It was a cool morning. Or, really, it wasn't morning yet. The sky was still dark. It was probably another thirty, maybe even forty minutes, before the sun would rise over the horizon.
I sat in a tree, dangerously stretched out towards the trap set up in a just out of reach branch. It was easy for Zanes to get those things. He had a good five or six inches on me, so setting up the trap and getting it out was a piece of cake for me. He never seemed to consider half the time I ended up emptying and resetting them while he hunted. It was a pain. Especially today. The elders were expecting us to bring in a lot more than normal.
The Year Marking was today. That meant a huge feast and partying into the wee hours. This would be my sixteenth Year Marking. I'd be an officially an adult. I'd start looking for a person to bond with and start training in a trade. I wanted to be a hunter, like Zanes, but Mage wanted me to be a seamstress like her.
Mage was my adopted mother. She'd been raising me since I was a little. I loved her like a mother but she was so overbearing. Most of the other girls in Violet Creek Village had all the freedoms of the boys, but she treated me like the Northern girls. I was suppose to sit at home and help her with her work, tending the garden, all that stuff. She was even controlling my bonding. She'd had it planned as long as I could remember. I was to bond with Zanes, her son, after my 16th Year Marking. It wasn't a bad matching. Zanes is my dearest friend. We clicked. But it didn't mean I liked having things decided for me.
"You're useless." I looked down. Zanes stood at the foot of the tree, a deer flung over his shoulders and three rabbits hanging from his belt. "How long does it take to reset a trap?"
"Pretty damn long when you can't reach it!" I called down. "Trying setting these with the lesser of stature in mind, will ya?"
"I'll keep that in mind," he rolled his eyes. "C'mon." I hopped down, landing with a thud on the forest floor. "It's seems pointless to even set the traps these days. The Northern Soldiers have hunted most of them before they get a chance to fly this far south."
"Nothing but songbirds now," I agreed. "All cuz of the stupid Northerners and their stupid war." I straightened up, then took the rabbits off his belt to lighten his load.
"We're from the North," he pointed out. I held a finger to my lips and made a loud shushing noise. It was blatantly clear I wasn't from the Southern Villages. I had the dark raven hair, like the mass majority of the Fea, but that's where the resemblance stopped. While I was shorter than Zanes, I still towered over the other girls, and my skin was paler than all the others, even though I spent most of my days outside, but the most obvious difference where my eyes. They were blue as the forget-me-nots in the community garden. Zanes' Northern Heritage was even more obvious. His hair was as white as the snow atop the mountains, and eyes like the lilacs, and he was tall.
"So, 16th Year Marking today," said Zanes as we started walking back towards the village. "How you feel about that?"
"About damn time," I declared. "I can't wait to start my training." I took his free hand in mine. "You'll be my mentor, right?"
"I'll see what I can do. I'm sure the elders will have no problems with it. I mean, we'll be announcing our intent tomorrow." He said. "Mama has already started on your dress."
"How come you get to see it, but I don't?"
"Because she doesn't want you seeing it until you can wear it." He said. I pouted. "Have you told mom what you want to do for a vocation?"
"I told her last week, when you went to market with Chrys and Land."
"How'd she handle that?"
"She wasn't happy. Says that being a hunter isn't the right kind of vocation for me." I shrugged. "I told her I'll do what I want. I don't understand why she thinks she can control everything."
"She just wants what's best," Zanes readjusted the deer carcass as we approached the village. Violet Creek was a small collection of stone cottages, arranged around a central garden with the meeting hall in the center. The town was just starting to come alive as the sun peeked over the horizon. "I'm going to drop these off with the Flatland." He took the rabbits from my hand, kissed my cheek, and walked off towards the home of Flatland, the town's butcher.
I walked to our house. Our garden was overflowing with with wild flowers. Mage was putting the clothes on the washing line. She didn't seem to notice me, which was good. Really good. I'd had to sneak out that morning to avoid her dressing me up like a little doll. Mage was horrible when it came to dresses. As a seamstress, Mage always wanted to make sure I was the best dressed girl at any big event around the village. It was a real bother. I'd much rather just wear a long tunic, like some of the other girls got to do, but noooo.
I pulled up the latch of the gate and walked down the path. I entertained the idea of trying to sneak pass her, but Mage had such keen hearing that it would have been useless. Years of strain on her eyes was causing her sight to fade from years of working in dim light, and her ears began to compensate. She could hear a pin push though fabric in another room, or so she claimed. And in all honesty, I'd believe it. She could always hear me and Zanes when we'd stay up past lights out talking as children.
"It's about time you came home," said Mage, not even turning from the laundry.
"Zanes needed my help. With the Year Marking this evening, he needed to bring in a lot more food than normal." Mage picked up the now empty wicker basket, then turned to start walking into the cottage. I trailed behind her.
"Well, luckily for you the day is still young," she said as we walked into the living downstairs area. "I need you to start getting ready."
"Well, I'm sorry," I rolled my eyes. Mage set the basket on the table, and pointed at the deep red dress on that lay over the back of a chair. I sighed and stripped out of my doeskin pants and tunic, then pulled on the dress over my head. It was suppose loose fitting around the bosom, constricting around the waist, and loose again in the skirt. The shoulders fell off, and the sleeves went to my elbows. It was a nice dress and all, but it was irksome to wear. In the few months since I'd last worn it, the waist had become tight to the point that it almost didn't fit, and the top was tight around the bosom.
"I'll have to take it out," sighed Mage, walking around me, and taking measurements. "I believe I have some more of this fabric laying around."
"I could wear one of my long tunics?" I suggested hopefully. Mage gave me a look that told me to just shut up.
"You deserve for everything you own to be better than the other girls. Its your birth right. You're better," said Mage, "So, no, you can't just wear a long tunic." I sighed. Mage always said things like that. I was better. I deserved more. She never elaborated, but she always said it. I used to ask all the time, but she just told me to hush up. I wish she would make more sense.
By mid-afternoon, Violet Creek was filled with the smell of delicious food cooking. The market area was where the fires were set up, roasting the meats and cooking the stews, while the garden already filling with people ready to celebrate another year of life.
Up north, as I'd come to understand, people had birthdays, marking another year of life every year on the anniversary of their birth. To our people, that was selfish. One shouldn't have a whole day dedicated to themselves, when it takes a community to survive. So we have a celebration right before the planting of the crops every year to celebrate all those who have survived since the last Year Marking, and remember those who didn't. It was one of the happiest times of the year. We feasted on roasted meats and breads and cakes, and danced into the night.
I walked into the gardens, where Zanes was sitting on a bench with Land. Land was the son of a trader, so when his father would leave, he'd stay with us, so we were all pretty close. He was two years older than myself, and had decided on the butcher trade. I never figured out why.
"Ski!" Land smiled and pulled me into a big hug. "Happy Year Marking."
"Happy Year Marking, Land," I smiled back.
"16, that's big." He sat back down, patting the spot between he and Zanes.
"Yeah," I sat down.
"So, when can I be expecting you and Zanes' bonding?" he asked. I smiled at Zanes. He smiled, taking my hand in his.
"We're announcing our intent tonight," he said, then kissed my head.
"Oh, already?" Land asked. "I thought you two would wait until she had finished her training."
"Well...we talked about it, but we decided why wait? Since training only lasts half the day, I could use the extra time making our house more...housey..." I said, unable to find the right word.
"So being a home maker?"
"Don't say that...that makes it sound like that's all I'll be doing. I mean, we'll have to start our own garden, and I should probably learn to cook."
"And have babies," Land gave me a sly smirk. "If you two are gonna bond so soon, then it won't take long before there are little Skis and Zanes running around."
"No." Zanes and I said in unison. "Not anytime soon."
"I'm only twenty, man. I don't need kids any time soon," added Zanes.
"Well, if you listen to what that old Sea says, you've already got one," reminded Land. Sea was known around town for being...loose. A few years back, shortly after her own 16th year marking, she'd had a son. No one was quiet sure who the father was -since she had been with everyone from the baker to northern traders who passed though- but Sea was dead set on claiming he was Zanes'. He was a cute kid and all, and it really wouldn't be too much of an issue if he was. He was five, with deep brown hair and amethyst eyes. The eyes were what gave any creditability to her claim, but like I said, she'd been with plenty of traders too, and purple was a common eye color among the people of Vlanmir.
"And I'm telling the truth," Sea said as she passed, Chrys at her side.
"Zanes!" Chrys through himself into Zanes' lap.
"Hey, kid," Zanes ruffled his hair.
"If you didn't believe me then-"
"Not now, Sea." ordered Zanes. I let out a long whistle and exchanged a look with Land. If Chrys wasn't his, at least Zanes was kind enough to be there for the kid, even if Sea was a mean-spirited harlot. Of course, Zanes knew how hard it was for a boy to grow up without a father, so maybe he felt sorry for him. Plus, the kid's name was Chrysanthemum. Who names their son Chrysanthemum?
Sea sighed. "Chrys, I'm going to go speak with Rose. You can stay here." She walked away.
"Mama is in a bad mood," said Chrys.
"It doesn't matter, tonight is a night to be merry," I said, smiling at the child. He smiled.
"You're gonna be all grown up tonight, won't you, Ski?" I nodded. "Then, does that mean if I tell Zanes and Land a secret, can I tell you too?"
"Of course." Chrys made a motion to make us lean closer. We all leaned in.
"Yesterday, Mama took me to visit this camp. It's set up in the valley. And she was talking to this guy. He's looking for someone, some northern girl who's suppose to be living in our village. Mama told him you were the only northern girl around her, and then he gave her money," he whispered. I furrowed my brow, and exchanged looks with Land Zanes.
"A camp? Set up in the Valley?" I asked.
"Yeah. There were lots of horses and men. They had swords and bows, and arrows. It was cool!" Chrys answered enthusiastically.
"There's an army camp here? How come no one's said anything?" asked Land.
"I don't know," murmured Zanes. "Chrys, did they said what they wanted with the girl?"
"I don't know, but the man seemed to really wanna find her." Zanes nodded.
"Well, why don't we go and find the elders. I'm sure they wanna hear your secret," he said.
"But its a secret, Zanes!" exclaimed Chrys in a loud whisper.
"I know, but the elders maybe able to find this girl," explained I. Meaning they maybe able to tell me if there were any other girls from the north down here, and if not why some man would be looking for me.
"Well, okay then. Let's go." Chrys hopped off Zanes lap, took my hand and led us towards the meeting hall, which was the most likely place to find the Elders. And, The Elders were in the meeting hall, along with a group of six or seven armed men. "That's him," Chrys whispered, pointing at the only one of the men sitting. He was in his thirties, with graying brunette hair. He was dressed in some of the finest clothing I've ever seen. The jacket was embroidered with gems and gold, as were the trousers and his boots were a fine shined leather.
"Oh, here she is," said Elder Stone, noticing I was here. "Ski, this is Jermyn Dtrois, the King of Vlanmir. He's come all this way to find you." The man, Jermyn, stood up. The moment his eyes met mine, I knew I didn't trust him. The look he gave me made my blood run cold.
"Skila, I've been searching for you for a long time," said Jermyn.
"My name is Ski," I said. "I don't know why you would be looking for this Skila, but you've got the wrong girl...so, me and my friends are just gonna...go, and you can continue with your little talk with the Elders," I started backing up, pulling Chrys with me. Zanes and Land stood in front of us as Jermyn advanced, his armed men with him.
"Seize them." He said simply. And we ran.