by Renee Collins
After a raging fire consumes her town and kills her parents, Maggie Davis is on her own to protect her younger sister and survive best she can in the Colorado town of Burning Mesa. In Maggie’s world, the bones of long-extinct magical creatures such as dragons and sirens are mined and traded for their residual magical elements, and harnessing these relics’ powers allows the user to wield fire, turn invisible, or heal even the worst of injuries.
Working in a local saloon, Maggie befriends the spirited showgirl Adelaide and falls for the roguish cowboy Landon. But when she proves to have a particular skill at harnessing the relics’ powers, Maggie is whisked away to the glamorous hacienda of Álvar Castilla, the wealthy young relic baron who runs Burning Mesa. Though his intentions aren’t always clear, Álvar trains Maggie in the world of relic magic. But when the mysterious fires reappear in their neighboring towns, Maggie must discover who is channeling relic magic for evil before it’s too late.
Relic is a thrilling adventure set in a wholly unique world, and a spell-binding story of love, trust, and the power of good.
© 2013 Renee Collins
We were home alone the night that Haydenville burned. Mama and Papa had gone to a political meeting and left me in charge. I was sixteen, old enough to keep an eye on my younger brother and sister. Or so my folks figured. They had no way of knowing how I would be tested.
The evening started off so calm. Crickets were singing in the sagebrush, and the oppressive heat of daytime had been swept away by a velvety breeze, which drifted in through the open windows. Ella was playing with Sassy’s new litter of kittens up in the loft, and Jeb sat by the fire, polishing the brand-new gun he’d gotten for his fourteenth birthday the week before. I was scraping a broom over the floor of our little one-room house, trying my best to banish the red-orange sand that seemed our constant companion. But my mind soon drifted from my chores.
I stood in the doorway, in the warm twilight, gazing at the vast desert beyond. It stretched endlessly in either direction, with nothing but sage and rocks and the occasional rabbitbrush to break the monotony. The dark smudge of Haydenville sat on the horizon, a small spit of a town, not much more interesting than the cactus. It always made me feel lonesome to stare out at the stillness around us.
As I leaned my head against the doorframe and watched the first star pierce through the indigo sky, a reckless wish burned in my heart. I gazed up and let myself envision a sleek dragon diving out of the scrape of clouds, a creature long extinct, returned to breathe life back into this barren place. I pictured the ancient animal curling around the moon and soaring over the red-rock cliffs beyond our house. But as it swept downward, a strange glow on the horizon caught my attention.
I straightened, squinting in the direction of the wavering light. It was a wide line of orange spreading across the dark landscape in the distance, painting the night sky a deep amber. The breeze that drifted past my cheek carried the distinct scent of smoke. This was no figment of my imagination. This was fire.
And it was coming from Haydenville.
The broom slid out of my fingers and clattered to the floor.
I met my brother’s gaze, and his brow furrowed. “What is it?” he asked, tightening his grip on the rifle as he stood. “A rock devil?”
“Fire.” I pointed, my heart beating fast. “In the town.”
Jeb raced to my side and gripped the doorframe. “God Almighty,” he breathed. “The whole street’s burning.” Then he gave me a sharp look. “Mama and Papa.”
“I’m sure they’re okay,” I said, more confidently than I felt. “They would have seen the fire before it spread. They’re probably on their way back right now.”
Jeb squinted at the horizon, now rippling in the heat. “Someone is coming. A whole bunch of people…”
A row of separate flames undulated in the twilight. Torches. They moved across the desert toward us with a speed that could only mean they were carried on horseback.
“Maybe most people in the town got out,” I said, but my voice faded away.
Jeb stared hard at the fast-moving torches. “I don’t think so, Maggie.”
We looked at each other, and the same thought came to us.
“Ella,” I whispered.
I scrambled up the loft ladder, struggling to stay calm. I had to keep it together until Mama and Papa got home. I just wished they’d hurry.
Ella was lying on her back, holding a squirming kitten over her chest. “Look at this little orange one, Mags,” she said. “Isn’t she the sweetest thing you…”
As her large brown eyes fixed on me, the smile dropped from her face. “What’s wrong?”
She was only seven, but she had a real knack for reading people’s faces.
“You need to come down,” I said, reaching for the kitten.
Ella pulled it out of my grasp. “Hey! I was holding her.”
“You can have her back in a minute. Right now, we need to talk.”
She held her pet close, scowling at me. I clenched my jaw. Sometimes that girl tried my patience like none other. “You come right now, or Mama’s gonna hear about this.” I grabbed the kitten and set it on the mattress.
“I want Jeb,” she said, sitting up angrily.
Jeb was her favorite. Ever since she could walk, she’d followed him like a shadow. I wrapped my hand around her wrist. “You can talk to him when you come down. Now move it.”
We climbed down the ladder steps swiftly. Jeb was standing in the doorway, watching the fire, his rifle poised. Ella ran up to him, hugging his pant leg. He stroked her hair absently but kept his gaze on the flames. I came up behind him, looking at the burning desert beyond us. Staring back at me was the undeniable reality: Mama and Papa weren’t going to reach home before those torches did. Our safety now rested in my hands alone.
“We gotta get out of here,” I said under my breath to Jeb.
“And go where?”
“To the hiding spot, just like we always talked about.”
Jeb grimaced. “We don’t need to do that. I can protect us here.”
“Don’t be a fool. You barely know how to use that gun.”
“I do, too!”
“It doesn’t matter. Mama and Papa put me in charge, and I’m sayin’ we go to the hiding place.”
Ella pulled on Jeb’s arm. “What’s goin’ on?”
He hoisted her up against his hip. “It’s nothing you need to worry about, baby girl.”
It surprised me how calmly he spoke the lie. My anxiety was surely written all over my face.
I turned away from them, trying to mask my fear as busyness. “Help your brother grab some coats and blankets,” I said. My gaze fell to the floor beneath Mama’s and Papa’s bed. “And some water…”
I bent down and lifted up the quilt. After feeling around a moment, I located the loose floorboard and, beneath it, the small jewelry box. My heart quickened as I set the box on my lap. Our family’s single relic lay inside on dark velvet. Kraken.
At first glance, it was little more than an almond-sized piece of bone, oval cut, which was one of the more popular styles. It had been polished a clouded blue-green color. Only exceedingly rare types were diamond clear. Papa had it set in a silver necklace, another common choice for relic wearing. My breath trembled as I lifted it into my palm. I’d dreamed of the day I would be allowed to use it for the first time. This remnant of the ancient world, live with magic.
“What are you taking that for?” Jeb asked, looking over my shoulder. “It’s too small. That thing doesn’t have enough magic to ward off a vampire scorpion, let alone whoever’s coming.”
“You got any better ideas?”
It was true that the relic wouldn’t help much if those people with the torches meant to cause trouble. Kraken bone fossils possessed only water magic, and a pebble-sized piece like we had could barely contract or expand water as needed. Papa had spent our savings on it to help keep our animals and ourselves alive, should we ever have another drought like the one that had nearly killed us three years before.
I knew Jeb, like me, was wishing right now that Papa had bought a dragon claw or phoenix piece, or any of the other fire relics I’d read about. Not that we could ever even dream of affording such rare, potent ones, but still, I wished it. So many nights, I’d lie in my bed, turning the worn pages of Papa’s relic almanac by candlelight. The more I learned about all the fierce and wonderful relics out there, the more keenly I felt that the day might come when we’d need something better.
And now, we were face-to-face with that day.
I clutched the kraken piece to my chest. “It’s all we have.”
Ella pulled the fabric of my worn calico skirt. “Someone’s gotta tell me what’s happening.”
“Everything’s going to be fine. Looks like there was some trouble in the town, that’s all. We need to head to our hiding spot and wait for Mama and Papa.”
“The hiding place?” Her expression went from shock to resolute fear. “No. I’m not goin’. There’s rock devils up there!”
Every settler knew to stay away from the red-rock cliffs that cast their huge shadow over our little town. The rock devils, horse-sized lizards with endless teeth and claws like hunting knives, lived in the shadowed nooks and caves. Though not magical like their ancient relative, the dragon, rock devils were the most dangerous creature to haunt our desert lands. And with rattlers, vampire scorpions, and ghost coyotes behind every sagebrush, that was really saying something. But that was exactly why Papa said we should hide in the cliffs in case of trouble. Because no one would dare come after us.
“We don’t have a choice,” I told Ella. “We gotta go.”
She ran into Jeb’s arms. He held her and looked at me, his jaw clenched. I gave him my firmest look, and he sighed. “Fine. But I’m bringing my gun.”
The three of us rushed into the warm night. The minute we were out, though, Ella slammed her little heels into the ground.
“The kittens!” She gasped. “We forgot Sassy and the kittens!”
Jeb gripped Ella’s hand to keep her from running back. “They’ll be fine. They’ll get out in time.”
But we all knew the kittens couldn’t make it down the loft ladder on their own.
“I won’t leave them!” Ella cried, tears springing to her eyes.
I rubbed my forehead. There was barely time to save ourselves, let alone the animals. But how could we leave them to die?
“You two go on ahead,” I said.
“Go! I’ll catch up.”
Jeb hesitated, but then nodded once. Holding Ella’s hand, he ran for the cliffs as I dove back into our house. Sassy hissed at the edge of the loft, surely sensing the danger.
“It’s all right,” I said, climbing up the ladder. “We’ll get you out.”
The kittens mewed loudly as I scooped them up into my apron. But when we got outside, I realized all I could do was release them and hope for the best.
“Run, Sassy girl,” I said as they scampered into the darkness. “Get on out of here with those babies.”
I had to get myself out of there. The burning line of torches on the horizon looked closer than ever, and it filled me with a wild, shaking panic. I turned to run, but then my gaze fell on Dusty, our horse, peacefully padding his hooves in the sand of the corral. He was a good horse, hard working and gentle with children. I couldn’t leave him, either.
It wasn’t until I reached the gate that I remembered the lock. Put there to keep horse thieves away. Papa always carried the key with him.
I gripped the fence, but the realization struck that it stood too high for Dusty to jump, even if I did climb it. I shook the wooden planks, then threw myself against them. They hardly budged. I slammed into the fence once more, to no avail. I could hear Jeb calling my name in the distance; the raw fear in his voice only sharpened my own. I looked to the shadowy cliffs, to the approaching fire, and then back to Dusty. Choking down a lump in my throat, I patted his glossy neck and prayed he’d somehow make it out all right.
I ran hard all the way to the cliffs, sagebrush and scrub scraping against my legs. Jeb and Ella were waiting outside the mouth of the little cave. When they spotted me, they rushed up, and we hugged. “It’s okay,” I said. “We made it. We’re gonna be okay.”
I flopped to the ground of our hiding spot. We called it a cave, but it was little more than a crawl space. If anyone did come looking for us, we’d be done for.
Ella climbed into Jeb’s lap, trembling. With his free hand, he gripped his gun, his eyes fixed in the direction of our house. “I should try to get help,” he said, shaking his head.
“No,” I said sharply. “We’re staying right here until Mama and Papa find us.”
But would they find us? Were they all right? Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the thought of a raid we’d heard of not two weeks before. A tiny town called Buena—just a general store, bank, and livery—burned to the ground. No one survived. People blamed the Apaches—everyone knew they were ready to go to war over the relic mining in the hills and mountains. Likely that had been the first attack of many. I still hadn’t made up my mind whether to believe the stories or not, but suddenly they didn’t seem so far-fetched.
I stared at Ella and prayed inwardly for my parents. In this light, Ella and Jeb looked so much like Papa; they shared the same golden hair and big brown eyes. Even the same freckles on their noses and cheeks. Everyone said I was the spitting image of Mama, with my black hair, amber eyes, and a touch of copper to my skin. Josiah, our brother two years younger than Jeb, had looked a lot like Mama, too, when he was alive. The Good Lord took him when he was ten. Pneumonia.
In the distance, the sharp, panicked whinny of a horse cut through the air, and my spine straightened. Jeb’s as well. We both recognized the sound.
Listening with my breath clenched in my throat, I could make out the low, rumbling sounds of men’s voices. Then the repeated shatter of glass. Ella shot up.
“Our house!” Her voice sounded small and pained. I squeezed her hand.
Through the distance, Dusty’s whinny came again. Louder. More panicked. Then the blast of gunshots.
And the whinnying stopped.
Jeb and I were on our feet. I couldn’t breathe for the tension in my chest. “Why are they doing this?”
His eyes were distant with horror. “Mama…”
I grabbed his hand. I wanted to tell him that Mama and Papa were probably laying low somewhere or gathering a group of men to surround those attackers and put them to justice. But the words felt like sand in my mouth. All I could do was hold onto his hand as hard as possible.
An acrid wave of smoke blew against us, stinging my throat. In the distance, the glow of our burning home lit the sky. As I looked harder, I realized that the flames were moving, traveling over the rabbitbrush and sage that dotted the landscape. Heading this way.
They took the dry shrubs at terrifying speed, faster than any normal fire should. Men’s voices rumbled on the air, so close that the hairs on my arms stood on end.
“They’re coming,” I whispered.
Jeb’s brow lowered. “We gotta make a run for it.”
The thought froze my very bones, but he was right. We couldn’t stay in the cave. Either the fire or those men would reach this place in a matter of seconds. With a shaky nod to Jeb, I knelt down by Ella.
“We’re gonna leave the hiding place now, okay, honey?”
Ella ran into Jeb’s arms, breaking down into tears. “I want Mama,” she sobbed.
He picked her up, stroking her hair. “Don’t cry, baby girl. We’ll be okay. I promise we’ll be okay.”
“Jeb’s right,” I said. “We’ll be fine. But listen, we have to be real quiet. We all have to run as quiet as a little pack of deer.”
She kept her face buried in Jeb’s shoulder, so I kissed her head.
“Right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We tore out into the flickering darkness. The heat of the blaze immediately pressed against us as smoke filled our lungs, and we all started coughing. My eyes blurred from the fumes, but I kept running. I could hear Ella’s sobs behind me, muffled as she pressed her head into Jeb’s neck. I ran and ran, but part of me knew I had no idea where we were going. We could be headed right toward the mob.
Ahead, a huge rock formation blocked our path, and to the other side, a wall of fire. Coughing into my arm, I spun around, searching for a way out. There was only one. A tiny ravine to the left might provide just enough space for a person to squeeze through. With the billowing smoke, I couldn’t see too far down that path, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice.
“Down there,” I called to Jeb over the roar of flames and crackle of burning trees.
He examined the ravine, hesitating for a moment, but then nodded. Together, we climbed down into the little canyon of red-rock.
And I immediately saw what a terrible mistake it was.
Fire. Huge yellow tongues of it crawled toward us from the other end. A twisted, dead bristlecone pine blazed right in our path; the blast of heat made me stagger back. But when I turned to climb out of the ravine, I could see that the other flames had closed in, sealing off the entrance. We were surrounded. Trapped like animals.
Jeb and I stared at each other, ashen.
And then I remembered the relic. A flicker of hope lit within me, and I pulled the silver chain off.
“The water,” I called to Jeb.
I knew we only had whatever drops were left in the canteen Jeb had grabbed on the way out of the house—but it still might do the trick.
With trembling hands, I twisted open the lid and held the kraken piece over the water. As much as I loved reading about relics, I’d only used one once before—my grandfather’s kraken relic. He had taught me how close contact with the body was required to activate the magic, and that the more you concentrated, the more powerful the reaction was, but it was a skill most people had to practice to get good at.
I exhaled slowly. My fingers felt stiff and clammy with sweat. My head was pounding. I’d read that water magic supposedly had a calming effect on the user. Maybe I was just too worked up to feel it? I closed my eyes and forced a deep breath. Come on. Expand. Please.
I opened one eye to check. The water hadn’t budged.
“Nothing’s happening,” Ella said, her voice high with panic.
“I told you it wasn’t strong enough,” Jeb said.
“Hush,” I snapped. “I’m trying.”
I swallowed a dry gulp and took a breath to calm down. “Please,” I whispered fiercely.
But the water in the canteen stayed at the exact level as before. I scraped a hand through my hair with a growl. “Why isn’t this working?”
A horrible thought started to pound through me. What if it’s not working because it isn’t real? Forgeries were a serious problem in these parts, where the average family could hardly afford a single relic chip. Desperate miners and farmers were often swindled by a slick peddler with an irresistible price.
I stared at the beautiful relic in my hand. Beautiful, and useless as a piece of glass. I felt as though I’d been stabbed in the heart.
“Maggie…” Jeb’s brown eyes were deep and sorrowful, even as they mirrored the approaching wall of flames.
Reading the emotion on his face, Ella hooked her little arms around his neck, and I knew she understood. I threw my arms around both of them and held on tight, stricken by my inability to save them. Stricken that I would never see another sunset on the desert. Never have my first kiss. Never be able to hug Mama and Papa good-bye.
A voice penetrated the crackling roar of fire. The sound of it shattered me.
They’d found us.
When I looked up above the ravine, I saw a dark face illuminated in the flames. It was a young man with black hair and black eyes. He was Apache. A warrior about my age—maybe a few years older.
A swell of terror rose up in me. But then, looking harder into those midnight-black eyes, a realization cracked through the fear, and memories flooded in.
I knew this boy.
Ages ago, when I was an awkward and gangly girl of nine, I’d gone to a year of schooling at the St. Ignacio Mission outside Burning Mesa. The friars taught any who came to read and write. But I didn’t quite fit in there. Mama said it was because I asked too many silly questions. There was one boy who took kindly to me, though. Another misfit. An Apache boy with the darkest eyes I’d ever seen. He’d come to St. Ignacio to learn English. We both stuck out like weeds together.
We were friends until the day I made the mistake of telling Mama all about him. She refused to explain why, but after that, I never stepped foot in St. Ignacio again.
And now, there he stood before me. He looked the same in many ways but grown up in others. He was a warrior now. I could tell from the red band of cloth he wore tied over his forehead.
“Maggie Davis,” he called, and he held out his hand.
I didn’t move, stunned. He remembered my name?
“You stay away!” Jeb had his rifle aimed.
I pushed the barrel of the gun down. “Stop!” I cried. “I know him. He won’t hurt us.”
Jeb stared at me like I’d gone mad. “You know him?”
“You have to trust me, Jeb. There’s no time to argue.”
Fire choked the little ravine with startling speed. The Apache looked at the growing flames and held out his hand with more urgency. “You must come. I will help you.”
I stood, and Jeb grabbed my arm. “No!”
“It’ll be all right,” I said, pressing my hand over his. “I promise.”
I looked back at the Apache. I could see in his eyes that he wouldn’t hurt us. I nodded once. He lay on his stomach on the rock face and reached his arms down.
“First the child,” he said. “Hurry.”
The flames pressed in. The entire ravine would be burning within a matter of minutes.
As I lifted Ella up into the warrior’s hands, a smoldering branch of the nearby bristlecone pine snapped off and fell to the ground. Sparks scattered, spreading over the dry desert grasses spotting the ground. The grasses caught flame instantly. Fire joined with fire, spreading like floodwater. The heat rushed over us like a wave, stinging our eyes and singeing our throats. I turned to Jeb.
And I knew he could see it, too. There would only be time to lift one more person out before the fire engulfed the ravine completely. If even that.
As the angry yellow flames rushed toward us, roaring and crackling over the dry ground, we pressed our backs to the cliff wall.
“God Almighty,” Jeb whispered.
I squeezed his hand, speechless with horror.
The Apache reached down again, and his eyes flashed with dismay.
“Hurry!” he cried.
“Can you lift us both at once?” I asked desperately. But then I felt Jeb’s hand on my shoulder. He was looking up at the warrior, exchanging silent words. Then he looked back to me.
“Take care of Ella,” he said softly.
“Don’t you dare, Jeb.”
The heat was blinding, oppressive. I could barely breathe or see in the onslaught of thick gray smoke, but I caught Jeb giving the Apache a nod.
“No!” I shouted, coughing, shaking my head violently.
Jeb grabbed my hand. He pressed a firm kiss to it, then yanked my fist up to the Apache.
The warrior’s strong grip wrapped around my wrist, and he pulled me up with startling speed. I tried to kick, but he didn’t release me. I stretched my free hand to Jeb, screaming. “No! No!”
Above me, Ella reached over the edge of the rock, shouting Jeb’s name.
The flames below clawed at my shoes and bare ankles. They caught onto my skirt and seared my skin. Through the ruthless smoke below, I could just make out a final, mournful flash of Jeb’s brown eyes. And then the Apache gave a big heave, pulling me over the ledge.
I crumbled to the high ground with an anguished cry. The Apache rushed to stamp out my burning skirt, but I wished he wouldn’t. In that moment, I felt like dying right there on the hot sand.
But then I noticed Ella, still reaching for the flames, screaming for Jeb with raw anguish. I fell to her side. She resisted my embrace with all of her might, crying and sobbing for Jeb. I held her tight until she collapsed, her little body shaking with sobs, and I knew that even if I truly did want to die, I couldn’t. And I couldn’t break down, either, not here, not yet. For Ella, I had to be strong.
“It is not safe yet,” the Apache said, crouching beside me, his voice gentle but tense. “We cannot stay here.”
I felt the heat of the fire behind us. Tongues of flame curled up from the edge of the ravine. Thinking of Jeb down there hurt me more than any burn could have. A scream boiled in my throat, desperate to escape. It took all of my strength to keep myself together.
The Apache took my hand. “We must run.”
He pulled us through a narrow path of red-rock. Smoke from the advancing inferno followed, relentless and cruel. The heat hung heavy on the air. When the rock widened, I spotted a black horse tied to a low pine.
Ella and I were too dazed with grief and fear to protest as the Apache lifted us onto the beast’s back. He jumped on behind me, gave the animal one gentle kick, and we tore off across the wide desert.
The horse’s hooves pounded fiercely against the moon-bleached sand, and the wind beat in our ears. We didn’t speak. Finally, after what felt like hours, a settlement surfaced on the dark horizon. A wide adobe wall spread out before us as we drew closer. Behind it, a church dozed beneath the branches of shade trees and a large willow. I recognized the exposed bell tower and the run-down, crumbling wall. It was St. Ignacio.
We rode up the gates, and the warrior called for the horse to slow. The trauma had finally overwhelmed Ella, and she’d collapsed into sleep against me in spite of the long, pounding journey. Seeing this, the warrior hopped down from the horse. He gently lifted Ella, then reached for me with his free arm.
In the pale moonlight he looked tall and strong as an ox. His long black hair hung over his shoulders and blew gently in the wind like dark feathers. He wore thick pants, a vest over his bare chest. My face warmed to my ears as he lifted me effortlessly from the horse.
Stepping onto solid ground, my saddle-sore legs wobbled, but I kept my composure. I quickly smoothed down my wind-blasted hair and wrinkled clothes. I probably looked as bedraggled as I felt.
Seeing a patch of singed fabric on my dress, the memories came flooding back in a river of fire. Mama. Papa. And Jeb. Oh, Jeb.
I scanned the dark, night-bathed surroundings of the mission. The quiet whistle of wind over the desert filled me with a consuming emptiness I couldn’t escape.
Just then, I felt a hand on my arm. The warrior held Ella out to me, and I took her into my arms. The sight of her face, so sweet and utterly peaceful in sleep, only twisted the knife of sorrow deeper in my throat.
“You can stay here,” the Apache said. “The fathers will protect you for a time.”
“Thank you,” I said softly. “For everything.” Suddenly, words felt like little rocks in my mouth, but I forced myself on. “I…remember your face but not your name.”
“Yahnuiyo,” he said. “Yahn.”
I didn’t dare meet his gaze. “It’s so strange to see you again. And under these circumstances…”
He turned his face in the direction of Haydenville. “My people did not burn your home,” he said, somehow answering the very question I hadn’t dared to ask. “Or your village.”
“Then who did?” I asked quietly.
Yahn’s gaze was firm on me. “May we never have to find out.”
I flexed my grip over Ella. Something in his tone made me want her as close as possible.
“Leave if you can,” he said. “Go far from these desert lands. Take your sister.”
His words sent a shiver over me. Perhaps sensing this, he softened. “I am sorry,” he said. “For the loss of your brother. I regret deeply that I could not save him.” The sincerity in his voice stung my heart like a hot needle.
He sighed and took up his horse’s reins. “Farewell.”
“You’re leaving us?”
“The fathers will take care of you. They are good men.”
He mounted his horse. I took a halting step forward. “Will I ever see you again?” The words had tumbled out before I could stop them. I immediately snapped my gaze away, but then looked back.
“Perhaps, Maggie Davis. Perhaps.”
The Catholic friars opened their gates warily, eyeing us in the faint candlelight. When I explained what had happened, they exchanged grim frowns. People had been uneasy enough after hearing about Buena. To find out that it had happened again sent a chill through the air. Some didn’t want us to be allowed entrance, afraid the Apaches would follow to finish the job.
But the Father Superior stepped up from the shadows and spoke one phrase. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
It was all he needed to say. The friars opened the gates.
When they had settled Ella and me into their spare quarters in the nuns’ wing, I pulled Ella into my arms on the lumpy, straw-filled mattress. The room was barren, cold, and deathly quiet. So quiet, we had no choice but to face everything that had happened, everything we’d lost.
I was now all Ella had in the world. How could I possibly take care of her? How could I be her mama and papa when I was practically a kid myself? Lying there with my sister, I’d never felt so small or helpless. I didn’t want her to see my tears, but then I noticed that she was crying softly. She looked up into my eyes, trembling.
“Jeb,” she said, her voice hoarse and weak with sorrow.
The sound of his name on her lips broke me. I took her into my arms, unable to stop the flood of grief. Clinging to each other on the little bed, Ella and I wept well into the night.