call you.” She allowed Mareya to hustle that thing out of the parlor.
A touch on her shoulder. “Skopia,” Akilah said. “When the war ended that poor child wasn’t even alive.”
She tore her gaze from the empty doorway. “Neither was Dom.”
Blessed silence; Akilah looked elsewhere.
A thumping sounded at the front door.
Akilah stirred. “I better get it. Mackin asked me to take care of the girl.”
“I know.” He’d stopped by and told her that. Like she couldn’t be trusted to do what was right. Like she hadn’t helped him bring up Mareya and Domita as if they were her own.
She followed Akilah to the hall, staying well back while Akilah opened the door.
Two verdes stood there.
They dared to come to the compound? To bang on the door like they owned it after they– A tremor shook her from head to heel. Both were old enough, either of them could have been the one that killed Dom. She set her jaw and folded her arms tight against her breasts, and took bleak pleasure in Akilah’s instant of recoil. Even from the other end of the hall she could see the verdes’ outlandish tattoos. Some murky tan mishmash covered the male’s sickly white face, while two blood-red slashes ran across the length of the female’s.
Akilah recovered and invited them in. The female answered, her words near incomprehensible under that thick verde accent. They followed Akilah into the parlor.
She paced the hall. Sure enough, Akilah came back out, too polite not to offer refreshments, even to those killers.
“I’ll fetch a tray,” Skopia said. “You keep an eye on them.”
In the kitchen the teakettle shrieked at her. She turned off the flame and got a pitcher of sugar water from the cellar. She wasn’t wasting any tea on them.
Sugar water, glasses, napkins… She added the teakettle, just because, and took the tray into the parlor.
The verdes sat on the company sofa in the corner, and Akilah perched on one of the tall overstuffed chairs opposite the door. Skopia set the tray on the sideboard, where she could keep an eye on them all.
The verde female showed her teeth, her hard watchful gaze fixed on Akilah. “We hunt the child,” she said. “Female child.” She held her hand a few feet off the ground, just about the height of that young verde.
Skopia stared. The female wore a belt over her untucked shirt, and from it hung a vicious long dagger in a metal sheath.
The male was armed, too.
No Settlers carried weapons like that.
Akilah made a sympathetic noise. “You’ve lost a little girl? Your daughter?”
“Yes, yes,” the female said. “You it find?”
“You must be worried sick. Where did you lose her?”
“Good morning, Akilah.” Bernice didn’t see the verdes till she was almost on top of them. She blenched and headed back out the door.
“Morning, Auntie!” Domita crawled from hiding behind the cushioned chair next to Akilah’s.
Bernice halted. “Domita.” She scuttled across the room and sank onto the chair. She pulled Domita on her lap and shielded her with her arms.
The male spoke impatiently. “The child here?”
Akilah said to Bernice, “These folks are looking for a little girl. Since Mackin’s not here I’ll have to help them as best I can.”
“Of course I would never go against Mackin’s wishes.” Inclining her head at the verdes without actually looking at them, Bernice forced a brittle smile and pulled Domita closer.
So Bernice got the same sermon she did. Skopia poured a glass of sugar water, the pitcher bumping against the glass with a fierce clank that made Bernice wince.
The verde female smacked her hands together. “We hunt the child. Important.”
“How old is your daughter?” Akilah asked.
The female hesitated and threw an irritated look at the male. “Six. The child grow six ring.”
Skopia thrust tall glasses at the verdes. The male watched Akilah and Bernice take swallows before sipping his own drink.
“How long has she been missing?”
The female sniffed her drink and set it down on the side table. “We four day lose the child. Now it find.”
“What does she look like?”
“The child nolfetuk.” The female gazed at Akilah with dislike. “What look you think?”
“What look no important!” The male banged his glass down. “The child here, you tell!”
“Why are you asking about her here?” Akilah asked, her voice even. “There aren’t any verdes living in the Territories.”
Instantly the female was standing, hands poised at her waist. Sucking his breath in with a hiss, the male snapped to his feet beside her. Like a pair of reynards after a hen, they watched Akilah.
Skopia wound a napkin around the hot teakettle and eased the lid off.
“The Lord is…” Bernice murmured, bowing her head.
Domita wiggled out of Bernice’s grasp. “What about–”
“Girl!” Skopia spared Domita a glance that warned obey or else. “Get over here.” She gripped the teakettle in both hands.
“You say nolfetu.” The female pronounced each syllable as if she were spitting iron.
Akilah clasped her hands together around her glass, too late to hide their shaking from Skopia, and lifted her chin. “I apologize. I didn’t know that word was an insult, and I won’t use it again.” She stood. “Your daughter isn’t here. If she does show up, how can we reach you?”
The female’s mouth curved in what some people might have called a smile, and she said something in Nolfet. The male frowned at her and said a few sharp words. He looked at Akilah. “We go.”
Teakettle in hand, Skopia trailed the verdes and Akilah out to the veranda.
More folks than usual seemed to have errands at this end of the compound: just outside the stable Cato was talking to Will; Lugene and Miz Ines and Brother Carton visited with Will’s wife Lisabeth on the stablehouse porch; Akilah’s sister Londra herded a raft of children along the lane from the hall.
The verdes strutted across the wagon yard to the stable. Without giving any sign they saw the folks staring at them or saying a thank-you to Will for watering their horses, they mounted and rode out the gate.
Akilah let out her breath and collapsed on the glider. “God forgive me if I did wrong. I couldn’t send that child off with them, parents or not.”
Skopia stalked back inside.