Whacking his reed on Turtle’s wide rump, Jared urged the horse along the rutted path. The recent rains, he noted, had helped deepen the gullies worn by previous wagons and exposed the rocks and roots once hidden beneath winter’s snow and ice. Spring, however, had melted the white blankets and had buds and now leaves sprouting on the tree branches overhanging the trail into town.
When voices and the clatter of wheels invaded the surrounding stillness of farmland, Jared peered up ahead
“Sounds like everyone’s out today,” said Ewan.
“I don’t think you care so long as Zara’s there.”
At Turtle’s nose, where he led with one hand on the reins, Jared heard his older brother’s derisive snort. He didn’t need to spy over the bay’s withers to see the blush he knew shaded Ewan’s freshly shaved cheeks.
Galloping hooves came up behind them before Ewan managed to formulate a retort. Instead, he clucked and angled Turtle to the side.
Jared laid a hand on the bay and watched the rider near. The fellow, decked in a velvet tunic of midnight blue with dark leggings, slowed to walk around their ladened wagon. The dark stallion with a sock on its front foreleg pranced and whinnied at the slower pace.
“Morning, sir,” said Jared. He bobbed his head in lieu of doffing a non-existent cap from his chestnut curls.
“Morning.” The rider tipped his wide brimmed hat pierced with a peacock’s feather. “Is Avington far?”
“Just up ahead, sir.” Ewan pointed down the lane where the first hint of the town’s walls and the entry gate peeked over the next rise.
“Excellent.” He flashed a broad smile. “Good luck to both of you.” With that he touched his hat’s brim with his gloved fingers, kicked in his heels, and charged forward.
Jared blocked the spray kicked up by the stallion and wiped the spatter coating his hand clean on his trousers, adding to the mottled assortment of stains. He frowned though, watching the speeding rider disappear over the roadway’s crest.
“Why do you think he was in such a hurry?” asked Ewan.
“Maybe he knows Zara’s there.”
Jared smirked, but twirled the reed in his hand as his suspicions rose. The sound of the crowd and the view of other wagons and riders now visible as they trod up and over the final hill stirred his nerves into a boil.
“You don’t think….”
“Never mind,” said Jared.
He shook his head and tossed away the notion today, of all days, the Citadel’s Committee might be passing through. Swiping at the weeds emerging out of the stone wall flanking their trail, he kept his eyes downcast, lest some sight confirm his pessimism.
It didn’t matter if they did come, he reflected, the rider’s feather had more of a chance of being chosen than I do.
Sighing, he kicked a stone down the lane and they settled into the quiet rhythm of footsteps, the squelch of Turtle’s hooves in damp earth, and creak of the wagon’s wheels.
Turtle whinnied at the first burble from the town’s encircling stream, the watery gurgle undercutting the growing roar audible through Avington’s opened gate. Ewan shifted in order to walk backwards and coaxed the horse over the stone bridge.
“You’re all right,” he cooed. He tipped his head to the side and nodded.
Jared applied a quick rap on the horse’s rear and a nicker later, Turtle’s thudding step turned into a clap when his shoes met rock instead of dirt. They traversed the bridge, and headed through the gate and into a sea of sound and colors.
With the reins in hand Ewan kept Turtle from balking as they joined the flow of residents and arrivals making their way to the center square. Along either side shops had their doors open and outside had display tables strewn with goods. Hawkers bellowed about their wares, the cacophony rising as the clustered buildings grew closer and the stories mounted. Shadows stretched and scents saturated the thoroughfare.
Jared’s stomach rumbled at the fresh bread offered by the bakers and the morning sausages sizzling from an open-aired hearth. He grinned, however, when Ewan slowed during their passage by the green-shuttered Emerald Inn. Searching the crowd, he spotted the bright blonde mound of Zara’s hair.
She poured beer out of a beaded pitcher for the clustered diners loitering out front, clay cups in one hand, steaming pasties in the other. As if sensing Ewan’s blatant stare, she turned toward them, smiled, and then glanced into the Inn’s nearest window. Discovering the coast apparently clear from her watchful lioness of a mother, she skittered over to them.
“It’s about time you got here!”
Ewan gave her a wink. “Miss me?”
Zara blushed but managed to huff at the same time.
“You’ll understand,” she said and Jared frowned when she came to his side. “It’s exciting isn’t it?!”
Jared exchanged a wary glance with his brother and made sure to keep his eyes up and a prudent distance between himself and Zara’s tested bodice.
“They’re here, the Citadel’s Committee, today! And rumors are they’re doing a lottery. It’ll be the first in years.” She swept her arm out to indicate the crowd. “Why else would the town be in such a buzz?”
Jared stared at her, then at the throng. Market days were typically hectic but he was forced to give into the evidence before his eyes. Well dressed riders like the peacock-feathered man added a certain luster to the morning, and all the eligible young men he could see looked scrubbed and stood straight in their festival finery.
Glancing down, he plucked a clump of mud from amid the manure, ink, blood, and wax on his tunic.
“Oh,” said Zara, following his gaze. “You hadn’t heard?”
Ewan barked a laugh. “How would we way out by the tributary?”
“Well, that’s what you two get for living so far away,” said Zara.
He shrugged. “You’d like it if you gave it a chance.”
“Me? On a farm?” She laughed and tossed her curls. “That’ll happen as soon as you get picked for the Citadel.”
“Then don’t hold your breath,” said Ewan, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a city like that.”
She drifted over to him, the bounce in her stride subdued. “Don’t you think it’d be amazing?”
“It’d be crowded,” said Ewan and started adjusting the buckles on Turtle’s harness.
Zara clutched her pitcher close and shook her head. From the Inn, her mother called out her name. She winced and Jared nearly leapt when she grabbed his arm again.
“Come by later and I’ll find you something for breakfast.”
“Okay,” said Jared.
Ewan looked wounded but quickly turned the expression into ambivalence. “What about me?”
“Only if you promise to be nice,” said Zara starting to weave back through the crowd.
“Oh I can be nice,” said Ewan with broad grin.
Zara managed to look appalled while flushing, but scurried off at her mother’s second bellow.
Jared followed her back to the Inn’s diners and then stood on his tiptoes to peer deeper into town. The throng spilled out to either side where the buildings gave way to the market and he thought he spied a platform in the center, by the main well.
“You think she means it?”
“Means what?” Ewan glanced back toward the Inn. “About breakfast?”
Jared settled back into their suddenly too-slow pace. “About the Committee…about the lottery.”
Jared looked away, attempting to disguise his sudden anxiety in a casual perusal of leather goods displayed on a hand-drawn cart.
“You don’t want to go to someplace like that do you?”
Jared grunted noncommittally.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Ewan. “I’m sure they’ve already chosen some highbrow to fill their slot, and rigged the lottery for the next highest bidder.”
With a wince at the likely truth, Jared patted Turtle’s rump and encouraged the horse along.
Ewan resumed his lead and they gradually entered the main square. A left turn brought them along the produce quarter and Turtle navigated the narrow lane between stalls before stopping behind their farm’s station.
“Get that unloaded,” said their mother between counts of coin into the outstretched palm of a radish buyer.
“Yes, Ma,” said Ewan.
Jared already had his hands full with a basket of dirt crusted leaks. He gathered up those remaining on the board propped up on crates serving as a makeshift countertop and set the load between the dwindling pile of potatoes and the season’s first carrots. Ewan towed the onions out and as Ma hawked, they gradually emptied the wagon. The u-shaped stall bulged with produce, enough Jared suspected to give every person in the main square a decent lunch.
When the next customer squeezed up to the counter, Ewan started filling a burlap bag with her order. Relieved for the moment, Ma turned, her straw bonnet fluttering in its shade of her weathered face and stuffed a small sack into Jared’s hand. He felt the coin through the thin leather and squirreled the bag into his tunic’s inside pocket until he could add the amount to their ledger.
“Have you heard?” Ma licked her thumb and scrubbed at his cheeks.
“About the Committee?”
“About the lottery.”
Jared backed away but found his retreat from her cat-bath hampered by a tied up Turtle.
“They’re going to make the announcements at midday,” said Ma.
“What does it matter?” He flinched away when she tried combing out his bangs. “Someone’s already paid for their place. This will be a formality.”
“You don’t know that.”
“That’s what’s happened before.”
Ma sighed and wiped her hands on her skirts. “You’re as dour as your father.”
“Can I get some onions?”
With a shake of her head, Ma swiveled toward the gruff man now at the counter, a smile on her lips.
Another customer appeared and the morning waned as Jared joined Ma and Ewan selling their seeded, plowed, and plucked harvest. Through each transaction, he couldn’t help notice the center platform between the skirts and caps, passing horses, hounds and wagons, raised parasols and shouldered baskets. His pulse started racing when he caught the flash of maroon and the flat topped hats of the Citadel’s Committee at the constructed stairs. The peal of the midday bell and the arrival of the town’s Magistrate, however, nearly stopped his heart altogether.
The same stillness infected the crowd and as one, the market square turned inward, all eyes on the stairs and those gathered upon the platform.
“Good day everyone!” The Magistrate spoke through a conical cone, his voice amplified and flowing over the surrounding thatch and stone tiles. “I know you’re all eager to hear what’s to come so I won’t delay…much.”
A round of laughter trickled through the crowd.
“I’d just like to welcome the Citadel’s Committee to Avington and encourage you all to show them the best our little town has to offer.”
“What else would we do?”
The shouted come back made the crowd roar. Beaming with good humor, the Magistrate then waved his hand for quiet.
“I trust you will. And with that, I’ll turn the announcements over to Committeeman Rey.”
He handed the amplifier over to a plump man who’s bulk strained his maroon cloak. His voice emerged with surprising depth and hushed the crowd like fog quiets the morning.
“I appreciate your attention,” said Rey, “and I’ll endeavor to keep this selection short as I’m sure you’d all like to return to business.”
A bird tweeted from a rooftop and the throng seemed to hold its collective breath.
“This year,” said Rey, “we at the Citadel are going to be selecting two students from each township instead of taking in a single candidate.”
The crowd rippled with surprised murmurs and when his knees wavered, Jared braced himself on the counter.
“One,” said Rey, raising a gold ringed finger, “will be an inherited position. The second, selected from a lottery of eligible and interested young men.”
Ewan tipped his head and whispered. “What are they talking about?”
“Listen and you might find out,” said Jared.
“The hereditary position,” said Rey, “has gone to Hugh Maesters.”
Everyone began to peer at one another, searching for the owner of the name. Jared shoved aside the remains of mustard greens and knelt up on the counter.
Ma neared his side. “What do you see?”
“The rider with the peacock feather,” he said.
Ewan squinted at him. “The one riding the socked stallion?”
“Yes,” said Jared. He shaded his eyes from the peaked sun. “He’s shaking Rey’s hand.”
A round of hearty applause rippled through the square, and a few called out good luck.
“And now,” said Rey. “If I could have all young men of age who feel themselves capable of the Citadel’s challenge come up to the platform.”
Murmurs rose to a pitch. Jared spied capped and coifed heads starting to make their way to the center and made out a few faces: Gerry, Walt, and even young Paul.
“Come on,” said Ewan.
Jared frowned when his brother yanked on his arm. “What?”
“You’re going up there.”
“Me? Like this?” He gestured at the stains and wrinkles on his tunic and trousers.
“Go on,” said Ma, “you’re the smartest of the lot.”
Jared stared at them both, dumbfounded. When Ewan dragged him from the countertop, he staggered, his feet thumping numbly on the ground. With a spin and a shove, his brother started them moving. Ewan followed like a rock slide, and Jared found had nowhere to go but forward.
Once they exited the stall, Jared fought for his breath, lost even more so when those they passed patted him on the shoulder and back. Best wishes and encouraging smiles blurred by on faces he recognized but whose corresponding names slipped from his mind like melting butter.
Committeeman Rey’s, however, rang loud and clear when they entered the cleared ring around the platform. Other young men, all from town, stood in two wavering rows before the set of stairs. A broken line of maroon-garbed Committeemen began fencing them in.
“Stay put,” whispered Ewan.
He gave a parting whack and turned to head back the way they’d come, but Jared grabbed his sleeve before his brother could vanish.
“You’re not leaving,” said Jared beneath his breath.
Ewan snorted. “Even if I were smart enough, I’m not interested.”
“If that’s everyone,” said Rey, “we can begin.”
Ewan scowled at the peach-faced Committeeman who motioned them into line with the rest.
“Please,” whispered Jared.
With an audible grind of his teeth, Ewan took his place.
Jared tried to mimic his calm while another Committeeman strode down the front row, holding a cloth sack finely worked with gilded and crimson thread. He stopped before each fellow who then reached inside. Their hand reemerged clutching a dowel with a colored tip, the first orange, Gerry’s black, the next sky blue, and then mustard yellow. Paul pulled one of white before the Committeeman rounded the row and offered the sack to Ewan.
Jared silenced his brother with a jab in his ribs. Rubbing the spot and glowering, Ewan thrust his hand into the sack and returned with a dowel tipped ruby red.
The Committeeman moved on, and facing the bag’s gaping mouth Jared gulped. Closing his eyes, he sunk his hand. Curved wooden sides teased his fingertips but then one filled his palm and he clasped tight. Withdrawing his selected stick, he stared at the yellow tip, as merry as a daffodil, and wondered what fate the color meant.
He had to wait until the others in line had their own selections.
The fellow beside him snatched one of evergreen, the next beige, Walt plucked a golden tipped dowel and let out a little hoot, and the last held his indigo selection in both hands as if fearful it might take flight.
“The candidates have made their choices,” said Rey to the crowd. “And now, so will I.”
The same Committeeman brought a smaller sack to Rey, its sides patterned with similar gold and crimson. Staring down at their lines, Rey cupped the bag in his plump hand and reached inside. The clap of wooden chips smacking against one another made Jared’s heart race and his palm grew sweaty around the dowel he clutched in a tighter and tighter grip. The sound finally ceased and Rey withdrew a closed fist. He stretched out his arm toward them, and then one by one uncoiled his fingers.
Before his thumb straightened, Jared spied the hue.
Ewan murmured a one word curse Jared couldn’t quiet hear through his mind’s stunned silence.
Rey lifted the ruby red disk up for the crowd to see. Down the line, the young men hung their heads, and then turned to see who had earned the precious chance fate had denied to them.
Jared dropped his eyes to the yellow tip in his hand. He swayed when Ewan nudge his side.
“Take it,” whispered his brother.
With a weighted gaze, Jared transitioned from his dowel to the red tipped one Ewan held down at his side.
“Take it and go.”
Forcing himself to look up, Jared found his brother’s features as stern as their father’s.
“You’re not a farmer, Jarry,” whispered Ewan.
Jared dropped his eyes back to the dowels and watched Ewan shoved the red tipped stick into his hand.
“Go,” said the fellow to Jared’s left, the one who’d picked green. “Go for the rest of us.”
Jared found the man’s earnest face contorted, envy mixing with encouragement.
“He’s over here,” shouted Ewan, while he waggled his yellowed dowel for all to see.
“Come up, young man,” said Rey, beckoning with both hands.
Ewan gave him a shove, and holding the ruby-tipped dowel, Jared staggered forward.
Nearing the stairs, he steadied his gait, but never once let his eyes shift from the Committeeman waiting for him atop the platform. He didn’t think he could face his brother or risk seeing Ma out in the crowd. Through the growing applause, however, he heard Ewan’s victorious howl and Ma’s brief shriek when he stepped into view. The crowd’s cheers overwhelmed both as he clasped Rey’s outstretched hand and the uncertain future he and the Citadel offered.