Zoe and Elizabeth have lived their whole lives in the small town of Blackthorn. One dreams of adventure, the other simply wishes she knew more about her parents. When a mysterious portrait in Elizabeth's attic is discovered, both of their dreams came true, but in a way neither wanted or expected.
Fleeing for their lives, the two young women discover their history, and a strength neither of them knew they possessed. But is that strength enough when the fate of their entire land rests on such na
Our village of Blackthorn had been covered in new fallen snow when I awoke this morning. It had been over a week since we’d gotten fresh snow, and the sight had made my heart feel lighter. However, it didn't ease the knot in my stomach, caused by my best friend’s recent plan to up and run away from home.
"Zoe, if this is another thing about the Rebellion-" I began, as I climbed the short ladder up the tree house.
"Elizabeth, the Rebellion is the future! It's the way out of Blackthorn! I mean, do you really want to stay here for the rest of your life? I don't. I'm sick of it here. I want adventure! I want to see new things! And the Rebellion is the way to do that."
The Rebellion was all Zoe would talk about for the last two years. A peddler had come through our village and late one night we'd snuck out to sit around a fire with him and listen to everything and anything he would tell us about the outside world. He'd told us about a group of rebels that were fighting against an “enemy”. Who this enemy was or what it wanted, he wouldn't say. All Zoe knew was that it meant to her a life of adventure, new sights, new people. For years it had just been a lot of big talk, scattered plans and ideas. She’d never fit in here, even when she was small. She hated horses, got tired of the heavy winter snow quickly, and had no interest in becoming a weaver like her mother. She was determined to find a place that offered more than this valley, and she wanted me to come with her. I however was far less enamored by the idea.
"No, the Rebellion is a way to get ourselves killed! People die in the Rebellion! You’re only nineteen, do you want to end your life so quickly?"
Zoe scowled, setting her notebook down. "You sound like your Grandfather, Beth. You’re only nineteen too, don’t act like you know better than me. How do we know that anything we're told about the Rebellion is even true?"
"My point exactly! What do we know about the Rebellion? That it's some group of people fighting against a man called the Chancellor. Do you know anything else about the Rebellion? Zoe...I wish you would just forget about this. You’re my best friend. If anything happened to you..."
"Beth...." sighed Zoe, wrapping an arm around me, and leaning her head on my shoulder. "I know I always talk big, and I always have these big plans that seem insane. But this is different, Beth! It's like I have to go! There's something in me, calling me. How do I ignore that?"
"You just find something else to focus on. Something that's healthy!"
"Like poetry or horses?" said Zoe, rolling her eyes. I stiffened, trying to not feel offended by the disdain in her voice.
The little bit of education I had received had taken place in a one room school house. It was freezing in the winter, and stifling hot in the summer, and truth be told, I didn’t much enjoy it. There were only a few of us in my year, Zoe, me, Michael Bynder, and a set of twins who were never separated and kept completely to themselves. We were taught basic math, just enough to get us by in everyday life, basic grammar, sports, and we studied some utterly boring, ancient books. School only last a few hours three days out of the week, and I hated most of it.
However, there is one summer I remember fondly, when I discovered poetry. A merchant had come from the Myrl Sea in the North to sell his goods, and I bought them off him with the couple of coins Grandfather had given me for the beginning of summer. Zoe had thought I was insane, and we’d set the books aside until she’d gone home. I had then curled up at the base of my favorite oak tree, and devoured the books. They were full of rhyme, and imagery; places and ideas I’d never heard of before. I cried bitterly when the books ended, but then I’d open them again and read them all over, until the pages were thin and worn. When at last I had read them to the point where the pages literally fell apart, I began to write my own. They were simple, and nothing as sophisticated as the poems in the books, but they became a faithful resource for me. They were something I could turn to during the dark months of winter.
“You know I'm not a poet, Beth.” Zoe continued, oblivious to my reaction. “ I can't live in a little bubble the way you can!" My eyes narrowed, and I pulled away.
"Like I can?"
"Aw, Beth, I didn't mean-."
"Yes, you did," I said, my mouth a thin line. "You have no idea what you would be sacrificing! Your family, your friends..."
"That's why you should come with me," said Zoe, her eyes blazing. "What are you so afraid of, Elizabeth?” she demanded.
"I'm afraid of committing suicide! Of following a creed I don't know anything about! I'm happy here, Zoe! Happy!"
"You are not!" said Zoe. "You're just scared! But I'm not!"
"Fine. Go if you want, die if you want! But I won't!" I snapped, and before Zoe could say anything else, I jumped out of the tree house and landed in the snow, storming away. I ignored Zoe's cries for me to come back, my body trembling with anger.
Zoe Tawling was my best and only friend. We'd known each other since we were five or six, and we'd been practically inseparable since. In as small of a place as Blackthorn, children tend to band together. Groups quickly formed and Zoe and I were left to be by ourselves, or become friends. We weren't the most obvious choice of friends; I'd always been quiet and reserved, keeping most of my thoughts to myself. Zoe, on the other hand, said pretty much anything that came into her head. She was eager and exuberant, both of which I rarely was. But after so many years of being friends, neither of us really noticed our differences. All we knew was that neither of us could manage without the other. When we were younger, we never fought. We had always been on the same side, us against the world. But as we had grown into our late teens, that had changed. Zoe had begun to dream in ways that I could not join in on. She had plans and desires that I did not agree with, and this resulted in more and more fights.
The only family I had was my grandfather. I did not know much about my parents' death only that they had died in some type of fire. According to my grandfather, this 'fire' had occurred when I was only two. Every time I had attempted to ask more about their death, Grandfather would become very upset and would not speak to me for hours on end. Seeing Zoe's parents and her sister Sophia, to see them so happy together, and for Zoe to not realize what she would be giving up, made me furious.
I sighed heavily; I'd been so angry I hadn't even realized that I was already at the end of the lane. A part of me wanted to turn around and go apologize to Zoe, but another part of me felt vengeful and hurt, and I was already back at the road. I didn’t want to rat Zoe out, to stop her. But I also couldn’t stand by and watch my friend run away, to perhaps meet her death. Deciding that I had to tell Grandfather, and face Zoe’s wrath, I crossed the road, just as snow began to fall in quick, fat flakes. Earlier this morning my Grandfather and I had reached the center of town just as snow began to fall. The sky even then had been grey and stormy, telltale signs of a blizzard on its way. Weather here was unpredictable and swiftly changing, and during the winter, blizzards would often hit without little or any warning. I grumbled under my breath as my hair was dampened, and ran the rest of the way to my grandfather's shop, jerking open the door and slamming it shut, making the little bell above it jingle.
The shop was toasty warm, a welcome change from the weather outside. Grandfather was not in the shop, only Jamie, who was in the back of the shop welding, goggles over his grimy face. Jamie worked in my grandfather's shop, a little welding business where they crafted tools and the like. Jamie was Grandfather's apprentice, a young man a few years older than me. He had taken care of me when I was younger and as such was the closest I had to a sibling.
"Jamie!" I called, making him lift his head, his dirty face breaking into a smile when he saw who it was.
"Elizabeth! How’re you doing out in this weather?”
“Freezing and wet,” I said dryly, before shaking the snow out of my hair and grinning.
“How’s my favorite welder?” I asked, reaching for a kettle that was hanging over a little fireplace in the corner. I took a chipped blue cup from the table and poured some tea into it, sipping at it cautiously.
“Eh, it’s been slow this morning. Bynder stopped by earlier, by the way. You know he's taken quite a shine to you?”
I choked on air, staring at Jamie incredulously. “Not you too, Jamie.”
“He was talking about you quite fondly. He's not so bad, Beth. Sure, a little rough around the edges, but he's a good lad. Has a good work ethic,” Jamie said, giving me a stern look before pounding a piece of metal flat.
Michael Bynder was conceited to boot. He was the son of a wealthy store owner in Blackthorn, and his status in the little town had made him think he was far more special than he really was.
"Bynder is an arrogant, insufferable pig. He's always making fun of Zoe, and trying to court me...No, thank you. I want nothing to do with him." I took a long sip of tea after this declaration, calmed by the rich taste. Grandfather’s tea had always been the best I’d ever had.
“Whatever you say Beth. So, what're you doing here?" Jamie asked me, setting the metal aside and wiping the sweat off his brow.
"I came into town with Grandfather. I thought he was here." I added, glancing around.
"He was, but he left about ten minutes ago."
"He left?" I repeated, frowning. My grandfather never left without telling me. "Did he say where he was going?"
"Well, I think back home. There were these men who came in to speak with him. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but they left together."
This only confused me more. Who would come to see my grandfather, and during such a storm? A knot was forming in my stomach, a feeling of dread that I could not explain.
"Thanks Jamie. I'll see you later," I said, pulling open the door, causing wind to come rushing in.
"Beth, you can't go out there in that! Elizabeth!" said Jamie, but I did not listen, yanking the door closed behind myself and jogging up the road towards home.
That feeling in my stomach was only growing and by the time I reached home I had broken out into a full run, dashing into the house. Inside it was eerily quiet, and all the lights were off.
"Grandfather?" I called. No one answered. "Grandfather, are you here?" I called again. Still no answer. I froze at the bottom of the stairs as I heard voices from the second floor. They sounded male, and neither of them sounded like Grandfather's. I slowly backed away from the staircase and crawled into the small cupboard that was against the stairs, pulling it almost shut. I sat rigid as I heard the men begin to descend the stairs.
"C'mon Kale, we don't have all day."
My eyes widened as I realized I recognized the voice; Michael Bynder, my former classmate and the arrogant sod who Jamie had said liked me.
"So you know his grandchild, yeah? What's her name?" asked the other man, his voice rough and unrefined.
"Elizabeth," Bynder replied promptly. "I always knew there was something special about her. She was different...She always had this grace about her, and I could never figure out where it came from. "
They stepped off the last stair, and came round the corner, and I peered out through the crack in the door. The stranger was burly and tall, and holding a large canvas in his thick hands. A tattoo was inked onto the man's shoulder, a wolf with fangs dripping blood. I instantly recognized him as a Blood Mongrel; the Blood Mongrels were the Chancellor's personal guards and hit men. The legend was that hundreds of years ago, the Blood Mongrels were actually wolves who could transform themselves intomen. These men were known to be vicious, blood thirsty creatures and were feared throughout the land by reputation alone.
The Blood Mongrel shifted the canvas in his hands, and I suppressed a gasp. On the canvas was painted a lovely woman with curly, brunette hair and eyes the color of roasted hazelnuts. Her mouth was curved in the hint of a smile, though her eyes were serious and focused. She wore a blue dress that curved around her shoulders, the color faded from so many years in a dusty attic.
"It's an amazing likeness," Bynder continued. "It looks just like her."
"Chancellor Dominick's been huntin' for this for years," the Blood Mongrel replied, shaking his head in amusement. "And now to find out there's a direct heir...Oh, he'll like that."
"But how did Elizabeth end up here, so far away?"
"The old man told me that he's not the girl's blood relative. The Rebellion sent her far away from the Kingdom to keep her safe.”
I bit my fist to keep myself silent, but shaking my head rapidly nonetheless. What were they talking about? That wasn't true. It couldn't be true.
"Huh. Like I said, pretty damn special. C'mon, let's go. She'll be in town, with that stupid friend of hers. We can't let her get away from us, the Chancellor will want her alive."
I glared after them, watching as they left the house, trembling in my squatted position. I waited for several minutes, until I was certain they were gone. I carefully pushed the door open and stood up, looking at the window to see that there was indeed no sign of either man. I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. Where was Grandfather?
Fight or no fight, I needed to tell Zoe what I had heard. I sprinted across the room and flung open the back door. The snow was still falling rapidly, but I did not hesitate, jumping out the door and into almost knee deep snow. Taking my horse Reyo would be far faster than going on foot, and there was something in my gut that told me I had no time to waste. Grandfather had given Reyo to me when he was just a foal and I had been only twelve. We had formed a very strong bond, and throughout the years Reyo had been the only horse that I would ride. He had been a gift for me on my birthday. Most people in Blackthorn had horses, with the exception being Zoe’s family, and a couple of others in Blackthorn. Grandfather had always wanted us to have a horse, but they were expensive, both to come by and to take care of. I can only imagine how much extra work my grandfather had needed to do to earn the money. But however much it was, on the morning of my birthday, there was a black foal standing in our barn, barely more than a month old. Reyo started out headstrong and unruly, but because I, and I alone, was allowed to train him, he became a gentle stallion who adored me, and I him.
I plowed my way through the snow and to the barn, where I wrenched open the door. A scream was torn from my mouth upon stepping into the barn. On the straw covered floor was my grandfather. His bright blue eyes were rolled up into his head to reveal the glassy white underneath. A pool of blood surrounded his shoulders from the ugly gash that was on his neck. Dry sobs wracked my chest, and I collapsed onto the ground, mud and snow seeping through my leggings. Why? Why would they have killed them? Had Bynder done this? Or that Blood Mongrel? And they wanted me...they were going into town. Going to find...
"Zoe," I gasped, my tears slowing, but still leaking down my face. Would they kill her too? I had no way of knowing, but I wasn't going to risk it. I forced my limbs to move, tearing my eyes away from my Grandfather's body. I opened the gate to Reyo's stall and coaxed him out, patting his neck once in an attempt to calm him. I swung myself onto his back and kicked his sides, urging him into a run.
I clung to Reyo’s mane as we galloped across the fields, snow flying up and hitting both of us, stinging my skin and eyes. I had Reyo take the trails through the woods to avoid coming across anyone. We lived about a mile outside of the actual village, but you could hardly tell where the village began and where it ended. Blackthorn is just a tiny dot on a much larger map that most of us don't know nor understand. We live in a land that doesn't have a name, a map, or any written history. It's been this way for as long as I have been alive, and probably much longer than that. Blackthorn was quite small, and had always been that way. Being planted in a valley surrounded by mountains did not leave much room for building nor farming. In the summer time, Blackthorn had all types of trade come through, and it was then that we received the majority of the food and supplies for the winter. The village always bustled from June to September, but then became very quiet for the rest of the year, when the snow blocked Blackthorn from all but the bravest of travelers.
After a good fifteen minutes of riding, we reached Zoe’s house. We came to a halt a few yards away from the tree house and I leapt off of Reyo, knowing he would stay there.
"Zoe! Zoe!" I called, sliding off of Reyo and into the snow that had only gotten deeper. Zoe opened the back door and stepped out onto the porch, concern written on her brow.
"Elizabeth, what's wrong?"
I climbed up the stairs and in a shaky voice said, “Grandfather’s dead."
Zoe gasped, allowing me to fall into her arms and sob into her shoulder. "Oh hell...what happened?"
"Grandfather-there was-was-," I stuttered, my voice wavering and my breath uneven.
"Shh. C'mon, let's go inside. You're freezing cold." Zoe helped me inside and onto a couch, and then she poured me a cup of tea from the pot sitting next to her and wrapped me in a blanket before joining me on the couch, rubbing my shoulders. "What happened?" "Bynder was there-."
"Bynder?" repeated Zoe, her mouth twisting in disdain.
"He had this thug with him, a Blood Mongrel, and he had this painting. A portrait...I waited until they had gone and then I found Grandfather dead in the barn. They slit his throat Zoe!" I said, breaking down into sobs again, burying my head against Zoe's chest.
"Hell..." whispered Zoe, shaking her head. "Why? Why did they murder him? What could they possibly want?"
"I don't know...Bynder told the Blood Mongrel he thought I looked like the woman in the portrait."
"Do you know who it was?" asked Zoe.
"No...I saw the portrait years ago. I was playing in the attic one time, and I moved a bunch of boxes to make a fort. The portrait was behind them...I asked Grandfather who it was, and he got very serious. He told me that I should never tell anyone about the portrait, that we would never speak of it again. I had completely forgotten about that until today."
"Why would they want some old portrait?" said Zoe. "It doesn't make any sense."
My reply was cut short by Zoe suddenly jumping up from the couch, and my tea cup crashed to the floor, the black liquid staining the old rug beneath us. "What is it?" I asked in alarm.
"Men on horses, riding towards the house. I can see them at the end of the lane. And Bynder's with them."
"I should have known it wouldn't take long," I said in a low voice, my hands clutching the blanket.
"What do we do?" whispered Zoe, looking towards the front of the house.
"We can't stay here, they'll kill you," I said. "C'mon!" I unclenched my hands with some difficult and threw off the blanket, yanking Zoe away from the window with me.
"Wait!" she protested. "My parents, I have to tell them-"
"There's no time!" I retorted. "Zoe, these men won't hesitate to murder you. We have to go now!" I pulled open the back door and ran down the stairs where I grabbed Reyo and pulled myself up before offering my hand to Zoe.
"Elizabeth, no! You know I can't ride! And without a saddle I'm sure to fall off!"
"I don't think you have much of a choice, Zoe!" I said, as the sound of what could only be Blood Mongrels grew closer. Zoe swore and took my offered hand, allowing myself to be pulled onto the black stallion. I kicked Reyo in the sides sharply, making him whinny and break into a gallop into the woods. When we had reached the edge of the town, I looked back, to see plumes of smoke floating up mixing with the heavily falling snow. I prayed it was not Jamie's shop going up in flames. Gulping in air, I turned my head back around and leaned forward on Reyo, spurring him on. We rode until we reached the end of town, at which point I allowed Reyo to slow to a walk.
"Now what?" asked Zoe, her voice shaky. She'd never been a big fan of horses. I’d been riding since I was eight, and had been trying to get Zoe to ride with me ever since. However, no matter how much I nudged and cajoled her, Zoe remained steadfast in her dislike of riding horses. Horses never reacted favorably to her, and after falling off one when she was five, she’d kept her distance from them. "We can't stay here, they'll find us...Beth, I know! The Mound! We should go to The Mound!"
I scoffed, shaking my head. "I'm not going to the Rebellion, Zoe!"
"But Beth, they could help us-."
"No! No, we'll go to Howler's Point."
"And what, pray tell, is at Howler's Point?" said Zoe.
"I don't know," I said. "But Grandfather told me that if anything ever happened, I should go to Howler's Point. He said that he had an old friend there that would help me. That's the best I can do." I shrugged off my coat, and held it out to Zoe.
“Elizabeth, don’t. You won’t stay warm enough.”
“And you will? Zoe, put it on. I have three more layers on. That cardigan and mittens will do you absolutely no good once the sun sets. I hope this village isn’t more than a day’s ride...”
“We’ll be alright,” Zoe said, rubbing my shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go.”
I nodded weakly, squeezing her hand before letting it go to grip Reyo’s mane again.
“Sure you’re not going to be sick back there?” I asked, only half joking.
“Oh, be quiet,” Zoe muttered. I grinned and clicked my tongue softly, and Reyo began a brisk trot along the trail.I had to assume that he knew the way; I could barely see through the thick curtain of snow.