“Put your arms out to help you keep your balance,” Willow says, lifting her own arms to demonstrate.
“I want a rope tied around my waist.” The bravado in the boy’s voice quivers, though he glares at Willow as if daring her to notice. Several other children call out in agreement, and my sister turns to stare the class of First Learners into silence.
“If you use a rope when you’re learning to tree-leap, you’ll come to rely on it instead of relying on your own sense of balance. It will become a crutch, and then what will you do when you have to leap through the forest?” Her gaze lands on the six-year-old boy who hovers at the edge of the platform I built on one side of the school’s small playground. “You’ll fall. And if you fall, you’ll probably die.”
The boy swallows hard, his eyes flicking between Willow and the worn planks of the playground five feet below him as if trying to decide which he fears most. The school is built into the heart of our Tree Village. The bulk of it wraps around the huge cradle of an enormous oak, while the outlying classrooms are connected to the main hall by the same walkways that arc between the trees throughout our entire village, giving all of us access to every village structure without ever requiring us to touch the ground. The playground—a large square of smooth planks with a tetherball pole, a hopscotch grid carved into the floor, and a newly sanded collection of wooden bars, ladders, and slides—rests on support beams hammered into the trees beside the main classroom.
“I could fall now,” the boy says, the bravado in his voice seeping away as he looks away from my sister and down to where I stand.
“I’ll catch you,” I say, and open my arms to show him I’m ready. The grateful trust on his face—a striking contrast to the poorly concealed fear the adult villagers show around me—makes something in my chest expand even as it aches.
If Willow and I were from a different family, no one would have cause to avoid us while treating us with terrified deference. We’d have friends like the cluster of older kids our age we sometimes see sitting together on the northern walkways of the village at night, laughing and throwing twigs into the darkness of the Wasteland like they don’t have a single care.
Maybe they don’t. I wouldn’t know. My entire life is a knot of worry wrapped in a shell of controlled calm.
“Tighten your stomach muscles, Eliah, and use the balls of your feet.” Willow shades her eyes against the glare of the winter sun while a faint breeze plays with the black feather that dangles from her ear cuff.
I earned a black feather for my first kill too. So have most of the villagers over the age of thirteen. The difference is that they earned it for hunting deer. Willow and I earned it for hunting people.
“Come on, Eliah,” I say quietly, while the boy hesitantly stretches his thin, boot-clad foot off the platform and onto the maple branch—skinny, but strong—that extends from one edge of the platform to the top of the playground slide. “Your teacher will want you back inside before long, and the rest of your class needs a chance to try it.”
His eyes, dark like mine but still filled with innocence, widen as he takes a wobbly step onto the branch.
“Keep going!” Willow calls. “One foot after the other. Hands out. There!” She grins at me as Eliah moves jerkily toward the middle of the branch, his arms flailing madly while he struggles to keep his balance. Just shy of the halfway mark, his foot slips, and he plummets toward the ground with a sharp cry of fear.
“Got you.” I snatch him out of the air and gently lower him to the playground floor. “Nice job.”
“I only got halfway across.” His lower lip protrudes.
I squat down to his eye level and put my hands on his shoulders. “Last week, you wouldn’t even leave the platform. That’s a lot of progress. You’re very brave.”
A shy smile chases the pout from his face. “Brave like you,” he says before dashing off to recount his adventure for his waiting friends.
His words burn against my heart as I open my arms wide to catch the next student. Brave is for those who stand up for what is right. Who protect their sisters even though it could cost them everything.
Brave isn’t a word for those who obey a monster.
After the last Early Learner, a wisp of a girl whose long braid reminds me of Willow’s, takes two shaky steps before plummeting into my waiting arms, Willow claps her hands once in a bid for silence.
“Quiz time.” Willow glances past the platform to the school door, where Shawna Hawkeye stands laughing with another teacher, ready to call her students away from their weekly tree-leaping lesson and back into the safety of her classroom. Shawna is my age, and there was a time, long ago, when she played with Willow and me, stealing roasted almonds from Bay’s Mercantile at the southeast corner of the village and tree-leaping like it was a game instead of a necessity.
That was before our family vocations caught up to us. Before her mother settled Shawna into a study routine with piles of textbooks salvaged from the ruins of cities long gone and prepared her to become a teacher.
Before Dad put a knife in my hands and a bow in Willow’s and showed us what it meant to be a Runningbrook.
The thought of my father is a poison that eats through me until I’m filled with fury and loathing. I clench my jaw and deliberately empty my mind of all but the task before me, forcing the anger back behind the wall of calm I need as desperately as others need air.