Chapter 1 - The Arrangement
Written as a primer for NaNoWriMo.I am Adjusting Goals Already!
I gently pried my youngest sister’s arm off my chest and held my breath as she mumbled in her sleep, but she didn’t wake up. And stepping over the scattered and sprawled limbs and bodies of my siblings, I snuck through the large attic room, and got to the door, waking no one up. I picked my way down the old wooden stairs, careful to avoid the places that creaked too loud and tiptoed through the kitchen to the back entrance.
The cool predawn air was heavy with dew and caused gooseflesh to rise on my arms as I shivered. Bright stars were still high in the sky as I padded down from the house to the horse barn and slid the gate open. The warmth of the outbuilding and odour of animals and hay mixed with the aroma of dew and grass around me pleasantly.
I lit a few lamps and went to the carts, where I quickly loaded a pile of broken tools into the back of one. I had to make several trips and still found myself winded with the exertion. Iron and wood were heavier than small children. At least they didn’t kick me in the face, I thought sardonically while I took a second to catch my breath. I made my way to an old mare’s stall.
“Nelly,” I called out in a whisper as I approached her and she grumbled at me before flicking her tail as if to tell me off. “I know you don’t mean that.”
I smiled and nickered softly to her as I opened the door and grabbed the halter from the hook next to her nameplate. She was an even-tempered beast, and one of my favourites on the farm.
As I led the mare towards the carts at the other end of the barn, I almost jumped out of my skin at a figure leaning on the wall. My heart thundered in my ears and it took me a second to recognise my sister, Marina. Her light brown mane was swept up into a bun on top of her head, and the lamplight sparkled in her hazel eyes.
Living on a farm, we were both deeply tanned. My hair was cut shorter than hers and a few shades darker, more like our father. Unfortunately, I had favoured our mother’s lean build and Marina had inherited our father’s stockier frame.
Even as she leaned, she was the same height as me and there was a familiar pang of jealousy. I was painfully aware I wasn’t what my family had hoped for from their first son, Marina, on the other hand, had the stature and the strength they’d wished for me.
“Don’t worry. No one else is awake.”
“I’ll never figure out how quiet you can be when you want to,” I huffed as I walked Nelly past my sister, who slid away from the wall and fell into step on the other side of the horse.
“Where are you going?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes. I’d like to know the truth, so I can lie appropriately for you.”
“Is that what you do for Savannah and Xander?”
“Oh, sweet, dear, simple Arded, it’s what I do for all my lovely siblings.”
“This is why mother and father don’t trust you.”
“You’re dodging. Just tell me what you’re planning…” Her voice dropped off as we got to the cart loaded with broken equipment and tools. She let out a low whistle. “Father’s going to kill you.”
“You’re not going to stop me, are you?”
“Hell no. I think he’s being a stubborn mule about the whole thing, but there’s no changing his mind.” She shrugged and helped me hitch the horse to the wagon.
“If you need a plausible lie, tell them I’m leaving to purchase butter and cheese in town.”
Marina nodded. Her mouth was set in a hard line, and she wasn’t looking at me. I frowned. It was unusual for her to think so deeply. “There’s smoke coming out of your ears.”
She punched my arm in what I believed was supposed to be a light tap, but it would likely leave a bruise. “Well, since thinking is usually your strength and obviously you aren’t doing much of that today, I should try it. The only thing I can come up with is to let me come with you. The punishment would be split in half then.”
“No, stay and at least attempt to watch the kids for mother. Besides, I’ve considered everything, and if I don’t go, father will drive us to the poorhouse with this bad decision. I can’t stand the thought of you guys going hungry.”
“None of us would have to worry about it if he’d just taken it to Love in the first place. I know infernals are usually terrible, but he’s been in town for two years. If Love was planning to burn the town down and kidnap everyone’s children to make stew, he’d have done it by now.”
“Where the hell did you hear they turn kids into stew?” I couldn’t hold back the shock in my voice. There were some outlandish rumours spreading recently, but this was the most unbelievable one.
“Father helped some celestial missionaries that came through the fields last year. They were preaching to him the dangers of letting Love stay in town, and the risk he posed to a happy family full of children.”
“I’m guessing they left out the part where they took people and forced them into jobs they see as beneath them?”
“Oh, but then they’re saving us from all our struggle and strife! We have too many choices. Didn’t you realise that?” Marina feigned reverence, but her face cracked and she broke down into giggles. When she regained her composure, she sighed. “It’s all a little much, to be honest. I wish they’d all just leave us alone to live our lives.”
“I’m with you on that. Love’s the best blacksmith east of the capital and I don’t understand how being an infernal changes that fact as far as father is concerned.”
“Maybe we’ll never know.” Marina pulled out a heavy cloak and wrapped it over my shoulders before I climbed up into the cart and took the reins. “I’ll clean up here. Stay safe.”
“I will, but I’m pretty sure brigands and bandits won’t want useless farm tools. I’m sure I don’t.”
The road stretched out into the darkness as Nelly plodded along. She knew the way and the sound of her hooves on the hard packed dirt was almost hypnotic with the smooth steady pace she took.
“What do you think of this whole mess, Nelly?” I asked the horse, who nickered and swung her head. “Yes, I agree, inconvenient to say the least. You poor old girl, there should be no need for you to carry me off under cover of darkness like this.”
She flicked her tail, and I sighed. Three hundred years was apparently not enough time for old wounds to heal, and I could appreciate my father’s views. Infernals had committed atrocities against humans, but so had the celestials. The only difference was the beauty of celestials seemed to absolve them of their sins against humanity. At least infernals remembered and embraced their origins as regular people, but heavens forbid anyone remind a celestial they had once been humans.
I ran a hand through my short hair as I approached the main road, thinking about old history lessons wouldn’t get me anywhere today. Nelly pulled me west toward Mitshaw as the early morning shadows stretched out in front of me. Turning in the driver’s seat, I craned my neck to see the sunrise. The sky was ablaze with reds and pinks as deep purples and blacks retreated.
I turned my attention back to the road and urged Nelly to walk a little faster. She protested with a sharp swish of her tail as her ears swivelled, but she stepped lighter and the cart jerked as she picked up the pace.
Mitshaw came into view quite a ways down the road as The Great Tree stood like a beacon for town limits. The long, thin branches reached down toward the ground and billowed in the light morning breeze. My stomach flipped as the potential consequences of my actions played in my head. If I went home now, I would need to do some explaining, but the problem of what we would do without our tools weighed heavily on my mind as I pushed through the anxiety and into town.
Hitching Nelly to a post outside the blacksmith’s, Love’s Hammer, I grabbed one of the worst looking hoes in the pile before entering the main shop. It smelled like coal and hot metal, with tools and weapons displayed in the small room, with a counter in front of a door at one end.
“Mr DeLeon?” I called out, but there was no answer. So I stepped a little further in, making my way to the door that led to the main forge. The heat coming from here was more intense, and I hollered a little louder as the peal of a hammer on metal came through the door. “Mr DeLeon?!”
“Just a minute!” The deep, smooth voice of the smith rang back as the hammering picked up intensity. I gripped the hoe, my knuckles turning white, as it felt like the tool weighed more while time stretched on. There was a sizzle and hiss from behind the door, followed by some quieter shuffling. Love DeLeon came into the shop and, like always, seeing was a bit of a shock to the senses. He was tall, and his shoulders were broad and strong.
The most striking feature was the deep red of his skin and a pair of black horns that curled up around the side of his head. The fact he had a tail usually slipped my mind until I saw it again, too. This was quite normal for infernals, or so I’d heard. They often had coloured skin in unnatural hues, red, blue, pink, green. Really, any colour under the sun was possible. Their horns and sharp features had been an easy target for celestials to villainise, but considering Love greeted me with a wide warm smile, it seemed like celestials had been wrong.
“Oh, Arded, what a surprise! You’re cutting it a little close. I hope you only need a few small repairs this year.” His smile faded when he saw the hoe in my hands.
“My father is an idiot. He spent a fortune and sent our tools and equipment to a smith in Penstead-”
“That’s three days by cart, and a port town! Of course it was a fortune!” He cut me off as he held his hand out for the hoe. I obliged him and winced as he clucked his tongue.
“As you can see, despite the hefty price, the work wasn’t up to standard.” Love’s tail was flicking wildly behind him and his orange eyes were bright with anger.
“This was a hack job. It looks like they let a child do it!” His attention snapped up to me and I wanted to shrink under that intense gaze. “Tell me this is the only thing you let them touch.”
I didn’t want to tell him the truth. The small bag of coins in my pocket was growing lighter by the second. “My father had them do it all.”
Love cursed and slammed the hoe down on the counter. I jumped back a little, and he sighed before pinching the bridge of his nose. “I can’t do it all, and I’m guessing you couldn’t afford it even if I could.”
“Please, Mr DeLeon, we need these tools fixed. We’re already falling behind with our spring planting.”His face softened, and he leaned his palms against the wooden counter. His tail slowed its rhythm. “My apprentice is out handling a family emergency in the capital, and then there’s the question of payment.”
“We’ll be able to cover some of it now and then pay the balance after we sell our wheat and barley come market season. Mr DeLeon, I’ll do whatever it takes to get this job done.”
“Well, start by calling me Love. All this Mr DeLeon business is too formal.” He sighed and crossed his large forearms before looking at me like a cat with a mouse. “Replace my apprentice for the month. That will help cover the cost and, with some help, I’ll be able to get it done sooner. Of course, you’ll need to live here in town with me to keep the hours effectively and prevent your family from interfering with progress. You shouldn’t be spending so much time watching those little gremlins, anyway.”
My mouth dropped open. Forget simply going to Love for the repairs, living with him would be my family’s worst nightmare. My father would never allow it. Aside from the obvious fact he hated every infernal in the world, the implications of living with Love would be unacceptable for him. In his eyes, the only people who should live together were married couples, and unlike most of the rest of Mitleria, he wasn’t tolerant of relationships that deviated from a man and a woman.
My tongue felt like sand paper and I couldn’t voice my refusal right away, which was a good thing, I realised. That knee-jerk reaction could have cost my siblings their lives. It might be difficult living without my family, but knowing they were safe and fed was more important than my personal comfort and safety. I could manage and figure out how to survive off the farm.
“I’ll do it.” The words were out of my mouth before I thought any more about the repercussions of this choice. My chest felt tight and heat flushed through my body as a wave of nausea hit me. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I’d be fine.
“Glad to hear it.” Love smiled and walked around the counter. “Did you bring the rest of the tools? I’ll bring them back to the forge.”
“They’re in the cart out front. I have some shopping to do while I’m in town, and then I’ll have to head home to tell my family the good news.” I struggled to sound casual, as panic still threatened to take over.
“No need to rush. I’ll grab the stuff from the cart while you get your errands done, and you can come back this time tomorrow to start.” Love brushed past me, his tail grazing my hand.
“Sure. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I felt the gallows being built around me for the rest of the day before heading home to slip the noose around my neck. Death might have been kinder than the fight waiting for me at home.
I got too excited. I jumped the gun. I'll revisit my goals page and move my goal. This will be treated like a primer and I aim to get a chapter per week done in the run up to NaNoWriMo.
*Fangirl screams* The first chapter is so good.
I’m so glad you like it!!!!
Check out my Spooktober Story! 31 prompts in a single story, including drowning a Verti! (bonus articles for extra world building spice are being added!)