“Keep your eyes on the job at hand,” her mother said without looking up. “The faster we finish, the faster we can return home. I do not like the look of the gathering clouds.”
“I was just wondering about the weeds - there seems to be a lot of them this year. More than I remember from previous years.”
“Just old wives’ tales,” her mother snapped, though she did pause now and looked around the grove. “It means nothing. Nothing at all.” She stood, dusted her knees, acted as if she was worried about the storm clouds and not the weeds that had taken hold of the grove. “Best we gather the weeds we’ve already removed and burn them now. They will already be difficult to get rid of. We don’t need the rain soaking them as well.”
“Yes, mother,” Nea said, picking up the large basket of weeds she had gathered. With the sky darkening and the sprouting, rambling weeds mocking the graves of their family, it was eerie beneath the boughs. Her mother clutched two smaller, but no less full baskets under her arms as they left the family graves for the village.
To the north of their grove stood the tall, matted trees of the Swallowtail family - the richest and oldest of the village. To the south, hugging a stream, was a grove of ancient willows which had belonged to a family from a village which had been razed long ago during the First Midland Wars. Only now the family’s trees were starting to perish as the souls of those buried beneath them crossed the Veil into the undying world beyond. Still, no one drank from the stream’s water, which was icy cold even during summer.
Nea’s eyes followed the stream to where it disappeared into the vast shadows of the Great Brenoth Wood.
“Where is your mind today, Nea?” her mother scolded.
“The Nithin are coming this week.”
“We have no need to fear them,” her mother said. She grabbed her daughter’s arm, dropping one of the baskets, and pulled her close. “I have kept you safe from them through all the years they had to look for you. You are safe now. We all are.”
“What about the children?”
“No one will die tonight,” her mother said and nodded to herself. “I made sure of that.” She touched her daughter’s cheek. “There will be no planting of trees this week. I promise you. Now, help me pick up the weeds I dropped. We should get back to the village. I want the grave weeds burned before the rain starts.”
When they reached the edge of the village, one of the children, Hermahn, ran up to them.
“They say the Nithin are coming tonight!” he stuttered. “Ma’ Nea, I do not want them to find me and take me away!”
“Do not worry so, Hermahn! No one is going to take you anywhere. Your blood is clean. Come, help me carry these home.”
“But how do you know, Ma’ Nea?” His eyes widened. “Did the ancestors tell you?” He stared off into the distance to where the grave groves stood.
“They did,” Nea’s mother said, glancing to her daughter. “They told me no one would be taken tonight.”
Nea was surprised that her mother managed to lie so easily to the child. But the older woman had put on her own hiding cloak and had gone around the village to see whether any of the children had Ruon blood and could see her. But it was only Nea who, heart in her throat, was able to see her mother walking from house to house. Suddenly she felt as if she was seven years old again and ready to be tested the first time.
She barely remembered the night the Nithin was supposed to take her. Her mother had given her some foul tasting concoction that dulled her senses before she was placed between the other children around her age. They spent the night outside on the village green. Nea could only remember her mother’s words vaguely through the dulling of her senses.
“Do not look at them. Never at them. Look away or past them. Never make eye contact. If you do, they will take you away.”
She did as she was told, gazing off into the distance before moving her gaze in the direction of her house. She swore she could see her mother’s shadow at the window.
“Look, the Nithin has come!”
Nea, started at the voice and for a moment thought it had been her own. But it was another child who had spoken and now pointed directly at the two approaching Nithin. The women started circling the group of children.
“There’s nothing there,” Nea said. “You should not lie.” Nea looked to her own home again, but the child kept repeating and pointing at the two Nithin.
“Don’t you see them?” he kept asking. None of the children dared to look in the direction the boy was pointing. They all knew what it meant if you saw the Nithin on this night.
“You are just excited,” Nea said. “There is no one there. You must be seeing shadows.” Nea tried to get sense into him, but it did not work. Just as she was about to press his pointing hand down, the boy gasped and clutched at his neck where a speck of blood appeared. He fell backward, his head hitting the ground sharply, but he made no sound. Nea stared at the dead boy, willing herself to look at his dead eyes instead of looking back at the Nithin who had killed him for being able to see them. It was all the proof they needed to know he had Ruon blood.
The other children screamed and ran for their houses. Nea stood as well, backing away before stumbling to her house. But, unlike the other children, she did not have to beat upon the door before being let in. The shadow at the window had been her mother and now she gathered her child in her arms and slammed the door against the night and the Nithin.
Outside the dead boy’s mother started wailing at the death of her son. Nea watched in horror as the Nithin threw another hiding cloak over the boy and carried him off. To his mother his body would simply have disappeared.
“This is just a dream,” Nea’s mother said. But Nea knew she was lying.
“Where are they taking him? Are we not going to bury him tomorrow?”
“He will not get a grave in the family grove,” her mother said softly. “Those with Ruon blood never do. The Nithin -”
“But I could see them. Does that mean I am Ruon?”
“If you were Ruon, you would be dead right now.” She started at the sharp voice of her father.
“You will never utter those words again, do you hear me?” he scolded. “You have survived tonight,” he said then, his voice soft once more. “That means that you cannot be one of the Ruon. You are safe.” Only then did she see that he had been crying.
By now she knew that there were, in fact, four Ruon in the village. She, her mother, an elderly woman who was the best midwife for miles around, and the thatcher. They all knew of each other, but no one ever dared to say anything. Of them, only her mother had had any training, so they did not need to feign ignorance. But they did fear the Nithin more than anyone else. To be found by the Nithin was to be killed by them. You would not be buried, but would be dumped somewhere away from your people - perhaps even in the woods - and left for the elements and animals to do the rest. There would be no tree for you; your soul would never pass the Veil to where your family was waiting. You would simply stop existing. It would be as if you never existed in the first place. Ruon other than the Nithin, after all, should not exist. All in Agraver knew as much. Nea shivered.
Outside their house her mother built a small fire in the stone-lined pit made especially for the grave weeds and slowly fed the weeds to the flames while Nea sang the songs of dying and of the Veil. White smoke swirled into the air and burned her eyes. She wished to the Keepers of the Veil that they would not let her be found out by the Nithin and that she would be spared. She wiped at her eyes and stopped singing, acting as if the smoke was the cause of the tears in her eyes.
“We are safe,” her mother assured her in a whisper.
The evening came much too soon and, with it, the final preparations for the coming of the Nithin. Clouds still hung low in the sky and threatened to hide the moon and stars the whole night. Nea’s mother bustled between the kitchen and the clay over outside the house while Nea sat inside and braided the dragon’s bane woody and prickly vines into circles that would be thrown on the fire at midnight. Even though she wore gloves of thick wool and leather a few of the plant’s thorns had drawn blood and caused her to swear. But today the words didn’t elicit a response from her mother who had also let slip a few choice ones after some of the pastries almost burned. Even her father came to check on them every while. His face bore deep lines of worry - the same she saw every year when the Nithin came. At last he started talking about the family’s grove while sitting next to Nea at the table. He fidgeted with a piece of dragon’s bane, but did not join in with the plaiting of the plant - that was women’s work. He did nod with approval when he saw that she was plaiting twigs soaked in oil into the centre of the plait. They needed to make sure that the circles would burn.
“You say there are a lot of grave weeds?” her father asked.
“Yes, father. After all the rain - bless the rain -”
“Bless the rain,” her father and mother added. It was only a year since a severe drought had swept through the Midlands.
“There are ferns and grasses.”
“No new trees?”
“None that I’ve seen. I will go back tomorrow and clear more of the weeds. I’ll leave the great tree for last,” she added, referring to the first of the family trees that were planted outside the village in the spot that would later become the family grove.
“Leave the great tree for last?” a nasal, high-pitched voice interjected. Nea’s head shot up and she nearly dropped the dragon circle. Their neigbour stood in the doorway. The woman was short, barely five feet tall, and her voice was one that seemed to cut through bone.
“I always leave the most holy for last,” Nea explained. “I always have,” she said again, looking at her father.
“It was what great grandmother wanted,” her father added. A shadow passed over his face and he clenched his hands, dropping the thorny branch on the table. “The wish has been passed down through the family for generations.”
“So have the story that your great grandmother as you call her, was a Ruon.” She spat the word like a curse.
“Lies seem to have a life of their own.” Her father stood. “May we help you?”
“I come to see if the dragons circles have been braided correctly this year,” she lied. Nea knew she lied. She had called them “foul blood” more often than she cared to remember and always seemed to choose this day to find out if they weren’t really of Ruon blood so she could out them to the Nithin.
Nea held up the last of the plaited circles. “This is the last one.”
“My daughter already finished our family’s dragon circles this morning.”
“My daughter is somewhat of a perfectionist,” her mother said and her father had to hide a smile as she carried in the final tray of golden brown pastries. Nea’s stomach grumbled at the sight and smell. But they were not to eat today until after nightfall - today was a day of fasting as much as anything else.
“We want everything to be perfect for the Nithin, don’t we, Nea?” her mother said.
Nea nodded, not trusting her voice.
“Bless the Nithin,” the neighbour said, her eyes pulling into slits.
“Bless the Nithin,” the family intoned and watched their neighbour leave.
“And may the Khalver take their souls,” her father grumbled under his breath. Nea’s mother glared at him.
“You could at least have waited until she was back in her house,” she scolded. “Idiot busybody! I hope their dragon circles don’t burn tonight.”
Nea stared down at the dragon circles and hoped the fire would consume theirs tonight and not give them away. Last year the thatcher was almost caught before the people of the village were reminded that he had no daughter to plait them for him. They grudgingly accepted that the thatcher’s large hands were unsuited to the task and that is why they would not burn at first and simply broke apart. After all, some mused, you needed a thatcher in the village and theirs were so skilled that it would be a shame to spill his blood because he was a bit clumsy when it came to braiding branches. The circles did burn, after all, the fire claiming the offering after a long while.
Nea’s mother closed the door and they went to stand in a circle, holding hands.
“Khalne keep us safe,” each said in turn. More words that could lead to their deaths, but words that needed to be said. After all, the grave groves and spirits were here long before the Agraver with their Nithin took the land for themselves.
As the sun sank below the horizon the eldest in the village lighted the great bonfire. Nea and her family stood between the throng of people, clapping as the flames consumed the packed wood. The billowing smoke would call the Nithin closer. Nea’s mother handed them each one of the dragon circles. They would be tossed into the fire once the Nithin were there to witness that they were all pure.
Some of those too eager for the Nithin to come - or perhaps just feeling faint after not eating for a whole day – started at every moving shadow. Nea tried not to let her eyes rest on the two figures of the Nithin she could see coming closer. They were wrapped in hiding cloaks the colour of midnight - that much she could make out. And to say that she could see them while they were wearing them would be admitting that she was Ruon.
It was only when the Nithin reached the fire that they threw back their cloaks and were made visible to the villagers. All gasped, the closest quickly stepping away from the Nithin with bowed heads.
All fell silent until the crackle of wood was the only thing that could be heard. Nea reached for her mother’s hand, wanting to feel its reassuring touch.
“We have come to cleanse the village,” the Nithin intoned as one and Nea shivered at their icy voices. The elder of the village walked towards them, bowing his head and then kneeling.
“Your village is ours for the cleansing,” he said, throwing out his arms and looking around him.
Most of the villagers were too dumbstruck with fear to do anything other than nod. This was the first time Nea realised that only the Ruon knew that there were only two Nithin here. The others were perhaps imagining a whole invisible host of them surrounding the village. From the darting eyes around her, she realised that she must be right.
One of the Nithin, her face the pale grey colour of dragon’s bane ash, stepped further into the light. The black tattoos tracing her face danced in the firelight.
“We will begin with the burning,” the Nithin said.
The elder stumbled to his knees and started getting everyone in a long queue. The children who were too young and still needed to be tested on this night were huddled away from the flames. Nea turned her own circle over and over in her hands. As the youngest, she would be the first of the family to throw her circle into the flames. She held her breath. Once in a while someone would only show their Ruon blood when they were in their late teens, like her, or even in the middle of their lives.
She tossed her circle into what she hoped was the hotter part of the fire. The circle of dragon’s bane hooked onto some of the others that already lay in the flames. For an achingly long moment it seemed as if it would not catch fire, but then the dried twigs she had included in the centre of the bundle caught light. She looked back at her mother who smiled and nodded. What they were doing - if they were found out - would ensure that they, too, would be put to death. No questions asked.
Nea nearly started crying when her mother’s circle also caught fire. After her father burned his as well, he came to stand by them, his arms enfolding both of them.
Nea had made the thatcher’s circle this year as well - in secret though - and she watched as it, too, burned. A few of the people patted him on the back as if to say that they never truly doubted him.
Nea’s father bent down in order to whisper in his wife and daughter’s ears.
“Tomorrow, go and clear the rest of the weeds,” he said softly. “I have a bad feeling this year. Take food with you as well. You know what we’ve talked about.”
Nea nodded, trying to hide the fear from her face.
“Why now?” her mother asked, barely moving her lips.
“The midwife isn’t here,” he answered.
“She might be working,” Nea said, but her voice faltered.
“She might. But I’d rather be safe than sorry. Promise me you’ll go. As early as possible.”
Nea promised, feeling cold even though the fire burned high into the sky. Then she realised the Nithin were staring straight at her.