Ch. 10.2 - The Choice

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Lacey listened to Cooper snoring. The raccoon-woman was curled up on the floor beside her. Lacey had not wanted to take the bed, but the little creature wouldn’t hear of it any other way. 

This was her second night away from home. She wondered if they were looking for her—if Mama was upset. After Papa disappeared, Mama had locked herself away in the dark. Her cousin, the tailor, had sent his oldest girl to work in the bakery, or the village would not have had bread. It had taken a visit from the Envoy to bring Mama back to the ovens. 

Lacey’s thoughts turned dark. Maybe Mama would be happier with just Ella—her perfect daughter. She would go home, so that Mama wouldn’t worry. But after that, Lacey would talk to the Envoy about a fast track to the Explorer’s Trail. It was where she belonged. Everyone would be happier when she was gone.

Lacey slid to the edge of the bed, careful not to make a sound that would wake Cooper. She managed to pull on her boots, despite her bandaged hands. The fastenings on her cloak were torn, so she wrapped it around her shoulders. 

The night air chilled her to the bone as she ducked out of the hut. Stars twinkled in the clear sky and the small white moon was waning to the west; soon it would meet the red moon, rising as it was setting. Lacey oriented herself south. The utter darkness of the Wish Wood was concealed by a boundary of cottonwood trees, just like at the edge of the village. The Wish Wood was north of the village. If she just went south she would eventually find home. 

There was just one problem. Once she was back in the thick of the Wood she would lose her bearings again. And what if she met Goeden, or that golden-eyed cougar out there—or worse? 

Lacey crept along between the tents and huts. She avoided the center of camp, where there were sounds of people still awake, and the occasional pop of a campfire. The only light in the camp was there. They had no solar lamps in the streets. No streets even. Just a network of paths between structures.

The hard earth beneath her feet became gravel and she cringed as her steps rattled on stones. Then the gravel gave way to sand and she stopped. A vast expanse of black stretched out before her, and a gentle lapping told her she was on the shore of a lake. 

She crouched down and dipped her hand in the frigid water. Something this size would empty into the river Anam. If she could find where the water left the lake for the river, she could find the river and follow it south to the village—without getting lost in the Wood.

“Where are you going, Village Girl?” Goeden’s voice made her lurch forward, and she threw her hands out to keep from pitching forward into the lake. She turned to face his shadow, this time standing tall above him. He was alone. What could he do to her without his cats? 

She bared her teeth at him, though he probably couldn’t see. “Trying to go home. I am sure that will make you happy.”

“Perhaps not.” He softened his tone.

Lacey narrowed her eyes. “Why not?”

“The Choice is your’s to make.”

“What is this Choice? To stay or go? I’ve already decided to go home.”

“You said life in your village is a curse. Was that a lie?” His voice turned to poison.

“No.” She stepped back and water leaked into her boot, with a cold shock.

“Then why not stay and choose. Hunter or Herd, one of us or one of them,” he said, his tone like honey once again. 

“Us or them?”

“The camp is divided in two. Ezerelle and her lot, and then us. The hunters. Those who protect and provide for this camp. We need more Hunters.”

Lacey shook her head. “I need to go home.”

“I can’t convince you otherwise?”

“No.”

Goeden spat on the ground. “Fine. In the morning we are going to the road.” 

“Really?” She couldn’t help the squeak in her voice. The road solved all of her problems.  

“You’re right. You don’t belong with us.” 

His words stabbed her in the heart, but it was the truth. “I don’t belong anywhere.”

He laughed, or maybe he just grunted. “Get some sleep,” he said. Pebbles crunched under his feet as he left her alone by the black void of the lake. 

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