Chapter TWO – Liss
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The next morning she awoke early to the rare occurrence of bright sunlight painting her quilt in creamy white. Her sheets were damp and tangled, an unpleasant reminder that her dreams had been restless. Most of the juniors were still asleep when she dragged herself upright, padding on cold bare feet to the washroom at the end of the hall. She wiped herself down, got dressed in her dingy gray juniors' garb, and dropped her notebook into the pocket she'd sewn to the inside of her jacket. By the time she finished, a few others had risen. Dev had already left for Lightkeeper training.

"You know, you're allowed to break code today."

Rana bounced up behind her in the hallway leading out of the barracks, her voice a shrill alarm, an ear-splitting squeal like a young hogwi. Rumor Rana.

"You could wear something decent for a change."

"I know." Liss wasn't in the mood. In fact, she had never been less in the mood.

"So you've chosen to wear your grays to your Sixteenth?"

She didn't have to turn around to confirm the pretentious judgment written on the other girl's pale face. Rana's drawling tone was more than enough evidence that the expression would be there.

"It's not a big deal." Liss shrugged, tugging open the heavy door.

Heat and sunlight poured into the barracks. If it was this warm now, it was going to be a scorcher, and in Cradelow that was something like a miracle. The valley was usually cool and covered in a dense layer of fog year-round. The storms rarely allowed sunlight to venture so close.

"Sure it is." Rana followed Liss outside, close on her heels. "It's your Sixteenth and there's the announcement happening afterward. I heard it has something to do with the Bearers above us. I wonder if they're being retired, even though they're hardly old yet. It's sad how few children have been born these past several years."

Having said her piece, Rana skipped a few steps ahead on the cobbled path that led to the Great Hall, leaving Liss alone with her jumbled thoughts long enough for fresh worries to emerge.

If the announcement was about the clanswomen's trouble conceiving, what would that mean for the future generation of Bearers, girls like Liss and Rana? There were eleven of them between the ages of twelve and eighteen; would the Council require them to bear more than the usual three children during their seasons of Engagement? Liss couldn't wrap her head around the possibility, mostly because she didn't want to. She couldn't see herself Engaged to anyone, much less envision a growing baby stretching the skin of her belly like a drum.

"Maybe the announcement is about a remedy," she said hopefully. "The healers have been working hard on one."

"That's true..." Silver curls bobbed around Rana's pointed chin as she swiveled on her tiptoes to face Liss. "But why would they announce it at your Sixteenth? I think it has something to do with us. Yours is the last Sixteenth this year, you know."

"Of course I know," Liss snapped. Her stomach rumbled loudly. Sweet and savory scents wafted around them. Food was just ahead. Delicious, enticing breakfast. A pleasant distraction.

The Great Hall was the largest building in Cradelow. It would have been impossible to miss, even if it wasn't an olfactory beacon. Ancient blackwood lumber made up its sweeping, two-floor construction. Like a darkly shining sentinel, it presided over the summer-blooming village, casting shadows on all who approached. 

"If only the shadows could hide me today," Liss mumbled to herself as she advanced toward the tall door.

"What did you say?"

Most elves spoke in sonorous tones, but not this one. Rana's whining words cut through the otherwise melodious din of the dining hall like a knife scratching over a plate.

"It doesn't matter." Liss continued inside, following her stomach to the aroma of bacon she knew she'd find in its usual place, wedged between platters of rich strider eggs and fogrow steaks. It smelled so good she could taste it.

Hogwis might be ugly squealing beasts, but no one could deny they were delicious. 

Rana's large eyes narrowed to stormy slivers, the look on her face suggesting she'd grown tired of trying to ignite their conversation. With a dramatic huff, she tossed her hair over her shoulder. "See you at the ceremony, then."

"Right." Except Liss hoped otherwise. If she might be so lucky. 

Sometimes she felt bad for thwarting Rana's feeble attempts at friendship, tactless as they were. They had both been born during the Year of the Moon and had grown up in close quarters, but otherwise they had little in common. Rana was excited about her future with the clan. She was training with the Carers, the small group of dedicated women who reared the clan's babies into relatively civilized children. Rana had even made it known that she wanted to be a wet-nurse. Liss assumed that could only mean she was looking forward to her other duty as a Bearer, too, although they had never discussed it. Liss had never seriously discussed her future with anyone, not even Dev. 

Especially not with Dev.

A terrible image popped into her head as she piled a mountain of bacon and eggs onto her plate–Rana with Dev, the two of them signing an Engagement contract

She almost lost her appetite. It was grossly unfair that she could imagine such a reality for others but not herself. If she could picture herself Engaged–not with Dev, of course, but with anyone else–maybe it wouldn't be so awful when it finally happened. And if a miracle didn't happen soon, it would happen eventually. Few people were granted permission to abstain from Engagements. The exceptions were cases of medical necessity or lifestyle conflict. A handful of exceptional women had risen to become Lightkeepers over the years, and the taxing physical labor they endured as hunters and protectors of the clan was unconducive to childbearing. But for everyone else it was an unavoidable obligation.

Liss had once dreamed of becoming a Lightkeeper. It had been her childhood fantasy that one day she'd grow tall and able to fight with the strength of a warrior, if only to free herself of the rigidity that awaited her in adulthood. But puberty had not been gracious, in the sense that she seemed destined to remain short and slight. When she turned fifteen, she'd stopped praying that her body would change for fear that it would become altered in some strange, unintended way. That was around the time she'd started drawing runes.

It had begun as a way to pass the time. Sometimes she'd sneak into the storage room at the back of the juniors tent to draw in privacy. Liss was pretty sure no one else had been in that room for dozens of years. The cool walls were coated in dusty cobwebs and smelled of dark, damp things. But those were the places Liss liked best. Places that held forgotten secrets.

At first her sketches had been innocent. But as Liss had taken it upon herself to read the definitions for each rune, she realized the book was a relic of powerful magic from Before. Magic that might still exist somewhere if she found a way to leave Cradelow.

Liss had never believed the valley was the world’s last remaining sanctuary. Why anyone believed it, let alone everyone, she couldn't fathom. So she had copied the runes, hoping that one day they would become useful. Dev liked to tease her about it, but Liss wouldn't be swayed. If one day she could spirit them both away from the non-choice of the life that awaited them here, she would do it in a heartbeat.

Alone, she sat down with her meal and wayward thoughts. Rana had left her in peace, for once, and no one else dared to bother her with such a gloomy look about her. She should have been thinking about her Sixteenth ceremony and what she'd say if asked to give the audience a few words. Instead, her mind was on runes and how she might one day wield their magic as magnificently as the boastful Lightkeeper in the corner was wielding his blade for Rana's amusement.

Calan, that was the Lightkeeper's name. He'd been friends with Dev before he'd moved out of the juniors tent. He seemed like a completely different person now, all inflated arrogance and muscles. 

Would Dev change, too, when he earned his spot with the Lightkeepers? Would he become like Calan?

Liss averted her eyes, shoveling a forkful of eggs into her face. It was almost laughable. Of course Dev wouldn't change. His circumstances might change but he wouldn't. Her oldest friend was reliable that way. Liss, on the other hand?

At least she had time to brainstorm a plan before the Council forced adulthood and all its unwelcome changes upon her. Upon them both.