CHAPTER FIVE: WRONG
“There you are!” Fren cried as Adar and Kharis arrived in the square. "Oh, and hey Mox! There's my girl!"
But the felinees had never quite taken to Fren who always wanted to pet her. Mox unwound herself from Adar's neck and rapidly oiled away towards a food cart where an unwary cart owner might let her get some nibbles. She would find him later. No matter what, she always came back.
"Mox! C'mon! I just want to give you head scratches!" Fren called sadly.
But soon Mox's furry body disappeared from sight.
"Next time, Fren!" Adar said gently. "She's hungry and there's too many new things to see and smell and eat."
The square was rapidly filling up with townsfolk. Adar had never seen so many people signing up for the race. There was a line and then some with people calling out not to close the sign up until they had a chance to add their name. He blinked and slowly turned around in a circle to see the many eager faces. There was almost a drunken glee about the crowd.
“What’s with all the racers? We hardly had half a dozen last year!” Adar remarked.
Kharis was frowning as she took in the surprising amount of racers, but, clearly, also the type. Though the race was generally run by those under 20-years of age, anyone could, in theory, enter. This year there were children just past their double digits and grandmothers and grandfathers nearing their triple ones.
“You don’t know?” Fren asked, running her hand through her short red hair. It stuck up in the wake of her fingers. Her bright fox-like face was filled with excitement.
“Don’t know what?” Kharis asked sharply.
Fren’s lips parted in surprise at Kharis’ tone, but she managed to stammer out, “But you have to know, Kharis! Your grandmother is putting up the money after all!”
“Money?” Adar frowned. The race had always been for bragging rights and a worn ribbon at best. Never actual money.
Fren practically jumped up into the air like a kernel of heated corn in oil over a fire. “One-thousand gold pieces!”
“One-thousand?” Adar repeated.
He couldn’t have heard Fren right. With that kind of money… Well, anyone could do almost anything! He could definitely buy an ownership in the apothecary shop with Bialair. Hells, he could open his own apothecary! This kind of money could lift Aunt Cathe and Uncle Thom out of any hardship. They’d be able to fix the roof, add on that new room, and relax a little. Or a lot. And then an unbidden, but electric thought filled him.
If I win the money, maybe Draigh will reconsider joining Donal’s House! Maybe he’ll see that we can build something together!
It wasn’t that he thought his brother would marry for money. Draigh didn’t give a whit about coin or even comfort. But he cared for others. Adar was certain that Draigh partially thought to leave because Aunt Cathe and Uncle Thom had worked themselves to the bone to raise the two of them. Joining the Magans had to be influenced by the desire to ease that burden and maybe help them out.
But 1000 gold pieces will make us just as free. I have to win tonight’s race!
“What? My grandmother is offering how much to the winner of the race?” Kharis’ voice was filled with shock.
Adar was knocked out of his thoughts of what such money could do by his best friend’s tone and look of complete surprise. Not a happy surprise either, but a subtle alarm.
“You didn’t know?” Fren shifted from one foot to another uneasily.
Adar was certain Kharis would have mentioned this earlier if she had known. Though she had kept her thoughts about Donal and Draigh to herself. But that was different. That had been a rumor. This was something she would have known was fact.
Kharis shook her head, confirming his thoughts. “No, I had no idea. Have they said anything about why?”
Adar realized that Kharis was worried about the motive for this prize. Adar couldn’t help but wonder too. In all his years, hells, in all the years before his, never had such a pot of gold been offered for anything. So why now?
“No one’s really explained anything yet. Only announced the money,” Fren answered. “Hence the feeding frenzy! Oh, by the gods, is that Grandfather Leipzig? He can’t even leave his chair! How is he going to win the race? And there’s little Stanna. It takes five steps of hers to reach one of mine and I’m short! I suppose hope springs eternal. Thank goodness we all signed up last week, eh, Adar? It will take forever to get through that line now.”
Adar recognized what Fren was saying. This money had changed the very atmosphere of the town. People were excited, for sure, but there was also an undercurrent of envy and, potentially, suspicion, too. People were actually sussing one another out as competitors. As if to think of a competitor was to conjure one up, Cohnal strutted out into view with a few of his bully boys in tow.
Cohnal was built rather like a barrel with massive arms and legs. None of him was fat, but all muscle. He had a shock of red-brown hair on his head in contrast to a rather wispy mustache over his upper lip. He put his thumbs behind his suspenders as he looked at everyone with derision. He made a crude comment about one of the racers to his favorite bully boy named Nat who chortled along with him.
But then Cohnal’s gaze then swung to Adar. His thickly freckled face turned a mottled red and the smile that creased his thin lips dimmed for a moment. His piggy eyes narrowed before he spat on the ground in Adar’s general direction. He stalked off without another look. But Cohnal knew he was there and knew he had come to compete.
I’ve never beaten him in a race. Never even tried. But he knows I could. He wants to intimidate me, Adar realized. Maybe that’s what he thinks has kept me from knocking the crown off his ugly head all these years. Well, that changes tonight.
Kharis had not seen Cohnal. Her tense expression had softened somewhat to thoughtfulness, but the smile she tried to put a smile on her face looked forced as she said, “Well, that will liven up the race. Clearly, it’s increased the number of racers.”
“Are you really going to compete this year, Adar? Or let Kerym crow all next year that he beat you again? I mean with this kind of money, you have to take it seriously!” Fren asked as she sent one of her bony elbows playfully into his side.
“I beat Adar fair and square last year!” Kerym popped up behind Fren. Noticing Adar and Kharis then, he added, “Hi, Adar, hey, Kharis! Your grandmother is the best, by the way! All that money just for finishing first in the race. I think I’m going to do it this year! I’m going to win!”
“Only in your dreams, Kerym.” Fren rolled her eyes.
“Hey! It could happen! Cohnal was drinking all last night so I’m sure he’s not his best. And I’ve been practicing!” Kerym claimed.
Kerym was nearly two feet taller than Fren. Long and gangly, he was all limbs with a short torso. His brown hair stuck up in thin patches over his head, but didn’t cover his gigantic ears that, if they flapped, could have lifted him up from the ground and let him soar like a bird. Despite having the longest legs and huge ears, he wasn’t fast at all. And he was notoriously lazy. So the thought of him practicing for the race had everyone giving him the stink eye.
“Practicing? Sure, you were, Kerym,” Fren snorted and shook her head. “I think Grandfather Leipzig is going to leave you in his dust.”
“I’ll prove you wrong, Fren! We should make a bet on it!” Kerym thrust his point chin out.
“You don’t have anything I want!” Fren shook her head. She turned to Kharis. “Your grandmother must be doing this for you, because you became of age this year, right, Kharis?
Kharis gave a smile that looked very much like she hoped that wasn’t true. “Oh, I’m sure not. Grandmother is so dedicated to the town. She could have just decided to, ah, do this..”
“Oh, look, there your grandmother is on the balcony! She appears like she is about to speak!” Fren cried as she pointed to the second floor balcony of the Mayor’s Residence that faced out in the square. “I’m sure she’ll tell everyone what it’s all about!”
People quickly surged towards the balcony to hear Kharis’ grandmother speak. Her grandmother, Elodora, gracefully approached the balcony railing. Her husband was not there, though there were half a dozen dignitaries standing with her. Between the husband and wife, Adar knew that she was the one truly in charge of the Helemaers. The matriarch of her family and really of all of Thistleford.
She was a handsome woman though a bit angular. Kharis said that the sharp angles of her body often reflected the sharpness of her mind and personality. Adar had definitely found her pointy at times.
She wore dark blue trousers tucked into deeper midnight blue leather boots and a jacket of the same color that was short in the front and had a long train in the back. Brass thongs criss-crossed the chest to keep it closed. The high, flared collar accentuated her heart-shaped face. Like Kharis, she wore her hair in braids that were plated together at the base of her skull and hung down her back to her waist. Gold hair pieces glinted in the braid as she smiled broadly at the audience.
“My dear Thistlefordians!” she called out in a voice rich and warm, but with a touch of almost possessiveness as if every person in the town was hers in some way. “I can see by the many possible racers for our annual Nightfall race that you all have heard of the special prize. One-thousand gold pieces!”
The crowd erupted in cheers and Elodora’s broad smile grew even wider. She held out her hands and made a tamping down motion after a time to quiet the crowd once more.
“My husband and I are offering this wonderful reward to the people of our town to celebrate our beloved granddaughter, Kharis Helemaers, entering her eighteenth year!” Elodora proclaimed with a sweep of her hand that with unerring accuracy picked Kharis out in the crowd.
Everyone turned to look at where Elodora’s finger pointed. All eyes fell upon Kharis. She smiled and waved to the claps and calls of excitement. Though to most people it would appear as if nothing were wrong, Adar knew that she was as tense as a bow and he wondered why.
“What’s wrong?” Adar asked her out of the corner of his mouth.
“I don’t know yet.” Kharis kept smiling and nodding. “But my grandmother does nothing for free. And this prize is far from nothing.”
“Well, what could the catch be?” Adar asked, confusion furrowing his brow.
“I think we’re about to find out,” Kharis said, that smile still easily hanging onto her lips, but nowhere to be seen in her eyes.
Elodora gestured for silence again. “Now, this reward is large–” More shouts of agreement and excitement. She nodded. “And while it is to celebrate, it must not be easy to win!” Elodora smiled brilliantly, showing many white teeth. The crowd roared with approval. They all clearly thought that they could best their neighbor. “So this year’s race will be a special one.”
There were “oohs” and “ahhs” of delight from those who would watch while those who had chosen to participate appeared a little leery, but eager.
“Here it comes,” Kharis murmured.
“The route for tonight’s race leaves the confines of the town!” Elodora announced.
Silence fell as people took in her words, but like with the one-thousand gold coins that had stunned him, this knowledge stunned everyone else. Adar wasn’t sure what she meant either.
“No,” Kharis whispered. Her smile had died.
“Now, now,” Elodora said as she made a third motion to quiet people, but there were no cries at all at the moment to silence. “The Watchers will be present. And the contestants must simply run to the Poplarspine and come back. There are torches to light their way. It will be relatively safe.”
Silence continued to reign as people looked at her uncertainly.
Elodora was undimmed. She gestured for two of her servants to come up to the rail. They were carrying a heavy-looking bound chest. They rested it on the rail. Elodora flipped open the top to reveal a heap of gold coins glittering inside.
“All this,” Elodora murmured, “could be yours. What will stop you from claiming it?”
The crowd, who had been getting up on tiptoes to get a better look at more gold than they’d ever seen in one place before, let out a single, wild roar of delight. They would race! They would win! The power of gold overcame all fears of the deep, dark woods.
Adar found himself leaning towards the gold, too. He imagined showing it to Draigh, Aunt Cathe and Uncle Thom. He imagined all of their amazement at it. He could practically see Draigh’s expression softening as he realized that Adar winning a race hadn’t caused the sky to fall or witches to appear or the town to send them down the Wicked Path. No, this time, their difference had helped them and their family.
He won’t go with Donal if I win this and show him we can have a future together.
“I cannot believe her,” Kharis hissed, once again breaking him from his thoughts. She looked angry and stunned.
“So I’m still in!” Kerym said, but his Adam’s apple was bobbing up and down swiftly. He was frightened.
Fren tugged at the top of her gray tunic. “I’ve never been out at night, but it should be fine, right, Adar?”
“Right! You and Draigh were out there alone! And you were just little kids,” Kerym pointed out. “We’ll be with the Watch and everything. It’ll be totally safe, right, Adar?”
Both she and Kerym turned to him. Adar blinked and lifted up his right hand to his throat.
“Ah, I was outside in the dark just the one time! And I was sleepwalking!” he admitted.
“But you were way out there. Far out there. Near the Crescent Pool,” Fren pointed out.
The Crescent Pool was nearly a mile distant from town. It was allegedly where his and Draigh’s mother met their father. It got its name from its shape. The water fed into it from a stair-step waterfall that sent glistening silver waters tumbling into a deep pool. When he and Draigh were just coming into their adolescence, Adar had started walking in his sleep. He couldn’t remember the dreams that had him drifting from their home and walking, at first, just the walls of the town, but then leaving them altogether. It was the last time he walked in his sleep that he had gone all the way out to the pool.
Draigh, of course, had been the one to find him there on a moonless night. Adar’s bare feet had already been in the cold, mountain-fed water. According to his twin, he had been smiling, arms outstretched as if to offer an embrace or step into one. There had been no one there to accept it or give it.
No one that Draigh could see, though he thought he heard a cracking and creaking from the forest as if someone was coming. Someone who could snap trees like toothpicks and used hurricane winds to blow back his hair. They’d run back to town before seeing who it was that was coming.
“You and Draigh were out there much farther than the Poplarspine,” Kerym insisted. “If you two were fine then we’ll be totally safe!”
Except Adar was certain that the creature he and Draigh had not seen is what had kept them safe from the other creatures. The cracking and creaking had followed them all the way home and everything had fled from it.
“Draigh and Adar didn’t have torches leading the monsters straight to them! And a cheering audience either!” Kharis snapped and she started moving through the crowd towards the Mayor’s Residence.
Adar hurried after her, leaving Fren and Kerym to stare after them both, open-mouthed. He caught up with her just as she’d reached the building.
“Kharis, what are you going to do?” Adar asked.
“Ending this insanity!” she hissed in response.
Two of the Watch were stationed on either side of the double doors into the Mayor’s Residence.
“Don’t try and stop me,” Kharis told them.
Both of the Watch retreated from her. When angry, Kharis was like a force of nature. They opened the doors to allow them to pass. She stomped up the stairs to the second floor with Adar in tow. Her grandmother was just sweeping inside of the grand residence as they reached the top of the steps.
“Granddaughter! Adar,” Elodora greeted them both with a slight cool intonation as she said his name.
“Lady Helemaers.” Adar bowed his head briefly.
“Grandmother, why have you done this?” Kharis asked as she stepped directly in front of her grandmother. “And how fast can you undo it?”
The servants who carried the chest full of gold lumbered off with their heavy burden while another dip of Elodora’s head had all of the dignitaries fleeing too. That left just the three of them on the second floor landing.
Adar shifted uncomfortably. He’d come with Kharis as support, but it was clear from Elodora’s cool gaze upon him that he was unwelcome. Yet he stayed. Unless Kharis told him to leave, he would stay right where he was.
Elodora lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing to him, though she did say to Kharis, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to be less vague, Granddaughter.”
“You know exactly what I mean.” Kharis’ eyes narrowed. “But let me make it crystal: holding up a bag of gold to desperate people to celebrate my coming of age. Putting people in danger–maybe even getting them killed–as entertainment! Why have you done this? But, more importantly, I need you to put a stop to it!”
Elodora lifted her other eyebrow. “Is that how you see my offer of a prize, Adar?”
He was so surprised that she had spoken to him–she rarely did–that he found himself answering more baldly than he should have, “It would be life-changing money. People have done more dangerous acts for less.”
Kharis swung around and stared at him with high color in her dark cheeks. “Adar!”
Realizing that he had just undercut her argument that the prize should be withdrawn, he quickly added, “But desperation makes people stupid. And desperation shouldn’t be used to fuel entertainment. Kharis isn’t wrong about that.”
“But she is wrong about something else?” Elodora asked almost sweetly.
“No! I mean…” Adar felt his heart twist in his chest. The gold–which he was totally going to win–was the only way he had of making Draigh stay! If that was gone then he’d be losing his brother to the Magans at the end of the week!
“You mean?” Elodora made a motion with her hands for him to use his words.
He flushed, but he pushed on, “And Kharis is right that the lights and noise and people outside will draw creatures.”
“I’m waiting to hear about how she’s wrong, boy,” Elodora said with a bored wave.
Adar pressed on, “The racers out there aren’t all in race-ready condition either. So Kharis is right that someone will be hurt. Even if we weren’t going outside the walls, there would be falls and maybe even heart failures.”
He was thinking of Grandfather Leipzig when he said that last bit.
“Still not hearing how she’s wrong, Adar!” Elodora reminded him. “However, you make some sense. We will weed out anyone older than let’s say forty-five and no one younger than sixteen. Further, we won’t allow those who have no chance of winning go outside and, potentially, harm themselves. So only the first five to reach the South Gate will be allowed out. The rest will be considered automatic losers and kept safe inside. Acceptable?”
“That’s not at all acceptable!” Kharis cried, finding her voice again. “I do not want anyone putting themselves in danger to celebrate me! Young, old or indifferent!”
“Oh, dear, do not worry about that. They’re doing it for the money, not you,” her grandmother said. “But they will always think well of you, because of this opportunity your coming of age has presented them.”
“And what about anyone who gets hurt? Or anyone who gets killed? Will they think so well of me? Will their family? Will the town?” Kharis demanded.
“I could go out and tell them all that we won’t be offering the gold, because of concerns for their safety,” Elodora mused.
“Yes! Perfect! Go do that!” Kharis demanded.
But Elodora turned to Adar again and asked, “How do you think the townsfolk will react to that? Will they thank my granddaughter for her care for them? Or is this where she’s wrong?”
One-thousand gold pieces would mean the world to him or almost anyone in town. But they would be his. He would win the race this time. He would win it handily. He could almost feel the cold coins running through his fingers and Draigh’s body against his as they hugged after he won the race. This was the only way for him to keep his family. Guilt stabbed at him. He wanted this so badly!
But I’m not alone, he realized.
He went back over the memory of the faces outside. The desperation. The wild longing. The fragile hope. What did it take to get Grandfather Leipzig to leave his chair and fire? A desire for a better life for his family. Every single person who signed up for the race or had a family member in it wanted that money badly. So badly.
“Yes, this is where Kharis is wrong,” Adar finally answered, which had Kharis blanching.
Elodora smiled and nodded. “You surprised me, Adar, by your honesty. I thought you would say what my granddaughter wished to hear. But no! Perhaps you truly are more than you seem.”
Adar grimaced. Elodora’s praise was bitter compared to Kharis’ hurt expression. But he wouldn’t be sparing Kharis if her grandmother went back out there and took back the prize. He carefully put together what he wanted to say next.
“Your concern for the people is right and good, Kharis. I know you care about each and every one of them. But now that your grandmother has made this offer, if it’s taken back no one will thank you,” Adar told Kharis.
“I don’t care! I don’t care if they hate me so long as–”
“Kharis, they will hate you, but it will be worse than that,” Adar interrupted her. He kept seeing Draigh’s face breaking into a smile. A rare and wonderful smile as they looked at each other over that pile of gold. That made him go one, “You understand people so well, but there are certain things you can’t fully comprehend.”
“What do you mean?” Kharis asked.
“I don’t blame you for not understanding this. The wealth you’ve grown up with makes it almost impossible for you to understand what a mere one-thousand gold pieces would mean for almost every family outside of North Thistleford.” He grimaced. “This kind of money will literally change a family’s circumstances. They can build a business. Buy a home. Propose marriage. Have children. And so much more. People would die for just the chance of it. You cannot take it away, Kharis.”
He was surprised by the emotion that clogged his throat. Elodora regarded him curiously.
“I–I won’t! We can do a lottery! People put in tickets and we pick one,” his best friend suggested. “That way someone can win the money without risk!’
But Adar shook his head. Gaining this money by anything other than what had been suggested wouldn’t work. “People won’t accept that. Right now, the race requires some skill. It will seem that the winner has earned the prize rather than simply being given it by chance.”
“Again, Adar, you surprise me and delight me! You understand your fellow citizens very well,” Elodora said.
Kharis glanced between the two of them. “There’s nothing I can do to stop this from happening, is there?”
“Anything you will do will just make things worse,” Adar confessed.
I will have this money. I will win back Draigh. I will keep my family together.
Finally, Kharis’ eyes alighted upon her grandmother. “Why did you do this in the first place? You must have known how this would go!”
“I told you, Granddaughter, to honor you–”
“No! The real reason! I will have it from you!” Kharis’ eyes filled with angry, bitter tears.
Elodora’s face became an unreadable mask for a moment before she was all smiles again and said, “Debts, dear. We always pay our debts.”
“What debts? To whom?” Kharis asked.
But her grandmother swept past her and just as she was even with Adar, she said, “You’ve shown some light under that bushel you’re hiding under, young man. Do keep that up. Make the dark become as bright as the day.”