Adam rubbed his fingers across the folded, palm-sized piece of papla leaf. Crude writing material for such a potent message. He doubled it over a second time and creased it before setting it on the wooden floor where he crouched.
Sunlight from the window fell on his hand. He jerked it back, putting the knuckle of his middle finger into his mouth. The taste of salt, dirt, and dried blood coated his tongue, but the dark-red stain remained.
So did the memory.
Images of Vaace’s body in the ropes, the pounding hammer, the white-faced executioners, and the extended fingers flashed before his eyes afresh. Adam pressed his hands over his face and let them slide through his sweaty hair. He needed to keep moving.
He stuffed a cloak and a large knife into his sack. What else? He scanned the stone walls and wooden shelves of his one-room house for any items he had overlooked. Dried goat meat? He had enough for the journey. A bundle of green funja stems? Edible, but since Susan, his wife, wasn’t here yet he could avoid them. Extra water? He needed to conserve it, but maybe he should bring a little more for planting the seed.
Adam felt the lump in his pocket. Could it really grow a tree of life? By then, the famine would have finished them. But maybe the very act of obedience to the king’s command would appease his anger. Maybe that was the greater need anyway. There wasn’t much hope otherwise, not after … he glanced at the papla leaf.
He stood to grab a rope off the nail by the door when the sound of crunching dirt brought him up short. Heavy crunching. Those can’t be Susan’s footsteps. Turning back, he dropped to his knees and scooped up the papla leaf just as the door thudded open.
“Adam, are you out of your mind?” Tari’s voice filled the room.
Adam kept his back to his brother and pushed an extra cloak into his sack for his wife.
Tari stepped over the pile of clothes littering the floor. Though younger by two years, he stood almost a head taller than Adam and never seemed to let him forget it.
Tari squeezed Adam’s shoulder. “Please tell me Father was lying.”
Adam slid the piece of papla into his pocket before turning to meet his brother’s gaze. Their faces mirrored each other. Thick black hair crowned high foreheads and dark-blue eyes.
“He’s not lying.” Adam stood, lifting the sack to his shoulder. “I’ve put this off long enough.”
Tari rose with him. “But why? What good will it do? You’re only throwing your life away.”
Adam gestured out the open doorway. The last rays of the setting sun fell across miles of brown, baked fields. “What good will it do? I remember when this land was green, when the funja plants produced purple fruits as big as a man’s hand instead of mouthfuls of stringy leaves and stems. I remember when people smiled at each other … before the king left. And now look.”
A group of men in the distance struggled to carry a limp figure in their arms—another victim of hunger and labor. Adam took a deep breath. “That makes at least three in one afternoon. How long do you think this can go on?”
Tari stepped in front of him and slammed the door. “I can see for myself, but”—he scanned the room—“you can’t save those men by planting a seed on a mountaintop!”
Adam gritted his teeth. In his pocket he squeezed the small, hard seed, right next to the folded papla. “King Eliab promised—”
Tari cut him off with a wave of the hand. “That trees of life would grow from those special seeds if we planted them in the Mount of Humility. I know. But where are they then? Where are these trees of life? The king’s been gone for over thirty years. Mother planted her seed at least three times way back at the beginning, and”—he lowered his voice—“you know what happened to her.”
“What do you know about that?” The words erupted before Adam could stop. His cheeks burned, and he turned his face toward the window. Tari hadn’t been old enough to remember when Father banished Mother.
But Adam remembered. The light in Mother’s eyes and the firmness in her step had dogged his memory until now. Always, he had longed for the courage to follow her.
Tari sighed. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m not trying to be hurtful. But I don’t want to lose you. Whether Father’s right or wrong, he’s still the governor, and he might banish you as well. Won’t you reconsider?”
“Not this time. My mind’s made up.”
“Then wait until morning. The Keeda roam the woods at night. You’re no match for a pack of forest warriors.”
Adam studied the blood stains on his hands.
“Some say a dragon lives on that mountain. Adam, have you no fear?”
“Yes!” Adam whirled to face his brother. “I fear the king. Our city has betrayed him, broken his laws, and murdered his messengers.” He uncurled his reddened fingers. “I don’t believe this famine is mere coincidence.”
“Surely you don’t think—”
“Stop. He has the power of the Ruuwh. Even now, he may be listening.”
Tari snorted. “You actually believe he can see everywhere? Even if that legend were true, whatever the Ruuwh is supposed to be, you can’t expect him to control the weather.”
“The Ruuwh is greater than you imagine. I don’t understand it all, but from what I’ve learned from his messengers, the king’s spiritual force controls all Aard.”
Adam pointed out the window to the distant mountains. “At night I dream of royal soldiers pouring into our city with swords and torches. It could happen any day. Already the prophesied famine ravages our city, just as the Stones predicted. And now—”
Adam broke off and drew the papla leaf from his pocket.
Tari furrowed his brow. “What is it?”
“I spoke with Vaace this morning after distribution. I needed answers. Father must have noticed, or someone told him. This afternoon the Keeda took Vaace to Red Rock. I tried to stop them, but Father had given the official sentence.”
Tari pushed against the floorboards with his boot. “They hung the king’s messenger in the bleeder?”
Adam shuddered. Images of the black rope and bleeding form flooded his mind afresh. “The Keeda have been executing King Eliab’s messengers one after another. I cut him down, but it was too late to save him. I”—he swallowed—“I pulled the spike out of his wrists with my own hands.”
He hesitated, trying to find the right words. When none came, he thrust the papla leaf at his brother.
Tari unfolded it and read the words aloud.
He looked up. “Vaace gave you this?”
Adam nodded. “Just before he died. It’s his final prophecy.”
“But what does it mean? Isn’t the king angry every time his messengers are killed?” Tari handed the leaf back.
Adam returned it to his pocket. “Did you notice the capital ‘D’ in ‘Day’? This is talking about final destruction for our city. All it takes is one more execution and—” He shook his head.
Tari drummed his fingers on his leg. “It wouldn’t hurt for me to mention it to Father. There’s a condition involved. The bleeder has to swing above Red Rock to fulfill the prophecy. Maybe he could find a different place for executions.”
Adam yanked open the door and grabbed the rope off the nail. “You’re wrong. As long as we rebel against the king, we deserve his judgment.” The sky had grown dark.
He took a step out the door and turned back to face Tari. “Why don’t you come with us? Plant your seed with ours. We can leave as soon as Susan returns.”
Tari slumped into a chair. “I’ve got a wife and two sons to care for. Lichten and Liptor need me. What if I didn’t come back?”
He leaned forward and fixed a worried look on Adam. “What about Little Adam? Don’t forget you’re playing with more lives than just your own.”
Adam trailed his fingers along the edges of the rope and stared at the small straw bed nestled against the wall. Tari knows too well where my tender spot lies. He shut his eyes and forced his mouth to speak. “My mind is made up. I’m going to honor the king.”
Susan’s footsteps crunched the dirt outside. Adam swung the rope over his shoulder and opened his eyes. “We’re leaving Little Adam for the night at Father’s. It isn’t as bad as you think. I have a promise from Immanuel.”
Tari sighed. “The school teacher? Don’t tell me he gave you an assurance of safety.”
Adam stepped out into the young night and shut the door before Tari could make any further arguments.
Susan took his arm and smiled up at him. Her gray-blue eyes twinkled in the fresh moonlight. A faded ribbon tied her long brown hair behind her, and she wore walking boots beneath her dress.
“I’m ready,” she whispered.
Adam nodded and returned her smile. But his chest tightened. Was he right to bring his wife into such peril? What if the trees of life never grew? And how could one act of submission appease the king? Still, Immanuel had promised.
Glancing back at the door, he murmured, “No. It wasn’t safety he promised.”
Squeezing Susan’s hand, he turned with her to face the path.
The quill pen shook as Adam Sonneman the Third set it to the corner of the parchment and signed his name. He shot a glance at Liptor, his cousin, seated at a desk near the front of the polished, hardwood schoolhouse. The older boy was already scratching away at his test. The other students were also writing.
Adam turned his eyes back to his own test. This wouldn’t be easy.
Immanuel, or “Teacher” as they all called him, wanted them to write as much as they remembered from the last month of studying plants. Adam scribbled out a few sentences about desert flowers. Those were some of his favorites. He’d once even seen a few on the edge of Grandfather’s fields.
Halfway through a new sentence about nectarines, Adam got stuck. He rested the quill and stared out the window, running his fingers through the hair on the back of his head. Outside, a yellow fog of dust hovered in the air, hiding the distant forest from view. In between lay miles of cracked, dry fields and a handful of stone houses.
Fruit was such a foreign concept! Why Teacher wanted them to study flowers and fruit trees was more than Adam could guess. Especially when the only significant plant common on this part of the island was funja, the staple crop. And no flowers or fruit had appeared on the tall, dry funja plants for decades, at least not anything significant.
Adam’s eyes traced the road in front of the school as it wound its way up to Mount Eirene, the city where he lived with Grandfather, the governor. Mount Eirene was the capital of the Twelve Cities, the place where Adam would someday be governor, sole ruler of the Eirenian people.
At least in his dreams.
He shared the same name as Grandfather, Adam Sonneman. Since the night Adam’s parents disappeared, he had lived in the governor’s mansion. Uncle Tari showed no real interest in becoming the governor, and neither did Lichten, his oldest cousin.
I would have a chance of inheriting the title, Adam thought, if it weren’t for Liptor.
Adam frowned at his cousin’s back. Liptor always came out on top. He made no pretensions about his lust for leadership. If Liptor had his way, Adam was sure he’d try to rule not only Mount Eirene but also all of Aard, the vast lands that covered the island south of the mountains.
Ink had pooled on his test where he rested the quill. Adam wiped if off with his thumb and smeared the ink into the palm of his opposite hand. Back to nectarines. He found a way to finish the sentence and moved on.
At the front of the classroom, Teacher scraped the chair back from his large walnut desk and rose to his feet. He wore a simple pair of breeches and a long, loose shirt called a thrick, tied with a belt—the standard garb worn by Eirenian men. His thin face and small goatee appeared young, but his deep brown eyes and strong voice gave him an air of authority beyond his years.
He walked across the front of the room and peered out a window.
Adam heard a faint sound of shouting in the distance and raised his head. He couldn’t make out the words, but the calls were getting louder every second.
Other students began shuffling. Two boys stood up.
“Stay seated.” Teacher’s voice filled the room.
“Alarm! Alarm! Doene’s been taken! Alarm!” A gray horse pounded into the school yard, and a lone rider leaped from the saddle. He swung open the solid oak door and thrust in a head of sweat-matted hair. His fist still gripped the door handle.
“They’ve taken Doene. I’m headed up to the city to spread the word. Be on the alert.”
Teacher frowned. “Who took it? Do you mean another raid?”
Adam gripped the sides of his desk. Doene was the farthest east of the Twelve Cities. For a month, raiding parties from nearby Ar Sabia had been attacking its perimeters at night time, setting fire to fields and plundering the outlying villages.
The messenger shook his head. “Not this time. Troops of those cursed Arsabians marched in through tunnels during the night and overthrew Doene itself. They’re holding the survivors captive in the stronghold. I’m riding to notify the governor.”
The door slammed, and hoofbeats thudded out of the yard. A buzz of student voices filled the room.
Christy Carpenter, the girl on Adam’s left, shot up her hand. Her brown braids flopped against the back of her long, checked dress. “Teacher, what does it mean? What should we do?”
Jackson, a big-boned boy near the front, pounded on his desk. “If the dirty Goiim want fire and death, let’s give it to them.”
A roar of assent went up from the other boys. Adam pounded his own desk with enthusiasm. Though few in number, the Eirenians had pride in their heritage and looked down on all other nations. They lumped the Arsabians together with all other non-Eirenians in a single derogatory term—Goiim.
Christy stood and rested her fists on her desk. “Our swords aren’t the only answer, boys. Don’t forget we have a king to take care of us.”
Adam pursed his lips. Officially, King Eliab ruled over the Twelve Cities and the rest of Aard. He was their creator. But he lived beyond the mountains and never interfered with the Eirenians as far as Adam knew, except for sending them monthly provisions.
Jackson glared at Christy. Several boys started to protest, but Teacher raised his hands. “Finish your tests. We’re not under siege in Mount Eirene. In the meantime, I’m going to get something. Keep on working. Don’t forget the Ruuwh will still be here.”
Adam looked at his test and then out the window at the settling dust. He could never figure out exactly what the “Ruuwh” was. Teacher had explained it on different occasions, and Adam kept trying to unravel it in his brain. The king had used the Ruuwh to create the land of Aard and the Aardians. It also involved the king’s supernatural ability to watch everything, and yet it was more.
In this case, Teacher was warning them not to cheat.
When he reached the doorway he turned back. “Remember, this is a test.” He spoke with a twinkle in his eye, the kind that made Adam think he had something deeper in mind. Teacher often spoke like that. It was too much to figure out at present. Adam needed all his attention for the test if he was going to get higher marks than Liptor.
For years he had been secretly competing with his cousin. Adam wanted Grandfather to recognize his accomplishments and be proud of him. But the attention always went to Liptor.
For one thing, Liptor had all the Sonneman features: height, thick black hair, a high forehead, and bright-blue eyes. Adam was only average height with brown hair and gray-blue eyes. People said he took after his mother. Adam sighed inwardly. I wish I could remember her.
Liptor was smart too. If it weren’t for him, Adam would be first in the school for high marks. On every test, though, Liptor came out a few points ahead.
And Grandfather noticed.
Adam flipped over the parchment to the back side and dipped his quill in the inkwell. He was making good progress. He shot a glance across the aisle at Hancock, or “Hank” for short. His friend’s bright-red hair reflected the afternoon sunlight. At the moment he was chewing on the back of his quill, deep in thought. He looked up wistfully at Teacher’s desk, then caught Adam’s eyes and gave him a grin.
Adam refocused on the test. Maybe this time he would have a chance to score higher than Liptor. He finished within a few minutes and scooted the parchment to the edge of his desk. Everyone else was still writing. Now he could daydream of his ambitious future.
One by one, the others finished. The whole room was soon filled with hushed conversations about Doene. Still, Teacher did not return. It wasn’t like him to be gone for so long.
Camdin, one of the younger boys in the back, folded his test in the shape of a bird and launched it toward the front. Unfortunately for him, his “bird” clipped Jackson on the ear before dropping to the stone floor. Jackson picked it up and crumpled it into a ball. He stomped to the open window and tossed the wad into the yard. “Get your test, boy.”
All eyes turned toward Camdin. He stood, his freckled face glowing red but still sporting a mischievous grin. When Jackson sat down, Camdin crossed to the window and peered out in both directions. Then he bolted through the door. Student voices buzzed once more, but they were cut off by a shout from outside.
Camdin charged back into the room, his eyes wide. “Horses are coming from the city!” He dove for his seat and worked furiously to spread out his wrinkled test.
Hoofbeats thundered to a stop in the yard. A gruff voice called, “Adam! Get out here.”
Adam’s pulse quickened. He tried to avoid eye contact with all the stares that followed him as he jumped to his feet and headed out, but a small smile toyed with the corners of his mouth.
Grandfather was waiting for him astride his black stallion. His muscular, leathery arms stuck out of his sleeveless thrick. Sweat ran down in rivulets from his bald head and trickled through the gray whiskers that speckled his jaw. Despite his age, he commanded respect by the strength with which he carried himself.
Behind him the chief servant, Roberts, balanced on a brown, bony mare with white patches. The man reminded Adam of a bungling bear, extremely tall and very awkward. Like most villagers, Roberts’ face was hollow with hunger. In contrast, his stomach jutted out from his waist like he had a small kettle hidden beneath his thrick. A shaggy gray beard flopped against his chest.
Grandfather dismounted and handed Adam the reins. “Tie the horses and then get back inside. This is a time for action.”
“Yes, sir.” Adam’s heart raced. He admired Grandfather’s ability to take control of a situation.
As Grandfather shoved through the door into the schoolhouse, Adam seized the reins of both horses and dashed for the fence. He didn’t want to miss anything. Roberts remained seated on his mare, scratching his bony fingers across his belly.
The mare started slightly at Adam’s pull. She jumped forward to keep up, causing the old man to flail his arms. “By my beard and my belly!” he shrieked. “What are you trying to do to me? I tell you the world will end in a bad way, and all for young people always being in a hurry.”
Adam suppressed a grin as he looped the reins around a fence pole. “You’re welcome to join me on solid ground.”
The chief servant snorted. “I’ve got to keep an eye out for ’Caiah. He’s coming on foot.” He peered down at Adam. “You do know my brother Micaiah’s the best scout in all the Twelve Cities, don’t you, boy? He knows the forests so well he’d notice if an anthill was relocated.”
Adam rolled his eyes. Of course he knew! “What’s he coming for?”
Roberts motioned him closer. The reek of greasy fish fouled the air around him. “Keep your mouth shut about it, you hear?”
Adam nodded and held his breath, partly with anticipation and partly to keep from smelling fish.
“We got a report that some of them Goiim have been sighted in this area. Now that Doene’s fallen, we’re not wasting any time sniffing them out. Me and ’Caiah are going with your grandfather down to Red Rock to see what we can find.”
Adam had never seen Red Rock, but he knew it wasn’t far from home. Arsabians in far off Doene aroused his spirit of adventure, but enemies nearby gave him the shivers. “I better get inside.”
Grandfather had never visited the school before. This was a meeting Adam didn’t want to miss.