As far as you can see, this land is ours. Never forget that. It was my father’s and his father’s before that. This is Ballenger territory and always has been, all the way back to the Ancients. We are the first family, and every bird that flies overhead, every breath that is taken, every drop of water that falls, it all belongs to us. We make the laws here. We own whatever you can see. Never let one handful of soil slip through your fingers, or you will lose it all.
I placed my father’s hand at his side. His skin was cold, his fingers stiff. He’d been dead for hours. It seemed impossible. Only four days ago, he’d been healthy and strong, and then he gripped his chest as he got up on his horse and collapsed. The seer said an enemy had cast a spell. The healer said it was his heart and nothing could be done. Whichever it was, in a matter of days, he was gone.
A dozen empty chairs still circled his bed, the vigil ended. The sounds of long good-byes had turned to silent disbelief. I pushed back my chair and stepped out to the balcony, drawing in a deep breath. The hills reached in hazy scallops to the horizon. Not one handful, I had promised him.
The others waited for me to emerge from the room wearing his ring. Now my ring. The weight of his last words flowed through me, as strong and powerful as Ballenger blood. I surveyed the endless landscape that was ours. I knew every hill, every canyon, every bluff and river. As far as you can see. It all looked different now. I backed away from the balcony. The
challenges would come soon. They always did when a Ballenger died, as if one less in our numbers would topple us. News would reach the multiple leagues scattered beyond our borders. It was a bad time for him to die. First harvests were rolling in, the Previzi were demanding a greater take of their loads, and Fertig had asked for my sister’s hand in marriage. She was still deciding. I didn’t like Fertig, but I loved my sister. I shook my head and pushed away from the rail. Patrei. It was up to me now. I’d keep my vow. The family would stand strong, as we always had.
I pulled my knife from its sheath and returned to my father’s bed. I cut the ring from his swollen finger, slipped it on to my own, and walked out to a hallway full of waiting faces.
They looked at my hand, traces of my father’s blood on the ring. It was done.
A rumble of solemn acknowledgement sounded. “Come on,” I said. “It’s time to get drunk.”
* * *
Our steps echoed through the main hall with singular purpose as more than a dozen of us headed toward the door. My mother stepped out from the west antechamber and asked me where I was going.
“Tavern. Before the news is everywhere.”
She slapped me on the side of the head. “The news was out four days ago, fool. The vultures sniff death before it arrives and circle just as quickly. They’ll be picking at our bones by next week. Now go! Alms at the temple first. Then you can go drink yourself blind. And keep your straza at your sides. These are uncertain times!” She shot a warning glower at my brothers too, and they dutifully nodded. Her gaze turned back at me, still iron, thorns, and fire, clear, but I knew behind them a wall had been painfully built. Even when my brother and sister died, she didn’t cry, but channeled her tears into a new cistern for the temple instead. She looked down at the ring on my finger. Her head bobbed slightly. I knew it unsettled her to see it on my hand after twenty-five years of seeing it on my father’s. Together, they had strengthened the Ballenger Dynasty. They had eleven children together, nine of us still living, plus an adopted son, a promise that their world would only grow stronger. That is what she focused on, instead of
what she had lost prematurely. She lifted my hand to her lips, kissed the ring, then pushed me out the door.
As we walked down the porch steps, Titus whispered under his breath, “Alms first, fool!” I shoved him with my shoulder, and the others laughed as he tumbled down the steps. They were ready for a night of trouble. A night of forgetting. Watching someone die, someone who was as full of life as my father, who should have had years ahead of him, was a reminder that death looked over all our shoulders.
My eldest brother, Gunner, sidled close as we walked to our waiting horses. “Paxton will come.”
I nodded. “But he’ll take his time.” “He’s afraid of you.”
“Not afraid enough.”
Mason clapped me on the back. “Hell with Paxton. He won’t come until the entombment, if he comes at all. For now, we just need to get you snot drunk, Patrei.”
I was ready. I needed this as much as Mason and everyone else. I needed it to be over with and all of us moving on. As weak as my father had been before he died, he managed to say a lot in his last breaths. It was my duty to hear every word and vow my allegiance even if he’d said it all before—and he had. He’d been telling me my whole life. It was tattooed inside my gut as much as the Ballenger seal was tattooed across my shoulder. The family dynasty—those both blood and embraced—was safe. Still, his final labored instructions dug through me. He hadn’t been prepared to let go of the reins this soon. The Ballengers bow to no one. Make her come. The others will notice. That part might prove a little harder.
The other vultures who came circling, hoping to take over our territory, were what I needed to crush first, Paxton foremost among them. It didn’t matter that he was my cousin—he was still the misbegotten progeny of my long-ago uncle who had betrayed his own family. Paxton controlled the smaller territory of Ráj Nivad in the south, but it wasn’t enough for him. Like the rest of his bloodline, he was consumed by jealousies and greed. Still, he was blood and would come to pay honor to my father—and to calculate our strength. Ráj Nivad was a four-day ride from here. He hadn’t heard anything yet, and if he had, it would take him just as long to get here. I had time to prepare.
Our straza shouted to the tower, and they in turned called down to the gate guards, clearing our passage. The heavy metal gates creaked open, and we rode through. I felt the eyes on me, on my hand. Patrei.
Hell’s Mouth sat in the valley just below Tor’s Watch, only parts of it visible through the canopy of tembris trees that circled it like a crown. I had told my father once that I was going to climb to the top of every one. I was eight years old and didn’t realize how far they reached into the heavens, even after my father told me the top of the tembris was the realm of the gods, not men. I didn’t make it far, certainly not to the top. No one ever had. And as high as the trees stretched, the roots reached to the foundations of the earth. They were the only thing more rooted in this land than the Ballengers.
Once we were at the base of the hill, Gunner shouted and took off ahead of the pack. The rest of us followed, the trampling of hooves pounding in our bones. We liked to make our arrivals into town well announced.
* * *
The bell chimed softly, as delicate as crystal goblets meeting in a toast. The ring echoed up through the stone arches of the temple unchallenged. As disorderly and loudly as we pounded into town, the family respected the sanctity of the temple even if cards, red-eye, and barrels of ale swam in our visions. Five more bells and we would be done. Gunner, Priya, and Titus knelt on one side of me, Jalaine, Samuel, Aram, and Mason on the other. We took up the whole front row. Our straza—Drake, Tiago, and Charus— knelt behind us. The priest spoke in the old tongue, stirring the ashes with calf’s blood, then placed a wet, ashy fingertip on each of our foreheads. Our offerings were taken by the sober-faced alms bearers into the coffers, deemed acceptable by the gods. More than acceptable, I would guess. It was enough to fund another healer for the infirmary. Three more bells. Two.
One. We stood, accepting the priest’s blessing, and walked solemnly in a single file out of the dark hall. Chiseled saints stood on lofty pillars looking down upon us, and the cantillating benediction of the priestess floated after us like a protective ghost.
Outside, Titus waited until he was at the bottom of the steps before he pealed out a shrill whistle—the call to the tavern. Drinks were on the new
Patrei. Decorum in the face of death brought emotion too near the surface for Titus. Maybe for all of us.
I felt a tug on my coat. The seer was huddled in the shadow of a pillar, her hood covering her face. I dropped some coins in her basket.
“What news have you?” I asked.
She pulled on my coat until I knelt to eye level with her. Her eyes were tight azure stones, and appeared to float, disembodied, in the black shadow of her hood. Her gaze latched on to mine, her head tipping to the side like she was slipping deep behind my eyes. “Patrei,” she whispered.
She shook her head. “Not from without. Within. Your soul tells me.
From without … I hear other things.” “Such as?”
She leaned close, her voice hushed as if she feared someone else would hear. “The wind whispers they are coming, Patrei. They are coming for you.”
She took my hand in her gnarled fingers and kissed my ring. “Gods watch over you.”
I gently pulled loose and stood, still looking down at her. “And over you.”
Her news wasn’t exactly news, but I didn’t begrudge the coins I had tossed her way. Everyone knew we would face challenges.
I hadn’t gotten to the bottom step when Lothar and Rancell, two of our overseers, dragged someone over and threw him to his knees in front of me. I recognized him, Hagur from the livestock auction.
“Skimming,” Lothar said. “Just as you suspected.”
I stared at him. There was no denial in his eyes, only fear. I drew my knife.
“Not in front of the temple,” he pleaded, tears flowing down his cheeks. “I beg you, Patrei. Don’t shame me before the gods.”
He grabbed my legs, bowing his head and sobbing.
“You’re already shamed. Did you think we wouldn’t find out?”
He didn’t answer, only cried for mercy, hiding his face in my boots. I shoved him away, and his gaze froze onto mine.
“No one cheats the family.” He nodded furiously.
“But the gods showed mercy to us,” I said. “Once. And that’s the Ballenger way. We do the same.” I sheathed my knife. “Stand, brother. If you live in Hell’s Mouth, you are part of our family.” I held out my hand. He looked at me as if it were a trick, too afraid to move. I stepped forward, pulled him to his feet, and embraced him. “Once,” I whispered into his ear. “Remember that. For the next year, you will pay double the tithe.”
He pulled away, nodding, thanking me, stumbling over his steps as he backed up, until he finally turned and ran. He would not cheat us again. He would remember he was family, and one did not betray one’s own.
At least, that was the way it was supposed to work.
I thought about Paxton and the seer’s words again. They are coming for you.
Paxton was a nuisance, a bloodsucking leech who had developed a taste for wine. We would handle him, just like we handled everything else.
The scavengers have fled, our supplies now theirs.
Gone? he asks.
He lies dying in my arms, already dust and ash and a ghost of greatness.
He presses the map into my hand.
This is the true treasure. Get them there. It’s up to you now. Protect them.
He promises there is food. Safety. He has promised this since the first stars fell. I do not know what safety is anymore. It is from a time before I was born. He squeezes my hand with the last of his strength.
Hold on to it, no matter what you have to do. Never give it up. Not this time.
Yes, I answer because I want him to believe in his last moments that all his effort and sacrifice are not wasted. His quest will save us.
Take my finger, he says. It’s your only way in.
He pulls a razor from his vest and holds it out to me. I shake my head. I can’t do this to my own grandfather.
Now, he orders. You will have to do worse things to survive. Sometimes you must kill. This, he says, looking at his hand, this is nothing.
How can I disobey? He is the chief commander of everything. I look at those surrounding us, sunken eyes, faces streaked with dirt and fear. I barely know most of them.
He shoves the razor into my hand.
Out of many, you are one now. You are family. The Ballenger Family. Shield one another. Survive. You are the surviving remnant that Tor’s Watch was built for.
I am only fourteen and all the rest are younger. How can we be strong enough to withstand the scavengers, the winds, the hunger? How can we do this alone?
Now, he says again. And I do as he orders. He makes no sound.
Only smiles as he closes his eyes and takes his last breath.
And I take my first breath as leader of a remnant, charged by my grandfather and commander to hold on to hope.
I am not sure I can.
—Greyson Ballenger, 14