Rafi was next to her, pumping his frail legs as they flew across the worn, cracked cobblestones of Clearwall. His pale, too-thin cheeks were pink with exertion and exhilaration as he clutched a loaf of bread to his chest and pushed himself harder.
The merchant behind them heaved himself after them, much to Alana’s amusement. Too many sweet rolls and too little exercise had left the merchant doughy and egg-shaped, and he was already puffing out strained breaths as he waddled after them. He tried in vain to yell over the sounds of the marketplace, but the call emerged as little more than a series of ragged gasps.
Just to be safe, however, the siblings split at the plaza’s fork. Rafi shot off to the left, scrambling over a fence and into a sewer grate. Lana had just enough time to hope that he’d shove that loaf down his shirt to keep it out of the grime before she vaulted off one of the street carts and onto the smithy’s roof. Elean yelled something at her, but she could only flash a smile back at him before pushing ahead. Elean didn’t actually mind. As one of the few buildings in town to boast shingles rather than thatching, the smithy had often supported her nimble feet. She’d make it up to him tomorrow. Springing off his overhanging eaves, Lana’s soft boots hit the cobblestones again and she sprinted for the safety of the labyrinth.
Clearwall was a nightmare. Its twisted, broken streets and half-finished alleys wove around each other in indiscernible patterns. People said that it had been built that way to fend off invading armies, but Alana had only ever seen it used as a shelter and escape route for beggars and thieves. Most of Clearwall’s citizens had grown up in the Capitol, but no one knew the labyrinth like the urchins. And Lana was one of the best. Rafi was getting there, but her little brother hadn’t grown into his legs yet, and his gawkiness made him look more like a newborn colt than a true streetrat.
As though on cue, Rafi appeared from the grate at Alana’s feet, and she knelt over to pull him out by his sinewy arms.
“You’d better not have ruined our dinner down there” she said as she cuffed him on one too-large ear.
Rafi frowned as he pulled the crumbling loaf from under his shirt, doing his best to hold it together as he presented it for her approval. She feigned disgust for a moment before giving a short nod.
“Good boy. Come on. Let’s go home.” Rafi smiled and nodded, following Alana with a joyful skip.
“Home” for the urchins was really the blocky remains of a long-disused tannery. Some of the supporting walls still stood, but the earthen floor had long since been stained with the noxious scent of its previous occupation, and few traveled near it. Rafi and Alana had grown used to the acrid stench of ancient alkaline lime, and only relished in the safety of seclusion that the area offered. Old Jorthee never complained about the smell either, and he offered a warm smile at their approach. Alana and Rafi clasped their hands together and bowed their heads in greeting before offering him his share of their prize. “We brought dinner, Uncle.”
“Where did you get this from, children?” Jorthee stared at Alana with piercing eyes as he waited for her response. She met his gaze evenly.
“One of the merchants gave it to us after we brushed down his horse.” The words came out more easily than she’d expected as Alana broke off a generous piece for her little brother. Jorthee’s gaze narrowed.
“Your eyes still darken a shade when you lie, Little Bird. You are getting better at deceiving the Sight, but you can’t fool me.” Alana felt her cheeks burn. Jorthee laughed. “And if I wasn’t sure before, I definitely am now.” Alana bristled in shame, but Rafi saved her from further embarrassment.
“Where did you learn how to use the Sight, Jorthee?” The old man turned one steel-grey eye towards the young urchin that was busy shoving his mouth full of bread.
“I’ve told you this before, boy. My grandfather taught me.”
“Where did he learn it?” Rafi’s eyes were wide with innocence and curiosity. In contrast, Jorthee’s face was an unreadable mask in the darkness.
“From a young woman that he cared about very dearly.”
Rafi smiled and nodded, evidently content with this answer, but Alana wanted more. It wasn’t often that Jorthee talked about the Old World.
“Your grandfather was a soldier, right?” Alana’s eyes brightened, her humiliation forgotten. “Did he fight in any wars?”
“Only the one.” The words hung heavily in the air and Alana pressed her lips together. The citizens of Clearwall were forbidden to be educated in the temples, but the Proclaimers made sure everyone knew about the Godfall War. The series of battles that ended in the death of gods and all good things. Jorthee’s grandfather—they’re great-grandfather—had been there. He had tried to protect Clearwall from the Faoii witches that had worked tirelessly to destroy everything. In the end, he had failed, but Alana’s chest swelled with pride at the idea that their family had tried to hold the witches back. That they had tried to make the world a better place. The world needed more people like her great-grandfather.
“What was it like?” Alana finally broke, unable to contain the excitment in her voice. She knew that the Godfall War was a forbidden subject in Clearwall, but she yearned to hear about worlds beyond this one and a time when people fought to make things better. A time of heroes.
Jorthee must have recognized her thoughts (he always did), because he simply shook his head.
“Not now, Little Bird. Maybe some other time.” With that, he rested his head against the old tannery wall and seemed to fall asleep. Alana frowned in disappointment but said nothing as she chewed at her bit of food. Flakes of snow fluttered through the holey roof.
Alana waited for a long time in case Jorthee changed his mind, but finally sighed and gave up. She nudged her brother with one shoulder. “Do you want to go to the witch burning tomorrow?” Rafi wrinkled his nose.
“Who are they burning?”
“They found another Faoii. Crazy witch drew Faoii symbols all over her walls. Everyone’s talking about it.” Raf frowned.
“What did they look like?”
“Old? Not the oldest witch we’ve seen, but not young anymore. Greying hair. Probably dumb enough to put her hair in a braid."
"No. Not the witch. The symbols?" Alana narrowed her eyes.
"How the blades should I know?”
“Then how do we know they’re Faoii?”
Alana’s heart thumped in her chest. She’d heard Rafi start this line of questions before. It never went to safe conversation topics. She tried to derail him quickly. “You’ve heard the Proclaimers, Rafi. All symbols are Faoii symbols.” Alana cast a sidelong glance at her brother. “And they’re protecting us. You know that, right?” Rafi didn’t respond immediately, staring forward with distant eyes.
“No. They’re not. Those symbols weren’t just for Faoii. Everyone knew them, knew how to tell what they said. They communicated that way—Faoii, and commoner alike. But the Proclaimers took that away.”
Alana broke into a cold sweat, immediately whipping up her head to look towards the open street outside. There was no movement outside the walls and her heart slowed a little bit. Still, her brother’s words frightened her. You never knew who could be listening.
“Shh. Shhh. Don’t say those kind of things, Rafi. The Proclaimers say that the weird drawings are Faoii symbols, and we have to trust them, okay? That witch drew them all over her house and now she’s being burned for it. And that’s the right thing. We’re all safer for it. Right? Look at me.” She pulled him to her and forced his eyes on her face. “The Proclaimers are always right.”
It took Rafi’s eyes too long to focus, but when they finally did, he shivered. Relieved, Alana let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding and wrapped her arms around him. Rafi’s frail frame shook beneath her arms.
“Yeah. Yeah, Alana. I know. The Proclaimers are protecting us. I… I don’t know why I do that. I don’t know where it comes from. I want it to stop. Lana, I want it to go away!”
Alana rubbed his back in slow, comforting circles. “I know, Rafi. I know. We’ll figure it out. We just have to be careful. The Proclaimers won’t understand if they hear you talk like that. They’ll think you’re a Faoii, too. So we just have to figure out how to keep quiet when it happens.”
Rafi sobbed in her arms. “I don’t want to be quiet, I just want it to not happen anymore. And when it does happen... I don’t know, Lana. I just wish you could be there with me without being afraid. I wish you weren’t afraid of me.” Alana hugged him closer.
"Oh, Rafi. I could never be afraid of you." He hiccupped at that and held on to her, still crying softly into her shoulder. Alana sat with him, rubbing his back and whispering comforting nothing sounds into his ear. After a few minutes his shivering changed from that of a sobbing child to that of a cold one, and Alana reached behind her and pulled their thin blanket off the cot, wrapping it around his little frame. When he sat back up, he was still again. Quiet. Alana tried not to shudder at his unfocused eyes. Tried not to seem afraid.
“It’s cold now. We missed the trees changing colors.” Lana tried to smile for him.
“Trees? Betrayer’s blade, Rafi. You’ve never seen a tree in your life.” In all truth, Alana had never seen one up close either, but she had spied a small copse of tall green ones once when she’d climbed the fort’s western wall on a dare. Clearwall’s guards had pelted her with arrows and chased her all across the city for her trouble, but for those few moments she had seen the world outside of Clearwall. She was about to remind Rafi of this tale, since it always seemed to delight him, but his eyes remained unfocused and she cast another wary glance outside. No one was on the path in either direction. She bit her lip nervously and was about to say something else in an attempt to change the subject, but Rafi’s unfocused eyes stilled her. I could never be afraid of you. “Okay, fine. It’s just us. Tell me about the trees, Rafi.”
From far away, Rafi smiled. “There used to be trees. Or… there will be. Or both…?” His sky-grey eyes twinkled for a moment as Rafi looked somewhere that Alana couldn’t see. “They’re beautiful, Alana. And they really do change colors. Orange and red and gold!”
For a long time Alana listened to her brother talk about things he shouldn’t know about, listening to his voice fill with a happiness that wasn’t known in Clearwall. She smiled for him and pet his hair as he whispered nonsense into the darkness.
Had she looked up, she might have seen the tears leaking from Jorthee’s closed eyes.