When they came for you, if I said I never wished for it, it would have been a lie.

The season is thick with cold and rusted leaf, swirling death rattle on the wind. The sharp smell of rot that's always here, the sour dry bones in the catacombs below and the moral decay above.

I was there that morning when they took you, your profile multiplied in the line of too-young boys, anyone of them too juvenile, too drunk on autumnal dances by the fires and honeyed mead to realize what awaited them beyond the walls. Anyone of them could have been you, sallow skinned and smudge-eyed with sentinel mothers watching from the distance, waiting to have their sons torn from them like the day they were first cut from the womb.

It was a miracle you even made it through the culling, then again, your madness has always been well hidden. Or maybe, they didn't care. Too bad the officers didn't see then that your blood bleeds coward instead of red, I'm sure bravery is more important than sanity when you become a hunter. If you weren't already cracked before you went into the wilds, you'd never come back in one piece anyway.

One of the Captains is striding up and down the rows, throwing the culls into a nervous, gangly huddle to the side, but this time they weren't sent back to their mothers for another year. No, they trailed behind the new harvests, leaving in rows shepherded by officers in their flapping white and white tunics and plated metal, ushered into the cruel ritual of manhood.

A desperate act, if there ever was one. I wonder if fathers ever have to reap their own sons.

A year ago, I never would have believed that you'd willingly join the hunting legions. I would have never believed all the other things, either, buried somewhere between the sneering dissent of the military, and your desperate attempt to avoid the harvesting. Your angry strings of curses at a hopeless future, the cry-wolf calls to the corruption in the city's leadership while calling us sheep. You were just like any other angry boy, growing up without any dreams or fathers, rolling smokes and spitting brown juice between your teeth in a desperate attempt at masculinity.

Is that where it began? Boys were boys longer than girls were called girls—I was woman when I was 16, and you were 20 and still just a boy.

I remember being afraid of childbirth, what was expected of me as a woman, walks outside the wall to the wandering willows out in the marshes. The summer moons were waning, the hunters were coming back frontiers still haunted with darkness. Women of my age were preparing to find a man, sometimes any man, to start their birthing rites, and there would come changing shifts of hunters over the weeks of bonfires, the bitter-tasting celebration of the dying season. Brief couplings before they were driven to more barren fields, while we'd ripen with woolgathering complacency.

"And then our body is taken away from us," I confided in you once, you too young to father children to be concerned. "When the baby comes, it's as if you don't exist—especially for the first time, they'll cut you one way or another to get it out."

I worked the bark from the trunk, prying away small pieces with a small knife and gathering it in a wide-mouthed pot already brimming with snarled gallows root. You watched in silence, only the soft sound of your lips pulling smoke into your lungs. You'd let me talk and talk, you never speaking, as if listening, and then you'd say: "They'd come for you, if they knew," as if it were a compliment.

In hindsight, I think you always followed me out because you thought I was more like you. You had a way of making it all you. No matter how I felt for being a woman, it was always worse for you to become a man.

"And how do you think I feel?" You'd snap after a while. "Women don't get harvested. They don't get forced into servitude."

And then it would be just a few more drags before you'd gather enough wind for a baying rant about what really goes on in the frontier. The same old conversation swirling around and around, the hollow death rattle of the hungry wind.

"If you don't believe that those things are out there, then why do our men come back dead?" I would argue, pointing to the stacked white tombs teetering just beyond the inside of the wall. "Why do we lock up our dead like gold? Why don't we burn the bodies when the crypts are overflowing?"

That's why we had to go outside the walls. Nothing would grow in a city built on the dead.

"But do we ever see what they claim is out there?" You had leaned over me and hissed, baring your teeth. "They don't like people who ask questions."

We never saw anything here, even in our wanderings out into the forest, just the grim-faced patrols combing the parameter and the dry husks of abandoned houses. Each season the returning hunting legions grow smaller, and we just keep mindlessly building over the tops of the narrow catacombs and graveyards. They tried their very hardest to recover the bodies, but the bravest never came back.

I always grew angry whenever you dismissed it, but on this last moon was the first time I snapped back.

"Do you think Jann just disappeared all by himself, then?"

And that shut you up fast.

You were always jealous of him, the 15-year veteran of the hunter's brigade, a man you complained was too old for me and hero-worshipped in the same breath. Jann would tell us hazy stories in that soft, distant voice of his, with the thin cigar burning slow between his knuckles, stories of flesh-hungry things looming around ghost towns of the frontier. How every open wound had to seared shut because they could smell it. How every recovered body came back in pieces so it wouldn't be corrupted.

But you wouldn't say a word against him while he could hear it. You started growing out your hair down over your ears like his, dark brown you always insisted was black, claiming that you spent nights on your own out in the woods outside the walls, with nothing but a dagger and a bottle of whiskey.

"Careful now, someone might think you're trying to be brave," Jann had teased.

You stopped talking to Jann after that, wasted no time in trying to burrow yourself in a woodworking trade.

"This city needs carpenters, architects, engineers," you started again, blowing smoke. "Thinkers. Not useless fodder for their war machine."

I would have agreed, if I weren't sure you had sheepskin courage and a mouthful of lies. I kept shucking off the bark, chip by chip, while you pressed up close behind me with a skulking-dog stare.

"You've been taken in. Believe their fear mongering, don't you? Well, let me tell you something, my sweet, they don't like soldiers with loose tongues."

And then you blew me down to the cellar of my straw house reckoning with the sound of glass smashing against root, hard truth, crunching while shells under your boot. You were cruel, you were angry, and I couldn't figure out why, flinching between you and the willow.

"And you're no better than that the rest," you spat and bared your teeth. Turned on me. "Women—do you think you have it any better, Marian? How old are you, 20, 21? No children yet? They'll come for you too."

We were always alike in that way, our bodies were never our own; I've always told you so. I would never be one of the paper-faced mothers with babies torn from their wombs, if I could help it. I would never be one of the women dancing at the autumn fires. I said I was no one's field and drank the willow bark teas to flush myself barren. Even when that one moon last year, the luminary clock, when it twisted my insides and begged Jann to give me a baby, my body never took it.

I was still bleeding every month and would never, ever return your love.

I said things like no, and you said things like:

How could you love him and not me?

They never brought back his body. You were scared of the harvest, and I was scared of his wraith when I should have been scared of the wolf.

And then one night you came for me, with your weeping and your weakness and smothered every promise I made to myself with your ash-smeared hands and cry-wolf cries.

"I'm going be harvested," you wept while you did it. "Now you don't have a choice, either."

"Monster," I screamed when I found the willows burned to ash. "Coward!"

The moon has now turned her face away, but the meager smile gleamed a single truth, curling into a feral snarl. You hated all women like you hated your mother. I stood among them on that morning when they finally took you and your sheepskin courage away, and I wonder how many of those mothers were silently glad. How many more were there like you, gathered into terrifying future that you knew nothing about?

A year ago, I never would have believed that you'd willingly join the hunting legions. I know why you've gone with the very men you called soulless bastards. It's because you're more afraid of the monster you've sown in me than you are of the devils out there.

© 2015 InkWellWriter

The Review Game's August 2015 WCC Participant.

Prompt: "Autumn is no time to lie alone." –Murasaki Shikibu, 'The Tale of Genji'

I decided not to be overtly literal in my connection to the prompt, but hopefully any readers can make that passage.

Author's Note: Gallows root: My fictional name for the mandrake plant. Medieval texts indicate that it was believed this plant sprouted from the post-mortem ejaculations of dead men, common after hangings. Some historical practices used the mandrake root to remedy sterility and improve conception.