When Tori finally fell asleep, she dreamed of the day her mother and sister died.
The three of them were walking down the cobbled lanes of the village of Capshaw. Tori was filled with a sense of dread as they walked, but her mother and sister were blissfully unaware.
When Tori saw the creatures in the crowd, they were in the form of two men. She knew the Metamorphi would shift any moment. In her dream, she cried out, warning Emilia and their mother. Trying to keep it from happening. But they couldn't hear her. The two men strolled past and Emilia laughed at something her mother said. It was the first day of spring and they had survived the winter. It was a day of celebration.
Tori kept glancing back, anticipating when the two men would change and come for them. They stopped at a vendor in the market. The entire village was out in the thaw.
As her mother and sister bargained with a fruit vendor, suddenly, a hand took her arm, pulling her away from the crowd, toward his shop. It was Lazarus, the old blacksmith. He spoke, but the dreamworld was devoid of all sound. He pulled her away, holding a finger over his lips.
A shriek pierced the air and the crowd scattered, lost in hysterics. As Lazarus whisked her away to safety, Tori cried out for him to save her family instead. Then, Tori saw the creatures, as she had in so many of her dreams.
One flew on wings like a bat. Extending from his bony frame were two pairs of arms with talons for hands. But what was most terrifying was his human face, fierce and twisted with a cruel smile. The other creature had the face of a Kendrak bear and lumbered on a giant human frame, claws extending from massive human hands that wrapped round Emilia's fragile body. Blood splattered the melting snow.
Tori screamed out, and shot up in her bed back in the West Wing of the General's estate.
The sun was already coloring the room in a gray pre-dawn light. The other three girls slept soundly. She hadn't woken them, for once. Tori slipped from her goose-down blankets, stoked the corner fire with two more logs, then dressed herself in canvas pants and her parka and headed down to the kitchens. She hoped to eat some breakfast in peace, but Ol' Merri was already hard at work on the morning's porridge.
"Tori, what's got you up so early, dear?"
"Couldn't sleep, Mum."
"Ah," said Ol' Merri, "The draft, isn't it?"
Tori nodded. She had never spoken of her dreams, or the way her mother and sister died, and she wasn't about to start now.
"Well, make yourself useful and stir this pot while I fetch them loaves out of the oven. It'll take your mind off it."
"Yes, Mum," said Tori. She took a giant wooden ladle and slowly stirred the porridge, watching it thicken little by little.
"I always find myself here early on drafting days," said Ol' Merri. "Tell the General I want to make a little something nice and warm before everyone has to stand around in the dead cold. Which is true o' course, but really it's because I am awake anyway. I never get a wink of sleep before the draw."
"But you've never been chosen."
Ol' Merri cackled. "Makes me more nervous by the year. Curse the Chancellor and his bloody crusades. Course, don't tell no one I said that. They'd string me right up on them gallows, or else feed me to the Loraks."
"What would you do, if you were drawn? Would you go?"
"I'm a survivor, dear," said Ol' Merri. "I'd be damned if I didn't keep right on surviving till the bitter end. I tell you what, if I was going to go down, I wouldn't do it at no drafting ceremony. I'd wait till the opportune moment, and I'd take as many Shadows down with me as I could — Gods, you'll burn it, stirring so slow. Give me that —" Ol' Merri took the ladle back and stirred it herself. "But no, dear, I reckon I'd join up like the lot o' them. And you'd be blessed to do the same. If it isn't you doing the killing, it's someone else. Can't do no one any good if you're dead."
Tori drifted into thoughts of Darien. She couldn't bear the thought of him defecting. Nor could she bear the thought of him in the Shadow Legions.
"Porridge is done." Ol' Merri poured some in a bowl and set it before Tori with a mug of goat's milk. "Check and be sure it's not burnt now." She cackled to herself. Tori took a small bite, and then stirred it around the bowl with her spoon. "You want to know why I really come down here so early?" Ol' Merri said, taking up her own bowl of porridge. "Ah, now that's not bad. Reckon you didn't stir it too slow, after all."
Tori took another bite. The porridge warmed her body as it went down. She hovered over the bowl, letting the steam evaporate on her face.
"I come down here in the quiet and make breakfast so I can be alone and pray, to the All Mother and All Father."
"Pray you won't be drawn?"
"Well, yes. But even more. Pray that one day, maybe in my lifetime, maybe in yours, pray the Watchers will return."
Tori started at the mention of the Watchers. "You shouldn't speak of them, Mum. Not even in the General's home."
Ol' Merri smiled. "The Chancellor may have killed most o' them off in the War Between the Worlds. He may send his creatures to hunt down the remnants. But he can't stop my prayers. One day the Ancient Ones will send back the Watchers to free us."
"Please! Don't waste your prayers." This came from Darien. Tori and Ol' Merri jumped in their seats. Ol' Merri spilled a bit of porridge on her apron and cursed.
"Don't you sneak up on an old maid like that, son. I'll spill this down your shirt next time."
"Sorry, Mum." Darien chuckled. "You want to pray for something? Pray the Chancellor catches the Plague or a chandelier falls on his head. Something possible."
"The Plague. Ha! The Chancellor hasn't aged a day in my lifetime. He isn't about to catch some ruddy Plague. That man is preserved by something dark and mysterious."
"Magic," said Tori, a dark memory stirring in her mind.
Ol' Merri raised an eyebrow. "Your guess is as good as anything, isn't it?"
Darien shook his head. "You don't really believe the tales of the Watchers, do you? They're nothing but myths. Like the Old Gods and Shaman summoners. Stories the fringers tell their starving littles to get them to sleep. If the Watchers ever did exist, they're long dead."
"And what do you know?" said Ol' Merri. "Hmmm? You're what, nineteen?"
"Eighteen," said Darien.
Ol' Merri chuckled. "You live as long as I have, you'll get to seeing there's things what can't be explained in this world. You survive thirty-six drafting days and you get to believing maybe the Ancient Ones still hold some sway in this world."
"Fair enough," said Darien, taking up his own bowl.
"Now, the rest'll be down in a minute. I gotta go set the tables. We're due to report to the square in an hour." And Ol' Merri ran off, muttering to herself.
Tori and Darien ate their porridge and leaven in silence. The weight of the day stifling any conversation they attempted. Tori couldn't wait for the day to be over with. Of course, she had heard tales of the Watchers as a child. They spread hope like a disease in the Fringes, but they were tales. That was all. No, she wouldn't put any hope in tales.