Chapter 1: The Blacksmith’s Daughter
No matter how simple life seems, there’s always a more complicated force at play. Something as easy as a breath flowing in and out is a process of its own. Without sunlight and water, plants and trees couldn’t survive. We wouldn’t have the oxygen to feed our blood or the animals to satiate hunger. Everything’s a delicate balance. And sometimes, even the smallest of stones, can create the largest ripples.
Golden beams penetrated the dense canopy of pine needles, battling their way to the clay-red earth below. Massive rusty trunks stretched at sky-scraping heights as gentle gusts delivered whiffs of cedar.
A dirty brown boar grazed on a sizable pile of sweet blueberries deliberately placed in the center of the clearing. Its lengthy snout wavered above the dirt while softly snorting and filling its belly.
Thin olive ferns swayed before my piercing eyes, crouching in a nearby patch.
The hog suddenly lifted its head, glancing every which way, as if he caught my scent. Each muscle stiffened while I focused on steadying my breath.
Lesson number one. If you’re the hunter, you can’t be the hunted. And I refuse to miss the chance at bringing back an animal large enough to keep the people of Redwood fed for at least a couple of days.
The pig lowered its sight to its snack, continuing to gorge itself.
That’s it. Nothing to see here.
I slowly raised my bow and drew back an arrow. Goose feathers tickled my cheek while aiming the flint point at the coarse fur hiding its lungs.
While exhaling, I released.
My arrow flew into the boar’s side. It let out a squeal, fleeing into the tree’s.
A man emerged from the wood line, running his pale fingers through his voluminous shoulder-length waves as I rose from my camouflage. His pearly-whites shined through his short, brown facial hair.
“Goddamnit, Hansen!” I rolled my eyes at his nonchalant demeanor. “I could’ve shot you!”
“Well, you were aiming for the hog, right?” he asked.
I furrowed my brows. “Well yeah, but —”
“Then I’m good,” he said, with a playful hazel gaze. “Because we both know you don’t miss.”
Okay. Fair point.
I couldn’t help but smile because it’s been nearly a month since I’ve seen Hail.
“Well?” I threw my arm in the direction the pig escaped. “Are you gonna help me track this thing or are you just gonna stare at me?”
Hail smiled while he stepped into the clearing. The string of my bow hugged my chest after slipping my arm and head through before accompanying him. We followed the blood trail and came upon the animal laying lifeless on its side, my arrow still protruding from its thick hair.
Death is also intricate. Tree’s die. Fall. But they rot, giving themselves back to the ground. This life was taken so that others could live. But not every loss is justifiable.
Lesson number two. If you’re a survivor, you can’t be a victim. If the murder of my mother taught me anything, it’s that.
Hail drug the pig behind him as we strolled the carved out trail my faded black leather boots created after an uncountable number of trips to my hunting grounds. After an hour of small talk, we entered a gaping, man-made clearing, cluttered with the last remnants of sunlight, tall cornstalks, and vibrant clusters of fruits and vegetables.
According to my father, our ancestors built our village from all the trees in this area and used the sunny space they created for crops. I don’t think anyone truly knows how or when the world ended. All the facts got lost with the books and replaced by stories of social or environmental decline, all the way to disease and famine. No matter what apocalyptical event did us in, I guess it’s irrelevant. It happened. And instead of focusing on it, we’ve moved on.
Hail and I halted at the next giant opening.
Children chased each other along the paths, each identical log home established, getting another game of tag in before being forced to wash up. Dusk was preparing to paint Redwood with its starry fingertips and songs of nightlife. Day transitioned into night as a few men lit torches scattered strategically lining the dirt streets.
“Oh, I almost forgot...” Hail let go of the animal and pulled a rectangular item from the pouch hanging at his side. “I got this for you while I was out.”
He handed me a black book. Gold inscribed nearly every inch with a strange bird fanning its tail. Each feather’s eye seemed as if it could peer back at me as I glanced at the words ‘Pride and Prejudice’ lining the cover in the same sheen.
“Holy shit, Hanson!” I let out a breath and an astonished smile. “Do you know what this is?”
“I do,” he said sarcastically. “I think they call it a book.”
“Its not just any book. These pages are nearly a thousand years old. Hail,” I huffed. “How did you get this?”
“I traded my acoustic for it,” Hail said with a bashful grin.
That’s just like him. After his rendezvous with other traders, he always comes back with an item to impress me. He must be low on valuables if he resorted to bartering away his beloved six-string.
“But y-y-your great, great, grandfather built that for you. You loved that guitar.”
“Not as much as I love seeing you smile,” he said with a motivated stare.
“Hail...” I shook my head at his obvious advance. “You really shouldn’t have done that.”
“Hey. Relax,” he said, shrugging his broad shoulders. “It’s no big deal.”
That’s just like him, too. Anytime he detects rejection, he defaults to his usual ‘its no big deal’ to shut it down before it starts.
He shot me a smile and claimed the boar to drag it the rest of the way to the skinners. “Later, Sterling.”
Hail, once again, left me swimming in guilt. I let out a sigh, expelling the pressure in my chest, and plotted into Redwood. When arriving at the potter’s tent, I didn’t bother to make my presence known before bursting through the canvas.
As I plopped in a chair in the corner, the lone woman molding clay glanced with eyes as black as night, waiting for an explanation. Terracotta smeared her brown skin, arms, and apron.
She raised her bold but perfectly plucked arches. “That bad, huh?”
“Awful,” I huffed.
“Hail again?” she asked.
When isn’t it?
“He brought you back something again, didn’t he?” Ingrid asked.
Apparently, she knows Hail just as well as I do.
“Listen Callie, in his defense, it’s not everyday you turn thirty-three,” she said with a grin. “Speaking of gifts, I got you something.”
“Oh, no.” I rolled my eyes. “Not you too.”
Her flawless umber complexion only made her teeth appear as white as the clouds as she smiled through her plumped lips.
“It’s on the back of your chair,” she said.
I twisted, spotting a leather jacket deeper than the coal in my father’s forge. A subtle crisscross pattern covered the shoulders and a dull metal zipper lined the front. It matched my blackened hide pants to a tee.
Lesson number three. Kill or be killed. Beasts won’t hesitate to eat, maim, or slaughter. It always comes down to one thing. Us or them. The choice is simple. So we use every part we’re able to and never take the creatures that give us life for granted.
A thought suddenly speared me harder than a boar’s tusks.
“Wait a minute...” I narrowed my eyes as they curiously met with hers. “You didn’t have Kari make this for me, did you?”
“Of course not,” Ingrid said with a mischievous smirk. “She thought she was making it for me.”
“I hope so,” I said with a scoff. “Or else she probably would’ve laced it with ivy oil.”
“Girl,” Ingrid smirked. “Kari’s just jealous because she knows Hail wants to get his ‘Hansen’ all up in your precious goods.” She shrugged, turning her attention back to the lump of earth she was molding. “And honestly, I don’t know why you don’t let him. It’s not like we have an infinite amount of choices and besides that, Hail’s like this thirty-five-year-old sack of sexy that you might like if you just...” She shrugged. “Sink your teeth in. And he clearly cares for you.”
Something as simple as a feeling really isn’t so. They muddle our minds. Confuse us. Tangle our insides until we can’t hold them in any longer. How do you tell someone you’ve known since birth and consider a close friend that’s all they’ll ever be? How do you not upset them? Hurt them? Mortify them for being brave enough to put their heart on the line? Is it really so crazy for me to desire a spark?
“Besides...” she smirked. “I bet he uses that sword in his pants as good as the one he takes to defend himself on his trade routes.”
“Ingrid Armani?” My eyes and smile enlarged at her assumption. “You’re terrible!”
“Girl!” She unapologetically smirked. “You love me.”
She’s right. I do. I’m not sure where I’d be today if it wasn’t for her.
“At least Hail gets to go out,” she huffed, changing the subject. “I’m stuck here at this stupid wheel, day in and day out, playing with clay so everyone in Redwood can put their grimy mouths on my dishes.”
Here we go again.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I furrowed my brows. “Everyone here has a role to play. That’s how we survived this long. No job is small.”
“I know but don’t you ever wonder what’s outside of the redwoods? I feel like I’m missing out on this whole other world.”
I swear she’s been Redwood’s biggest dreamer for thirty-one years. Sitting all day playing with mud must let her mind wander a little too often. I’ve told no one the details of my experience away from home, but for Ingrid’s sake, I think it’s about time I spilled the beans.
“I saw it once,” I said, gazing at a random spot on the canvas behind her. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There were these flowers that were bright orange with little brown spots on the petals. And the sky was blue and open. Not a single tree clouding it. Further out, there were these old metal piles covered in moss that I guess used to have wheels and take people places. And then do you know what happened?”
“What?” she asked in a trance.
My expression soured as we locked eyes. “My mother died.”
Ingrid’s stare shattered into a thousand pieces of guilt, as if I threw a stone through the window of her soul. I hated shutting her hopes and dreams down in such a way.
Lesson number four. You can’t be imprisoned if you refuse to be a prisoner. Sometimes it’s necessary to remind people to appreciate what they have, instead of focusing on what they don’t. To think of the bars as protection, instead of something keeping you caged.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered.
“Don’t be,” I said. “I’m just saying that even though the grass may look greener outside the tree-line, it’s not. It’s full of outsiders that can’t be trusted.” I let out a sigh, rose to my feet, and clutched my brand-new coat. “And on that note, I’ve gotta head home. Hilda’s cooking dinner.”
“Oh, yeah?” Ingrid asked. “How’re things now that your dad and Hilda are officially married?”
“It’s okay. It’s not like we haven’t all been living together for years at this point. I try but Hilda, I don’t know she’s —”
My voice trailed off as I attempted to string together the sentence.
“Not your mom,” Ingrid said, finishing my thought.
All I could do was look at her, confirming her guess with not so much as a word spoken.
“Yeah,” I said at last.
I paced towards the exit of her tent and twisted towards her once more.
“And uh, thanks,” I said, clenching the hide hanging beside my thighs. “For the jacket.”
She shot me her usual gleaming smile. “What’re best friends for?”
Hiking the paths between the timber cottages towards home provided ample time to appreciate my surroundings. Boys and girls kicked up dust while they sped home for curfew as darkness claimed our town. Flames danced from each torch, lighting the road every ten feet with each breath our abundant land inhaled. Goosebumps formed on my bare arms despite the comfortable heat in the air, but there wasn’t a point of throwing Ingrid’s gift on my shoulders.
I arrived at a log palace flaunting a reddish-tinge no better than the rest. I climbed the steps to the door, unconcerned with knocking before twisting the metal knob and invading its walls.
As I closed it behind me, baked haddock wafted into the dimly lit foyer. Silverware clanked in the next room as I removed my boots and dropped them with the tan sets already placed against the knotted wood.
My giggling half-sister, charging my way, blocked the stairway ahead. Her fine blonde hair glided behind her before she flung her whole sixty-four pounds into my stomach. She wrapped her thin arms around my waist and squeezed.
“I can’t wait for school tomorrow!” she said, releasing me from her embrace.
I took a knee in front of her and smiled. “And I can’t wait to teach tomorrow.”
Her grin quickly faded, and I got a hunch about where the conversation headed.
“Callie?” she asked, with pleading, sky-blue eyes. “When can I learn the cool stuff?”
“We’ve been over this Trisk,” I said with a lengthy sigh. “You’re only nine. ‘Earth skills 101’ and ‘Health and Healing’ until you’re older.”
“But Callie,” she whined. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
Kids today. They can never enjoy their innocence. Constantly in a rush to grow. What they don’t understand is being an adult is much more complicated. Going to school ends, and everything you’ve practiced activates. Playing outdoors becomes hunting. Building with twigs turns to starting fires. Crafting poultices means healing wounds.
“Well,” I huffed, focusing on her fair complexion and rosy cheeks. “In that case, there is something you can do for me.”
“What is it?” Triska asked with a hopeful gaze.
I smirked and grabbed her arms. “Go help your mom set the table.”
She rolled her eyes, threw her head back, and let out a groan.
“Oh, I know,” I said mockingly, rising to my feet. “Its so terrible!”
She turned, bouncing to the dining-room, and I made a break for the staircase ahead. As I passed by the vast opening, a feminine voice halted my tracks.
“Callie?” it asked.
My stepmother Hilda stood in an off-white apron covering her lengthy navy-blue dress, holding a tea-towel and a concerned gaze.
“I was doing your laundry earlier and your white tank-top was soaked again,” she said, in a questioning tone.
My forehead pinched and a defensive attitude emerged, as if she’d violated my privacy. “How many times do I have to tell you I can wash my own clothes, Hilda?”
“Really, it’s no big deal,” she said calmly. “I was just wondering why. That’s the third time this week.”
“I got caught in the rain,” I growled.
I lied and didn’t care that her brownish, thinly raised brows and icy prying eyes weren’t buying it.
“All three times?” she asked, trying again.
“Are we done?” I asked with a glare while dodging her question.
Gloom glazed her eyes, and she gave me a delicate nod. I spun to the handrail and ascended the stairwell.
Upon swinging open my bedroom door, I stepped inside and closed it. My log bed sat angled in the right corner. The window beside my fluffy fur bedspread overlooked the green giants bordering our town.
Even though I’m constantly surrounded by woods, it’s my happy place. The forest always welcomes my presence and gives me time for myself. The trees listen. They don’t judge. And they never ask for too much.
Off to the left sat my small beige couch in front of a stone cold fireplace. The feathers stuffing its innards were tempting, but dinner was almost ready and I needed to clean up.
I plotted towards my cedar chest, unbuckling the weapons belt hugging my waist.
The metal Beretta pistol created a dull thud as I carefully placed it on the dresser. Lost in gaze, I glared at the gun. Each black line is like a story, trying to tell us about the years before. Only it was in a language none of us understood. Guns are hard to find to begin with, but when we did, they rarely worked. Everyone looks up to the people that are lucky enough to own one, but what they don’t know is it’s more of a curse. Mine is anyway.
Pines watched on the edge of their seat. My mother Kindra’s arm hung over my shoulder, and I squeezed her wrist, dragging her beside me through the rusted dirt. Blood seeped from the gaping slit in her stomach, staining her white tee and waistband. She clenched her abdomen with her free limb, groaning with each limp taken.
“Hang on, mom,” I begged through my tears. “We’re almost home!”
Kindra collapsed, pulling me with her. My knees dug into the ground as I hovered overtop, glancing at the gushing wound beyond my skill of treating. Her throat rattled with each breath, while gazing with desperate icy eyes. Kindra’s deep brown locks made her skin appear even fairer while the life-force drained from her cheeks.
“No, don’t give up on me,” I demanded in a wavering breath. “Not now, do you hear me?”
My mother’s crimson-soaked hands drifted from her injury, and her Beretta clattered as she weakly slid it from its leather holster. The gun floated between us as she waited for me to accept it.
I shook my head in disbelief at her surrendering gesture. “No.”
“Callidora,” she choked. “Please.”
Without a choice, I accepted the weapon, glancing at the small etches in its side before abandoning it on the soil beside us.
As my sight drifted back to my mother’s, her cloudy gaze aimed at the treetops as if she was elsewhere, and her chest laid unnervingly still.
“Mom?” I whimpered.
“Mom?” I muttered.
“Mom!” I said in a near shout.
It felt as if my mother’s gut wasn’t the only one with a life-altering affliction. Tears poured as I rested my forehead against her chest and sobbed.
I claimed my usual seat at the table across from Triska, anxiously waiting for Hilda to fix her haddock and potatoes. As I took a forkful of mine, it flaked into perfect bite-sized pieces. Its mild savory flavor melted in my mouth as I slowly chewed each shaving.
My father, Odin, parked himself at the right end of the slab, sliding himself up to his fully stocked plate. Hilda approached, setting Triska’s in front of her before taking her seat opposite of Odin.
After a few bites, Hilda interrupted the clanking silverware and chewing. “So how’d it go at the Smithy today?”
“Oh you know, heat, beat, repeat,” Odin said, while directing his words towards me. “What’d you do today, Callie?”
“Went hunting,” I said, before stuffing in another fork-full of fish.
“What else?” Hilda asked. “Because I thought you and I had plans together today to —”
“What’s with the probing?” I snapped.
“I’m not trying to,” Hilda said. “I just know your father’s away a lot and I want you to know that if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m —”
“You know what?” I barked. “I’m really not that hungry anymore.”
I quickly wiped my lips with the cloth beside me before abandoning it along with my meal.
“Callie, wait,” Hilda pleaded.
My father inturupted, stopping Hilda from shooting after me. “Let her go.”
After entering my bedroom, I slipped into my paper-thin hide nightgown to ready myself for what would hopefully be a good night’s sleep. The dress’s thin straps attempted to escape my shoulders as the soft suede hung halfway down my thighs. I crawled underneath my fur comforter and allowed my heavy gaze to come to a close.
My eyes shot open as they got shaken awake. Triska smiled above me, with her bright blonde hair already braided and her frame dressed for the day. Sun beamed through the glass separating my large bedroom from the outdoors of Redwood.
“Callie, Callie, wake up!” she yelled. “It’s a school day!”
“Trisk,” I groaned. “You’ve gotta stop barging in here in the mornings like this.”
“Come on! Come on!” She shouted before running from the bedroom.
Rows of desks with eleven tiny glowing smiles waited for my next question with the enthusiasm an adult has for a cup of fuel made from bitter beans.
The knotty wood soaked in each ray, penetrating the large windows as I sat parked on the edge of my lengthy table. A few herbs, stacks of parchment, and a mortar and pestle rested alongside me.
“What’s the simplest way to craft a poultice?” I asked the class.
Each little hand shot into the air.
“Axel,” I nodded.
“With charcoal and water, Miss Sterling,” the young boy said.
“Very good, Axel,” I said with a smile.
Hail suddenly barged through the door and halted in the center row. His panicked hazel eyes summoned a sinking in my stomach, as it wasn’t a look he wore often.
I furrowed my brows. “What’s wrong?”
“Raiders,” he said, glaring through the space between us. “They’re coming.”