“For age thirteen, Tawney Firestone.” Tawney’s mouth dropped, and her chest tightened for a second. Beside her, her much taller twin brother’s hands clenched. Whether more out of anger for not getting chosen for the test, or anger for his sister’s now nearly certain death, Tawney wasn’t sure.
The room was silent, void of the applause that had accompanied the other choices. Tawney’s mother leaned heavily on her father, who was pale white.
Tawney couldn’t believe it. After all her brother’s long preparations, after all his certainty that he’d be chosen, almost everyone in the town had come to believe it, too. After all, compared to his frail sister, what other choice could there be?
Even Tawney, who’d always been ready to face reality mentally, if not physically, couldn’t help crying.
Even Arnold, the chooser, who should know best of all that there was a fifty/fifty chance for it to be Tawney looked surprised. Even his voice, normally powerful, sounded deflated as he called again. “Tawney Firestone, please step forward.”
Tawney’s little forest town had a “test of strength” type thing, for whenever someone visited them. Of course, visitors were rare, and many people died before ever seeing someone from outside their secluded forest.
However, their people had developed a need to show the outside world that any one of them were strong enough to tackle anything. So whenever an outsider showed up, they picked one person from every age, starting at thirteen, stopping at thirty-five.
The people would then have to separate out and live on their own for as long as the visitor desired. The people were given a choice of a starting supplies, from a list that goes as follows: A sword, bow and twenty-five arrows, stone axe, a loaf of bread and a fish, or a tent.
Ever since their sixth birthday, Tawney’s brother had been dreaming of doing one of the tests. So while Tawney had been confined to home, he had been out and about, spending all his free time practicing to make bows, arrows, and tools, learning fishing tricks, swimming, memorizing what mushrooms were safe to eat, and what plants were good as medicine. Basically preparing himself.
He and Tawney had been the only children born that year, so they knew if an outsider came, it would be one of them. Tawney had always been much weaker than her brother, more sensitive to the cold and heat, more easily hungered.
It had been hard, as their family was not the most well off. They bought one piglet each year, which they carefully protected and fattened up for feast day. It was the only pig meat they had all year. They mostly lived off fish and rabbits and the wild plants which grew in the forest. Everything in their garden was saved for feast day.
Still, they’d done everything to keep Tawney safe. The girl had eventually gotten a job at the weaver’s, and had turned out to be very good with her hands. They’d used the extra money from her weaving job to stay warmly dressed in the winter.
Their simple life had gone on. They’d made ends meet each year. Then the stranger had shown up. He said he was a traveling merchant, and after hearing stories of a forest people, had come to see what he could do.
Tawney had been the only one to dislike him. He had come with stories and goods that many of the town had never heard of or seen before. However Tawney knew that he also brought the challenge. Though she never met him face to face, he seemed like the type to propose a long challenge. She had grown, over the last seven years, to believe it would be her brother chosen, but she wasn’t sure what they’d do without him.
She’d been working in the weaver’s shop, carding the day’s wool, when the messenger had arrived, announcing the date for the choosing. It was to be the same day that she and her brother turned thirteen. She’d felt like throwing something. She had hoped beyond hope that it would be even just one day before.
As it was, there was no escaping either her or her brother’s being chosen. Mrs. Eagle, the weaver, had allowed Tawney to go home early, where her parents had reminded them about the rules of the challenge, which they had had memorized since they were six and had first learned about the challenges.
Even then, Tawney had been fairly certain of her brother being chosen. And by the day of the choosing, she could hardly imagine his not being chosen.
Only the stranger, Erik, had clapped, and he’d quickly stopped at the glares of those around him. Tawney slowly came forward, her heart sinking further with every step. She knew that in the wild, on her own, she didn’t stand a chance. Especially since winter was coming on swiftly.
She stepped forward to stand next to the fourteen-year-old candidate. Arnold turned to Erik and spoke. “What is the time length which they’re to be gone into the forest to live on their own?”
Erik smiled. “Until the day before I leave. Oh, and my extra rule is that they cannot come within the town’s normal gathering range until they’re to return.”