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Secrets and Rumours

Janelle opened her eyes slowly, blinking as the early morning sun streamed through the trees up above. It had been two days since they had left their village, but the forest surrounding the mountains was vast. As a result they still had yet to reach a road they could follow.

She sat up, yawning. Glancing around, Janelle noticed that Samantha was missing.

"Samantha?" she whispered, her heart beginning to race. They've found us!

"I'm up here."

Janelle looked up. Samantha was sitting in the tree above her, sharpening the blade of her sword.

"Why are you up there?" she asked, confused.

She shrugged, reaching over her shoulder and sheathing the blade. "It's easier to see if anyone's coming."

Samantha swung down to the ground, her thick black hair bouncing on her shoulders. "Anyway, we should head off now."

Janelle nodded. "Yes, we should."

She watched Samantha as she turned around to pick up the few belongings they had. She'd always found her intriguing, ever since childhood. Samantha was one of those people who seemed to be given a lot in life – she was by far the most beautiful person Janelle had ever seen, and she had been the best in their class at school.

Samantha even had a natural talent for fighting. After her sister was taken away, Janelle had vowed to learn how to fight and get her back. She'd practiced by herself in the forest with sticks, but it made little difference. Six months into her training, she came across Samantha in the woods nearby. Unlike Janelle, Samantha had a real sword, and a talent she could never have. Janelle knew she was lucky to have found her, as Samantha taught her to fight, and together they agreed the only way to get their revenge was to overthrow the Gifted. But why does she want to overthrow the Gifted? She never told me… And who taught her how to use a sword?

"Are you coming?"

Samantha looked at her expectantly.

"Y – Yes, sorry," she stammered, clearing her throat.

However, before they could set off, the sound of laughter echoed through the forest. Samantha and Janelle looked at each other for a moment before they both sprang into action.

Samantha scaled the tree so fast Janelle wondered how it was humanly possible to do so. She had no such talent, running behind the tree and hoping they would not see her.

"Make sure you collect a lot!" a woman yelled in the distance. "Not like last time, we need a supply that will last us before the snow sets in!"

"Yes, mother," a young boy sighed, his footsteps crunching on the forest floor.

He coughed and began to rustle around collecting firewood. Janelle squeezed her eyes shut. Don't come near me, please don't…

"Who are you?"

She cursed under her breath. Janelle opened her eyes once more, smiling at the small, blond haired boy who stood next to her, his arms full of firewood.

"Hello," she said as Samantha jumped down, fixing the boy with a murderous glare. He jumped, stepping backwards a few paces. Janelle shook her head over his shoulder, silently telling Samantha to calm down.

"I'm sorry for scaring you," Janelle said smoothly. "We are merely travellers passing through. But when we heard someone coming we were certain the Gifted had found us. We'll just be on our way."

The boy's fear was replaced by excitement. "Travellers? Maa!"

Janelle's blood ran cold. Surely he's not –

"Maa!" he called again, grinning. "I found some travellers, look!"

"Travellers?" an older woman stepped into view. She had blonde, greying hair and a certain softness to her. A glint formed in her light green eyes as she surveyed the two of them.

"Good job, Harry!" she said to her son, hugging him close. The woman turned to them once more, bowing slightly.

"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," she said, shaking Janelle's hand vigorously.

"Um… I feel the same," she stammered, a bit confused. I don't think she's Gifted, but I don't understand why she's so excited to see us.

"I manage an inn not too far from here," the woman said, grinning. "Please, come and enjoy our hospitality."

Oh, so that's why. Janelle glanced at Samantha, who shook her head. Her eyes were narrowed as she surveyed the woman and her son.

"Thank you for the offer," Janelle said, smiling nervously. "But we're fine. We should really be on –"

"I insist!" the woman said aggressively, linking Janelle's arm in hers and leading her away. "You must be awfully tired from your journey. I'll even throw in a discount!"

"We really shouldn't…" Janelle protested weakly, but her grumbling stomach was beginning to convince her. It's been a few days since we had a proper meal… Perhaps this is for the best.

Janelle let the woman lead her to the small inn, Samantha and the boy following. The woman led them to the bar straight away, yelling at someone to make them breakfast and bustling about to serve the other customers. Eventually she returned with two large plates of eggs and toast.

"Enjoy," the innkeeper said smoothly as she poured them both a glass of water.

Janelle muttered her thanks, her doubt washing away as the delicious smell reached her nostrils. She tucked in enthusiastically, savouring every bite. It's been so long since I had a meal like this…

"I don't like this at all," Samantha said quietly. Her fists were clenched and she stood very straight in her chair. She had barely touched her food.

"Listen…" Janelle said, swallowing and leaning over. "Everyone here has run away from their villages, okay? It's a sanctuary, a place safe from the rule of the Gifted. I've heard rumours of them back home. We're safe here, no one knows who we are."

Samantha turned towards her, scowling. "What about spies? Anyone here could be a spy for the Gifted."

Janelle shrugged. "That's true, but… We haven't done anything that they would care about at the moment. We've just run away from home like most of the people here. There's no reason that the Gifted would target us specifically."

Samantha stared at her for a while longer before turning away.

"I suppose you're right," she muttered, picking at her food again.

"Is it not to your taste?"

They looked up, startled. The innkeeper grinned toothily at them, gesturing at Samantha's almost full plate.

"It's fine, thank you," she said quietly.

"Are you sure? I'll make you something else. Anything you like."

Samantha shook her head, glaring at her. "I said it's fine."

Janelle grinned guiltily, hoping the innkeeper wouldn't take away their discount because of her companion's behaviour. To her relief, the woman simply laughed and pulled up a chair behind the counter.

"So," she said, her eyes glittering. "Did you hear about the two girls from the mountain village just north of here?"

They both stopped eating at once. Janelle put down her fork, shifting and smiling nervously.

"I haven't heard anything," she lied. "What – what about them?"

"Two girls from the mountain village disappeared two days ago," the woman said, still grinning. "The Gifted in that village are under a lot of pressure to find them. It's a small village, you see. Disappearances like that… They don't go unnoticed, you know?"

"Yeah," Janelle muttered, avoiding her gaze.

"Most think they just got lost somewhere," the innkeeper continued, dropping her voice and leaning closer. "But apparently a few of their clothes and other possessions went missing, so some think that they were kidnapped and murdered by some thief."

The woman paused, taking a long drink from Janelle's glass of water, but she was too distracted to be annoyed.

"Well, what do you think?" Janelle said quietly, her green eyes meeting those of the innkeeper.

"I think they left to do something most of us can only dream of. Overthrow the Gifted."

The woman coughed, reaching into a pocket on her apron and pulling out a small envelope.

"If you two aren't too busy, would you mind doing something for me?" she asked. "On your journey, take a visit to the large village near a lake a short journey south from here. While you're there, visit the town's doctor and give him this. Say it's from Rosa."

She grinned once more. "So, can you do that for me?"

Janelle glanced at Samantha. She was staring into her mostly full plate. She doesn't trust the innkeeper… But this might be the opportunity we need. I have to go for it.

"Sure we can," Janelle said, smiling nervously.

I hope I didn't just make a really bad decision.

How did I do that?

She stared at her hand, but it remained stubbornly visible. Maybe it was a trick… But how? It felt so real, it looked so real…

Carey glanced up at Wesley again, silently begging him to say something. He swallowed, avoiding her gaze.

"Um, could it be…"

"What?" Carey said, grabbing him by the shoulders. "What is it?"

"I don't know…" he muttered, shrugging. "Maybe it's a Gift."

"A Gift," she echoed. "But I'm eighteen. Gifts don't manifest when you're eighteen. I couldn't have had it before, or they would have found me as a baby… And besides, invisibility isn't a Gift!"

He shrugged. "But what else could it be? Besides, it could still be a Gift. Obviously not a common one, but then this isn't exactly common, is it?"

Carey raised her eyebrows doubtfully. The Gifted have elemental powers… Air, Water, Fire and Earth. I've never heard of a Gift of Invisibility.

"I mean, we don't know anything about the Gifted," her brother continued. "Maybe other Gifts are possible, but elemental powers are the main ones."

He's right… The only explanation is that I'm Gifted. But what will happen now?

"I don't want them to take me away, Wesley," she whispered. "If – if the Gifted find me they'll –"

Wesley hugged her close, cutting her off. "It'll be fine. We'll just – we'll stay away from the house tomorrow. The Assessor will never see you. And we'll avoid coming into contact with the Gifted from now on. Whenever they have inspections, we'll go – we'll go visit the horses, or something."

A niggling voice in her head told her this was too simple, but Carey ignored it. It'll be fine. Wesley's right, as long as I stay away I'll be okay.

"Okay," she heard herself say, finally allowing herself to smile. "If I stay away tomorrow, the Assessor will never know."

She paused, hugging him closer. "Nothing will happen to me, I promise. You can't get rid of me that easily."

Wesley laughed. "That sounds more like you."

She took his hand like they were children again, pulling him towards their home.

Their parents took no notice as they came in, aside from a quick hello. They did not even notice that Carey had forgotten to bring water like she was supposed to do. Her mother sat beside Lindsay's crib the whole night, while their father did his best to make the rest of them go to sleep.

Carey felt like she was watching someone else's life, not her own. Her brothers and sisters laughed and played tricks on each other, like usual. Usually she would have joined in, but that night she remained silent.

They're all acting like nothing is happening… Lindsay could be gone tomorrow, and apart from Mum, Dad, Wesley and I none of them seem to notice.

The voice in her head told her that she could be gone, too. Carey tried to ignore it as she lay down to sleep, but it was useless. She tossed and turned all night, and the few hours of sleep she did manage to get were plagued with nightmares.

She and Wesley left early the next morning before any of their siblings had woken up. They took all the produce they were supposed to sell at the village markets and set up their stall, the first people to do so. They stayed there all day, chatting with their friends and selling most of their crops. It's as if nothing happened… Can I really just continue with my life the way it was?

"Let's go home, Wesley," Carey said, beginning to pack up the items they had not managed to sell. It was past sunset, and theirs was the only stall still open.

He grabbed her arm. "Are you sure? If the Assessor comes…"

"The sun's already set. He must've visited by now."

Wesley still seemed uncertain, but he nodded. "Okay."

Carey smiled. "Stop worrying, it's annoying."

He grinned slightly. "It's a bit hard not to, you know. Even if you're safe, Lindsay…"

"I forgot about that," she admitted, clenching her fists. That's right… Lindsay could still be taken away.

They walked back to their home in silence. What will we find when we get there? Will Mum and Dad be crying, or will Lindsay be safe with them?

Carey knocked on the door when they arrived, fidgeting. Her mother opened it soon after, relaxing when she saw them.

"It's just you," she muttered, standing aside and letting them in.

Carey scanned the room quickly, breathing a sigh of relief when she noticed Lindsay bundled in her father's arms.

"He's still here," she said, giving a small laugh as she rushed over and stroked the soft brown fuzz on her little brother's head. "He – He's still with us!"

Her father shook his head, staring down at his daughter with a sad look in his eyes.

"Carey… The Assessor hasn't checked him yet," her father said, his words turning her blood to ice. "We still don't know if Lindsay will –"

"Wait, what?" Wesley said quickly, grabbing Carey's arm tight.

"The Assessor hasn't checked him yet," he repeated, his eyebrows knotted. "Wes, what's going –"

"We have to get out of here," Wesley interrupted, turning to Carey. She gulped, nodding.

He's right, I have to get out before they –

A loud tapping noise distracted her. Carey's parents exchanged glances, and her mother strode over to the door. Please, let it be someone else… Maybe we left something at the markets, and someone found it.

"Y – yes?" her mother said as she opened it. Carey closed her eyes, still hoping, but she knew it was useless. The Assessor had found her.

She opened her eyes again, momentarily shocked when she saw her enemy for the first time. He did not look anything like Carey had expected. Instead of the tall, intimidating man she'd been picturing, a young boy stood in front of her. He was small and skinny, his grey uniform hanging loosely off him. The Assessor looked no older than fourteen, his large, dark brown eyes and shaggy black hair giving him a youthful appearance.

He knocked… Why did he knock? I thought he'd just barge in.

The boy glanced around the room, his eyes falling on the baby in her father's arms. He strode over, stopping in front of Carey. She could feel Wesley's grip tight on her hand, pulling her slightly, but she stayed where she was.

They stared at each other for a moment. Carey knew she should get out of his way, but it was as if her feet were stuck to the floor.

"Excuse me," he said quietly. Carey was surprised by how deep his voice was. It sounds so weird coming from someone so small… And why hasn't he noticed me?

"S – sorry," she stammered, stepping out of his way at last. Wesley tugged her arm, pulling her into the corner.

"Are you trying to get caught?" he hissed under his breath as the Assessor took Lindsay from their father's arms.

"He didn't notice, Wesley," she whispered. "Maybe it isn't a Gift, maybe it's something else…"

Lindsay began to wail, distracting both of them. The Assessor had all his attention focussed on the child in his arms, the look he gave him so intense that Lindsay only cried louder. After about a minute he looked away, his eyebrows slightly knotted.

"The child is nonGifted," he said, a hint of uncertainty in his voice. The Assessor handed Lindsay back to his parents. They both sighed with relief, hugging the child close and speaking softly to him until his crying subsided.

The Assessor bowed. "I will be leaving now. Thank you for your cooperation."

He still looks uncertain. Carey squeezed Wesley's hand, his fingers beginning to turn purple. The Assessor strode towards the door, glancing at the other children one final time. He stopped suddenly, frowning.

Their parents noticed his odd behaviour, exchanging a glance.

"What is it?" Carey's mother said, stepping and blocking Lindsay from his view.

"There's something…" he muttered, moving closer to the children. Carey gulped, trying not to look guilty and failing miserably.

His dark eyes bore into them, the younger children beginning to cry from the intensity of his gaze. He looked at each of them in turn, his eyes lingering on Carey for much longer. She squeezed her eyes shut.

He's found me… This is it.

"You," he said, stepping towards them.

"No!" Wesley said angrily, pushing Carey behind him and stepping in front of the Assessor. He took no notice, his gaze still fixed on Carey.

"How old are you?" he asked quietly.

She swallowed, her throat dry. "Eighteen."

They stared at each other for a moment, her family members looking on in shock.

"Carey…" her father began. "What's going on?"

The Assessor glanced at him. "She is Gifted."

He kneed Wesley swiftly in the stomach. Her brother let go of her arm, coughing and bending over. The Assessor grabbed her wrist while he was distracted. Despite his small stature and apparent youth, his grip was strong. I won't be able to break it easily.

"You can't!" she cried, twisting and pulling.

He gave her a sad smile. "I have to."

In front of the shocked faces of the rest of her family, the Assessor dragged her towards the door.

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