The children’s skin had deepened to a nice tan by the next day. Their father proclaimed that they could take a shorter excursion to the beach, just in the morning for a few hours. Martin’s face and neck were peeling badly enough that he bought a straw hat to protect himself while he herded his excited offspring back across the main road and into the waves.
It was, again, Anladet’s world. There was so much to do, so much to explore, and only a short time to do it. She took Garlin by the hand and led him back to the rocks, this time hugging the boulders around it to make it out into deep water. Her brother chickened out and swam back to the beach, so she brought one of starfish she had found clinging to the boulders over to him.
“Touch it,” she said, “it’s bumpy and slimy.”
Garlin giggled. “It’s sticking to me!” He pulled the arms up slowly, one by one, and started again, laughing that he had just pulled that one up and it was stuck again. It was one of the things she had loved most about her brother; he met strangeness and fear with excitement and curiosity, with an unabashed love for new things.
Anla returned the poor creature it to the nearest rock when they were done prodding at it and poking it. She then led Garlin back into the water and played in the waves. Anla had figured out how to stand on her hands, clutching the sand furiously until she was toppled over by the waves. Her brother joined her, sputtering inhaled water the first time he tried. They moved on to cartwheels and underwater somersaults.
Anladet started walking on her hands towards the beach when her hand wrapped around something sharp. Alarmed, she pulled her arm back, toppling to the side. She carefully reached down, brushing aside the sand instead of diving her hand in, and unearthed a seashell with bumpy spikes on the outside. It was beautiful, a pink and white speckled swirl bigger than her hand was wide. It was her treasure and, as most children excited about new and incredible things, she needed her father to see it right then and there.
“Dada!” she yelled out.
It took a moment before she realized what she had done. She slipped beneath the water, hugging the shell close to her chest. No, she thought. That was the one thing I wasn’t supposed to say. Did anyone hear me? Am I going to get in trouble? Her father had always commended her on how well she played the game and she just spoiled it.
She peeked out of the water, just her eyes, to see if Martin was looking at her. Or anyone else. The beach seemed as it had, everyone going about their normal play. Garlin was under the waves, twisting around and oblivious to what she had done. Her mother still sat on the oversized blanket the hotel had loaned them, pulling her hat down when a gust of wind threatened to take it away. Her father stood some distance behind her, speaking with a group of men.
Everything seemed fine. Still, the day was ruined for her. She continued to explore and swim, but her stomach was tied in knots. Was she in trouble? Was she going to be punished? It had been an accident. Mama sometimes made them sit with their foreheads touching the large tree across from their house whenever they were bad. Anladet didn’t want to do that in front of all these people.
No one said anything as the family shuffled back to the hotel, bathed, changed, and headed out to walk in town again before lunch. On their way through the plaza, they noticed a commotion in the form of a mounted sheriff’s posse headed down the street. Since the group was taking up most of the road, people moved out of their way, lining the sidewalks to let them pass.
Despite her serious gaff earlier, Anladet never thought they would stop in front of their family.
“Sir,” the sheriff asked Martin, “are you the father of these children?”
The crowd quieted, waiting to hear what their father would say. Anladet remembered clearly at how strong his accent was compared to the sheriff’s. “No, sir, I am their hired guard. I am sworn to protect them while they are vacationing in this fine town.”
“We have reason to believe that is a lie,” the sheriff said. If anyone in the crowd had been speaking, they were silenced by the accusation.
Martin blinked a few times, then gave a forced, fake smile. “Sir, no, I am just their guard. I was paid to watch them by their father, who is a wealthy businessman in New Wextif.”
The sheriff looked down over the group, from Martin to Nakeswa, then to each child. Garlin reached for Anla’s hand and held it as the man analyzed them, his gaze lingering for an uncomfortable amount of time. “They look like you,” the sheriff said to their father, “especially that one” he said, pointing to Anladet, “and that one,” he finished, pointing to Garlin.
“Sir, any resemblance is coincidental.” He still had that forced smile, but he kept swallowing, his prominent Adam’s apple bouncing up and down his throat.
“Please remove your hat, madam,” the sheriff asked their mother. In uncertain motions, her hands reached up and took off the broad-rimmed hat that had protected her face from the sun and any notice of her difference. “Could you brush your hair back for me, madam?”
Her mother’s fingers, long and lissome, combs her tresses back revealing her ears. The sheriff again looked at each child, then back at Nakeswa, and finally at Martin. “Their ears do not look as sharply pointed as this woman’s. If I had to wager a goodly sum, I’d say that this was their mother, but that their father was a human.”
“I…I have met th…their father. He is a good man, but an elf. He pays me well. Sir, I don’t…”
The sheriff snorted in disgust. “I’m not making arbitrary guesses, sir. I didn’t rouse my men because someone looked closely and pictured what I have painted. I have stronger proof than that.”
Anla felt as if she could vomit any of the sea water she had swallowed on the cobblestones any moment. Instead, she squeezed Garlin’s hand tighter. When Martin said nothing, the sheriff continued. “Perhaps if we ask the children then? I’m sure they can tell us the truth of the matter. Children are so very honest.” He turned to the men surrounding him. “Take them.”
The unmounted men who had accompanied the sheriff each took a hold of one of their arms. Sildet began to cry. Raidet twisted away from the arm of the man that was holding her. Anla, however, complied and gave one last squeeze to Garlin before their hold was broken by the officers.
They hadn’t traveled more than fifteen steps when she heard her mother cry out for them. They only went a farther ten when she heard her father’s anguished voice. “Wait, please. Don’t…yes. Yes, I am their father.”
The crowd around them murmured in disgust. The sheriff held his hand up for his men to stop. Raidet broke free and ran into her father’s arms. He pulled her close, kissing the top of her head. Anla and Garlin made it quickly to their mother, who hugged both tightly. She could feel her mother’s tears run down her forehead.
“Sir, are you aware there is a law in Gheny against humans and elves interbreeding?”
Their father looked over Raidet’s head. “Yes, but, I am from Arvonne. We do not have that law where I am from.”
The sheriff shook his head, unswayed. “You still broke the law, with full knowledge you were doing so.”
“Yes,” Martin said. “We’ll go, immediately. We have a house in the Dreelands. We’ll stay there and never leave.”
Anladet reviewed this moment many times and realized how stupid and naive she had been. Her concern then wasn’t the immediate survival of her family, but the long term one. She wanted to turn to her father and scold him for lying. Of course he would leave! He had to, it was part of his job. The whole reason why he didn’t stay with them in the village, he told his family every time he left, was that people depended on him in the Gheny lands beyond their borders.
Her mind was occupied solely by what would happen to them when they returned. So, she was quite shocked when the sheriff replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t allow that.”
“But Gheny is in an armistice with the elves! Surely the law must be broken then…”
The sheriff dismounted, ungloved his hands, and personally placed the shackles he had been carrying with him around Martin’s wrists, then around his wife’s. “No! She’s not a citizen of Gheny!” Martin said. “She’s not under the jurisdiction of this land!”
“Then she shouldn’t have been here,” was the sheriff’s reply.
Anladet was unsure what to do. Her parents were being led away, but everyone was ignoring them. She motioned for Garlin to come to her and he did, holding her hand tightly. Raidet finally took charge and ushered them to follow, grabbing Sildet and making sure she followed in the group.
The crowd ended at the steps of the temple of Uvarna, a building regal in its ornamentation. Above the doorway was an embossed sigil of a circle of chains with a feather in the middle and two teeth on either side. She saw her parents being shoved inside, followed by the crowd clamoring to follow. It was a spectacle even in a town famous for its entertainment.
Later, when she had understood things better, Anladet had been so angry with the people in Analussia. There were many reasons that had their own flavors of ire, but this in particular made her so mad she lost sleep thinking about it. Her father had told her about Noh Amairians from years ago who, living near the places where battles were fought, would picnic and watch men being killed by the hundreds, as if it were a play. It was in this vein that she felt a disregard for her parents individuality, their passions and plights, from the people of Analussia. It was unforgivable.
The children were allowed in the courtroom, though ignored throughout the proceedings. Garlin hugged her as he wept, already overwhelmed by the crowd, nay parade, that had led them there. She had tried to distract him, but she was sure he had heard the vile things the people had shouted about their parents.
The case was taken immediately and was ridiculously quick. Her father had confessed. Her mother was an accomplice, Ghenian or not, and their children were the proof. When she remembered the court, Anladet could single out her father and watch his decline with the greatest ease. He started with a grand speech about wanting more for his children, wanting them to experience the beautiful country of Gheny and its people so that they didn’t grow up with hatred and ignorance in their hearts. He spoke of lawfulness, of instilling obedience in his children. Finally, he told the story of how he had met Nakeswa when he ventured too far off the main road to collect herbs.
“It is not our way, us from Arvonne, to be repulsed by those different from us. I didn’t know of the law then and I didn’t know of the hostilities until I was captured by the Deerborn. They were sick with the same illness the humans nearby were. I used my knowledge to heal them. Nakeswa was my nurse. She was beautiful and she distracted me many times from my goal. When the elves I cured were stable, I took the remaining herbs and healed the humans. I returned after a few weeks and asked for her hand, so smitten I had hardly eaten or slept while I was gone. Since then, we have made life work.”
Anladet had heard the story many times, of course, but its one thing to tell your children, with overly dramatic sighs and laughs, and another to deliver a personal tale to the public. His voice wavered. The two looked at each other with fear and love and hope, but mostly love.
That was the height of their hope. The judge began to surmise the facts, stating clearly what Anla knew to be true. Martin’s head hung and his shoulders slumped. Then, when the law was read, he broke down and began to cry into his hands.
“Any finals words before I pass your verdict?” the judge asked.
“Spare my wife if you can. If you cannot, then spare my children.”
The judge nodded and sentenced her parents to be hanged.
It was a slap across the face. It was an impossibility Anla couldn’t fathom. The judge was supposed to say that everything was fine and they were free to go. They’d go to their hotel and pack and leave and that would be the end of it.
She still didn’t understand what was happening when her parents were led up the stairs in the courtyard outside. Their mother was shaking, tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked out to her children, took a very large gulp of air, then smiled as she looked at them. Their father looked over at his wife. No words passed between them, but Anladet understood later how many conversations they’d had were finally ended in that glance.
None of her siblings had said anything until the nooses were placed around their parents’ necks. Raidet started crying, softly, and saying “no” as she shook her head. It had all happened too fast for Anladet to process what was about to pass.
They didn’t get to say goodbye. Their parents were alive one moment, then the door below them dropped. Their mother’s neck broke and she didn’t suffer. Their father struggled for a few moments, kicking a few times before he finally stopped swinging.
Anladet was still too numbed to register any of it until Garlin sank to the ground and began to wail “Mama!” over and over again. It abraded her. That sound was the only sound in the entire courtyard. Garlin cried out for his mother, who would never hold him, never kiss him again. That’s when the tears began for Anla, her eyes still raw from the swim she’d had just a mere two hours prior.
Their parents’ lives were over. Their lives’ were over. They were just four children between six and fifteen, hundreds of miles from their home, with no way of knowing how to get there and no money to pay for their travels anyway. And it was all Anladet’s fault.
A woman came forward, ushering them outside. She had a kind look to her, despite her long and sharp features that made her look rather witchy. She even had a large mole that covered a lower part of her lip and a chunk of her ear missing. “Come along, dears. This way.” Anladet grabbed Garlin’s hand and tugged him standing. The four children passed through the crowd, who were beginning to disperse now that the entertainment was over.
The woman brought them to an alleyway not too far from the courthouse. “Which one of you is the eldest?” she asked.
Raidet set her jaw. “I am.”
“Then you need to take your little sisters and brother and run away from here. If you go north, you’ll hit Hanala in a few days by walking. How did you get here? Where are you staying?”
Raidet explained that they had a horse and cart at the hotel they had been staying at.
“Dears, let me take care of that for you. Here,” she said, giving Raidet a few silvers and coppers. “You can get food with that. Start walking and don’t look back. The people here might change their minds about forgetting about you.”
“Thank you,” Raidet said, using a tired tone Anladet had never heard before in her sister. “You’re very kind.”
“Pah,” she said. “There’s no need to see more hangings today, especially not children. Go along, dears.”
Anladet thought that the woman had been incredibly thoughtful and sympathetic. Later, when she had a firmer understanding of commerce, she realized that the woman had profited greatly from settling their account. The coins she had given them weren’t even half of what she had made by selling their clothes, suitcases, cart, and horse, even after she paid their hotel bill. If she had even done that.
It was Anla’s first lesson about humans and humanity. She had been an ardent student since.