The swaying motion of the carriage gives a false sense of soothing, and I fight the lure of sleep weighing on me. Mama had signaled for silence when we’d entered this part of the forest, her tension seeping into the closed space of our horse-drawn caravan. My chest tightens with anxiety, and I resist the urge to fidget. Moving would wake the sleeping baby in my arms, and that would only distress Mama.
Light streams in from the edges of a large covered window, making the colors inside glow even more vividly and decorating the cramped space we call home. I focus on LaLora. She’s sitting at the rear of the wagon, peeking past the curtain. At almost eight years old, LaLora’s the eldest, older than me by six months. Our grandma calls her a cat for her insatiable curiosity.
Swaney, my two-year-old brother, is lying on Mama and Papa’s bed at the opposite end, trying to figure out a wooden horse toy that comes apart and clicks together. My gaze swings diagonally to my other sister, Jezzie, four years old. Head tilted down, hair tucked behind her ears, she concentrates on learning her letters at our small table. I peek at the sleeping bundle in my arms, eight-month-old Jayden. His sweet face is serene. I gently trace the line of his cheek.
All of my siblings are considered beautiful within our community of travelers. They have light brown hair, deep brown eyes, and a pale white complexion, courtesy of our parents.
I look completely different. My chestnut-brown hair feels drastically darker than everyone else’s and it curls around my face, framing my light olive-colored skin and reaching to my mid-back. Yet it’s the streak of silver growing a little off-center to the left of my forehead marking me as other. My eyes aren’t brown either. They are honey-colored. I am not one of them.
I was abandoned as an infant, a tiny baby girl left crying in a basket, with a name pinned to it. Everyone calls me Anala, except MaJaJa. She uses my other name, the one that meant darkness. It was MaJaJa, the leader of the caravan, who found me and placed me in the care of Mama, her daughter, since she was already breastfeeding LaLora. But the real reason was because MaJaJa wants me close to her. She has a feeling.
The caravan’s normal noises fade into the background. The clopping of hooves, wood creaking, leather stretching—all a symphony to our travels. Normally it was accompanied by jests and laughter or bird song, vocals to the track. Right now, the quiet feels like an oppressive blanket.
My skin tingles, and my gut twists.
“It feels like we’re being watched,” LaLora whispers, visibly shuddering. Her finger holds the curtain to the backdoor open a sliver, and she stares out intently.
The drape next to Swaney twitches, and Mama’s bejeweled hand comes through, signaling for complete quiet. LaLora huffs and rolls her eyes. I can tell she thinks Mama is overreacting. We share a smile. Mine is tight as apprehension fills me.
A shout breaks the silence, immediately followed by the sound of clanging metal and the frightened shriek of horses. The symphony shatters. We’re pitched forward as the wagon abruptly stops, and I barely stay seated.
Mama ducks her head into the window, the bright light blinding for a moment as the shade is shoved aside. “We’re being attacked.” Her fierce eyes scan us, expression grim. “Stay inside until we tell you to leave.” Her eyes narrow in on me. “Anala, care for them,” she commands, then disappears behind the screen, thrusting the caravan back into darkness.
Swaney drops his toy. He glances from the window to my face.
“Come.” I motion for him to sit next to me, and he scrambles over quickly, jostling me. Thankfully, Jayden has not awakened. Jezzie seems frozen with wide, fear-filled eyes. She clutches her pencil so tightly, the tip snaps against the table.
We wait tensely, listening to the sounds of battle. LaLora seems transfixed, half-sitting, half-standing, staring open-mouthed out the window. None of us make a sound.
“They’re burning the wagons,” LaLora whisper-shrieks.
I twist, knocking Swaney with my elbow, and shove aside the heavy curtain behind me. It’s hard to see at this angle, but the smell of burning reaches us and smoke climbs skyward.
Movement catches my attention. Papa lunging forward, engaged in a sword fight with a woman dressed in rags. Her face is gaunt, with hollowed cheeks and the crisscross of visible veins, and her limbs are gangly. But it’s her eyes that cause me to freeze. There is no white to them. Just pure blackness.
A horseman comes careening down the path, a torch in his hand, and someone hanging off his side. It’s hard to tell who. A swift punch from the horseman and they fall, leaving a knife protruding from the horseman’s leg. He doesn’t seem to notice, intent on sweeping the wagon’s curved roof with his torch.
I gasp; my heart stops. His black eyes lock onto mine as if he heard me. A grin spreads across his thin face, and he throws the torch at me.
I dodge immediately, dragging Swaney from the window. Both of us topple over; the impact jolts Jayden awake, and he screams.
Jezzie scrambles, the torch barely missing her as it lands on the cushioned bench. Flames lick up instantly. Jezzie’s dress ignites. Her cry is high-pitched, panicked.
LaLora has plastered herself against the carriage door. I shove Swaney behind me.
“LaLora! Open the door,” I yell.
She glances at me, then at the flames.
“Open the door!” I shout, desperate. Heat shoots up my arm as I smack one-handed at Jezzie’s dress, shoving her toward the exit.
LaLora unlatches the door and jumps.
“Jezzie, jump out!” I command, pushing her. She throws herself through the door, and I hear the thud of her landing. “Roll around, Jezzie. Roll!”
Without looking to see if she listened, I grab Swaney’s collar and drag him in front of me, dropping him outside. I don’t wait, but launch myself and Jayden out, landing hard and almost falling. Swaney is crying, and LaLora’s missing.
My gaze locks onto Jezzie. I drop next to her rolling form and hit the flames with my free hand, ignoring the pain. Together, we extinguish them just as LaLora returns with a bucket of water. She throws it on Jezzie and me, drenching all of us. Jayden wails louder.
Swaney’s hands wrap around my waist, latching onto me. My breath is ragged, my heart beating in my throat. I shakily try to drag Jezzie closer. My hand isn’t working right.
Noises rush in.
The stamping of hooves.
The crackling of wood burning. Then the smell of fire mixes with the aroma of incense, the familiar musky scent of sandalwood, and cooking spices. People are fighting within the tight confines of the road and burning wagons, the trees hindering the battle.
We shuffle off the road and try to hide behind the nearest tree. It’s not big enough.
A man grabs Swaney by his collar, violently yanking at him to dislodge him, shaking and dragging me in the process. I shove Jayden at LaLora, who’s kneeling next to Jezzie’s whimpering form. Swaney’s grip on me is gone, and I lunge, grabbing Swaney’s still-outstretched limbs. Agony radiates from my burnt hand as I force it to lock around Swaney’s arm.
No one is taking my family. No one.
With a hold on Swaney’s forearm, I dig my feet in to slow the man down. My hold is tenuous, my nails breaking skin, my injured hand slippery and weak. Swaney’s mouth is open in a silent scream. The man glances at us, and I catch sight of his black eyes. My breath seizes. They’re vacant, yet . . .
The next moment, metal is arcing toward me. I’d been too distracted to notice the man had pulled a sword. Reflexively, I shut my eyes and shrugged my shoulders up, dreading the impact.
An unnatural screech assaults my ears. Nothing hits me. I open my eyes as the resistance on Swaney is suddenly gone. We smack into each other, toppling backward.
Without stopping, I crab crawl with Swaney toward Jezzie. She cries out as I fall onto her. Shifting to her side, we all huddle together, and I realize the man we’d been struggling with was on the ground, unmoving.
My heart sinks. Xan, our horse, is rearing, trying to break free from the burning wagon.
I shift Swaney from me to Jezzie. “I’ve got to help Xan,” I mumble.
Jezzie whimpers as Swaney transfers his grip to her midriff. LaLora seizes my arm with a shake of her head. “Anala, don’t go.”
I break from her grasp and crawl, clutching my injured arm to my chest as I stay low and make my way to him. I stand and my legs wobble. Trying to figure out how I can help, I inch closer.
Xan moves at the same time, knocking me down. All air leaves me when I hit the ground. I try to scramble away, but a frantic hoof catches me in the ribs, sending me flying.
Barely managing to prop myself up, I try to suck in a breath and nearly double over with the pain. It hurts so much, and I’m bleeding. The ground vibrates under me. My vision locks on my siblings. They are fighting to stay together. The edges of my sight blacken, tunneling my focus. I can’t help them. I need to help them. To wrap them in their own protective bubbles.
Almost as soon as I think it, I see something forming around each of them. I blink, trying to clear my vision. It doesn’t disappear—instead, it crystallizes into bubbles. Then I notice a pulsing in the shields, like a heartbeat, only they expanded with each beat.
A lightness spreads through my body. Heat creeps into my belly, extending to my limbs. I pick up a hand to drag myself forward and a trail of blue light follows it, connecting me to the earth.
What stops me is the orange and red sparks. Are they coming from my hand? I gaze in fascination, the hard-packed dirt rough on my cheek.
Scorching heat ignites where my body connects with the ground, and the colored cords solidify. The searing inferno pushes past the limit of my skin.
What is happening?
The weight of my arm is too much; it drops. I glance at my siblings as another sweltering wave sweeps through me. The spheres throb, and the men holding my siblings go limp. My siblings run to me. Swaney and Jezzie snuggle into my sides, shaking, and LaLora tries to move me. She can’t.
I’m too heavy.
A third rush hits, the bubble expands outward, growing, encompassing. I lose track of it as it goes past my narrowing vision. I only care about my siblings. Must keep them safe. A fourth swell pours into me, and my heart flutters. It’s going to burst.
My vision is a haze of darkness I try to see past. Shadows sweep in from the trees, tendrils of darkness reaching for me.
A whooshing noise jars me. Blinking, I glance in its direction. A blue light strikes a woman heading toward me, trapping her for a moment in its terrifying beam. Her body gives out.
Her head lifts, oily, matted hair sticks to her cheeks, and she spears me with her bulging black eyes, unnaturally craning her head. Grotesquely, she drags herself closer to me with single-minded determination. She’s close.
I can’t move.
Another bolt of light strikes her. The ground trembles.
My vision pinpricks. I fight to stay conscious when an upsurge pummels through the woman, engulfing her in blue light, her body quivering under its attack. I stare in horror as darkness captures me.