"Smoke!" I sprang to my feet and dropped the basket half-filled with blueberries. Over my shoulder,
I yelled, "Jib, hurry. Run hard." Not looking to see if my brother followed, I grabbed my sister Em's hand and took off. How
lucky we wore breeches today instead of workskirts. Darting down the dirt path, I stumbled over gnarled roots and barely avoided
sawed-off trunks. Low-lying branches scraped my tunic and grabbed my hair. My braids slipped from the top of my head, whacking
my back with every step.
Faint screams reached my ears.
Screams of terror.
Terror? Not the headman's drill to form orderly bucket lines. Were our friends trapped in a burning cottage? Had
raiders returned to steal our animals and crops, or the silver we mined?
"Hurry, Jib." I glanced back through the trees, but didn't see him anywhere. He wasn't much slower than Em and should
have caught up by now.
Geemam's wheezing voice called our names. I whipped my head around and almost banged into her. Why was she running
away from the village fire instead of helping the water brigade?
Fighting to catch my breath, I studied the woman who'd taken us in after our Marm died seven years ago. Alarm distorted
her wrinkled face.
"They've come, Ru," Geemam said. "To the river." She yanked me back into the forest.
Still gripping Em's hand, I spun and followed
Geemam. I pushed my legs even harder, almost hauling my sister. At twelve years, she was a lot shorter, with stubby legs,
and groaned trying to keep pace. Our boots swished through piles of pine needles and scattered dead leaves until we reached
Jib, standing where we'd left him, a basket at his feet. His eyes bulged midnight blue and dark; his body was stuff; his fists
hadn't he followed us?
I tracked the direction of his gaze to ... the package under Geemam's arm. The package she always kept near the back
when they came.
Came to get us.
"They've come," Geemam had said. Her warning spread through my veins like frost blooming across the window.
The Baron's men.
After seven years of searching for us, leaving
smoldering towns and hamlets in their wake, they'd finally discovered our location. I imagined his men tearing apart cottage
after cottage, destroying everything in a rage, looking for the boy with the thumbprint birthmark behind his ear.
My ten-year-old brother, Jib.