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Chapter 3

Munjin released his sister’s arm as a long sigh escaped him. The familiar taste of brimweed filled his mouth, and his skin itched. He knew dark dreams would chase him tonight for his sharing with Dinaelle.

Dinaelle shuddered as the visions subsided. “I’ll say something to Pa.”

“No!” Munjin clenched his fist.

Dinaelle drew back from his alarm and serious tone.

Munjin shook his head. “You know what Pa says. ‘In the Biter Pass, boys fight their own battles.’”

She frowned, but nodded. “We’ll get ‘em back, Munjin. You and me.”

He did not smile as he might have in the past. So many times, he and Dinaelle had discussed elaborate schemes to revenge themselves on the brothers Kolva. This time was different.

He shrugged. “It didn’t hurt none, but they got my hat.”

Dinaelle hugged her knees and rocked while he spoke. After a while, she softly said, “I’m so used to seeing your thicket of hair, Munjin, I forgot about your hat.”

Presents were hard to come by in the Arkoff family. Aunt Riza had made the hat just for Munjin. Not a hand-me-down or something traded at the fair, even if it was something he would have had to grow into.

Munjin threw a piece of bark. “I can’t tell Pa the Kolva boys got the better of me again …”

Their older brother’s backsides still stung from the beating they had been given for helping Munjin against the Kolvas. The message had been clear: Munjin, born seventh and last, born with a lame arm, had to stand on his own.

“I remember when you were an infant …,” said Dinaelle.

Munjin said nothing.

“… you’d crawl around the floor and scamper around the legs of the tables and chairs. You’d find a rock and try it out in your mouth. Always moving, always underfoot. You fell down all the time but you didn’t care. You loved to explore. It wasn’t until you realized your arm was different that you …”

Munjin stiffened. The subject of his birth injury was taboo in the house--the family ignored Munjin’s deformity, except when they cursed it.

“It’s not like you can’t use your arm at all,” she said.

Munjin, like a lightning-seared tree waiting for the thunder, barely moved. Finally, he said, “Nobody wants to work with me, Dina. I’m too slow.”

“Being slow ain’t the same as not being able to work.”

“Pa don’t like it.” Munjin tore off another piece of bark and picked at it.

“So don’t work in the field then. There’s plenty of stuff to do in the house.”

Munjin’s eyes stung with fresh insult. “Woman’s work? You saying that’s all I’m good for? Sewing … and--and … cutting carrots?” His voice cracked.

Munjin knew he had gone too far when Dinaelle’s eyes narrowed, then she burst to her feet.

She yelled, “Boys! By the Tree!” She tugged her shawl around her. Then softly, to herself, “Give me patience.”

Finally, she turned back to him. “I guess a lecture about the worth and wealth of women’s labor won’t help right now.”

Munjin felt his whole face redden. “Sorry, Dina. I din’t mean nothin’.”

Dina sighed heavily. “—I know.”

They listened to the dull murmur and chirp of the forest for a dozen heartbeats. The cold of the earth leeched the heat from their bones.

“You know Old Tcheky?” asked Munjin.

Dinaelle nodded.

“He sits at the mill most days and watches people go by, and he likes to sneak hard cider when he thinks no one can see him.”


“He can’t do much, right? He lost an arm in some far away battle but … people still respect him,” Munjin explained, his voice even again. “I wish I could cut off my arm and tell people I lost it in battle. Then it would be all right if I was slow.”

“Munjin! The very idea! You’ll do no such thing.” Dina tugged her shawl around her shoulders with disapproval.

He shrugged and returned to destroying his bark. “I was just sayin’ is all.”

“Even so. You don’t know who might be listening,” said Dina. “Don’t think the spirits will ignore your foul words just ‘cause you like sitting out here. No more talk about arm chopping, or the forest folk might command a goblin to sneak into your room with a bone saw.”

“It was just talk,” mumbled Munjin. He leaned away and curled up, shying from the cold wind of his sister’s rebuke.

Dinaelle grunted, then tousled his messy hair. He twisted away as if she had rubbed mud on him, but not too quickly.

“How hard it must be to be a boy.” Dinaelle stood and brushed herself off longer than she needed to, then stalled by looking about as if she were trying to find her knitting.

Munjin remained seated.

“Are you coming back?” she finally asked.

“Not yet.” He tossed the bark aside. “I’ll be back before dark.”

“You see to it, Munjin. Not all the talk about the Angry Tree is just gossip,” said Dinaelle. “Some of the stories the women tell are worse. Truth or hearsay I don’t know, but it’s all bloody.”

Munjin nodded at his sister’s warning, and smiled his secret grin just for her. He watched her try to give him a parting glance imbued with all her fourteen springs of authority. He was sure she would pray for him as she walked home. Munjin doubted anyone would be listening.

Next Chapter: Chapter 4