Repentance Atwater stood beside her little sister, Comfort, studying the damp ground where all the mushrooms grew.
Comfort trudged into the patch. “I found a good one!” She bent down to grab it.
“Careful,” Repentance said. “Don’t get your bib and britches dirty.” Repentance, in her sixth year, was the older sister. It was her job to keep Comfort out of trouble while they waited for Destiny—the big girl from down the creek who was coming to take them out of Mama’s way for a while.
Repentance studied Comfort’s mushroom. “That’s a good start. But let’s keep looking. We have to find the fattest ones.” The mushrooms would be a nice surprise for Mama. They would cheer her up.
Trying to back up, Comfort tripped over her own feet and landed in the muddiest spot.
“Comfort! You’ve made a mess.” Repentance threw a worried glance toward their cave, hoping no one was watching. “Now Mama’s going to be mad.”
Something was wrong with Mama lately. She’d been crying all week. And that morning she’d gotten really bad—sobbing so hard she hadn’t been able to speak. Repentance had run to the swamp-squash harvest to fetch Daddy.
She pulled Comfort up and brushed at the mud on the seat of her britches, smearing it around, making it worse. “Daddy will help Mama,” she said … to herself more than to Comfort. “Don’t worry. It will all come out right in the end.”
Hearing a noise on the trail she looked up to see a figure coming—moving fast. It was too foggy to see who it was, but then she heard the familiar whistle. “Destiny!” she shouted.
Destiny ran up to the cave, poked her head in behind the thick leather curtain that closed off the opening, and hollered to let Mama and Daddy know she was there.
“You’re late,” Daddy said, stepping out.
“I’m sorry, I was—”
“It’s not important. Just hurry and take them.”
Destiny looked at Comfort’s muddy britches. “Come on you two,” she said. “I suppose we’ll have to go to the swimming hole to get you all cleaned up.”
“Yippee!” Repentance said. “I’ll get Trib.”
Daddy grabbed her before she could enter the cave. “Tribulation can’t go.”
Repentance stopped, confused. Three-year-old Trib loved to swim. And he wasn’t ill. “Trib is hale and hearty,” she said. “Why can’t he come with us?”
Before Daddy could answer, the morning erupted with scratching and scrabbling sounds as birds and bunnies skittered off the path that led through the swamp.
Dark shapes came toward the cave.
They pushed through the fog—took form. Two overlords and a goat cart with a willow-branch cage in its bed. One of the overlords had a dragon stick slung over his shoulder.
Repentance automatically put an arm around Comfort and crouched down, wanting to be small. She’d seen an overlord shoot a dragon stick once. The fire was so hot it had set a soaking-wet tree on fire. There had been a puff of steam as the water burned off, and then the tree had exploded into flames.
The men stopped in front of the cave. “We’re here for the weanling.”
“He’s is in the house,” Daddy said. “I’ll get him.” Then to Destiny he said, “Too late, now. Bring the girls inside and keep them busy.”
Destiny tried to herd them into the cave, but Comfort ducked out of reach. “You said we could go to the swim hole.”
One of the overlords took a square of cloth, about the size of the handkerchiefs that Daddy used, from his pocket. Only this cloth was glowing. Bright yellow light was coming off it as if it was a candle. Repentance had never seen the likes of it.
So it was true what everyone said: The overlords had magic.
Comfort, eyes big, reached for the cloth. Destiny snagged her collar and pulled her back.
“Let the little swamp rat be,” the man said, dangling his magic hanky in front of Comfort. “I’m not going to hurt her.”
While the man was distracted with her little sister, Repentance studied his strange, pale eyes. She’d never been so close to an overlord before.
Daddy ducked back under the curtain holding Tribulation, who was squirming and fussing.
The overlord shoved his yellow, glowing cloth into his pocket.
Daddy, his face gray, planted a kiss on Trib’s head and handed him to the man.
Handed him to the overlord!
Just like that!
Blood rushed into Repentance’s head and pounded in her ears. Time seemed to slow down.
A sob broke from Daddy, and he slipped into the cave.
The overlord stuck Trib into the cage.
Tossed him in.
Like Trib wasn’t anything more than a possum or a piglet.
He hooked the door of the cage. Turned the goat around. Began down the path.
“Meany!” Comfort threw her mushroom at the overlords. It fell far short. Landed on the muddy path. Harmless.
Trib stuck his arms through the willow-branch slats. Reaching out. “Pentace!” he screamed. “Pentace!”
Repentance could see the tears clinging to his eyelashes.
She could see his chubby, wet, red cheeks. She could see his tiny, white, baby teeth. And then she couldn’t see anything at all.
He was gone.
Swallowed by the fog.
She made to follow, but Destiny held her back.
His wailing was quickly muffled, absorbed by the swamp, with its sopping trees, its thick moss, and its moldy earth.
The outdoor noises came back. Frogs croaking. Wart-lizards hissing. Trees dripping.
A fat blob of water fell from a tree and splatted onto her face. Repentance swiped it off with the back of one hand. “He didn’t break any of the rules,” she whispered. Fear rose in her throat like a purple-fruit pit—a thick knot that made it hard to swallow. “They aren’t supposed to take us kids if we don’t break the rules. Why did they take Trib?”
“It’s Grief Day,” Destiny said. “Keeping the rules doesn’t count on Grief Day.”
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