Read The Voice Online

Authors: Anne Bishop

Tags: #Fantasy

The Voice (3 page)

BOOK: The Voice
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“What did he say?” I whispered, feeling as if the world itself held its breath while waiting for the answer.

“He hit her.” Tahnee’s face had a bewildered expression, as if everything she had known and trusted had changed suddenly and betrayed her. “He said she shamed him by being a poor wife and he would denounce her as his daughter if Chayne continued to have cause to complain.”

In the silence, I heard the patter of rain. I looked out the window and watched the sky weep. Lulled by the sound, Tahnee fell asleep. I stayed awake much longer, letting thoughts drift and form patterns.

Honor your parents. Give thanks for them every day. Because an orphan’s life is one of sorrow.

There was no ingredient used in the moody cakes that wasn’t used in other foods. So what made the cakes a vessel for feelings we didn’t want? And who had decided that one person would be sacrificed for the health of the village? Who had decided that the people in my village would not have to carry the weight of their own sorrows?

Maybe there was no one left to blame. Maybe no one truly knew anymore.

But the Elders continue it,
my heart whispered.
They see her; others care for her. Are there Black Pustules festering all over her body, always hidden because she had been trained to keep her body covered? Someone stripped a child of the ability to speak and scarred her so she would be ashamed to reveal the reason for her silence. The people who did this still live in the village.

We all did this. Day after day, year after year, we handed someone a plate of sorrow disguised as a treat and expected her to swallow it so that we could feel better instead of carrying the weight—and the scars—ourselves.

Welcome to Vision. You can find only what you can see.

As something inside me continued shifting and forming new patterns, I wondered if I had changed enough to see what I needed to find.

The following afternoon, I turned a corner. It was that easy.

The Apothecary was on a street that is one of Vision’s shadow places—neither Dark nor Light, since it is a street that can be reached by hearts that resonate with either.

On another day, the looks of the man standing behind the counter at the back of the shop would have scared me enough to abandon my plan. That day, I studied him in what light came in through his grimy windows and decided if looks were a measure of a man, this one could do what I needed.

So I told him what I wanted, and I paid him what he asked, relieved I had enough coins for the purchase and a little left over so that Tahnee would not end up paying for my family gifts completely out of her own pocket.

“Enough for three people, you said?” he asked when he returned from the curtained back room and handed me a small bottle.

“Yes, three.” I was almost sure that there was only one caretaker in the later hours, but I had to be certain I could deal with whomever was there. Because there would be only one chance.

“I am curious,” he said as I turned to leave. “Do you seek revenge?”

I slipped the bottle in my pocket and carefully buttoned the pocket flap. Then I looked at him. “I seek another’s freedom.”

He studied me a moment longer, then raised his hand and scribed a sign in the air. I didn’t know if it was a blessing or black magic—and I didn’t care.

The next day, we began the journey back to our village. Tahnee and I gave each other sly looks and pokes in the ribs that were followed by giggles, which confirmed to her parents that we had gotten up to some mischief. It also made them relax, confident that nothing much had happened during our visit.

My parents, too, were relieved by the sly looks and the giggling. I was once again the daughter they knew.

Only my brother noticed something different. Or maybe it was just envy trying to bare its fangs.

“You look good, Nalah,” he said. “Rested. Almost like a different person.”

I just smiled. I didn’t tell him he was right. I
was
a different person.

Now I was dangerous.

5.

 

I could no longer live in this village and participate in the cruelty of destroying someone else in order to keep myself clean of all but the “good” feelings, and I was afraid of what might happen to me if the Elders decided I was no longer in harmony with the rest of our community. There must have been others before me who had seen and understood what we had done by not having to live with the weight of our own sorrows. What had happened to those others? Had they tried to change the heart of a village, or had they slipped away one day to escape what they could not change and could not endure?

Or did they lie beneath the blank markers that festered in the thorny, weed-choked part of our burial ground that was set aside for the Un-Named—the ones who had done something so offensive their names were “forgotten” in the village records and family trees.

Alone, I could escape, could vanish into the vastness of the world—or, at least, vanish into the streets of Vision. I was certain of that. But if I tried to help The Voice and was caught . . . I would suffer a tragic—and fatal—accident and be buried under one of those blank markers, just one more of the Un-Named. I was certain of that too.

So knowing what was at stake, I spent a week watching, looking, seeing. And the more I focused on the need to leave this village, the more things subtly changed.

An Elder, claiming his cart horse had turned vicious and had deliberately knocked him down into a pile of manure, had taken to leaving the poor animal tied up to the hitching rail behind the Elders’ Hall, still harnessed to the cart without a handful of grain or a sip of water. Anyone who looked could see the horse was mistreated, but everyone averted their eyes and didn’t disagree with the Elder’s right to discipline his own animal, even though I’d heard my father mutter that, most likely, the poor beast had been doing nothing more than trying to get to its feed bucket when it had knocked the Elder down.

The men muttered, the women made moody cakes, and everyone pretended they couldn’t see the horse and, therefore, couldn’t see its misery.

I saw the misery. I also saw a horse and cart that would be easy to steal.

Then there was the blank marker stone that suddenly appeared behind The Voice’s house, far enough from the kitchen door not to be a nuisance and close enough that it could be used as a step up into the cart.

Every day I watched the village and the people. Every day I tucked a few more things into the traveling bag that looked like a small trunk made of cloth stretched over a wooden frame. I had bought it at the bazaar, using my purchases as the excuse to acquire it. Dariden laughed at me when he saw it, saying the cloth could be torn so easily, I might as well not use anything at all. True, the cloth wasn’t as sturdy as a wooden trunk, but it had one important advantage: I could carry it by myself.

By the time everything was ready, my biggest worry was Tahnee. She tried to act as if nothing had changed, but I could tell by the leashed desperation in her eyes that
everything
had changed—and I realized that she, too, had been waiting for something to happen and had been growing more and more anxious with each passing day.

I could not wish her scheme to fail because, like me, she was no longer in harmony with the village and staying would only do her harm. But I did wish with all my heart that her scheme was delayed just a few days longer, even though I knew my own disappearance would make her escape all but impossible.

Which is when things began going wrong. Just little things. Just enough things for me to realize how easy it had been for me to move forward with this plan.

“Nalah, what are you doing with that skirt?” Mother asked, catching me as I tried to sneak out of the storage cupboard that held our out-of-season clothes.

“I—” My father’s mother had made it for me two years ago, before she got funny in the head and died in her sleep one night. The dark green material was of good quality, which Mother had declared a waste, since it couldn’t be worn in decent company, and the needlework was exquisite. My grandmother had kept all the beads, spangles, and tiny mirrors that had decorated her own wedding dress and had gifted them to me on a skirt.

When Mother protested, my father’s only comment was that it was more practical to have the beads on the front of the skirt than on the part I sat on. Which proved that the male part of my father’s brain had been asleep when he looked at the skirt, because the beaded vines and mirrored flowers were intended to draw the eye to the untouched flower between my thighs. It was a skirt a girl wore when she was ready to attract a husband.

I had been too young to wear it when my grandmother had made it for me, and there was no one in this village whose attention I wanted to attract. But I wanted to take the skirt with me. I wanted the hope that I would wear it someday.

“I was going to take it over to Tahnee’s tonight, along with a few other things,” I said, suddenly inspired. “We’re going to try on clothes, see what we still like. Maybe trade.” I said this last bit in a low mumble, which made Mother sigh but also made her shoulders relax.

“The three of you used to trade so often, half the time I wasn’t sure if I was washing your clothes or theirs,” she said.

I nodded, then looked around to be sure I wouldn’t be overheard, even though I knew Mother and I were alone in the house. “Tahnee’s a little unhappy about the way Kobbi has been acting lately. I guess married life changes a girl?”

Mother’s face softened with understanding as she put an arm around my shoulders. “It can be a difficult adjustment for some girls.” She hesitated, then added, “Maybe you should make a moody cake.”

I shivered and knew she felt that shiver, but I wrinkled my nose and said, “I’d rather try on clothes.”

“You’re my daughter, Nalah, and I do care about you. You know that?”

I looked into her eyes and felt the pain of love. She did care. And that was why she couldn’t afford to see. And why I would stop looking if I stayed. If I held a little daughter in my arms, would I let her flesh carry the weight of sorrow? Would I let the Black Pustules form and listen to her scream in pain when they were lanced—and see the scars that would mark her when the hard cores were extracted? Or would I make a moody cake and teach that little girl the proper way to present it to the person whose sole purpose in our village was to swallow such offerings?

I kissed her cheek. “I don’t need a moody cake.”

I hurried to my room to pack the skirt, then hurried out to find Tahnee and let her know my mother thought I would be at her house tonight. But when I found her sitting under the big tree where she, Kobbi, and I used to play on hot summer days, everything changed again.

“Kobbi’s father denounced her,” Tahnee said in a hushed, tearful voice. “She tried to tell her mother that Chayne was doing something bad to her, something that made her head feel funny. Her father overheard her and dragged her to the Elders’ Hall. He denounced her and demanded that her name be struck from the family record.”

My chest felt so tight, I could hardly breathe. “She’s an orphan?”

Tahnee nodded. “And I heard that Chayne is so shamed because she’s an orphan by unnatural means that
he
may denounce her as his wife, since he’ll no longer receive the other two parts of the dowry.”

“She can’t inherit because she no longer exists in the eyes of her family.” And I could see Kobbi’s fate if I went ahead with my plan—because an orphan’s life is one of sorrow.

“Listen,” I said, grabbing hold of Tahnee’s arm. “I’m coming over to your house with a bag of clothes. That’s what I told my mother.”

“Oh, I don’t—”

“You’re going to pack a bag of clothes—basics and the things too dear to leave behind. But don’t pack a bag that’s so heavy you can’t carry it. You’re going to tell your mother that you and I are going over to Kobbi’s house. We’re going to try on clothes like we used to do when we were girls, and we’re going to make moody cakes to help Kobbi feel better because she’s our friend. After a denouncement, a man has three days to change his mind if he spoke in haste or out of anger, so if Kobbi comes to her senses, her father might restore her to the family. That’s what you’re going to tell your mother.”

Tahnee wiped the tears off her face and gave me a long look. “What are we really going to be doing?”

“Escaping. We’re going back to Vision.”

Her breath caught, and for a moment I wondered if I had been wrong to tell her. Then the fire of hope filled her eyes.

“The three of us?” she asked.

I hesitated, and felt as if the world itself waited for my answer. “Four of us.”

At dinner that night, even Dariden was subdued, although he rallied once when he heard I was going over to Kobbi’s house with Tahnee.

“You shouldn’t be friends with the likes of her,” he told me, glancing at our father for approval of such a manly opinion.

“What happened to Kobbi could happen to anyone,” I said, helping myself to another spoonful of rice. Then I looked my brother in the eyes. “If I had ended up married to someone like Chayne, it could have happened to me.”

My father made a tongue-cluck sound of disapproval for my criticism of Chayne, but Dariden paled as he realized I knew what Chayne had been doing to Kobbi. And as he stared into my eyes, he understood that, with the least provocation, Tahnee and I would spread that information to every female in the village, and any standing Chayne had in our community would be crushed under the rumors that he drugged his young wife in order to do unnatural things in the marriage bed.

“You’re looking pale, Dariden,” I said, putting enough concern in my voice to draw Mother’s attention. “Perhaps you should stay in tonight.”

“You’re not feeling well?” Mother asked him.

Cornered, Dariden just stared at his plate. “Been working hard,” he mumbled. “Guess I should turn in early tonight.”

So I was free to leave the house, secure in the knowledge that Dariden and I wouldn’t cross paths tonight. Even if he retreated to his room, he wouldn’t be able to sneak out the window, because Mother always checked on us at regular intervals when we weren’t feeling well. Dariden had learned this the hard way as a boy when he had lied to Mother about not feeling well in order to sneak out with his friends, and had found our father waiting for him when he snuck back in.

I left the house with my travel bag and stopped just long enough to slip into our little barn and take a small bag of feed and an old round pan that could hold water. I didn’t have a water skin, and that was a worry. It turned out to be a foolish worry, because Tahnee had bought a water skin at the bazaar and hidden it under her other purchases.

We didn’t see many people on the way to Kobbi’s house, and those who saw us looked away when they noticed the bags of clothes and realized where we were going.

The woman who opened the door . . . Tahnee and I stood there, too numbed to speak. Our friend Kobbi was gone, and in that moment when my eyes met the crazed wildness in Kobrah’s, I knew that even if we got her away from Chayne and the village, we had lost her forever. But we would still try to save her.

“I was going to burn down the house,” Kobrah said, as if that were the most ordinary thing to say. “But it can wait until later. Maybe I should wait until Chayne is home and sound asleep. Yes. That would be better.”

She stepped aside to let us in. We slipped into the house and closed the door before daring to say anything.

“We’re leaving,” I said hurriedly. “We’re running away to Vision. You can come with us.”

She’ll destroy us,
I thought as I waited for her answer.
Chayne has burned out the goodness in her, and if she comes with us, she’ll destroy us.

But I didn’t take back the offer. I just waited for her answer.

“Yes,” she finally said, softly. “Yes.” She turned and went into the kitchen.

Leaving our bags by the door, we hurried after her. “We didn’t dare take any food from home . . .” I began.

“I have food,” Kobrah replied. She pulled out her market basket. “I boiled eggs this afternoon, after I got back from the Elders’ Hall. Chayne doesn’t like hard-boiled eggs. Maybe that’s why I made them.”

Her voice sounded dreamy—and insane. But she moved swiftly, storing the eggs, wrapping up the cheeses, taking all the fresh fruit.

Then Tahnee, in an effort to help, reached for a loaf of bread still cooling on the counter.

“No!” Kobrah snarled. “
That
is for Chayne.”

Tahnee stepped away from the counter, white with fear. She looked at me, her thoughts clear on her face:
Do we dare eat anything that comes from this house?

Kobrah smiled bitterly. “The rest of the food is safe.” She went into the bedroom, and we listened to her opening drawers and slamming them shut, followed by a cry of triumph and the rattle of coins in a tin box.

Kobrah was packed in no time, and even after we told her about having a cart, she refused to add anything to the small travel pack she used to carry when we spent the night at each other’s houses. After the second time we urged her to bring more clothes or at least a few sentimental trinkets, she said, “I want no reminders of this place.”

The hours crawled by until, finally, we had reached that in-between hour when all the family men were dutifully tucked in with their wives and children and the younger men were still at the drinking parlor or carousing elsewhere with friends.

BOOK: The Voice
11.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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