This book is dear to me, for several reasons. One of which is the way women are viewed in the world. It bothers me that too many are denied an education, are sold off, or otherwise demeaned simply because of their gender. By doing a role reversal, I hope I was able to bring a unique spotlight to this problem. After all, if it’s okay to do this to girls, shouldn’t it be okay to do it to boys?
The wagon bounced hard, jolting Arine awake. Rubbing her eyes, she looked around at the landscape. It was early morning, just past dawn. The forest was familiar in the dim light. Home wasn’t far off. She stretched her arms towards the sky, willing the muscles in her back to wake with the rest of her.
She shifted a bit in the bed of the wagon. It was laden down with several boxes and bags, as well as a few other people from her village. Theos wasn’t isolated, but it wasn’t on a major caravan route either. Odd peddlers and such passed through often enough. Still, once or twice a year several of the tradesfolk banned together and made the run to Recor for supplies.
Arine moved aside the oilcloth covering the bundle next to her. The leather underneath it remained dry. It wasn’t the rainy season, but she’d spent far too much of her mother’s money on it to run the chance of spotting. Their shop was the only one for days in any direction to either have shoes made or repaired.
She bounced along with the wagon as the sun continued to climb over the horizon. Reaching a hand into her tunic, she felt the small bundle within. A smile crossed her face. Ian would love the colors she’d chosen. The pencils were a good quality, and far more expensive than she would normally have spent. There wasn’t much she could give her brother that would make him as happy, though.
A smile crossed her face at the thought of her brother. While only two years younger than she was, he was small for fourteen. Ever since the accident that had claimed their father’s life, Ian had lived in a world of his own creation. He could hear well enough, but rarely spoke to anyone besides Arine. She was the only one in Theos who could understand him. Not even their mother could. It seemed to Arine that their mother had given up trying to help Ian before she finished burying her husband.
For all his problems, Ian could draw beautifully. Sometimes she’d find him curled up at the hearth, charcoal and parchment on the floor next to him, where he’d fallen asleep while drawing the night before.
The creaking of the wagon seat alerted Arine, breaking her out of her reverie. Elaine looked down at her. “Last bend coming up, Arine. Wake the others.” The older woman turned back around, her long silvery braid swinging slightly.
Arine pushed a stray lock of her coppery hair out of her face before slowly waking the two others in the wagon with her. More had wanted to come on the run, eager to see the sights of Recor, but there wouldn’t be enough room for them and their goods on the return trip home. Winter had been brutal, depleting stores below normal levels. Only four of them went this time, but the shopping list had been long.
The trees parted, giving way to the clearing where Theos sat. Arine took in the familiar houses and shops, dominated by the inn that took up the area behind the central well. Their wagon had been spotted already. Women poured forth from the buildings, voices calling out for help unloading, as they eagerly watched the wagon creep forward.
Arine kept silent, letting Elaine and the others answer the questions being put forth by everyone at once. She could barely keep the voices separate. Quickly, the wagon was emptied of all but the leather for Arine’s mother and Elaine’s own purchases.
Jumping down from the wagon, Arine reached in and pulled the leather bundle towards her. Her eyes scanned those still near the wagon, but Ian wasn’t among them. That’s strange, she thought. Normally he’s right here to carry the leathers for me. Puzzled, she rearranged her own pack and lifted the package from the wagon bed. At least the shop wasn’t a long walk away.
Struggling slightly to keep her hold on the package, Arine found the latch to the door. The door swung wide at her urging, announcing her presence with a loud bang as it hit the interior wall. Arine carefully maneuvered past the tables and racks of wares, grateful her mother had put off rearranging the store until she returned. Arine put the package on the back table with a grunt. Leaning on it for a moment, she called out, “Ma! Ian! I’m back!” When she didn’t hear a reply, Arine removed her pack and placed it quietly on the floor behind the table. The door to the work area was cracked open. A small knot of fear formed in her stomach. She moved to open the door, looking inside the workroom.
Her mother sat at a workbench, her back to Arine. The small fire, just big enough to keep the room comfortable, burned merrily in the fireplace. Tools were placed on various surfaces, waiting to be used. The chair Ian preferred sat empty.
“About time you got back, Arine. Though Elaine said it might take a few more days, given the lists of stuff everyone wanted.” Her voice rang in Arine’s ears. The tone was wrong.
The older woman shifted, turning around to face Arine. Her dark hair was disheveled, strands fought against the tight braid she usually wore. “Did you get a decent amount of leather for me?”
Arine scanned the room. There was no sign of Ian. Not even a sketching. Those normally cluttered the corner of one of the tables. “Yes, Ma. I put them out on the table. You should be ok for a while.” The fear in her stomach was growing. “Ma, where’s Ian?”
The woman stood. Grabbing a thick cloth, she moved a steaming kettle away from the fire. Calmly, she poured herself a cup of tea before responding to Arine. “He’s gone. Caravan came through, saw his drawings. Offered me good money to take him with them. Said the Domines loved having artists in their houses.”
“You sold him?” Aghast, Arine’s voice shook with shock and fury.
“Not really. It’s not like I could’ve gotten him a wife around here, Arine. He’s not worth much to anyone. If the Domine likes having a mute fool for an artist, why shouldn’t we get a chance to profit?” Reaching into the pocket of her trousers, the woman tossed a small pouch onto a table. The heavy clink of coins echoed in the room. “That’s your share. Go ahead. Take it. It’ll go to your house, anyway, so might as well enjoy it now while you’re young.”
Arine stared at the pouch, her mind reeling. Ian had been sold. Like a piece of property. His only sin being born a boy. Slavery was illegal, but the Domines usually looked the other way when it came to boys.
“When did you do this?” Arine struggled to keep her voice neutral. However, if she could get information on when the caravan came through, she might be able to go after him. She kept her eyes on the pouch, unable to look at her mother.
“Two, maybe three days ago. The caravan didn’t stay long. Lynn’s stores in the inn were already fairly low. There were too many for her to feed beyond that.” Her slurping of tea reached Arine’s ears. “Pretty sure Lynn did some trading of her own. Saw a few new boys cleaning tables for her today. I’ll bet you saw them as well. She would’ve sent them out to help unload Elaine’s wagon.”
Arine’s mind worked frantically. Two or three days’ head start! Very carefully, she reached out and took the pouch from the table. It was heavier than she expected. She’d need to find Bess first. Her friend could get all sorts of information from the new boys at the inn, and probably already had.
“I’m a bit thirsty from the trip, Ma. I’m going up to Lynn’s to have a drink or two, recoup a bit. Don’t wait up.” Keeping a tight rein on her anger, Arine darted from the shop before anyone could stop her.
Two days later, Arine sat in an inn in some town. She’d lost track of names, of what direction she’d gone, searching for the caravan that now owned her brother. And of how much ale she’d had.
“This seat taken?” A voice, barely above a whisper, asked. Before Arine could raise her head to reply, the speaker pulled out a chair and sat down.
“You ready to listen to options, or are you still wanting to wallow in grief?” the voice asked.
Looking up, she took in the speaker. Dark hair pulled back in a braid, brown eyes that saw everything. The hilt of a sword peeking up past her ear. “What options?” she croaked, her voice raw from the alcohol.
“My mistress tasked me with seeking out those who had lost much, those who would do anything to regain what was taken from them. I’ve been following you since you left Theos. Heard you’re searching for your brother.” The young woman leaned in across the table. “She can train you, my mistress. Teach you how to save other boys from a fate like Ian’s. And, one day, may be able to find him for you.”
Arine shook her head, trying to take in her words. “And in return?”
The woman sat back in her chair. “Nothing. Mistress Bryn does not command loyalty, but earns it. The only question that remains is if you’re willing to follow me.”
“Follow you where?”