The Scourge (A.G. Henley) - By A.G. Henley

Chapter One

I duck out of the storeroom and into the main cavern, stepping carefully across the uneven floor. My fingers ache from being trailed along the frigid stone walls for hours. Rubbing my hands together to generate warmth has all the effect of kindling a fire with chips of ice.

My footfalls echo in the stillness as I move down the passage toward the mouth of the cave, counting my paces as I go. The sun pours in, diluting the darkness. I can barely tell light from dark, but I know I’m almost out when I hear Eland’s voice. He never ventures in alone. He hates the caves almost as much as he fears the Scourge.

“Let’s go, Fennel,” he calls. “The celebration’s about to start, and I’m starving. There’s roasted boar and fresh bread, bean and potato stew, blackberry pie–”

I laugh. “Is your stomach all you think about?”

“No, I think about lots of other things.”

“Really? Like what?” I reach out toward his voice.

Eland’s hand, grimy from digging up vegetables and herbs in the garden, finds mine. Grimy or not, the warmth is a relief. “Like how we’ll trounce the Lofties in the competitions tomorrow.”

I can’t help smiling at his confidence. This is his first year to compete. He and the other twelve-year-old boys have talked of little else for weeks. Everyone looks forward to the Summer Solstice celebration for the feast, the dancing, and the chance to beat the Lofties—with spear and knife, if not bow and arrow. It’s a highlight of the year, so different from the solemn Winter Solstice when the Exchange takes place.

The shadows shift as we pass under the canopy of trees. I wrap my hand around Eland’s sapling-thin arm—roots and creeping weeds on the forest floor have sent me sprawling more often than I want to remember. We reach the clearing, the heart of our community, where a bonfire sizzles and sputters to life. People shout to each other as they make their way down the paths from the gardens and the water hole, their work done for the day. The luscious fragrance of gardenia winds through the air. Someone must have strung garlands as decorations.

Our home, like those of all the other Groundlings, nestles into the embrace of the towering greenheart trees circling the clearing. Eland pushes open the door of our shelter. Aloe, my foster mother and his natural mother, calls to us from inside.

“Come in here, Eland . . . are you presentable? Comb your hair and be sure you clean the muck out of those fingernails. Fennel? Did you finish in the caves?”

I move to Aloe’s side, where I know her outstretched arm will be, and take her hand in mine. Her skin is weathered but warm, like the surface of the enormous clay cooking pot in the clearing that never quite cools off. She smells of rosemary, from working in the herb garden, and something else I can only liken to the scraps of pre-Fall metal we sometimes come across in the forest.

“There’s plenty of blankets and firewood, but we could probably use more salt meat,” I tell her.

“We can store what’s left of the boar after the celebration. We’re fortunate the hunting party came across such a large one, and so near to home. The Council is pleased.”

“When will they meet?”

“Soon. Sable and Adder want to perform the ceremony before the Lofties arrive.”

Aloe will join the Groundling Council of Three tonight. One more reason to look up to her. Aloe is the most capable person I know. I was given to her as an infant to foster because she’s Sightless, like me. She taught me to rely on myself first, and others only when absolutely necessary. Her guidance made my childhood much easier.

“Can’t we come, Mother?” Eland says through clenched teeth. He’s combing his hair, but it sounds like he’s stripping the bark off a dead tree. “We want to see you accepted into the Three.”

“Try not to make yourself bald, my love. And no, you can’t. The acceptance is private, like all meetings of the Council.” She kisses him, and her stick taps away toward the door.

“Congratulations, Aloe,” I say. “We’re proud of you.”

“As I am of you both, my children. I’ll meet you later, at the celebration.”

Eland follows her out to check on the preparations, mucky fingernails forgotten. The scent of burning wood and roasting meat rushes into my nose and throat as he opens the door. It makes my mouth water. Animated voices burst through the clearing like

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