Sister Bevenlee and Mother of Pox

Status: 2nd Draft

Sister Bevenlee and Mother of Pox

Status: 2nd Draft

Sister Bevenlee and Mother of Pox

Book by: Seabrass

Details

Genre: Fantasy

Content Summary


This fantasy novella (well, turns out it wants to be a full-blown novel) is the third of three stories set at the Tower of Sephalon. It follows young Bevenlee, destined to become a Sister at the
Tower, in service to Mother Ukee, pregnant with a god. Despite the hardships of life at the Tower and the chaos consuming the land, Bevenlee sticks to her pledge to remain as Ukee's friend, no
matter the danger.

 

 

Content Summary


This fantasy novella (well, turns out it wants to be a full-blown novel) is the third of three stories set at the Tower of Sephalon. It follows young Bevenlee, destined to become a Sister at the
Tower, in service to Mother Ukee, pregnant with a god. Despite the hardships of life at the Tower and the chaos consuming the land, Bevenlee sticks to her pledge to remain as Ukee's friend, no
matter the danger.

Author Chapter Note


I decided to post the revisions so far. This is how I envision Chapter 1 in the final manuscript. There's added material to help make events later in the story make sense, including the
conversation between Bevenlee and Ukee about peasants and royalty. It's 12,400 words. Enjoy all the yummy credits.

Chapter Content - ver.4

Submitted: October 25, 2020

Comments: 2

In-Line Reviews: 13

A A A | A A A

Chapter Content - ver.4

Submitted: October 25, 2020

Comments: 2

In-Line Reviews: 13

A A A

A A A

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CHAPTER 1

Inside the honor hall, Bevenlee sat with her family a few pews from the front. All around, people coughed, sniffled. Boots scuffed the floor planks. Finally, the priest stepped to his place behind the altar, the large side door from the king’s hall opened, and the royal family filed in, as always last to enter.

She gasped and pointed. “Poppa, who’s that?”

Her poppa pulled down her arm, whispered, “Bev, shush now. And it’s not polite to point. But who do you mean?”

“Her. In the middle.”

“That’s Princess Ukee. Remember? You’ve met her,” he said, his grumble so low she could hardly hear. “She’s the king’s youngest daughter. Like you’re mine.” He hugged her waist. His beard tickled her cheek. She giggled and squirmed and he released her.

She waited. Certainly he noticed Princess Ukee’s glow, bright like a candle’s flame on the candlier above. He’d tell what it was. But he didn’t, and the royal family settled in their pew. She slid forward. “Poppa, what’s that glow around her?”

“Bevenlee!” Her momma’s whisper was harsh. “Shush!” She yanked Bevenlee back. “Shush!”

The priest started the honor chant. Pews creaked as the congregants shifted and bowed their heads. Bevenlee pretended to bow as well, but kept staring at Princess Ukee’s glow.

How could everyone else not see it? The two older, taller boys on either side–probably Ukee’s brothers–didn’t seem to. The priest’s eyes glinting–he sure hadn’t noticed. She frowned. Couldn’t anyone else see the glow?

Over the priest’s chant, the wind moaned behind closed shutters. Candles sputtered, but none went out.

When she finally looked away–the honor over halfway done by then–she caught people sneaking glances her way. Whispers floated in the quiet between chants. Her parents shifted about, as though to shield her from all the looks. Eventually Poppa put his big arm over her shoulders and held her close. His dark leathers smelled of the forest. Momma squeezed against her other side.

She got warm and tried to squirm away. Fortunately the honor ended. As silently as they’d entered, the royal family stood to depart. Bevenlee peered harder as they filed out. Princess Ukee wore fabrics over her entire head so only her face was visible, and her gaze fell to the planks. She seemed sad. And... Was she limping?

* * *

After they returned to the homestead, Momma sent her to her room while her brother and two sisters tended to their chores. She sat on the small bed she shared with her sisters. Pounce, one of the homestead’s cats, lay on the blankets and purred as she stroked his fur.

The look on Ukee’s face stuck in her thoughts. The princess hadn’t looked happy, not at all. She frowned. And there’d been something else...

She gasped. Princess Ukee hadn’t any eyebrows! Her glow told that. No eyebrows, and she didn’t remember any eyelashes either.

No wonder Ukee was so sad! Was that why she’d worn all those scarves over her head, kept them on even as it warmed up in the honor hall?

She went to ask Momma about it.

Momma was busy in the kitchen with two of the homestead’s other mothers. They gave Bevenlee curious glances before quickly shuffling out.

Wiping her hands on her apron, her momma snapped, “I told you to stay in your room.”

“I know, but–”

“No buts!” She pointed. “Go!”

Bevenlee stopped breathing. Why was Momma so mad? Because of the glow around Ukee? Had to be. “But the princess–”

“No, Bevenlee! I’ll not hear another word about the princess!”

She took a step back. Maybe if she described the glow... Then she smelled the aromas all around. Oh! It’s mid-day meal on Honor Day. I should be helping. Momma always appreciated the help. “Can I–”

No, Bevenlee. Please. Go to your room. Please.” Now Momma sounded worried. “Do it for me?”

Since it would please her momma, she returned to her bedroom, this time lying down with Pounce. The tip of his tail tapped the blanket. She sensed something was wrong, but try as she might, couldn’t imagine what. Something to do with the glow? Probably, but that was Ukee’s glow, not hers.

She fell asleep.

Pounce was gone when she woke to her parents arguing in their bedroom next door, muffled words floating through the wood and plaster walls. She sat on the edge of her bed and rubbed her eyes. Her stomach gurgled and she had to pee. She opened her bedroom door.

“...called it a glow!” Momma sounded angry again. “A glow!”

“I know,” Poppa replied, voice low. “I heard.”

“So did everyone else! Did you see they were all looking? Oh, this is terrible!”

“Dear wife, calm down. Please.”

“Calm down? How? You know what she said! What it means!”

Her father said something too low for Bevenlee to hear. They exchanged more words.

Then Momma made a noise, like a laugh but not. “We’ll say she was playing. She heard someone talk about auras. Her imagination took over. You know how children get. Besides, Princess Ukee can’t be pregnant. She’s the king’s daughter!”

“You know that won’t stand.” Poppa sounded tired. “She’s eight now, the right age. The pull will come, and she’ll be on her way. She’s meant for a life at the Tower.”

“No! Not my baby! Not my Bevenlee!”

A hand fell on Bevenlee’s shoulder. She flinched and twisted around, teeth clenched on a squeal.

“What are you doing?” her brother Sedge whispered. “Get to your room.”

She scurried back without arguing. As she closed the door, she turned. Frowning, lips pursed, Sedge stood with an ear to the door. Their parents continued to argue. He caught her staring. His frown deepened.

Smells hung in the air. Her stomach gurgled again. Still having to pee, she crossed her legs at her knees.

Sedge noticed. “Stay there,” he said, voice low, like Poppa’s. He shut her door, returned a moment later with a chamber pot. “Here.”

She took the pot. “I’m hungry, too.”

“Okay.”

He came back with a plate of chicken and potatoes in gravy, and a mug of weak ale. “Here. Keep the pot. I’ll bring a clean one tomorrow.”

“I have to eat in here?”

“I don’t think Momma wants anyone to see you.” He scowled. “What happened in the honor hall? What did you say?”

“I–” She suddenly wasn’t sure she should tell. Maybe if he hadn’t heard... She looked down at her plate.

Sedge waited, then shrugged. “Stay here until Momma says otherwise.”

She didn’t like the idea of eating alone in the bedroom. What if she made a mess on the blankets? “Where’re Teress and Jundy?”

“Momma sent them to the Cooper’s homestead. You’ll be sleeping alone tonight. Enjoy it, eh?” He closed the door.

She stayed in her room the rest of the day and into the night. Her father’s words echoed. The pull will come. She’s meant for a life at the Tower...

Tower? What tower?

Later, the night sky visible through the open shutter, she woke to more arguing. Momma kept insisting, “Take it back! Not my Bevenlee! Not my baby!” She started sobbing.

Bevenlee’s breath lodged in her throat. Her uneasiness deepened. Momma hardly ever cried! Something bad was happening. She was sure it had to do with Princess Ukee’s glow.

Her poppa mumbled something. She frowned, pretty sure he’d mentioned the tower again.

What tower?

* * *

Bevenlee woke to a shaking of her shoulder. “Mm– Uh?”

She blinked. The glow from the bedside brazier–someone had added more coals–revealed Poppa sitting on the edge of the bed. She smelled his dark leathers as well.

He squeezed her shoulder and murmured, “Bev, I have to go. The king’s sent the call, for all his wardens. And I may be gone a while.”

“Oh. Um.” Why had Poppa woken her to say this? He often went into the forest, said it was his duty. Usually meant he’d bring home a deer, or rabbits or roothogs when he returned.

“You... You may be gone–” His breath hitched. “Gone before I return. I just want to tell you to... To be safe. Be safe, Bev. And– And be good.” He kissed her cheek. His beard tickled her nose. She squirmed into her pillow. “And if you see Princess Ukee... Be her friend. Yes?”

She nodded. “Okay, Poppa. I’ll be Ukee’s friend. You be safe too.”

“I will, my sweet little Bevenlee.” He kissed her again, then left, latching the bedroom door behind him.

Later, when she woke again, the glow from the brazier subdued, she wondered if Poppa had really come.

* * *

Bevenlee jerked awake at a cock’s exuberant crowing. She had the bed’s heavy blanket tight around her, as the bedside brazier’s coals had turned ash gray and the window unshuttered against the morning chill. And she was alone, which explained the open shutter–Teress usually closed it.

Other sounds drifted through the window: horses and cows conversing among themselves, pigs grunting, chickens clucking. Her eyes widened and she gasped. Visible through the window, the blue morning sky was well awake already. My chores! She scrambled from the bed.

After using the chamber pot, she grabbed her dirty plate and hurried down the short hall. Sedge sat at the table with a gray-haired, wrinkle-faced man wearing dark leathers and calf-high boots, and who usually spoke with Poppa. A ledger lay between them. “...three more sick pigs,” he said. “That makes eight in the valley so far.”

Sedge grunted. “We may have to impose a culling.” He turned. “Lee. Morning’s peace to you.”

“To you too, Sedge. Sir.” She deposited her plate by the wash tub.

“Poppa says you need to wash up, especially your feet, and brush your hair. And find a cleaner dress, if you have one.”

“But today’s not washday.”

“I know. That’s what he told me.”

The stranger said, “Best do it. There’s a fancy carriage at the king's hall. Arrived late middle-third.”

She grabbed a small basin for warmed water from the hot-pot hanging in the hearth, and tipped steaming water into the basin. “A carriage?”

The man nodded. “For the princess. Reckon they’ll be by here soon enough, as sure as they hear the gossip. And they will.”

Sedge’s shoulders sagged. “Better hurry, Lee.”

“Where’s Momma?” A voice at the back of her mind told her Poppa was gone already. The basin warmed her hands.

“Sleeping. Poppa says she cried all night. Only fell asleep a short time ago. Best not to wake her.”

“Best.” The stranger nodded again. “Git on now, girl.”

In her room, she scrubbed herself hard, brushed her hair, then rummaged through the chest she shared with her sisters and found a folded, plain brown, patched-up dress that smelled okay. It hung to her knees. At the door she glanced at her toes. Why clean her feet when she’d just dirty them again? She didn’t want to upset Poppa or Sedge–or the stranger for that matter–but it seemed odd.

Carrying the water basin, she returned to the kitchen just as a heavy knock came at the homestead door.

She hid behind Sedge as he answered. “Sir knight,” he said to the man there.

The tall, broad-shouldered man wore a breastplate and carried a round shield bearing the king’s colors–yellow, white, blue. A mace hung at his hip. Behind him stood four women in simple white tunics belted at the waist and plain sandals. The oldest had a scarf over her light-gray hair. Beyond them, a carriage pulled by four giant brown and white horses waited on the dirt path leading between the homesteads, where neighbors stood watching. A man smoking a pipe sat on the carriage driver’s bench in front, leaning back, legs crossed.

Something about the carriage’s dark wood, carved all over with a dense array of birds and rabbits and squirrels and raccoons and deer and other forest animals–so many!–the curves, the large, spoked wheels... She shivered. So strange!

She spied Princess Ukee, scarves over her head, still aglow, looking through the open carriage door. The morning light confirmed Bevenlee’s memory–Ukee had no hair!

The knight sighed. “Sedge, is your poppa here?” His gaze dropped to Bevenlee. “The Sisters heard the gossip. They wish to speak with her.”

“Poppa’s been sent on warden duty, sir.” Sedge’s shoulders sagged again. “But he cautioned me to expect this. Bevenlee, go speak with the Sisters. Mind your manners, now. And tell the truth, you hear?” His hand to her back, he ushered her through the door.

The eldest Sister, her face wrinkled like the man with the ledger, held out a hand. “Come. Let’s move closer to the carriage.”

Bevenlee hesitated. Closer to the carriage? She took the hand. The Sister’s warm grip wasn’t exactly tight, but Bevenlee didn’t think she could jerk free. On their own, her feet carried her after the Sisters.

She glanced back. The knight stood between her and the doorway, speaking with Sedge in hushed tones. Ledger in hand, the stranger appeared behind Sedge, eyes wide.

“What’s your name, child?” the Sister holding her hand asked, her voice a dry rasp.

She jerked her head back around. “Oh, um, Bevenlee.” Her uneasiness about the carriage spread through her body. Were all those animals staring at her?

Two of the Sisters tittered.

“Oh, lovely name,” said the youngest. Auburn hair past her shoulders framed chubby cheeks and a dimpled chin. She had green eyes. The belt around her waist was a darker white than her tunic.

“And such a sweet voice,” said the other, who had curly brown hair streaked with gray, narrow cheeks, and a long neck. Her skin was the color of light mud. Her belt was also an off-white.

The eldest, her belt a silver color, frowned at them and they quieted. To Bevenlee she said, “I am Sister Leen. This is Sister Gremm, Sister Teryn, and Sister Jolluss.” Each raised a hand with their name. Gremm had plain gray hair straight down her back, thin lips, and wore a light brown belt. “Bevenlee, can you tell me what you saw during yesterday morning’s ceremony?”

Bevenlee pointed. “She’s glowing.” Then she lowered her arm, remembering how Poppa said that wasn’t polite.

Ukee’s eyes widened. Her glow was more faint but still surrounded her, from scarves to sandals.

The Sisters looked into the carriage, then back. “Glowing how?” old Sister Leen asked.

“Her skin. It’s– Um...” She hesitated, not wanting to say anything she wasn’t supposed to.

“It’s all right, dear. Just tell us what you see.”

“Um, it’s like a candle flame. All around her.” She waved. “Morning’s peace, Princess Ukee.”

The princess flicked her hand, then shifted nearly out of sight. Her glow remained visible.

The Sisters exchanged glances.

“The aura,” said one of them–Sister Gremm, Bevenlee thought. Her voice was throaty, like Momma’s.

“She’s certainly a Mother,” chubby-cheeked Sister Jolluss said, just above a whisper, “with an aura like that.”

Sister Leen looked back into the carriage. “Hmm.” To Bevenlee she said, “Close your eyes.”

Bevenlee squeezed her eyelids together.

Leen said, “Mother Ukee, please raise a hand or a foot. Or both. Up. Now, Bevenlee, what does the Mother have raised? Hand, foot, right or left? Don’t peek!”

Unsure of right and left, Bevenlee lifted the same hand and foot as Princess Ukee–even though her eyes remained closed. She realized she didn’t really see Ukee, just the glow. But with her eyes closed? Her heart thudded. “These?”

“Okay, you can open your eyes.”

She rubbed her eyes before she opened them. Ukee’s glow lingered in her vision.

Sister Leen asked, “What did you see?”

“I saw her glow.”

“It’s called an aura, dear.”

“Oh. I saw her aura.”

The four Sisters exchanged glances again.

“A Mother and a Sister on one fetching,” long-necked Sister Teryn said.

“That’s going to make things tight.” Sister Leen sighed. “Sit her in the carriage. I’ll go speak with the father.”

Bevenlee looked back, glad to turn away from the carriage. She was pretty sure now the animals were staring. “That’s my brother.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know who that older man is. He mostly talks to Poppa, but Poppa’s gone.”

“Ah. Well, no matter. The knight will witness. Go on, now.”

Again, her feet seemed to move all on their own. Fortunately, as she approached the open door, her uneasiness went away, as did the tingling. She had a thought that maybe all those animals carved into the wood approved of her.

The three Sisters helped Bevenlee into the carriage. She gasped. The fabric-lined, light gray interior was far larger than it looked from the outside–enough room for three on each cushioned bench, even with the small collection of white pillows. On the rear-facing bench in front, Princess Ukee shifted all the way against the closed door. Teryn settled into the middle, Jolluss near the open door. Sister Gremm sat facing Ukee, Bevenlee beside her. She looked out the door.

Sister Leen was speaking to the knight, with Sedge and the stranger listening. Sedge grimaced, and the stranger’s eyes opened wider.

“This is so exciting,” Sister Jolluss said. “Mother of Fetcher was right to send us in the large carriage.”

Bevenlee turned back. The light streaming through the closed door’s window fell across Ukee’s face, revealing the princess’s swollen lip and a darkening bruise on her cheek. Bevenlee gasped. “Princess Ukee! What happened?”

Lowering her gaze, Ukee raised a hand to her face. “My father struck me.” Like the previous morning, she looked so sad. Her eyes were puffy, her nose red.

Sister Teryn took hold of Ukee’s other hand, while Sister Gremm took hold of Bevenlee’s. “Her father didn’t believe her claim of still being innocent,” Gremm said. “He demanded to know who the father was.”

Bevenlee frowned. “The father?”

“Of her child,” Sister Jolluss said.

Princess Ukee rubbed her belly, which bulged slightly. “I wore loose clothes to hide it. But Mother noticed and–” She covered her mouth with her hand, squeezed her eyes shut, and slumped against Sister Teryn. Her body shook.

Teryn draped her arm over Ukee’s shoulders. “It’ll be all right now.” To Bevenlee she said, “Everyone thought she had lain with a man. They were prepared to torture that man’s name out of her. We arrived just in time.”

Bevenlee’s mouth fell open. She couldn’t imagine Poppa or Momma hitting her, much less using the tongs or the chisel. They threatened to use them all the time–Do your chores right now, or we’ll go get the tongs! and Tell the truth, or it’s the chisel for you, little girl!–but she’d never actually ever seen either one.

Sister Gremm put her arm over Bevenlee’s shoulders. Her white tunic was the softest thing Bevenlee had ever felt. “The Mother is safe now. We’re all safe.”

Teryn snorted. “Not all of us.”

Jolluss frowned. “Shush!”

“You know I’m right.” She waved at Bevenlee. “One of us will not be perfectly safe soon. Probably not one of us here, but certainly someone.”

Sister Gremm gave Teryn a “Shush!” as well, then bent down. “Don’t worry over her, Bevenlee. It’s not your fault.”

Teryn snorted again. “I didn’t say it was. I just said–”

A commotion from the house caught their attention.

Bevenlee’s mother stood in the doorway, shrieking. “Not my baby! Not my baby!” She was reaching for the carriage.

Sedge, the stranger, and the knight struggled to restrain her.

“Erm,” Sister Jolluss whimpered.

“Here we go,” Sister Teryn whispered.

Bevenlee’s eyes widened. Momma! She made to leave the carriage, but Sister Gremm held her shoulders.

“No. Stay. It’s for the best. Just...let it happen.”

“But I– Momma–”

“I know.”

Bevenlee shifted back onto the bench but kept looking out. Her breath came in gasps. Momma looked so–

Sister Leen seemed content to let Momma cry herself out, to eventually slump in Sedge’s and the knight’s arms. The old Sister stepped close and cupped Momma’s cheeks, then whispered for a moment. She stroked Momma’s hair. Nodding, Momma broke into fresh sobs.

Sister Gremm squeezed Bevenlee’s shoulder. “She’s assuring your mother you’re the daughter she’s always wanted, that you will be loved and well cared for.”

“Which is true,” Sister Teryn said. “Mostly.”

Jolluss turned. “Teryn!”

Bevenlee’s mother said something. Holding Momma’s cheeks again, Sister Leen shook her head and whispered a reply.

Sister Gremm said, “Your mother asked if she could speak with you, maybe give you one last hug. Sister Leen says it would be best if we just got on our way.”

Sister Teryn added, “No last-moment hysterics.” She turned to Bevenlee. “Though I doubt she or you could run far, with Sir Knight there to chase you down.”

Bevenlee inhaled. “I wouldn’t run.” Her head spun. She wanted to get out, give Momma a hug. Give Sedge a hug. Her sisters. And Poppa, who wasn’t even home. Even Pounce! Everything was happening so fast. Yet she felt like simply closing her eyes.

“Well, even if you did run, the pull would grab you,” Sister Jolluss said. “It grabs all of us.”

Bevenlee frowned. Poppa had mentioned a pull. “What pull?”

“When the Tower calls,” Sister Gremm said. “You’ll feel it soon enough.”

Jolluss waved at the carriage interior. “Or not.”

Teryn raised the back of her hand to her mouth as she yawned. “You’re so lucky. You don’t know how much.” Ukee yawned as well.

Gremm laughed. “Such fortune. Oh, what a story this’ll be.”

“I don’t feel lucky,” Princess Ukee said, her voice trembling.

Smiles disappeared. Teryn and Jolluss exchanged glances.

“Well, you’re a Mother,” Sister Teryn said. “You have your child to look forward to. That’s a special kind of luck.” She looked at Bevenlee. “While you–”

“Shush!” the other Sisters hissed.

Bevenlee struggled to keep her eyes open. She tried to focus on Momma. The knight blocked most of her view. His back to her the entire time, Sedge guided Momma into the homestead. Sister Leen spoke with the knight and the stranger. Then she was settled on the cushions beside Bevenlee and the door latched.

Bevenlee’s last look at her homestead showed the knight’s slumped shoulders and sad face. Hugging his ledger, the stranger leaned in the doorway. Then her eyelids came together.

Someone eased her against the bench’s soft cushions.

“That’s it, dear,” old Sister Leen crooned. “Go to sleep. It’ll all be better soon.”

* * *

Bevenlee woke to an unfamiliar rattle and sway. She blinked, then looked around. Whu– What? She took in a sharp breath. Poppa? Momma? Then the Sisters’ white tunics and Princess Ukee’s faint glow reminded her of the morning’s events.

Princess Ukee lay against Teryn, who slumped against Jolluss. Beside Bevenlee, Sister Gremm rested her head on a pillow propped against the carriage wall. Drool slicked her chin.

Bevenlee whimpered. That– That was real?

“Oh! Awake?” Sister Leen said in a low voice. She sat to Bevenlee’s other side, knitting needles in hand. Yarn rose from a basket on the floor, held in place by her feet. She was knitting a simple dark-blue blanket.

Bevenlee rubbed her eyes. “The shaking is making my tummy hurt. And I have to pee.”

Sister Leen chuckled. “Hmm, yes, the roads out here do make for a rough ride. But we’ll stop soon.”

Leaning, Bevenlee tried to peek through a gap in the curtains that kept the interior cool but gloomy. “Is it mid-day?” Her heart beat fast. My chores! Then she remembered. No, no more chores.

“Mid-day?” The old Sister chuckled again. “It’s late middle-third, my dear. We’re across the Doln River already. You’ve been sleeping all day.”

“Oh. Is that far?”

“Quite. An entire kingdom over from yours, in fact.”

Her knitting needles clicked and ticked. Bevenlee tried to follow their motions, but between that and the rocking of the carriage, she became dizzy. “Uh.” Her stomach lurched again.

The needles stopped. “Are you all right, dear?”

“I think so.” She rubbed her belly and realized she was hungry. She’d missed breakfast. Maybe that was why she felt icky. “Will we eat soon? And can I go pee?”

“When we stop, you can do both. If you can wait until then, that would be very helpful.” The needles clicked and ticked back into motion.

Bevenlee turned to Princess Ukee, whose breaths wheezed in and out. “Her glow isn’t so bright.”

“She’s sleeping, dear. When we stop for the night, it’ll get stronger.” Another chuckle. “Wait until after she eats, too!”

“How long will we be traveling?”

“A few days southwest on the roads. Then we’ll take a barge down the Utex River. Then another two weeks northwest by road again. But don’t worry. It’ll pass quickly enough.”

Her throat scratchy, Bevenlee tried to swallow. “When can I go home?”

The needles stopped. “Never, I’m afraid. You’re a Sister of the Tower now, Bevenlee. It’s a very special thing. You’re going to lead a very special life.”

“Oh.” Bevenlee slumped into the plush cushions. She thought of all her clothes, her doll, her animals, all her friends... She never got to say good-bye to anyone! And her Momma had wanted that one last hug–

Not my baby! Not my Bevenlee!

Tears spilled from her eyes.

Sister Leen put her arm around her shoulders. “I know, dear, I know. Go ahead. I cried when I felt the pull. Everyone does.”

Bevenlee covered her face. “Why am I a Sister?” She felt Sister Leen’s shrug.

“Why is anyone anything? Some would say it’s just what’s meant to be. Why is Princess Ukee with a god in her womb? What makes her so special a god picked her over all others?” She squeezed Bevenlee’s shoulder. “It just...is, my dear. Don’t scramble your eggs trying to find reasons for it all.”

She leaned against the old Sister. Finally, her tears stopped falling. She swiped at her cheeks. “I’m thirsty.”

“I know. I am too. When we stop, we’ll all have a chance to freshen up and enjoy a nice hot meal. Some stew, maybe, and fresh bread with butter and honey. Doesn’t that sound yummy?”

It did, especially the promise of warm bread. Bevenlee nodded.

“Good, good.” Sister Leen lifted her arm from Bevenlee’s shoulders. A moment later the knitting needles resumed their steady clicking and ticking. “We can’t eat or drink anything in the carriage, just so you know. Fetcher doesn’t allow that.”

“Fetcher? The driver?”

Leen laughed. “Goodness, no. Fetcher’s a god. It knows when and where to send Sisters to fetch new Mothers, which are pretty rare. Mother Ukee will be the first since the new Mother of Succor.”

“A god sent you to fetch Ukee? And me?”

“Well, we came for Mother Ukee, but heard about what you said in the honor hall. It’s good fortune, too. Otherwise, you’d have had a long walk ahead of you.” She sighed. “Mother of Fetcher sent us. She gave birth to Fetcher, a long time ago. Fetcher only speaks to her. You’re going to meet a lot of Mothers, Bevenlee. It’ll be part of your duties to serve them. Of all the people in our world, they’re the most special.”

“Oh.”

“Does that sound like something you’d like?”

“It... It sounds like my chores. I like doing my chores. Mostly. It makes Momma and Poppa happy.” And her brothers and sisters. And the animals.

Sister Leen cackled. “Well, now you’ll be making Mothers happy.” Click tick. “Close your eyes, dear. Go back to sleep. We’ll stop soon.”

Bevenlee closed her eyes. She snuggled against Sister Leen, who shifted her position in accommodation. The gentle movements of her arms as she continued knitting–click tick click tick–made it feel like she was snuggling back. And her tunic felt so soft...

“Sister Bevenlee?”

Bevenlee opened her eyes. “Whuh? Huh?”

Sister Gremm was shaking her shoulder. “We’ve stopped for the night. Wake up, snoozy-head.” She had wiped her chin.

The carriage doors were open. A cool breeze played through the interior. Everyone else had gotten out already.

“Oh.” Bevenlee rubbed her eyes, then slid across the cushions and dropped to the dirt road. For a moment, the ground swayed beneath her feet. Her legs shook. “Whuh!”

Sister Jolluss held her shoulder. “You’ll settle in a moment.” She giggled. Sister Teryn held Princess Ukee, who kept her hands over her belly and her gaze to the ground.

“Where’s Sister Leen?” Bevenlee asked as Sister Gremm latched the carriage door.

Up front, the driver leaned back on his bench and dug a pipe from an inside coat pocket. One of the four horses shook its head and snorted. Another clopped its hooves and nickered. Flies buzzed. A dog barked.

In the torchlight, the eyes on the faces along the carriage’s side all seemed to roll toward Bevenlee. Her sense of unease from earlier returned. With a shudder, she put her back to the carriage.

Sister Jolluss pointed at the large building across the road. “She’s gone inside to arrange for food and lodging.”

Bevenlee looked around. They’d arrived in a small village. Smoke rose from chimneys. Torches illuminated the stables on their side of the road. Stars glittered in the late dusk sky. Aromas of cooking meat and baking bread wafted on the breeze. Her mouth watered. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere on the road to the Tower, obviously,” Sister Teryn said. Princess Ukee lifted her gaze, looked around, focused on Bevenlee for a moment, then down on her sandals again. Her exposed skin seemed bright in the dark colors of her scarves.

Sister Jolluss released Bevenlee and stepped back. “I hope she finds us a toilet soon. I’m fit to bursting!” She shifted from foot to foot.

Bevenlee frowned. “A toilet?”

“Privy,” Teryn said.

“Water chair,” Gremm added.

Jolluss giggled. “Like a chamber pot.”

Bevenlee realized she was ready to burst too. And her throat was so dry. She swallowed the spit she’d built in her mouth.

“There’s a loo in the stables,” the driver said, pointing with his pipe. “That door, down the hall a bit.”

Sister Gremm said, “You and Sister Bevenlee go on.”

Sister Bevenlee? It sounded so strange.

Sister Jolluss took her hand. “Come on. You look like you’re ready to burst too.”

They all had a chance to go, even the driver, before Sister Leen returned. “I secured us two rooms, evening and morning meals, hot water for the basins, and fresh towels.” She looked at the driver. “You’ll stay with the carriage?”

“Been fine for me so far. Is there a general still open?” He lifted his pipe. “Running low.”

Sister Leen pointed down the street. “It’ll be open for a bit. I’ll be heading there for supplies in a moment.”

“Ah, then I’ll join you.” He climbed down from the driver’s bench.

As Sister Leen stepped off with Sister Gremm and they spoke in hushed tones, Bevenlee turned to Sister Jolluss. “A general?”

“General store. A goods store. For supplies and stuff.”

Teryn, standing close, snorted.

“Oh.” Bevenlee looked down at her feet. Small rocks poked her heels. And the floor in the stable hadn’t been so nice–she was sure she now had a splinter or two. “Can Sister Leen buy me some slippers? I left mine at home.”

I left everything at home.

Jolluss and Teryn laughed. “You’ll have sandals, tunic, and belt waiting in the morning,” Teryn said.

“And they’ll fit perfectly.” Sister Jolluss pointed. “No more down-to-yous. Your older sister wore that dress, right? And your momma sewed on all those patches?”

“Both my older sisters.” She remembered the previous night. They’d have the bed all to themselves now. Tears blurred her vision. She lowered her head and clapped a hand over her eyes.

Sister Jolluss took her in a hug. “Oh, sweet dear. It’s hard, yes. You’ll be fine.”

Teryn said, “And you should be thankful you don’t have to walk.”

Bevenlee had time to cry herself out again before Sister Gremm stepped close.

“All right, let’s go inside. The meals should be ready. Our rooms shortly after.”

As a group, they crossed the road. Sister Jolluss held Bevenlee’s hand, while Sister Teryn kept her arm around Princess Ukee. Sister Leen and the driver headed off in the opposite direction, into the village. Stablehands took charge of the carriage and the horses.

The inn’s dining room was small, with only six tables and benches in addition to the bar, and the air smoky. A hush fell over the crowd as they entered. Bevenlee looked around. The way everyone stared reminded her of the animals on the carriage. The table in the back corner had been cleared and cleaned. She settled on the bench with her back to the room, between Sister Jolluss and Princess Ukee.

“Just ignore them,” Jollus whispered.

Bevenlee didn’t realize how hungry she was until her first bite of stew. She lost count of the slices of bread she ate, each slathered with butter and honey. A weak mead washed it all down. Princess Ukee matched her bite for bite. Sister Leen arrived halfway through the meal, but caught up quickly.

As Sister Leen said, Princess Ukee’s glow brightened as the meal wore on.

After a dessert of berries and cream, the old Sister said, “Sister Jolluss, please escort Mother Ukee and Sister Bevenlee to their room. Top of the stairs, all the way back on the left.”

“Come on.” Sister Jolluss groaned as she stood. “If you can walk, that is.” She giggled.

Bevenlee realized what Sister Jolluss meant when she stood as well. Her stomach felt as ready to burst as her bladder earlier. “Urgh!”

Princess Ukee groaned, too.

The Sisters laughed.

Sister Jolluss brought them to the room at the end of the upstairs hall. “It’s not much, but it’ll do for the night. Chamber pot is there. Basin is there. Hot water will come in the morning. I’ll leave this candle lit.”

Bevenlee didn’t need the candle–Princess Ukee’s glow shone bright enough. But she didn’t say so. “Are you sleeping here too?” The bed looked plenty large enough for three.

“Me and the others will share the larger room. It’s right there.” She pointed to the door across the hall. “Listen. You may hear some noises. People tromping on the floor a bit. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. You just stay in bed.”

Bevenlee looked at the other door again. “Oh. Okay.”

“And make sure you rope the door shut. Nice and tight.” Sister Jolluss left.

Ukee used the chamber pot, washed her face, then removed her clothes and slid beneath the bed’s heavy blankets. Her glow shone through the patches.

Bevenlee tried not to stare. Though Ukee had been quick, she hadn’t been able to hide the sight of not having any hair, anywhere on her body! She was tall, kinda long-limbed, with small breasts and rounded hips. Just... No hair!

Bev! Poppa’s voice in her mind snapped her from her staring. Ukee seemed not to have noticed. Or if she did, not to have let it bother her. Maybe she was used to it.

After making sure the rope was tight around the door handle and knotted the way Poppa had taught, and the window shuttered and barred, Bevenlee followed Ukee’s lead, happy to have someone in the bed with her.

Ukee patted the bundled-straw mattress. “Hold me. Please.” She sounded close to tears.

Bevenlee slid into her embrace. She wondered how she would fall asleep with the princess so bright. Though her skin was warm, Ukee shivered. “Are you cold?”

“I hurt.”

“Your face?”

Ukee sniffed. “Those were just the bruises you could see.”

They spoke in whispers.

Bevenlee didn’t know what to say, so she just held Ukee back. Not once did she think to pull her hands back at how...strange Ukee’s smooth, bare skin felt. And up close, her hairless face looked so...different. But Ukee’s sadness was unmistakable.

What happened to all her hair?

After a while there came steps outside the door. Muffled conversations. Laughter. The door across the hall squeaked as it opened and closed. She tensed.

Ukee opened her eyes. “You know what they’re doing, right?” Still whispering, though Bevenlee doubted anyone would hear them talk even in their normal voices.

“Doing?”

“In their room. With the men,” Ukee said. “And maybe some women too.”

Bevenlee listened. Men talking. Females laughing–sounded like Jolluss and Teryn. Another sound–kissing, like her parents did at times. Then more sounds like her parents made–moaning, grunting, sighs. Bootsteps on the floor. The door squeaked. The stairs creaked.

Ukee sniffed again. Her tears hadn’t stopped falling. “You’ll be doing it too, soon enough. How old are you?”

“Eight. Momma says I’ll be nine after the harvest.”

“Maybe six years, then. Five at the least. No sooner for your sake, I hope.”

Bevenlee fought the urge to crack open the door and peek out. Seemed a bad idea to leave the bed. “What are they doing? It sounds like...”

“It is. All four of them, probably. Even old Sister Leen. She’s offering, anyway. Part of a Sister’s duty. Most times people go to the Tower for it. But when the Sisters are on the road, they bring the Tower to the people. They’ll have earned us a tidy sum of coins by morning. Minus the cost of the meals and the rooms.”

Heart beating hard, Bevenlee listened for a while. Men talking. Females answering, laughing. Moans. Groans. Bootsteps. The door squeaking, stairs creaking. No one bothered their door, and slowly, she relaxed.

You’ll be doing it too, soon enough.

She asked, “How old are you?”

“Fourteen. Just the right age to become a Mother. Just as you’re the right age to become a Sister.”

“Oh.”

Talking, laughing. Moaning, groaning. Bootsteps. Squeaking, creaking…

“Bevenlee.” Ukee’s whisper dropped even lower. Her breath was warm on Bevenlee’s cheek. “I heard what Sister Leen told you. In the carriage. And she’s wrong.”

“What?”

“That you can never go home. She’s wrong. Stick with me, Bevenlee. Be my friend and I promise, I’ll bring you home.”

Bevenlee stayed quiet. She remembered how Ukee had looked so sad. How Ukee’s poppa had–had hurt her. Ukee sounded like she needed a friend. And hadn’t Poppa said–

“Don’t you want to go home?”

“Yes,” Bevenlee whispered. It hurt to think of Poppa and Momma and her brothers and sisters and friends and animals, all left behind. “Yes.” Ukee had left everyone and everything behind too!

“Then stick with me. I promise, I’ll bring you home. You’ll see your homestead again.”

Sister Leen had sounded so certain. “If–if you say so.”

“But you have to promise. Be my friend. I’ll get you home. I don’t know when, but I will.”

“I promise, Princess Ukee. I’ll be your friend.”

Ukee held her even tighter. She kept crying. “I’m afraid, Bevenlee.” She shook. “I’m afraid of my child. I think–” She fell to sniffing and sobbing quietly.

Heart beating hard again, Bevenlee hugged her back. Tears of her own squeezed through her closed eyelids, where Ukee’s glow remained bright.

I’ll be your friend, Princess Ukee. I promise.

From the hall came muffled conversation, laughter, bootsteps, the door squeaking, the stairs creaking, over and over...

* * *

Bevenlee woke first. Princess Ukee’s aura was barely a shimmer over her skin, but Bevenlee left the window shuttered. Not much light leaked through anyway–it looked dark outside still. The candle had burned down to a nub, the flame on the verge of guttering out.

She used the chamber pot, washed her face, then searched for her dress–only to find it missing, along with Ukee’s clothes and scarves.

But on the bed she found two sets of clothing. Near Princess Ukee’s feet were an unfolded dark-colored shirt with a rounded collar and elbow-length sleeves, an ankle-length skirt, and sandals. A white tunic, a dark-colored belt, and sandals lay stacked beside them. Beside the tunic was a comb, brush, a round mirror on a small handle, and a pouch with a strap, all a dark color as well.

She gasped, and rushed to the door. The rope lock was still in place, nice and tight. She checked the shutter. The bar lay across it, still in place. Yet someone had entered the room!

“Princess!” She shook her friend awake. “Princess Ukee!”

“What?” Ukee sat and wiped her eyes. “Is it morning already?”

“Look! Someone left these for us.” She lowered her voice. “They snuck into the room while we were asleep.”

Ukee got out of bed and examined the clothes. She lifted the tunic and shook it out, then held it against Bevenlee’s chest. “This must be yours. It looks like what the Sisters wear. And it’s soft like theirs, too.”

Bevenlee took the tunic. Ukee was right, it was soft. “Who put it here? The door and shutter are still locked.”

Ukee lifted the shirt. “One of the gods, I think. The Sisters said something about new clothes and sandals waiting for you when we woke up, remember? I guess I get some too.”

Bevenlee remembered Jolluss pointing out all the patches on her dress. “Oh.” She dropped the tunic over her head. It hung below her knees. “Look! It fits.”

“Of course.” Ukee buttoned up her shirt, which fell to below her waist, stepped into the skirt, then slipped on the sandals.

Bevenlee cinched the belt around her waist, then put on her own sandals. They hugged her feet but not too tight. And if she’d gotten splinters the evening before, they must’ve fallen out. “Oh!”

Ukee looked down at the brush and comb, a frown visible in her aura’s brightening glow. The corners of her lips turned down. She rubbed her scalp. “Hmm.”

Bevenlee looked at the gifts, then back at Ukee. For some reason, the brush and comb seemed...cruel. “I– I’m sorry, Princess Ukee. I can leave them.”

Ukee jerked her head up, eyes wide. “What? No! They’re meant for you, Bevenlee. You must take them. It’s all right.” She rubbed her scalp again. “It’s all right. In fact, here. Sit.” She indicated the edge of the bed as she climbed up, grabbed the comb as Bevenlee sat, and began straightening Bevenlee’s hair. “You have very pretty hair.”

“My thanks.”

Momma had said the same. Most people around the homesteads had brown, white, or light gray hair. Occasionally there came a traveler with black, blond, or even red hair. A few had curls, too, and sometimes muddy highlights. Except for her–she had an even peppering of long white and black strands. Poppa called it her “frost and charcoal.” Like Gremm’s, it fell straight to below her shoulder blades, but had more floof.

She sat still as Ukee combed with gentle strokes. She raised the mirror to see the princess frowning in concentration, tongue tip poking from a corner of her mouth. Finally, Ukee leaned back.

“There. All the tangles are out.” She placed the comb on the bed, then raised a hand to her scalp. “Maybe someday...”

“My thanks.” Bevenlee turned. She considered asking Ukee about her hair, when and why it had all fallen out, but the look on the princess’s face hinted not to.

Massaging her bare scalp again, Ukee sat and leaned against Bevenlee.

Bevenlee held her hand. “Are you cold?”

“No. I–I just miss my hair.” Her lower lip trembled and her grip tightened. She blinked, but no tears fell.

“I didn’t see any scarves. For– Um...” Bevenlee stopped, uncertain again. Would talking about it make Ukee mad? She decided to let the princess raise the subject. Poppa had told her many times that was the best thing to do if someone was upset or crying or what not.

Ukee looked around. “Me neither. I guess...” She lowered her hand to her belly. “I should stop hiding it. It’s who I am now.”

“Do– Um...”

Ukee squeezed her hand again. “It’s okay.”

“Will it grow back?”

“Someday. Maybe.” The princess smiled, the first since Bevenlee saw her in the honor hall–had that been only two mornings ago?

The door across the hall squeaked. Sandals scuffed across the wooden floor. The stairs creaked. Then came a knock on their room’s door.

“Ladies? Are you awake?” Sister Leen. “Time to eat. We’ll be on our way soon.”

Ukee exhaled. “I hate that carriage,” she said in a low voice.

By then Bevenlee was off the bed, headed for the door. She looked back. “Why?”

Rubbing her belly, Ukee just shook her head.

Bevenlee opened the door, squinting in the hall’s bright light.

“Look at you!” Sister Leen exclaimed. She leaned into the room. “And you, too! This is wonderful.”

“I got a comb and a brush and a mirror!” Bevenlee raised her mirror.

“I see. You look very sisterly this morning.”

“But my old clothes are missing.”

“Well, that part of your life has passed. Your tunic will be all you’ll ever need. Come now. The others are already downstairs. We need to hurry if we hope to have enough food for ourselves.” She cackled and stepped back.

Ukee brought Bevenlee the pouch, into which she’d placed the comb and brush. Bevenlee noticed its color matched the dusk-sky blue of Ukee’s clothing. Her belt turned out to be the same dark-but-not-so-dark blue color. She raised her eyebrows. None of the others had a blue belt. “Well.” She dropped her mirror into the pouch, closed the flap, then draped it over her shoulder the way she’d seen Momma do with her satchel when they’d gone to the market.

Holding hands, she and Ukee followed Sister Leen downstairs.

Jolluss noticed them first. “Look at the dress. Such a pretty color. And– Bevenlee, what’s that?”

Bevenlee opened her pouch. “I have a brush and comb and mirror, too.”

Jolluss took the mirror. “Oh, pretty. But I meant your belt!”

“Belt?” Teryn stood and leaned over the table. “You have a blue belt? How come you have a blue belt?” Her voice rose.

“Teryn,” Gremm said.

Frowning, Teryn sat. “Why’s she have a blue belt?”

Sister Jolluss smiled into the mirror before returning it. “A god has taken notice. This is a good sign. It means good times ahead.”

“Let’s hope so,” Ukee said.

And that reminded Bevenlee. “Morning’s peace, Princess Ukee. And everyone.”

“Morning’s peace to you,” Ukee replied, as did the others, except for Teryn, who snorted. She muttered something, and Bevenlee thought she heard “...blue belt...” in the grumbles.

Ukee rubbed her belly again, then took Bevenlee’s hand. They broke their fast with their free hands. Chatting among themselves, none of the Sisters noticed.

The driver had the carriage waiting across the road. A light breeze ruffled Bevenlee’s hair as they crossed. Still holding Ukee’s hand, she rubbed her own bloated belly–she’d eaten more in two meals than she normally ate over two days back home. And it was all so delicious!

She pointedly avoided looking at the animals carved along the carriage sides.

Everyone piled in. The driver latched the door. A moment later the carriage rocked as he settled onto his padded bench. With a jerk and whinnies from the horses, the carriage started into motion.

Bevenlee sat between Ukee, who still held her hand, and Sister Gremm, who was propping a pillow on the carriage wall. Sisters Teryn and Jolluss settled against each other. Sister Leen gathered her knitting.

Click tick. Click tick.

The carriage jostled and swayed. At first Bevenlee worried the motion might upset her rather full belly. Instead, it proved soothing. Her eyes closed all on their own. Ukee leaned against her. She squeezed Bevenlee’s hand once, and that was the last Bevenlee knew until the carriage stopped again for the night.

They stayed at another inn, this one much larger. Everything was larger–the inn, the roads, the surrounding village. Even the number of sparkleflies bobbing in the ankle-high grass. People walked and rode horses or wagons in all directions. Dogs followed. Lightning flashed in the distance. The breeze carried the smell of rain.

Ukee looked down the road. “Did we come from that direction?”

The driver glanced down. “What? Yes, Mother. That road leads back east.”

“Did you see if we’ve been followed?”

The driver grunted as he dropped to the road. “I didn’t notice anyone riding behind us. And no one’s come along.”

Sister Leen asked, “What is it, dear ?”

Ukee glanced back down the road. “I just... I want to be sure there’s no one...”

The old Sister took her into a hug. “It’s all right, Mother. No one follows us. You’ve left them behind.”

The others stepped close, laying hands on her shoulders and back.

“You’re safe,” Gremm said.

“It’s okay now,” Jolluss said. “No ones’s coming to hurt you.”

“And we’ll stop them if they try,” Teryn added.

Finally, Ukee nodded and wiped her eyes. “My thanks,” she whispered.

They had soup with vegetables and bits of meat, bread, and berry pudding. Bevenlee and Ukee shared a mug of weak beer while the others drank a frothy ale.

Sister Leen got two rooms again. Beneath the blankets, Bevenlee and Ukee snuggled close. Like the night before, voices came from the hall, along with bootsteps, a door’s squeaks, kissing, groaning, moaning... She listened longer than the previous night while Ukee drifted off almost immediately.

Then rain drummed against the roof tiles. Lightning flashed behind the barred shutter. Thunder boomed. Bevenlee closed her eyes.

She woke first. Ukee snored lightly. Her aura allowed Bevenlee to see well enough to use the chamber pot and the basin. No new gifts awaited them.

She realized as they broke fast–holding hands again–she no longer noticed Ukee’s aura as much in the daylight.

The days passed. A meal in the morning, then into the carriage and onto the road. Bevenlee thought it strange she fell asleep almost soon after, and remained asleep through the day. On the sixth night, as they settled into bed, she said, “How we can sleep all night when all we do is sleep all day?” not really expecting an answer.

“Fetcher,” Ukee replied.

“What?”

“Fetcher makes us sleep. And don’t you notice how tired you feel when we stop?”

She thought about it. “A little bit. My legs, mostly. They shake.”

Ukee nodded. “That’s the price Fetcher demands to travel in its carriage. Our strength. Not a lot, but...”

Bevenlee frowned. “Sister Leen doesn’t ever seem to sleep.” The click tick of her knitting needles echoed.

“And she’s always knitting,” Ukee said. “Whoever stays awake can’t just sit there. They have to do something. Fetcher demands focus from them.”

“Really?” Bevenlee’s frown deepened. “How do you know?”

“I learned from a book my tutor used to teach me to read.” Ukee rubbed her belly. “And my child whispers to me, in my dreams. My child whispers a lot of things. I can’t understand half of them, but...” She smiled. “Those I do...”

As usual, Ukee fell asleep first, her forehead against Bevenlee’s, her breath warm on Bevenlee’s cheek. Bevenlee listened to the activity in the hall until she drifted off as well.

Days later, they arrived at the Utex River as evening fell. The driver parked the carriage on the dock, helped unhitch the horses, then led them away. Deckhands manhandled the carriage onto a large flat barge and chained it in place, then the captain escorted the Sisters and Ukee to their cabins at the stern. Again, she and Ukee shared one while the Sisters shared the other.

“Is the driver coming back?” she asked Sister Leen as they walked to a nearby tavern, where the smell of roasting meat hung in the air.

“No, child. His duty is done. We’ll get another when we arrive in Lue, in eight days. Then it’ll only be another two weeks before we reach the Tower.”

The kissing, groaning, and moaning from the cabin next door were subdued, and ended quickly. The waves slapping against the barge lulled Bevenlee to sleep.

They ate on shore when the barge docked to unload or take on cargo. Two meals, usually in the morning and early evening. Soups, meats, vegetables, and fruit she’d never tasted before, and bread in a wonderful variety of flavors. Though she sometimes spilled sauce or jam or butter on her tunic, when she woke the next morning it was clean again. The other Sisters weren’t quite as messy. Ukee never spilled anything.

Ukee combed and brushed Bevenlee’s hair every morning.

Before they dressed, Bevenlee would sometimes sneak a look at Ukee’s rounding belly and growing breasts. Both seemed to get a little larger every morning. Now and then Ukee, teeth clenched, struggled with her shirt. “I’m so sensitive!”

The deckhands erected a canopy of heavy white linen and provided lounge chairs and pillows for each of them, though she and Ukee shared theirs. Sometimes they slept through the day, Sister Leen’s knitting needles clicking and ticking as they drifted off. Other times they watched the river traffic and land pass by and listened to the deckhands cast die and laugh and curse among themselves. Bevenlee considered those days long and boring–she’d prefer to sleep them away–but Ukee enjoyed them. She smiled more, anyway.

Maybe that’s why we sleep in the carriage so much, Bevenlee thought. It helps pass the days.

Ukee no longer hid her baldness. The deckhands stared at times, but not for long. People on shore stared as well. Ukee ignored them all. Bevenlee found it fascinating. Losing all her hair still bothered Ukee, she knew, but the princess seldom let it show.

One morning, while they sat together on a lounge chair, Ukee said, “I’m glad you’re here, Bevenlee. I left all my friends behind. I really miss them.”

“Me too. And Poppa and Momma and Sedge...” She sighed. She didn’t want to name them all.

“I don’t care about my family,” Ukee said, voice low. She stared across the river, at the far bank, where a herd of goats and sheep wandered along the low grass. Dogs kept them together. A shepherd watched from a low hill. “They can all rot.”

“Princess Ukee!” She took hold of Ukee’s hand.

“Sorry. They hurt me. Shamed me.” Ukee squeezed back, hard. “And they hurt my friends more. Friends who didn’t deserve any of that.”

“Your parents hurt your friends? Why?”

“Because they thought–” She rubbed her belly. “They blamed my handmaidens for allowing me to become pregnant. ‘You should have kept her pure!’ my father shouted. ‘Now she’s no good to me!’ He had them stripped, beaten, and banished back to their home kingdoms in shame.” Her breathing grew ragged. Her grip on Bevenlee’s hand tightened. “They didn’t deserve any of it. And I never got to say I was so sorry.” She covered her eyes. Her body shook with sobs.

Bevenlee hugged her. “It’s okay, Ukee. I’m sure they know. And I’m your friend. I’ll always be your friend.”

Ukee hugged her back. They stayed in the chair for most of the day.

On another morning, a breeze keeping the air pleasant, Bevenlee sat on a chair while Ukee stood behind her and combed her hair. The princess pointed and said, “Look. Those peasants, across the river.”

Bevenlee turned. “You mean the mother and her children?” Well, with their hair mostly all the same color, they looked like a mother and her six youngsters, kneeling in and working the soil. They were one group among many, but closest to the far riverbank.

“Yes, them. See that girl? That’s you, Bevenlee. Or was.”

“Me?” She frowned. The girl Ukee indicated looked about the same age, had gray-brown hair just as long, and patched clothing. Her bare feet were dirty to her ankles. “What do you mean?”

Ukee resumed combing. An insect buzzed close, then away. Birds and squirrels busied themselves in the trees. “That would have been your lot in life, as a peasant girl. You worked with your momma in the fields, yes?”

“Me and Teress and Jundy. Everyone did. We tended to the crops. And the chickens and pigs, and horses sometimes.”

“Just like your momma did at your age. And her momma before her.” She tugged a snarl from the back of Bevenlee’s head.

“I– I guess. Momma came from a homestead in the next valley, but...”

“Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about that. It’s just the way of things. Had you had children, they would’ve been peasants as well.”

Bevenlee turned. “Had I– What?”

Ukee turned Bevenlee’s head back around and resumed combing. “You’re a Sister destined to live at the Tower now. That means you can’t ever have children. Did no one tell you?”

“I can’t? Why not?”

“The Mothers at the Tower will be your children. The gods expect you to devote all your attention on them. Children of your own would get in the way.”

Again, Bevenlee twisted around. “How do you know?”

Ukee smiled. “I told you. One of the books I used to learn how to read. It told tales of the Tower. My tutor brought it with him. Now, sit still. I’m almost done.”

Bevenlee settled back in the chair. Ukee resumed combing. She said, “Actually, life at the Tower might be good for you. It’ll certainly get you out of the fields. Though most of your chores will be inside instead.” She sighed. “Just another form of peasant life, probably.”

“And what will you do, as a Mother? I suppose you won’t have any chores.”

“Not as many as if I’d have stayed at home. Or gone to live elsewhere as the betrothed my father intended.”

“You’d have chores? As a princess?”

“Or a queen, if my husband ended up on the throne. A great many chores.”

“What kind of chores does a princess have? Or a queen?”

Ukee leaned over, a frown on her face. “You do know my father was the king, yes?”

“Well, um, yes.”

“He had a great many responsibilities. As did my mother, my brother, my sisters. Me, until...” She waved, then returned her attention to Bevenlee’s hair. “Who do you think kept you safe from marauders and bandits? Who kept order in your community? Who helped ensure everyone had the supplies they needed, and sometimes the food, too? That’s my father’s job. My mother and all of us pitched in. As Queen, my mother ran the king’s hall. Dozens of people!”

Bevenlee frowned. “So you– You’ll have to run the Tower?”

Ukee giggled. “There’s a Sister in charge who does all that. And a quartermaster, and kitchen matron and hallmaster... Maybe not all of them are Sisters, but I bet a few are. I don’t know what responsibilities I’ll have. Maybe I’ll help with the care of my fellow Mothers. Or with the Sisters in some way. I’m sure my experience will matter somewhere.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sure too.”

“Maybe I can give lessons.”

“Lessons?”

“Reading and writing and all sorts of stuff. You’ll be learning that, at the Tower. That’s one benefit of becoming a Sister. You’ll be smart. Or, well, smarter than that peasant girl.” Who at that point was well behind them.

“But I’ll still be a peasant?”

“Probably. It’s very hard to rise above that. Your father kind of did it becoming a warden. But he still lives in a homestead. When you live in a king’s hall, you’re either above the peasantry or at the highest level of it. But most often still a peasant.”

“Oh.” Bevenlee pondered her words. “It sounds like you don’t like peasants.”

“What? No! I have no issues with them. They’re important. They provide the food and labor for us to do our jobs. And we in turn make it safe for them to do theirs. We need each other.”

“So everyone’s either a peasant or royalty?”

“Or a merchantmen. People clever enough to run a business, like the captain of this barge, or the owners of those inns and taverns we’ve been eating and sleeping in. They’re not royalty, but they have an education and have peasants working for them.”

Bevenlee inhaled. Merchantmen! She’d heard that word before, from Poppa and Momma talking. When a man had left the community to help run a tavern his brother owned–he knew his tallies, according to Poppa. Momma had talked of going to work there, too. But nothing happened from it.

“Are Sister Leen and Gremm and Jolluss peasants?”

Ukee stopped combing. “Well, they’re not royalty, and they’re not merchants.”

She turned. “What about the other Mothers?”

Her friend stood with hands on hips. “We’re our own special kind of royalty. We’re mothers to gods!” She laughed.

“Oh.”

Later that night, as Ukee snored, Bevenlee couldn’t stop thinking of their conversation. I’m a peasant. Will always be. But so is Momma, and her momma, and Poppa and his poppa too and... And everyone else she knew. And no one seemed bothered by it. So I guess that’s okay. We take care of royalty, so they can take care of us. Like I’ll take care of Ukee, so she can take care of me. The way friends take care of each other.

She fell asleep comforted by the thought.

* * *

Sister Teryn read from a book of poetry sometimes–Ukee said to Bevenlee, “See? Sisters are taught to read, like I said.”–and Sister Gremm sang mournful songs. Sister Jolluss fished with a few of the younger deckhands off the back of the barge, laughed at their raunchy jokes, and told a few of her own, drawing hoots and howls.

Some days grew hot and steamy. A wind kept others cool. Twice, thunder and rain shattered the night’s quiet. Bugs swarmed, but a scented lotion provided by the captain kept them mostly away.

Once, after the evening meal, they sat at the end of the dock where the barge was tied for the night. Lanterns in homestead windows and sparkleflies in the grass dotted the far shore. Owls hooted. Fish splashed. Insects chirped and buzzed. The river burbled.

Ukee ran her fingers through Bevenlee’s thick frost and charcoal. “You have such wonderful hair. Soft, like your tunic.”

Bevenlee giggled. “It’s not that soft. And your head skin is smooth.” She rubbed Ukee’s scalp.

Ukee laughed and swatted her hand aside. “Promise me you’ll never cut your hair. I want to see it as long as it can grow. I want to comb it every morning.”

“Momma had hair down to her butt once. She said it became too much trouble, even when she braided it.”

“Your momma’s hair probably wasn’t as nice. I know my mother’s wasn’t. Nor my sisters’. Or mine, for that matter.” She brushed loose strands off Bevenlee’s face. “Yours is something special, Bevenlee. You should let it grow and grow. Promise me you’ll never cut it.”

Bevenlee’s breath lodged in her throat. Ukee sounded so...serious. Was promising not to cut it a promise she could even keep? But it did sound like fun, seeing how long it would grow if she let it. And since she’d left home, she didn’t have to worry over any of the horses or cats or cows trying to nuzzle or bite or scratch at it anymore. “I promise I’ll let it grow, Princess Ukee. For as long as I can.”

Ukee leaned over and kissed her forehead. “My thanks.”

Bevenlee was still smiling when they later drifted off to sleep.

Their last morning on the barge, Bevenlee woke to shrieks and sobbing from the other Sisters. She and Ukee left their cabin in a rush, almost forgetting to dress first. Gremm and Jolluss took them both in tight hugs. Teryn stood in the cabin, sobbing.

“Sister Leen’s left us,” Sister Gremm said, crying. “The gods decided her service to the Tower was complete.”

Ukee gasped. “Sister Leen has passed?” Her cheeks paled and she pressed a hand to her belly. “No. She couldn’t...”

Sister Jolluss nodded. “It was peaceful. She wasn’t even cold when I woke to find her gone.”

Sister Teryn came out, looked hard at Bevenlee, then wiped her eyes and turned away.

Sister Gremm’s cheeks flushed. “It’s not her fault,” she snapped.

Teryn turned back with a scowl. “I never said it was.” Fresh sobs breaking free, she retreated into the cabin.

Bevenlee remembered their conversation the morning the Sisters arrived. Sister Teryn had seemed to blame Bevenlee for something then, too. “What’s not my fault?”

“Sister Leen’s passing,” Jolluss said. “It had to happen. One of us had to pass. Only, we didn’t think it would be one of us.”

Bevenlee frowned. “What?”

Gremm crouched and placed her hands on Bevenlee’s shoulders. “In all the world, there are a hundred Sisters. Always and only a hundred, though sometimes a Sister passes before a new one arrives. Or a Sister shows up at the Tower first, coming to us because of the pull.”

“Those times, we wait, and hold vigil,” Jolluss said. “Until the balance is restored. One hundred, and only one hundred.”

“It’s not your fault.” Gremm brushed Bevenlee’s frost and charcoal back. “Sister Leen’s passing is not your fault. It was just...her time.” She shrugged.

Bevenlee recalled a time when Poppa had had three older cows butchered. She’d asked, “Why?”

“The herd is too large, with all the calves last spring,” he said. “No other community can take them right now–they’re butchering their own surplus, too. We have to keep all herds at a certain number so they can all stay healthy. Our grazing land is very limited. Too many mouths, too little grass, and they all suffer.”

She said, “Oh! Like an older cow. We couldn’t have too many cows–”

“What?” Teryn stormed from the cabin. “What? Did you just call Leen a cow?” She reached for Bevenlee, who scrambled back.

Gremm and Jolluss pulled Teryn away, Gremm shouting, “Sister!” They dragged her into the cabin. Jolluss kicked the door shut.

Ukee grabbed Bevenlee’s arm. “We should wait in our cabin.”

They sat together on the bed. Bevenlee cried.

“I didn’t mean to call Sister Leen a cow,” she said. “I was just– Poppa said we had too many and– So they could all stay healthy. See?” Her thoughts seemed all gumbled. She wiped her cheeks.

Ukee lay an arm over her shoulders. “Just let Teryn settle. She’ll know you didn’t mean anything. Leen’s passing is just a–a shock, is all.”

Eventually Sister Gremm came into their cabin. “Are you two all right?”

Bevenlee broke into fresh tears. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean– She’s not a cow!”

The older Sister crouched before her. “It’s all right. Teryn just heard you wrong. She’ll calm down.”

Jolluss entered a moment later. “The captain’s taken the body away. He’ll keep the barge docked until we’ve paid our honors. Do you want to come?”

Bevenlee nodded. Though she seemed reluctant, Ukee agreed as well.

“Finish dressing, comb your hair, then come back out,” Sister Gremm said. “We’ll wait, but don’t take too long, please.”

In the room, as they slipped on their sandals, Ukee said, “I had a dream Sister Leen passed. I think–” She took in a sharp breath. “My child tried to show me–” Sitting on the edge of the bed, she rubbed her belly.

“It– It’s not your fault.” If anything, Sister Leen is gone because of me.

Ukee’s eyes watered, and she spread her arms. Bevenlee stepped close and they hugged.

“Oh, Bevenlee,” Ukee whispered. Her body shook. “I’m so frightened.”

They stayed together until Sister Gremm knocked on the door and poked her head inside. “Are you all right?”

Bevenlee wiped Ukee’s cheeks with her tunic. “We’re coming.”

The ceremony, held at a local honor hall–well, not really an honor hall, Bevenlee thought as she looked around, but close enough–was simple and solemn. Sister Leen’s body, shrouded in a white cloth, lay atop a pyre. The officiant said, “We will set it alight at deep dusk, as the Protocols dictate.”

Sister Gremm took his hands in hers. “Thank you.” She kissed him on both cheeks.

Cheeks red, teeth clenched, Sister Teryn kept away from Bevenlee, refused to listen to her attempts to explain herself or apologize. Jolluss took Bevenlee by the shoulders. “Leave her be, yes? She just needs time.”

Bevenlee wiped her eyes. “Okay.”

The barge set out shortly after, and arrived in Lue as night fell. The deckhands rolled the carriage off the barge. A driver with a fresh quartet of horses waited.

“Sorry for the late arrival,” Sister Gremm said, speaking like she was in charge now. “We’ll set out in the morning,”

The driver looked over the rest of the group. “I understand. My condolences. The inn is this way. When I saw you would be late, I took the liberty of making arrangements.”

In Ukee’s embrace beneath the blankets, the princess snoring lightly, Bevenlee listened to the activity in the hall. Muffled conversation, kissing, moaning, groaning, bootsteps...but no laughter.

* * *

After a quick morning meal, they waited outside for the carriage. The sound of chains jangling floated down the road. They turned to look.

Six men of various ages, all with tangled hair, unkempt beards and worn, ratty clothes, walked within a half-circle of eight men on horses. The jangling came from the chains around their ankles as they shuffled along. The eight men riding wore breastplates colored with small circles of red, blue, and green, and had hatchets at their hips. Whips hung from their saddles. While cleaner than the men in manacles, they looked just as tired.

The riders nodded as they passed. The men glared. None spoke.

Bevenlee turned to Ukee, who squeezed her hand and whispered, “Shh.” Bevenlee stayed quiet, but she couldn’t stop staring. Whatever that was, it looked...awful and sad and– And...

The carriage arrived. They climbed in. Bevenlee ended up on the far side of the forward bench, the door on one side, Ukee on the other. The others settled onto the rear bench, Teryn against the opposite door. With a crack of a whip, the driver started them into motion. The carriage rocked and swayed but not hardly as bad.

Sister Gremm said, “The roads here are better maintained,”

“They need to be, with all the traffic,” Sister Teryn said. “Not like out in the backwoods where we found you two.” She glared, as though Bevenlee was to blame, then turned away.

Gremm found Sister Leen’s knitting needles. She adjusted the blanket on her lap, then pulled some slack into the yarn rising from the basket between her sandals. “You try to sleep now. We’ll ride until nightfall.” Click tick. Click tick.

Bevenlee fought a yawn, lost, then said, “But... Those men... What–”

Sister Gremm lowered her needles. “Condemned. Heading for the Arch, where they’ll walk into the Beyond.”

“We’ll beat them to the Tower,” Sister Jolluss said. “Probably see them again in a couple weeks.”

Ukee snorted. “If they make it. They didn’t look too long for this world.”

Bevenlee frowned. “The Arch? The Beyond? But isn’t that... I mean–”

“They’re going there to die,” Teryn snapped. “It’s what civilized kingdoms do to their criminals. When they deserve such punishment.” She spat the last word.

Bevenlee’s breath lodged in her throat. I didn’t mean–

Ukee squeezed her hand, quite hard. “Even animals don’t deserve such punishment. And sending criminals to the Beyond? Barbaric. Barbaric. Let them die here in our world, like men. Not as playthings of the gods.”

Jolluss said, “No one knows what happens to them in the Beyond. They might not...suffer.”

“Sending them into the Beyond– The walk alone is meant to make them suffer,” Ukee growled. “Let them work the fields or the mines. That’s a better use of their lives.”

Teryn snorted. “And feed and water and shelter them? When by their own actions they gave up their share of their kingdom’s bounty?”

Ukee shook her head. “Putting them to work will alleviate the cost of keeping them alive. They’ll still contribute to the kingdom’s bounty. Or can be traded to kingdoms in need. Sending them to the Beyond? A waste.”

After a moment, Teryn snorted again. “Spoken like a true princess. What if one escapes? What comfort do you offer their vic–”

“Sisters! Mother.” Gremm spoke sharply. “Please. Let’s save this discussion for the Tower. We’ve had a relatively smooth journey. Let’s... Let’s just get home. Yes?” She put the knitting needles back into motion. Click tick. Click tick.

Ukee exhaled, then settled against Bevenlee. Bevenlee leaned against the door. Her friend fell asleep first. She listened to Ukee’s breaths, the steady click tick, until she too drifted off.

Thirteen days later, they arrived at the Tower.


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