Keara’s Raven: Escape
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“It’s a well-wrought tale that finds that difficult balance between accessibility and depth…” — Publishers Weekly
In the sheltered village of Silver Hollow, Keara knows exactly what she must do: Follow her mother’s strict rules and worship the twelve gods. But Keara’s twelfth birthday is looming, along with an obligation she dreads. She must sacrifice her beloved darkbeast on a holy altar.
Other children despise their bonded scapegoat animals, but Keara loves her raven, Caw. He’s her only friend, the sole creature who understands her headstrong ways.
When a traveling theater troupe passes through the village, Keara glimpses a way to escape. But the Great Road comes with its own dangers, including dread Inquisitor priests who hunt down heretics.
Will Keara find the strength to flee the only home she’s ever known? Or will she be forced to slay her closest friend on the altar of the gods?
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
The Travelers arrived in Silver Hollow a week before my twelfth nameday.
My darkbeast had whispered about them long before their wagons rolled onto our village green. Caw had fluffed his jet-black tail feathers and preened the way he always did when he knew a secret. No matter how much I begged, Caw wouldn’t say where he’d heard about the mysterious visitors.
His promises made me dream about the Travelers every night. But once actual wagons filled the green, Mother forbade me to see the revels.
“Keara,” she said, in the voice she used when every bone in her body was weary to the point of breaking. “You are too young to understand their stories.”
“I’m not too young! I already know what they’ll say. Besides, I’m almost a woman—I’ll be twelve next week!”
“Just because you can memorize words does not mean you understand the thought behind them. And moving into the Women’s Hall doesn’t automatically teach you all the lessons the world has to offer, either. You can see the Travelers the next time they come to Silver Hollow.”
“But they haven’t been here in eight years! I’ll be ancient before they come back. I’ll be old and boring and married!”
“Then you can stand beside your husband, and you’ll both enjoy the Travelers together. If any man ever weds a girl as stubborn as you, Keara.”
I knew the real reason Mother wanted me to stay inside our one-room cottage. She feared the Primate’s titheman. He was due in the village any day, and the tattooed band around my wrist had faded to almost nothing. The careful violet knot, now almost two years old, was nearly invisible beneath dirt and my sun-darkened summer skin.
Mother had missed paying my head tax the year before. She’d been short on coins, and I’d been forced to hide in our cottage for the entire three days that the titheman ad stayed on the green. None of the villagers had given me up, though, thank all the gods.
Of course, there was no way to avoid paying the head tax this year. I would never be allowed in Bestius’s godhouse on my nameday if I didn’t have a fresh tattoo. But every day of savings counted, when copper coins weighed in the balance. Every day counted, when the ewes had thrown only singletons in the spring, not a twin to be found anywhere on the plains. Every day counted, when a widow was raising a headstrong daughter, alone and unaided.
Tithe tattoo or no, I sneaked out of the cottage and watched the first night of the Travelers’ plays. I wasn’t a fool. I waited until Mother had left, until she’d bustled off to meet my middle sister, Morva, in the Women’s Hall. They were going to watch the Travelers together.
Alone in our home, I tugged on my finest clothes, Morva’s old gown that Mother had cut down for me to wear on the goddess Pondera’s gloryday that past spring. I slipped my feet into Mother’s prize sandals, the ones with the fake jewels woven around the ankles.
Mindful that I mustn’t be seen, I lurked at the back of the crowd on the green. That meant I missed a few of the lines, losing words in the rustle of the crowd.
But I could see the Travelers’ costumes. I tried to imagine how anyone could weave an entire cloak from gold. My fingers clenched as if I were the one gathering up the pleats of a sweeping velvet skirt. I could make out every shimmering stitch on the brilliant masks, and I gaped at the richly-embroidered shapes that transformed ordinary men and women into gods and goddesses, into the Twelve.
The Travelers spoke to me with a magic stronger than anything Mother had ever brewed from her stash of common herbs. They were even more compelling than my bond with my darkbeast. Inside my mind, the Travelers were the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen, the finest feast I’d ever eaten, the deepest emotion I’d ever felt, all rolled into one rollicking, painted caravan.
I started trembling from the very first word. An old man introduced the troupe, announcing they were going to perform the story of Patrius and the Primate. The speaker’s voice was loud enough to shake the wooden columns on Pondera’s godhouse, all the way at the southern edge of the village. His face was carved with deep lines, and the skin on his hands looked like parchment, even in the flickering torchlight. His beard curled like a lamb’s pelt, swirling in and out of the massive iron necklace that covered half his chest.
His eyes found me where I lurked in the shadows. They read me, all the way down to the marrow of my bones. The Traveler was speaking only to me, only for me.
I shivered as hard as when I had blackwater fever, two summers before. The air around me was hot—we were almost to the Thunder Moon, after all—but gooseflesh rose on my arms. The old man stepped behind a curtain, and another man appeared, the Traveler playing Patrius. His words thundered over the crowd, echoing with all the power and majesty and greatness of the father of all the gods.
A third man played First Primate Kerwen, the ancient leader of Duodecia. Kerwen was a brave warrior. He fought battle after battle, but he could never beat the tribes around him. One night, after a terrible raid, Kerwen vowed fealty to any who would aid him in his battle against the other tribes.
Patrius came to him, then, demanding that Kerwen humble himself. Kerwen knelt for twelve days in the freezing flow of the Silver River—without food, without rest, without succor. Only then did Patrius make Kerwen the Primate, the ruler over all the people of Duodecia. Patrius vowed that Kerwen’s sons would reign as long as they stayed loyal to the Twelve, as long as they bent their knee to all the gods and goddesses who walked the realm. After Kerwen affirmed his devotion to the Twelve, and to Patrius most of all, the gods became stars and strode into the sky.
As the play drew to a close, a white stag blazed out against the velvet curtain at the back of the Travelers’ stage. It was bright as silver but it burned with some cold flame that did not consume the stage. The stag was Patrius’s sign, of course, a reminder of all the power that the father of gods had shared with First Primate Kerwen, of all the glory still held by the royal house so many generations later.
As the glow slowly faded, a complementary excitement blazed up inside me. The Travelers took their bows, and I wriggled into the front row of spectators, clapping hard enough to make my palms sting. Sweat curled my auburn hair against my neck. There was hardly a breeze on that summer night, but I did not care. I did not care about anything more than honoring the Travelers.
Of course, Mother saw me as soon as I left the safety of the shadows. She dragged me home by my ear, ignoring my outraged squawks, and she leashed me to Caw’s cage. That was the first time she’d bound me in over a year. I started to protest, but she only hissed, “Take it to your darkbeast!”
“Good evening,” Caw said, as soon as Mother stormed out of the cottage. I knew she was heading over to my oldest sister’s tiny home. Mother and Robina would talk about me—about my failings, about my disobedience—long into the night. Caw’s bright eyes sparkled as he asked, “Treats?”
I shrugged and reached into the pottery jar on the mantle, digging out a few chunks of dried apple. There was no crisis so great that Caw would not beg for treats. He gulped down every bite before thinking a reluctant, “Thank you.” I knew that tone of voice. He hoped for more.
I could hear Caw’s familiar speech inside my head. We’d been bound to each other since I was an infant. Mother had presented me to Bestius on the night of the Thunder Moon, the first full moon after my birth.
Mother often recited how she’d given me my name, announcing to Bestius and all the other gods that I would be called Keara. Then, Caw had swooped down to the altar, displaying his jet-black wings as he cocked his head to examine me. I had laughed at his funny, scratchy voice. Me—a twelve-day-old child—already laughing! The priest, come all the way from Rivermeet, had wasted no time speaking his strongest prayer to bind the raven to me. Mother had sealed the bond with her most valuable herbs, blowing a dusty mixture of sweet ladysilk and bitter mudroyal into my nose, into Caw’s. My darkbeast and I had sneezed at the same time.
Ever since, Caw’s words had resonated deep inside me. But when I had something to say to him, I almost always spoke out loud. That was an old habit, one I’d never tried to break, not through all the long hours we spent together. Caw and I often wandered far from Silver Hollow, ranging as far as the hills when we gathered berries and windfall apples or collected the herbs that Mother dried and sold in distant Rivermeet. It never seemed important to think to Caw silently, the way so many other children did to their own darkbeasts.
Of course, Caw was different from all those other animals. He wasn’t disgusting, like the rats and snakes that took the evil thoughts of other villagers. He wasn’t angry or sly or dirty. He was my darkbeast, and he was perfect for me.
I stepped toward his cage, and my jeweled sandal caught on the rough dirt floor. I fell hard, skinning my knee through the fine fabric of Morva’s dress. My bare palms scraped on the ground, and I scarcely remembered not to use the words I’d heard the shepherds say when they thought they were alone with their flocks. I could hear Mother’s sternest voice all over again: “Take it to your darkbeast.”
Caw turned his head to the side as I used my fabric leash to dab at my bleeding palm. “I heard applause coming from the green. It sounded as if the Travelers put on quite a performance.”
“They were wonderful,” I whispered, already forgetting my stinging flesh as I thought about the amazing play. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”
“You were wrong to disobey your mother, Keara-ti. She only wanted to protect you.”
I ignored the endearment Caw attached to my name, the ending that was only suitable for a child. I let my annoyance with Mother sharpen my tone. “Protect me from what? She just doesn’t want to pay the titheman!”
“There are more dangers in the world than handing over the Primate’s head tax.”
“There’s nothing dangerous about watching Travelers in my own village, standing on my own village green!”
“The danger is in your growing up. Your leaving her behind. The danger is your no longer being a child.”
I scoffed. “Mother can’t wait for me to be out of this cottage. Then she can have all the blankets to herself. She can brew her nasty whiteroot tea without making something else for me.”
“Your mother dreads the day you leave her. You’re her last child. Her baby.”
“I’m not a baby!” I couldn’t keep a whine out of my voice as I complained to Caw. “I’m nearly a woman, Caw. Nearly a woman, and Mother still said I wouldn’t understand the plays. She was wrong, though. I understood every word.”
I thought about the Travelers’ story. In the revel, Kerwen had mourned a lost wife and murdered children. He’d wept with a husband’s grief, with a parent’s devastation.
Well, of course I couldn’t understand that. Not completely. My own mother would never grieve for me. She had a heart of stone. “I understood nearly every word,” I said defensively.
“You don’t have much longer to live beneath your mother’s roof. Be kind to her while you can.”
How could I be kind to someone who was so cruel to me? So strict? Who bound me closer to her than I’d ever been bound to Caw’s iron cage? I closed my fingers around those cold bars and said, “I can’t wait for the day when I’m free to live in the Women’s Hall.”
Caw shifted in his cage, ruffling his feathers as he re-settled on his perch. The motion was enough to remind me that my nameday was not the best thing that would ever happen to me—even though it meant getting out of the cottage I shared with Mother. Certainly, my nameday would bring me freedom. But that freedom came at a cost, a price I was still not certain I could pay. “I’m sorry,” I said after a long moment. “I didn’t mean that. I just wish I was free! You wouldn’t understand.”
“No,” Caw said, and his voice was dry inside my head. “I can’t imagine how freedom would feel.”
I looked at the leash that bound my wrist, the old rags I could slip off any time I chose. My fingers curled around the iron bars of Caw’s cage. “I’m sorry,” I said again, and I truly was contrite. “I should think more carefully before I speak.” Caw didn’t reply, and I knew he was waiting for me to say more, to make another admission. I sighed and dug my toe into the earthen floor. “I was wrong. I should not have defied Mother and gone to the Travelers’ performance.”
Caw peered at me through the bars of his cage, tilting his head at a familiar angle. “I take your rebellion,” he said. “Forget it. It is mine.”
Immediately, I felt the familiar sensation of lightness, as if I were a tuft of thistledown floating on a spring breeze. The roof of my mouth tingled. My breath caught and trembled inside my body, like a thousand butterfly wings brushing beneath my skin.
I turned my face toward the ceiling. I spread my arms by my side. I pushed my tongue against the back of my teeth, determined to make the sensation last as long as possible.
I could not imagine never again feeling this way. I could not imagine never again hearing my darkbeast’s voice, never again listening to his well-worn formula. I could not imagine what my life would be like after I became a proper woman among my people on my twelfth nameday—after I sacrificed Caw on the cool onyx altar in the center of Bestius’s godhouse.
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