I never thought I’d actually consider joining someone who shot arrows at me, but staying with the crazy girl’s group of orphans was a better option than starving out here on my own or being picked up by the king’s army.
“I’m in,” I told the unseen girl.
Some branches to my left rustled. I looked up to see a red-haired girl climbing down from an Elm tree a few feet away. The animal skins she wore and the way she scurried down in quick, sure movements made her look like an overgrown squirrel in deer-hide boots.
I started to move toward her, then stopped. Her bow was strapped on her back, so unless she had some other archer around that I didn’t know about, I was safe. I asked anyway.
“I am allowed to move now aren’t I?”
She reached the ground and faced me. Her hair was cut unevenly just above her shoulders, as if she’d done it herself with a hunting knife.
“Before we go anywhere, let’s talk about rules.” She strode toward me, face as stern as a general’s. “You are free to leave this group at any time, but while you are here there won’t be any rule breaking. I started this group and I lead this group. If you have a problem following,” She paused and her brown eyes bored into mine, “find your own group to lead.”
I held my hands up. “I’m not looking for anyone to lead. And if I don’t like the rules, I won’t stay around.” I wasn’t going to be pushed around by some snarky girl, no matter how good her aim. I didn’t get free of the orphanage run by a overbearing headmistress just to be trapped in another one run by a bossy girl.
“Good.” She gave a sharp nod. “Do you swear that as long as you are with the Foxes—“
“It’s what we call ourselves,” she said giving me a sharp look for interrupting. “So, as long as you are with the Foxes—“
“Why Foxes? What about bears or wolves?”
She let out a huff of air. “Are you already questing the way we do things?”
“I’m just wondering why you chose Foxes. Bears have a lot more strength and wolves—“
“Foxes are intelligent, stealthy, and quick. We have to be these things to outwit the king’s soldiers. If you want to be a bear or wolf, join the soldiers.” She stopped her rush of words and crossed her arms. “Now, if you still want to join the Foxes, quit interrupting the pledge.” She paused, and when I didn’t say anything continued. “Do you swear that as long as you are with the Foxes you will share any meat you kill, fish you catch, fruit, nuts or seeds you may find, or any other kind of food you may forage?”
“Um, yeah, sure.” I wondered if I were supposed to raise my right hand or something.
“Do you swear to bring anything you find to me, the leader of the Foxes, to distribute evenly among the group?”
“Yes.” The most valuable thing out here was dry branches for making fires. I could share that.
“Do you swear to look out for your fellow Fox and alert the group of any danger?”
“Most importantly, do you swear not to tell anyone about the place I’m about to show you, even if you do leave?”
She thrust out her hand and gave my hand a single shake. “Welcome to the group, Dalan.” She tightened her grip and leaned in. “That little pledge isn’t just something I do to amuse myself. Anyone goes back on their word, I don’t take it lightly.”
I nodded, trying to look like her squeezing grip didn’t hurt.
“Good.” She let go, turned, and began walking. “And get your bow off the ground. Only a greentwig would leave it laying there like that.”
Lean-tos and tents were scattered haphazardly among the trees. About fifteen kids milled around. They were all wearing a mix of cloth and animal skins. None of them were scrubbed clean, but they weren’t covered in layers of dirt like children living in a forest should be. Most looked cleaner than me.
They stopped all activity when they saw me and stared as we walked by. The red-haired girl—whose name I still didn’t know—walked to a thin rope hanging in the center of the camp and pulled it twice. It was attached to a bell hanging in the tree. As it rang, children appeared from the woods. In just a few minutes the group had doubled.
I looked at the faces of the group. Most were between the ages of 12 and 17, but a few looked younger—9 or 10 maybe.
Once all of them were gathered in a half-circle around us, the girl spoke. “We have a new member of the Foxes. Dalan.” She nodded her head toward me. “He has taken the pledge and will be staying with us from now until he’s old enough to avoid the King’s soldiers, or until he decides he doesn’t need us anymore.”
A couple of kids snickered. I guessed the idea of someone leaving the group was so rare that it was funny.
“You know the rules,” the girl continued, ignoring the snickers. “We’ve all agreed to give each other privacy. He doesn’t have to answer questions about his past if he doesn’t want to. You also know that anyone who sees someone breaking the pledge, and doesn’t come to a leader about it will be punished in the same way as the pledge-breaker.” She looked hard into the faces around us and the kids stared solemnly back. None of them seemed to fear her—not in the way the king’s solders were feared—but they did respect her authority.
“He’ll need somewhere to stay until he can build a place of his own. Who will share?”
A blond boy, who looked about a year older than me, stepped up. “He can share my place.”
She gave him a nod and looked back to the gathered kids. “Alright. Enough gawking. Get back to what you were doing.” They dispersed, some staying around the clearing and others disappearing into the woods.
The blond boy came up to me and held out his hand. “I’m Ethan.”
“So you guys do have names,” I said as I shook his hand.
He looked puzzled, so I said, “I’ve walked with her for twenty minutes and still don’t know hers.” I glanced to my left to where the girl was standing, but she was gone.
Ethan shrugged. “She’s like that. You’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t think I want to get used to having arrows shot at me.”
“That’s a onetime experience.” He grinned. “Now that you’re part of the group, she won’t do something like that to you. Unless you break your pledge.”
“What is it with that girl and her pledge thing?”
“Her name is Faiza. And we’re all pretty serious about the pledge.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Look around.” Ethan gestured to the clearing and the kids in it. “These kids are from all over Minaria. They come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. We couldn’t all live together if we didn’t have some common guidelines.”
I guess that was true. It made sense that they would all have to agree to share the food they found and help each other out if they wanted to survive.
“Come on,” said Ethan. “I’ll show you my place so you can put your stuff down.”
I followed Ethan through the make-shift camp. Everyone was busy. There was a circle of girls sewing patches into some worn shirts, a group of boys and girls sharpening stones into arrowheads, and a few gathered around a fire and a huge pot. We passed a boy skinning a rabbit and I wondered if it were the same rabbit I’d missed earlier. My stomach growled again.
We stopped in front of a tiny hut made of tree branches that came to my shoulders. Ethan pushed back the deer hide that hung in the entrance and said, “Here it is.” He ducked inside and I followed him.
It was barely big enough for the two of us. Ethan sat on the blankets stretched out in one corner. There wasn’t much. Just a few personal items and a spear and bow leaning in one corner.
“Which one do you use to fight the soldiers with?” I asked.
Ethan laughed. “I use the spear to catch fish. The bow for hunting.”
“And your hands to fight the soldiers?”
He laughed again. “We don’t have to fight anyone. No one knows about this place. Secrecy is the best weapon we have.”
Hence the name Foxes—the animals that slunk around in the woods, staying out of sight.
“How does anyone ever find it then? I mean others that want to hide from the soldiers?”
“They don’t usually. We find them.” Ethan picked up a half-finished arrow head and began working on it. “Faiza or I sometimes go out to surrounding towns and find kids without parents. We tell them about this place, and if they take the pledge, we bring them back.”
“So you two started this place?”
“Faiza already had a few kids when I came, but I’ve been here since the beginning.”
The smell of food was slowly seeping into the little hut. I swallowed to keep myself from drooling and asked another question to keep my mind off of my empty stomach.
“How long ago was that?”
“A little over a year ago. Faiza got tired of dodging soldiers in town. She was earning a living by hunting in the forest and selling her kills to the butcher in town. She decided to keep what she hunted and live in the woods. After a while of that, she decided that others like her should be given a refuge, and that’s how this place came about.”
It was hard to think of Faiza as being compassionate. She seemed kind of prickly to me.
“How did she find you?” I wondered if it involved nearly being shot by arrows too.
“It was the soldiers who found me first.”
“You were taken to the castle?” I said, trying to keep my mind on the conversation and not on the smell of boiled vegetables and meet that was getting stronger.
“I didn’t get that far. There was only one soldier and he didn’t watch me closely because I was from a monastery. I guess he thought I wouldn’t try to get away.”
“Wait. How did they get you if you were at a monastery?” Occasionally, a monastery would take in an orphan whose parents didn’t leave enough money behind to pay the orphanages, but soldiers shouldn’t take anyone from there either.
Ethan frowned at the arrowhead in his hand. “I was in the market getting food when the soldiers came to collect orphans. Of course they didn’t listen when I told them I lived at the monastery and took me anyway.”
“I thought you just said that you got away because they knew you were from a monastery?”
“Oh, they knew I was from the monastery, but they didn’t care. I was on the street alone, within age, and didn’t have a paper with a guardian’s signature on it. Who was going to stop them? But I got away and Faiza found me.”
Just then, the bell started ringing. I thought Faiza was going to have another meeting, but Ethan said, “Food is ready.”
On cue, my stomach growled. I put my hand over it and grinned. “Finally.”
I thought of the rabbit I’d seen being skinned earlier. I wouldn’t be eating squirrel tonight.
There aren’t any decisions to be made at the end of this chapter, so there isn’t a poll.
The good news is that because there won’t be any voting on this chapter, I’ve decided to post the next chapter tomorrow which will give you a chance to vote at the end.
That’s right. Two chapters in one week! 🙂