by M.K. Hutchins
Being near Ingrid was the only good thing about living in a God-neglected frozen
wasteland. Her face was round as the moon -- a soft, pleasant face that suggested
her cooking encouraged second helpings. Her face didn't lie: light rye breads,
sweet poached fruit, elk and wild onion stew that made my beard grow. Well, the
bit of a beard I had. Ingrid always laughed and teased when she caught me finger-combing the handful of hairs sticking from my face. Her laugh -- that was pure
silver. For too long, she'd slaved away under Arbiter Elof's guardianship. The day
I signed a contract with Elof and became Ingrid's betrothed was the happiest day
of my life.
The next day was the worst.
I clambered down the loft, picking bits of straw from my clothes. Grandma stirred
something on the hearth. "Breakfast for you? Your folks are already off preparing
"Rob's helping them?" Other than Grandma and me, my family's one-room house
She smiled fondly. "No. He woke early and asked me some questions about my
days in the Confederate Ithena. He left before anyone else woke up. Don't think
your folks realize he's not still sleeping in the loft."
I groaned inside. Grandma had traveled with the merchant caravans before she
married Grandpa -- she was one of the rare people who'd chosen to live in
Ogynan's frozen lands. "Your stories bring out the worst in Rob. I wish you'd
"The worst?" She raised an eyebrow, pulling a trail of wrinkles with it. "He's a
curious boy. No harm in that."
"Curious is an understatement," I muttered.
Grandma dropped some wild rye berries into her pot. "And worst seemed like an
exaggeration. We're even."
"Where's Rob?" I asked again, already tired.
Grandma shrugged. "Why not leave him alone?"
"Because it'll lead to more quarreling." My parents had spent all of dinner last
night chastising Rob for shirking chores, but lecturing Rob was like lecturing a
glacier. He never seemed to hear. Then Grandma chided them for being so harsh
on him. Everyone went to bed cross.
Well, everyone except Rob. He went to bed oblivious.
"Please, Grandma," I pleaded.
"Always the peacemaker." Grandma mumbled that like it was an insult. She
pursed her lips. "He's up by the border between us and the Confederacy. West of
the ice-lanes, if he didn't get distracted."
That was a pretty big if. I grabbed a flat of rye bread -- nothing like my Ingrid's
-- and gnawed it as I hurried outside.
Snow blanked the sod roofs and the ground, giving the village a pearly, sparkling
veneer. Too bad the lumpy wattle-and-daub walls remained visible.
I passed several sleds already running loads down the ice-lanes. My gut twisted.
Rob and I should be running loads ourselves. I had a bride-price to pay. No work,
no money, no Ingrid.
I veered west and, sure as snow, Rob crouched by the border. Even though he was
fully seventeen, from a distance his thin frame made him look more like ten. The
snow ended in a sharp line at the border. On the Confederacy's side, lush grasses
and tiny yellow autumn flowers blanketed every hillock.
Rob meticulously lined purple-black elderberries right along the border, but they
all rolled back onto the snow or into the grass. He must have been at it for some
time -- a half-dozen neglected berries on the Confederacy side had already
"Rob," I said gently, "it's time to get to work."
Another finicky berry rolled away. Rob mumbled under his breath and gingerly
placed the berry back with its fellows.
"Rob," I tried a little louder. No response. I scooped up the berries he was fiddling
He blinked up at me, then smiled, completely unruffled. "Oh good. I thought they
might have somehow rolled upward. Hi, Trygve. Those are seven, eight, nine, ten,
eleven and twelve. Did you want to try?"
"You numbered them?"
He shrugged. "Mother named you."
I peered at him, but he just stared back without explanation.
"Rob, that didn't make sense."
"Numbers and names are the same thing. They make things easier to keep track
I sighed and dumped the elderberries into his hands. "What are you doing this
"Grandma told me about a man who ate hemlock. The Confederate Ithena has a
Goddess of Hemlock, so they can prepare it as a medicine for arthritis. But then an
arthritis sufferer stood on the border between the Confederacy and the Teuloc
Nations. His body seized up and he died. Fascinating, huh?"
"What does that have to do with berries?"
"Not berries, borders." Rob shook his head. "Was the hemlock still medicinal on
the Confederacy side? After all, having half an unpoisoned body would still kill
I stared at Rob, not sure if he was brilliant or broken. But I hadn't come to
encourage his strange fixations. "Do you remember last night? How mad everyone
was? If we get to work now, Mother and Father won't know that you ran off
"I'm trying to see if I can get half a berry to freeze." He spoke as calmly as if I
hadn't mentioned last night. "Have you ever really thought about borders?"
"No." We didn't have time for this.
"It's easy to see that gods affect geographical areas. Ogynan, God of Freezing,
over here," he gestured at the snow, "and the Confederacy's pantheon over there."
He waved at the grass and flowers. "But what if something's in both? Would it be
half-frozen and half-thawed? Or do Gods and Goddess only affect discrete
objects? And if it is discrete, do they affect anything so much as touching their
geographical area, or does it have to be more than halfway inside?"
When he was younger, Mother and Father told each other that Rob would grow
out of these absent-minded meanderings. That he'd settle.
They didn't say that anymore.
Rob started drawing with a stick in the snow, a little map with the Confederate
Ithena and the Chaos lands sandwiching us -- Ogynan's people, the frozen ones
who have to barter for everything except ice.
"One day," Rob said, "when I travel like Grandma did, I'm going to test all the
borders. Do you think they all work the same?"
His words stabbed me. Rob would never travel. No merchant would hire him, and
we didn't have the money to buy him a Confederate citizen's contract.
"I wish Grandma would stop telling you stories."
"Why?" He blinked at me.
I didn't have the heart to tell him -- again -- that he'd always live here.
Map finished, Rob crouched back down and gently laid his elderberries along the
border. 'That's eight . . . you're eleven . . . there we go. Just as we started."
But of course the berries kept rolling.
"Where did you get those?" I asked, but Rob ignored me and kept fiddling. I
sighed. "That's never going to work."
He pursed his lips. "Well, I've only failed to set a berry on the border two hundred
and seventy-eight times. Never seems like a stretch. But yes, blackberries would
be better. They'd stay put."
"It's never going to work and you'll get an onslaught of hail at dinner tonight if
we don't get to work."
"Hail?" Rob blinked. "Is something wrong with the roof again?"
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "It's an idiom." How could I make him
understand? "Mother and Father are already preparing the ice cellars. It's not an
easy job, scraping the walls to uniformity. And when you wander away, they feel
like . . ."
"You've pinched your nose like that twelve and a half times this week," Rob said.
"Does it make it easier to think? I've tried it, but didn't notice any difference."
So much for explaining our parents' frustration. "Half?"
"Three times you reached up and stopped partway through. Maybe half isn't a very
accurate description." Rob frowned, his eyebrows pulling together.
I sighed. "Rob, your thoughts are always off in their own world. C'mon." Gently, I
pulled him to his feet. "Time for work."
Rob blinked. "Work?"
"Yes, work." I shook my head, but I couldn't help smiling at him -- big brown
eyes, uncombed hair sticking out to the side like a bird's wing. He was my little
brother, and if I didn't watch out for him, no one would. "If we don't hurry with
our sled, there won't be any contracts left for us. C'mon. I need good contracts to
pay Ingrid's bride price."
"Ingrid's nice. She shares her bread with me sometimes."
"I know." She was one of the few people who treated Rob like a human being
instead of a nuisance -- which was one more reason to love her.
"After the sleds, then we'll come back with blackberries?" Rob asked. "I'd like ten
of them. We should number them thirteen through twenty-three so they start and
I sighed. "Does playing with berries matter? All we need to know is that the
Confederacy will pay us to store their surplus because we have the God of
Freezing and their massive pantheon doesn't. What happens at the exact border
"Important?" Rob stared at me like I'd murdered all twelve elderberries and
condemned them to a shallow grave.
"Fine," I said as we headed back toward the village, "I'll think about it."
Rob scuffed his feet in the snow. "That always means no."
We grabbed our sled from where it hung inside our hut. Somewhere in the world,
there's a Goddess of Sleds, but she doesn't know us. These sleds were rough
contraptions -- elk hide folded around slats of wood, as long and wide as I was
tall. Rob took one of the ropes, I took the other, and we jogged up through the
village. About a thousand of us eked out a living here, in the only settlement
Ogynan's Land could support.
"Do you think," Rob began, "that it's possible to contrive some kind of slick, ice-like surface in the Confederacy that our sled could run on?"
"Can you try to focus on the present?" I asked.
"Hmm." Rob paused. "The patch on your coat has forty-two stitches. Unless you
don't count the broken stitch. So, forty-one. Unless you're looking at it from the
inside, where you can't see the break. Then it's forty-three -- since the starting
and ending knots are on the inside. Unless you don't count those. Then there's still
forty-one on the inside, just like the outside."
Rob had a way of responding just as requested and never as anticipated. At least
he was smiling, looking happy to be out and pulling the sled with me.
Others with their sleds maneuvered past us on the ice-lanes. Most of them ignored
us, but our neighbors, the siblings Kettil and Nea, slowed long enough for Nea to
scoop up a snowball. She lobbed it at us.
I tried to swat it down, but it hit Rob square in the face.
"Slush-brain!" Kettil shouted. They laughed like he'd said something clever, then
hurried downhill. They were both older than Rob; you'd think they could come up
with something better.
"You're both idiots!" I shouted back. Then I helped Rob brush his face off.
Rob blinked wetly. "Is it snowing?"
My insides wrenched. At least Kettil and Nea were too far away to hear that. I
"When I'm off exploring the world, I wonder if I'll find anywhere else with snow.
Do you think the caravans will hire me next year?" Rob asked.
Next year meant he'd already been rejected this year. The merchants were right not
to hire him -- his own family could barely take care of him -- but it still left my
stomach sour. I placed a hand on his shoulder. "You'll always be my brother. You
know that, right?"
Rob's face scrunched up. "How could I not be? Unless somewhere there's a God
of Time that allows you to go back and change my parentage . . ." he trailed off.
"Do you think there is? A God of Time, I mean."
"I've never heard of one."
"That's not the same thing," Rob said.
I didn't know how to respond to that, so we started pulling the sled uphill again.
Soon enough, we reached the border, where the broad, main ice-lane ended in a
neat line. Tent after tent crammed the Confederacy side, all over their autumn
grass. I jogged to a promising-looking one and told Rob to wait with the sled.
I bartered with a hawk-eyed, matronly woman with crates and crates of straw-packed berries behind her. Eventually we settled on a decent rate -- half payment
up-front, half upon return of the berries -- and I stamped my thumb to the
contract. Rob and I loaded up the sled.
The first trip went well. And the third and the sixth. Mother and Father unloaded
at the cellars -- ice-lined rooms built half-underground. From the outside, the
waist-high roof made it look like the snow was trying to swallow it whole. The
lines of ire and frustration were already melting from my parents' faces. They
could never stay mad at Rob for long.
My fingers were numb by the time Rob and I loaded the last of the hawk-eyed
woman's berries, but I couldn't stop grinning. Tonight we'd actually eat dinner
like a normal, happy family. And in two weeks, Ingrid would be part of that
We eased the sled onto the ice-lane. She creaked a bit, then whispered as the pull
of the earth and the smoothness of the ice did its work. I ran along one side, Rob
on the other. Snow began to fall, just baby's breath -- tiny, fluffy flakes.
We passed Arbiter Elof's grand home. Ingrid was outside, scrapping ice off the
eaves. I think she winked at me. My stomach fluttered.
Then I noticed my sled was drifting across the lane, toward me.
"Tug!" I shouted to Rob. He ran outward with his rope, pulling the sled straight.
Maybe it was all the loads we'd done, but as we came down the final stretch, the
sled jerked against my rope. A slick, slushy ice-lane can do that. Or maybe I'd
loaded it too high.
"Run up!" I shouted, sprinting uphill to slow the sled before it crashed into our
The rope nearly yanked my arms from their sockets. Then it ripped straight
through my mittens. My innards froze solid as I watched it spin, watched the back
corner crash into the low ceiling of the cellar, watched those blood-red berries
spill over the snow.
It took me another long moment to understand. Rob stood a ways off, staring up at
the sky, at the thrice-cursed snowflakes. I'd been the only one running up.
We managed to patch the cellar wall with snow and ice, but the sled was kindling.
I tried to borrow one, but as expected, nobody could spare a sled this time of year.
No one had extra wood planks, either.
Father, Rob, and I felled a tree, but it took a week to saw it into something
useable. By then, the rest of the contracts were gone, the Confederates' surplus
safely in others' cellars.
I sat on our roof, staring out at Arbiter Elof's sprawling house. At the end of sled
season, we always bought things we needed and couldn't make ourselves from the
Confederates. Wool. Real wheat -- not the wild rye that grows here. Looms. We
only have one god, and he's just good at making us all cold.
My breath swirled in front of me. Mother had sold everything extra we owned -- a
shirt, her favorite hairpin, some wood carvings -- but we had to spend all of it on
buying food for winter. I didn't have the bride-price I'd promised Arbiter Elof.
Rob climbed the snow drift up next to me. I wanted to punch him off.
"Mm sorry. Very sorry."
"You come up with that grand speech yourself?" I snapped. Part of me felt
horrible for being sharp with him, and the other part wanted to scream so that
maybe -- maybe this once -- he'd understand how badly he'd messed up.
"No. Grandma helped me." He stared down at his hands.
I looked away from the Arbiter's, into the black smear of the Chaos beyond our
village, where no one lived, where no gods reigned or created Order. "I'm
supposed to get married in a week."
"To Ingrid, right?"
"Icestorms," I cursed. "When I don't have the money I promised, do you know
what that makes me?"
"A contract-breaker. Do you know what happens to contract-breakers?"
"Contracts are Order. Breaking them invites Chaos."
He never could focus on the immediate. "And to make sure Order keeps reigning
in the village, I'll be exiled into the Chaos."
People who step into the Chaos don't usually turn inside-out or have their clothes
eat their eyeballs -- people have a bit of Order in them to keep themselves and
what they're touching together -- but the land does whatever it wants. Grandpa
went into the Chaos once and came out with a gaping wound in his chest and a
nugget of gold in his hand. He said triangles attacked him. He was insane for the
rest of his life, which admittedly wasn't long. Father was a tyke when it happened,
but Grandma told the story often.
Rob frowned. "Your contract doesn't include a non-completion clause?"
I sighed. I hadn't thought to include one. "No."
"Oh." Rob fidgeted with his mittens. "That would have been smart."
I slid off the roof, down the snow drift, then jammed my hands into my pockets.
"Where are you going?" Rob asked.
"Away from you."
Arbiter Elof wasn't a priest or a king or an elected governor. We didn't have any
of those. He was simply the richest person in Ogynan's Land, with a hoard of
boot-licking sycophants. That pretty much made him in charge. Anyone who said
otherwise had to reckon with him and his underlings.
I pounded my fist against his front door. One of those boot-lickers let me inside. I
stepped from the crisp, cold world of newly-fallen snow into the smoky stench of
fish-oil lamps and unwashed fur jackets. The long hall boasted an almost equally
long table. Fifty men gnawed on bones around it, ripping flesh like wolves. From
the size of the bones, Elof had splurged on three or four sheep from the
Confederates to celebrate the end of contract season. He always did treat his
I picked my way around the chairs and tracked-in mud to the head of the table,
near the blazing hearth. My head ached with the sudden heat of it and my palms
Arbiter Elof leaned back in his chair and lazily glanced up at me, his fingers
gleaming with the fat from the rib in his hand. "I can't imagine why you're here,
He had to know about the crash. My mouth burned in the dry heat -- the kind of
heat my home could never afford. I swallowed. My throat felt as rough as sand. "I
want to take out a loan."
"A loan?" He blinked innocently at me. He almost looked like Rob, but Rob never
had an edge of malice beneath his blank stares.
The conversations around the table died down as Elof's hanger-ons leaned in to
I couldn't afford to be proud. Right now, I couldn't afford a wooden button. "A
loan on the bride-price I agreed to in our contract."
"What? Give you money so you can pay me?" He laughed like I'd claimed I could
make grass grow in winter.
I bit the inside of my lip. I had to remain polite. No one else could loan me so
much. "Let's negotiate an interest rate. You're a man of business."
"And you're ill-fated, crashing a sled. Soon you're going to be a contract breaker!
I want nothing to do with you, Trygve. You should leave."
I stood there, numb despite the heat. "Surely we can --"
Two of his burliest men laid their hands firmly on my shoulders.
I shut up and walked out myself, my pulse thudding against my skull. I'd taken a
dozen step out into the biting cold when someone called, "Trygve!"
I turned. Ingrid ran toward me from Elof's kitchen door. A few golden curls
peeped out of her tattered hood. Her mouth was downturned, like a bit of lopsided
dough. "I heard you. In the hall."
"I'm going to make this work." Not that I had any idea how. I took her hands in
mine -- they were chapped and cracked from scrubbing pots with melted snow.
"No one else will loan to you. Elof wants you exiled to Chaos."
They could call it exile, but stepping into the Chaos was death. "I don't
"The evening before cellar contracts started, hours after we'd signed our betrothal
agreement, Elof was entertaining some Confederate merchants. One of them tried
my stuffed, poached apples and took a liking to me." She wrinkled her face in
disgust. "He offered Elof a generous bride-price. If our contract fails, their new
contract goes into effect."
I tightened my grip on her hands. "That can't be legal. The terms of his
guardianship guarantee you the right to choose your husband."
"Technically, it says the right to sign a betrothal contract, at the fixed bride-price
of five gold coins. A. Singular. Elof always follows the letter of what he signs, but
he never plays fair."
Ingrid knew that better than anyone. When her parents were dying of pneumonia
some six years ago, they tried to sign guardianship of Ingrid to anyone except Elof,
but he blocked them with his customary trio of well-placed bribes, threats, and
empty promises. Elof got all of her parent's lands in "payment" for "raising"
In a way, Elof was like Ogynan himself. They both spent just enough effort to
keep the community from dissolving into chaos. I'd heard from the merchants how
other gods actually tried to make their civilizations flourish.
My jaw tightened. I hated both of them -- Elof and Ogynan. My face felt as hot as
when I'd stood by Elof's roaring fire. "I wish we could leave."
"A contract-breaker isn't welcome anywhere." She smiled sadly at me. "Even if
you can keep our contract, where would we go?"
We couldn't live in the Chaos, and we could only work in the Confederate Ithena
for so long before their laws demanded we return home or purchase a citizen's
contract. If I had the money for that, I wouldn't be begging Elof for a loan.
"Sometimes I think Ogynan isn't ignoring us, but trying to ruin our lives. Why did
it have to snow right then? Why did our sled crash?"
Ingrid ran her thumb over the back of my hand. "Oh, Trygve. The crash is just the
most convenient way for Elof to sabotage our wedding. Otherwise, he'd be fining
Rob for the berries he stole."
"Stole?" I stared at her.
She nodded ruefully. "I heard Elof bragging about it afterwards. On the first
morning of contracts, Rob came asking the merchants to hire him. Once they
finished turning him out, he asked one if he could have a handful of berries. Elof
overheard and said he had lots of berries. Rob took that to mean he could have
some, though Elof never explicitly gave them to him. He's got a dozen witnesses
to the 'theft.'"
Even if Rob hadn't crashed the sled, he'd already ruined me. The back of my
throat tasted like bile.
Ingrid pulled a warm round of rye bread from inside her coat and pressed it into
my hands. "I've been sneaking out to cook other folk's dinner for a penny. But
even if it keeps going well, I'll earn less than a third of what you need by next
week. I hope you can come up with the rest. It won't be easy, with Elof against
Then she did the nicest thing -- she kissed me, and her mouth was anything but
frozen. She blushed hard enough I could see it by starlight, then ran inside.
Ingrid was right. I spent the next day knocking on every house in Ogynan's Land.
Everyone was too scared of Elof to loan me so much as a penny or hire me for an
evening's odd job.
Insides as numb as my fingertips, I returned home. Grandma and Rob were
washing bowls for supper. Grandma scrubbed with practiced efficiency. Rob's rag
moved in slow, smooth circles, as if the pattern mattered more than the chore.
"Where are Mother and Father?" I asked half-heartedly. I felt too tired to really
"Out trying to scrounge some coins for you. I'm surprised you didn't cross paths."
Grandma dried her hands on a tattered rag. "I have something, too."
She hobbled over to the little wicker basket where she kept mementos of her
earlier, traveling days -- pressed flowers, pretty stones, carved bits of wood.
Rob's eyes widened with child-like wonder, but my throat tightened. She'd never
seen the merchants laugh away Rob's petitions for work.
Grandma pulled out something I'd never seen before. A book bound in blue
leather and a smooth, black stick with a silvery tip.
"I saved these as presents for the day each of you got married, but I suppose they
should come out early." She pressed the stick into Rob's hand and the soft
notebook into mine.
I opened it. The pages were yellowed around the edges but creamy in the center,
like the yellow rind of Confederate sheep's cheese. "They're all blank."
"That's the kind of ledgers Confederate merchants used back when I was a girl,"
she said. "It was a gift from my father, but I never had a need for it after I settled
here. Its value is mostly sentimental, but I thought you might be able to sell it for
Her old eyes looked too bright in the hearth light.
"Th-thank you," I spluttered.
Then I glanced at Rob. He'd used the stick to scribble on the table, his shirt, and
now he was trying to write on his hand.
He startled, then looked around. "Oh. I thought something was about to fall on me
"No, you're . . ." I took a deep breath. "Can you stop writing on yourself?"
"I wanted to see what it worked on." Rob said that like it was the most natural
thing in the world.
Grandma smiled softly. "It's called a pencil and it works best on paper. Once,
when we traveled to trade with Feledales, we bought them by the hundreds. They
have a Goddess of Graphite there."
"And do pencils work the same way here as they do in Feledales?" Rob asked.
Grandma shrugged. "As far as I can tell."
Rob pursed his lips. "I'll test it when I travel and figure it out for sure." He turned
the pencil in his hand. "It's interesting, isn't it? Things that are frozen here don't
stay frozen in the Confederacy. But pencils manufactured in Feledales seem to
stay pencils. Maybe. And books stay books, even though we have no God or
Goddess of any kind of paper here. Maybe it's about process."
"Process?" Grandma prompted. I pinched the bridge of my nose -- we shouldn't
Rob nodded. "Maybe they're really the God of Paper-making and Pencil-making.
Or at least that's how their divine powers work. It can only be made in their
domain, but then it can go anywhere. Then Ogynan's not really over the process of
freezing, or things would stay frozen over the border. He's over frozen-ness itself.
Kind of like the Goddess of Hemlock. Medicine becomes poison if you leave the
I looked to Grandma, wondering what story she'd told to spark this idea, but she
shrugged and gave me a helpless look.
Sometimes I couldn't tell if Rob was wise beyond reason, completely mad, or
both. In any case, I squeezed Rob's shoulder, then hugged Grandmother.
My parents returned that evening with nothing to show for their efforts. The next
day I managed to sell Grandma's precious notebook to Nea for a pittance. Then I
talked with Ingrid again, but she'd had no further luck.
I shouldn't have sold the notebook. Grandma could have kept it and remembered
her early years -- it couldn't save me.
"Have you tried getting a loan?" Rob asked, two days before the wedding. We
were pulling the new sled, now laden with firewood Father had chopped in the
My head throbbed. My words came out terser than I meant. "Yes. Yesterday. I've
Rob didn't seem to notice my tone. "It would take a long time to try everything. I
bet you haven't walked around town on your hands."
"That wouldn't help!" My breath swirled into mist in front of me.
"Grandma told me about a Confederate performer who did that. And eat fire.
People gave him pennies."
"You can't eat fire."
"You can if it earns you pennies," Rob said. "Or maybe there's a Goddess of Fire-eating? I'll have to ask Grandma. I wonder if fire is as filling as bread, or if it just
keeps you warm."
"Fine. I've tried everything useful."
Rob pursed his lips and adjusted his grip on the rope. "Have you looked over the
cellar contract we do have?"
"I don't see how that helps."
"Maybe we could sell the contract. I mean, we do have a cellar with some berries.
Wouldn't someone pay us money now for the right to collect the rest of our
payment come spring?"
I bit my lip. It wasn't that different from a loan, but maybe getting tangible assets
instead of the promise of an almost-contract-breaker would make someone brave
enough to defy Elof. Nea had bought the notebook after all -- it was too good a
deal for her to pass up.
Once we unloaded the stack of wood, I rushed inside and pulled out the thin,
wooden box hidden not-so-cleverly under my parent's straw mattress. I flipped
through the various contracts.
Mother was bent over a grindstone full of wild rye berries. "What are you doing?"
"Checking something." I scanned furiously, hands already clammy.
My gut sank. Payable only to Trygve or his immediate kin. No, we couldn't sell
the contracts. Why had I thought that anyone would buy it? Either they believed I
was chaotic because of the crash, or they believed in Elof's power to hurt them.
Rob walked up behind me and looked the contract over. "Don't worry, Trygve. I
have another idea. I'll fix this for you."
After we finished hauling wood for the day, Rob snuck off somewhere. All during
supper, he had a huge grin on his face, but he didn't say anything until after we
climbed into the loft and wrapped ourselves in our blankets.
"Here," he whispered conspiratorially. "This is for you."
Rob pressed a single coin into my hand. From its size and weight, it was a bronze
Confederate penny. Against what I owed for the bride-price, it was practically
nothing. But I couldn't bring myself to crush his joy. "Thanks, Rob. How'd you
I had a hard time imagining anyone hiring Rob, even in ordinary circumstances.
"I sold my pencil to Nea. I figured you needed it more than me."
My words lumped in my throat. He hadn't saved me from exile; he'd tossed away
"What?" I asked, as if expecting a different answer.
"I sold it. For you."
"For nothing! Do you really think a rare good from the other side of the
Confederacy is only worth a penny?" She'd cheated him worse than she'd cheated
me. Not that a fair price would have saved me, either. "You should have kept it."
Rob's voice quivered, tiny in the darkness. "I wanted to help."
Then you should have been paying attention to the sled. I grated to say the words
out loud, but I bit them back. He hadn't meant to hurt me, though he had. He'd
tried to help, though he hadn't. When I was gone, I wanted him to remember a
brother who'd been kind to him when most of the world was not.
I exhaled my anger and squeezed his hand. "Thank you, Rob, for watching out for
Mother, Father, and even Grandma sniffled whenever they saw me, like I was
already a corpse. I couldn't stand it anymore. So, the day before what should have
been my wedding, I sat on the roof again, staring out at the Chaos. It stared back,
as black and pitiless as a midwinter's night. Tomorrow, on my planned wedding
day, I'd be exiled into it.
For a brief moment, I entertained thoughts of becoming a fugitive in the
Confederate Ithena, a contract-breaker vagabond, always on the run. But I had no
skills for such a life -- I doubted I'd last three days. When Elof or the Confederate
authorities caught me, they'd hit my family with a fine, then toss me into the
One way or another, I'd be forced into the Chaos. I might as well go now. At least
Ingrid wouldn't have to watch me disappear.
I stood on the border of the Chaos, the snow ending in a sharp line a pace away.
Up close, the Chaos stopped looking like a dark haze and revealed its true nature.
Purple shapes writhed through red dirt, trees hung upside down, and rocks kept
turning into snakes. I tugged my mittens on tighter, as if those could protect me,
and stepped across.
The ground rolled under me like the back of a running elk. I pitched forward, and
instead of indigo rocks there to catch me, a chasm opened.
I tumbled. Tumbled, tumbled, bumping off oddly soft sand-ledges. I stopped with
a dull thud.
It knocked the wind out of me, but I hadn't broken anything. I would have
laughed, giddy with relief, if I could breathe.
Then one of the ledges turned into a triangle and stabbed me through the chest.
Laying on the ground felt odd. Next to me, my blood stayed red, liquid. Further
out, the droplets turned into a pair of voles and three-fourths of a butterfly and
scampered off. They left clear puddles behind in the sand.
Funny, really. I'd die before I broke my betrothal contract after all.
Noises played around me -- screaming, birdsong, silence that hummed a merry
tune. But when I heard Rob's voice, I opened my eyes.
"Hello." He knelt and bandaged my chest.
"It's not as bad as you think it is."
I took a few breaths. The pain had dulled. Maybe . . . maybe he was right. Or this
was another kind of Chaos trick. I didn't ask. "How did you find me?"
"I saw you walk in."
I blinked up at him, not understanding.
"I was sitting at the border, testing blackberries."
I frowned. "You shouldn't be able to find me in the Chaos. The ground shifts,
turns, and boils in here."
Rob shrugged. "I just walked straight. It was all pretty normal."
Before Rob could answer, a triangle shifted up through the sands and launched
"Watch out!" I shouted.
I couldn't move fast enough to tackle him out of harm's way. Rob looked the
wrong direction -- up. The triangle hit his neck, then crumpled like paper and
"You know," Rob said, "getting excited probably isn't good for your injury."
I gaped. "H-how are you fine?"
"Grandma always says Chaos plays off your thoughts, and you say my thoughts
always seem to be someplace else. I figured I'd be safe." He shrugged; he hadn't
even noticed the triangle. Rob knotted the bandage at the front of my chest, then
helped me stand. "This is a fascinating place. Do you know that berries stay frozen
when I hold them, but not when I let go?"
Was he really thinking about berries at a time like this?
Sure enough, he pulled a single blackberry out of his pocket. "This is nineteen. I
wonder if berries would stay frozen if someone from the Confederacy brought
them here, or if this only works because I'm one of Ogynan's. Or maybe it's
because people have a bit of Order in them, and I believe that berries should stay
frozen and Ogynan has nothing to do with it. I wonder how I could test it?"
I laughed -- a dry, exhausted sound. Rob actually liked this deathtrap. I hobbled
two steps toward where I thought the border was, and the air flared to ungodly
Rob scowled at me. "You're thinking, aren't you?"
"You should stop."
I shook my head. "Do you know where we are? I have to keep my eyes open, I
have to . . ." I trailed off. Being present-minded might be helpful in god-Ordered
lands, but no gods reigned here. "Rob, take my hand. I'm closing my eyes, and I'm
going to bore you."
"You're going to talk about Ingrid?"
"Yes." Maybe that would keep my mind absent enough for Rob to get us out.
I rambled about her bread, her stew, and the dainties she made for holidays.
Pebbles ground under my feet, sometimes pitching, sometimes still. I rambled
about her hair, her laugh, and the way she teased me about my not-a-beard.
Was Rob actually leading us somewhere, or was the Chaos just waiting to devour
"You're making the trees fold themselves into buckets again," Rob said.
I swallowed. "Have . . . have I mentioned her bread?"
Rob was either encouraging me, or -- like usual -- he wasn't listening to begin
I'd moved on to her laugh again when snow crunched under my feet and icy air
whipped my face. I opened my eyes. Below me spread real dirt, rocks, and snow.
In the distance, moonlight silhouetted the village and the tendrils of hearth smoke.
"Do you see twenty through twenty-three?" Rob pointed, his voice shimmering
with excitement. A quartet of blackberries rested on the border. "I think it's
discrete. They always stay blackberries until I've rolled them all the way to the
Chaos side. Before you went in, I was starting them on the chaos side to see if
they stayed chaotic until they crossed entirely back over the border, but . . ."
Rob stepped into the Chaos.
"Get back over here!" I lunged for him. But Rob just set down the blackberry from
his pocket. As soon as it left his fingers, it turned into a chipmunk and burrowed
into the orange sand.
"I can't catch the chipmunks." Rob calmly walked back onto the snow. "So I don't
know if they'll turn back to blackberries on this side of the border. I need a net."
"Rob. It's the Chaos. You shouldn't play with this one." My pulse still pounded in
my throat. He could have died for that stupid blackberry.
He blinked at me. "Why?"
"Well . . . it's Chaos. Anything could happen."
I shook my head.
"In a way, Chaos is predictable," Rob said. "I know nothing's going to behave like
it does here. Blackberries won't stay blackberries. But I also know that whatever
I'm touching is safe. There are rules, just different kinds of rules."
I stared at Rob. I'd never heard anyone describe Chaos that way . . . but he was
"So. Do you know where a net is? Do you think Ingrid has one?"
Ingrid. The wedding. "Icestorms. Rob, I'm alive, but I . . . I still can't pay Elof."
My stomach turned to slush. Tomorrow, I'd still be exiled. And Ingrid would be
married off to the Confederate dolt to line Elof's pockets.
"Oh. That's right. Don't worry. There's plenty of gold in the Chaos." He strolled
right back in.
"Rob!" I hovered at the border. If I ran after him, I'd probably get myself killed.
"You don't have to keep shouting. I know which way the border is." Rob calmly
scanned the ground. Then he dug. The orange sand turned to purple clay, but he
didn't seem to care. "I swore I saw some over here."
A tree tried to eat him, but it broke its strange teeth-branches on Rob's back and
scurried away. Meanwhile, my brother turned the dirt over in his hands. The stuff
he was touching stayed purple, even while the earth shifted to a loamy red.
"Isn't this fascinating?" he asked. He shook the clay off. The lumps turned into
rain droplets and shot skyward.
I ran for help. I might not have been particularly quiet in our tiny house, shouting
about Rob being in the Chaos, or maybe walls of mud, sticks, and snow don't do
much to muffle noise. I woke the neighbors, and the general commotion woke
It wasn't until I reached the border with Mother, Father, and Grandmother that I
realized that half the village trailed behind us, bundled up in their well-worn coats
and mittens and boots. Elof's lackeys had brought him a chair and a blazing
brazier. He lounged, chatting and laughing with them.
Did anyone besides my family care about Rob, or had they come to watch the
peculiar young man get himself killed?
"Rob!" Mother called, frantic. "Rob, please, come to us. Can you see us? Can you
He ignored her and kept digging.
"I tried that," I said.
But it didn't stop Father from shouting, too. He cupped his hand around his mouth.
"Rob! Look at me! Rob, listen -- come back!"
My chest still ached where the triangle had struck. "Do we have a rope long
enough to, I don't know, snare him with?" The plan sounded even more pathetic
out loud than it had in my head. I'd gotten half the village out of bed, but no one
here could help.
Then I heard Ingrid's voice. "Rob, I have some bread for you!" She held out the
perfect round in her hands, her fingers poking out of the frayed end of her mittens.
Rob looked up. "Oh. Could you keep that safe for me? I'm busy."
Ingrid swore under her breath. But maybe she had the right idea.
"I have berries, Rob. Don't you want to come test the border?" Once he came
close enough, I could grab him. We could drag him into safety.
"Later." The moons behind Rob melted into rabbits and raced over the horizon.
I shouldn't have bothered waking anyone up. I took a breath, and stepped toward
the Chaos to get my brother.
But Grandma laid a hand on my shoulder. "Does it look like he's in danger?"
"He's in the Chaos!"
"Sometimes," Grandma said, "you can be as oblivious as Rob."
That stunned me. I wanted to protest, but I looked at Rob instead. He looked
I stood there for what felt like eons in the cold, watching Rob dig and laugh and
play in the ever-changing Chaos. At dawn he finally walked toward us, with a
palmful of gold nuggets shaped like elderberries. My brother was oblivious to all
the things that mattered to me because his eyes were wide open somewhere else.
Elof grinned like he'd arranged this town outing for everyone's amusement.
"Well, well, the boy isn't useless after all. Pulling gold from the Chaos . . . how
curious." He strode up to Rob. "I take it you'll be paying for your brother's bride-price now."
Rob nearly dumped all of it into Elof's outstretched hand, but I intervened and
counted out five berries. If anything, they were heavier than the coins I owed him.
Rob had three left over.
I thought Elof would demand we pay for the berries Rob had "stolen" earlier, but,
unnervingly, he kept grinning like spring had come early.
"I've got to be going now," Elof said, voice smooth and sickly-sweet. "A wedding
to prepare for and all."
We didn't smell the smoke until after the ceremony, when we were celebrating
with the meager "feast" of thin soup and old bread that Arbiter Elof hosted in his
role as Ingrid's guardian.
"That's not the hearth." It reeked of dried mud and old straw.
Ingrid, my wife, stood and started out of the hall. She glanced back at me. "Aren't
I hurried after her.
Gray smoke swirled into a gray sky, thick and acrid. My stomach froze. But my
feet didn't. Ingrid and I sprinted around the houses until the view lay clear before
Our home was ashes. Slushy, muddy ashes. I stared at it, as if the ruin was some
weird trick of the Chaos that would melt away and change into something else.
"Aw, what misfortune." Elof draped a casual arm around my shoulder. His smile
was as white and biting as frost. "So sorry to see that. But we're practically family
now. I'll let you lodge in my home. For a modest rent, of course. I'll make sure no
accidents happen to you or anyone you care about while you live with me."
I dug my nails into my palm. We couldn't sleep out in the cold, even if I wanted to
brave his threats. "How much?"
"A gold berry a night sounds reasonable."
We used the snow to put out the rest of the fire, but it was far too late to salvage
anything. Neighbors stared silently at our misfortune. Some gave us pitying looks,
but none so much as spared a consolatory word. None of them wanted to be Elof's
"I didn't know he could be this cruel," I kicked at the ash.
Ingrid's arms hung resigned at her sides. "I also didn't know a man could walk out
of the Chaos unharmed with a small fortune. Elof's as vicious as he needs to be to
make the most of any situation."
My parents hugged each other and stared blankly at the wreckage. Grandma
shivered. Rob stood with his head cocked to the side.
"Elof did this, didn't he?" Rob asked.
"Yes," I said softly. "He did."
I thought paying the bride-price would free Ingrid and myself from him once and
for all. I was so tired of snow, of ice, of leaders and gods who cared nothing for
those under them. I didn't want to live here anymore.
And then I realized that we didn't have to.
"Rob. Would you like to go on a walk with me through the Chaos?"
We stopped long enough to buy back the notebook and pencil from Nea, then
headed to the Chaos. Three thumb-shaped, green moons burned over the
"Can you find more gold for us?" I asked Rob.
"Probably. But I doubt in the same way. If this place was predictable, it wouldn't
We held hands in a long chain -- Rob, me, Ingrid, Grandma, Mother, and Father. I
glanced over my shoulder, at the thread of smoke marking where our home -- our
lives -- had been. We were leaving behind our cellars, our profession, and our
neighbors . . . but everything I really cared about was standing next to me.
"You should probably close your eyes," Rob said. All of us but Rob did so. And
then he led us into the Chaos.
We tried to keep our minds empty and elsewhere. Ingrid recited recipes for a
while, then Mother talked about stitches and Father about wood chopping.
Grandma talked about Grandpa. The ground still shifted underfoot -- from sharp,
hard scree to some kind of bouncy surface that made it difficult to walk.
In a way, Rob was like the Chaos. I didn't understand how he thought. I couldn't
predict it. But that didn't mean there wasn't a certain kind of logic to it -- and a
kind of beauty.
After hours of walking, Rob deposited us safely onto the flower-studded autumn
grass of the Confederate Ithena. A small town sprawled over the hills in the
"I know this place. That's Leksand." Grandma beamed at Rob. "Thirty miles from
Apparently travel didn't work normally inside the Chaos either, but I wasn't
complaining. Elof couldn't hurt or exploit us here.
I stayed to watch Rob hunt for gold while the others headed in to Leksand to find a
hostel and a hot meal. I promised to come into town at dusk with Rob. Then the
two of us would return to the Chaos tomorrow. Finding enough gold for six
citizens' contracts might take some time.
I sat in the grass, soaking up the warmth of the earth under me and the scent of
those tiny, yellow flowers. No more frozen lands. No more Elof.
A mere half-hour later, Rob stepped out of the Chaos with a lump of gold the size
of a baby's fist. I gaped as he handed it to me.
"Is this enough for five citizen's contracts? And maybe a new home?"
"It's amazing!" And much heavier than it looked. Then I noticed Rob's pinched
face. His awkward fidgeting. "You only said five contracts."
"If I stay, someone else will find out about me. Someone else like Elof. We
wouldn't ever be safe. And I've always wanted to travel."
Apprehension tightened his mouth, like he feared I'd drag him into town. He
glanced longingly back at the Chaos. "So many nations border the Chaos. I can
visit them all, now. And if I need to buy food, I can always look for more gold."
My stomach dropped. I'd never imagined a future without Rob in it, day after day.
"Do you have to go now?"
"Why not now?" Rob rubbed the back of his neck. "I can just slip away. I don't
know how to say goodbye."
I wanted to argue with him. Given his squirming, I could probably convince him
Instead, I pulled out the notebook and the pencil from my coat and handed them to
Rob frowned and tried to give back the notebook. "That's yours."
"I'm giving it to you. If you're going to travel and test all of your ideas, you
should write down the results." Pressing it into his hands felt like ripping my own
fingernails off. I'd miss him. But he could finally travel. He should travel. I
wondered if Grandma had intended both gifts for him all along.
Rob's eyes widened with delight. He ran his hands over the soft blue leather of the
"Remember to come back and share what you learn, okay?" I asked, throat tight.
Maybe he'd learn something that would make thousands of lives better. Maybe he
wouldn't. But either way, he was my brother, and I wanted to see him again.
"I promise." Rob promptly opened the book and wrote down Remember to visit
Trygve in Leksand on the first page. He smiled at me. "This is the nicest thing
anyone's ever done for me."
Sadly, I think that was true. I hugged him tightly, on the border between my new
life and his.
"Tell Grandma and Mother and Father and Ingrid . . ." Rob trailed off. "I don't
know. Come up with something good."
"I'll figure it out."
And then I watched my little brother, notebook and pencil in hand, walk away into
the Chaos, three green moons growing into valleys around him.