by M.K. Hutchins
Being near Ingrid was the only good thing about living in a God-neglected frozen wasteland. Her face was round as the moon—a soft, pleasant face that suggested her cooking encouraged second helpings. Her face didn’t lie: light rye breads, sweet poached fruit, elk and wild onion stew that made my beard grow. Well, the bit of a beard I had. Ingrid always laughed and teased when she caught me finger-combing the handful of hairs sticking from my face. Her laugh—that was pure silver. For too long, she’d slaved away under Arbiter Elof’s guardianship. The day I signed a contract with Elof and became Ingrid’s betrothed was the happiest day of my life.
The next day was the worst.
I clambered down the loft, picking bits of straw from my clothes. Grandma stirred something on the hearth. “Breakfast for you? Your folks are already off preparing the cellars.”
“Rob’s helping them?” Other than Grandma and me, my family’s one-room house was empty.
She smiled fondly. “No. He woke early and asked me some questions about my days in the Confederate Ithena. He left before anyone else woke up. Don’t think your folks realize he’s not still sleeping in the loft.”
I groaned inside. Grandma had traveled with the merchant caravans before she married Grandpa—she was one of the rare people who’d chosen to live in Ogynan’s frozen lands. “Your stories bring out the worst in Rob. I wish you’d stop.”
“The worst?” She raised an eyebrow, pulling a trail of wrinkles with it. “He’s a curious boy. No harm in that.”
“Curious is an understatement,” I muttered.
Grandma dropped some wild rye berries into her pot. “And worst seemed like an exaggeration. We’re even.”
“Where’s Rob?” I asked again, already tired.
Grandma shrugged. “Why not leave him alone?”
“Because it’ll lead to more quarreling.” My parents had spent all of dinner last night chastising Rob for shirking chores, but lecturing Rob was like lecturing a glacier. He never seemed to hear. Then Grandma chided them for being so harsh on him. Everyone went to bed cross.
Well, everyone except Rob. He went to bed oblivious.
“Please, Grandma,” I pleaded.
“Always the peacemaker.” Grandma mumbled that like it was an insult. She pursed her lips. “He’s up by the border between us and the Confederacy. West of the ice-lanes, if he didn’t get distracted.”
That was a pretty big if. I grabbed a flat of rye bread—nothing like my Ingrid’s—and gnawed it as I hurried outside.
Snow blanked the sod roofs and the ground, giving the village a pearly, sparkling veneer. Too bad the lumpy wattle-and-daub walls remained visible.
I passed several sleds already running loads down the ice-lanes. My gut twisted. Rob and I should be running loads ourselves. I had a bride-price to pay. No work, no money, no Ingrid.
I veered west and, sure as snow, Rob crouched by the border. Even though he was fully seventeen, from a distance his thin frame made him look more like ten. The snow ended in a sharp line at the border. On the Confederacy’s side, lush grasses and tiny yellow autumn flowers blanketed every hillock.
Rob meticulously lined purple-black elderberries right along the border, but they all rolled back onto the snow or into the grass. He must have been at it for some time—a half-dozen neglected berries on the Confederacy side had already defrosted.
“Rob,” I said gently, “it’s time to get to work.”
Another finicky berry rolled away. Rob mumbled under his breath and gingerly placed the berry back with its fellows.
“Rob,” I tried a little louder. No response. I scooped up the berries he was fiddling with. “Rob!”
He blinked up at me, then smiled, completely unruffled. “Oh good. I thought they might have somehow rolled upward. Hi Trygve. Those are seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven and twelve. Did you want to try?”
“You numbered them?”
He shrugged. “Mother named you.”
I peered at him, but he just stared back without explanation.
“Rob, that didn’t make sense.”
“Numbers and names are the same thing. They make things easier to keep track of.”
I sighed and dumped the elderberries into his hands. “What are you doing this time?”
“Grandma told me about a man who ate hemlock. The Confederate Ithena has a Goddess of Hemlock, so they can prepare it as a medicine for arthritis. But then an arthritis sufferer stood on the border between the Confederacy and the Teuloc Nations. His body seized up and he died. Fascinating, huh?”
“What does that have to do with berries?”
“Not berries, borders.” Rob shook his head. “Was the hemlock still medicinal on the Confederacy side? After all, having half an unpoisoned body would still kill him.”
I stared at Rob, not sure if he was brilliant or broken. But I hadn’t come to encourage his strange fixations. “Do you remember last night? How mad everyone was? If we get to work now, Mother and Father won’t know that you ran off again.”
“I’m trying to see if I can get half a berry to freeze.” He spoke as calmly as if I hadn’t mentioned last night. “Have you ever really thought about borders?”
“No.” We didn’t have time for this.
“It’s easy to see that gods affect geographical areas. Ogynan, God of Freezing, over here,” he gestured at the snow, “and the Confederacy’s pantheon over there.” He waved at the grass and flowers. “But what if something’s in both? Would it be half-frozen and half-thawed? Or do Gods and Goddess only affect discrete objects? And if it is discrete, do they affect anything so much as touching their geographical area, or does it have to be more than halfway inside?”
When he was younger, Mother and Father told each other that Rob would grow out of these absent-minded meanderings. That he’d settle.
They didn’t say that anymore.
Rob started drawing with a stick in the snow, a little map with the Confederate Ithena and the Chaos lands sandwiching us—Ogynan’s people, the frozen ones who have to barter for everything except ice.
“One day,” Rob said, “when I travel like Grandma did, I’m going to test all the borders. Do you think they all work the same?”
His words stabbed me. Rob would never travel. No merchant would hire him, and we didn’t have the money to buy him a Confederate citizen’s contract.
“I wish Grandma would stop telling you stories.”
“Why?” He blinked at me.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him—again—that he’d always live here.
Map finished, Rob crouched back down and gently laid his elderberries along the border. ‘That’s eight…you’re eleven…there we go. Just as we started.”
But of course the berries kept rolling.
“Where did you get those?” I asked, but Rob ignored me and kept fiddling. I sighed. “That’s never going to work.”
He pursed his lips. “Well, I’ve only failed to set a berry on the border two hundred and seventy-eight times. Never seems like a stretch. But yes, blackberries would be better. They’d stay put.”
“It’s never going to work and you’ll get an onslaught of hail at dinner tonight if we don’t get to work.”
“Hail?” Rob blinked. “Is something wrong with the roof again?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “It’s an idiom.” How could I make him understand? “Mother and Father are already preparing the ice cellars. It’s not an easy job, scraping the walls to uniformity. And when you wander away, they feel like…”
“You’ve pinched your nose like that twelve and a half times this week,” Rob said. “Does it make it easier to think? I’ve tried it, but didn’t notice any difference.”
So much for explaining our parents’ frustration. “Half?”
“Three times you reached up and stopped partway through. Maybe half isn’t a very accurate description.” Rob frowned, his eyebrows pulling together.
I sighed. “Rob, your thoughts are always off in their own world. C’mon.” Gently, I pulled him to his feet. “Time for work.”
Rob blinked. “Work?”
“Yes, work.” I shook my head, but I couldn’t help smiling at him—big brown eyes, uncombed hair sticking out to the side like a bird’s wing. He was my little brother, and if I didn’t watch out for him, no one would. “If we don’t hurry with our sled, there won’t be any contracts left for us. C’mon. I need good contracts to pay Ingrid’s bride price.”
“Ingrid’s nice. She shares her bread with me sometimes.”
“I know.” She was one of the few people who treated Rob like a human being instead of a nuisance—which was one more reason to love her.
“After the sleds, then we’ll come back with blackberries?” Rob asked. “I’d like ten of them. We should number them thirteen through twenty-three so they start and end happy.”
I sighed. “Does playing with berries matter? All we need to know is that the Confederacy will pay us to store their surplus because we have the God of Freezing and their massive pantheon doesn’t. What happens at the exact border isn’t important.”
“Important?” Rob stared at me like I’d murdered all twelve elderberries and condemned them to a shallow grave.
“Fine,” I said as we headed back toward the village, “I’ll think about it.”
Rob scuffed his feet in the snow. “That always means no.”
We grabbed our sled from where it hung inside our hut. Somewhere in the world, there’s a Goddess of Sleds, but she doesn’t know us. These sleds were rough contraptions—elk hide folded around slats of wood, as long and wide as I was tall. Rob took one of the ropes, I took the other, and we jogged up through the village. About a thousand of us eked out a living here, in the only settlement Ogynan’s Land could support.
“Do you think,” Rob began, “that it’s possible to contrive some kind of slick, ice-like surface in the Confederacy that our sled could run on?”
“Can you try to focus on the present?” I asked.
“Hmm.” Rob paused. “The patch on your coat has forty-two stitches. Unless you don’t count the broken stitch. So, forty-one. Unless you’re looking at it from the inside, where you can’t see the break. Then it’s forty-three—since the starting and ending knots are on the inside. Unless you don’t count those. Then there’s still forty-one on the inside, just like the outside.”
Rob had a way of responding just as requested and never as anticipated. At least he was smiling, looking happy to be out and pulling the sled with me.
Others with their sleds maneuvered past us on the ice-lanes. Most of them ignored us, but our neighbors, the siblings Kettil and Nea, slowed long enough for Nea to scoop up a snowball. She lobbed it at us.
I tried to swat it down, but it hit Rob square in the face.
“Slush-brain!” Kettil shouted. They laughed like he’d said something clever, then hurried downhill. They were both older than Rob; you’d think they could come up with something better.
“You’re both idiots!” I shouted back. Then I helped Rob brush his face off.
Rob blinked wetly. “Is it snowing?”
My insides wrenched. At least Kettil and Nea were too far away to hear that. I didn’t answer.
“When I’m off exploring the world, I wonder if I’ll find anywhere else with snow. Do you think the caravans will hire me next year?” Rob asked.
Next year meant he’d already been rejected this year. The merchants were right not to hire him—his own family could barely take care of him—but it still left my stomach sour. I placed a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll always be my brother. You know that, right?”
Rob’s face scrunched up. “How could I not be? Unless somewhere there’s a God of Time that allows you to go back and change my parentage…” he trailed off. “Do you think there is? A God of Time, I mean.”
“I’ve never heard of one.”
“That’s not the same thing,” Rob said.
I didn’t know how to respond to that, so we started pulling the sled uphill again. Soon enough, we reached the border, where the broad, main ice-lane ended in a neat line. Tent after tent crammed the Confederacy side, all over their autumn grass. I jogged to a promising-looking one and told Rob to wait with the sled.
I bartered with a hawk-eyed, matronly woman with crates and crates of straw-packed berries behind her. Eventually we settled on a decent rate—half payment up-front, half upon return of the berries—and I stamped my thumb to the contract. Rob and I loaded up the sled.
The first trip went well. And the third and the sixth. Mother and Father unloaded at the cellars—ice-lined rooms built half-underground. From the outside, the waist-high roof made it look like the snow was trying to swallow it whole. The lines of ire and frustration were already melting from my parents’ faces. They could never stay mad at Rob for long.
My fingers were numb by the time Rob and I loaded the last of the hawk-eyed woman’s berries, but I couldn’t stop grinning. Tonight we’d actually eat dinner like a normal, happy family. And in two weeks, Ingrid would be part of that family.
We eased the sled onto the ice-lane. She creaked a bit, then whispered as the pull of the earth and the smoothness of the ice did its work. I ran along one side, Rob on the other. Snow began to fall, just baby’s breath—tiny, fluffy flakes.
We passed Arbiter Elof’s grand home. Ingrid was outside, scrapping ice off the eaves. I think she winked at me. My stomach fluttered.
Then I noticed my sled was drifting across the lane, toward me.
“Tug!” I shouted to Rob. He ran outward with his rope, pulling the sled straight.
Maybe it was all the loads we’d done, but as we came down the final stretch, the sled jerked against my rope. A slick, slushy ice-lane can do that. Or maybe I’d loaded it too high.
“Run up!” I shouted, sprinting uphill to slow the sled before it crashed into our cellars.
The rope nearly yanked my arms from their sockets. Then it ripped straight through my mittens. My innards froze solid as I watched it spin, watched the back corner crash into the low ceiling of the cellar, watched those blood-red berries spill over the snow.
It took me another long moment to understand. Rob stood a ways off, staring up at the sky, at the thrice-cursed snowflakes. I’d been the only one running up.
We managed to patch the cellar wall with snow and ice, but the sled was kindling. I tried to borrow one, but as expected, nobody could spare a sled this time of year. No one had extra wood planks, either.
Father, Rob, and I felled a tree, but it took a week to saw it into something useable. By then, the rest of the contracts were gone, the Confederates’ surplus safely in others’ cellars.
I sat on our roof, staring out at Arbiter Elof’s sprawling house. At the end of sled season, we always bought things we needed and couldn’t make ourselves from the Confederates. Wool. Real wheat—not the wild rye that grows here. Looms. We only have one god, and he’s just good at making us all cold.
My breath swirled in front of me. Mother had sold everything extra we owned—a shirt, her favorite hairpin, some wood carvings—but we had to spend all of it on buying food for winter. I didn’t have the bride-price I’d promised Arbiter Elof.
Rob climbed the snow drift up next to me. I wanted to punch him off.
“Mm sorry. Very sorry.”
“You come up with that grand speech yourself?” I snapped. Part of me felt horrible for being sharp with him, and the other part wanted to scream so that maybe—maybe this once—he’d understand how badly he’d messed up.
“No. Grandma helped me.” He stared down at his hands.
I looked away from the Arbiter’s, into the black smear of the Chaos beyond our village, where no one lived, where no gods reigned or created Order. “I’m supposed to get married in a week.”
“To Ingrid, right?”
“Icestorms,” I cursed. “When I don’t have the money I promised, do you know what that makes me?”
“A contract-breaker. Do you know what happens to contract-breakers?”
“Contracts are Order. Breaking them invites Chaos.”
He never could focus on the immediate. “And to make sure Order keeps reigning in the village, I’ll be exiled into the Chaos.”
People who step into the Chaos don’t usually turn inside-out or have their clothes eat their eyeballs—people have a bit of Order in them to keep themselves and what they’re touching together—but the land does whatever it wants. Grandpa went into the Chaos once and came out with a gaping wound in his chest and a nugget of gold in his hand. He said triangles attacked him. He was insane for the rest of his life, which admittedly wasn’t long. Father was a tyke when it happened, but Grandma told the story often.
Rob frowned. “Your contract doesn’t include a non-completion clause?”
I sighed. I hadn’t thought to include one. “No.”
“Oh.” Rob fidgeted with his mittens. “That would have been smart.”
I slid off the roof, down the snow drift, then jammed my hands into my pockets.
“Where are you going?” Rob asked.
“Away from you.”
Arbiter Elof wasn’t a priest or a king or an elected governor. We didn’t have any of those. He was simply the richest person in Ogynan’s Land, with a hoard of boot-licking sycophants. That pretty much made him in charge. Anyone who said otherwise had to reckon with him and his underlings.
I pounded my fist against his front door. One of those boot-lickers let me inside. I stepped from the crisp, cold world of newly-fallen snow into the smoky stench of fish-oil lamps and unwashed fur jackets. The long hall boasted an almost equally long table. Fifty men gnawed on bones around it, ripping flesh like wolves. From the size of the bones, Elof had splurged on three or four sheep from the Confederates to celebrate the end of contract season. He always did treat his followers well.
I picked my way around the chairs and tracked-in mud to the head of the table, near the blazing hearth. My head ached with the sudden heat of it and my palms sweated.
Arbiter Elof leaned back in his chair and lazily glanced up at me, his fingers gleaming with the fat from the rib in his hand. “I can’t imagine why you’re here, Trygve.”
He had to know about the crash. My mouth burned in the dry heat—the kind of heat my home could never afford. I swallowed. My throat felt as rough as sand. “I want to take out a loan.”
“A loan?” He blinked innocently at me. He almost looked like Rob, but Rob never had an edge of malice beneath his blank stares.
The conversations around the table died down as Elof’s hanger-ons leaned in to listen.
I couldn’t afford to be proud. Right now, I couldn’t afford a wooden button. “A loan on the bride-price I agreed to in our contract.”
“What? Give you money so you can pay me?” He laughed like I’d claimed I could make grass grow in winter.
I bit the inside of my lip. I had to remain polite. No one else could loan me so much. “Let’s negotiate an interest rate. You’re a man of business.”
“And you’re ill-fated, crashing a sled. Soon you’re going to be a contract breaker! I want nothing to do with you, Trygve. You should leave.”
I stood there, numb despite the heat. “Surely we can—”
Two of his burliest men laid their hands firmly on my shoulders.
I shut up and walked out myself, my pulse thudding against my skull. I’d taken a dozen step out into the biting cold when someone called, “Trygve!”
I turned. Ingrid ran towards me from Elof’s kitchen door. A few golden curls peeped out of her tattered hood. Her mouth was downturned, like a bit of lopsided dough. “I heard you. In the hall.”
“I’m going to make this work.” Not that I had any idea how. I took her hands in mine—they were chapped and cracked from scrubbing pots with melted snow.
“No one else will loan to you. Elof wants you exiled to Chaos.”
They could call it exile, but stepping into the Chaos was death. “I don’t understand.”
“The evening before cellar contracts started, hours after we’d signed our betrothal agreement, Elof was entertaining some Confederate merchants. One of them tried my stuffed, poached apples and took a liking to me.” She wrinkled her face in disgust. “He offered Elof a generous bride-price. If our contract fails, their new contract goes into effect.”
I tightened my grip on her hands. “That can’t be legal. The terms of his guardianship guarantee you the right to choose your husband.”
“Technically, it says the right to sign a betrothal contract, at the fixed bride-price of five gold coins. A. Singular. Elof always follows the letter of what he signs, but he never plays fair.”
Ingrid knew that better than anyone. When her parents were dying of pneumonia some six years ago, they tried to sign guardianship of Ingrid to anyone except Elof, but he blocked them with his customary trio of well-placed bribes, threats, and empty promises. Elof got all of her parent’s lands in “payment” for “raising” Ingrid.
In a way, Elof was like Ogynan himself. They both spent just enough effort to keep the community from dissolving into chaos. I’d heard from the merchants how other gods actually tried to make their civilizations flourish.
My jaw tightened. I hated both of them—Elof and Ogynan. My face felt as hot as when I’d stood by Elof’s roaring fire. “I wish we could leave.”
“A contract-breaker isn’t welcome anywhere.” She smiled sadly at me. “Even if you can keep our contract, where would we go?”
We couldn’t live in the Chaos, and we could only work in the Confederate Ithena for so long before their laws demanded we return home or purchase a citizen’s contract. If I had the money for that, I wouldn’t be begging Elof for a loan.
“Sometimes I think Ogynan isn’t ignoring us, but trying to ruin our lives. Why did it have to snow right then? Why did our sled crash?”
Ingrid ran her thumb over the back of my hand. “Oh, Trygve. The crash is just the most convenient way for Elof to sabotage our wedding. Otherwise, he’d be fining Rob for the berries he stole.”
“Stole?” I stared at her.
She nodded ruefully. “I heard Elof bragging about it afterwards. On the first morning of contracts, Rob came asking the merchants to hire him. Once they finished turning him out, he asked one if he could have a handful of berries. Elof overheard and said he had lots of berries. Rob took that to mean he could have some, though Elof never explicitly gave them to him. He’s got a dozen witnesses to the ‘theft’.”
Even if Rob hadn’t crashed the sled, he’d already ruined me. The back of my throat tasted like bile.
Ingrid pulled a warm round of rye bread from inside her coat and pressed it into my hands. “I’ve been sneaking out to cook other folk’s dinner for a penny. But even if it keeps going well, I’ll earn less than a third of what you need by next week. I hope you can come up with the rest. It won’t be easy, with Elof against you.”
Then she did the nicest thing—she kissed me, and her mouth was anything but frozen. She blushed hard enough I could see it by starlight, then ran inside.
Ingrid was right. I spent the next day knocking on every house in Ogynan’s Land. Everyone was too scared of Elof to loan me so much as a penny or hire me for an evening’s odd job.
Insides as numb as my fingertips, I returned home. Grandma and Rob were washing bowls for supper. Grandma scrubbed with practiced efficiency. Rob’s rag moved in slow, smooth circles, as if the pattern mattered more than the chore.
“Where are Mother and Father?” I asked half-heartedly. I felt too tired to really care.
“Out trying to scrounge some coins for you. I’m surprised you didn’t cross paths.” Grandma dried her hands on a tattered rag. “I have something, too.”
She hobbled over to the little wicker basket where she kept mementos of her earlier, traveling days—pressed flowers, pretty stones, carved bits of wood. Rob’s eyes widened with child-like wonder, but my throat tightened. She’d never seen the merchants laugh away Rob’s petitions for work.
Grandma pulled out something I’d never seen before. A book bound in blue leather and a smooth, black stick with a silvery tip.
“I saved these as presents for the day each of you got married, but I suppose they should come out early.” She pressed the stick into Rob’s hand and the soft notebook into mine.
I opened it. The pages were yellowed around the edges but creamy in the center, like the yellow rind of Confederate sheep’s cheese. “They’re all blank.”
“That’s the kind of ledgers Confederate merchants used back when I was a girl,” she said. “It was a gift from my father, but I never had a need for it after I settled here. Its value is mostly sentimental, but I thought you might be able to sell it for something.”
Her old eyes looked too bright in the hearth light.
“Th-thank you,” I spluttered.
Then I glanced at Rob. He’d used the stick to scribble on the table, his shirt, and now he was trying to write on his hand.
He startled, then looked around. “Oh. I thought something was about to fall on me again.”
“No, you’re…” I took a deep breath. “Can you stop writing on yourself?”
“I wanted to see what it worked on.” Rob said that like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Grandma smiled softly. “It’s called a pencil and it works best on paper. Once, when we traveled to trade with Feledales, we bought them by the hundreds. They have a Goddess of Graphite there.”
“And do pencils work the same way here as they do in Feledales?” Rob asked.
Grandma shrugged. “As far as I can tell.”
Rob pursed his lips. “I’ll test it when I travel and figure it out for sure.” He turned the pencil in his hand. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? Things that are frozen here don’t stay frozen in the Confederacy. But pencils manufactured in Feledales seem to stay pencils. Maybe. And books stay books, even though we have no God or Goddess of any kind of paper here. Maybe it’s about process.”
“Process?” Grandma prompted. I pinched the bridge of my nose—we shouldn’t encourage him.
Rob nodded. “Maybe they’re really the God of Paper-making and Pencil-making. Or at least that’s how their divine powers work. It can only be made in their domain, but then it can go anywhere. Then Ogynan’s not really over the process of freezing, or things would stay frozen over the border. He’s over frozen-ness itself. Kind of like the Goddess of Hemlock. Medicine becomes poison if you leave the Confederate Ithena.”
I looked to Grandma, wondering what story she’d told to spark this idea, but she shrugged and gave me a helpless look.
Sometimes I couldn’t tell if Rob was wise beyond reason, completely mad, or both. In any case, I squeezed Rob’s shoulder, then hugged Grandmother.
My parents returned that evening with nothing to show for their efforts. The next day I managed to sell Grandma’s precious notebook to Nea for a pittance. Then I talked with Ingrid again, but she’d had no further luck.
I shouldn’t have sold the notebook. Grandma could have kept it and remembered her early years—it couldn’t save me.
“Have you tried getting a loan?” Rob asked, two days before the wedding. We were pulling the new sled, now laden with firewood Father had chopped in the forest.
My head throbbed. My words came out terser than I meant. “Yes. Yesterday. I’ve tried everything.”
Rob didn’t seem to notice my tone. “It would take a long time to try everything. I bet you haven’t walked around town on your hands.”
“That wouldn’t help!” My breath swirled into mist in front of me.
“Grandma told me about a Confederate performer who did that. And eat fire. People gave him pennies.”
“You can’t eat fire.”
“You can if it earns you pennies,” Rob said. “Or maybe there’s a Goddess of Fire-eating? I’ll have to ask Grandma. I wonder if fire is as filling as bread, or if it just keeps you warm.”
“Fine. I’ve tried everything useful.”
Rob pursed his lips and adjusted his grip on the rope. “Have you looked over the cellar contract we do have?”
“I don’t see how that helps.”
“Maybe we could sell the contract. I mean, we do have a cellar with some berries. Wouldn’t someone pay us money now for the right to collect the rest of our payment come spring?”
I bit my lip. It wasn’t that different from a loan, but maybe getting tangible assets instead of the promise of an almost-contract-breaker would make someone brave enough to defy Elof. Nea had bought the notebook after all—it was too good a deal for her to pass up.
Once we unloaded the stack of wood, I rushed inside and pulled out the thin, wooden box hidden not-so-cleverly under my parent’s straw mattress. I flipped through the various contracts.
Mother was bent over a grindstone full of wild rye berries. “What are you doing?”
“Checking something.” I scanned furiously, hands already clammy.
My gut sank. Payable only to Trygve or his immediate kin. No, we couldn’t sell the contracts. Why had I thought that anyone would buy it? Either they believed I was chaotic because of the crash, or they believed in Elof’s power to hurt them.
Rob walked up behind me and looked the contract over. “Don’t worry, Trygve. I have another idea. I’ll fix this for you.”
After we finished hauling wood for the day, Rob snuck off somewhere. All during supper, he had a huge grin on his face, but he didn’t say anything until after we climbed into the loft and wrapped ourselves in our blankets.
“Here,” he whispered conspiratorially. “This is for you.”
Rob pressed a single coin into my hand. From its size and weight, it was a bronze Confederate penny. Against what I owed for the bride-price, it was practically nothing. But I couldn’t bring myself to crush his joy. “Thanks, Rob. How’d you get this?”
I had a hard time imagining anyone hiring Rob, even in ordinary circumstances.
“I sold my pencil to Nea. I figured you needed it more than me.”
My words lumped in my throat. He hadn’t saved me from exile; he’d tossed away Grandma’s keepsake.
“What?” I asked, as if expecting a different answer.
“I sold it. For you.”
“For nothing! Do you really think a rare good from the other side of the Confederacy is only worth a penny?” She’d cheated him worse than she’d cheated me. Not that a fair price would have saved me, either. “You should have kept it.”
Rob’s voice quivered, tiny in the darkness. “I wanted to help.”
Then you should have been paying attention to the sled. I grated to say the words out loud, but I bit them back. He hadn’t meant to hurt me, though he had. He’d tried to help, though he hadn’t. When I was gone, I wanted him to remember a brother who’d been kind to him when most of the world was not.
I exhaled my anger and squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Rob, for watching out for me.”
Mother, Father, and even Grandma sniffled whenever they saw me, like I was already a corpse. I couldn’t stand it anymore. So, the day before what should have been my wedding, I sat on the roof again, staring out at the Chaos. It stared back, as black and pitiless as a midwinter’s night. Tomorrow, on my planned wedding day, I’d be exiled into it.
For a brief moment, I entertained thoughts of becoming a fugitive in the Confederate Ithena, a contract-breaker vagabond, always on the run. But I had no skills for such a life—I doubted I’d last three days. When Elof or the Confederate authorities caught me, they’d hit my family with a fine, then toss me into the Chaos anyway.
One way or another, I’d be forced into the Chaos. I might as well go now. At least Ingrid wouldn’t have to watch me disappear.
I stood on the border of the Chaos, the snow ending in a sharp line a pace away. Up close, the Chaos stopped looking like a dark haze and revealed its true nature. Purple shapes writhed through red dirt, trees hung upside down, and rocks kept turning into snakes. I tugged my mittens on tighter, as if those could protect me, and stepped across.
The ground rolled under me like the back of a running elk. I pitched forward, and instead of indigo rocks there to catch me, a chasm opened.
I tumbled. Tumbled, tumbled, bumping off oddly soft sand-ledges. I stopped with a dull thud.
It knocked the wind out of me, but I hadn’t broken anything. I would have laughed, giddy with relief, if I could breathe.
Then one of the ledges turned into a triangle and stabbed me through the chest.
Laying on the ground felt odd. Next to me, my blood stayed red, liquid. Further out, the droplets turned into a pair of voles and three-fourths of a butterfly and scampered off. They left clear puddles behind in the sand.
Funny, really. I’d die before I broke my betrothal contract after all.
Noises played around me—screaming, birdsong, silence that hummed a merry tune. But when I heard Rob’s voice, I opened my eyes.
“Hello.” He knelt and bandaged my chest.
“It’s not as bad as you think it is.”
I took a few breaths. The pain had dulled. Maybe…maybe he was right. Or this was another kind of Chaos trick. I didn’t ask. “How did you find me?”
“I saw you walk in.”
I blinked up at him, not understanding.
“I was sitting at the border, testing blackberries.”
I frowned. “You shouldn’t be able to find me in the Chaos. The ground shifts, turns, and boils in here.”
Rob shrugged. “I just walked straight. It was all pretty normal.”
Before Rob could answer, a triangle shifted up through the sands and launched towards him.
“Watch out!” I shouted.
I couldn’t move fast enough to tackle him out of harm’s way. Rob looked the wrong direction—up. The triangle hit his neck, then crumpled like paper and disappeared.
“You know,” Rob said, “getting excited probably isn’t good for your injury.”
I gaped. “H-how are you fine?”
“Grandma always says Chaos plays off your thoughts, and you say my thoughts always seem to be someplace else. I figured I’d be safe.” He shrugged; he hadn’t even noticed the triangle. Rob knotted the bandage at the front of my chest, then helped me stand. “This is a fascinating place. Do you know that berries stay frozen when I hold them, but not when I let go?”
Was he really thinking about berries at a time like this?
Sure enough, he pulled a single blackberry out of his pocket. “This is nineteen. I wonder if berries would stay frozen if someone from the Confederacy brought them here, or if this only works because I’m one of Ogynan’s. Or maybe it’s because people have a bit of Order in them, and I believe that berries should stay frozen and Ogynan has nothing to do with it. I wonder how I could test it?”
I laughed—a dry, exhausted sound. Rob actually liked this deathtrap. I hobbled two steps toward where I thought the border was, and the air flared to ungodly heat.
Rob scowled at me. “You’re thinking, aren’t you?”
“You should stop.”
I shook my head. “Do you know where we are? I have to keep my eyes open, I have to…” I trailed off. Being present-minded might be helpful in god-Ordered lands, but no gods reigned here. “Rob, take my hand. I’m closing my eyes, and I’m going to bore you.”
“You’re going to talk about Ingrid?”
“Yes.” Maybe that would keep my mind absent enough for Rob to get us out.
I rambled about her bread, her stew, and the dainties she made for holidays. Pebbles ground under my feet, sometimes pitching, sometimes still. I rambled about her hair, her laugh, and the way she teased me about my not-a-beard.
Was Rob actually leading us somewhere, or was the Chaos just waiting to devour us?
“You’re making the trees fold themselves into buckets again,” Rob said.
I swallowed. “Have…have I mentioned her bread?”
Rob was either encouraging me, or—like usual—he wasn’t listening to begin with.
I’d moved on to her laugh again when snow crunched under my feet and icy air whipped my face. I opened my eyes. Below me spread real dirt, rocks, and snow. In the distance, moonlight silhouetted the village and the tendrils of hearth smoke.
“Do you see twenty through twenty-three?” Rob pointed, his voice shimmering with excitement. A quartet of blackberries rested on the border. “I think it’s discrete. They always stay blackberries until I’ve rolled them all the way to the Chaos side. Before you went in, I was starting them on the chaos side to see if they stayed chaotic until they crossed entirely back over the border, but…”
Rob stepped into the Chaos.
“Get back over here!” I lunged for him. But Rob just set down the blackberry from his pocket. As soon as it left his fingers, it turned into a chipmunk and burrowed into the orange sand.
“I can’t catch the chipmunks.” Rob calmly walked back onto the snow. “So I don’t know if they’ll turn back to blackberries on this side of the border. I need a net.”
“Rob. It’s the Chaos. You shouldn’t play with this one.” My pulse still pounded in my throat. He could have died for that stupid blackberry.
He blinked at me. “Why?”
“Well…it’s Chaos. Anything could happen.”
I shook my head.
“In a way, Chaos is predictable,” Rob said. “I know nothing’s going to behave like it does here. Blackberries won’t stay blackberries. But I also know that whatever I’m touching is safe. There are rules, just different kinds of rules.”
I stared at Rob. I’d never heard anyone describe Chaos that way…but he was right.
“So. Do you know where a net is? Do you think Ingrid has one?”
Ingrid. The wedding. “Icestorms. Rob, I’m alive, but I…I still can’t pay Elof.”
My stomach turned to slush. Tomorrow, I’d still be exiled. And Ingrid would be married off to the Confederate dolt to line Elof’s pockets.
“Oh. That’s right. Don’t worry. There’s plenty of gold in the Chaos.” He strolled right back in.
“Rob!” I hovered at the border. If I ran after him, I’d probably get myself killed. “Rob!”
“You don’t have to keep shouting. I know which way the border is.” Rob calmly scanned the ground. Then he dug. The orange sand turned to purple clay, but he didn’t seem to care. “I swore I saw some over here.”
A tree tried to eat him, but it broke its strange teeth-branches on Rob’s back and scurried away. Meanwhile, my brother turned the dirt over in his hands. The stuff he was touching stayed purple, even while the earth shifted to a loamy red.
“Isn’t this fascinating?” he asked. He shook the clay off. The lumps turned into rain droplets and shot skyward.
I ran for help. I might not have been particularly quiet in our tiny house, shouting about Rob being in the Chaos, or maybe walls of mud, sticks, and snow don’t do much to muffle noise. I woke the neighbors, and the general commotion woke their neighbors.
It wasn’t until I reached the border with Mother, Father, and Grandmother that I realized that half the village trailed behind us, bundled up in their well-worn coats and mittens and boots. Elof’s lackeys had brought him a chair and a blazing brazier. He lounged, chatting and laughing with them.
Did anyone besides my family care about Rob, or had they come to watch the peculiar young man get himself killed?
“Rob!” Mother called, frantic. “Rob, please, come to us. Can you see us? Can you hear us?”
He ignored her and kept digging.
“I tried that,” I said.
But it didn’t stop Father from shouting, too. He cupped his hand around his mouth. “Rob! Look at me! Rob, listen—come back!”
My chest still ached where the triangle had struck. “Do we have a rope long enough to, I don’t know, snare him with?” The plan sounded even more pathetic out loud than it had in my head. I’d gotten half the village out of bed, but no one here could help.
Then I heard Ingrid’s voice. “Rob, I have some bread for you!” She held out the perfect round in her hands, her fingers poking out of the frayed end of her mittens.
Rob looked up. “Oh. Could you keep that safe for me? I’m busy.”
Ingrid swore under her breath. But maybe she had the right idea.
“I have berries, Rob. Don’t you want to come test the border?” Once he came close enough, I could grab him. We could drag him into safety.
“Later.” The moons behind Rob melted into rabbits and raced over the horizon.
I shouldn’t have bothered waking anyone up. I took a breath, and stepped towards the Chaos to get my brother.
But Grandma laid a hand on my shoulder. “Does it look like he’s in danger?”
“He’s in the Chaos!”
“Sometimes,” Grandma said, “you can be as oblivious as Rob.”
That stunned me. I wanted to protest, but I looked at Rob instead. He looked happy.
I stood there for what felt like eons in the cold, watching Rob dig and laugh and play in the ever-changing Chaos. At dawn he finally walked towards us, with a palmful of gold nuggets shaped like elderberries. My brother was oblivious to all the things that mattered to me because his eyes were wide open somewhere else.
Elof grinned like he’d arranged this town outing for everyone’s amusement. “Well, well, the boy isn’t useless after all. Pulling gold from the Chaos…how curious.” He strode up to Rob. “I take it you’ll be paying for your brother’s bride-price now.”
Rob nearly dumped all of it into Elof’s outstretched hand, but I intervened and counted out five berries. If anything, they were heavier than the coins I owed him. Rob had three left over.
I thought Elof would demand we pay for the berries Rob had “stolen” earlier, but, unnervingly, he kept grinning like spring had come early.
“I’ve got to be going now,” Elof said, voice smooth and sickly-sweet. “A wedding to prepare for and all.”
We didn’t smell the smoke until after the ceremony, when we were celebrating with the meager “feast” of thin soup and old bread that Arbiter Elof hosted in his role as Ingrid’s guardian.
“That’s not the hearth.” It reeked of dried mud and old straw.
Ingrid, my wife, stood and started out of the hall. She glanced back at me. “Aren’t you coming?”
I hurried after her.
Gray smoke swirled into a gray sky, thick and acrid. My stomach froze. But my feet didn’t. Ingrid and I sprinted around the houses until the view lay clear before us.
Our home was ashes. Slushy, muddy ashes. I stared at it, as if the ruin was some weird trick of the Chaos that would melt away and change into something else. Something better.
“Aw, what misfortune.” Elof draped a casual arm around my shoulder. His smile was as white and biting as frost. “So sorry to see that. But we’re practically family now. I’ll let you lodge in my home. For a modest rent, of course. I’ll make sure no accidents happen to you or anyone you care about while you live with me.”
I dug my nails into my palm. We couldn’t sleep out in the cold, even if I wanted to brave his threats. “How much?”
“A gold berry a night sounds reasonable.”
We used the snow to put out the rest of the fire, but it was far too late to salvage anything. Neighbors stared silently at our misfortune. Some gave us pitying looks, but none so much as spared a consolatory word. None of them wanted to be Elof’s next target.
“I didn’t know he could be this cruel,” I kicked at the ash.
Ingrid’s arms hung resigned at her sides. “I also didn’t know a man could walk out of the Chaos unharmed with a small fortune. Elof’s as vicious as he needs to be to make the most of any situation.”
My parents hugged each other and stared blankly at the wreckage. Grandma shivered. Rob stood with his head cocked to the side.
“Elof did this, didn’t he?” Rob asked.
“Yes,” I said softly. “He did.”
I thought paying the bride-price would free Ingrid and myself from him once and for all. I was so tired of snow, of ice, of leaders and gods who cared nothing for those under them. I didn’t want to live here anymore.
And then I realized that we didn’t have to.
“Rob. Would you like to go on a walk with me through the Chaos?”
We stopped long enough to buy back the notebook and pencil from Nea, then headed to the Chaos. Three thumb-shaped, green moons burned over the undulating horizon.
“Can you find more gold for us?” I asked Rob.
“Probably. But I doubt in the same way. If this place was predictable, it wouldn’t be Chaos.”
We held hands in a long chain—Rob, me, Ingrid, Grandma, Mother, and Father. I glanced over my shoulder, at the thread of smoke marking where our home—our lives—had been. We were leaving behind our cellars, our profession, and our neighbors… but everything I really cared about was standing next to me.
“You should probably close your eyes,” Rob said. All of us but Rob did so. And then he led us into the Chaos.
We tried to keep our minds empty and elsewhere. Ingrid recited recipes for a while, then Mother talked about stitches and Father about wood chopping. Grandma talked about Grandpa. The ground still shifted underfoot—from sharp, hard scree to some kind of bouncy surface that made it difficult to walk.
In a way, Rob was like the Chaos. I didn’t understand how he thought. I couldn’t predict it. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a certain kind of logic to it—and a kind of beauty.
After hours of walking, Rob deposited us safely onto the flower-studded autumn grass of the Confederate Ithena. A small town sprawled over the hills in the distance.
“I know this place. That’s Leksand.” Grandma beamed at Rob. “Thirty miles from Ogynan’s Land.”
Apparently travel didn’t work normally inside the Chaos either, but I wasn’t complaining. Elof couldn’t hurt or exploit us here.
I stayed to watch Rob hunt for gold while the others headed in to Leksand to find a hostel and a hot meal. I promised to come into town at dusk with Rob. Then the two of us would return to the Chaos tomorrow. Finding enough gold for six citizens’ contracts might take some time.
I sat in the grass, soaking up the warmth of the earth under me and the scent of those tiny, yellow flowers. No more frozen lands. No more Elof.
A mere half-hour later, Rob stepped out of the Chaos with a lump of gold the size of a baby’s fist. I gaped as he handed it to me.
“Is this enough for five citizen’s contracts? And maybe a new home?”
“It’s amazing!” And much heavier than it looked. Then I noticed Rob’s pinched face. His awkward fidgeting. “You only said five contracts.”
“If I stay, someone else will find out about me. Someone else like Elof. We wouldn’t ever be safe. And I’ve always wanted to travel.”
Apprehension tightened his mouth, like he feared I’d drag him into town. He glanced longingly back at the Chaos. “So many nations border the Chaos. I can visit them all, now. And if I need to buy food, I can always look for more gold.”
My stomach dropped. I’d never imagined a future without Rob in it, day after day. “Do you have to go now?”
“Why not now?” Rob rubbed the back of his neck. “I can just slip away. I don’t know how to say good-bye.”
I wanted to argue with him. Given his squirming, I could probably convince him to come.
Instead, I pulled out the notebook and the pencil from my coat and handed them to him.
Rob frowned and tried to give back the notebook. “That’s yours.”
“I’m giving it to you. If you’re going to travel and test all of your ideas, you should write down the results.” Pressing it into his hands felt like ripping my own fingernails off. I’d miss him. But he could finally travel. He should travel. I wondered if Grandma had intended both gifts for him all along.
Rob’s eyes widened with delight. He ran his hands over the soft blue leather of the book.
“Remember to come back and share what you learn, okay?” I asked, throat tight. Maybe he’d learn something that would make thousands of lives better. Maybe he wouldn’t. But either way, he was my brother, and I wanted to see him again.
“I promise.” Rob promptly opened the book and wrote down Remember to visit Trygve in Leksand on the first page. He smiled at me. “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
Sadly, I think that was true. I hugged him tightly, on the border between my new life and his.
“Tell Grandma and Mother and Father and Ingrid…” Rob trailed off. “I don’t know. Come up with something good.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
And then I watched my little brother, notebook and pencil in hand, walk away into the Chaos, three green moons growing into valleys around him.
About the Author
M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.
About the Narrator
Heath is an actor from far away, who currently finds himself living on an island off the coast of Maine with two cats (one human, one feline), an improbably fluffy dog and six chickens. You can find his narration at audible.com, the Uncanny Magazine podcast, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere. For photos of the aforementioned animals & other day-to-day minutiae follow him on Twitter at @veryheathmiller.