by Patricia Russo

The elders claim life is better now.

Since the ascension of the young dukes, the landholders no longer carry swords, and we are no longer obliged to kneel in their presence. Taxes have been lowered; we can keep more of our grain, our olives, our limes. Obligatory civic work days have been decreased to five per month. Smile, the elders say. Raise up your heads. The sun has emerged after long, long years of rain.

Raise up your heads. That is the way they speak, on warm nights when work is over, and dinner has been plentiful, and a wineskin is moving from hand to hand. They laugh, and boast, so proud of themselves for having survived to old age. But let a landholder walk through the square, or ride to the fields to inspect the crops, or make an appearance at a wedding or a festival, jovial and swordless, and the elders duck their heads and mumble, the same as the rest of us.

You see? the Younger Son-in-Law says. They themselves do not believe that all is well.

The Younger Son-in-Law knows I do not like him. He has a hairy face, and he has been the Middle Daughter’s husband for more than three years, and still there is no child. Plus I never did get along with his mother. But who else will offer him a bit of comfort when he wakes from a nightmare, sweating and shaking? Not the Middle Daughter, with her sharp tongue and sour heart. So some nights he and I sit together in the cookshed. I spin, and he tends the tiny fire, so we each have a reason not to look at the other, as he tells me his bad dreams.

Even out in the cookshed, he keeps his voice low, so as not to wake the rest of the family. They would be merciless. Already they mock him to the point where the Middle Daughter is considering divorce.

“They will come for the children,” he says.

The cookshed is drafty. The Younger Son-in-Law must bend low to shield the flame as he pokes up the fire. We use just a handful of twigs, for light. It is senseless to waste good firewood on the two of us – fools who should be in bed. Mornings, the Eldest Daughter looks at my workbasket, and shakes her head. Let her. I have not been able to sleep through the night since she was born.

“Our worries come to scourge us in our dreams,” I say. “It is not prophecy, merely fear. Besides, the young dukes believe in reform.”

“I have been to the mainland,” he says, and this is true. Before the Middle Daughter married him, he had been a fish-gutter on the coast. His mother scattered her children, apprenticing them to anyone who would feed them. His master took him to the mainland two or three times, and once the Younger Son-in-Law traveled all the way to the eastern gate of the city of Resenna. Or possibly the western gate. He’s told the story so many times, the details have become fluid.

“Electric lights,” he says, and glances up to see if I understand.

“We have no need of such things.”

“We don’t. The landholders do.” He rubs his knuckles on his hairy jaw. “I saw houses with a hundred rooms, all ablaze. I saw stone streets lined with metal trees, and the crown of each tree bore spheres of flameless fire.”

“Poles,” I say. “Poles, not trees. Those were streetlamps.” I have seen pictures of these things myself, in the newspapers that sometimes come from the coast. The Youngest Son had three years of school before we could no longer spare him. He reads them to us, when he is not too tired. “Did you see these houses and lamps on the mainland, or in your dream?”

“I saw village children chained in deep cellars.”

“They never chain them up in cellars,” I say, sharply. My heart is not quiet. I take a breath. “Two of my cousins were taken into service. I used to see them almost every market day. They wore cork-soled sandals. Every New Year, they received cakes and a new cloak.”

“This is a different sort of service.”

“It was a dream,” I say.

“Do you ever see them now, these cousins?” He doesn’t look at me. “Or your son?”

The Middle Daughter must have told him. I hadn’t thought she’d been old enough to remember that.

“Go to bed,” I say.

“You don’t.”

“The landholder he is in service to lives near Garona. It is more than a week’s journey.”

“They never live more than three or four years. In service.”

“That isn’t true.”

“The landholders drain their blood.”

“Stop it, now. You cause your own nightmares, with this type of silly talk. And silly thoughts. I will let you have a drink from the spirits bottle if you will stop all this and go to bed.”

“They drain the fire from their spines to heat their hundred-room homes. They suck the life from their palms to strengthen their own puny brats. They crack their bones to feed their marrow to their bedridden grandparents.” He rocks back and forth, just like a child.

“You must go to bed, or you will be useless tomorrow.”

I stand up from my stool and leave the cookshed. His mother went mad, as well. She sleeps in the fields on moonless nights, without even a knife under her head to protect her. She talks to birds, and screams at the sight of a yellow scarf. But oh, how the Middle Daughter begged for this man. She cried for months. Refused to eat. She declared that she could not live without his smile, though how she could even see it under all that hair is beyond me. In the end, she won over the Eldest Daughter. Let her be happy, let her have her love marriage. I never should have agreed.

I do not go to the village very often these days. The Elder Son-in-Law does most of the marketing now, and the Eldest Daughter’s children keep me busy at home. Last week, I nearly broke my ankle chasing the Second Granddaughter. The little devil likes to climb. I’d already pulled her off the trellis at the bottom of the kitchen garden and scolded her, and as soon as my back was turned, off she shot again like an arrow. That one and her sister will be the death of me.
Often I am the last to hear the news.

Rumors, says the Elder Son-in-Law. Until he sees the vagrants with his own eyes, he will not believe the talk is anything but rumors and chatterings. The Younger Son-in-Law says he will get his chance soon enough, as more and more people accept the landholders’ offers and take to the road.

The landholders are buying land. This is true enough. The Youngest Son brought home a yellow paper and read it to us. The Eldest Daughter just nodded, but the rest of us were amazed. We had not known that our village could sell its common land. We had not known that we possessed such land. But which parcels of land does the yellow paper mean? Not the farms, for the landholders own those already. The hill pastures? The forest where we are allowed to cut wood? The strip of riverbank where we are permitted to fish?

The landholders are offering twenty suns to each family in the village in exchange for title to our common lands. “So much money,” says the Middle Daughter.

“The people will not agree,” I say. “Will they?”

“Some fools already have. Those are the folk on the road now, begging for their meals,” says the Younger Son-in-Law.

“Rumors.”

“After they got their hands on the common lands, the landholders refused to renew the leases on the farms. The people had to leave.”

“This is all just talk.” The Elder Son-in-Law scowls at the floor.

I say, “That doesn’t make sense. Who will do the work? No landholder has ever touched a spade or lifted a sickle. Without us, they would starve.”

“Exactly,” the Elder Son-in-Law says.

“The landholders have a plan. They will bring in slaves. Or machines. They will turn the croplands to grazing lands and raise sheep to sell on the mainland.”

“Slaves?” The Elder Son-in-Law rises so quickly he knocks over his chair. “You are insane. There have never been slaves here, and there never will. Do you see? This is how rumors begin. One fool lets his mouth run, and other fools repeat his nonsense.”

The Youngest Son holds up the yellow paper. “There were a hundred of these distributed today.”

“Yes. And that is all we know for sure. The landholders ordered some sheets of paper to be passed out. The mountains are not falling.”

“Tell that to the beggars, who once were farmers.” The Younger Son-in-law’s voice is sharp.

“There are no such beggars.”

“They have been seen.”

“Not by me. Not by anyone in this village.”

I say, “I will not sell. If it is true that I own something, I won’t sell it, not for twenty suns, or forty, or four hundred.”

“They have a plan,” the Younger Son-in-Law insists, but no one is paying attention to him anymore. The Youngest Son folds up the yellow paper and slips it into his pouch. The rest go about their tasks and chores, and the day continues, the same as all other days.

The Eldest Daughter sacrificed fruits today. She woke in a state of agitation, which was odd. She is usually cool in her spirit. If she’d had bad dreams, she didn’t tell me. The Eldest Daughter has always kept her own counsel. She was like that even as a small child. Today she barked orders, spoke so sharply to the Youngest Son that he fled to the fields, and dealt out slaps to my grandchildren over trifles. Nothing would ease her until she had cut five, six, seven fruits, and let the juice fall to the dry ground. She did not even do it before the shrine in the garden, but a pace or two from the threshold of the house.

It is not that I begrudge the gods their due, or even an extra gift. But I had set those fruits aside for the children. The Eldest Daughter took them from my basket, without asking leave. And this is not her house. Yet.

To calm myself, I walked out to the fields where the Youngest Son was working. The Youngest Son is the only one of my boys still at home. His brothers are all married. Because the Younger Son-in-law is so useless, we hire two old men to help with the work. They have stopped with us for six seasons, now. They sleep in a tent at the edge of the field, and are most respectful. I had brought nothing to give them, not even a bucket of water, but they smiled and greeted me genially.

The Youngest Son was not there. He had broken his hoe, the old laborers explained, and had taken it to be mended.

Such things happen.

I should have returned home. There was much work to be done. The Eldest Daughter would narrow her eyes at me when she saw how lax I had been. Let her, I thought. I sat on a stone in the half-shade of a bitter-bark tree. A rest, for a few moments. That was all I wanted. A bit of peace.

The landholder came riding from the west. He did not take the path, but trotted his horse across the unbroken part of the field. The horse was a sort I’d never seen before, yellow as an autumn leaf, with a white mane. I did not know this landholder. He wore city clothes, and an empty scabbard. He was young. The older landholders did not show their defiance so openly.

I sat on my stone and watched him ride. I did not raise my eyes to his, but neither did I lower them. The horse was beautiful. It must have come from a far country. I watched the horse.

The two old men who were turning earth dropped their tools, and knelt.

They were old men, and not the sort that ever would become elders, except by courtesy. When there was no work left in them, after they had sweated every last bit of their strength into the soil, they might be allowed to sit in the elders’ circle, on the outermost edge, farthest from the fire and the conversation, and once or twice a night someone might remember to pass them the wineskin, but no one would ever ask them for their counsel or opinion.

They knelt, because it was what they had done all their lives.

The young landholder reined in his horse, his beautiful horse from a distant land, and shouted at the old men. They bowed their heads lower. The young landholder shouted louder. One of the old men, trembling, threw himself on his face, and then the other one did the same. For that was what one did when a landholder became angry. That was what we had always done.

The young landholder leaped off his mount. The horse stood calmly, unbothered, as the landholder tore the scabbard from his belt and beat the old men with it, striking their heads, their shoulders, their backs. The old men made no move to protect themselves. They lay still, crying out only a few times. I am sure they had no idea what they had done wrong. The young landholder beat them until his arm grew weary, then he leaned, panting, against his horse for a moment, before remounting and riding away.

I sat on my stone and watched until he was out of sight, grateful that the Youngest Son had gone on his errand and been absent for this. I hugged myself, and shook. After a while, the two old men rose, one helping the other, and returned to work. They did not look at me. Shivering still, I felt my face grow hot with shame. These two old men had worked our fields for six seasons, and yet I could not recall their names.

“You did nothing?”

It was the Youngest Son who recounted the incident, that evening, at home, full of rage and fire. Again, I thanked the sky and the sea that he had not been present. The others nodded, and said little. The Younger Son-in-law bit his tongue as well, and bided his time, and confronted me in the cookshed after the rest of the family were abed.

“What would you have had me do?”

He paces, though there is no room to do so comfortably in the small shed. He scratches his hairy face. He tugs at his beard, as if he would tear it off.

“You haven’t slept at all,” I say.

“How can I sleep? They will devour us. The landholders eat everything. They will eat the land and the villages, they will eat the houses and the farms, they will eat the children, every last one of them. And we will let them. We will fall on our faces and not even try to cover our heads against their blows. We will flop over and cut open our own bellies so they might feast the easier.”

“Go to bed,” I say. “It was just a young landholder, a stranger, who lost his temper.”

“You did nothing.”

“There was nothing to be done!”

“He beat those men. Your men. And you sat and watched.”

“So I should have run to be beaten as well?”

He glowers at me. That is the sort of fool the Younger Son-in-Law is. He would have run to be beaten, angered the landholder further, perhaps to the point where the beating would not have stopped until he was dead. And the Younger Son-in-law would have thought that courage

He says, “What will you do when they come for the children?”

“Again! You speak of your nightmares, not reality.”

Abruptly, shocking me, the Younger Son-in-law starts to cry. He rubs his hands over his hairy face; he smears snot into his beard. “Please,” he says. “Promise me something.”

“Anything, so long as you go to bed and leave me in peace.”

“When the landholders come – when they send their men – help me. Help me gather the children, all the children, and hide them.”

“Nothing like that is going to happen.”

“Mother-in-law, have you seen the vagrants? The beggars? The dispossessed wandering the roads?”

“No. I have not. Neither has anyone else. The Elder Son-in-law says — ”

“I know what he said. He’s wrong. I have seen them myself. Mother-in-law, there are no children among them. Once the landholders took the people’s homes away and turned them out to wander the world, they came again, for their children. But it wasn’t enough. It’s never going to be enough. The landholders need more and more. All, and more than all. They will come here.” He is trembling now, as one in the icy grip of ague. And all I want to do is slap him.

“That paper the Youngest Son brought? Are you still fretting over that? The people of our village are not fools. We will not sell anything to the landholders.”

“I know. No one wants to sell. And so it will be worse, do you see? What they cannot buy, they will come and take. Promise. Promise that when it happens, you will help me.”

“It won’t happen.”

“If it does. Promise me.”

“Will you go to bed?”

He runs his hands over his hairy face. “I’ll go to bed. I won’t wake your daughter. I’ll be quiet. All right?”

“All right,” I say, glad that a few words can bring me peace, even if it is only for this night. Then a thought stirs, a disquieting one. “Wait a moment.”

He has already turned to go. “What?”

“Are you happy with my daughter?”

“Oh yes,” he says, swinging around, awkward and earnest and trembling for a different reason, the ancient terror of facing your bride’s mother. “I love her with all my heart. I tell her so every day. I would die for her.”

“She doesn’t want that,” I say. “She wants a husband who will give her children.”

He goes very still.

“Tell me the truth,” I say, rising from my stool. My face is hot. Mothers-in-law and sons-in-law do not speak to each other of such matters. A father-in-law might put such a question, privately. But my man died, as so many men do, suddenly, taken ill in the afternoon, dead before morning. So I must. “Are you unable?”

“N-no.” He is stammering, wringing his hands.

“Unwilling, then.”

He takes a deep breath. I can see the effort he makes to compose himself. “It is not safe.”

“Because of the landholders.”

“Yes.”

Mad. Mad, and useless, and a burden to the family. I will speak to the Middle Daughter tomorrow. I will give her my permission to divorce the Younger Son-in-law. I will give her my blessing.

“All right, then. Run along. Off to bed with you.”

“You promised. Remember.”

“Yes,” I assure him. “I remember.”

It is no simple matter to manage a private word in our little house. Space is cramped; people are busy. Children scamper everywhere. The Middle Daughter is not the type to pop out to the cookshed for no reason, and besides, during the day, the cookshed is in use. Come help me, I asked her, and she looked at me as if I were demanding she cut off her right arm. But come she did, after a time, sullenly, her mouth grim. The granddaughters were with me, more hindrance than help. When the First Grandson begins to walk, I fear that the lot of them will be more than I can handle. No, stop. Put that down. Don’t touch that. Come over here and sit down. No, don’t go near the pot. Don’t play with the ladle. And yet I did not send them outside to the garden. I wanted them close to me. Foolishness, I know. But perhaps we all have a right to a bit of foolishness.

She came, eyes hard, jaw clenched. The First Granddaughter is more than old enough to understand what grown folks say. The Second Granddaughter understands as well, though being small, she forgets quickly. I spoke quietly, drawing the Middle Daughter next to me on the pretext of chopping greens. I’m sorry, I said to her. I was wrong. Your husband is no fit mate, no fit companion for you. Divorce him, and let those who wish to mutter, mutter. I will support you.

The Middle Daughter threw the handful of greens she was holding in my face, and cursed me to my face, and screwed up her mouth as if she would spit in my face. I love him, she said. I’ve always loved him. Don’t you understand anything?

She stormed out of the cookshed. The Second Granddaughter was playing on the floor, stacking small pebbles one on top of another. The First Granddaughter stared at the wall, and pretended not to have heard.

Did I truly not understand anything? I wondered.

Do I truly not understand anything?

The landholders have been to the village square. Yesterday. Five of them, on horseback. Swordless, of course. And bareheaded. So the Youngest Son said. The Eldest Daughter snorted and said that must be the new fashion. The Elder Son-in-law stared into his soup.

“They called for the elders to gather,” the Youngest Son reported. He was solemn. Not angry, not excited. Worry creased his forehead. “The landholders talked to them about the yellow paper. About selling the common lands.”

“And did our elders make any reply?” the Eldest Daughter asked.

The Elder Son-in-law muttered, “I hope they had the sense not to kneel.”

“That’s not funny,” I said.

The Youngest Son said, “The elders listened. They were respectful. The landholders spoke for a long time. They did not seem to care that others were listening as well. They never glanced at us, but looked only at the elders.”

The Eldest Daughter struck the edge of her hand on the table. “Did our esteemed elders make answer, or no? Did they stand as mute as trees, or did they use their tongues like human beings?”

“They asked for time to consider,” the Youngest Son said. “No, wait, wait,” he said, as the others groaned, and the Middle Daughter pushed back her chair. “The elders went to the tavern — ”

“Now there’s a surprise,” said the Middle Daughter.

“Wait. Listen. The elders went to the tavern. They made the landholders wait in the square. They told them to wait while they talked in the tavern, and the landholders waited. When the elders came out again, they told the landholders no. The village will not sell any common land.”

For a moment it was as if everyone in the room were holding his or her breath. Even the First Grandson was quiet.

The moment stretched long. The silence continued even after the Eldest Daughter rose and began collecting empty bowls. Then the First Granddaughter pushed the Second Granddaughter, and the two began to squabble.

“Well,” the Elder Son-in-law said.

The Middle Daughter took the two girls by the hand and said, “Let’s go to the garden. There’s weeding to be done.”

The Youngest Son said, quietly, “The landholders were surprised.”

The Elder Son-in-law asked, “Did they argue?”

“No. They spoke to each other. I didn’t hear what they said. They did not address the elders again. They spoke to each other, and then they rode away.”

The Younger Son-in-law looked at me.

“Weeding, yes,” I said. “And washing, today. And there is thread to be spun and wood to be cut. And the fields won’t take care of themselves.”

“Mother,” the Youngest Son said.

“Do as she says,” the Eldest Daughter snapped at him. “We all have our work.” The Elder Son-in-law wiped his chin and left the table. The Youngest Son nodded, and followed him.

“You have three children,” the Younger Son-in-law said.

“I can count,” said the Eldest Daughter.

“Have you thought where to hide them?”

I expected her to flay him, but instead she said, “I understand that your words are well-meant. But my children are my concern.”

“Not only yours,” I said.

“Please,” she said. “Not you, too. Has everyone gone mad?”

“No one is mad,” the Younger Son-in-law said. “It would be madness not to fear what is coming. It would be reckless not to prepare.”

“Enough,” said the Elder Daughter. “Mother, please. Do something about him.”

“Come outside,” I said. “Let us walk for a few minutes, you and I.”

He came, muttering under his breath. When we were clear of the house and the garden, but far enough from the fields that we could not be overheard by the Youngest Son, or the workers (the two old men had not missed a day, despite the beatings they had suffered), I stopped.

“The landholders will be angry.”

“Will be?” The Younger Son-in-law laughed bitterly. “They have always hated us.”

“But they need us.”

“They hate us because they need us.”

This made no sense, but I let it pass. “If we stand together, the landholders can do nothing. The law is on our side.”

“They use the law when it serves them. When it doesn’t, they ignore it.”

“Have you no faith in the young dukes?”

“None at all.” He sighed, and glanced around. “All right. You got me out of the house. I will hold my tongue. I will not bother the family with my agitated fantasies. Are you satisfied?”

“Do you have a plan?”

That startled him. “What?”

“I promised to help you, should the need arise. It occurred to me to wonder if you had a plan, or if you were simply going to improvise when the storm breaks.”

“When the storm — ”

“Son-in-law, I do not believe your nightmares. I do not believe your wild tales of blood-letting and marrow-eating.”

“They are not tales. They are not nightmares.” He began to pace. This irritated me less than it usually did, but then we were outside. At least he did not start tugging on his beard.

“Hush, and listen.”

“You must believe me. I have seen these things. In Resenna, and here as well.”

Listen. If the landholders come to punish us, punish the elders, punish the village, then I agree that it would be a wise precaution to conceal the children. What better hostages? The landholders know cruelty well. They might indeed hold our children to force us to change our decision.”

The Younger Son-in-law hugged himself. “They are not like us. Not men and women. Their blood is different. Weak. Have you never seen a landholder bleed? I have. Their blood is pale.”

His words gave me pause. They give me pause now. There are stories, of course. Dark-of-the-moon-time tales, that no one save very small children actually believe. But I had an uncle, the second-eldest brother of my mother, who swore, sober as ice, that once when he was in the fields, he had seen a landholder hurt himself while dismounting. Cut his hand on a bit of the horse’s fancy tack. Uncle swore he glimpsed a bit of blood before the landholder managed to bind the wound with his neckcloth, and that the blood was pink, the color of the petals of the tiny flowers that grow on the mountainside in spring, and have no scent, or use, or purpose in the world at all.

I said, “The landholders keep their distance from us to encourage such tales. They want us to fear them. They are not ghosts.”

“I didn’t say they were.”

“Can we fight them, do you think?”

“I think we must.” He stopped pacing. “Don’t you?”

“I am not an elder,” I said. “Not yet. Not for several years yet. I cannot organize the village. I cannot raise an army. I cannot force people to fight.”

“You can talk.” The Younger Son-in-law smiled wryly. “And if there is one thing you can do, it is organize. The elders we have – they did a brave thing, defying the landholders, but that is as far as their courage will stretch. They are too much of the old times, despite all their words. They would never say fight. They would never imagine an army. That came to you at once.”

“Not at once, no.” The morning was still early, and the air was cool, but it could not dry the sweat on my face.

“You wouldn’t know it by this family, but not everyone thinks me ridiculous,” the Younger Son-in-law said. “I can gather the young folks. You will have to persuade their parents.”

Alarmed, I said, “You have been talking in the village?”

“Not in the village. To individuals. And then to small groups.”

I turned away from him, hot with shame. Electric lights, powered by children’s blood. Babies’ marrow fed to the landholders’ great-great-grandparents. And him pacing while telling his tales, sweating and shaking, tearing at his hairy face. How they must have laughed at him. At us. At me, for having such a son-in-law.

“They will fight,” he said. “We have gathered weapons. Knives, mostly, and scythes and the like. I know what you are going to say. That will work only the first time, for the second time the landholders will come back with their swords. We’ve thought of that. We are working on ways to set traps for the horses. That way — ”

“We?”

He gave the use-names of half-a-dozen young men, his age or younger, most of them unmarried. He gave the use-names of nearly that many young women, none married. “A small group, I know. But when we go to fight, their brothers and sisters will come, too. Those of age, I mean. And I hope – I hope my brothers-in-law will join us, as well. And no, I haven’t spoken to them yet. I thought it best to speak to you first.”

He’d stopped pacing. He looked almost serene, as if a weight had been lifted from him. “And, as I said, I think you would be best to speak to those who are not yet elders. We need their support. If they are against us, they will try to prevent the younger folk from fighting. As for the children — ”

“Stop,” I said. “Just stop. I cannot bear this lunacy any longer. It hurts my head and it hurts my heart. Go home. I’m going to walk for a while more. Go home. Get – get out of my sight.”

“Wait,” he said. “Come with me.”

“Where?”

“Come with me.”

He took me to his mother’s place. She wasn’t there. Off in the hills somewhere, probably, talking to stones or dancing with the hares. He showed me an outbuilding, a half-fallen down shed…in which knives and scythes were stored, each one clean and sharp and wrapped in sacking.

“You didn’t believe me, did you.”

“No,” I said. “To be honest, I did not.”

“Thank you for coming to see for yourself. I do thank you for that.” He looked me in the eye. “I know what you think of me, Mother-in-law. And yet you have been kind, when you could. I thank you for that, as well.”

My anger grew. “So you have collected a few sharp implements, and have tended them well. A few blades in a shed does not mean you have people who will wield them.”

And he stood there and calmly said again the names of six young men and five young women he claimed would do precisely that.

I did not believe him. I admit that. I know now, of course, that the Younger Son-in-law was telling the truth. He and his little army are out there now, in the dark, waiting.

Not so little, in truth. Each young man or young woman had at least one brother or sister or cousin or friend eager to join the company. The Elder Son-in-law did not join. He and the Eldest Daughter are here with me, helping to guard the children. But the Youngest Son, and, to my surprise, the Middle Daughter, have also gone.

It is night, but the sky is filled with lights. Thick, wide beams of yellow and pink sweep across the stars, blotting them out. The Younger Son-in-law said it is an invention of the landholders, a device for searching. But why are they searching the sky, when we are all on the ground, or under it, lying in ambush, or hiding? The ways of the landholders are strange.

“We will win this first time,” the Younger Son-in-law said. “Despite their devices and tricks. We will win because the landholders will be surprised.” He laughed. He looks so different when he laughs. “Astonished, and dismayed, for they expect no resistance. We will throw them into confusion, and they will retreat. This time. The real test will come next time.”

We have kept our plans secret from the elders. From others as well. However, secrets can never be kept long. It is likely that many of them already know what the young people are doing tonight. After tonight, of course, everyone will know.

It was not difficult to persuade the villagers with children to let us conceal them. It has been more difficult to persuade some of the bigger children that they are not old enough to go with the fighters. I have three or four such here, sulking. The Eldest Daughter is managing them. She has given them sticks, with which they are to defend the littler children. That does not completely satisfy them, but they are keeping quiet.

The landholders will not succeed tonight.

They are coming for the children. The Younger Son-in-law was right about that. We spotted the carts this morning. It wasn’t difficult; the landholders did not even try to disguise them. Carts to haul our children off in, as if they were shoats or suckling calves. But the children of the village are well-hidden, none in their own homestead, all in outbuildings or cellars, all guarded by women and men of strength.
This time, we will win. The young people will attack the horses. They will burn the carts. They will fight the swordless landholders with knives and scythes, and with all their lights and devices and confidence, the landholders will be defeated this time. I do believe that.

We huddle together, hush the children, and listen. The Elder Son-in-law will not leave the window. He keeps looking at the lights in the sky. The Eldest Daughter and I, and the three neighbors who with us are guarding the group of children entrusted to our care, rely more on our ears.

I can hear hoofbeats.

It’s not just my own blood pounding in my ears, for the Eldest Daughter hears it, too. She doesn’t look at me, but she squeezes my hand.

“We’ll win this time,” I say.

“And next time?” she asks, but quietly.

For a moment, I cannot answer. At last I say, “Next time will have to wait for next time. This time, we will win.”

The hoofbeats are louder. So many. I did not think there were so many landholders in this small piece of the island. Perhaps they have mounted their servants and retainers to come against us. Perhaps some now on horseback were once children of our village.

“Listen,” says the Eldest Daughter.

“Yes.”

Amid the hoofbeats, we can hear shouting. Shouts, and cries, and the neighing of frightened horses. It’s begun.

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Copyright 2011 Patricia Russo