The man in iron dismounted his horse and unfurled a scroll. His lips moved, but Eris couldn’t hear what he was saying from this distance. She absently beat the bundle of wheat against the floor. Her father’s shoulders sank, and despite her sisters’ assistance, he collapsed to the ground, his face in his hands.
Eris dropped the wheat. Not again. She maneuvered her way through the rows of withered stalks that separated the hut from the dirt path. Victoria and Constance weren’t going to dissuade her this time. The barren soil crunched under Eris’s feet, drawing the attention of her second sister.
“Go back,” Constance said. “You don’t need to be here.”
Eris ignored the order. “Is he coming to collect again?”
Victoria moved to block Eris from approaching. “And we will give you what we owe once we finish winnowing the rest,” she said to the man. “We only need more time.”
He rolled his eyes, his fist knocking against the side of his iron helmet. “If I gave time to every peasant, I will never collect what is due to me. It is today, or nothing.” He rolled up the scroll and dropped it in front of her sobbing father.
“Rafe, the harvest has just barely wound down,” Victoria said. “We have what we owe here-”
“Do you?” Rafe laughed, waving to the shriveled leaves and cracked earth. “I see no gold here. Your father is a thief, and this is the just punishment meted out to people like him.”
Eris ducked under Victoria’s arm and rushed towards him, throwing her fist against his armored stomach. It did no better than an apple smashing a rock. Pain radiated up into her shoulder, but before Eris was able to hit him again, Victoria pulled her back. The silhouettes of her sisters blocked the light of the setting autumn sun.
“I apologize,” Constance said, clasping her hands together. “She is a young girl of nine and knows very little.”
The man peered above her sisters to stare at Eris. “Would you like to go to jail, little girl?”
Constance’s freckled face creased with worry. Tell him what he needs to hear, she seemed to say.
Eris picked at the broken skin on her knuckles. “No,” she muttered.
“Then you will think again when you raise a hand against someone with the law of the land behind him.” He rubbed against the spot where Eris had hit him. “I see a dent. I’m increasing the debt another fifty gold pieces.”
Eris tiptoed to peek through the gaps between her sisters’ bodies. “We couldn’t pay, what makes you think raising it would make us pay more?” she shouted.
Victoria’s hand smothered Eris’s mouth. “Please be quiet.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “A hundred gold pieces.”
Her father’s cries grew louder. It was only watching herself be the cause of her father’s distress that Eris stopped pawing against Victoria’s grip.
Constance knelt and placed her arms around her father’s back. “I’m deeply sorry,” she said, bending so low her forehead touched the ground. “I beg you to reconsider.”
He mounted his horse. “The two kings said that those who trespass must face the consequences of their actions. I am following their example.” He loosened the horse’s reins, and the horse broke into a trot. “This land will default to me in three days. I suggest you prepare for that.”
Victoria’s grip on Eris’s mouth grew tighter as he rode away.
“We warned you to go back,” Constance said, refusing to look at Eris. “Now look what’s happened.”
Eris pulled away from Victoria, rubbing the imprint made on her cheeks. “He called Father a thief!”
“Oh Eris,” Victoria said, “what do names matter when our entire lives now belong to him? In three days, we become his slaves.”
Constance helped their father up, trampling over the failed crops as they made their way back to their mudbrick hut. “Everything we make will go to him until the debt is repaid,” she said, “and now you’ve quadrupled that.”
“Then I’ll pay it on my own,” Eris huffed.
Victoria ignored Eris – as she always did – jogging ahead to walk in pace with Constance. “We have to leave,” Victoria said. “The City has plenty of work there. We’ll make do as bricklayers or haulers-”
“And live on the streets as beggars? We’ll be slaves here, but at least we’ll have a roof.”
“There’s a hospice there. I’ve talked to the physician before. He’ll help us.” Victoria picked up the bushel of wheat that Eris had dropped and smashed it against the floor. Grain bounced into the air. “Thresh as much as these two days will allow,” Victoria said. “We’ll take these to sell in the market, and that should be enough for us to get by until we find work there.”
But Eris wasn’t listening. Her focus now lay to the sparsely dotted tree stumps that bordered the forest beyond the fields, and the long mountain range beyond.
“It’s my last night here,” Eris whispered to the foot of the mountain.
It was in this particular spot along the mountain range that a persistent wind emanated here. She often sat by the base of this mountain after a day of toiling in the fields to feel the breeze on her face.
She loved the smell of the poplar at night. The woods kept a musty scent in the air and it didn’t dry her throat out. A melodious cacophony filled the forest – the occasional bird who also suffered from insomnia chirped about, out of sync with the crickets, who were in turn out of sync with the rustle of the branches. There was an erratic pace to the world here, and Eris liked it. The neighboring farmers once told her it was the spirit of the Creature at work, haunting those who dared to venture into its territory, whispering the same deceit into the ears of others as it did centuries ago. They warned her not to go into the woods alone, but her father didn’t seem to mind so much, choosing to let her roam free.
He used to run into the woods to play hide-and-seek with her. He was large and bronzed in his yellowing tunic, and his eyes would widen in mock surprise as Eris caught the foot of his sandal sticking out from a tree trunk too thin for him to hide behind. As she grew older, he hid better, but he stopped showing his teeth when he smiled. One day he stopped playing with her altogether.
Knowing the North Star and the constellations of stars surrounding it grounded Eris’s navigation. If it was day, finding the position of the sun was a simple enough task, but she didn’t like how hot it would get, especially if it was sowing season. At night, it was much more preferable if there was a full moon. She didn’t quite need to see where she was going as long as the stars were visible, but she liked the light filtering weakly through the leaves, bathing the wood in a blue ethereal glow.
Her favorite part of the woods was the muddy spot near the brook that trailed alongside the mountain range. Tonight she took off her sandals here and sunk her feet into the wet earth, the cool water seeping into the cracks she made. The cramps in her feet faded away, little mountains of mud rising and falling with every wriggle of her toes. It was in this spot, just a few months ago, when she heard the whistle, humming a song that she did not recognize.
When her feet were properly soothed, she washed off the mud and put her sandals back on, making her way to the bit of rock by the foot of the mountain. Once she hoped the song came from a magical lady of the wood, but to her disappointment, the whistle breezed past the solid rock here. She pretended the whistle was a being that was trapped inside the rock and could only communicate through singing.
Unlike the other voices in the wood, the wind only sang one song, humming or screeching it depending on the coldness of the night. Tonight she was soft enough for Eris to hear herself whisper.
She picked up a rock and tossed it at the ground. “I don’t know why we can’t get to keep more of it if we grew it.” She threw the rock again, and she harder she threw, the quicker the voices of the forest diminished. “It doesn’t make sense to me. If we don’t have enough to eat, then we can’t grow any more food for him to collect.”
Only the wind remained, a single note quavering in the silence of the forest. Eris came here for one reason, and she balked at saying it out loud. She touched the rocks, the spongy texture of the moss squishing between her fingers. “I asked Victoria how far away the City was, and she said it was far enough.”
She didn’t try to stop her tears from forming here, unlike her time at home. The foray into the wood allowed her the occasional outburst. The wood didn’t seem to mind, unlike Victoria’s impatient huff. Her sisters did not grip her here, and she could scream or shout without care.
Her words came in short breaths as she struggled to cry and talk at the same time. “I… I don’t think I can come back.”
The admittance settled into a finality. She couldn’t stop the sound that emanated from her throat, and it carried on even when there was no more air in her lungs. She felt wrung out, a filthy twisted rag, squeezing out every drop of sadness. Her hand balled into a fist, pulling up soil and root from the base of the mountain.
Tonight, the wind responded. When Eris stopped to wheeze for breath, a loud crack split the air.
The trees swayed. A jagged crack in the mountain sprinted upwards, the gap growing wider as the quake threatened to tear the mountain apart. Eris scrambled to her feet only for the shaking earth to knock her down again. Branches snapped, rocks and shards of wood all fell around her. A boulder narrowly missed her outstretched hand. She recoiled and crawled on all fours, reaching for the nearest tree and clung to its trunk. The leaves rustled and fell, naked branches rattling violently to the beat of the earth.
A force pulled on her back and arms, yanking her away from the tree. She fell to the ground. A heavy weight crushed down upon her, and she screamed in confusion. A tree had fallen on her. I am going to die.
But as quickly as it happened, the quake stopped. A loud ringing flooded Eris’s ears before she realized it was the sound of her own screaming. A cloud of mud had ballooned up from the ground. She squinted through the haze, trying to search for the slightest hint of light from the stars above.
“Eris, shh…” the voice said, and despite the dullness of her hearing, she recognized it. The weight on her gradually lifted, shaking off the rocks and dirt that had fallen on them. She blinked, trying her best to distinguish the man’s silhouette in the darkness. The calloused, leathery texture of his arms wrapped around her body.
“Father,” she gasped.
“Thank the kings you’re alive,” he said, pulling her into a hug. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine.” Eris pressed her face against the rough hemp of his tunic. Her hands shook, her breath racing to catch up with the tenseness of her limbs. She was surprised at the sweet exhilaration in her body, and all she wanted to do was run. All the senses in her body felt alight at once, a swirl of burning energy within her, ready to overflow.
To her surprise, she found herself smiling.
“I saw you leaving,” her father said. “I thought you were running away.”
“I’m sorry for worrying you,” she said, a line she had memorized and spoke all too frequently. “I’m sorry I hit that man.”
He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have put this on you.” His voice hitched as he tightened his arms around her. “On you, and Victoria and Stazi… I should’ve been a better father… can’t even provide for my own children properly…”
“It’s all right,” Eris said, stroking his arm to hush the pain away. “Let’s go home.”
Her father wiped his face on his sleeve. “Let’s wait for the stars to come back.”
They sat on the ground, holding hands as they waited for the cloud of mud and dust to settle. The occasional cough from her father punctuated the silence. As the dust filtered away, a harsh shadow remained beyond the crack in the mountain. A gust replaced the whistling breeze, howling through the narrow chamber. Eris tasted the warm air on her tongue. The crack in the mountain was thin but deep, wide enough to fit a single man.
They both approached the crack together. Her little body pressed against the mountain’s edge, hovering just out of reach of her father’s protective hand. Eris craned her head as far as her neck would allow. A pool of water glinted in the moonlight, but a wide shadow stood in the distance, its edges jagged and irregular. A fleet of ships? A village? Eris ducked under her father’s hand, approaching the inside of the crack.
“What’s over there?” she asked.
Her father’s arms seized her waist and lifted her off the ground. “No, we have to go back,” he said, hoisting her to his chest. “Victoria will be very cross with us. We have to leave for the City.” He patted her, turning away from the mountain, and looked towards the North Star.
The further he walked, the more the crack faded into the darkness. Eris squinted until the poplar leaves engulfed the mountain whole, the shadow finally disappearing from her sight.
For a moment, she thought her father glanced back too.