Will I turn into someone different when I put on the hooded robe of a Collector?
I shivered under my blanket, tired of staying awake, tired of my mind running in endless circles like a water wheel, tired of being cold.
The hall clock bonged six times. Finally. I dropped the blanket. My fingertips were dead-blue despite covering them with the thin wool all night. I reached for my shoes, and just like everything else at this hour, their broken-in leather was frozen. A minute under my arm-pits softened them while the ice in my brain cracked, too. Of course I wouldn’t turn into any-body different. No Collector in history had changed one iota, I was sure. Ihs saw to that.
I opened my bedroom door just wide enough to squeeze through. The bottom hinge liked to screech on cold mornings and I couldn’t get caught—not today. The rowdiest apprentices in ten years had a reputation to maintain. Besides, every Collector from Big Water to Kirkwood was packed into Refuge for Homecoming. Ihs had enough voices fortifying Him this morning. He’d make it through this year’s Redemption without power from three apprentices.
I tiptoed to the next narrow door along the hallway and tapped once. Joel slid out with-out a sound.
“I’m impressed,” I whispered.
“Think I’d sleep in today?” Joel grinned, his flawless white teeth barely visible in the dim hall. “It’s the perfect day to break a rule.”
We crept to the end of the hall. Low voices trickled out every door we passed. At last I saw Clare’s blonde head poke around the corner.
“They’re all chanting on our side,” she whispered.
She melted into that goofy smile. “Good morning.” Her deep, sweet voice washed over me.
I knew my own smile was just as silly. “Good morning.” I kissed her. That first kiss of the day was like water after a penance fast.
Joel sighed. “Rein it in, you two. Let’s go.”
I led them downstairs, a model head apprentice. “These stones are so cold my feet ache.”
“My left sock has a hole in it,” Joel said.
“Because you’re too lazy to keep ’em mended,” Clare said.
“Just because you fix Amos’s for him…”
“Shh.” I stopped them at the third floor as a babel of voices hit us from another long hallway of closed bedroom doors. “Everyone’s chanting here too. Perfect.”
When we passed the door to the second-floor arena gallery, Clare reached for the door.. “I want to peek.”
Wham. The noise reverberated in the complete silence. We all jumped. Clare leapt backwards into my arms.
“What was that?” No footsteps came toward the door from the gallery. Maybe we were still safe.
“I don’t know.” Clare squeezed my hands and stood up.
We ran on tiptoes down the rest of the hall and into the stairwell. When I put my ear against the main arena doors on the first floor, I heard footsteps and another thump. “Let’s go.”
We careened around the corner onto the basement stairs and took them two at a time. Nobody followed. No more thumps.
“I’ll get the lights,” Joel said from the black, windowless basement. A scritch and a whiff of sulfur, and one lamp beside the doorway glowed, then another. A third, and the desk, bookshelves, floor, and stone ceiling appeared.
I plopped into a chair and wiped sweat from my forehead. “Your fearless leader expects thanks for getting us down here. Unless you’d rather sneak back to your rooms and lose your mind in chants with the rest of them.”
“Amos, we bow before you.” Joel tossed the matches onto the desk. “You are our private Matthew. You, not that old, freaky-eyed blond, are the greatest Collector since the Last War.” He went down on one knee at my feet.
“Shh,” Clare said. “Close the door, idiot.” She did it herself, pushed Joel aside, and sprang onto my lap. “We’re free! No more beautiful summer days wasted down here learning pre-War history.”
“No more lectures from boring old Collectors on the reasons for the fixed monetary sys-tem,” I said.
“No more slaving over long division.” Joel attempted a backflip and landed flat on his back. “Ow.”
I nudged Clare off my lap and jumped up. We danced around the classroom between the rows of tables. “Real life begins today!” I twirled her in the center aisle.
The door opened. Joel leapt to his feet. We stopped in mid-twirl.
“Uh…Good morning, Patrick.”
Our teacher set a pile of folded brown robes on the desk. “You seem to have finished your chants in record time.”
“We… got up extra early.” I watched the color of Patrick’s mostly bald head. If it turned red, I’d have to do some fast talking.
“I see. Since you’re so eager to start today’s instruction, solve this problem: All three of you are sixteen at last and it’s Tuesday, November twenty-eighth. What does that mean?”
Patrick’s scalp stayed pale and I breathed again. “It means you truly are a wise teacher, Patrick, because you remembered it’s initiation day.” I bowed so low my hair swept the stone floor.
Our tableau thawed. Joel whooped and drummed his feet on the large flagstone in front of the door. Clare fanned herself with a sheet of paper.
“Obnoxious brats,” Patrick said. “It means I’m free of you. If this weren’t Homecoming, I’d pitch all your homework into the breakfast fires and run through the halls cheering.”
He tossed the box of matches at Joel and sat on the edge of the desk. “Joel, make your-self useful and light the rest of the lamps, please. It doesn’t require deep thought.”
“C’mon, Patrick,” I said. “We may not have been the best at math or history or neat handwriting—”
Patrick groaned and buried his head in his hands.
“But you haven’t had a boring day since we turned thirteen,” Joel said.
“Boring,” Patrick said. He placed one hand over his heart and raised his eyes to the ceil-ing. “May lightning strike me if I ever complain about quiet, studious, obedient apprentices again.”
“I’m going to paint you like that, Patrick,” Clare said. “It’ll be an—” she snickered— “in-spiration to your next group.”
“They might be innocent enough to believe it,” I said, “until we tell them about the morn-ing we dumped snow in your bed and you squealed like a girl hitting a high G.”
We collapsed into chairs, laughing, even though the joke wasn’t that funny. Initiation jit-ters, maybe. Patrick shook his head and circled the room, aligning textbooks on the built-in shelves and straightening stray pieces of blank paper.
I grabbed the moment to kiss Clare again. Joel moaned.
“It will be a relief to all of us when you two get married,” Patrick said.
Clare blushed to the roots of her hair and I stopped laughing to watch her. I loved it when her ears turned pink and their curves peeked through her golden waves. “Only six more months to Carnival and our wedding.”
“Enough time for you to plant a garden for me,” Clare said.
“It’ll be your present.”
“You’re my sweetie.”
Joel rolled his eyes. “Will you please keep the sappy stuff for when you’re alone?”
“Yes,” Patrick said. “Cut the comedy and the romance, you three, and get up. It’s time for your last lesson.”
I rubbed the tip of my nose—stupid nervous habit. Clare caught my eye and wrinkled her own nose at me.
We moved to our usual places in front of the lecture stand. I expected Patrick to open The Collection of Matthew like every other morning. Instead, he stood in front of us and smoothed his brown robe, pulled the hood over his head, and tucked his hands in his sleeves.
For a second I could’ve sworn the lamps dimmed, but that was stupid. Get a grip, dummy. It was stupid of me, but sometimes when a Collector wore the robe the proper way, I got the creeps. Maybe it was because the hood concealed their faces, or the way their walk changed: They became strangers. If I admitted it to myself, those were the only times I didn’t think being a Collector was the greatest way of life ever, hands-down.
Will I still be me when I put on that innocent-looking folded robe?
After a long minute, Patrick said, “Who am I?”
“Uh… you’re Patrick.” Joel said.
Clare gasped as his mellow voice lashed at us. Joel hung his head, but I knew what Pat-rick meant. I ignored the shiver in my spine.
“You are a Collector.” Right, I was just being stupid. There was nothing sinister about Collectors. I’d wanted it more than anything ever since I turned twelve and we got a hint of what Collectors did for the world. I’d spent night after night pacing my room, pounding the stone walls and begging Ihs to make time go faster. I’d lost count of how many nights I spent like that. But no more. After today, all the mysteries would be open to me—to us.
“Yes,” Patrick said. “What have I done?”
“You saved the world.” Joel raised his head and sat straighter.
“After the Last War, um…” Clare closed her eyes. “I know this…2196 minus 2022…one hundred seventy-four years ago. Matthew and the other Collectors left their refuge in the Rocky Mountains and found the ruins of Colorado Springs.”
“What did they do?”
“They gathered the survivors,” I said. “People back then didn’t know how to plant or harvest, or how to rebuild either, because they had things called machines to provide everything. The Collectors taught them, and they begged the Collectors to rule them.”
“Correct. We have guided them since that day and there is peace and plenty in every town. The people honor us every year on that date with Carnival.” His voice smiled. “Which is the perfect day for your wedding.” The smile vanished. He stepped forward and faced his hood toward each of us in turn.
Goosebumps prickled my neck. I wished I could see Patrick’s familiar, washed-out blue eyes. Why was he staring at us like that?
“Now you will learn the rest.” Patrick walked to the back of the room and opened the double doors. His footsteps echoed through the next two rooms.
Clare whispered, “Any idea what he’s talking about?”
“Not a clue.”
“Shh. Here he comes,” Joel said.
Patrick laid a tall, thin book on the lecture stand.
“He’s got Matthew’s Book.” Joel’s eyebrows disappeared beneath his shaggy bangs.
“Come here,” Patrick said.
We looked at each other.
“We’re not allowed.” Clare’s voice was breathless.
“Come here, all of you. Now.”
We stood on either side of Patrick and gaped. Clare reached out to touch the gold letter-ing on the cover, but snatched her hand away.
“Let us see it, Patrick.” My voice trembled, but I didn’t care. “Please.”
Patrick’s familiar, wide fingers opened the book and the room seemed brighter. That was still our favorite teacher inside the dark hood, no matter how strange he looked or acted.
“Listen,” Patrick said. “Matthew dictated to his first followers: ‘I was alone in a cave high on the mountain when the war started. I saw a vision of Ihs just as a bomb exploded. The light enveloped Ihs, even Ihs, the god who created all, and impenetrable night covered the world.’”
None of us moved.
“‘My companions did not find me for two days. I feared all were dead from the war. In that interval, I heard the voice of Ihs cry out to me. Ihs, the creator of all things, cried out to me, his servant, for redemption.’” Patrick turned the fragile page, keeping his fingers away from the crumbling edges. “‘When at last the others came to my cave, Ihs had entrusted me with the secret and only way to Collect him from the darkness.’”
“How?” I leaned forward, careful not to breathe on the ancient paper.
“‘I sent them into the city at the foot of the mountain. They braved fire and madness for the sake of Ihs, returning with three of the many evil people responsible for the war.’” Patrick looked up, with his ‘answer my question’ expression.
“Military,” Joel said.
“Show off,” Clare whispered.
Patrick nodded. “‘I instructed my companions to build three spoked wheels, ten times the size of the ones on a wheelbarrow. If we did not Collect Ihs before three days passed, Ihs would be imprisoned in darkness forever.’”
Clare said, “I don’t believe it.”
Patrick gave her a small smile. “So we all said the first time we heard this story.”
Clare shook her head. “It’s impossible. We’re talking about Ihs here. Matthew can’t have meant that.”
Patrick continued to read: “‘At sunrise on the third day, we bound the three evil ones to the wheels and performed all Ihs required of us. When Redemption was complete, as Ihs had promised me, the darkness lifted and the sun shone upon us again.’”
He closed the book, making the Sign of Ihs over it.
“Now, you three who think you are the cleverest apprentices in ten years, explain that.”
I glanced at Clare. Joel glanced at me. Clare stared at her feet, the most perfect blush on her cheeks. Patrick laughed and put a hand on Joel’s and my shoulder, then on Clare’s.
“Don’t look so embarrassed. Every single one of us had the same reaction. This is why we wait till now to open the truth to you. When you are assigned a town to inhabit, one of your du-ties will be to search out the world-destroyers.”
“Now?” Clare’s voice squeaked. “They can’t be alive now.”
Joel poked her. “He means anybody who still thinks like that. Right?”
“Yes. Matthew Collected Ihs, and through Ihs, the world. But evil is stronger than stone and more tenacious than weeds. Those who think like the world-destroyers still exist even after one hundred seventy-four years of Matthew’s Peace. You will find them.” He picked up the folded robes from his desk. “Kneel.”
This time I didn’t notice the temperature of the floor.
“Amos, Clare, Joel, this is more than your initiation day. You have learned the truth and grown in wisdom and power. You have earned the privilege of being called one of Matthew’s descendants—Collectors. Hold out your hands.”
Patrick stood in front of me first. “Ihs brought light from darkness.”
I continued the ritual. “Yet darkness consumed Ihs.”
Patrick placed the robe in my arms and I bowed my head. “Today you Collect Ihs from eternal darkness.”
I ran my hands over the wool. It was softer than any of my other clothes and its deep brown was warm and welcoming in the lamplight. I shook it out, slipped my arms into the sleeves, and wiggled it over my trousers. Next to me, Clare finished reciting and unfolded her robe. Her hair glowed against it. On her other side, Joel—for the first time I could remember—looked humble.
Patrick traced the Sign with his thumb on my forehead, lips, and heart. “You are sealed with the mark of Ihs.”
When he had done the same to Clare and Joel, we all put the hoods over our heads. For a second my heart froze like the iced-over window in my room. Was I still me? Had I changed? But nothing felt any different. In fact, I felt just like I was in bed under the covers, protected against the cold.
Patrick said, “You’re used to Homecoming as a family reunion because that’s the only part you’ve been allowed to join. Today you enter into its true purpose.”
“In the arena,” Clare said.
“Yes. Ihs instructed Matthew to reenact the Redemption every year on that day.” He picked up Matthew’s Book. “This year I’ll watch with you from the second-floor gallery. That way if you have questions afterward, we won’t disturb anyone. I’ll be right back.”
Patrick returned the Book to the far room and I touched my hood to Clare’s. “You’re beautiful.”
Patrick returned too soon for me because I wanted to see her familiar face inside that hood. When he extended his hands over our heads we all knelt again.
“Ihs has done great things for me,” Patrick began and we joined in. “His power extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
My gut flip-flopped. Fear? No. I was being stupid again. It was just a reverent way of talking.
“And now my head shall be raised above the evil ones who surround me.” Good. My voice didn’t shake. I finished: “And I shall Collect Ihs and his people with joy.”
Patrick pushed his own hood back just enough for us to see the huge grin on his face. “Welcome to the family, my obnoxious brats.”
I leaned backwards over the gallery wall to distract myself with the painted stars on the arena ceiling. Dread gnawed at me but I couldn’t name its source. The arena looked the same as always. I felt the same as always… didn’t I?
“I never noticed how many there were before,” I said to Clare. “All the constellations, too.”
“Now that I see them with all the lamps burning, they could use some touching up,” Clare said.
“Guys, check out the shine on the benches,” Joel said. “Looks like they tried my new polish.”
“Glad we were only allowed in the gallery till now,” I said. “Otherwise, you know we’d’ve had to polish all one hundred and fifty of them.” If only my fingers would stop trembling.
“And mop the floor in between all the rings of benches down to the center circle,” Clare said. “Oh, no.”
“We’re the youngest Collectors. Bet those will be our jobs starting tomorrow.”
I groaned. “At least there’re no windows to wash. Wonder who has to refill all the lamps?”
“Us, now.” Joel groaned with me.
The doors beneath the gallery opened.
“Enough,” Patrick said. “It’s time to begin. Remember, whisper if you have a question. Tomorrow I’ll give you copies of the ceremony to memorize for next year.”
I grabbed Clare’s robe to steady her as she bent over the three-foot wall.
“Look at them all,” she whispered. “There must be hundreds. I never realized how many of us there were in the evenings when we’re all eating and talking in separate groups.”
“There are one hundred thirty-five Collectors today,” Patrick said. “Including a certain group of three who received their robes this morning.”
I beamed inside my hood, worry falling away at last. Finally, a Collector. Finally allowed to see behind these closed doors at Homecoming. Other Collectors had only given tantalizing hints about what happened every year, even this very last year of our childhood.
Other Collectors. Like us now. Like me.
The rustling below of one hundred thirty-two robes and pairs of feet stopped. Matthew the Eighth walked from the back of the room straight to the center circle. He bowed his head a moment and then faced the assembly.
“Ihs is the Light,” he said, his voice carrying despite the hood over his head.
“Men made the darkness,” Patrick and the other Collectors said.
“The darkness swallowed Ihs.”
“Today we Collect Ihs. Today we Collect the world.”
Matthew stepped out of the circle. Twelve Collectors followed him through the side door, the one that led to the storerooms. Six others removed three of the flagstones and pulled up three huge cranks.
I craned my head to better see what they were doing.
Patrick put a hand on my arm. “Wait.”
Two to a crank, the Collectors pushed and pulled the oversized metal rods around their circular hubs. The massive central flagstones slid underneath the first circles of benches. Gears groaned and creaked, but the Collectors worked in silence. Three wooden wheels rose into the light. Bigger wheels than I’d ever seen—they had to be six feet across. Dark wood. I squinted at its odd staining pattern.
After at least ten minutes of work, the gigantic wheels settled into place with three clunks that echoed off the starry ceiling. The six Collectors returned to their seats.
Anticipation built in the room, flowing through the circular benches all the way up into the gallery. Below me, nearly everyone leaned forward or grasped the back of the bench in front of them. Next to me, Patrick gripped the top of the wall. I caught the urgency and my hands claimed the space between Patrick’s and Clare’s.
Eagerness smothered my early, stupid fears. Now, at last, the greatest secret of Ihs would be ours. The meaning of the wheels. The truth about darkness and light. Everything.
Heavy footsteps. Matthew glided to the center of the circle, wheels on his right hand, left hand, and at his feet. Behind him, four Collectors carried on their shoulders a squirming man who looked about my own height. The group behind them carried an old woman, and the last group another man.
They were barefoot and wore thin, ragged penitents’ clothes, like we had to wear for fast-ing days.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” I whispered to Clare.
“You shouldn’t. Ihs would never guide Matthew wrong. Shh now.”
Matthew raised his right hand and sketched the Sign of Ihs in the air at the four points of the compass toward all the gathered Collectors. “Ihs created light but men desired darkness.”
“Darkness,” everyone repeated.
They placed the first man on the wheel to Matthew’s right. The man struggled and kicked as they tied his wrists and ankles in the spaces between the spokes. The small of his back rested on the wheel’s central hub. I heard him grunt and breathe heavily but he didn’t say anything. Matthew must have instructed him—all of them—to act like those first world-destroyers.
Matthew pushed back his hood and knelt next to the opening beneath the right-hand wheel. From its dark rectangle he brought out a mallet. Not a regular one—I could tell by the way he balanced it. This one’s head looked to be a good five pounds heavier than the ones we used to build furniture.
In one smooth movement, he raised the mallet and held it, poised, at the top of its arc.
“Evil men declared war on the world.”
“Ihs created the world.”
“Evil men declared war on Ihs.”
“Ihs must be Collected!”
The roar from the gathering made my ears ring and my heart beat faster. Would it still be like this when I’d seen the ritual ten times? Twenty?
Matthew brought the mallet down onto the man’s shin.
The shriek pierced my head. The snap and crunch of bones jumbled in with it. Blood spurted up and out through the shredded material like water when a rock plunks in. Matthew smashed the mallet onto the man’s other shin. Shards of bone erupted through the skin and the cloth.
Matthew moved to the man’s arms.
A whole bunch of lamps went out.
All three of us jumped. Patrick held up one hand and pointed down to Matthew with the other. Under cover of the repeated crack-shatter-scream, the Collectors had tied the old lady to the wheel on Matthew’s left. Blood ran down Matthew’s arm as he raised the mallet and held it at the top of the arc.
“Ihs must be Collected!”
I closed my eyes. That made it worse—the snap of bones and her high-pitched screeches stabbed deeper into my brain. When I opened them again, the first four Collectors were handing wide, shallow bowls around the circle to each other.
Another smash. Another scream. The woman’s voice broke before Matthew finished with her legs.
This was what I’d waited so long to be a part of? This was the greatest day of the year? I was a Collector now—like Matthew, my hero, and Patrick, my favorite teacher—like all of them.
This was what Ihs turned us into. Ihs, the god of light… no. Ihs’ true creations were darkness and blood and agony.
We’re all murderers. All of us.
My hands throbbed. One bloodless finger at a time, I relaxed my grip on the wall. My fingernails left gouges in the wood on the other side. No wonder my fingers hurt.
The old woman looked a little like Priscilla, the Refuge cook when I was little. She used to make the best gingersnaps… Blood welled around a ruptured shard of her arm bone. The mal-let’s next stroke drowned out her brittle sobs.
Get out. Get out of here. I took one step backwards but stopped myself a sec-ond later.
The Collectors were killing those people because they had the same mindset as the world-destroyers. Would they do the same to a Collector who disagreed with Ihs’ commended slaugh-ter?
It was possible. Anything was possible now that I knew everyone I’d lived with all my life was crazier than a rabid dog. I had to blend in. I had to act like all the others. Our hoods forced us to look straight ahead, so I couldn’t see how Clare was handling this. After this, I’d sneak her into my room and we could work out ways to convince everyone we were just like eve-ry other Collector, at least until we could run away together. She had to be just as appalled as I was. Poor Clare.
The Collectors below leaned forward as Matthew broke the old lady’s last arm bone.
Were they disappointed when she didn’t scream?
More lamps went out. The nine still burning flickered and guttered, turning the central tableau into even worse nightmare fodder.
The last man just lay there. His eyes were closed and his lips were moving.
I caught the stench of blood and gagged.
Think about something else.
Was he being strong? For who? He sure didn’t have any family or friends here.
“Ihs must be Collected!”
Four precise blows of that weighted mallet and the rest of the lamps went out.
The mallet hit the floor. Maybe we’d leave them to die in peace now.
I touched Clare’s hand. It was like touching a statue. I leaned closer to her to whisper something calm and encouraging.
One of the men screamed. A different scream.
“Light,” one hundred thirty-two Collectors whispered. The arena magnified it into a hu-man rainstorm of sound.
A lamp relit.
Another of those different screams. Another gust of whispers. Another lamp.
The third lamp gave enough light to show Matthew holding a knife like the ones we skinned cows with. A Collector set one of those bowls beneath the old lady’s foot. Matthew slit her foot from heel to toe. Her hoarse scream wasn’t much louder than the noise of her blood streaming into the bowl.
Over and over and over. Hands and feet slit on one wheel, then the next, then the last. A lamp coming to life at every slash. Plops and drizzles of blood filling twelve bowls under the wheels. The clamor of “Light!” whispers increasing to low voices, then to regular voices, then to that deafening shout.
Plunk. Plunk. Splash. Every time the victims moved, blood dropped into the bowls beneath them. That blood reeked so strong I couldn’t smell anything else up here. I swal-lowed bile. I had to look like everything was just fine.
The old woman started to cough. Her face turned red, then purple, and blood bubbled from her mouth. Then she simply lay there, chest still, rubbery arms and legs sagging through the V-shaped gaps in the wheel. Her blood kept filling the bowls.
Please, Ihs, let them all die that quick. My eyes squeezed closed. No. This is what Ihs wants—torture and screams and blood. He told Matthew.
One of the still-living men moaned.
An hour ago, I thought I wasn’t worthy to be a Collector.
Welcome to the family, Amos.
“Ihs appeared unto Matthew,” our leader said from his place in the midst of the carnage.
“Only you can Collect me from this darkness,” the Collectors said.
“We obey you, Ihs, from this time forth and forevermore.” Their voices echoed around the room.
Matthew moved a few paces forward to the exact center of the circle. “Hear the words of Matthew, first of Ihs’ Collectors in the new world.”
“We await the words of Ihs through Matthew.”
“I remained in the cave for two days, hearing fire consume the world and hearing Ihs, even Ihs who once created the world and everything inhabiting it, bewail the evil of man which created the darkness now devouring Ihs.”
“You—evil—bastards—” the man on Matthew’s right choked out.
Matthew turned faster than I’d ever seen him move. His left hand clawed into the man’s mouth and his right brought the knife down. The man’s tongue plopped onto the floor.
I bit the inside of my cheek so no sound would come out. Quiet. Blend in. Act like everyone else.
“At the end of the second day, when the air was fouled by smoke and strange white ash, Ihs entered my mind, filling it with his strength and his despair. And Ihs spoke to me, his serv-ant, charging me with the most important task ever given to man. When my followers reached me, they cried out at my visage, which had been transformed by communion with Ihs. They obeyed my instructions with fear and wonder, for the time to Collect Ihs grew short.”
The twelve lamps went out again. Perfect darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. The victim without a tongue choked on his own blood. The other sobbed and moaned, his voice floating and echoing.
“Patrick?” Clare whispered.
“Remember what Matthew said,” Patrick whispered. “‘Darkness tried to devour Ihs.’ It’s all part of how we Collect him.”
A rustle, then the voice of a female Collector sang in a clear, sweet soprano: “Tenebrae factae sunt…”
“That’s Mary Ann,” Clare whispered.
“I know. Listen.”
“…ut quid me dereliquisti…”
I remembered Mary Ann singing at Midsummer dances. Clare and I learned a new reel last year just so we could beg her to sing it. Her voice was made for the way this room magnified sound.
Everyone sang, “Et inclinato capite, emisit spiritum.”
Footsteps. A gurgling shriek. Then a clearer one. Then just the plip-plip-plip of dripping blood.
Matches scraped on the walls. For a brief moment the sharp odor of sulfur overpowered the blood. All the lamps blazed again.
Matthew, blood splattering his hair, face, hands, clothes, and feet, continued in that recit-ative voice: “When the third world-destroyer breathed his last, Ihs’ greatness shone out once again, shattering the darkness man had created.”
I stared into the open eyes of the dead, one after the other. I’m sorry, I mouthed at each of them.
Matthew raised both arms. “Let us proclaim the triumph of Ihs.”
“Ihs created light,” they all responded. “Man created darkness. We Collected Ihs. We Collect the world.”
“We Collect the world,” Patrick repeated with a catch in his voice.
I didn’t bleed, I didn’t scream, but something tore in my chest when I heard that.
Patrick was the teacher who’d shared our practical jokes and inspired us with Collector history. He treated us as equals, partners in the great pride and responsibility of being a Collector. Yet he’d even led a midnight kitchen raid on Clare’s birthday to get us all one more piece of cake.
I gripped the wall tighter. Simply by being himself, Patrick made us want to serve Ihs through Matthew’s vision. Now he stood beside me weeping for joy at…
I didn’t mean to let them, didn’t want to let them, but hot tears ran down my face and once they started, they wouldn’t stop.
Matthew nodded at the front bench and twelve Collectors stood, holding gold trays cov-ered with gold cups a little bigger than a thimble. They split into three groups of four at each wheel. The four Collectors already at each wheel picked up the bowls, brought them to the nine, and poured the blood into the tiny cups. When all the cups on all the trays were filled, the twelve carried the trays around the benches.
“I’ll be right back,” Patrick said.
I wiped my face with the inside of my hood as soon as he left. I didn’t try to look at Clare or Joel. Clare had to be as wrecked as I was. If I saw her crying I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep on pretending.
Patrick returned and handed each of us a cup. “Watch Matthew,” he said.
I stared at the mouthful of liquid.
A moment later, Matthew raised his cup. “Bring the light within.”
“We banish our darkness,” one hundred thirty-two hushed voices said, “with the light of Ihs’ glory.”
My muscles locked.
Drink it. They’ll know something’s wrong if you don’t.
I held my breath, touched the little golden rim to my lips, and swallowed.
It was barely warm, but it seared a channel down my throat and chest and boiled in my gut. My hood fell backward when I tilted my head and I could see Patrick and Joel. They’d up-ended their cups to catch the last drops on their tongues.
Do it. I tipped my cup, one congealed drop hit my teeth, and I swallowed that too. Don’t puke don’t puke don’t puke…
Patrick took our cups, tears on his cheeks, and went out. I glanced over at Clare.
The world crumbled.
Her face was rapt. The tip of her tongue scooped up a bead of blood from her bottom lip. She closed her eyes when she tasted it and her breath and lips trembled.
I faced forward and kept my eyes on the victims on the wheels. I couldn’t look at her an-ymore.
Was it over? Or…what if we had special Collector stuff to do afterwards? More great se-crets I got to be part of at last?
Matthew stayed in the very center of the arena. Without the bowls to catch it, the drip-ping blood had spread over the space, soaking into his shoes. He raised his empty cup.
“We adore you, Ihs, and we bless you.”
Everyone raised theirs. “We Collect you, Ihs, and you bless us.”
“Go now, and Collect the world.”
“Thanks be to Ihs.”
He traced a huge Sign of Ihs in the air at each of the four compass points, then walked up the aisle and through the far door. Row by row, the others followed him. In a few minutes the arena was empty.
Patrick sat cross-legged on the floor. “Clare, Amos, Joel, sit down. I know you have ques-tions.”
No one spoke. We didn’t look at each other.
“I, um, need a minute.” I had to think up something neutral.
A tear slipped down her cheek. “I have to paint it.”
“Because… the beauty…” She took a long breath. “I know just the colors I need to cap-ture the moment of darkness to light.” She turned shining eyes to Patrick. “I never imagined it was anything so…” She made a helpless gesture with her hands. “I can paint it even though I can’t find the words.”
I found a safe question. “What was Mary Ann singing?”
“It’s an ancient song in a language no one knows how to speak anymore. The first Mat-thew translated the only copy to survive the fires from the war. It begins, ‘Darkness covered the earth.’”
“Patrick…” Joel’s robust voice was meek.
“I’m not worthy.”
Patrick smiled. “Why?”
“I’m a loudmouth. I’m full of myself. I want all the girls to notice me.”
“I wasn’t going to drink the blood.” He raised his head. His freckles looked like Clare had dabbed them on with orange paint. “But I knew I had to. It spread through me like it glowed and… well, this sounds so—arrogant. Ihs filled me with himself.” He clenched the front of his robe. “I don’t deserve to wear this.”
“Joel, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve felt it too.”
Joel’s mouth opened. Patrick smiled.
“Listen to me: None of us are as great as Matthew. None of us are truly worthy of Ihs. We all start out thinking we’ll never be the right kind of Collector.”
He looked at me. “Do you have a real question? Not a superficial one?”
Now or never. I looked directly into Patrick’s eyes and lied. “I keep trying to find the words, but it’s all too big. Nothing comes out.”
“A Homecoming to remember,” Patrick said. “Something has finally rendered Amos speechless.”
Everyone laughed—quietly. Clare kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t flinch. Patrick patted me on the back and smiled.
“It’ll take awhile to sink in. That’s why the rest of this day is set aside for chant and med-itation. Go to your rooms and write, or paint, or just think. There’s bread and wine and fruit set out in the small dining room. I’ll come get you for supper, and after that we light the bonfires.”
“Should we bring all our homework to start them?” Joel said. His grin flashed out but his eyes were uncertain.
Patrick guffawed. “I’ll miss being trapped in the cellar with you three every day.” He got to his feet, gesturing us up with him. “You didn’t know this before, of course, but the bonfires are for the world-destroyers. We destroy them the way they tried to destroy Ihs and the world.”
“Oh,” Clare breathed.
“Off you go,” Patrick said. “Come to my room if you have more questions or especially if you need to talk.”
I matched my stride to Joel’s and Clare’s until we separated on the fourth floor. I couldn’t close my bedroom door fast enough. Should I block it with my bed? No. If someone knocked, how would I explain? I had to act the same as always. No one would notice if I was a little quiet for the rest of the week. Refuge was crowded, and I could take advantage of the mi-nor chaos when everyone packed and left. Deceiving Patrick and Joel would be hard, but Clare…
My gut clenched. I ran to the bathroom at the end of the hall and splattered the sink with bloody bile. Twice; three times. It clogged my nose. I fumbled my handkerchief out of my pock-et and blew. My stomach tried to retch at the smell, but there was nothing left to come up. I spat into the mess in the sink and worked the pump. It took way too long for the water to flow down from the cistern on the roof. I washed out the sink and my handkerchief and scrubbed my hands and face. I tried rinsing my mouth with water but the vile taste lingered. My toothbrush is in my room… ah, forget it. I scooped out toothpaste with my fingertip and scoured my mouth till it hurt.
No one waited in the hall. I was still safe. This time I latched my bedroom door. There was no chance I’d eat anything till supper. No chance I’d leave this sanctuary till we all had to go downstairs.
When I’d have to see Patrick and lie some more. And Joel. And Clare.
Clare, who was soaring with—face it—ecstasy. Who slurped that last drop like mulled wine on a cold winter night. Like she hadn’t watched the—family—milk three screaming people like cows for that blood.
I dragged the Collector robe over my head and flung the thing in the corner. I huddled in my shirt and trousers on the floor for awhile, until the cold started to freeze my bones. So I climbed onto my bed, wrapped myself in the blanket, and leaned my head back against the stone wall, eyes closed. Trying to… something. Fall asleep. Forget. Come up with the proper facial ex-pression and attitude and a list of awestruck things to say. For the long evening when, in just a few hours, a hundred-plus Collectors welcomed me officially into the family as we roasted three broken bodies for dessert.
The old lady screamed in my head.
Now one of the men.
I banged the back of my head against the wall again and again and again until the pain made my ears ring and masked the screams.
“Psst! Joel! In here.”
I opened the door to the small cellar room wider and pulled Joel in.
“What are you doing down here?” he said, shielding his lamp until the flame stopped flickering. “Vince and I have laundry this week.”
“Does this look like the laundry room?”
Joel set his lamp on a shelf. My own lamp was turned up full and the combined light illu-minated deep shelves on all four walls stacked with plates, glasses, mugs, cooking pots, and ket-tles. A round table in the middle of the room was covered with broken dishes and a sign: “Will fix before Carnival—Pearl.”
“No, it looks like dish storage,” Joel said. “It’s freezing! I hate cellar jobs in February.”
“Yeah, yeah. Me, too. Listen. I need your help.” I crouched behind the door and dragged out a clay pot. “This is for Clare’s birthday.”
“You’re giving her a pot?” He brought his lamp closer. “A dirt-filled pot.”
“No, I’m giving her a black walnut sapling for the garden. So she can make paint with the nutshells and the bark.”
“So what do you need me for?” He sneezed. “Talk fast. I want to get back upstairs.”
“I can’t hide this down here anymore. The tree’ll need light. Help me carry it up to my room.”
“It weighs six tons with all the dirt. Come on. Clare’s up in the attic with the historical paintings. Now’s my chance.” I blew out both lamps.
“Fine.” Joel squatted on one side of the pot and heaved. “Matthew’s balls! What have you got in here, rocks?”
“Don’t swear, you idiot. We may not be the only ones down here.” I settled my hands under the base. “Of course there’re a few rocks in here. For drainage.”
We sidestepped down the hall. The pot was way heavier than I expected. “Oof. No, I’m not kidding. Don’t you know anything about plants?”
“Don’t need to. Here’s the stairs. Ready? Up.”
“You make furniture. Trees are a plant.”
“A dead one. You grow ’em, I carve ’em.”
“First floor. Quiet. No one knows about this.”
Puffing and sweating, we reached the fourth floor. I bumped my door open with one shoulder. “Under the window. Don’t klunk it.”
We set the pot on the floor and collapsed onto the bed.
“How can you make her a garden in the winter?”
“I’m not. This is just the first piece. So she’ll look forward to the wedding.” I waited a beat. “Have I mentioned the bench I want to put beneath this tree?”
Joel groaned. “At least I get two months’ notice. You got a design?”
“Yeah.” I slid a piece of paper out of the chant book on my pillow. “She likes poppies.”
Joel took it over to the narrow window and wiped the frost from the pane with his sleeve. “You want a bunch of poppies with—what are these? Oh, apples. Here, what about this?” He breathed on the window to fog it up again and finger-sketched an apple tree with poppies around the base.
I came next to him to study it. “Too tall for the back of the bench.”
“Duh. I’m not thinking.” He wiped that off and fogged the glass again. “Forget realism. How’s this?” This time, he drew oversized poppies alternating with apples small enough to match them.
“Can you add leaves? Two on the apple stems and some of those thin poppy ones?” I sketched one.
“No problem. I’ll keep this sketch to use on a cradle for your first baby.” He elbowed me and grinned. “Where are you going to get this birthday tree?”
“From that stand where the river curves to the north. I’m sneaking out around five a.m. tomorrow.”
Joel stared. “Do you have a fever? We’re in the middle of a cold snap. The rocks on the riverbank’ll be covered with ice.”
“If I leave at five I can dig up the sapling and get back here by six. Just enough time to light the oven and make it to morning chant.”
“That’s right; you’re on breakfast this week. You better not fall and break your neck. Who’ll fry the eggs?”
“I’ve been out there twice this month. I know exactly which tree I want. All the rocks in that spot are flat, so the ice won’t matter.”
“If the tree doesn’t survive the transplant, I’ll have time to dig up my second choice be-fore Thursday.”
“I hope I’m not this besotted when I fall in love.” Joel hiked his robe and pocketed the drawing in his trousers. “Our lamps are still down cellar. You coming?”
“I have to borrow a shovel first. I’ll get mine when I bring up tomorrow’s eggs.”
I closed the door behind them as the clock by the front stairway struck five-thirty. Plenty of time to get a shovel and my lamp before evening chant.
How easy all those lies came out of my mouth. What a piece of pond scum I’d become.
That night after evening chant, Gaspar the gardener tried to one-up Patrick with crazy harvest stories versus wild student stories. My sides ached from laughing, especially since a bunch of Patrick’s stories involved us. When everyone else had gone to their rooms for the night, Clare finished setting the tables for breakfast and I set out pans in the kitchen for eggs and ba-con.
I snuck up behind her as she placed the last fork. “Goodnight.” I kissed her tiny earlobe. My lips didn’t even shrink from the feel of her skin now. Amazing what three months of dedi-cated deception could do.
“Goodnight, sweetie.” She turned around and kissed me. “Meet me in the attic after breakfast and I’ll show you what I’ve done with the first painting.”
“As soon as I dry the dishes.” I snuffed the wall lamp and we went upstairs together. My arm fit perfectly around her waist. Her golden hair shone in the lamplight. She’d ripped my heart out and dangled it in front of me, and she had no clue what she’d done. She blew me another kiss before she went around the corner to the women’s side of the floor.
Light shone under several doors on the men’s side. I latched my bedroom door and stuffed my robe under it as the hall clock struck eleven.
The icy floor sent shudders through me when I sat in front of my dresser. The first Mat-thew should’ve thought of his descendants when he built Refuge in the mountains. Winter start-ed too soon and lasted too long. Joel was right about this cold snap, too. In one way, I’d picked the worst possible time for this. In another, I’d picked the best time.
I looked behind me at the wadded-up wool robe. Matthew’s balls, this floor wanted to freeze my skin right off.
No. I’d have to get used to doing without it. Tomorrow afternoon I’d be dumping it in the river.
I pulled the bottom drawer silently off its runners. One by one, I picked up from the floor the small, flat bags of seeds I’d collected over the last three months.
I slid the drawer back in place, Gaspar’s dark blue sweater calling my name. It had been his way of saying ‘thank you’ last September when I’d tilled half an acre for the watermelon and pumpkin planting in the spring. He was a great old guy. I was going to miss him.
Don’t think. Don’t care. You’re already gone. They’re in your past.
A breeze slithered through the chipped corner of my window, making the frost sparkle in the flickering lamplight. Goosebumps swept over me. I pulled the blanket off the bed and lumped it beneath me. I couldn’t escape if I was too cold to move.
Maybe I could wear the sweater. My room had to look like I’d only gone out to get Clare’s present, but it’d be logical to put a warm sweater on under my robe. Besides, it’d be easi-er to sew the seed bags to the inside of the sweater than into my shirt. I turned the sweater inside out, then took the needle and thread from their usual place in my underwear drawer. First, pep-permint. I tacked it to the left sleeve.
An hour later I put the last stitch in the valerian bag on the shoulder seam. Its scent made me yawn till my jaws creaked.
Wake up, pond scum. Valerian doesn’t put people to sleep that fast. Problem was that I sewed like a slug. The hall clock rang midnight ages ago. If only I didn’t need to tack both ends, but the bags scrunched up otherwise. Bad for the herbs.
I stuck the needle in the spooled thread and stretched until my back popped. The blanket wasn’t keeping my butt warm anymore. I turned the sweater right side in and wormed my way inside it. It smelled like an accident in an herbalist’s.
Sleep Just a few hours. Have to wake up by four a.m. I lowered the wick from a flame to a glow, hopped onto the bed and cocooned in the blanket.
Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. I tipped over and jerked awake, gasping. That was the clock. Not that mallet hitting the old lady’s bones. I should know the difference—I’d woken up hearing it in my head nearly every night since November 28th.
I turned up the wick to a regular flame and shrugged off the blanket. Ihs damn winter forever, the air should never be this cold. I shoved the pillow behind my back and wrapped my-self in my blanket and sheet.
Four-fifteen. Inventory time. Shovel and boots by the door, jerky and dried fruit on the dresser. If Patrick knew about all the bits and pieces of food I’d stolen since December, I’d nev-er be able to look him in the eyes again. Plus, all that thieving from Gaspar’s stores, when I’d been organizing and preserving…
It didn’t matter. There’d be no more coaxing reluctant pumpkins into hundred-pound vine-breakers with Gaspar, no more practical jokes with Patrick and Joel.
No more Clare.
Every lie I’d told her for the past three months marched across my memory. Her garden. The play we were practicing for Carnival. Spice cake for her birthday. The third-floor room we’d picked out for when we were married.
My throat closed. No. No crying. Tears were for slicing onions or eating too much horse-radish and I was not giving in. I pounded the wall with my fists.
As I shook out the stinging, the jerky movements slid my chant book off the side of the mattress. I lunged and caught it before it hit the floor and woke Joel next door.
Its supple leather cover caressed my hands. The binding opened on its own at the chants after Homecoming.
Clare had taken my book on New Year’s and drawn one of the world-destroyers in in-credible detail at the bottom of this page. When she gave it back to me, her face had that same ecstasy on it like when she’d slurped that last drop of blood. I’d wanted to puke again.
Four-thirty. I stared at the dead man. I had to carve every detail into my memory. With only pen and ink, Clare had made me see the red of the blood dripping into the bowls. And his eyes…she’d drawn his head sagging back into the V-shaped gap between the wheel spokes—or thrown back in agony. His mouth was open in a scream. His broken arm and leg bones pushed through his skin like icicles in reverse.
Remember them. Remember Homecoming. Every town I’d ever visit, every Collector I might encounter.
I ran my fingertips over Clare’s drawing. If there were any chance my…family…would treat an ex-Collector like a world-destroyer… Was it possible? I’d turned my back on Mathew’s vision. Did that make me of the same mind as them?
Never risk it. Never let down your guard.
Quarter to five. Should I leave now? What about the slim chance Joel would be waiting downstairs for me at five? Joel was always up for breaking a minor rule.
Better not take the chance. I squirmed out from the blanket. My toes curled from the cold when they touched the floor.
I flipped the sheet and blanket over the mattress and more or less straightened them, then set the chant book on the pillow. A cloud of scents crowded into my nose. Peppermint and basil. Oregano, meadowsweet, and feverfew. Ignore it.
Food and pocketknife in my trouser pockets. One last check: Yes, the room looked just like it did every morning. I blew out the lamp. Then I pulled the robe away from the bottom of the door, shook it out, and slipped it on. A shudder wriggled up my spine at the touch of the cold wool, but the robe warmed me a moment later, even after hours on the floor. I lifted the latch and picked up the shoes and shovel.
Don’t turn around. No regrets. No second thoughts.
I stepped into the hall and closed the door without a sound.
All those skipped morning chants paid off: I navigated the lightless hall as easy as I did at noon. Thirty steps and I felt for the railing, took one step down—and stopped.
Clare. I was never going to see her again.
Keep walking. Downstairs and out the kitchen door.
I had no choice. Clare worshipped Ihs. The god who commanded the Collectors to cele-brate torture and murder. And I didn’t. That meant Clare’d be glad to see me stretched on one of the wheels. She’d tremble as she drank my blood.
I continued down the stairs.
Halfway to the trees, the wind changed direction and tried to blow me into the river. Clare could make a beautiful painting of the glittering snow and foaming river.
Stop it stop it stop it. I stuck my hands deeper into my sleeves and shivered. My hood blew off again. Bright idea, escaping in February. Yeah.
The dark river smelled of mud and wet rocks. I squinted as the sky began to lighten and saw the first of the willows that screened the walnut trees ahead.
Clare should still be asleep.
Stop thinking about her.
A gust of wind knocked me sideways and I slid halfway down the riverbank.
“Great.” The mud tried to suck off my left boot. “Come on!” Sklorp. The boot came loose and I slammed my tailbone on a tree root as I overbalanced. “Ow!”
I clawed and stumbled back onto the grass. “Get up, get up. Dawn’s coming. There’s the walnuts.”
I slipped and weaved through the trees until I found the right sapling. At least the larger trees blocked some of this miserable wind. I found the flattest rock, grabbed an overhanging tree branch for stability, and jammed the shovel into the ground.
“Whoa!” My muddy boot slipped and the branch cracked under my full weight. The world lurched, but I held on till up became up again. I checked the branch’s damage. Couldn’t have been better. I’d rubbed some frost off the grass walking around, too, but nothing that didn’t look normal. The first part of the stage was set.
The shovel barely wiggled when I rocked it. Good. Stage setting part two: A stuck shovel and an icy rock. I dug the knife out of my pocket, unfolded it, and stared at the blade.
Do it. Show some guts.
I sucked in a breath and slashed my palm. “Shi—” Blood welled up, just like it had from their shattered arms and legs
“Focus, pond scum.”
I smeared blood on the corner of the rock directly under the broken branch. Then I grasped a chunk of my hair and sliced it off.
“At least that didn’t hurt.” It clung to my bleeding hand, but I could still stick part of the clump to the smeared blood on the rock.
Now that the sun was nearly risen I could see the details I needed. A few hairs fell off the rock, but that just made it look more authentic. I hoped.
Just had to plant the last clue. I poked the knife tip through my sleeve and tore off a strip. The broken branch leaned over the rock, and I snagged the material on the same spot I’d held onto earlier.
Sunrise lit the river. A black-capped chickadee whistled its two notes behind me. I wrapped my handkerchief around my bleeding palm and inspected my work.
If the newspaper ever wrote about Collectors, I bet this story would begin, ‘Amos the Collector died unexpectedly on the morning of February twenty-third. All signs indicate that he slipped on an icy rock, cracked his skull, and fell into the river. A pumpkin patch is being named in his honor.’
I tried to smile, but couldn’t manage one. Guess I wouldn’t get a moment of fame.
“Poor old Gaspar.”
Stop it. He’s in the past. I’m not one of them anymore.
I looked over my shoulder at the riverbank. “Three feet here, nice and steep. Let’s get it over with.” Leading with my already-wet boot, I slid down the riverbank and splashed into the running water.
“Yow!” I jerked my foot straight into the air. “Cold cold cold!”
The sun was halfway over the horizon now. Go. Now. It must be nearly six.
Both my feet stood in water so cold I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t ice. But I had to hide my footprints.
I lasted about fifty yards. By then the sun had fully risen and my fingers were turning blue. I didn’t want to think about the color of my toes. The riverbank sloped at a gentler angle here, huge tree roots protruding like crooked ladders.
I needed a rock. There—a cluster only few feet away. I splashed deeper and pried up one as big as my head. I heaved it onto the grass and used the roots to climb up after it.
Was it safe yet? I looked back toward my tableau, but the river had curved. Maybe a little farther. The rock stank of mud and fish and my arms ached before the sun hit the treetops. Sweat soaked my armpits and collar of my sweater when I let the rock whump to the ground. Hopefully the herb bags had stayed dry.
Now for the last step. And the coldest. No hesitation. I made this decision back in November. I pulled the robe over my head, and of course the wind picked up just then. I knelt on the grass and spread out the robe. I rolled the rock over it and wrapped the robe around it like a gift, double-knotting the sleeves.
“One—two—three— Argh!” I chucked the bundle toward the middle of the river. It ac-tually went ker-plunk but the water barely sprayed twelve inches. Huh. I thought it would’ve sent up a fountain and maybe a fish or two.
The robe-covered rock wasn’t visible from here. I waited for the sun to shine on that sec-tion, and I still couldn’t see it. I’d thrown it four or five yards in, and figured the river’s depth there at about five feet. The wet brown robe was just one more dark rock.
The wind cut through my sweater like the blue wool didn’t exist. My shoes were trying to transform themselves into leather icicles. I had to move or die for real. So I started walking.
That made one hundred thirty-four Collectors in the world today.
Wind. And now rain. Matthew’s balls, had Ihs sent this weather to punish me?
Stop. Thinking like that would send me screaming into the woods forever.
I stayed within the trees, but leafless willows and birches were no shelter. I kept my hands tucked under my arms and walked faster. Was I still headed southwest? I needed to get to Fountain. Nice name. Biggish town, according to the maps. Should be people there who needed a gardener. Nobody’d come looking for me. My setup had to work. Had to.
The rain stopped by early afternoon. My entire body wanted mulled wine in the worst way. And a fire. Tuesday was baking day, too. My mouth watered just thinking about hot bread with butter. I pulled out the pouch of now-spongy dried apples. I’d better eat them before they disintegrated. The first mouthful confirmed that they were no substitute for that hot, fresh bread.
My faked tragedy should’ve been discovered hours ago. Clare would miss me at break-fast and figure I was still messing around in the kitchen. She’d go in and Rose would complain that I’d slept in and left all the work for her. Clare would go up to my room, maybe check with Gaspar. When she couldn’t find me, she’d ask Joel. Joel’d come clean about the birthday present. They’d get medicines and bandages, and probably Patrick.
And find a clump of hair stuck with blood to that rock. A piece of ripped brown sleeve dangling from a broken branch. A long sliding track into the river. If I did it right, they could only come to one conclusion.
Clare would blame herself. Joel might, a little bit. But Patrick would explain how it wasn’t their fault. He was a good teacher. They’d believe him.
My throat ached. I wasn’t getting sick, I knew. It was me, Amos the murderer, Amos the blood-drinker, trying not to cry. Just as though I deserved the feelings of a human being.
Everyone I loved was in the past. All that was over. I was a whole different person now.
Clare’d get over the lost garden. Maybe she’d paint my ‘death scene’—call it “Lost Love” or something hokey.
I finished the disgusting apples and stuffed the empty pouch back in my pocket.
An hour later, the wind changed and blew from the south, spraying river water over me. If I stopped walking, my hair would probably turn into long brown icicles. My legs ached. My feet chafed against the drying shoe leather. I had blisters growing on at least four toes.
The next time I looked at the sky, only a sliver of sun poked over the hills. I needed a place to sleep. No point in climbing a tree—without leaves they were just fat sticks.
I sneezed. No one was there to say, “Health be yours.”
It hit me: I’d never been really alone before. Even in the middle of winter there were at least twenty Collectors in the Refuge, not counting the babies in the nursery.
Well, so what? Sixteen-year-old men didn’t get scared.
An owl screeched on the other side of the river.
Hours later, stomping through some desiccated reeds, I caught myself drooling over the fish as they skimmed just below the surface of the river. Some planner I was. Why didn’t I bring a fishing pole? Even string would’ve worked. I could’ve cut a branch with the knife.
I wanted fried fish and hot bread and a piece of Rose’s pumpkin pie for dessert. I wanted to have a stupid jigsaw puzzle race with Joel. I’d been leading eight puzzles to seven as of Sun-day.
I wanted Clare.
There. I admitted it. So what if she obsessed about world-destroyers? No—I would not think of them like that. They’d been regular people who had families and jobs and kids and lives of their own. So what if she’d already started a wall-size painting of them?
I snorted a noseful of snot into the reeds. I’d lied about that, too.
She’d put her arms around me as she described all the details. “I tried carving real wood, but it’s too rough for a good likeness. See the perspective? It took me forever to get it just right, the circular wheels and the circular benches. Here—touch the red paint.”
“Extra wax. I wanted textured blood. I got broken cups from storage, too. They’ll go on the bottom, just like in the arena. All the important parts get emphasized, see? In summer, when Homecoming is still a long way off, we can look at this and remember.”
“Silly. What do you think of the painting?”
“It…brings everything back. I keep expecting the blood to drip on the floor.”
She’d been so happy. It almost made the lie worth it.
My stomach grumbled as another fish shimmered in the moonlight and plipped back into the river. No… I didn’t want Clare. Not when I thought logically. She was a Collector. She fol-lowed Matthew and Ihs. I must always remember her face when she drank those innocent vic-tims’ blood.
The wind picked up. By now, my teeth chattered even when I kept them clenched. Clouds obscured the moon just in time for me to trip over a tree root.
A dog barked.
That meant people.
I stumbled over another root as I ran toward the sound.
The clouds blew away and the moon showed me a sprawling barn. The dog barked again and settled down next to the barn door, nose between paws.
This had to be the beginnings of Fountain. Had to be.
A wicked stitch cramped my side and I slowed to a walk. I needed warmth. Not this barn—not guarded by that dog. Another barn, maybe. Somewhere closer to town.
I passed vineyards. An apple orchard. The tannery. What a stench. I covered my mouth with the peppermint-bag sleeve.
Houses at last. The same square street pattern as Colorado Springs. I looked northwest and spotted their Refuge. So much smaller. Only two stories. Of course… everyone came to Colorado Springs for Homecoming, so our Refuge had to be huge.
No. Not ours. Theirs. I was not a Collector.
I hurried through empty streets toward the town square, the wind pushing me from be-hind. My teeth rattled like a bowlful of dried peas. I passed the inn, the bookseller, the chandler. The blacksmith should be right around here…
Hah. Knew it. Next to the miller. I tried the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. I crouched to look under the door and heat from the banked fire reached out and teased me.
Still crouching, I circled around back and found the next best thing to an unlocked door: a window. When I stretched to see over the sill, I saw heaven. A stack of leather aprons and gloves illuminated by the still-glowing embers of a huge stone firepit.
If I still had a god to pray to, my “Please…” would’ve been directed to Ihs. Instead, I aimed the plea at the lock on the inside, and pulled. The window moved.
“Yes! Firepit, here I come.” Holding it up with one hand, I got a knee onto the ledge, then two knees, and landed on the floor near the aprons with just a light thump.
Heat at last. I closed the window first. My hands shook like Gaspar’s when I held them to the embers. So tired. So warm. I unfolded one of the aprons and was just about to curl under it when I remembered the last piece of my plan. I was way past second thoughts by now. I took out my knife and sawed off my hair. A few minutes later long brown handfuls covered my knees and the floor around me. I shivered again as the air tickled my naked neck. That was that. I scooped it all up and dropped it into the firepit. It puffed into nothing.
I piled gloves into a pillow, then held three leather aprons over the firepit. One covered enough of the stone floor for me to curl up on. With two over me, they made the best bed I’d ever known. I would’ve chanted thanks to Ihs, if Ihs cared about anything other than torture and slaughter and blood. Instead, I burrowed into my leather cocoon and closed my eyes.
I sat up, disoriented. The blood—
Another scream. I pushed off my blanket. Wait. My blanket wasn’t leather.
The world settled. After three months of planning, I’d escaped from the Collector Ref-uge. This room was the Fountain blacksmith’s workshop, and someone had screamed.
Running footsteps. A bobbing light. A man rushed through the door and stopped in front of me.
“What? Who? How did you—”
“Can I help?” The leather aprons dropped to the floor as I stood.
“My wife—the baby’s early. Get the doctor!”
“Where is he?”
“She. It’s, it’s—” Another scream from inside the house. The man’s eyes weren’t focused and his light hair stood out every which way. “One street east, turn left, she’s on the corner. Tell me who you are later. Take the lantern.”
I ran the two blocks in less than a minute, pounding on the door before my feet came to a full stop. “Wake up! Wake up!”
The door opened and a disheveled redhead frowned at me. “I’m up.”
“Blacksmith’s wife,” I said, panting. “Baby’s early. She’s screaming.”
“Wait there.” The redhead ran into another room and returned a minute later, dressed and carrying a wide satchel. “Okay.”
We ran back together. “It’s her first,” she said. “Carlo’s a nervous wreck. Know anything about painkillers?”
“Good. Be my assistant.”
The blacksmith hovered by the kitchen door, hair even wilder and fear on his face.
“Carlo, she’s going to be fine. Get me cool water, a glass, and a towel.”
I followed her into the bedroom. The blacksmith’s wife hunched over her huge belly, legs dangling off the bed, moaning.
“Let’s have a look, Cissy.” The doctor eased her down on the bed and folded up her nightgown. “Water’s broken. I’ll check for the head.”
My eyes snapped straight up to the ceiling as the doctor’s hand went someplace incredi-bly private.
“I can feel it. This shouldn’t take too long.”
“Owwww—it hurts, Emma!”
“Of course it does. You’re barely five feet tall and Carlo is a moose.” She turned to me. “Go find Carlo and that water, please.”
Just then the blacksmith came to the door.
“Good. Hand them over. Now stoke the fire and bring me a big bowl of hot water and lots more towels. Don’t worry. Out.”
I smothered a smile as she took the items from Carlo. He looked like a six-foot-tall lost puppy.
Cissy yelled. The doctor snapped her fingers at me. “I need feverfew, chamomile, and the tiniest pinch of poppy. What’s your name?”
I hesitated an instant. “Nicholas. I’ve got it.”
Jars lined the bottom of her bag, labeled and in their own compartments. I mixed the herbs in a swallow of water, just like Gaspar’d taught me. If only Carlo’s wife wouldn’t yell like that. It sounded like— I shook it off.
“Here.” I handed the cup to the doctor.
“Perfect. Drink this, Cissy.”
“Yes! Open your mouth.” Emma forced the concoction down her throat.
Cissy coughed and bent over from another contraction.
“Nicholas! Come here and hold her knees apart.”
I turned into a statue.
Emma focused on me. “Oh, for crying out loud. Why aren’t you a girl? Never mind. Get Carlo.”
“I’m right here.” Carlo set the hot water and towels on the dresser.
“Stop looking like that. You’re not the one having this baby. Get over here and hold her knees apart. I can see the head now. Nicholas!”
“Get behind her and hold up her shoulders. Move.”
I scrambled onto the bed and pushed against Cissy’s back, wishing I could shut my ears as well as my eyes. She kept yelling in between Emma saying, “Push!” and Carlo saying, “It’s okay, honey,” over and over till Emma told him to shut up.
And then it was over. Cissy let out the biggest yell yet, Emma said, “Here’s the shoul-ders, one more push,” and then, “It’s a boy.” I heard a sklorp and a different kind of yell. Tiny, but loud. I opened my eyes as Emma snipped this long, bloody, purplish rope thing from the baby’s belly button and tied the end in a knot.
“Here he is.” Emma wrapped a towel around the squalling red guy and put him in Cissy’s arms. Carlo was crying a little and Cissy was laughing and crying and cooing all at the same time.
It was scary and gross…but kind of cool.
Clare would’ve looked beautiful holding our baby…
“Nicholas, I need the hot water and towels,” Emma said.
Oh. Right. That was my name now. I stuffed a pillow behind Cissy’s shoulders and held the bowl for Emma. One look—what was she pulling out from between Cissy’s legs?—and I stared at the ceiling again.
Emma chuckled. “Men. No guts.”
That’s what she thought. Wonder what she’d say if I told her about Homecoming? But I didn’t mind. It took me one step closer to being a regular person.
“All right, you men. Go heat us some wine, please, while I clean the baby and get Cissy settled.”
Carlo closed the bedroom door and led me into the kitchen.
“Pot’s hanging on the wall behind you,” he said. “Bring it into the shop. I’ll get the wine.”
The shop was even warmer with the refreshed fire. I’d never take a warm room for grant-ed again. Carlo filled it halfway with red wine and I balanced the pot on an iron tripod over the fire.
“Congratulations,” I said.
Carlo grinned. “Thanks. Thanks for getting Emma and everything.” He stirred the wine. “You want to tell me why you were sleeping in here?”
Now for it. I had to pull this off. “I don’t have any place to live.”
“I’m from Colorado Springs.” No problem with that. It was the biggest town on the Smoky River. “My grandma raised me, but she died last month. The innkeeper bought the house. He let me stay for awhile, but he started fixing it up to rent and I had to leave.”
“Couldn’t you find a job? You know herbs, right?”
“The doctor has two apprentices, and the innkeeper’s kids work his gardens.”
“Bad time of year to look for herb work there, middle of February and all.” He carried the steaming wine into the kitchen.
I followed, wondering if he believed any part of my story.
Carlo poured the wine into mugs. “Well?”
“I owed the grocer and the chandler money, so I sold Grandma’s stuff and most of mine to pay them. Then I hit the road. Figured I’d see the world, you know?”
“You walked from Colorado Springs to here in nothing but pants and a sweater?”
Emma bustled in. “Mom and baby are sleeping nicely.” She set her bag on the table and tsked at me. “Teenagers. No sense. You could use some feverfew and white willow yourself. You look like you’ve been wrung out and left in the cold to dry.”
I shrugged. “Kind of. The weather got nasty yesterday.” I gave her a shorter version of my new life story.
She stirred the powdered herbs into my wine. “Sounds like you need a job.”
“Well, yeah.” I drank. Wine had never tasted better, even with the slight bitterness of the white willow.
“I could use you,” Carlo said. “The baby wasn’t due for a month. Hadn’t found an ap-prentice yet.”
I sipped the wine. Why not? No Collector would ever do this kind of work. They always hired town blacksmiths.
“I don’t know much about it.” Better be honest about that.
“It’s not hard. Chop wood, work the bellows, pour hot metal into molds. I can teach you the more complicated work later.”
“Can I borrow him sometimes?” Emma said. “My daughter is still a little young to sort and grind.”
“Sure. There you go, kid. Two jobs at once. You can live here. Carpenter can build a cou-ple short walls in a corner of the shop, make you a bedroom.”
Emma stood. “Thank you for the wine, Carlo. Send Nicholas over with my fee tomor-row.”
“What about Cissy?”
“All she needs is a few days in bed. I left feverfew, chamomile, and meadowsweet, and white willow, of course. Make tea for her with them, Nicholas. Three times a day. They’re nasty together, but they’ll get her back to normal faster. Good night.” She opened the kitchen door. “Good morning, I mean. Sun’s just rising.”
“I can make breakfast,” I said.
“Thanks, Nick.” Carlo put his cup in the sink. “‘Nick’ okay, or do people call you Nicho-las?”
“Nick, then. Bacon and eggs in the cellar. Through that door. I’ll light the stove.” He reached for the matches and paused. “Almost forgot. Two dollars a week. Three when you mas-ter everything.”
“Sure.” I took the lantern and a basket downstairs. I had no idea if that was a fair wage. Like it mattered.
I cut a hunk of bacon with the knife next to the slab and set half a dozen eggs on top. Carlo’s footsteps thumped above me and disappeared. He must’ve gone into the shop.
I stared at the eggs without seeing them. Amos the Collector was officially dead. Nick the blacksmith’s apprentice was going upstairs to fry eggs and bacon. And grind herbs for the doctor. Gaspar would approve.
No. I clenched my fists. I don’t know anyone named Gaspar. I’m a reg-ular person who knows nothing special about Collectors at all.
This was going to be a problem. I’d have to keep my mouth shut and pick up on how reg-ular people talked about Collectors. And how regular people lived and worked and had fun.
Not that I planned on having fun. Cutting my hair and changing my name was a good start, but I had to watch every word, every thought, until I was Nicholas outside and in.
“Nicholas.” I tested the name. “Nick.” I kind of preferred Nicholas, but the short version was a better disguise. Way different than Amos.
“Fire’s ready, Nick,” Carlo said at the top of the stairs.
“Be right there.” I picked up the basket and the lantern. “Do you like them fried or scrambled?”
Ten Years Later
The screaming in my head started right on schedule.
I looked up from the clay dam I’d just pasted over the hole in the miller’s teakettle. Of course. The carved wooden calendar on the sideboard confirmed my fears: November 25.
No matter how hard I worked at pretending this was any other date, my mind just laughed at me. The earlybirds showed up at Refuge in Colorado Springs today. The most eager. The ones who had farthest to travel and didn’t want to risk hitting bad weather.
I’d hear the screams for the next three days, even though Homecoming wasn’t till the twenty-eighth.
I should be visiting Carlo. Pumping the bellows for old times’ sake so the din of hammer on anvil covered the screams.
The miller’s daughter pumped water into the kitchen sink to wash the breakfast dishes. Her younger brother brought in a hammer and several pieces of wood and sat next to me in front of the hearth.
“It’s my own beehive,” he said through the gap where his baby teeth used to be. “Mom says if I take care of them all by myself, then I can keep the money next summer when I sell the honey!”
I pasted a smile on my face and slipped into the character I’d been perfecting for ten years. “A delightful enterprise, Ronald.”
I gave Ronald a real smile. “A good plan.” I softened more clay for the outside of the mend.
The clock bonged eight.
Ronald set two boards at right angles on the hearth and banged in a nail.
“Ow!” Ronald sucked his thumb. He tapped the nail with the hammer to straighten it, and whacked it again.
My hand jerked.
“Hey, you messed up.”
“I see. Now, alas, I’ve given myself more work.” I scraped off the gouged dam.
Please stop screaming in my head, you three whose blood I had to drink. Please.
Ronald hammered away.
Sweat beaded on my forehead and trickled down my face. I needed more than the clink of dishes against the counter to drown out the screams of people ten years dead. I concentrated on shaping the new dam.
Ronald set down the hammer. “Gotta get more nails.”
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath until the door closed. My hands shook when I lifted my melting pot from the fire. I tilted the cover and poured a thin stream of tin into the pre-pared hole. I set the pot on the hearthstones and smoothed the edges of the mend. Then I had to wait for it to set.
There they were again—if they’d ever stopped. Whack. A shriek—that was the old woman. I remembered how the blood welled up around the shattered bones…
Ronald piled nails next to the hearth and settled on the floor.
I checked the patch. Warm and dull. It hissed only a moment when I poured water on it from the bowl at my feet.
“Cool!” Ronald said.
I stood and stretched, my back popping. A few more minutes, and I’d escape the ham-mer.
“Annette,” I said to the miller’s daughter, “would you tell your mother her kettle is mended?”
Ronald started hammering again.
I carried the kettle to the trash can beneath the sink, scraping the dam away with as much noise as possible.
The miller’s wife clattered down the stairs and deposited a sewing basket on the table. “Nicholas, you’re a lifesaver.” She plucked the kettle from my hands and inspected the patch. Shoving her arms under my nose, she pumped water into it and held it over her head.
“Marvelous! You know I simply won’t use that tinker from Falls City. Not after he ruined my grandmother’s best roasting pan.”
She set the kettle upside down on the drain board and handed me fifty cents.
“Ida, that’s too much.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s November twenty-fifth already. I know your winter schedule. You’ll buy supplies here because you’re walking all the way home to Fountain. Why you don’t just stay in Colorado Springs, I’ll never know. It’s only twenty miles from here. The inn stays open even if everyone else closes till December first. I’m sure you’d get bargain rates. Wouldn’t that be better than walking those ten extra miles to Fountain?”
“Just knowing all the Collectors are gathered in their Refuge is, shall we say, a daunting prospect. Not one conducive to a good night’s sleep.”
“I don’t know how people live in Colorado Springs,” she chattered on “I’ve seen the two Collectors from our Refuge once or twice and I can barely remember to curtsey, they’re so awe-inspiring.”
“Indeed.” I had to redirect this conversation.
“Ronald!” Ida spoke over her shoulder. “Don’t stick your tongue out at your sister.”
“But, Mom, she stuck hers out first!”
“Annette, you’re supposed to set an example. And nice young men don’t want a wife with poor manners.”
Someone knocked at the shop door. My luck was in. Ida would transfer her chatter to the customer and I’d escape.
Ida came back into the kitchen just as I screwed the lid onto the jar of damming clay.
“This is such an honor, ma’am, please overlook the clutter on the hearth, my son was building a beehive, if I’d had any idea you’d come to our little house everything would be per-fect to receive you—”
“Please, Missus Miller, don’t worry about that at all.” A deep, sweet voice.
I stayed on my knees tying up my pack. Who would Ida fawn over like that? Their best customer? Her husband’s mother?
“You’re so gracious, ma’am, and here’s Nicholas, ma’am, I was sure he hadn’t left yet.”
I looked up.
I could handle it. I just had to remember my identity. Nicholas the tinker who talked the fanciest patter outside of slapstick comedy.
I stood and bowed. “Good morning, Collector. How may I serve you?”
“Good morning.” She slipped back her hood. “I’m sure you’ll forgive my informality. Sometimes people find it easier to talk to me when they can see my face.”
Her blonde hair shone in the lamplight.
“I, uh—certainly, ma’am.” I swallowed the panic trying to choke me. I am Nicholas the tinker. No one else. I’d never seen this Collector—any Collector—up close before.
“I’m headed to Colorado Springs, of course, but just last week I dropped my favorite mixing pot and put a hole in it.” She pulled a miniature cauldron from her bag and smiled. “It’s ten years old, but I understand you’re the best tinker on the Smoky River. Can you fix it?”
“I’ll exert myself to the utmost, ma’am.”
“You’re very kind.”
I unpacked my stand and set it and the melting pot over the still-roaring fire. When I de-posited the mending compound into the pot, I sat on the hearth again and scooped out a glob of clay, pressing a wide button on the pot’s inside.
I needed to say something. Everyone knew how I piled on the words. But should I make conversation with a Collector? All of us regular people only bowed and allowed them to pass. If my luck was in, she’d sit and watch in aloof silence. She’d probably never seen this process be-fore. I turned over the pot and began a dam on the bottom
Ida moved a chair behind the Collector and practically dragged Ronald and Annette out into the hall. Her whispered instructions to them on how to act and what to say resonated through the kitchen.
The Collector sat. “The blacksmith in Cheyenne Wells told us that a tinker spent all night one April seventeenth mending his cast-iron Carnival display in time for us to admire it the next afternoon. I believe the tinker’s name was Nicholas. He praised you lavishly.”
I rubbed the tip of my nose. “I am honored by your notice.” I checked the metal. Ready. I poured the mix into the hole, set the melting pot back on the hearth, and scraped the mend’s edges with my knife.
“That’s all there is to it?” she said.
“It appears deceptively simple, ma’am. Like a magician’s trick. Poof! Your pot is whole again. Yet if I neglected to heat the metal properly, or a gap appeared around my inside dam, your hole would have merely gained a new outline. And like magic, my trousers would acquire a circular metallic ornament.”
She laughed. “You would make a charming teacher.”
I touched the mend. If a magician appeared at my elbow at that instant, my only request would be, ‘Please poof this cool so I can escape.’
“Do you travel all year ’round, Nicholas?”
“No, ma’am. I have a small home in Fountain, where I learned the blacksmith trade. On cold winter days, I plead with the Fountain blacksmith to let me pump his bellows once more. Warm feet are ample payment for the loan of my muscles.”
I dribbled water on the mend. Not a sizzle. “I shall be only a minute longer.”
Somehow I restrained myself and didn’t leap to the trash can. My hand trembled only the tiniest bit when I scraped the pot clean. What should I say next? My supply of empty conversa-tion was dwindling. It’d never failed me before. But I hadn’t exchanged two words with a Col-lector since the day before Amos’ untimely demise ten years ago.
After I dried the cauldron on a towel, I rubbed the mend with my sleeve until it gleamed. With my ‘tinker extraordinaire’ smile, I placed the pot in her outstretched hands.
“May it last twenty years, ma’am, and always be perfect for your needs.”
“A great obligation for a simple paint holder.”
“You are an artist, ma’am?” Shut up. Stop talking and she’ll leave.
She nodded. “I decorate the schools and illustrate the history books.”
“I’m certain I have admired your work, then.” Stop talking now, idiot.
She laughed again. “Nicholas, I haven’t been this charmed in years. You could twist any woman around your fingers if you chose.”
I rubbed the tip of my nose with one hand and closed my clay jar. When I looked at her again, a puzzled frown creased her face. It vanished the next moment and she stood, tucking the little cauldron away.
“Please allow me to pay you.”
I held up both hands. “Indeed, no, ma’am. I couldn’t possibly consider it. I thank you for your generous acceptance of my work.”
She nodded. “As you wish.” With a graceful movement, she pulled up her hood and be-came an anonymous Collector again. “Travel safely home.”
“And you, ma’am.”
She left while I bowed, and I heard Ida scurry to open the shop door for her.
I dragged on my coat, thunked the clay jar into my pack and strapped the tripod and the still-warm melting pot across my back. Ida’s babble on top of the screams in my head were a heartbeat away from shattering my charm. I could never afford to be anyone other than Nicholas the showman.
“Oh, Nicholas!” Ida fluttered in and sat at the kitchen table. “Who would have thought? Not in a million years, not by the remotest chance. A Collector in my house! She was so polite. She smiled at the children. Who’s ever seen a Collector smile? She took off her hood! Like we were her equals! And her hair! What a marvelous gold…”
I closed my ears. My eyes still saw that Collector’s hair glowing against a new brown robe. It had looked like sunshine in the lamplight in our cellar classroom.
The screams hounded me across the street to the inn, up the stairs, and into my room. My cauldron and stand bounced hard against my back with every step, but I never slackened my pace. What if I started screaming in the street along with the victims in my head? There would be no explanation for that.
I slammed and locked my door. Explanation. I almost laughed.
No, really, nothing’s wrong. They’ve come back, that’s all. They return every year to re-mind me that I’m a murderer. Can’t you hear them screaming? Oh, and ten years of deception just collapsed into rubble. Unless she didn’t recognize me. After all, I’m dead. Drowned when I was barely sixteen years old. Terrible tragedy. Left her behind—the girl I was going to marry. But she wasn’t lonely; we had a big family. You’ve met some of them. We have our own cozy little place in Colorado Springs. The Refuge, you know. Where we kill people and drink their blood.
This time I did laugh. My voice frightened me. I stuffed the pillow over my face till I stopped.
From the time I’d seen her in Colorado Springs when I was nineteen, I’d dodged her. I’d been selling herbs for a year and a half then, and I was already building a reputation as a tinker. Carlo’s brother married a chandler there, and had a grand idea for candle displays. He’d bought old, broken iron sconces and needed them repaired. Carlo badgered me till I went. And I couldn’t avoid Colorado Springs forever.
I looked different enough from the scared rabbit who ran through the woods that Febru-ary day. I’d kept my hair short. My face had a few scars from flying sparks. My huge arm and chest muscles changed the way I carried myself. Besides, Amos was dead. Nicholas Tinker charmed tired wives with smooth banter and easy smiles as I repaired their teakettles and ex-tolled the virtues of my spices.
Carlo’s brother and I shared a beer after I’d repaired all the sconces.
“Did I just see a Collector walk by the window? Coming to see you?” I said.
“Me? No! Why would a Collector single me out?” He swigged beer. “Can’t even imagine talking to one.” He leaned forward and breathed hops and barley in my face. “They give me the creeps. Always under those hoods. Having them walk through the streets to see Carnival decora-tions once a year is enough.”
“So you don’t know why this one is around town?”
“Oh, her. Yeah—my kids told me. She’s painting the school—the main hall’s going to show the five holidays. She’s already done New Year and Carnival and Midsummer. Guess she’s really good. Kid told me that she painted a garden with poppies and apple trees, and the apples look like you could actually eat them.”
A scared rabbit named Nicholas scuttled out of town that night. The Collector who paint-ed apples good enough to eat might not be Clare. Right.
Twelve months later, I passed her on the street in Jefferson City. What other Collector would stand in the midst of eighth-graders and use the way the street faded into the distance to explain perspective?
A two-year gap followed. I honed my new self to perfection. Weeks passed without the name ‘Amos’ coming to mind. Emma’s oldest daughter invited me over for supper ten Wednes-days in a row. When I caught Emma beaming at us as we discussed herbs, I put the pieces to-gether and spent the next six months on the road.
Another year and the Cheyenne Wells blacksmith conned all the merchants into making a combined Carnival display. A great idea until the arms fell off his life-size Collector sculptures the night before Carnival. I woke up when the blacksmith flipped my mattress onto the floor. I agreed to mend them out of respect for a fellow craftsman. When he told the tenth admiring Col-lector how the greatest tinker on the Smoky River saved his display, I packed up and didn’t stop walking until sunset. Better a night with squirrels than attracting Collector attention.
I dropped the pillow onto the flat inn mattress and opened my knapsack. My bill waited on the narrow dresser. If I left the money on it now I’d forfeit lunch and dinner today. A fair trade if it put ten extra miles between me and…her.
Can’t even say her name, coward?
No. Because Nick Tinker wouldn’t know a Collector’s name.
Spare trousers, shirt, and socks pushed the supplies into odd places in the pack, but so what? Out. Fast. That was what mattered.
Someone knocked at the door.
“If that idiot innkeeper screwed up my bill again…”
I yanked open the door. “George, you’re the worst—” The rest of the sentence strangled itself in my throat.
“You cut your hair,” the Collector at my threshold said.
Ten years of self-discipline saved me. “How may I serve you, Collector?”
She slapped my face. I held my ground.
“Damn you, Amos, why did you do it?”
I’d never seen her angry before. If Amos the Collector still existed, he would’ve kissed her because she was as beautiful as he remembered.
Nick Tinker, however, said, “Forgive me for contradicting you, Collector, but I fear you have mistaken me for someone else.”
She blinked, but the past ten years as a Collector hadn’t been wasted on her. She pushed past me into the room and closed the door on us.
“I will not let the gossips in this inn witness a Collector arguing with a mere tinker. Amos, you liar. You weasel. You coward.”
“Ma’am, I assure you—”
“You always could talk your way around anyone. Your voice is deeper or I’d’ve recog-nized you sooner.”
I opened my mouth, but she barreled on.
“This tinker business was a good choice. Collectors don’t have forges. We’re too careful to maintain our flawless appearance. The last Collector with any kind of facial scar died six years ago. You remember Gaspar, don’t you? He wept for days after you disappeared.” She sneered. “Ihs in Heaven, we all believed it. Did you think about Gaspar when you created your little show? Did you think about anyone but yourself? Or were you too obsessed with escaping from marriage to me?”
Don’t break. Don’t break. My hands didn’t know what to do with them-selves. I smoothed my hair, then rubbed the tip of my nose.
She pounced. “There! That’s how I knew it was you. You always rubbed your nose like that when you were embarrassed or thinking hard. What are you thinking about now? How to get a Collector out of your room without making her angry? Too late.”
Tears sparkled in her eyes, making them bluer. Her earlobes still turned that same rose-pink when she got all emotional. Damn me for a world-destroyer, I wanted to grab her and hold her and tell her I never meant to hurt her…
I shoved it all away. “Ma’am, truly, I don’t understand what you’re talking about. The gracious compliment you gave to my work earlier this morning were the only words ever spoken to me by a Collector.” I opened the door and held it for her. “With the greatest respect for you, ma’am, us plain folks don’t quite know what to say to a Collector. If you’d be so kind, I’m feel-ing like a pig on ice right about now.”
She opened her mouth but I didn’t give her a chance.
“If it’s not too presumptuous of me, I wish you a very good day, ma’am.”
She stared at me, her lips still parted. I transferred my gaze to the wooden floor. Like every other inhabitant in every other town for the past one hundred eighty years obeying the un-written rule: Don’t look a Collector in the eyes. You’re not their equal.
The noise of the daily market penetrated the closed window.
“Apples! Tart apples!”
“Flour! Finest ground flour!”
I held my position, the image—I hoped—of deferential respect. Time stretched like taffy. Finally, without another word, she stalked out of the room. I closed the door, latched it, leaned against it. A wonderful piece of construction, this door. It understood me. It was my friend.
Clare walked past my window, marketplace shoppers parting before her. Not a wisp of that golden hair escaped her hood, but I saw it without my eyes: rich and glowing, waving like poppies in the summer wind.
I banged the back of my head against the welcoming door panels four, five, six times un-til my skull rebelled. “Nick Tinker, you’re an idiot.” Of course my voice had a catch in it. Idiots couldn’t root out memories of the murderer they once wanted to marry. Idiots still kept a secret place inside their heads for said murderer with all the memories of blood-guzzling and torture-ecstasy scrubbed away. With the only intact moments left ones of laughing, kissing, and planning for our future.
This same Collector who’d just given me a tongue-lashing and to whom I’d lied so well that I’d convinced her winter was summer. Nick Tinker’s reputation was well earned. Three cheers for me.
Two days later I worked the bellows for Carlo’s ten-year-old son while he shaped the be-ginnings of a mirror frame for Cissy, his mother. Emma the doctor, her daughter and son, and Cissy laughed and banged pots in the kitchen. Carlo wrangled his second son in a corner.
“He’s going to walk before New Year,” I yelled over the furnace and hammering din.
Carlo tossed his six-month-old son in the air and caught him, both of them laughing. “I know. Early in everything. Just like his brother.”
Emma appeared in the doorway. “Supper in ten minutes. Whoever’s late has to change the baby’s diaper.”
We made exaggerated faces of horror. I set down the bellows. Carlo’s older son said—if I read his lips correctly—“Matthew’s balls” and dumped the frame back into the furnace. Carlo slung the baby over his shoulder and cuffed his other son on the back of the head as we met by the doorway.
“Watch your mouth.”
“Come on, dad, it’s us and Nick.” He rubbed his head.
“Yeah, but it’s never too soon to learn caution.”
Cissy made my traditional homecoming supper of deer sausage, sweet potatoes, and apple pie. I told stories of my year on the road—omitting my unusual encounter with a certain Collec-tor. Emma bragged on her kids. Carlo bragged on his. They’d named the baby Nick.
We stayed up much too late drinking and swapping stories. I walked the Emma clan home, if four people leaning on each other and laughing all the way could be called ‘walking them home’. The full moon lit the empty streets so even drunk I could find my way home from Emma’s.
I stumbled into my herb garden, not yet plowed over for winter. Clouds of oregano and mint enveloped me. Right. This was home. I’d better get myself into bed. A houseful of dried herbs and seeds ready for packaging awaited. Lots of work… hope I had enough paper for seed packets…
I groped for the latch… drunker than I thought… I closed the door on the cold night. Dropped my coat… noise hurt my head… ’least I had plenty white willow…
I fumbled with a match for the lamp.
Light and pain stabbed through my head. My fingers couldn’t hold the match. My legs couldn’t hold me up.
I ran my hands over the floor. Stone. The floors in my small house were all wooden. So why was I lying on stone? I opened my eyes.
A small, dingy room: stone walls and floor; wood ceiling. One narrow door with an iron grating near the top. What light there was came through the grate from a lamp hung outside on the opposite wall.
A dozen knives impaled my head when I turned it. I pushed my hands into my matted hair until I found the lump. The big lump.
Okay. Reason this out through the knives and hammers. We’d all been drink-ing after supper. I walked Emma’s family home, then headed to my place. I think I tromped through the peppermint. And had trouble with my front door latch. Whew. This headache wasn’t all due to being whacked on the head.
I got to my hands and knees and waited for the room to settle. Next I eased onto my heels. The floor tried to flip me sideways. All of last night’s food and wine threatened to revolt, but deep breaths and closed eyes stopped that. My feet were freezing. I cracked open one eye. What happened to my shoes?
The silence penetrated my throbbing head. No noise. Not a bird. Not a market vendor. That is, if I were near the main square. I slowly moved my gaze up to the ceiling. No sound of rain or wind.
I tried to stand. Big mistake.
Sharp-edged fragments of stone floor grinding into my cheek woke me up. The hammer-and-anvil had muffled themselves in a mound of wool. I could think straight again.
Someone—many someones?—had knocked me out and kidnapped me. Kidnapping was ancient history. We learned the term in history classes and never used it again. What in the name of Matthew—
Kidnapping. Click. Stone room. Click. Silence. Click. Matthew. Click.
I scrambled to my feet—dizzy no longer—and grabbed the iron grate. I shook it, tried to twist it, shook it again. As firm as anything I’d ever soldered. The hinges—solid, too. No rust. I walked the perimeter of the room. Two feet to the left of the door, four feet on the left-hand wall, six feet on the back wall, four to the right, and another two to meet up with the door. Solid stone blocks from floor to ceiling.
No wonder the few jails scattered along the Smoky River boasted a one-hundred percent retention rate. Collectors excelled in building and Collectors taught the Great War survivors eve-rything to rebuild the world. People would never know the real reason for the impenetrable pris-ons: Test cases for the ones that hold the world-destroyers for Homecoming.
No. No. No. Not this tinker. I was no world-destroyer. Matthew wasn’t coming near me with that mallet. I flattened myself on the floor and slithered into the corners. No cracks in the cement. No puffs of air. I felt in my pockets. No tools of any kind. Right—I wouldn’t have tak-en tools to Carlo’s. Maybe I could work one of the hinge pins free.
I shoved to a dark corner of my mind the question of how I could be so calm and me-thodical in this room on this day. Right now, one hundred thirty-something Collectors waited in the arena, lusting for the screams, the breaking bones, the blood. My blood.
No. Stop it. Now.
I threw every other thought behind me and stared at the hinges. Yes. They were the same pattern as every hinge I’d made in the past ten years. I ripped open my shirt with enough force to pop two buttons. Excellent. I fitted one into the lowest screw and turned it to the left.
The button snapped in two. Damn. I squinted in the fitful lamplight. Rust. I took the broken edge and scraped.
Work harder, Nick. You don’t know what time it is. You don’t know what day it is. Yes you do. You know it’s the twenty-eighth. The half-button broke into fragments. Damn, damn, damn! I scrabbled for the other half. I would’ve given anything to see out-side. What if it was near sunrise?
No. Don’t think that. Concentrate on this screw. Then the next. Then the two on the upper hinge. You’re in Refuge. You still know your way around. Get this door open and you can escape.
Bits of clean metal showed through the rust. I grabbed the still-whole button and posi-tioned it into the slot. Easy… Smooth pressure; smooth motion… The screw turned. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath. Another turn. Sweat dripped into my eyes. I brushed it away, blinking at the sting of rust. Turn it faster, Nick. Three more screws after this one. Don’t think about the time. Scrape.
The first screw clinked onto the floor. I switched the whole button for the sharp edge of the broken one.
Footsteps echoed down the hall. No. It’s too soon. All those screws are still in the hinges.
I sank the edge of the whole button into the still-rusty screw and wrenched at it. The footsteps battered my ears, louder, nearer. The button snapped.
A key turned in the lock. I spun around and slammed my back against the door. They pushed against me. I planted my knees and pushed back.
I won the next push-counter push. The third was too much for me. The door swung in-ward, flinging me onto the floor. I rolled over and jumped to my feet.
Four of them, hands tucked in their brown wool sleeves, followed by two more. I braced against the opposite wall, fists and feet ready. A fleeting memory of chanting to Ihs for strength and protection welled up. I almost laughed.
The fifth Collector gestured and the first four stepped to the side. The sixth re-locked the door. The fifth removed his hood.
I dropped my fists. “Joel?”
His freckles had faded into his gaunt face. His always-smiling lips were compressed into a severe line. I looked for and failed to find the old mischief in his hard eyes.
Clare pushed back her hood. “He is the ninth Matthew.”
“You were right,” Joel/Matthew said to her. “We surprised him and the truth came out.”
Clare stepped up to me and slapped my face once more, demolishing the past ten years for good.
Joel/Matthew said, “Amos, you have committed a sin that only one other Collector at-tempted. You allied yourself with the world-destroyers.”
“I did not—”
“By rejecting Refuge and all it continues to achieve, you rejected Ihs and his commands. You are one with Ihs’ enemies.”
Even his voice had changed. It sounded as hard as his eyes. “Joel—”
“Matthew,” Clare said, her voice as hard as Joel’s/Matthew’s.
“Matthew, then. What changed you? We were friends.”
“I was the most unworthy, but when the eighth Matthew had his dying vision, he said Ihs called me to be the leading instrument of Redemption.” For a moment, the teenage Joel peeked out. “It was amazing. I spent months meditating and learning the duties, and at the next Home-coming, before the ceremony in the arena, I laid myself on a wheel and Patrick touched the mal-let to my arms and legs, without breaking them. Then Clare sliced my wrist and held a cup of my own blood to my lips and I drank.”
His eyes focused inward. “Remember how Ihs fills us at Homecoming? This was differ-ent, frightening, awe-inspiring. The blood flowed through my body and I seemed to float off the wheel. Ihs became me for that one moment.” He turned that distant gaze on me again. “You de-filed the Collectors. You corrupted the Redemption of Ihs. You violated our pact with him.”
All this was way too much like a snake mesmerizing a bird. I wrenched my gaze over to Clare.
“There isn’t enough light in here to do justice to the color of your hair against the robe, Collector. When I let myself remember you, that was the image I chose.” I clamped down on my mouth before I said something even more stupid.
Clare stepped toward me, hesitated, swallowed hard; then, with a glance at Jo-el/Matthew, pulled me toward her and kissed me.
Her lips burned, or I was as cold inside as out. Her lips moved against mine, tasting them, the way they used to when we were young and in love and planning our future together.
“Tell me what I did,” she whispered, “that was so terrible you’ve been hiding from me for ten years.”
I pulled her hands away from my face before my control shattered.
Nick Tinker—not Amos the Collector who died ten years ago—even sketched a bow. “May every question be so easy to answer. I ran because my family tortured and murdered three innocent people in the name of Ihs. The woman I loved and my best friend were part of that fam-ily.”
“What are you talking about? The commands of Ihs are the height of all that is good.”
If any god but Ihs existed, surely that god would rescue me from this.
No god appeared.
“No,” I said to her, to all of them. “Your Refuge isn’t a shelter, it’s a cave you’ve sealed yourselves into, wallowing in Ihs’ evil. I couldn’t fight that evil. I was young and desperate and scared out of my mind. So I chose ignominious retreat.”
She stared at me. “But you loved me.”
The laugh that came out of my mouth tasted as bitter as it sounded. Clare flinched like I’d struck her instead of the other way around. Matthew put a hand on her shoulder. She backed into his arm. He gestured with his other hand.
The other four Collectors converged on me. I kicked and punched and head-butted them. They grunted and hissed, but I couldn’t fight off all four at once. I shoved two of them apart and sprinted for the door.
I might have made it if Clare hadn’t tripped me.
Matthew planted his foot between my shoulders. I inhaled a lungful of dust. Eight hands dragged me upright. I was coughing too hard to say anything. Couldn’t get enough breath to fight back. Matthew turned his back on me. With Clare beside him, he led the way back to the arena.
The remaining four tore off my clothes and forced thin, ragged penitents’ clothes on me. They hoisted me to their shoulders. I swallowed a last mouthful of dust and tried to wrench my-self free. Ahead of me, I heard the machinery grind the wheels to the surface of the center circle. Just like they did ten years ago. The wheels clunked into place, one after the other.
We reached the light. Dozens of hooded faces turned toward us.
I yanked against my family’s grip. Hopeless. Futile. Ten years trying to escape Ihs, ten years uprooting every part of me that participated in joyous slaughter. All of it wasted.
My brothers slammed me onto a wheel and tied me down. I didn’t curse. I remembered what happened to those who spoke the truth to Matthew. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him reach for the mallet.
Coward that I was, I looked away so I wouldn’t see that mallet shatter my bones. So I wouldn’t see my blood spurt up and drain away into those bowls for Clare to drink.
Movement in the balcony caught my eye. Two eager faces peered over the half-wall. Pat-rick should tell them the proper way to wear the hood. Everything was to be concealed.
The third Collector up in the balcony pushed back his hood with jerky movements. Pat-rick’s face, eyes wide, mouth open, stared down at me.
I turned my head away from him and looked straight up. I would not show any weak-ness.
The painted stars on the ceiling formed more than just the constellations. Above the Col-lecting wheels, they created a picture of Ihs.
Baker of brownies and tormenter of characters, Alice Loweecey celebrates the day she jumped the wall with as much enthusiasm as her birthday. She grew up watching Hammer horror films and Scooby-Doo mysteries, which explains a whole lot. When she’s not creating trouble for her sleuth Giulia Driscoll or inspiring nightmares as her alter-ego Kate Morgan, she can be found growing vegetables in her garden and water lilies in her koi pond.