Excerpt from "Child Ballads" Book 1
Diverus’s mother, Imani, was standing at the woodstove making soup when she heard the sound. The sound itself wasn’t unusual—a twig breaking; the clatter of childrens’ feet on the stair—but it was the feeling of it that made a chill run down her spine because it was clumsy with fear and had none of the joyful sound that their feet usually carried.
She let go of her soupspoon and turned her eyes to the door. A moment later it swung open and there they were: her two boys. Diverus was nearly fifteen already and so handsome for his age, despite growing up under these impossible conditions. She took in her eldest son’s appearance, his tightly curled hair that was now cut short and made him look older than he was, and the oversize coat that had once been his father’s but which Imani had rolled up at the sleeves and sewn in such a way that they could be let out as he grew taller. Close behind Diverus, Imani’s second son, Spens, followed, though he didn’t advance as Diverus did and instead hung back in the shadows. She could hear both of them wheezing, out of breath from their run. Imani prepared herself for another tragedy, big or small. Something must have happened to one of the commune’s children out there in the woods.
In the dim light of the flickering fire Imani saw that the front of Diverus’s coat had been splattered with mud, but as he drew closer she saw its true color and her heart pounded harder.
Diverus rushed up to her, eyes wide, and grabbed her hand.
“Diverus, what happened? Are you okay?”
Imani tried to pull him in to her for a hug and to feel his body for wounds, but he resisted. She realized the hand in her own was wet and shaking.
“We have to go, Mom, all of us! They were—in the woods…” Diverus’s voice had a quality to it that Imani had never heard before.
“What’s this blood on your coat?” She demanded, and then, looking down at his hands, shook free of his grasp. “And on your hands?” Her own fingers, she saw with horror, were now slick with blood. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t! They made me!” As Diverus spoke, his eyes flickered all around the darkened room. “There was nothing I could do! They forced me! It wasn’t my fault!”
“Shhh, okay now, calm down. No one’s saying it was. But Diverus, baby, what did you do?”
“They made me…”
The boy closed his eyes and shook his head, his face contorting. Imani had never seen him like this and it frightened her. She grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to still him.
“They made you what? They made you hurt someone?”
Diverus nodded and a tear spilled down his still-childish face.
“Shhh, shhh, shhh,” Imani whispered and she put one hand to his cheek, turning his face so his eyes looked up at her. They shone with tears in the flickering firelight. “Who was it, baby? Who did they make you hurt?”
“It was…” Diverus choked and averted his eyes. “It was Eze.”
Eze—Diverus’s favorite hound. The boy had grown up with that mongrel; it was one of the few things of their past that had stayed. Imani sighed, accepting it. He would have to be strong. But when she looked at him something in his posture made her suspicious. He was shifting from foot to foot, looking off to the side.
“Was it?” she asked him, wanting to be sure, and when he didn’t reply Imani pressed harder. “It wasn’t Eze, was it? Look at this blood on your coat! Hounds’ blood was never so red as this.” In spite of herself, Imani could feel anger rising in her, and she wasn’t sure whether it was against Diverus for lying to her or against whoever had made her child do some unspeakable thing. “Who did they make you hurt? And don’t you lie to me again.” At the corner of her consciousness Imani was vaguely aware that the soup on the stove was beginning to boil.