constellation book chapter one (probably pg-13)
Posted July 12th, 2018 by Swallowtail
in new york/massachusetts
AN: I'll post first chapters for a few different books and then only continue with one! This is the one I described in my poll as plot one, and its a first draft but i'll get around to editing it probably tomorrow or smth. also! theres some swearing and mention of suicidal ideation. anyways, heres some star kids.
12th month: the wolf : three-quarters moon waxing
The sky dripped down in dark whorls of purple clouds, hanging ominously over the sea. In the distance, Haf saw a thick sheaf of black rain slanting sideways and inching closer and closer to her. This far away, it looked just like slow crawl, but up here she knew that suddenly it could be screaming towards the inlet and she would have little to no warning. She turned to her friend, if that was the right word for him, where he sat slouched on a rock, his fishing line swaying lightly in the turbulent water.
“Coll, we have to go.” He turned and looked at her, a flash of annoyance flitting across his face and then away faster than the lightning brewing over the sea. “That’ll be here any minute, and I’m not walking back over the cliffs in a thunderstorm.” He tilted his head, pretending to consider her words for a second, then looked back over the ocean, squinting his eyes at the storm.
“It’s still far away. And besides, what are the chances of us getting hit by lightning anyway?”
“Pretty fucking high if we’re walking on a cliff by the sea in a storm.” Haf stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder. “If either of us get hit by lightning, Ellin will murder the other one of us and the whole world goes to shit. Get up.”
“Ellin needs to realize that we’re not all his problem, and anyway what should I care if the world goes to shit? Either I die on the cliff or I die on the island.” Haf felt a prickle of anger in her chest, but he was getting up, albeit infuriatingly slowly. She crossed her arms and waited, watching the wind send huge waves crashing into the blue cliffs and feeling it tumble her short curls into an even bigger mess. Finally, with his jacket buttoned up to right under his chin, which she just knew he had done to annoy her, since unless it was the dead of winter Coll never even did up one button, Coll picked up his fishing rod and their mesh bag of what they had gathered and set off up the narrow path without a word to Haf. She walked a careful distance behind him; the path was slippery and the rocks often came loose, and as the days passed Coll became more and more reckless. She didn’t fancy dying in this little inlet, didn’t fancy the prospect of the Guardians finding her and Coll and ruling it a suicide, as she knew they would. She especially didn’t fancy the assumptions her family would make when they received a letter that she had died in a double suicide with a boy her age. So she kept a few feet between them as Coll grimly trudged to the cliff top, and when they arrived safely she took a deep breath of relief. Coll shot her a dirty look and walked faster. Up here, the wind cut cleanly through even her sweater, a rough wool cableknit monster that had belonged to her older brother before she was taken and that easily swallowed her. Haf, a sturdy but five foot nothing girl, had to first fold the sleeves almost in half and then roll them up at least thrice to be able to use her hands at all. She wished she had had the foresight to wear a thicker sweater underneath it, instead of the thin shirt she had thrown on that morning. The last leaves had dropped off the trees barely a week or two before, but northside winter fell earlier, quicker, and heavier. Except this year, with the bite of frost had also come looming dread and the promise of death for some, perhaps all, of them. The dead grass whispered all around them as she shoved it away with her elbows, and the storm hissed over the ocean. Suddenly, the light dropped and became flat, and the wind screeched as the storm slammed into the cliff. They ran, clutching their possessions close as heavy, stinging raindrops soaked their heads and backs and the wind flattened the long grass all around them. Thunder boomed over them, and Haf ducked reflexively. Coll, being tall and long limbed, ran easily, with a loping grace. He stretched his face up to the storm and Haf scowled as her lungs burned with the effort of keeping up with someone a good foot taller and her ribs ached as her bag slammed into them. She made a bitter reminder to herself to oversell his recklessness to Ellin later. They ran up a rolling hill, and in the eerie gloom the house appeared.
The house where the children lived was tucked away at the edge of a valley that the mist filled entirely on cool mornings and that winter winds screamed over. The house itself was old, all solid island stone and deep island windows and chunky island chimneys, wrapped around in hardy purple-blue cornflowers with their thick, fuzzy stems and barely-there scent. Behind the house was a tiny garden of root vegetables and hardy herbs, and to the other side an outhouse. The front door faced the north, and keeping with old customs, the windows on the west side were sealed shut. The door was painted a deep red and was warped with time, but had a new knob of pale wood, which was placed there after one of the children tore it off. Their rooms didn’t have doors, much less doorknobs. Inside the door was a rack for coats and a bench under which they placed their shoes. The kitchen was to the right and was large and crowded, herbs and pots hanging from the ceiling and a constant fire going in the large fireplace. Against the wall was a long, narrow table, with uneven wooden stools shoved under it. This is where they ate. To the left of the coatrack was where their Guardian slept. The Guardian assigned to this house was a tall, wiry man with a lean, drooping face, floppy black hair, and a thin mouth. He slouched around the house and to look at him made the children uneasy, so they avoided it. He snapped at them with their star names only and called them children, and so they hated him. It was easier to hate him for that than to hate him for how he had sentenced so many like them to death. They hated him for that, too, but it was dangerous to voice it and so they kept that particular hate stored in the backs of their minds. Upstairs was where they slept, all in the one big room . The ceiling beams stretched high and bare over their heads, and there were two little ledges on either side, tall enough to sleep in but not to sit it, and just wide enough to fit a narrow little mattress and perhaps a trunk.Rope ladders hung down from these. The walls were covered in altered names and paintings and bits of wisdom, but on the tops of the ceiling beams, where their Guardian never checked, were original names and last names and town names. Haf liked to perch on the ceiling beams and run her hands over the names of everyone who had come before her, but she usually didn’t let herself do this, as it always ruined the rest of her day with a flood of melancholy and anxiety when she inevitably asked herself how many of them still lived. At the same time though, it made her hopeful that at least some of them had been able to leave the northside and live anywhere they wanted, eat anything they wanted, maybe love someone. Haf liked the house in the valley enough, but too often it's thick stone walls were a prison rather than a refuge, and so she took to the cliffs. But tonight, the sight of their squat old house filled her with relief and joy. She and Coll, approaching from the southwest, ran around the herb garden that had faded and shriveled with the frost and burst in the door.
“Stars, you’re soaked.” Mar poked her head around the door at the sound of the door slamming. She was tall and loomed down over Haf with her usual infectious grin. “What’d you bring?” She ducked back into the kitchen to set the half-peeled potato and dangerously sharp knife she was holding back on the table.
“Food. Stuff.” Coll scowled as he painstakingly undid his buttons, glaring at Haf as if it was all her fault. She glared back, wrestling her boots off. Mar snatched up his mesh bag and Haf followed her and went straight to the fireplace, where she peeled off her heavy sweater and hung it on the wooden rack to dry. Thankfully, the rain hadn’t fully soaked through to her shirt underneath. She flopped down onto one of the wooden stools and laid her cheek against the rough, splintery wood of the table. She was exhausted, and the kitchen, with its warmth and chatter and the smell of food was the closest she could get to home in this soaking northside inlet. Behind her, she could hear Ellin admonishing Coll and Coll snapping back, Mar teasing Wyn and Wyn murmuring back good-naturedly, and the loud laughter of Rinn and Cor and Rua. Suddenly, she was so tired, the rain having soaked every ounce of energy from her despite the early evening. Haf was debating whether to drag herself up to her bed or to let herself fall asleep right here, when she heard the scrape of a stool beside her and felt a hand push at her shoulder.
“Hey Haf, you sleeping?” Rua leaned propped up on her elbow, a concerned look on her face. When Haf wearily looked up at her, Rua grinned, then lay her cheek down on the wood as well, her long red hair falling over her face. “How’s Coll?” She asked, flicking her gaze to where Coll and Ellin were still in an argument that hung precariously on the edge of polite. Haf groaned.
“As hes been. He didn’t want to leave, saying it didn’t matter if he dies here or on the island.” Haf sighed.
“Can’t say I really blame him. Can you imagine? The rest of us except him and Wyn all have a chance, slim as it might be, but to know that you don’t even get that?” Rua lowered her voice. She didn’t have to worry, Coll was across the room, saying :
“It’s not your problem, Ellin! You’re the Crown, not a nanny!” Ellin snorted.
“Yeah, but if you don’t make it onto that island, we’re all dead. I’m not letting you drag everyone else down with you. If you want to die, that’s your own thing and you’ll get your wish soon enough, but I’m not letting you doom everyone else.” His voice was calm and quiet, but his words cutting. Next to Haf, Rua winced.
“That’s rough. Should I intervene?” She asked. Haf shook her head.
“Leave them. They’ll work it out.” Haf said. Rua sighed and closed her eyes for a heartbeat, then suddenly pushed herself upright, cracking her neck and back. Haf sat up as well, albeit slower. She saw that Rinn had moved the rack with her sweater on it farther from the fire, to make room for him to sit and keep watch over spits of fish. Cor sat next to him, poking a stick into the fire and drawing with the charred edge on the bricks surrounding the fireplace. Coll spat something nasty at Ellin, and Cor snapped the edge of his stick off and hurled it at Coll. It bounced off his neck and he whirled.
“Hey!” He said, a hand pressed to his neck. The kitchen went silent. “What the-”
“Don’t be a dick.” Cor said simply. “Same to you, Ellin.” He turned back to the fire. Wyn laughed from her perch on the chopping block next to Mar, and just like that, the tension in the room was gone.
“I’ve got to try that next time.” Rua said, standing. “When things start to get weird, just chuck something at someone.” Haf smiled and turned to the fire to say something to Cor, but then a cough came from the doorway and she turned. Standing just outside the kitchen, as if he would be contaminated if he came in, was their Guardian. He was as hateful as ever, hunched over with a look of distaste on his face as he looked from one of the children to the other.
“Wolf.” He snapped. The room was perfectly silent. Mar stood at rigid attention, still clutching a wooden spoon. He looked her over. The Guardian was good at long silences, and he seemed to enjoy every second of their uneasy silence and they waited for him to speak. “Is dinner ready?” Mar nodded, spinning to grab an earthenware plate from the cabinet, but Wyn tapped her shoulder and pressed one into her hand. He waited, shifting his unsettling gaze to each of them in turn as Mar eased a fish off the spit onto his plate and a potato from the coals, then cut him a thick slice of bread with a heavy pat of butter. They all knew he would barely touch it, but once Cor had given him only a meager portion and still had the scars from it. Mar handed him his plate over the kitchen threshold, careful not to step over that invisible line that seperated him from them, and he looked down at it in distaste. Haf waited, not moving, barely breathing, for him to turn and go back to his room. Instead, he spoke. “As you all know, you’ll be leaving here by tomorrow night. Complete your jobs, and do our nation proud.” He nodded at them, a jerky, rusty motion, then turned to leave. They all waited until the door on the other side of the hall closed, then Ellin turned to the room.
“Bastard!” He hissed. There were murmurs of agreement throughout. Haf privately thought the word “bastard” was too mild to describe her thoughts towards that man, but she agreed with the sentiment of it.
“Our nation. Bullshit.” Coll snarled.
“He’s utterly disgusting. Stars.” Mar said. “Has he never smiled a day in his life? Does he not remember being a child himself? What the fuck happened to empathy?”
“We don’t count as children. We’re not even sacrifices, we just return to the stars.” Rinn said, tapping the base of his throat where his constellation shone even in this dull light. Haf lifted a hand to her own. She couldn’t see it, but the shape of it was imprinted in her brain. Marks shining mother-of-pearl, remarkable against her pale, freckled skin, spreading across her collarbones and throat. They were simple, the barest sketch of of someone running, a sword in one hand, a hound at their feet. Every time she looked at them, she got the feeling that if someone from a faraway place saw her constellation, they wouldn’t see the Hero, instead just a collection of odd round scars in no discernable shape or pattern.
“I guess we have to think about it, though,” Ellin said. It sounded like it hurt him to say anything in agreement with the Guardian. “We have less than a day here.” The room fell quiet again. “And, I guess, less than a month all together. I think I just want to say that I know you’ll all do well for the island. And I’m so glad to know everyone here.” He paused and laughed. “And those up in the attic. Now, let's not burn the food.” Watching him, Haf realized for what must’ve been the thousandth time that Ellin was perfect for the Crown. Even here, standing in the middle of a kitchen full of children, his dark hair mussed, he was regal and wise beyond his years. Haf knew that something must’ve picked her out to be the Hero for some reason, but even after spending her whole life, thirteen years, preparing, she still felt too far from the myths she read and the images in the stained glass panels of libraries and churches. Haf quietly slipped out of the kitchen and walked up the stairs to the attic. The stairs opened directly into their room, and Sora’s bed was in the middle of the wall, so the moment she reached the top she saw Sora, Thu, Ean, and Sidb sitting together on the floor with their backs against Sora’s bed, talking quietly. Haf knocked gently on the doorframe before stepping inside. Sidb jerked her head up, and to Haf’s surprise, there were tears on her cheeks.
“Sorry, it’s just that dinner’s ready.” Haf said.
“You didn’t do anything, we were just talking about… “ Sidb trailed off, and turned her head to the window.
“We’ll be right there.” Sora smiled at Haf. She nodded back, and quietly ran back down the stairs. Wyn almost ran into her at the bottom, then quickly jumped back. Haf felt a little less useless around Wyn, who was also short. But unlike Haf, Wyn was beautiful, with wide amber eyes and long glossy golden hair to Haf’s dark gray eyes and wild white-blond curls that were thin and stuck every which way. Wyn was also the Flower, made to view the world with different eyes and when her use was up, to sink into the earth, keeping the island quiet for another cycle with her soul. Wyn was made to be a little strange, a little bit different. Haf, on the other hand, had been made to be brave and winning and strong, ideals she felt far from achieving.
“Oh, sorry. Didn’t realize you’d already gone up to get them.” Wyn said.
“They’re on their way down.” Haf said curtly, and walked past her back into the kitchen, where Mar and Rinn were trying to place food on people’s plates as the rest of the house thronged around the fireplace. The whole situation promised disaster, so Haf stood a safe distance away as Coll almost elbowed Rinn into the fire and Mar accidentally smacked Rua in the eye.
“Hey,” Sora said from behind her. Haf turned. “Is he back in his room?” She nodded at the door to the Guardian’s room.
“Yeah. He gave some weird speech about us doing good for our nation then went.” Haf said. “It went over as you’d expect.”
“Glad I missed it.” Sora said, then stepped forwards to get some food. Haf went with her, and as the twelve of them ate at the table and Rua and Cor laughed uproariously over every single thing and Wyn turned to mutter something into Mar’s ear, she thought it could’ve been any other night in the year and a half she’d spent here at the cottage. They scrubbed dishes and some of them sat by the fire to mend and knit and sing and others went upstairs to sleep and talk. Haf took her now dry sweater from the rack and went upstairs, and as she sat perched on one of the rafters, she looked down at the other names there and tried to think of their stories. Maybe Ro Pryce was from a fishing village like hers. Maybe Lin Oro had driven cows like Sidb. Then, tuning out the low voices of those below her, she took her knife out from her pocket and in the space between the chorus of a drinking song and the name of a village she didn’t recognize, she carved Haf Maddox, Hero.
That night as she lay awake and listened to the quiet breathing of those around her, Haf thought of one of the next twelve sent to live here, and she thought of one of them running their fingers over her name and thinking of her, of whether she had lived or not. So, careful not to wake anyone, she climbed back onto the beam and added right below her name: alive. And as she lay back down, she swore to make it true.
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