The forest was still as death. Even the trees held their breath, leaves frozen in the early fall. The only noise was the erratic drumming of Tovey’s heartbeat. She ran blindfolded, letting her soft boots glide through the woods. Aside from gathering duties, which allowed them an extra four-hundred-foot radius into the trees, servants were never to leave the five acres surrounding the collective. But even gathering was done in doubles, sometimes tied together with a rope. Being alone was strictly forbidden. And Tovey had already shattered both rules.
Paranoia encased Tovey’s thoughts. She swore she heard someone speak, but it was nothing. She thought she could sense someone running beside her, but no. She was truly, unquestionably alone. Itching at the blindfold, Tovey cursed the wretched thing. She had worn the blindfold for nearly eighteen years, but it still felt foreign to her, like a strange attachment on her face that didn’t belong. Even so, she couldn’t imagine a day without it.
Nadia told her to wear it as a badge of honor, not as a burden. Impairments highlighted their strengths, but Nadia saw beauty in the mundane in a way Tovey couldn’t. To Tovey, it was shameful, a sign to all who glanced her way that she was offensive, a failure, a stain on society.
The blindfold wasn’t as bad when it was freshly knotted, dipped in water, and formed to her face. But after a few days of sweat and nightmare-filled sleep loosening the scrap, it would nag at her worse than the trainers.
Every few moments, she would pause, ears perked. Craning her neck, she detected nothing more than a few woodland creatures skittering across dried leaves. Butterflies tickled at her ribs, giving her new hope. She wasn’t alone after all. There were squirrels, tree squeaks, rabbits, and wisps. She cantered, careful not to let a heavy breath escape her cracking lips. Being silent was something she had grown accustomed to, something that was more useful now than ever.
Tovey had been planning on defecting since she’d failed graduation the second time. It was something she’d hoped she’d never have to do. Defecting was a word that she had prayed would never become a reality. Tovey aspired to graduate and be assigned to somewhere wonderful in Abolend. She dreamt of a fine house perched in the middle of a city full of life, sound, and sweet smells. But outside of her dreams, she was nothing but a failure who couldn’t be as perfect as the trainers wanted, needed.
Nadia would laugh at the trainers behind their backs, but Tovey took them seriously. The trainers were her family. They knew what was best. They knew how to ensure the girls had a safe and fulfilling life. They were cruel at times, yes, but family all the same.
Tovey yearned to be someone they were proud of, someone the other young girls aspired to be like, someone the trainers would tell stories about to inspire the young ones to work harder, be better. But she was incapable: slow, lazy, dim-witted.
Nadia had told Tovey to never fail, to defect. Though Nadia had only told her once, her sister’s words burned like fire in Tovey’s ears, an irritating buzzing she couldn’t stifle.
Nadia had said when servants failed their third test, they were shipped away for use in some other way than a servant. It was said to be something from a nightmare, though no one ever talked of it, not even the trainers. Tovey had three options: graduate, fail, or defect. Since failure was not an option and graduation would not happen no matter how hard she tried, she ran.
Tonight the trainers were spread thin. Three had fallen ill from a seasonal cold that had swept through the house. The other two, Vivian and Lisha, were scrambling to keep up with monitoring the servants. After three months of preparing and minutes of debating, Tovey had to decide: now or never.
Tovey had an hour before Vivian rang the midnight bell. They’d ring bells every hour, even through the night. The new girls would cry at the disturbance, but Tovey had learned to ignore it. The older girls knew there was no use being upset over circumstances they couldn’t change. Accept it and sleep.
Vivian would check on the sleeping servants during her rounds, where Tovey should’ve been at this precise moment. Vivian would count the heads in eight rooms only to realize she was one short. She’d think it was a miscount. Lisha would count again before they realized one was missing, that Tovey was a defector of Abolend.
Tovey hesitated. She hoped the trainers wouldn’t hate her. She hoped they would forgive her, though she knew they would never. They would shun her.
What if she ran back and begged for forgiveness? Would they take her? No. They couldn’t. It was against the rules. Defectors were dead, burned out of the hearts of anyone who’d ever loved them. She had to keep running.
Powering forward, Tovey pushed herself, muscles aching for a break. At this point, the radius the trainers would have to search would be far too vast for the collective to find her. She couldn’t stop now.
If Tovey were caught within the gathering radius, she would be flogged before the other girls, made an example of. She would be punished, likely deprived of food. The trainers fed them enough to stay healthy but not enough to be strong. She would survive, and her only option would be to succeed in graduating. It was worth the risk. Nadia would have wanted her to at least try.
But now that Tovey had breached the gathering area, she would be killed. Her body would be hung to rot for the other servants-in-training to see daily as a reminder of why defecting wasn’t an option. Punishment was common for the most mundane actions. Only a few managed to escape the wrath of Vivian, but even then, no one left the collective without scars.
Untamed foliage darkened the night. Tovey relied on her other senses to fill in the gaps she couldn’t see, something she had done her entire life. Through fuzzy vision, the world formed in her mind’s eye. Each tree, stone, and leaf painted itself in a hazy vibration as sound echoed from them, telling her their exact placement.
Tovey moved with grace, bouncing from stone to stone, landing in a grassy patch if there were no leaves to crunch beneath her weight. She had practiced moving through the forest surrounding the collective on gathering days for the past few months, hoping she wouldn’t make a mistake when this day came. She’d pushed herself to balance on unstable rocks, climb trees, and sprint in her dress, letting herself trust her next steps as she barreled through the thicket. She cursed herself for not trying harder to move even faster. Her attempts at preparedness were laughable.
Her gathering partner, Jack, had scolded her. She knew what Tovey was practicing for, though she’d never report Tovey to the trainers. Jack was three or four years older than Tovey, one of the oldest girls at the collective. She stood three inches above Nadia and had fiery red hair that was kept trimmed by the trainers. Jack acted sad when they cut it in punishment for missing the morning bell, but Jack seemed to like it that way. Though impairments were meant to prevent servants from being seen or loved, they did the opposite for Jack.
Tovey would watch Jack and Nadia hold hands at night, speaking silently as they read each other’s lips. Jack would push her finger beneath Nadia’s blindfold, tracing her eyes. Tovey thought she’d seen them kiss once. Relationships were forbidden. Touching was forbidden. Now burns covered Jack’s shoulder and half of her face, but Tovey refused to remember how she’d gotten them. Ever since the burning, Jack had a soft spot for Tovey’s antics.
The air was still, and Tovey was unable to follow the taste of the nearby musky river. Tovey caressed the wet moss on the side of a craggy stone, but without clear vision, she had no idea if following the moss northward would lead her to danger. The patter of stumbling footsteps sounded to her right. Tovey’s brow wrinkled, and she wondered if it was another defector. No one from her collective had defected in seven years. Listening closer, Tovey blinked hard through the hemp, struggling to see through the coarse weave in the night. Though the blindfold wasn’t intended to blind, assigned to Tovey by a highborn to wear because of her unsightly eyes, it inhibited her sight enough to be a burden. The footsteps sounded in an arching pattern, circling back to her left. They were light, stepping quickly and without question—human.
Shutting her eyes, Tovey contemplated the options: ignore the footsteps or follow them. No one should’ve been out in these woods. It was forbidden. Plus, Tovey had listened to each of the trainers step through the cobbled halls every night. She knew the sound of their footsteps better than the sound of her heartbeat. These didn’t belong to any of them.
She had to track the noise. There was a chance she wouldn’t be alone after all. There could’ve been another defector out there. Someone could have followed her. She prayed it wasn’t Jack. Maybe it was someone from another collective. She couldn’t be sure unless she tracked the stranger. But she wouldn’t find the person while impaired by the irksome blindfold. With a deep breath, Tovey wedged slender fingers into the hardened knot of hemp tied over her eyes, prodding it until it unraveled.
Tovey felt thin lines that’d scarred her cheeks where the material pushed against them. The collective restricted any tampering with their required impairments. If Tovey had ever removed it, she’d have lost an eye or two. Nadia had told Tovey that a girl named Hallie once removed her blindfold in front of a trainer in order to refasten it. Lisha snapped, drawing her whip faster than the flick of a horse’s tail. Lisha wrestled the girl, digging at her face. It ended with Hallie’s eye tumbling across the floor like a marble. Hallie survived at the collective another three years before she stole bread from the trainers and lost a hand. She died from an infection at fourteen years old. While it was a privilege to be a servant, they were also replaceable.
Vivian would know Tovey was missing by now. Tovey knew breaking one more rule didn’t matter anymore. If she was caught, death was her only option. She’d be strung in front of the collective as they had done with the last group of defectors. Three girls had run during a gathering assignment and hadn’t made it ten steps outside the radius before one of their collective sisters reported them. They were nine, twelve, and thirteen. Their bodies were hung in the trees before the sun set that evening. Bile filled Tovey’s throat at the thought. Shaking her head, she knew she had to commit to defecting. She would do it for Nadia.
Tovey unveiled herself, adjusting to the faint luminescent glow of waxy leaves. Heart stuttering, she blinked rapidly, in awe of the forest teeming with life. Fireflies twinkled like the stars scattered in the sky above her as they filled their bodies with splotches of warm color in the dying leaves. For a moment, the birth and death of the fireflies’ little suns was the singular thought in her mind. A gentle breeze tickled her skin, and she reveled in the sweet kiss of humidity. Stomach lurching with regret, Tovey wondered how much of the world she’d missed from behind the fabric.
Her chest swelled with sadness and happiness, tears teeming in her eyes at the beauty of the world. Never had something been more beautiful or felt more like home. With newfound determination, she began undressing. No longer could she risk wearing her required gray gown, the uniform of a servant. It would hinder her pace or snag on a thorn and leave a thread of evidence behind. She should have stripped it long ago, but she hadn’t been ready to accept what she had already committed to.
Tovey slipped out of her bulky dress before twirling it into a ball and tucking it beneath her arm, her blindfold tucked in the dress pocket. Wearing only her undergarments, she crouched in the brush behind a tree. She was thankful the late summer heat melded into fall this year, keeping her warm. Tovey shifted her weight across all limbs before squatting. She tied her long hair into a knot. Her legs reflected moonlight as she launched forward, weaving through the thicket. She tracked the footsteps that had disappeared like fog in the night.
Tilting her head, she took in the sounds of the forest. Insects chirped as finger-size rodents scampered. Farther was a whispering creek, south down the mountainside, with the faintest clink of pebbles shifting beneath the glassy surface. Tovey attempted to moisten her lips without success. Abandoning tracking her potential comrade, she descended the mountain in a swift motion as if she were dancing, limbs stretching as she leaped, ducked, and spun in crisp calculated movements.
Her hands met the icy liquid. She swallowed thankfully, sucking in the cool puddle cupped in her palms. Once more, she lapped at the water, catching her amethyst eyes staring back at her. Nadia had always said they were like lilacs, having seen them once when she was a babe. The leaves rustled behind her. Fine hair rose on her neck, the sensation stopping her from sipping the water. She bent her toes, gripping the smooth rock where she perched.
Tovey trapped air in her lungs, and her body turned to stone.
Heavy leather boots trudged on the hardened ground, crushing twigs and leaves beneath them as a man’s bellowing groan ricocheted off the trees. Not a defector. A muffled click whispered as a symphony of strained wood met her ears. A bowman! Flattening herself on the edge of the creek bed, Tovey wriggled into the nearby brush surrounding the river’s edge.
The string of a bow rattled nearby. Tovey covered her head as an arrow whirred through the air. The death stick stuttered to the ground, falling in the opposite direction of where she lay. Tension escaped her muscles as she rested her hollow cheek against the moist soil, grateful the bowman wasn’t on her trail. He was, however, on a hunt heading somewhere. She hadn’t heard a defector earlier, but a hunter. Great.
Tovey hadn’t accounted for anything aside from running. She’d considered finding a river and following it until she found a safe place she could rest. But after that, she wasn’t sure what defectors did. There were rumors that they turned into wild women and lived off the land. Perhaps she could do that.
She had put her faith into trusting her instincts after defecting, considering she didn’t know what else was out there. She would need food and shelter. Tracking the bowman would lead her to town. Anxiety filled Tovey’s chest as her breathing quickened. She no longer wanted to accept her new lifestyle. This was a bad idea. She shouldn’t have run. She could have done it, graduated, if she had tried hard enough.
She winced at the thought of killing an animal. She’d be filled with the same cruelty as the trainers if she showed any malice toward the innocent. Often, she would trade hunting and foraging assignments for cleaning duties to avoid taking a life. When the trainers had commanded her to kill a fawn, she’d faltered—reason number one Tovey had failed graduation the first time. The second time, she was too slow to respond to commands. Vivian’s tea was to be brought in under ninety seconds. It took Tovey ninety-three. A sign of defiance. For her incompetence, she was punished for a week without food. Not that eating stewed rat was anything to be missed. Still, it was better than the pain that tore at her stomach and the lethargy that overcame her body.
Tightening her grip on the drab dress, she crouched in the shadows, soundlessly slithering forward, hunting the hunter. Narrowing the space between them, she tracked him west before getting close enough to glimpse the man behind the arrow.
The internal drumming within her chest started again, and her fingertips shuddered. Her gaze was glued upon the golden dragon insignia sewn to his leather tunic, the symbol of Abolend. Jaw falling agape, she processed that he wasn’t a rogue arrow-flinging archer but an official Abolend bowman commissioned by the kingdom. He was much more dangerous than others and was indeed on a westward trail, heading toward the city. Her gut swirled with panic.
The faint click of the arrow mounting the string shattered her thoughts as she scurried up the gnarled bark of an evergreen to peer upon the hunter. She squinted, observing him with an unobstructed view. His arrow pointed toward a soft fern that shivered with a gentle whisper in the still night. Tovey wouldn’t have noticed it had it not been for his keen sense of awareness.
Gurgling and gasping sounded from the creature, and the fern rustled as an injured body fell to the ground.
Tovey’s stomach twisted. The arrow had hit something fleshy. The broad-shouldered man scoffed with pleasure, balling his fingers with a thrust into the air. Tovey’s arms tightened, and she shifted higher in the branches to see the creature he had hit. Her stomach rumbled with endless hunger. He was indeed an expert, and if she tracked him long enough, she might be able to steal a bit of his meal.
Perched on a bough, she watched the bowman wrap his fingers around the thin leg of his kill. He pulled a limb from the bushes, tossing a mass over his shoulder. It was pale and gangly. It was human. She squinted and leaned forward in the tree. Tovey’s heart stuttered, her eyes falling to a bare foot dangling from beneath rough wool. The gray fabric draped on the victim had darkened red from the fragile body lying carelessly over his shoulder—a defector.
Her heart dropped to her feet, rushing waves of flushed fear through her body. She tilted sideways, limbs hugging the tree, spinning herself beneath the branch before dropping. Her instincts told her to run to the girl, but she couldn’t. Not now. It was too late.
The bowman paused, broad shoulders shifting toward the gentle sound resonating from Tovey’s fall. His heavy brow ridge lurched forward with his torso, his eyes scanning the tree line. Tovey pulled herself into the ground, stilling her chest once more. She squeezed her eyes shut, body covered with uncontrollable chills, praying she wasn’t next.
“Back off, you vile bear!” A gravelly growl escaped the bowman’s lips. “This one is mine!” He grunted, befalling to laughter. Returning to the death march of his victory whistle, he paraded on, following a game trail to the main path.
Tovey froze as his footsteps faded, shock stiffening her muscles. Though he was no longer visible, she could still hear his death song. Tovey leaped toward the soft fern. She caressed the bloody leaves, evidence of a once-sister from the collective. Tovey scoured her memories of any recent defectors. There had been none. Everyone at her collective had graduated for the past four years—well, until now.
With sticky blood-covered hands, she feverishly searched the fern for evidence. A torn square of gray wool was pinned to the ground with a twig. Tovey balled the soiled fabric in the pocket of her uniform. It was common to try to save something from the dead, a secret ritual for the sisters. They would bury a piece of them, not letting every bit of their memory be wiped into oblivion.
Hunger poked at her stomach despite the gruesome scene. Her glare darted away from where the bowman had traveled, and she contemplated running once more into the unknown. No. She would never survive. Kill or be killed. She wanted neither. Tovey moved with haste to stay on the bowman’s trail.
She snuck over branches like a ghost, following the game trail until it opened onto the widened path the bowman was on. Though his whistle had faded, his giant boot steps had left clear prints. Tovey stepped inside the pressed dirt to avoid leaving breadcrumbs.
Over some distance, she gained on his pace, squatting behind cover, straining to see the girl whose life he’d taken. The memory of her true sister plagued her mind. She’d never be able to wash Nadia’s lifeless face from the backs of her eyelids.
Nadia had died seven years ago after her last attempt at graduating. After Nadia’s failure, Tovey had watched the trainers pull Nadia by her wrists to the well, where they’d whipped her repeatedly. Tovey stood still alongside the rest of the servants at the collective. During punishments, the girls were forced to stop their duties and watch silently. If a tear or whimper escaped, they would meet the same fate: lashings.
Thirty lashings cut at Nadia’s back before Vivian barked at the whipping trainer to stop. Tovey’s heart wrenched. She hoped that was enough to please the trainers, but it wasn’t. Instead, Vivian directed Nadia’s punishers to dunk her face in the well bucket.
Over and over again, the trainers pushed her face into the water. And over and over again, they would let her gulp air before shoving her back under the unforgiving surface. Nadia’s thrashing became more violent. Steam built pressure like a boiling kettle in Tovey’s heart, and she was unable to stay silent any longer. Screams ripped through Tovey’s throat, yet despite her pleas, the trainers gagged her and made her listen. Shock stilled Tovey’s bones as Nadia lifted her head for the last time.
“Never fail, Tovey,” Nadia commanded, her neck straining as she fought the trainers. Her lips paled as she gave up. “Defect!” Her face went under the water for the last time. The trainers weren’t going to let her survive, not after saying that word. Defect.
The trainers threw Nadia’s body into the woods like trash. They forced all the servants inside while they wrapped her discarded body in linens, preparing it for burning. Each servant carried a piece of firewood to the clearing, and one by one, they tossed the wood into a roaring flame. Four servants carried the sack and tossed it into the flames. Jack panicked. She lunged into the fire after Nadia’s body. Jack’s dress melted around her as her infernal scream shattered the night.
Tovey watched, still as stone. Her sister burned. Jack howled into the night.
Never fail. Defect. Defect.
The words echoed in Tovey’s mind with every punishment she had to endure after Nadia’s death. Screaming got her gagged for the week. Sympathizing with servants being punished was five lashings. With each lashing, Tovey promised her sweet sister she wouldn’t fail. By the fifth lashing, Tovey had vowed she’d honor Nadia’s wish and defect before failure.
Tovey followed a hundred feet behind the bowman, breaking from her memory, avoiding the drips of blood coming from the defector’s body. The bowman tired after some time. He tossed his kill to the dirt, his knees meeting earth. His shoulders hunched as he rubbed a stick against another, starting a fire. After peeling the socks from his feet, he sat, casually roasting his toes in front of the coals. Some time later, he slumped into a pile of leaves, his heavy eyes sliding shut. Mutely, Tovey waited for stertorous breathing to start before approaching the dead girl.
Crawling with careful movements around the outskirts of the clearing, Tovey inched toward the girl. Filthy tattered fabric wrapped the body. Tovey’s eyes met the dead servant’s lifeless milky gaze. A knot twisted in Tovey’s stomach, bringing bitter bile to her tongue. Tovey’s bony hands clasped over her mouth as she whimpered, unable to control herself, recognizing the corpse. Sylvia.
She had left the collective weeks ago. The girls were told Sylvia had graduated early and was sent to her assignment in the night because her placement required a qualified servant immediately. Sylvia had been one of the most loyal trainees at the collective. Her impairment attacked her silvery hair, draped like waves of silken fabric atop her head. The trainers had made her burn it off because she would fiddle with it. It had brought her comfort, and it was not allowed to stay.
Since they were young, Sylvia had been promised a place serving the highest highborns, King Mallum and his court. Rarely ever beaten, Sylvia was a shining example of what was expected of them: to obey. Tovey brushed strands of hair from the girl’s face, wondering how she’d ended up a defector. Her eyebrows scrunched, and she contemplated if the collective had lied about her graduation and if they’d bring Sylvia’s body back to be strung up in the trees around the collective. No, they couldn’t.
If shining-star Sylvia hadn’t graduated, bringing her back to the collective would mean they’d lied, and lying was against the rules, punishable by having your tongue removed. The trainers weren’t even allowed to lie. If guards heard, they would have stormed the collective and removed the concern promptly. Tovey’s mind raced, wondering how many times she had been lied to by the collective before. Her fingers combed Sylvia’s hair, pressing it flat once more.
Swallowing dry air, Tovey knew she could have been the defector on the bowman’s back instead of dear Sylvia. She was lost, unprepared, and unskilled. She could wander the woods for weeks until a bowman struck an arrow through her heart. Bowing her head, Tovey thanked Sylvia for what she knew she had to do.
Begrudgingly, Tovey swallowed her bile. She smacked the ground, testing how asleep the bowman was. He didn’t stir. Tipping her head back, she let out a hushed yell. His foot flinched. Her cheeks puffed with air in a stress-relieving hope that she could muster a sense of bravery from her rattled bones.
Tovey pressed her lips to Sylvia’s forehead, as Nadia had always done to her. Tovey whispered through whimpering cries, “I’m so sorry, but you have saved my life, and you will never know.”
Tovey took a scrap of fabric from Sylvia’s dress. She wrapped it around the dead girl’s head, shielding her eyes. She pressed her palm into the wound in Sylvia’s chest, covering her fingers in thick blood before matting Sylvia’s singed silvery hair with the sticky liquid. Shoveling with her nails, she pulled dirt from the ground and mixed it with mud to cover the rugged ends. Through scattered breaths and broken tears, Tovey clasped both hands together. “You will not be forgotten.”
Wolves howled in the distance. They must have smelled death. Tovey filled her lungs, tilted her head toward the sky, and mimicked the howl of the wolves, calling them to a fresh kill. Her eyes darted to the bowman, tossing side to side as his sleep thinned.
She pecked Sylvia’s head one last time, dirt and blood covering her lips. Tovey lunged into the trees, following the road a bit farther. Paws plummeted on the soft soil behind her, running toward the fresh corpse. The bowman’s barbaric yell echoed through the valley, sending a ripple of yelps from the wolves. Tovey ignored the plunder, forcing her limbs to keep pushing toward Abolend.
Crumbling, Tovey stumbled toward a gulley with the faintest stream of water passing between its walls. Her chin rested at the water’s edge, body spent. Between tearless cries, she washed the dirt, blood, and sweat from her body, the dawn lighting the forest with pink tones of wildflowers.
She gripped a jagged rock, flashing a long wave of hair across a flat stone. Forcefully, she hammered the rock, yanking at her hair. Her steady fist chopped her waist-length locks into a ragged bob brushing a smidge above her shoulders, identical to Sylvia’s.
She dressed in her collective uniform, grateful it had avoided staining. She dipped the blindfold into the lilting stream, wetting it before tying it around her skull. It dried, sculpting painfully to her face, but it was the requirement for ensuring it would never slip. She was now Sylvia.
Assignments weren’t based on the girls’ impairments, though it was the best method the collective had for identification. Any extreme body modifications were logged—at least they were supposed to be. It was plausible Sylvia’s short hair and Tovey’s blindfold had not been recorded. Identification of bodies didn’t matter much when they desecrated the remains anyway. If word reached her trainers that a mauled body had been found with a blindfold, they’d assume it was Tovey. They were similar enough, and no further investigation would be necessary. It was a shot worth taking.
But Tovey couldn’t leave her blindfold behind. Impairments were for life. Plus, Nadia hadn’t liked the rules, aside from one. Never remove your blindfold, no matter what. It was so serious that if Tovey ever needed to fasten the knot again, Nadia would make her hide in a closet and close her eyes while she did it. Tovey hadn’t seen anyone question impairments. They just were. Even with a new life, the thought of abandoning her impairment made her stomach knot. If she were to commit to a life of servitude, she needed to start following the rules. At least a little.
“May the light guide you,” Tovey whispered into the wind. She followed the path, her dress fluttering carelessly, devoid of any sign that she had witnessed a horrific death and held in her pocket a bloodied piece of fabric. Wiping the sweat from her cheeks, she softened her lips into a slight smile, hands folded in front of her with a straight spine.
“Abolend, here I come.”