Once upon a dawn in the far-flung village of Southwind, Asher stirred from sleep. There was a hammering on the frail cottage door, and it dispelled the boy’s dreams, returning him from green, distant lands to his reality: heavy eyes, a hard, straw mattress, and a savage desire to redirect the knocking from the door to the visitor’s head.
The racket continued until George Farmer, the boy’s father, roused from his own bed across the room and confronted the caller. Asher recognized the shrill voice of the Baker, but the two men spoke in a hush, and the boy couldn’t make out their words. Cursing life, he blinked open his eyes.
Through the makeshift window in his wall, a dark sky melted into shades of blue. The dawn meant that it wouldn’t be long before his father pulled him out of bed and into the miserable wheat fields. He wondered what the Baker could possibly want, so loud, so early. When Asher’s groggy memory assembled the answer, he hissed.
Last night, he and Finn Tailor had raided Baker’s shop—and not for the first time. They’d made a habit of breaking into the bake house after sundown and taking their favorite pastries. But Baker had never noticed before. They were always careful to cover their tracks and consume the evidence immediately, and Asher knew Finn would’ve died before betraying him.
The voices went quiet, and Baker left. The weight of bread lingered in Asher’s stomach from the night before. As his father shut the door and turned back inside, he closed his eyes and resolved not to betray Finn. He could take the lashing for them both.
The floor creaked under Farmer’s steps. The creaks neared Asher’s bed. Farmer eased himself onto the corner of the haystack mattress, and Asher feigned surprise as his father’s hand squeezed his shoulder.
“No way you slept through that,” Farmer said.
Braced for a beating, Asher turned over and squinted innocently. Farmer’s leathery face was kind, however. His eyes were sad.
“Get up,” Farmer said. “A thing’s happened.”
“What?” Asher said, sitting up.
“Tailor’s dead. And Finn’s not long for.”
“Oh,” Asher said. His cloudy mind struggled to untangle his father’s words. Only a few hours ago he had waved goodnight to an obnoxiously loud Finn, drunk off their success.
A rooster crowed at the rising sun.
“Up,” Farmer said.
Suddenly nauseous, Asher rolled out of bed and belted on the nearest tunic. He stuffed his feet into boots and followed the Farmer out the cottage and into the village, hoping he was still dreaming.
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