“You’re already shamed. Did you think we wouldn’t find out?”
He didn’t answer, only cried for mercy, hiding his face in my boots. I shoved him away, and his gaze froze onto mine.
“No one cheats the family.”
He nodded furiously.
“But the gods showed mercy to us,” I said. “Once. And that’s the Ballenger way. We do the same.” I sheathed my knife. “Stand, brother. If you live in Hell’s Mouth, you are part of our family.” I held out my hand. He looked at me as if it were a trick, too afraid to move. I stepped forward, pulled him to his feet, and embraced him. “Once,” I whispered into his ear. “Remember that. For the next year, you will pay double the tithe.”
He pulled away, nodding, thanking me, stumbling over his steps as he backed up, until he finally turned and ran. He would not cheat us again. He would remember he was family, and one did not betray one’s own.
At least, that was the way it was supposed to work.
I thought about Paxton and the seer’s words again. They are coming for you.
Paxton was a nuisance, a bloodsucking leech who had developed a taste for wine. We would handle him, just like we handled everything else.
The scavengers have fled, our supplies now theirs.
Gone? he asks.
He lies dying in my arms, already dust and ash and a ghost of greatness.
He presses the map into my hand.
This is the true treasure. Get them there. It’s up to you now. Protect them.
He promises there is food. Safety. He has promised this since the first stars fell. I do not know what safety is anymore. It is from a time before I was born. He squeezes my hand with the last of his strength.
Hold on to it, no matter what you have to do. Never give it up. Not this time.
Yes, I answer because I want him to believe in his last moments that all his effort and sacrifice are not wasted. His quest will save us.
Take my finger, he says. It’s your only way in.
He pulls a razor from his vest and holds it out to me. I shake my head. I can’t do this to my own grandfather.
Now, he orders. You will have to do worse things to survive. Sometimes you must kill. This, he says, looking at his hand, this is nothing.
How can I disobey? He is the chief commander of everything. I look at those surrounding us, sunken eyes, faces streaked with dirt and fear. I barely know most of them.
He shoves the razor into my hand.
Out of many, you are one now. You are family. The Ballenger Family. Shield one another. Survive. You are the surviving remnant that Tor’s Watch was built for.
I am only fourteen and all the rest are younger. How can we be strong enough to withstand the scavengers, the winds, the hunger? How can we do this alone?
Now, he says again.
And I do as he orders.
He makes no sound.
Only smiles as he closes his eyes and takes his last breath.
And I take my first breath as leader of a remnant, charged by my grandfather and commander to hold on to hope.