This short story won The Stoneslide Corrective 2015 award for ‘Best Propulsive Scene and/or Plot Line’. Set in the world of The Bone Road, some familiar characters make an appearance. Enjoy!
The first time Arvid divvyed, he nearly killed his sister.
He and Tomas had climbed the rock outcrop above the creek to watch the older boys as they swam below and wrestled in the bushes with their girls. If they were caught they’d get a beating, but the risk was part of the fun. It was worth the climb for the distant view as well. From the top, if they looked straight west, they could see all the way to the ocean and the Bone Road diving under the Kissing Bridge and snaking up the coast. When Arvid was a man and free of his family, he would follow the old ways of wagon travel and trade. To the east was the great mountain of Deo, the center of the world for the Deom. If he traveled the Bone Road, he would see the mountain from the other side of the world. He dreamed about it at night.
The untidy wagon camp of Kissing Bridge spread from below the rocks to the Road and beyond, down to the ocean’s edge. Arvid couldn’t pick out his grandmother’s wagon among the crowded camp, but he didn’t care. They were halfway up to the best vantage point, with Tomas climbing above him, when he heard his little sister’s voice.
“Arvid! I want to climb! Help me up or I’ll tell Granny!” Zilde had a high, piercing yell, and Arvid cursed. Tomas grinned down at him.
He groaned, “Go away, Zilde.”
“I’m climbing now!”
He saw she had already pulled herself up the first section, her skinny little arms stretched for the holds. He cursed again and started to descend. Zilde would never give up, but she wouldn’t be able to make the climb, and his grandmother Sushanna would murder—
Zilde wailed. Arvid’s heart stopped as he looked down. She’d jumped for a ledge, missed, and was hanging by one hand while the other scrabbled for a hold. Her feet splayed against the rock. One slipped.
He dropped and slid down. He could hear Tomas coming behind him but he kept his eyes on Zilde and prayed.
He landed on the ledge in a spray of small pebbles and grabbed her arm.
As soon as his hand touched her skin, he divvyed her.
The shock was overwhelming. He could feel her bones and flesh and inner essence; it was as if someone had shouted it at him. He lost his balance in surprise, Zilde’s arm still clenched in his hand, and Tomas grabbed his shirt and pulled. Somehow, they all ended up at the foot of the rocks. Tomas must have guided them down; Arvid could not remember. He was soaked with sweat and shivered. Both Zilde and Tomas stared at him as though he had gone mad or was about to grow wings and flap away.
Before he thought, he blurted out the truth.
“I can divvy.”
Tomas’s mouth fell open. “But that’s…great. Wonderful. It’s so rare. Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Arvid jerked his head at his little sister, who still gaped at him. “I divvyed her. I almost dropped her on the rocks, I was so surprised.”
Tomas held out his hand. Slowly, Arvid reached out and lightly touched it. This time there was no shock of surprise, simply the certain knowledge. Behind it came the realization of what this meant. He closed his eyes in horror. Why had he told them? He could have hidden the talent and no one would ever have known.
With enormous effort he opened his eyes and smiled at Tomas.
“You’re a Wid. But you knew that anyway; you were divvyed at birth.”
“Not by you, I wasn’t.” Tomas looked impressed.
“Do me again, do me!” Zilde bounced up and down, and held out her arm.
“I’ve already done you, and I don’t need to do it again. Besides, only the divvy feels anything.”
Tomas said slowly, as he thought it through, “You won’t need to apprentice to anyone. All the Deom, both tribes, give you silver for a divvy at births and breeding partnerships. You could testify before the Seniors. You’ll be important. All your worries are over.”
Arvid would laugh if it weren’t so horrible. Divvys were important and respected, and their word could be law, but they did terrible things to earn that respect. He thought about those things and shuddered again. “I don’t want to be important or testify or any of it.”
Zilde announced, “I’m going to tell Granny.” And before he could grab her she ran away, her feet pounding on the path.
“Zilde, no! Come back!” Arvid tore after her. He had to make her promise never to tell anyone, he had to make Tomas promise—he looked back over his shoulder and Tomas was racing toward his own family’s wagon. Arvid turned again as his sister vanished down the path to their grandmother’s, and knew it was a lost cause. He wanted to weep.
For an instant Arvid didn’t recognize his grandmother. Her face was twisted in a painful grimace and her teeth were bared. Then he realized she was smiling. Zilde peeked around her broad waist. At eight circles old, Zilde was small for her age, and she looked even smaller next to the wide bulk of their grandmother, Sushanna.
“Is this true? Zilde says you can divvy?” To Arvid’s shock, she embraced him and, for the first time he could remember, kissed his forehead. Her lips touched his flesh and he divvyed her. There was no escape.
“So?” Sushanna was still smiling. He wished she wouldn’t. It looked painful.
“You’re a Zeosil, Grandmother. Of course.” His grandmother was vastly proud of her tribal membership and contemptuous of the other tribe, the Wid. She’d discouraged his friendship with Tomas because he wasn’t Zeosil, of all the foolish prejudices. No one dared mention the un-tribe, the sterile and cursed Shun, in front of her without the risk of a tirade on proper breeding and tribal purity.
“My grandson, a divvy! I’ve said all along my lineage is pure! Now, they’ll have to accept me as a Senior. There can be no more talk about unwillingness to compromise or other foolishness. How lucky the Spring Meet is almost upon us; you can go to the divvy trials within the week. Then, everyone will know!” She nodded her head up and down, wearing that strange rictus of a smile.
Arvid had forgotten the divvy trials would be held at the Meet. It had never mattered before. He had to stop this. “Grandmother…. I don’t want to go to the divvy trials. I don’t want be a divvy.”
Her right hand rose in an instant reflex. She didn’t strike, but Arvid retreated a step. At least she’d stopped smiling. Her face returned to its normal bitter, suspicious expression.
“What did you say?”
Perhaps, just once, he could make her understand. “Grandmother, I don’t want to be a divvy. They have to do terrible things.” His eyes moved to Zilde and back to his grandmother, pleading with her not to say any more in front of the little girl. He should have known better.
Her voice boomed out. “Having the divvy gift is an honor to the tribe and to the entire Deom. Without the divvys, we would have no living children and the tribes would die! The divvys assure breeding Wid to Zeosil, and Zeosil to Wid, so fertile children are born to carry on the tribe of the mother. Without the divvys, who would know when a filthy Shun has been born? A Shun, who is born of a same-tribe mating, who is a deliberate sin against the Deom, and who gives honor to the divvy that cuts its filthy throat! Too many Shun are permitted to live, to run and hide in their dirty Refuges away on the mountain. The divvys are losing the old ways! And now, my grandson has the gift and says he will not divvy?”
She was right in his face now, and a swinging open-handed blow knocked him against the nearest wagon wheel.
“You will go to the trials.” Slap. “You will become a good, true divvy, in the old way.” Another slap, harder yet. “You will bring honor to my line.”
He ducked the fourth blow. He ran. He heard Zilde cry his name, but he didn’t turn around.
He could not abandon his sister. In the end, after a miserable afternoon walking the camp, he knew he had to go back and protect Zilde. He was old enough he could run away, work for his food as a wagon boy on the Bone Road. Except all the trade wagons were coming into Kissing Bridge for the Meet now, not leaving. He could hide until the Meet was over and try later. But Zilde was too young and frail to travel without protection. He could not take her with him, and he could not protect her if he went away.
If he delayed his return until dark, his grandmother might be too drunk to beat him. He wandered through the Trade Square, postponing the evil moment. Here, there were no family wagons. Goods for sale were stacked on the ground, piled on broad tables under tents, and displayed in open sheds. Tools, wine, pottery, boots, carved and painted toys, bant tea to prevent an unwelcome conception, harnesses and leather goods, shirts in tribal reds and blues, a wheelwright, a cooper with stacks of barrels, several booths selling cooked food—he remembered he was hungry when his stomach rumbled at the smell of hot meat. Of course, he didn’t have even a copper to spend. Other boys his age were apprenticed and, once past their first six months, earned silver, but his grandmother had grudged the entry fee.
A divvy sat under a faded awning. The old symbol hung over his head, two half circles of red and blue bisected by a black knife. He was strategically sited next to the bant tent, waiting for customers. The bant vendor undoubtedly paid him a percentage to sit there as a reminder of the consequences of an unwise coupling. Arvid watched the divvy drink from a squat jug and lean back in his chair. A dented metal bowl and a short knife with a discolored blade hung from the awning and clattered together in the wind. Arvid moved on.
Some of the vendors had advantageous places in the Square. For them, there was no pretence of traditional Deom trading wagons; these buildings were permanent. Arvid’s eyes wandered over the knife seller’s, the glassblower’s, and the huge moneylender’s establishment. Half-remembered gossip and old scandal rolled through his head. He stared up at the moneylender’s sign, the Shun black with the arrogant “Mat” symbol in the center. Some Shun survived their birth. Some Shun admitted their status and were permitted to trade in the camp. Some Shun were so rich their very name was slang for coins.
Five minutes later he ran out of the camp and through the garden plots and animal pens, headed for a cluster of buildings on a distant rise. He’d never been there, but he knew where it was. Everyone knew where Matteo the Shun lived, and who lived with him. Why hadn’t he thought of this before?
The Shun’s house was a compound of four buildings, set in a defensive square. The size was daunting. Arvid had never been this close to a building with a second floor. He wondered what it was like to live so high in the air.
The narrow gate was open. He took a deep breath and walked in. No one noticed him, a crowd of young men and women, all old enough to breed, were watching two men kick a wooden ball at each other. Arvid understood the game—the objective was to get the ball past the other player—and he was struck by how ordinary it all was. His grandmother would consider this a den of filth and foulness, but this cheering, jeering crowd could be any group of Deom, instead of the hirelings of a tainted, cursed outsider.
One of the men playing saw Arvid and stopped in his tracks. His opponent seized the opportunity and kicked the ball into his shin with a loud crack. The audience clapped and whooped. The ball rolled to Arvid’s feet, and the crowd turned. Their noise died away.
“What do you want, boy?” This man was old enough to have gray hair.
“Damo,” Arvid used the polite greeting, to be safe. “I wish to speak to Rhona the divvy.”
The young ball player limped through the crowd, which made way for him. He was tall, about eighteen circles in age, and had very dark hair. The older man told him, “He’s asking for Rhona.”
“I’ll deal with it,” the man said. The crowd dispersed slowly, a few people still staring at Arvid.
“I am Jak, of the Wid, Rhona’s son.” He gave him the formal greeting, as if Arvid were an adult.
Arvid bowed. “I am Arvid, of the Zeosil, Eliaena’s son. I need—request—to speak with Rhona the divvy.”
“I regret my mother is not here. And since her partnership with Matteo the Shun, she no longer divvys.”
“I know. I need to speak to her about…something.”
Arvid’s grandmother had ranted for weeks when the scandalous partnership had been announced. A mob of outraged Deom, both Wid and Zeosil, had attacked Matteo’s building and tried to burn it down. Sushanna had been among them, despite the Seniors’ pronouncement that Rhona of the Wid had born a living Wid child, thereby paying her child-debt to the survival of the Deom, and could partner with anyone she chose. The mob had been beaten back by Matteo’s hired guards. To Sushanna’s disgust, Matteo had resumed lending silver to the Deom as though it were normal for any Deom woman, not to mention a divvy, to life partner with a Shun.
Jak was still standing in front of him, looking curious. Arvid flushed and asked, “Will your mother return soon?”
“I cannot say. She and Matteo have gone up to North Tower Refuge. They may not return in time for the Meet.”
It had been a crazy hope, and now it was gone. That Refuge was far away, miles up the mountain on a long and steep path. To hide his tears Arvid bent and picked up the ball. He handed it to Jak with another polite bow. He swallowed and said, “Thank you, Damo.”
When he was halfway back to the camp, Arvid turned and looked up at Matteo’s house. Jak was standing at the gate watching him. Arvid wondered what it would be like to have a mother partnered to a Shun. Jak lived in the Shun’s house—how did he bear the shame?
Arvid set his teeth and pulled open the wagon door. It was worse than he’d thought. His mother had returned.
“Oh, Arvid.” Eliaena rose as he walked in. After a tiny hesitation, she embraced him. He stood rigid, enduring it, and she let him go. Now more than ever he blamed her for returning to Kissing Bridge after his sire’s death and dumping him and Zilde on his grandmother. They’d had to stay while she was free to travel the Road trading. She’d been gone for months. Why did she have to return exactly at this moment? She saw the accusation in his face and looked away, as always. His grandmother watched them sourly from her chair, Zilde on her lap.
“Perhaps your mother can make you see reason, you fool boy,” Sushanna said.
Eliaena hesitated. “Momma, if he doesn’t want to do the trial, perhaps…”
Sushanna snorted. “Then there are two fools in this family. He must. Five people asked me about him this afternoon, two of them Seniors. The word is out. The Deom need divvys, and he must do the trial. The Seniors will force him. And if the honor of my line means nothing to either of you, think of the silver. We will never hunger again, or need to chaffer in the trades. He can support you, his sister, and me. All this drama because he shirks his duty to the Zeosil and to the Deom; even a Wid wouldn’t hesitate.”
His mother pulled him out of the cramped wagon, closing the door behind her. She must still be traveling with the tinsmith; an elaborate stamped necklace draped her bosom and her earrings chimed as she moved. She walked him ten paces away and checked that no one was in earshot.
“It’s true? You have the gift?”
Arvid said bitterly, as he watched her face, “I divvyed Zilde and grandmother and Tomas this afternoon. I just divvyed you.”
“I understand how horrible this must be for you.”
“I don’t think you do. You will not be the one cutting the throats of baby Shun; I will.”
She winced and whispered, “If you want to leave the camp before the trial, I have some silver Sushanna didn’t find. You could go north, up the Road, call yourself by another’s name—”
Arvid spat, “You heard Grandmother! The Seniors know! How far would I get? I notice you are not offering to run with me. And Zilde? What of her? Will you send her with me or take her? Or should we leave her here,” he pointed at the wagon, “With that?”
Her eyes on the ground, Eliaena said, “Arvid, I did it for the best. If I had known you would have the talent—there is no way I could have known.” Her eyes rose up and pleaded with him to understand.
Disgusted, he turned away from her. His mother always chose the easier way. “I will do the trial. But that will be the end of it! No one, not Grandmother or the Seniors, can force me to divvy and say who is Wid, Zeosil, or Shun. No one.”
With Eliaena back, the wagon was too crowded for comfort. Arvid gave up his cot to his mother and made himself a blanket nest outside under the huge front axle. The wagon’s overhang would keep the morning damp off. They owned no byaks to pull it; the wagon hadn’t moved an inch since before he was born, but Sushanna would not abandon it. True Deom lived in wagons. He lay on his back and listened to the night sounds of the camp: voices calling for errant children, draft byaks grunting in their pens, the diminishing noise from the Trade Square. The full length of the wagon and the thickness of the floorboards shielded him from the might and power of his grandmother’s snores.
The door creaked open over his head. He waited.
Zilde hissed, “Are you asleep?” She was a pale shape, barefoot and wearing one of his old shirts as a sleep gown.
“You’ll freeze out there, Zilly. Get under here.” He tucked her against him, then folded the blanket between them to stop the constant flare of the divvy. Every human touch, for the rest of his life…
“Arvid, why does Granny hate the Shun?”
“Granny hates everyone.”
“She likes me. Most of the time, anyway.” His sister butted her head under his chin.
“You know boys can’t inherit. Granny’s line, from her mother and her mother’s mother back to the first Deom woman to come out of the mountain, is very important to her. She had Eliaena and you’re her granddaughter; she wants her line to go on. Any children I sire will go to my partner’s line, if I ever have a partner.”
“You will,” Zilde said confidently. “I don’t understand. Why are the Shun so bad? What have they done? Why does everyone hate them so? I asked Granny, but she slapped me.” She sighed.
Arvid silently cursed. He said, gently, “Male Shun are usually unable to sire children, but if they do mate with a Wid or a Zeosil woman, they can give her a child. But the baby will be dead in the womb, or deformed. And the Deom woman sometimes dies; the bearing and the birth are hard. Female Shun—I’ve never heard of one having a live birth. So Granny and the ones who hold to the old ways, they want all the Shun killed so the tribes can breed safely. They say the Shun are a curse on the Deom.”
“So they aren’t all killed? Why not?” Zilde yawned.
“Their mothers hide them, or refuse to let the divvy kill them. They can take them to the Refuges, up on the mountain; the Shun can live there. As long as they admit what they are, they can live in the Deom camps, but it’s very dangerous for them. I saw a mob of apprentices stone a Shun trader once—” Arvid remembered whom he was talking to. “Anyway, I know Granny says the divvys kill all the Shun babies, but I’m not sure they do. I don’t know how they decide. And there’s always more born: anytime two Wid or two Zeosil aren’t careful, the baby is a Shun.”
No response from Zilde. Arvid lifted the sleeping girl and carried her to her cot in the wagon. His grandmother snored.
The divvy trials were held on the morning of the first day of the Spring Meet. The Seniors, the candidates, their families, and curious watchers gathered at the Senior Commons tent. It was early enough the ocean fog hadn’t burned off, and Arvid’s new red Zeosil shirt was beaded with damp.
The Commons was a tent by courtesy and custom only. The length of ten wagons on each side, the huge square structure had a planed wooden floor raised above the camp mud and a serviceable peaked roof to repel the weather. There were no fixed walls, but heavy rolls of cloth were tied up and bound under the eaves. Arvid had run by it many times, though he’d never been in it when the Seniors were gathered.
Now it loomed before him. The cloth walls were unrolled top to bottom and tied to the upright supports against the wind and early mist. The airy Commons had become a huge, ominous box ready to swallow him.
The candidates and their supporters were asked to wait outside. Arvid could hear people inside the Commons talking in low voices and the scraping sound of benches moving. He looked nervously at the other candidates. There were four others, three girls and a boy, each older than he was. They seemed nervous and excited and happy. Not one of them looked consumed by fear. He swallowed and swallowed again.
“Divvy candidates, step forward.” The oldest Senior, a man with fierce bristling eyebrows, glared at them. Arvid was relieved to move away from Sushanna, her constant rearranging of his clothes and hair, her hissing admonitions. Zilde smiled at him.
The old man walked to the Commons entrance. He picked up the rhaem, the speaking wand, and raised his voice to carry over the crowd. “Members of both tribes and several Shun are concealed in the Commons. Two proven divvys have touched each one and dropped a colored stone in the box before them: red for Zeosil, blue for Wid, and for a Shun, black. We have verified the colors and sealed the boxes. The candidates will enter and divvy each person. Their stones must match. They will have only one chance.”
He cleared his throat. “The true divvy is the survival of the Deom. We must have live, fertile children to grow and prosper in the sight of the mountain and land of Deo. Remember this during the trial.”
A tall girl, with a headscarf of Wid blue, was first into the trial. Arvid watched as she strode confidently into the Commons with her head held high. The spectators clustered around the entrance, peering after her. Arvid didn’t look.
The girl emerged quickly, smiling, and waited with her family while the Seniors checked the boxes. Her smile broadened when a Wid Senior announced she had passed the trial. She accepted the congratulations, hugged her family, and confidently repeated the oath. Her voice rang out, “I swear, by all the Deom hold sacred and my own honor, to speak the divvy truly and never to conceal the birth of a Shun. Road go up, Road go down, I swear.”
Arvid had heard of the Divvy Oath all his life, but he’d never heard anyone speak it in full. He hoped he was not going to throw up.
The second candidate was a Zeosil girl, younger than the first. She giggled as she entered the Commons and came back out very fast. Arvid wasn’t surprised when the Seniors announced a failure, but her supporters laughed and consoled her. The Seniors frowned and reprimanded them for levity. Muffling their laughter, the group ran away. Arvid wondered if the girl had really thought she could divvy or if it had all been some bizarre joke.
The other boy, a Wid, failed as well. Then it was Arvid’s turn. The Commons’ interior was shadowy and lantern-lit. He blinked and waited for his eyes to adjust. Outside, his grandmother barked, “Go, boy! What are you waiting for?” and he heard the crowd laugh as a Senior hushed her. He faced a double line of hooded and masked figures, a box before each.
He took two steps and touched the bare hand of the leftmost. Zeosil. Despite the dimness the colored stones were easy to see. He fumbled a red stone into the box. It rattled.
He moved two more steps, reached out. Zeosil, again.
The next one, a woman’s hand by the look of it, was a Wid. Blue stone.
Shun. He froze. All along, he’d been frightened of touching a Shun. He could lie. All he had to do was drop the wrong stone into the box. He would not be a divvy, and his grandmother would be angry, very angry, but no one would know for sure.
He chose. He dropped the stone. He moved on down the line of silent figures.
Arvid walked out of the Commons and blinked in the daylight. The fog was clearing and he could see patches of blue sky above. Sushanna grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “How was it? What happened? Talk, boy!”
He kept his head down, refusing to look at her or his mother or anyone. He prayed for failure. But it took no time at all for the old Zeosil Senior to call out, “Arvid of the Zeosil, son of Eliaena, has passed the trial.”
Sushanna bellowed with joy. Arvid heard Zilde squeal with happiness. The watchers applauded and a few people cheered. Arvid raised his head and saw the Senior standing before him, smiling. “Arvid, repeat the oath after—”
He inhaled, and braced himself. “I will not take the oath.”
An enormous weight lifted from him. He had taken the test truly; his honor was intact. But no one could force him to swear the oath, and without the oath, he would not have to divvy.
The Senior stared. “What?” The clapping and the calls of congratulations died away, with Arvid at the spreading center of a circle of silence.
Into that quiet, Arvid repeated, “I will not take the oath.”
Sushanna bellowed again, this time in rage. She had never hit him this hard before; he found himself on the ground with his mouth full of blood. She loomed over him, but before he could scramble back, she disappeared. He blinked. Four Seniors had pulled her away. He was astonished and grateful: no one had ever stopped her before.
“Violence is forbidden in the Commons, in a formal meeting!” The Senior’s outraged voice overrode Sushanna’s screams and the chatter of the crowd.
Another Senior, a short round Wid woman, helped him stand and handed him a cup of water. He spat blood on the ground.
“Explain.” All the Seniors surrounded him, creating a wall of outraged adults, all with the authority to order his exile or death. He almost smiled. He found them less frightening than Sushanna.
“Damos, Damas,” he was able to bow politely although his head was still ringing, “I will not take the oath. I cannot explain.”
“Cannot or will not?”
Arvid sighed. “Will not.”
Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. Three or four of them took turns haranguing him while others questioned Eliaena and Sushanna. Another pair of Seniors supervised the remaining candidate’s trial. Arvid had no idea whether or not the girl passed.
With the candidates gone and their supporters with them, the crowd around Arvid was reduced to Seniors, his confused and humiliated family, and a few onlookers. Arvid listened in stubborn silence to the entreaties and threats flung at him. His only strategy had been to refuse the oath and survive the uproar. He’d underestimated the Seniors’ anger and frustration, but he kept his lips shut tight against every plea.
As two Seniors threw up their hands in futility and moved away, Arvid caught a glimpse of Jak, the divvy’s son, watching from twenty feet away. Arvid sidestepped the next batch of hectoring adults to keep Jak in sight. Their gazes met, and Jak reached out his hand and laid it on the arm of the woman standing next to him. She was tall, broad-shouldered, with Jak’s nose, chin, and dark hair. And she was looking at him.
Perhaps there was still a tiny hope. Without ceremony, Arvid interrupted the current Senior.
“I will talk to Rhona, the divvy. The one who is partnered with Matteo the Shun.”
The Senior goggled at him. “What?”
Flanked by her son and by an extremely tall man in Shun black, Rhona walked calmly through the squabbling camp elders. She nodded once at the Wid woman who had given Arvid water, but other than that, she and he might have been alone.
“I am Rhona, of the Wid. I am a divvy. You asked to speak to me?”
“Dama.” Arvid bowed. He gave his name and tribe. The Seniors were crowded around, listening to every word.
To Arvid’s surprise, the Shun spoke in a deep, calm voice. “A private conversation, I think. Perhaps back in the Commons?”
Arvid said quickly, “Thank you, Damo.” He had no idea how to address a Shun. To his shock, the Shun looked amused.
“Excellent idea,” Rhona gestured. “Arvid, I believe you have met my son, Jak. This is my partner, Matteo the Shun. We will all have a private talk, with your permission?”
Away from the Seniors and his family. Arvid blew out his breath in relief.
“Jak told me a boy had tried to speak to me,” Rhona said. They were at the far end of the Commons. Jak and Matteo had pulled some benches near each other. Arvid had his back to the cluster of watchers at the entrance. The Shun had arranged this deliberately, Arvid was sure, and it did make it easier for him to talk.
Arvid asked Jak, “How did you know to come to the trial?”
Jak shrugged. “I listen to gossip: a Zeosil boy, young for the divvy, and going to the trial. You’d given me your name. I told Rhona when she returned last night. We thought you might need help.”
Arvid could not imagine why these strangers—rich, careless of camp opinion—should want to help him, but he could not deny he needed it.
“Yes.” He took a breath, and spoke to directly to Rhona. “Everyone knows you stopped being a divvy. I wanted to ask you how.”
Rhona frowned. “I will be a divvy until the day I die. I do not divvy Deom any more but that does not mean I can’t.”
“But, can I do that too? Not divvy? Never ever say what someone is? Or,” he swallowed, trapped and desperate, “or kill a baby, just because it’s a Shun?”
“Arvid, it is true some divvys kill all Shun babies, but not all do. You don’t have to divvy anyone, but once you have done so, you will be oath-bound to state the truth. And as a divvy, you should be able to tell if a Shun baby will live past the first three days to their naming or die in slow starvation and pain. Trust me, you will know. Whether you shorten that suffering is, again, your decision.”
“The Seniors will be very unhappy with you if you do not divvy, and—let us be practical—they will be unhappy with your family. But once you take the oath they must abide by your decision to divvy or not.”
“If I had heard the oath before, I wouldn’t have come to the trials. No matter what.”
Matteo interrupted, “Were you born in Kissing Bridge?”
Arvid answered the irrelevant question politely. “No. We came here after my sire died.”
“When did you find out you could divvy?” Matteo continued, in that deep reassuring voice. Rhona kept quiet, letting Matteo lead.
He explained. “When I grabbed Zilde’s arm,” he turned back to Rhona, speaking divvy to divvy, “I could feel her. It was like nothing I’d felt before.”
They shared a smile before Arvid returned to misery. “I don’t want to be the reason someone dies.”
Rhona nodded as though he had just confirmed something she had suspected. “People die for many reasons. You are not responsible for their actions. But I will promise you, no one will die by your actions today.”
She continued gently, “It’s a hard gift, and there is more pain than joy in it, but we are the hope of the Deom, we divvys, because there would be more pain if we did not exist. I believe it is always better to know the truth than to wonder, or to believe a lie, and that is why we say the oath. The oath is for others, so they believe what we say. We divvys always know the truth.”
Arvid wondered how far he could trust these strangers. But, having come so far, he took the final step. “I hold you to your word. I will take the oath.”
Rhona pulled him up with her, keeping hold of his hand. They walked across to the staring watchers, and Rhona announced, “Arvid will take the oath now.”
A mass sigh of relief, and a Senior said, testily, “But why—?”
Rhona held up her free hand, repeating with finality, “He will take the oath.”
She released Arvid. He took a step forward. “I swear, by all the Deom hold sacred, and my own honor, to speak the divvy truly and never to conceal the birth of a Shun. Road go up, Road go down, I swear.” To his surprise, his voice did not shake.
Silence. There was another intake of breath from the Seniors. Arvid thought they were poised to swoop down on him and demand answers, but Rhona gestured them back. Before she could speak, Arvid’s grandmother erupted, spitting with rage.
“Arvid, come here! Now you are a divvy you will keep the Deom clean of Shun. Stay away from them! The Shun should have been killed at birth, or the woman stoned for coupling with filth!”
Ignoring the insult, Rhona spoke directly to Arvid, “The Seniors should witness this. It will be safest, with as many witnesses as possible.”
Arvid swallowed. “Yes.” He felt as if he were watching a violent storm approach and knew he could not avoid it.
A Senior said, “If you wish witnesses, we will stay, if only to guarantee courtesy.” The other Seniors murmured in agreement.
Rhona bowed to them. “Thank you. This will not take very long.”
She turned to Matteo. “I believe you understood from the start. If you would explain?” Even in his terror, Arvid realized Rhona was forcing the Seniors to listen to the Shun, as though he were true Deom and had a right to speak.
Matteo faced the Seniors. “Arvid did not want to take the oath because he did not want to say what he knew.”
All the Seniors looked puzzled.
“Arvid had divvyed someone, and he was terribly afraid. But he wanted to be wrong.”
“I hoped I was wrong,” Arvid admitted. Now that it was coming out it was easier to speak. “Then I touched the Shun in the trials and I knew.”
Eliaena interrupted, “He is a child. He doesn’t understand these matters. You shouldn’t—” She stopped. Everyone was staring at her, including her mother.
Rhona shook her head. “He isn’t a child. If he is old enough to take the divvy oath, he is a man. You, none of you, can tell him what to do anymore.” Sushanna swelled in rage, but Eliaena looked sick. Arvid’s heart lifted. If they all survived this, he would be free.
Rhona looked at Arvid’s family. “One of you is a Shun.”
The listening Seniors drew in a mass breath. Rhona had spared him from saying it.
Sushanna screamed with rage. “You filth! How dare you! Because you are filth, living with him—” she pointed at the unmoving Matteo, “you think you can make everyone—”
“Granny!” Arvid cried. “She’s right.” His grandmother choked and glared at her daughter. Eliaena backed away.
Arvid said, “You can’t hide it anymore, Mama.”
“But he’s wrong!” The red veins bulged in Sushanna’s white, panicked face. “Eliaena was divvyed at birth! She is Zeosil. She has had living children! He’s wrong.”
Eliaena said, hopelessly, “Not me, Mama. Zilde is Shun.” She closed her eyes at the sight of her mother, and opened them again to look away from her daughter. “I have always been afraid. I was never sure. I hoped…” She put her hands up to cover her face and wept.
Zilde had gone gray and still. She turned to Arvid. He could barely hear her. “No.”
“Oh, Zilde,” Arvid put his arm around her, as if she weren’t a Shun. “I’m so sorry. It’s true.”
Sushanna was gibbering with shock, and Eliaena was weeping. Arvid held on to Zilde, who looked ready to faint.
“The truth is out now,” Rhona told the Seniors, who looked as stunned as Sushanna. “I think Zilde and Arvid deserve to know how it happened.” She did not mention Sushanna, who glared at her.
The Zeosil Senior spoke, his voice stern and unyielding. “Eliaena, you have admitted to bearing a Shun. You concealed it. Concealment is a serious crime, against the laws of the Deom. If you have a defense, speak now.”
Arvid noticed his sister had become “it.” Matteo and Jak, as one, took a step closer to the child.
Eliaena wailed, “It was an accident! I never meant—I was partnered with Nevo, Arvid’s sire, we quarreled and I went to stay with a…friend. He was a Zeosil, and we…. Anyway, it was only the one night. I never took her to a divvy.”
Sushanna spat, “You told me both children were Zeosil, and Nevo’s. You swore. You swore!” Arvid almost felt sorry for his grandmother. On the proudest day of her life, with her grandson a divvy, her daughter had admitted in front of the Seniors to one of the most serious crimes on Deo.
“Yes. Arvid was, and Zilde could have been,” Eliaena wept. “She should have been, if there had been any justice for me at all. It’s not my fault.” Arvid gritted his teeth. Zilde was in danger and his mother was weeping for herself.
He said, “I wanted to be wrong. But at the trial, it was unmistakable.” He took a deep breath, and asked with dread, “What happens to Zilde now?”
No one answered. One Senior turned to the others, “We must confer. The rest of you wait here.” He hesitated before turning to Matteo, Rhona, and Jak. “We thank you for your help. We won’t detain you—”
“We will stay,” Matteo answered. “We will see justice done.”
Waiting, Arvid clutched Zilde to him. His grandmother and his mother moved away. Rhona stood with her arms crossed and frowned at both women. Distantly, Arvid heard music and laughter from the Trade area. The Meet celebrations had started.
The Seniors returned, lining up in formal array with Wid to the left and Zeosil on the right. They were speaking for both the camp and the Deom.
The old man spoke, “Eliaena of the Zeosil, you have admitted to concealing the birth of a Shun and raising her as a Zeosil.”
“But I didn’t know—” Eliaena began, and stopped as his hand was raised.
“You knew there was a chance, and you deliberately did not bring the child to a divvy, as was your duty to the Deom. You failed that duty. You are exiled from Kissing Bridge and we will publish your crime to the other camps.”
“No! You can’t!” Eliaena’s voice and hands were both shaking. “You can’t. Arvid—Arvid’s birth was clean and my child-debt is paid! I deny the child; send her away, not me! I didn’t know!”
Arvid thought he would throw up. Zilde whimpered. Rhona looked as if she were going to spit.
“You will leave the camp,” the Zeosil Senior said. “Since you deny the child, the child’s fate is out of your hands. Your mother, by your own words, is…” He hesitated, and Arvid realized he couldn’t quite say “innocent.” He settled on, “Not responsible. She may stay if she wishes.”
“The Shun is the one at fault!” Sushanna stood at her daughter’s side. “Not Eliaena! Remove the Shun and the fault dies!”
She yanked out her long belt knife and leapt at her granddaughter. Arvid tried to pull Zilde away, but Matteo reached the little girl and plucked her into the air by her shirt, yanking her out of Arvid’s arms and away from the descending knife. Jak slammed into Sushanna and grabbed for her wrist. She writhed like a snake in his hands, and her knife slashed Jak’s arm.
A mix of Seniors and bystanders pulled Sushanna away and wrestled her to the floor. She shrieked and struck out in rage, cutting a few more before her knife was torn from her hand. Rhona ripped off her headscarf and wrapped Jak’s arm. Arvid heard himself screaming, “Zilde! Zilde!” He could not stop. Eliaena was standing to one side weeping and wringing her hands. The Commons was chaos.
“Bind her and get her on her feet,” a Senior snarled. “She attacked with a blade in the Commons, in a formal hearing. The penalties are known. Burn her wagon, destroy any weapons, distribute any silver to the poor, and toss them both on the Road to beg.”
Arvid watched his screaming grandmother and weeping mother dragged away. All he felt was enormous relief, as though his burdens had been removed. Zilde was safe and cradled in the Shun’s arms.
The Zeosil Senior bowed to him. “Arvid of the Zeosil, divvy, you are free to do what you will.” Arvid realized his mother’s name was erased. His grandmother’s line was broken.
He took a deep breath. “I will stay with my sister.” Matteo set Zilde on her feet and Arvid grabbed her hand.
“Your half-sister,” Arvid and Zilde twitched at the correction, but the Senior continued, “Your half-sister should have been sent to the Shun Refuges after she survived her birth.” His voice softened as he spoke directly to the little girl, “Zilde, the Seniors do not condemn you for remaining as a hidden Shun in Kissing Bridge: your mother deceived you. Had you known, the penalty would have been your death. But you are still a Shun. You cannot,” he looked at Matteo and back at the girl, “you should not remain here, unprotected, where so many will wish you ill.”
“Arvid showed great good judgment today, in an impossible situation,” Matteo said. “Rhona and I would be honored to offer both Arvid and his sister the hospitality of our house, and we will escort Zilde up the mountain to the nearest Shun Refuge, where she will be safe.”
The Zeosil Senior bowed and turned away.
Arvid asked, “Can I go with her?”
“You can travel with her to the Refuge, but you cannot stay. Zilde,” The little girl looked up at the tall Shun. “You will be safe in the Refuge, make friends, learn a trade.” He smiled at her, “Perhaps find a partner. The Shun in the Refuge will help you grow up.”
Zilde whispered, “But I can’t have babies.”
“No. But it is best you find out now, rather than grow up in ignorance. And your brother can visit.” Zilde smiled at Arvid and his heart lifted. It wasn’t perfect, but it might be all right, in time.