As her mother washed the dead body splayed out on their kitchen table, Seela helped her and dreamed of living another life.
It wasn’t that she hated being a healer’s assistant. On the contrary, her mother was patient and calm with a booming laugh that could shake sadness from any room, even from those who’d lost loved ones moments before on their battered wood-plank table. And it wasn’t like people died like this all the time—one of their neighbors going stiff and hard on the surface where they broke their bread most mornings. Naked, fleshy, and vulnerable.
Most lived and were so grateful to Seela’s mother, plying her with trinkets they’d made or little flowers from the valley. She was skilled at the healing, Seela’s mother. So, skilled, in fact, that some of the village women had spread a rumor that her mother was a witch, one who slaughtered goats during the harvest moon and drank their blood. But anyone who knew her mother couldn’t believe it, and the lie died as soon as it arose. Especially when her mother saved one of those rumor spreaders from certain death after delivering her breech baby. Both mother and child lived, and everyone rejoiced.
But her mother’s skill could not help poor Mr. Whelp.
Mr. Whelp was the village bartender and a known hard drinker, who had pickled his liver until it gave out on him. Sickly and stinking of a rot that only comes from within, he’d fallen, hit his head, and hadn’t woken up. Her mother applied all the poultices in her power, chewed up herbs and worked them between his colorless lips, but none of her usual tricks worked. Mr. Whelp had stopped breathing a few minutes ago. Now it was up to them to dress him and prepare his body for burial.
This was not Seela’s favorite part.
“Help me, pumpkin,” her mother said, swiping a lock of salt-and-pepper hair out of her hazel eyes. She lifted Mr. Whelp’s considerable arm off the tabletop, then took a sponge to it.
Seela internally grimaced and started to help, taking the sponge from her tired mother’s hand and setting about the task of washing and dressing poor old Mr. Whelp.
“You’re exhausted,” Seela said, shooing her mother away. “Let me do this. Go lay down.” Her mother shook her head, so Seela pointed to the chair by the hearth. “At least sit, for Lords’ sake.”
She ran the sponge down Mr. Whelp’s hairy chest toward his bloated belly. A sheet had been splayed across his man parts, and for that, Seela was grateful. She focused on his face and hair instead. Nothing scary there. She used the sponge to smooth back his black hair. His mistress would be here to collect him soon. They needed to make him presentable. Or as presentable as one could make a dead body.
Seela continued, working the sponge over his flesh before dousing it into the bucket of cold water from the well. Her mother set about humming old Ciriulan mourning songs, lighting candles to help send the spirit to the afterlife. Her soft, melodic voice filled their small house with warmth and sorrow, light and dark. Seela shivered. Then she started to dress Mr. Whelp’s quickly stiffening frame as best she could, keeping her eyes averted.
“Nervous about Selection?” her mother asked, slipping her eyes over to Seela before darting back to her work of organizing her herbs. Little earthen jars littered the shelves beside the hearth and filled two wooden cabinets along the wall.
Seela fastened the buttons on Mr. Whelp’s shirt, barely getting them to close over his sizable stomach. “Not nervous. It happens every year.”
“Mmm hmm,” her mother said in an even tone. “Even though you’re of age now for selection?”
Seela dismissed it as a ridiculous idea, even though her stomach was knotting the more they spoke about it. “What are the odds I’ll be selected? One in one thousand?”
“Probably more than a thousand girls of age in the eleven valleys. And they only pick one,” her mother said, setting the pots that held her precious herbs back in order. They made little scraping sounds as the bottoms clinked together. A noise Seela found soothing and familiar. “Very unlikely you’ll be picked.”
Seela swallowed. “Very unlikely. I haven’t been picked yet.” She wished her mother hadn’t brought Selection up. Her stomach flipped like river otters were tumbling inside.
Apparently sensing this, her mother wrapped her arms around her daughter and drew her in for a hug. Her mother smelled of marigold and sage. “Don’t fret, dove. You’ll be safe. After Selection, you’ll drink mead and dance and flirt with the young men there. Maybe even meet the man of your dreams.” Her mother waggled her eyebrows, swishing her skirts.
“You’re being ridiculous, and you know it.” Seela spun away from her mother’s embrace, then helped her sort more pots back into the cabinet. Their house was small—one bedroom they shared, a kitchen, and a little sitting area used mostly for patients and their families. The latrine was outdoors, and cold in the brisk winters where temperatures dropped to thirty degrees like it was this morning. It would be a chilly festival tonight if it didn’t warm up.
“What time is Mr. Whelp’s mistress coming by to collect him?” Seela asked, straightening her muslin dress and bundling her tangled black hair into a bun. She was a sweaty mess despite the chill.
“She’ll be here in a half an hour or so. You don’t need to stick around. I know how you feel about the weeping.”
“It’s not that. It’s just I never know what to say.” She felt like a rat for leaving her mother to console Mr. Whelp’s mistress like that, but Seela had never been good at consoling people. Her own father had died when she was seven. Every time someone cried for a loved one, she felt the spike of pain in her chest directly through her heart.
“You okay, dove?” her mother asked.
She blinked away the memory of her father, forcing on a smile. “Of course. Can I go to market? Get you anything?”
Her mother dug in her apron pocket, palming a coin and tossing it to Seela. “A bit of goat if you can manage it. And fennel. Dried or fresh, it doesn’t matter.”
Seela nodded, slipping the coin in her boot. It was daylight and she was unlikely to get mugged, but she took precautions anyway. Her father’s steel knife made the other boot stiff and immovable.
After pulling on her cloak, Seela whirled out of the house. The fresh air of the forest flooded her lungs, and she reveled in the feeling of being outside.
The sky above was a brilliant blue, rimmed with trees as green as emeralds. The Deep Forest stood around them, centuries’ tall trees marking time as their branches reached to the heavens. The trees around her house were so old the branches were fifty feet off the ground, unreachable unless a lumberman was able to fell one of the giants, and that was a feat most were unable or unwilling to do. These trees had magic souls, the villagers whispered. Cut one down and folly on the culprit and their families.
Seela had loved the trees, had ringed around them with her father as he chased and she squealed. They gave shade in the summer, shelter in the winter. Their roots created a dense ecosystem in the soil beneath that allowed her mother to grow all sorts of important herbs in her garden, threaded into the sunny spots on the forest floor.
But ever since Father had died, a great fear had grown in Seela. The trees made darkness, and darkness hid monsters. Magic that seemed friendly and fun when she was small seemed threatening and dangerous now.
Tugging her cloak tight around her, Seela jogged through the shadows toward the road, eager to get to town. The trees cried overhead as the wind shook their branches. She thought about her mother, home alone with a dead body, and shivered.
Twenty minutes later, the path wound its way out of the trees and she spied the village below. Sloping green hills rolled down into a little basin flecked with thatch-covered roofs and with muddy streets cutting between them. There was the spire of the Church of Lords, and the patch of dirt near the center was the square. From this height, the houses looked the same, small brown boxes with muddy livestock yards on one side and gardens on the other. A pasture ran along the far end with small brown dots that were horses munching away at the weeds. A path rose opposite her hillside that she knew ran up and over the ridge and down to the docks, where many of the men labored and they imported and exported goods to the other valley villages. Mickey, her best childhood friend, worked at the docks. She wondered if she’d see him at Festival.
She skidded down the hill and wove through houses, taking in the familiar sights and smells. It was so very different from her little forest cottage. Here, the houses were crowded and close together. Hovels beside the houses were full of pig squeals, and the yards with the shouts of children too young to go to school. Although, there was no school today. It was Selection. She kept forgetting.
Where her house was quiet, the village was all noise. The sloping hillsides seem to hold in the noise—shopkeepers in the square hawked items, unruly packs of children with no shoes and dirty faces ran through like dogs. As she walked by the tavern, a song slipped between the bat-wing doors from an out-of-tune piano. She remembered that Mr. Whelp, the proprietor of that establishment, was now dead and lying on her kitchen table. Who was running the bar?
“A little late to the party, aren’t ya, Speckles?”
Seela whirled toward the familiar voice in time to catch Mickey stepping up beside her. Unruly brown curls fell in his eyes as he grinned at her.
“If this is the party, I wager I should’ve stayed home,” she joked. “Is that a wake for Mr. Whelp?”
Mickey’s eyes trailed to the tavern doorway and the drunks wavering within. “Drink all the dead man’s liquor. Then cry and stumble into the streets. Sounds like a wake. Care to join?”
“No, thank you. To market, I go.” She gestured down the path to the butcher.
Mickey ran a hand through his curls, tired looking but still bright-eyed, dressed in his dock attire and smelling of fish from his hours of slinging it. His lanky form and long arms gave him a unique talent for wrangling slimy sea life, and his wit and humor kept the dock hands rolling. He’d been her friend since he’d been a blond, freckle-faced boy one year her senior at the one-room schoolhouse. He told more jokes than he studied, and he drove the teacher mad. But he’d always made Seela laugh, even if it meant a rap on the knuckles. He hadn’t lasted at school very long—neither his knuckles nor their teacher couldn’t handle it—so he’d left for work at age eleven, but he would often walk her home on rainy days or check on her during the winter when the slope down was treacherous. A true friend, Mickey. Her mother thought she’d marry him one day, though Seela couldn’t imagine it. He was like a brother to her.
The tune on the piano jumped into something jaunty. Before Seela knew it, she was in Mickey’s arms and he was spinning her in a jolly jig right on the street. Seela laughed deeply, whirling, her cloak floating out around her body like a sail. Mickey slipped a hand around her waist and dipped her, bringing her head low to the road before pulling her up again in a graceful arc.
She spun away from him, laughing and clutching her chest while gasping for air. “Dancing in the street. You’d think it was Festival.”
“It is Festival,” he said joyfully, but then his face clouded as he watched hers fall. “Oh, Lords, Speckles, I’m sorry. Didn’t know it would upset ya.”
“It doesn’t,” she said with a fake brightness. “I won’t be picked. What are the chances?”
“Slim to none,” he said, but then he stepped closer to her. “Are you scared? If you want, I can talk to my friend at the dock. He knows a smuggler who can—”
“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head. “I couldn’t leave Mum. And besides, it’s fine. It won’t be me.”
“We could get married,” he said in a rush of words. When she stared at him in surprise, he blushed. “Just for the sake of removing you from Selection. A safety net. You know…”
“I appreciate your willingness,” she teased, patting him on the arm.
He nodded, but his expression was tense. His normal jovialness gone, he glanced back at the tavern. “I need a drink. Join me?”
She smiled, shaking her head. There’d be mead and dancing in the street after Selection. She’d partake then. “I need to get to the market before the shops close. Mum needs a few things.”
He stood still, taking her in. Then in a move she was totally not expecting, he leaned in, planting a kiss at the top of her cheek where her eye creased. Seela flushed, blinking at Mickey in shock.
“Be safe, Speckles,” he said, staring at her with an intensity she felt herself shirking away from.
“It’s just the market,” she said, but they both knew he was talking about something much more.