Sunny Stone crossed her arms ahead of the adobe home she owned with her sister. It was a rust color with silhouettes of leaves and insects painted on and carved out of a ledge in the lush mountain. Several ferns and figs and other greenery sheltered this and several other structures in the Raven Perch village.
Sunlight seemed to be disappearing. The temperature dropped and the crickets started. Horses nickered in anticipation of a treat. The lantern at the rowdiest bar was already alit somewhere down the path on another ledge.
"Tempest, get in here!"
She raised the loose hood of her azure cloak over her dark wavy hair and searched the crevices and corners around her. There were so many shadows now. Evening was closing in rapidly. She raised her eyes to the last of the sunlight disappearing behind a peak in the mountain.
"The chickens were out."
She started with surprise when a small girl with a dense ebony braid traipsed up the path with a scowl. With a smile, she waved her daughter closer.
"Come in, come in. Night is almost here."
Nights in Raven Perch were dangerous. The lonesome mountain village attracted those who most desired to avoid people in general. Most of the village men gathered to gamble and drink and amplify one another with competitions and rivalries. Sometimes this came to no harm. Most of the time, harm was part of the experience.
As a result, most mothers gathered their children inside at night. Bolts were slid across the inside of the door to keep out intruders. This is exactly what Sunny did when she and her daughter were within the entry of their small home.
The interior was santos mahogany with a compactly woven maroon rug at the entrance. The area beyond was arranged with intricately carved chairs of various woods and tooled leather seats designed with the leather the villagers often traded for with wood. Paintings by Sunny and Tempest were framed on the wooden walls.
"Is Zephyr back from the trading post?" Tempest asked.
"Long ago. He is with your Aunt Suma in the kitchen."
The girl scampered in that direction to greet her cousin and see whether or not he had with him any presents that might pique her interest. Sometimes he would manage to trade for the desired item and something special. Sometimes it was an instrument, or painting supplies, or even a book.
This time, it was a necklace made with clay beads painted with miniscule eagles.
"I got it with sack of flour and a bushel of apples," he declared.
"And what did it cost?" Tempest asked as she accepted the necklace with wide hazel eyes.
"A couple chairs I carved," he raised his shoulders in a shrug as he sliced one of the shiny red apples into quarters on the counter.
Dinner was sliced apples with walnuts and small cuts of steak and tea. The cousins then retired to the chairs close to the entrance to reread some of the books they acquired that summer after trading a set of carved wooden statues that resembled a particular family.
Suma prepared herself to bathe and sleep. As the elder sister, she considered it her earned reward that she should be the first to go to sleep. After all, she was the one who rose with the sun to clean the house and prepare the meals.
Sunny painted scenery by the gas lamps on the walls. She sent these with Zephyr to the trading post often, and the return was usually some sort of treat that the twelve-year-old children enjoyed most. She was able to paint more now that they were older and more independent. To be honest, the attention her daughter paid to their animals and the carvings and trading accomplished by her nephew sustained their household the most. The contributions she made by watching the children diminished with their independence. Painting was the second talent she had. Music was another.
"What animal should I paint into this one?" she asked as she examined a seascape she had seen many years ago as a child herself.
"A dragon," Tempest answered without pause.
"I am not sure I could do a dragon," her mother admitted.
"Yes you can," the girl darted her eyes up from her book. "Stop thinking about it so much and keep painting. When you do that, you can paint anything."
Sunny smiled with appreciation at her daughter.
In the end, she painted an ebony dragon with iridescent rose red accents as it soared over the sapphire waters of the sea in the evening. The setting sun cast an orange hue over parts of it so that the black and the red and the orange seemed to surge together.
There was a pounding at the door that startled everyone.
"Who is that?" Sunny wondered aloud.
"Who was that?" Suma demanded as she emerged out of the back room with a concerned scowl. She strode to the door and peered out the peephole.
"Ms. Suma?" a man asked from outside. "May we trade a cup of sugar in return for one or two of those apples you got at the post? We wanted something else to go with dinner."
Suma stared at the door a moment. She released a curt breath and unbolted the door. She pulled it open with a scowl that revealed she wanted to remember something.
"Your mother traded for a basket of pears two days ago –"
The man at the door produced a carved wooden staff from behind his back and smashed it against her head. She crumpled to the rug, eyes open as blood streamed down her skull. Sunny screamed and leapt up. Tempest was snatched around the shoulders by her cousin and rushed to the back rooms. He shoved her inside hers and slammed the door.
"Wait –" she started to open it, but he slammed it again.
She scowled at the back of the door and punched it out of anger. She would not stay in the back while he protected the house! But then, if she came out, she would be a distraction. One more person to worry about. The smallest and, by two months, the youngest person in the house.
She shoved her ear against the door. She could hear her mother scream. Boots pounded the wood. She leapt back as someone slammed into the other side of the door and scrambled into the room beside her and slammed the door. Her cousin must have made an escape.
That was bad. He would never leave his mother or hers to deal with that man. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears as she strained them to listen. She heard something smash and a male shout. That man was someone she watched grow up! The Bands were two houses down the path. Juniper was about five years her senior. He looked up to Suma same as his own mother.
Was it a curse that adulthood so commonly coincided with crime here?
And then silence. She dropped down to the wood and crossed her legs. She stared at the back of the door. Waiting to see what would happen or what she would hear next.
The door of the room beside hers creaked open. She heard the boots approach her door and stop. She caught her breath and held it. Could it be that was not her cousin?
But it was. She scrambled up to unbolt the door and wrenched it open with tears in her eyes that she welled up the second she realized what might have happened.
Zephyr met her eyes with his own lime ones. His mouth was open, but silent. His breath was heavy as he gathered everything he had to speak. Tempest shoved past him and ran around the angled hall into the room she had enjoyed minutes earlier.
She slipped and landed in a puddle of red. Blood. Suma was still at the door in the same position, but her mother was sprawled now beside her. The waves of hair were matted with blood, and she was completely still. The painting was gone.
Tempest screamed. She screamed out her rage and her pain.
"What happened?" she then demanded. "What did they do?"
Zephyr approached behind her. "They killed our mothers and stole whatever we could use to trade," he snarled. "They stole our lives."
She sat in the blood, stunned. Her breaths were also heavy and her heart pounded. Suddenly disgusted by the deaths, she scrambled up and staggered out of the substance, leaving crimson boot prints ahead of her as she backed away.
After a moment, she breathed, "What do we do?"
"We keep going," Zephyr gulped. "We make sure Juniper is punished and we keep going."
She turned her head to look at him. She recognized this side of him. She saw it when her father was killed in a bar fight and his drank himself to death one night. It was up to them now to survive.