In our village, some of the grown-ups went away and they didn’t come back. They said goodbye to the people they loved, and it was a sad thing. I never knew why they had to go away or where they went. All I knew was that we weren’t supposed to talk to strangers about it, and especially not the soldiers. Going away was a private thing. Like the quiet talking Mama and Da did at night, when Aisha and I were supposed to be in bed.
One of Aisha’s friends had her father go away. He invited the people he knew to come and visit before he left, including Mama and Da. Aisha stayed home with me. She didn’t want to. “Why can’t I go?” she asked.
“Leah’s not old enough to stay here,” Mama said. “Not by herself.”
“I am too old enough,” I said, but Mama wasn’t listening to me.
Aisha argued, but Da shook his head and said that was it. Aisha made me go to bed early because she was angry.
Her friend missed school for days and days. When she came back, she didn’t want to talk at anybody. She started crying after lunch. The teacher let her go outside and Aisha sat with her until after school. I asked Aisha about it, but she wouldn’t tell me anything. “How come her Da went away? Where’d he go?”
“You should be quiet,” Aisha said.
“But she’s so sad... didn’t he care?”
“You’re too little to understand,” Aisha said. My sister was fifteen. She got to know more about things than I did, even though it wasn’t fair—nine was more than enough. “Hurry up,” she said. “Stop walking in the mud.”
“Couldn’t he just come back?” A couple of soldiers were outside the livery, leaning against the wall and talking to each other. One of them looked up as we passed. “If she’s so sad, why doesn’t he just come back? Why don’t any of them come back?”
“Leah, be quiet.”
Aisha grabbed my hand like I was a baby. “Let go of me!” I said. But she kept dragging me along, right through a puddle. She wouldn’t let me go until we were almost all the way home. I didn’t think much about it until I noticed Mama was getting different. Her breath smelled a little like hot metal and her eyes sometimes lit up, like something was shining deep inside of her. She got short with people. Even me. I asked her about it. “It’s nothing, Leah,” she said. She picked me up like I was little, told me I was her special girl and not to worry.
I tried not to. I really did.
But late one night, I heard Mama and my Da doing their quiet night-time talking. I wasn’t exactly sneaking. I had to get up for a drink of water, and I heard them. They were sitting up together in front of the fire. Mama was sitting on Da’s lap in the big rocking chair, curled up with him as he rocked. I never saw her do anything like that. It was so strange that I stayed at the door, watching them.
“I have to go soon,” she said.
“No,” he said.
“You knew I’d go away,” she said. I held my breath.
“Some day,” he said. “Not for a long time.”
“It’s almost time.” She sounded very sure.
Da’s voice was funny. “How do you know?”
It took her a long time to answer. “I’m not supposed to stay.”
“Your life is here,” he snapped.
“It was,” she said. “It’s always been inside of me, Pat. I feel it all the time now. It’s getting harder not to give in.”
“Can’t you just try not to?”
“Pat,” she said, in a firm voice. “Don’t.”
“I just...” He shook his head. The chair rocked faster.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she said softly, looking away from him and towards the window. “I want it. Gods, how I want it.”
Her hair hung loose, flowing down her shoulders in waves. He put his hands in it and pulled her closer, turning her head back to him.
“And there’s Leah,” she said quietly. “I have to take her with me.”
He sucked in his breath like something hurt him. “What?”
“I wasn’t sure before, but I am now.”
“Just Leah,” she said. “She needs to know.”
Da’s shoulders shook. “I... I didn’t think either of them... I knew you would, but... she’s so little...” He couldn’t finish what he was going to say.
“It’ll be a long time,” Mama said, touching his face. “You’ll see her grow up.”
“I don’t want to lose you, Darla” he said.
She shushed him, kissing his forehead, and he started to cry. I’d never seen him cry before in my life.
“You knew when you married me,” she said. “You knew it would be like this. I’ve loved you so much, Pat. I’ve been so happy. I stayed this long because of you. All of you.” She stroked his hair. “Oh, my love.” He wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her chest.
I shivered as I crept back to bed. Mama was going away. It felt like a hole had opened up inside of me, the edges growing wider and wider. I lay in the dark, listening to the roof creaking while the wind blew. I didn’t want my Mama to leave. She couldn’t.
When she told us the next morning, I cried. Aisha stared at the floor. “Leah, you’ll come with me when I go.” Mama said, lifting me onto her lap.
“I get to stay with you?” I asked. Suddenly I thought about how I would miss Da and Aisha. But it wouldn’t be so bad if I could be with Mama.
“No, pet,” she said. “We’ll have a special, private talk, just the two of us, and we’ll say goodbye . And then you’ll come home. Your Da will come and meet you.”
“What about me?” Aisha’s voice was very small.
“No,” Mama said. Just that. Nothing more. Aisha held her hands to her mouth, but she didn’t look mad. She looked relieved. She took a deep breath, nodded her head. Da held her and rubbed her back.
When he looked at me, though, it was like he was seeing something for the first time.
Mama didn’t tell everybody. The people she did tell asked with brittle voices about me and Aisha. I peeked around the heavy canvas curtain that divided the store from our back hallway and the kitchen, listening as Mama told old Mrs. Benaim she was taking me. “That poor girl,” Mrs. Benaim murmured. She asked when.
“Soon,” Mama said. She looked out the window.
Mrs. Benaim patted Mama’s hand. “Good luck, dear,” she said. She walked slowly to the door, leaning heavily on her cane.
More people came to the store, taking a long time to buy their things, talking to Da quietly. Mama said less and less. If a soldier came into the shop, people left quickly or raised their voices and talked about the weather. The door opened and closed all day, the little copper bell tinkling sadly each time. I used to think it was a happy sound.
The soldiers were in the village all the time now, stalking through the streets. Da made me stay in the back, wouldn’t let me come out in the store. Mama stayed inside, too. When I woke up at night, afraid and crying, she got into bed beside me and rocked me back and forth. “I won’t go without you, Leah,” she whispered, over and over. “You’ll understand, when it’s time. You’re my special girl.” It just made the waiting worse, not knowing when it was coming.
Then one night Mama came into my room in the middle of the night, waking me up with a gentle hand on my shoulder, leaning in close to speak to me. There was that funny light in her eyes again, shining out at me. The smell of metal was on her breath, like a hot frying pan left too long on the stove. “I have to go,” she said.
“We’re going now?” I struggled to sit up, pushing hair out of my face.
“You’re staying here,” she said. Her voice was rough. “It’s not safe.”
“Is it time for our private talk?”
The light in her eyes flickered as she blinked. “I can’t,” she said. I heard something outside, away in the distance. It sounded like somebody shouting. “I’m sorry, Leah. I can’t.”
“But you can’t go yet,” I wailed, grabbing her arms. I tried to hang on to her.
She stiffened, taking hold of my shoulders. “Don’t you want me to be free?” she said. Her voice wasn’t the Mama I knew. It was angry and snarly. “Well?” Her hands dug into me and she gave me a shake. “Don’t you?”
“Y-yes,” I said, trying to talk around gulping sobs, but her fingers were squashing me. This was not like her at all. “Mama, that’s hurting me...”
Her mouth opened in a soundless O. She let go of me, yanking her hands back. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, pet.” When she looked at me, her eyes were her own again.
“It’s okay, Mama,” I said, shivering.
“Listen to me,” she said. “You’ll have to be brave. Don’t be afraid when your time comes.”
I was scared already. “My time for what?”
“You’ll know, when it happens,” she said.
“How will I know if you don’t tell me?”
She hesitated. “It’s not just something to tell. It’s something private, to show.”
“Then show me.”
“I—it’s not time,” she said, licking her lips. “I can’t. Not here.”
“But you said you wouldn’t go away without me,” I said, suddenly angry. “Why did you say it if it wasn’t true?”
She didn’t have an answer. Just looked at me for a long moment. “You’re my special girl, Leah.” She bent quickly and hugged me. Her breath was hot, tickling my ear. “You’re different. Do you understand? Don’t tell anybody. You keep it secret until you meet somebody you love.”
Da called her, told her to hurry. “They’re searching houses,” he said. He was out of breath, still wearing his boots and coat. He’d tracked mud inside. “Ren’s here. Quickly. You have to go.”
I tried to ask her again, hoping she would take a moment, stay a little longer and tell me. But she couldn’t wait, she said. She had to go.
She hugged Aisha, held her a long time, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “Be good,” she said to her. She kissed Da. He didn’t want to let her go. She had to give him a little push to make him let her go. Then she turned to me—I was standing in my nightgown, shivering. The floor was cold under my bare feet. She touched my face gently.
“Leah, I’m sorry,” she said.
“Will you... will you come back for me?” I said. Da made a noise, reached for me.
She hesitated again, her eyes with that shine. “I’ll try,” she said.
My cousin Ren was waiting for Mama in the kitchen, pacing. When he looked at me, I saw the flickering light in his eyes. He was going away, too. It looked like nobody would get to say goodbye to him properly, either. I hated the soldiers so much it hurt.
When the back door closed, Aisha went silently upstairs. Da picked me up, carried me to the rocking chair. He still hadn’t taken his boots off. There was mud all over the floor. “You can’t hold her to it, Leah,” he said. “She can’t come back for you.”
“She’s going to try. She told me so.”
“That doesn’t mean she can.”
I did not want to hear that. I pretended I hadn’t, as we sat and rocked together, staring at the empty fireplace. I was her special girl. Mama would come back for me.
Da made new rules. Stay away from the windows. All the curtains had to be drawn. No sitting where somebody might see us. No running in the house or making noise when the shop was open. Aisha and me had to go down to the cellar if we heard anything on the road and wait for Da to open the door and give the signal that we could come up: three knocks, one long, two short. It was just in case, Da said. Don’t be afraid, he said to me.
But I heard him talking to my uncle Jos one night, when he came down to the village to have a pint with Da in the kitchen. Aisha was allowed to stay and read by the lamp, but they made me go to bed. I clumped up the stairs and then I tiptoed back down to listen to them. I could just see Da, sitting in a chair at the table. “You keep your kinder close,” Da told Jos. “Don’t let them go too far from the house. Keep them safe. Don’t let the soldiers see anything they can use.”
“Now then,” said Jos. “They don’t even know who they’re looking for. They don’t know anything about us. Think we’re simple and stupid.”
“They were going from house to house,” Da said. “Like they had a list.”
Jos swore. Bad words that Aisha would be in trouble for saying, but Da didn’t tell him to watch his mouth in front of her.
“It’ll be over soon,” Jos said. Maybe to her or Da, I don’t know. I couldn’t see.
“Do you think that makes it any better?” Da said.
It was hard to be stuck inside, where everything made me think of Mama. I wanted to be in the fresh air. If I couldn’t be outside, I wanted to be in the store, lifting the lid on the pickle barrel to see them floating in brine, helping pour sultanas into twists of waxed paper. Measuring sugar and the flour, patting the top of the scoop to even it out. I wanted to be busy so I wouldn’t have to think about how much I was missing Mama.
The next day it was nice outside, and I asked Da if I could go down the road and see Maren and her little brother, Niko. He said no.
“I’ll run the whole way,” I said. “It’s not far.”
“No,” he said again. “That’s all there is to it.”
It wasn’t that far. I peeked out the window, and I didn’t see anybody. I snuck out, and I ran the whole way like I’d said. When I got there, though, Niko and Maren’s Da took me back right away. He held my hand so tight I couldn’t feel my fingers.
Da shook me, his face angry and red. He told me not to be so stupid. “Why do you think your mother can’t be here?” he said. “What if you ran into the soldiers?” I couldn’t look him in the eyes. “I’m not going to spank you.” But he said something that made me feel even worse. “She would be so disappointed in you if she was here. Is that what you want? Is it?”
I thought to myself that I would ask Mama when she came back, and I knew she wouldn’t be disappointed. She’d understand. I wondered where she was, and what she was doing. If she was thinking about me.
There were lots of new soldiers in the village, camped in a fallow field. They came to buy things from the store so often that Aisha and me had to spend most of the day in the cellar. They wanted pipe tobacco and sweets, and fresh eggs and milk, and the cured sausages that hung from the ceiling. Jos said something one night about how he wouldn’t take their money. Da said that theirs was good just like anybody else’s and besides, what choice did he have?
“But if they knew,” Jos said. He was coming down to see Da almost every night now, to give him news and to hear what Da knew. If I stayed quiet on the stairs, I could listen to them. “If they find out your wife is one of them, they’ll burn you out. Kill you, and take your girls. Use them to find her.”
“And if I refused them, don’t you think that would look like I had something to hide?”
“You take such a risk,” Jos said, after a moment.
“There’s no way they can find out,” Da said. “Darla’s safe with your son. They’re together. Almost everybody here knows someone who turns. You keep quiet. We all will.”
Jos said that of course he had and he would.
Then Da said, “Have you seen her?”
“I have,” Jos said. My heart came up into my mouth, and I almost flew down the stairs to beg to know what Mama said, what Jos had heard from her. When she was coming back for me. “I saw them yesternight. She’s fine.”
Da sighed. ” Tell her... I miss her. If you can.”
“It’ll be over soon,” Jos said. “She’ll turn, and the others with her. Once they’re gone, the soldiers will leave. There’ll be nothing for them here for a long time.”
“It has to be soon,” Da said. “I can’t take much more of this.” He sounded very sad. I guess he missed Mama as much as I did.
“Wild things got to go free,” Jos said quietly. “You know that.”
The rains started that night. Cold, heavy downpours that drummed on the roof all night. I thought about the soldiers in their tents. I hoped they were cold and wet. Aisha and me put all of the summer linens in cedar chests, replaced them with heavy blankets. I got a hard lump in my throat when I patted the blanket over Mama’s pillow. She’ll come back, I knew. She would come back for me even if Da didn’t think so. I should have asked her how long it would be. This waiting was just as bad as the other kind.
Da carried a mattress down to the cellar for us. “It’s better this way,” he said.
“It’s cold down there,” Aisha said. I wanted to say that, too, but his eyebrows came together like a fat caterpillar and his cheeks went red.
“You can take a hot brick to bed,” he said.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “What if there’s mice?”
“It’s not safe,” he snapped. “That’s all there is to it. Soldiers come in the middle of the night, I can’t be worrying about you. They haven’t found your mother and Ren yet, but they’re looking. They’re getting angry. That makes them more dangerous.” Aisha muttered, but she helped me carry my blankets and pillow down. That night, I slept snuggled into her back. She didn’t push me away.
In the morning, my nose was cold like ice, but I knew better than to complain. The oatmeal Da made was thick and full of horrible lumps. I didn’t say anything, but when he went to open the store, Aisha scraped it all into the compost bucket and made me a jam on bread.
The second night, we heard a loud crashing bang as a door upstairs hit the wall. Thumps and then the sound of something breaking. Heavy footsteps. Like there were a lot of people in the house, all of the sudden. I poked Aisha. She put her hand over my mouth, mashing my lips into my teeth. “Ssh,” she whispered. “Keep quiet.” I could feel her shivering.
Down there in the dark, I could hear men shouting at my father for a long time, the noise rising and falling as they waited for him to answer. It was like listening to thunder rolling just over our heads, but the storm wouldn’t end. We waited, huddled under our blankets, listening for the bolt in the cellar door and footsteps on the stairs that would be the end of us. We waited.
In the morning, when Da gave the secret knocks, we came up to find the store in pieces. Boxes upended on the floor. Bolts of fabric unwound and thrown about. A barrel was on its side, leaking honey in a large, sticky puddle. Things broken or ripped apart, muddy footprints everywhere. Da looked very tired and very sad. The table in the kitchen was overturned. One leg of the rocking chair was broken. Aisha pressed her lips together and started picking up pieces of our plates.
“Why don’t they leave us alone?” I asked Da, watching him as he tried to fix the rocking chair.
“I don’t know,” he said, but he wouldn’t look at me.
“When will they go?”
“Hush up,” Aisha told me.
“When your mother turns,” he said, “they’ll leave.”
I wanted to ask if that was when she would come back to see me, but I knew Da would just tell me I couldn’t hold her to it. “What is she turning?”
“When you’re older,” Da said, “you’ll understand.” He put the pieces of the rocker on the floor, very carefully, stood up and walked out of the room.
I followed him. “I want to know,” I said. “Mama was supposed to tell me something, and she didn’t, and nobody else will tell me anything.”
Aisha pinched me, hard, and when I opened my mouth to tell on her, she gave me a look and her eyes moved over to Da. He sat down on a cushioned chair that had been ripped open by something sharp, and he put his head in his hands. “I should have sent you away from this. I was stupid to think they’d leave us alone,” he said.
“We’re safe with you,” Aisha said.
“I don’t want to leave,” I said. “Why would...”
“It’s too late anyways,” Da sighed. “The roads aren’t safe. We had the chance and I wasted it.”
Jos came when we were still cleaning up. His face was all black and blue, one eye swollen and squinting. His lip was split, and he walked very slow, holding his side. He came in through the kitchen, and he sagged down into a chair and told Aisha to go and get Da. I was scared to see him like that, and he didn’t tell me to not be afraid like a grown-up was supposed to.
“Did you see my Mama?” I asked him. “Is she turning?”
He shook his head. A tiny sound of hurt escaped from him. “I didn’t see her.”
Da came into the kitchen, and he got a funny look on his face when he saw Jos all beat up. He reached out to hold onto the back of a chair. “What happened?” He forgot to send me out. I went back to wiping the floor, not doing a good job but staying very quiet.
“They came up to the farm,” Jos said. The words came out slow, like he was pulling them out carefully because they hurt. “Somebody talked.”
“Somebody...” Da couldn’t finish what he said. The chair creaked under his hand.
“They knew, Pat. They said I had to tell them or...” He stopped, put his hand over his eyes. His shoulders hitched like he was going to throw up.
There were bright spots of red on Da’s cheeks. A vein in his forehead bulged out, thick like a piece of string. “Did you tell them about Darla?” That was Mama’s name. My hands held onto the cloth so tight that water squeezed out between my fingers. “Jos? Did you tell them about Leah?”
“Do they know where she is?” Aisha said.
“I tried, Pat. I’m... I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Jos started to cry. “They were at the byre looking for Darla and Ren. And the others. I came as... fast as I could. Maybe they saw them coming and hid, Pat. I’m sure they did. I didn’t want to tell, but they said they’d take my Anneke and use her to bait Ren out if I didn’t...”
“You fool,” Da said. “You’ve led them right back to her. To both of them.” Da turned suddenly, staring at me. “Get upstairs,” he said. He sounded like he was choking.
“But we’re supposed to go to the cellar,” I said.
“Change. Your warmest clothes. Both of you. They’re going to come here next.”
“Who?” I said. Aisha pulled me upstairs with her. “Who’s coming?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she hissed. She threw my trousers at me, then a shirt and a sweater. She opened the drawer on the dresser so quickly that it almost fell out. She banged on it to get it to close. “Put those on.” She was braiding her hair so quickly that she didn’t see that bunches of it were hanging around her shoulders. “Quickly! The soldiers, Leah. They’re coming back for you.”
I started pulling the trousers on, leaving my skirt on the floor. They were coming back. My heart thumped hard, and I kept thinking about that broken rocking chair and the sounds of men yelling at my Da. Aisha tossed me the thick woollen socks Mama knit for me and pulled her own on. When we came clattering back downstairs, Da had our sheepskin coats and scarves in his arms. Our boots were by the door, and two satchels. He put his hands on Aisha’s shoulders. “Take her down the valley. Stay off the road. Hide if you see soldiers, no matter what you see. Go to the caves and wait there. I’ll come for you.”
Aisha nodded, pulling on her boots.
Then he turned to me. “You have to be brave, pet,” he said. “Listen to your sister.”
“What about Mama?” He pulled my arms roughly through the sleeves of my coat. Everything was happening so quickly. Jos sobbing in the kitchen. Aisha pulling on her mittens. Da turning me around again and doing up the buttons on my coat, even though I was big enough to do it myself. He kept missing the holes. “She won’t know I’m there. When she comes back, she won’t be able to find me.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. It wasn’t a very good answer. “I love you. Both of you.” He was crying now, too. There was a shout outside, on the road. His head swung sharply like a dog getting a scent, and he shoved me towards my sister. “Go out the back,” he said to Aisha. “Run as fast as you can.” She grabbed my hand and jerked me down the hallway towards the jacks, out the door through to the garden and the compost pile. There was more yelling behind us, and I heard Da shout back. Aisha’s grip on my hand was so tight that I couldn’t get free. The chickens scattered, cackling and flapping their wings, scolding as we ran out the back yard.
After so many days inside, the fresh air was colder than I remembered. It was raining just a little, the hills thick with fog and low cloud. There were more sounds behind us—somebody screaming, then the temple bell ringing out. We kept running. I looked over my shoulder and saw smoke beginning to rise, heavy and black. I was so afraid that I nearly fell in the mud, my satchel thumping my ribs. Aisha kept me from going all the way down, catching me. “There’s a fire,” I cried.
“We can’t stop,” she said. “We’ve got to get to the caves.” She took us into the tall grass, towards the forest, following the narrow track the hunters used when they went out for deer. My trousers got wet as we ran. “Don’t go in the mud,” she warned me, “you’ll leave footprints. Stay on the rocks.” Aisha let go of my hand so she could push through the holly bushes that marked the village, holding them back for me. On the other side, we stood, panting. She waited for me to catch my breath. I had such a stitch in my side that I was bent nearly in half.
There was a scuffling noise behind us, and Aisha whirled, a knife in her hand. I didn’t even know she had it. I was so surprised that my mouth fell open. “Get behind me,” she said. Her jaw was set. The holly bushes shivered, twigs snapping as something came closer. “Get ready to run,” she told me. She raised the knife, holding it awkwardly. The point danced around in the air.
But it wasn’t a soldier that came bursting through. It was Niko. He came tumbling out of the waxy green leaves, a long angry scratch on his face, cuts on his hands. He was crying, and his hair was filled with muck. “Aisha?”
“Where’s Maren?” Aisha said, the knife clenched in her hand.
“They took her.” A long bubble of snot dripped out of his nose, hitching back up as he sniffed. He didn’t wipe it away as it came sliding back down again.
“We’re going to the caves,” Aisha said, putting the knife back into a sheath on her belt. “Come with us.”
“My Da said they knew about the caves. He said I should go up to the byre.”
“Our Da said not to.”
“Your Da’s dead.”
It hit me in the middle like a punch. Aisha shook her head and looked away, up at the trees, blinking quickly. I couldn’t catch my breath. “You’re lying,” I said. “You’re a stupid liar.”
“Am not.” He gave a cough that ended in a painful hiccup. “I saw it. They started a fire inside your house and they hit him and pushed him inside. I ran away.”
“Then you don’t know for sure,” Aisha said. Her voice shook. The temple bell stopped ringing, cut off suddenly with a sharp clatter that echoed. “We have to go.”
“To the caves?” I asked.
She took her coat off and put it around Niko. He was shivering and wet, wearing his inside clothes. There hadn’t been time for him to get warm things, I thought. It scared me to think that. Niko’s Da wouldn’t send him without his own coat if there was time.
“When did your Da tell you about the caves?” Aisha asked him. She rolled the sleeves up for him.
“When he told me to go.”
She wrapped her scarf around his neck. “Are you sure, Niko?” He nodded.
Aisha bit her lip. The wind came down the slopes in a gust, and the trees sighed and rubbed against each other like old ladies murmuring questions. The sky was swollen with clouds, the smell of wet dirt and old leaves close and heavy.
“How many soldiers did you see?”
“A lot of them. A lot.”
She nodded to herself. “Then we’re going to the byre.”
I protested. “But Da said...”
“He didn’t know, Leah.”
“He won’t find us,” I wailed. “He won’t know where we are!”
“Mama is up by the byre,” she said. “The soldiers probably all came down from Jos’s place. They’ll be gone. We’ll go up and find her. She’s with all the others. Nobody’s turned yet, he said, so we’ll get to her before she does.”
I wanted to see Mama so badly. She could tell me her private talk. But Da told us to stay away from the hills and the soldiers. The soldiers hurt Jos. Maybe they hurt Da. If they found us, they would hurt us, too. I knew it.
“I’m in charge,” Aisha said. “I’m the oldest.”
So we went up into the hills. The rain came down heavier, and the clouds grew so thick that we couldn’t see down into the valley. I couldn’t see the village. I kept turning back to look for it. Aisha told me to stop.
We made our way up, slipping in the wet grass, bruising our knees as we climbed over the rocks. Aisha’s hair was plastered to her head. She’d given her hat to Niko. The rain began to change to snow the farther up we went. Our breath came out in plumes.
When we stumbled into the sheep, it terrified me. They baaed frantically and scattered away. The snow whipped around us, blindingly white and bright. My feet were like ice. Niko started crying again, asking to stop and saying he was tired, but Aisha drove us on until we found the byre: a dark, low shape in the snow.
We staggered inside. The gloom was a shock; I couldn’t see anything. The byre was empty and smelled strongly of dung, but it was warmer to be where the wind couldn’t tear at us. We stood there, the three of us. I expected Aisha to say something. She didn’t. I could hear her teeth chattering.
Niko spoke first. “W-where are they?”
I wanted to know that, too. Mama and Ren were supposed to be here, hiding where Jos could bring them food and tell them when the soldiers were gone. It only made sense for them to live in the byre. There wasn’t any other place for them to go. But they weren’t here. Nobody was here.
“Where are they?” Niko asked again.
“They’re probably hiding,” Aisha said. She sat down heavily.
I sat down, too, and leaned against her. She was too tired to push me away. “Will they come back soon?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
Niko went to the entrance and looked out. “It’s still snowing.”
“We’ll wait here,” Aisha said. “They’ll come.”
It might have been worse if it was night. In the dark, everything is scarier and nothing is the way it is during the day. It was a long time that we sat there, waiting, the wind howling through the cracks in the roof and throwing ice pellets and snow inside the door. Aisha gathered up some of the old hay left in the byre and heaped it around us to stay warm. I thought about Da. He would have got out, I decided. He was strong. He won the wrestling contest at the midsummer festival. Nobody could push him out of the circle. Niko fell asleep, and Aisha and I waited. She took the knife out again and held it. It was from our kitchen, the wooden handle worn smooth. It was the one Mama used to chop potatoes and onions. “When did you get that?”
“Da gave it to me,” she said.
“Mama’s coming, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think she turned yet?”
Aisha shook her head. “You don’t even know what that means, Leah,” she said.
“I do too,” I said. Maybe she wouldn’t know it was a lie.
She put her arm around me. “It’s okay that you don’t know. She was supposed to tell you.”
“She can still tell me. I don’t mind if it’s after she’s turned.”
Aisha hesitated. “Leah, if she’s turned, it means she’s gone away.”
“Far off,” Aisha said. “Too far for you to go,” she added, before I could ask.
I had a sudden scary thought. What if Mama wasn’t coming back? What if she couldn’t? I didn’t want to say it out loud. It would make it true, somehow, a real thing. I tried to bite it back, but the question came out of me, small and scared. “But... what about our private talk? She said there were things I had to know. What’s going to happen if I don’t know them?”
Aisha didn’t answer me for a long time. She sniffled. “I don’t know.”
“Do you know it?”
Her arm around me tightened, like she was afraid, but her voice was gentle and sad. “No. It’s something for you,” Aisha said softly. She looked down at the knife in her hands. “Not me.”
I worried about it for a long time. Niko slept on, his breathing deep and slow, one hand tucked under his chin. “Why doesn’t anybody come back after they go away?” I asked.
“Because they can’t,” Aisha said.
“They don’t want to?”
“They don’t know to.”
Her words felt like heavy stones dropping into a well, knocking hard against the sides and falling into a dark place.
After a long time, it started to get darker. The sheep came, looking inside the byre anxiously. Eventually they crowded in. It was warmer with them inside, but it smelled terrible. I felt around in my satchel. Da had put bread in there, and cheese, and apples. Aisha told me to just eat one apple and save the rest. I fed the core to an ewe who thrust her face into my lap. Then I wrapped my hands around my legs and rested my head on my knees. I was so tired. I closed my eyes.
I woke up in a panic, thrashing around. Something had a hold of me. I tried to yell for Aisha, but there was a hand over my mouth.
“Quiet,” somebody said. “Shut her up.”
“Leah,” said the first voice. “Ssh, quiet. It’s all right. Be quiet.”
It should have been my mother waking me up, smoothing the hair away from my face. Not my cousin Ren. He pushed the sheep away. They muttered at him as he pulled me to my feet. In the dim light, I could see somebody else standing with Aisha, somebody picking up Niko. The grown-ups. They had come for us, just like Aisha said they would. “Mama? Mama?”
“She’s not here,” Ren said. “Quiet now. Can you walk?”
Of course I could walk, I wanted to say, but the way the grown-ups were looking around, skittish and nervous. I nodded. We came out into the night. The snow had stopped. The sky was pink, the way it looks before more snow comes. The ground was covered. The first snow of the year, I thought. The first one to stick, to count. It was cold, and I thought about Aisha not having a coat. She’d get sick.
“Come on. Quietly. We have to go.”
The sheep had trampled a path in the snow, and we followed their tracks higher, into the hills. Up here, it was fir trees, and when we stepped into them, the ground was drier and needles crunched underneath my feet. Tamrin, the baker, walked with Aisha. The smith’s brother carried Niko. Nobody offered to carry me. I was too big for it, I told myself. My legs were tired and wobbly. I stumbled.
“Just a little further now,” Ren said. “We’re almost there, Leah.”
“Is Mama there?” He didn’t answer me, and worry made worms in my stomach. I could feel them twisting themselves around, making knots, chewing on my insides. Nothing felt right. Not a thing.
“Da told us to go to the caves,” Aisha said to Tamrin. “But we found Niko, and he said that... that the soldiers killed him.”
“Maybe not. You don’t know, love.”
“Niko said they knew about the caves.”
“We haven’t been there for a while. We like it better up here. They don’t come up this far.”
“Jos told them about the byre,” Aisha said.
There was hiss of indrawn breath from Tamrin, and Ren’s head turned. “What?”
“They beat him up. He came to tell Da, and he said that somebody talked. He said he told them about the byre. They were down in the village when we left, so I thought they wouldn’t come back up. Not if it was raining...”
“You did fine,” Tamrin said. He sounded like he wasn’t telling the truth.
After a long time, I saw the glow of a fire in a clearing ahead of us. The worms in my tummy all joined together in one big lump. I wanted to run towards it, to sing out to Mama that I’d come. I didn’t. Ren had a hand on my shoulder, holding me tight.
He called out quietly as we came in to the clearing. “It’s us. We found children.”
A woman stood up as we came close. My heart gave a funny lurch. But she was the wrong shape. She didn’t move like Mama. Her eyes shone, flashing and glowing as she looked at us, and she hugged her arms. “Who?” It wasn’t my Mama’s voice.
“Niko. And Aisha and Leah.”
With a choking noise, Niko’s mother rushed forward to take him in her arms. “Oh, my sweet boy.” He clung to her neck. “Where’s Maren? Where’s your sister?”
“The soldiers took her,” he said, trying not to cry. I could hear the shaking in his voice.
“I’ll kill them,” she said fiercely. “All of them.”
“Quiet,” Ren said to her. “You won’t. That’s what they want.”
Niko’s mother hissed at him, her teeth bared.
I looked all around. I couldn’t see my mother. “Mama?” I called. “Where are you?”
Aisha took my hand. “Leah...”
“She turned,” Ren said softly. “She had to go.”
I shook my head. “No. She still had to tell me. She said I’m her special girl. She said she would. She said she’d come back for me and show me . She promised.”
“She wanted to...”
“MAMA!” I screamed, too loud, too big, even though I knew I should be quiet. The soldiers could be anywhere looking for us. “MAMA!” I couldn’t stop myself; I wanted to tear myself open. I wanted my Mama more than anything in the world. I cried and cried, and Ren tried to hold me, but I pushed him away. I didn’t want Ren. I didn’t want Aisha. I wanted Mama. I wanted Da. But I wanted Mama more.
“Leah, please—please be quiet.” Ren grabbed me and this time I couldn’t get free. “She turned.” Aisha had her hands over her mouth. “She waited as long as she could. She had to go away. It wouldn’t have been safe for the rest of us if she stayed.”
It wasn’t fair. I repeated it in my head over and over. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t. “But she said I was special...”
Ren spoke to me gently. “I know you are, pet,” he said.
It didn’t make me feel any better, the way he looked at me. “Who’s going to tell me now?” I asked.
Aisha looked at Ren. He didn’t say anything, rubbing the back of his neck.
Niko sat in his mother’s lap. She had her arms around him, murmuring in his ear. Telling him the things he needed to know, that my Mama should have told me. Showing him her hands, the fingers clenched together, clawlike and crabbed. Letting him touch the webbing that was growing between them. Her skin was dusky, her eyes were almost the shape of apple seeds, already green and gold. They glowed. She sat with her back hunched, and I could see lumps under her clothes where the wings would come out. Niko would get to see his mother turn, and he would say goodbye to her properly, before her wings dried and she flew away into the mountains.
Ren interrupted her, asked if she would talk to me. She bared her teeth at him, her eyes shining, and wrapped her arms tighter around Niko. Aisha got up and carefully moved to the other side of me.
Ren said he thought he would turn the last, that he would stay with us. Niko’s mother went silent. We sat a long time, waiting. Ren put more wood on the fire and wrapped blankets around Aisha. He brewed tea in a little kettle. There weren’t enough mugs and we had to share, passing them back and forth.
I sat and wondered what Mama thought when she finally went away, got free of what she was and turned into something else. Ren said she wanted to. I didn’t know why she couldn’t tell me that. I wished she could have told me about it herself. About what made her special. And me. I wasn’t mad at her for breaking her promise. Ren said she couldn’t help it. But she never should have said she’d come back if she knew she couldn’t. It wasn’t fair.
The sky began to clear, and it got colder. The moons rose, one chasing the other, bathing the trees in silvery light. Niko’s mother kissed him again, running her hands through his hair. “We’ll be together again, when you’re grown,” she said. Then she stepped back into the dark, shedding her clothes and letting them fall to the ground. We all watched, even Aisha, as she began to take her shape.
She was turned and crouched on the ground when the soldiers came crashing into the camp. We hadn’t heard the sounds in the forest; we were all too busy watching Niko’s mother.
A soldier grabbed Niko and held a sword to his throat. “I’ll kill him!” he said, his voice sharp-edged and cold. Niko’s mother hissed, low and long. She scuttled towards us. Her tongue flickered out, testing the air, and her wings trembled. She was already longer than the draft horses that pulled the carts through the village, and the wildness was coming into her eyes.
“You... no...” She had only a bit of her voice left. She reared to her back legs, her wings beating the air.
“Let her go!” yelled Aisha, suddenly rushing forward. “Don’t! Just let her be!” One of the soldiers hit her hard across her face, and she staggered back into another’s arms. Ren was on the ground, two soldiers kneeling on his back. Tamrin and the smith’s brother were gone. Probably run into the woods to hide, afraid they’d be caught and taken away to turn inside a soldier’s dungeon where they couldn’t fly away and be free. I hid in the shadows, very small and still. Nobody saw me. If I stayed very quiet, I might get away, I thought. I could sneak away into the woods. But I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but clench my fists, a noise like running water in my ears.
“Where’s your sister?” the soldier snarled at Aisha, leaning in close to her. “Tell me.” She spat at him. He hit her again and again. Ren yelled for him to leave her alone, and the soldiers sitting on him smashed his head into the ground. He stopped making any noise.
Niko’s mother howled, a roar that shook the trees. A soldier stood between her and the one that held Niko. He was wearing a very fine coat, nicer than the others, and he had a handsome face. I hated him. I hated him so much it hurt.
He spoke to Niko’s mother, smiling at her like she was a dumb animal. “If you come with us, we’ll let him go.” He held a steel band in his hands. It was studded with metal spikes, the long chains looped around one arm, horrible and clanking. A hood hung over his other arm. “Let us collar you. Come with us. We’ll leave him be. We won’t come back for him. You know how this works.”
She swung her head back and forth, growling with distress.
“Come back with us. You’re almost gone now. Do this last thing for your boy. Come, now. Come to me. You know it has to be this way.” He spoke gently, soothing. He took a slow step closer.
Niko sobbed loudly. He wasn’t brave enough to tell his mother to leave him, to leap into the sky and fly away. I could see it in his face. He wanted her to stay, even if it meant that she would be collared, for the soldiers.
He was so selfish. It was an angry thought, vicious and mean, but it was all I had in me.
Niko’s mother lowered her head. Her golden eyes shone with tears, and her wings shook, her tail thrashing behind her. The soldier came closer again, holding that awful collar in his hands. Aisha yelled, “No! Don’t do it! Go!” The handsome soldier jerked his head at her, and the one holding her put his hand around her throat, choking off her words.
“Anything more, and I’ll kill you,” he snarled at her.
Niko’s mother took a slow step forward. It felt like everything was standing still, waiting for her to lower her head and take the collar. I wanted to shout out, to tell her to go, but I wasn’t as brave as my sister. Only a tiny whimper came out of my mouth.
I heard a creaking sound, like leather on a good saddle. There was a sudden buffet of wind that made the fire dance. Sparks flew in every direction. A dragon’s voice sounded, wild and screaming in the night, and a gout of flame came splashing down from the sky, towards the handsome soldier and his collar, sending him scrambling back. I looked up.
I saw her.
She was bigger than the biggest dragon I could have ever imagined, glowing blue in the moonlight. Her wings were like sails on a riverboat, and they beat at the night sky as she hovered above the clearing. She bellowed with defiance as the soldiers scattered. One of them tried to fire an arrow at her, but she sent a curtain of flame down across him. He fell in a twitching heap on the ground, the dry fir needles around him crackling.
The soldier holding Niko let him go, and his mother shrieked and lunged forward. “Mmmmy boy....” She snapped her jaws at the handsome soldier with his collar, biting him in two. The others ran off into the night and Niko’s mother jumped to the air and went after them, her eyes flashing and with a bloodthirsty growl. Aisha threw herself at Ren, sawing at the ropes with her kitchen knife, weeping.
I came out of my hiding spot into the clearing, looking up at that dragon. I should have been scared. They were dangerous. Ren had told me that. The wild in them had taken them away from everything they knew. They couldn’t remember anything from before. Mama had turned. She wouldn’t know me anymore—not as her special girl. She could kill me as quick as the soldier lying in stinking bloody pieces on the ground in front of me. I knew I should be afraid for my life.
But something in me was alive with joy. I wasn’t afraid. Not one bit.
She hung in the air, her wings still beating strongly. I could feel the wildness in her. She should be high in the mountains already, away from people. But something had kept her close. She’d come back. And she had saved us.
“Mama?” I said.
Her head came down, and I thought she would come to me. I wanted it to be Mama. I wanted her to come, to settle gently in the snow and the fir needles, let me touch her once more, to let me hold myself against her beautiful, gleaming muzzle. To say goodbye. Maybe there was still something she could still show me, something special for me to know. I held my breath, the want in me so powerful I thought it would call her down all on its own.
She hung in the air. There was a gentle crooning noise from deep in her throat, a comforting, rumbling song. A lullaby. I knew it, and I called her again. “Mama?”
Aisha came to stand beside me. Mama swung her head and growled at her . The wild was in Mama, powerful and strong.
“Leah, we have to go.” Aisha’s voice shook as she pulled me back. “It’s not safe. Come on.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “She knows me!”
“She has to go away now,” Aisha said, wrenching my arm as I struggled to pull away. “She can’t stay here. She doesn’t remember you.”
“She’s a wild thing,” Aisha said. One eye was swollen shut, her nose bleeding. “She’s not our Mama anymore, Leah. Let her go!”
“Don’t listen to her, Mama!” I said. “You can stay. Please? Please stay?” I was as selfish as Niko, as bad as he was. It made me ashamed, but I wanted her to stay. Mama?”
She tilted her head to one side, blinking. She was too wild to say anything to me. Aisha hugged me. “Let her go,” she said.
“Leah, tell her to go. She can’t stay. You know that.”
“NO!” I howled it. “She doesn’t have to go away to be free. I can help her. I can come up here every day, and she can stay with me.” We can still stay together. Mama, please? Can’t you stay with me?”
But Mama was already turning in the air, bringing her tail underneath her and shifting her sinuous body. The moonlight made her blue hide twinkle, like she was covered in jewels. She looked down at us, her head curved under her wings. She lifted higher, circling twice. Then she turned west, towards the mountains.
My Mama was turned and gone away. I was so sad I thought it would split me into a thousand tiny pieces.
Ren stayed with us until it was time for him to go, too. He limped back to the fire, and he let me sit in his lap while he told me about when he found out he was different. “I wasn’t much older than you,” he said. I wondered what it would have been like to hold my Mama’s hands, to have those last moments with her. To have her tell me everything Ren was telling me. To have her say to me one last time, that she loved me.
I watched him change, his red wings glistening. He let me come to him, but Aisha stayed back. She wasn’t like me. It wasn’t safe. Ren told me my Mama loved me. “Don’t mmmmmiss her,” he said, while he still had his words. I leaned against him, my arms around his warm muzzle before he finally pushed me away. “She’s not gone. You’ll be with her again. You wwwill.”
When he left, crashing through the trees to get away from us, Aisha came close and held me and Niko tightly. We sat by the fire, our eyes smarting from the smoke and the sorrow that curled around us.
“You’ll go with them one day,” Aisha said Softly, to me. “You’ll see her again.”
“It’ll be years and years,” I said, sobbing. “She won’t remember me.”
“It’ll be different when you turn,” Aisha said. “She’ll know you then.” She held me close, the way Mama would have. “Don’t worry.” I cried until I was empty.
When we went back to the village in the morning, tired and alone, everybody stared. Niko’s father took him home. Aisha and I stood in front of our burned down house while the grown-ups talked to each other about who would take us.
“When I turn,” I told Aisha, “before I go to Mama, I’m going to kill all the soldiers I can find.”
“I’ll come with you,” she said. She held my hand tight. “I promise. I’ll come and watch until you turn.”
“I’ll stay with you after,” I said. “I won’t ever leave you alone.”
“Yes, you will,” she said. “You’ll go to Mama. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
We stood and looked at the ashes for a very long time, and I felt the wild in me. Beating, throbbing. Waiting to get free.