Atia Morren knew it was hopeless.
Sides aching, she worked desperately to quicken her speed, pushing herself to the maximum as she raced to get home. She should have known it would have turned out this way. Of all people, she should have remembered how long short walks could become.
Safira is going to be furious! Atia thought despairingly, recalling how emphatic her eldest sister had been the night before. Early morning escapades were not uncommon for the seventeen-year-old Atia, but with so much to do before the party, Safira had requested, or rather insisted, that Atia forgo the walk.
But of course, I didn’t listen. They’re probably all awake, by now. I should never have gone!
She took a shortcut, crashing through the brambles, ignoring the tugging briars that added snags to her already fraying hem.
In all fairness, it wasn’t entirely her fault. Most certainly, she hadn’t planned on disappearing. If the chicken coop weren’t right beneath her window, the rooster’s crowing would not have woken her. Stretching her legs before a day like today had seemed like a good idea. She could be gone and back before breakfast.
And you would have been, if you’d kept to the woods.
By the time the farmhouse came into view, Atia’s blond hair was a tangled mess. She dashed for the house, praying that her sisters had somehow slept in late. As she drew closer, her eyes picked out movement behind a window.
Atia smoothed down her hair and dusted her skirt. Arthen’s wind chime tinkled from where it hung on the porch roof, its wistful jingling earning it a reproachful look. Three years, and still the ornament brought thoughts of adventure. Arthen couldn’t have left a better memento if he’d tried.
Except maybe his children. Holding her breath, Atia opened the door, stepping carefully into the small entry. Perhaps she could slip in quietly.
“Well, look who’s here!” a loud voice exclaimed.
Atia started, then hissed, “Mavaya, shh!”
Unimpressed, her younger sister folded her arms, dark, curly hair hanging loose about her shoulders. “Where have you been?”
“Is Atia back?” Footsteps shuffled and then Elise appeared, arms white with flour.
Atia glanced only briefly at her cousin, knowing that her silent disappointment was much harder to bear than Mavaya’s naive censures. It didn’t matter that Elise was only three years older than her. The worldly-wise, even-tempered widow could abash a king without saying a word.
“Safira isn’t pleased with you,” Mavaya warned.
“Where is she?” Atia demanded.
“She left already,” Elise replied. “She and Acinath went to the Green to help set up. They wanted you to come with them, but…” Arthen’s widow shrugged.
Atia groaned and ran a hand over her face. “I knew I shouldn’t have gone!”
“Why did you?” Mavaya put her hands on her hips. “Safira told you not to.”
“Did they want me to follow them? When did they leave?”
“About half an hour ago,”—Elise beckoned as she moved back toward the kitchen—“and no, they didn’t want you to follow them. They want you to help us, instead.”
Inside the small, neat kitchen, Atia was greeted by the smell of Safira’s hasty biscuits. A few dishes still cluttered the wooden countertop at the back of the room. The top half of the back door was open, letting in a breeze.
“We saved you some breakfast.” Elise gestured to the modestly filled plate on the table. The two fried eggs looked cold. “But there isn’t much time. We have so many flowers to cut. Mavaya’s only filled one basket! We need at least five.”
“I’m trying to go quickly!” Mavaya protested.
“I’ll lend a hand.” Atia dropped into her chair and began shoveling food into her mouth.
Casting her delinquent older sister a final, condemning glance, Mavaya reached for the shears resting on the table. “I’ll meet you outside.”
Atia nodded, mouth full.
Elise had returned to her bread dough on the opposite side of the table. Her wedding ring, set aside as always for messy work, winked up at them both amidst the flutter of flour. The tinkling of the wind chime reached them faintly through the open top half of the kitchen door, causing Atia to study the preoccupied woman before her.
Probably the only good thing Atia’s uncle had ever done was dumping his infant daughter with his brother’s family. Elise had grown up on the Morren farm. Atia’s parents—dead now for several years—had argued viciously but unsuccessfully when Reddle Morren returned to take Elise back, and Elise spent two years traveling all over the map before meeting Arthen and eloping with him when she was just fifteen. Far from being a disaster, however, the marriage proved the young woman’s prudence. Arthen whisked her back to Chesstel, where she happily remained and for which Arthen earned the Morren family’s love. Too wild to settle down himself, however, Arthen did not linger for long, promising to return regularly every few months, which he did almost without fail. By the time he died three years later—killed by bandits on the road home—Elise was barely pregnant, and by and by delivered twin boys. Atia still admired Arthen’s memory, for she, too, dreamed of wandering. Knowing that his murderers likely still roamed the world made his loss worse. Justice had not been done, and, likely, never would be.
“No sign of the players yet, I imagine?” Elise asked, strands of blond hair flying loose from her braid.
Atia paused for a moment, perplexed, and then grinned sheepishly. Elise knew her too well. “I didn’t follow the road. I climbed the hill just east of it. The tallest.”
“You chose to climb the tallest today?”
Atia winced ruefully. “Not the brightest idea, I suppose.”
Snorting a laugh, Elise shrugged. “Perhaps not. I suppose it’s good we live so close to the Basin wall.”
Atia nodded, smiling. It was a good thing. Of all her escapes, the Basin hills were her favorite. Surrounding the community of Chesstel like an earthen crown, they made the location almost a valley. Atia loved climbing to the very top of the highest and gazing to the south, for beyond the hills was the world—the real world, the world she wanted to see. Atia loved her life in Chesstel; she loved her sisters, and she loved her home, but she had always felt there was something more, something calling to her, something that Chesstel could not bring.
An irate shriek came from the floor, followed by a fiendish giggle.
“Oh, Nius.” Sighing, Elise wiped her dusty hands on her apron and went to intervene as her twin boys, barely two years old, fought over a wooden toy.
“Shall I take them out with me?” Atia offered, finished with her food and rising to her feet.
“Do you mind?” Elise asked with relief, taking the toy firmly from them both. “Poor Jairo has had nothing but abuse from his brother all morning.”
Atia chuckled, looking down at her small nephews. Jairo, the elder twin, was still scowling at the injustice of losing his plaything, while Nius, the younger, beamed up at Atia with the ever-present glint of mischief in his eyes. They really didn’t look alike. Nius had always looked like his father, while Jairo had only Arthen’s eyes.
“I’ll come out and join you when I can,” Elise promised as Atia dressed the twins for the outdoors. “I need to finish the bread and the chickens need feeding, but that’s all. I won’t be long.”
Nodding, Atia herded the boys into the yard.