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Tokens and Omens
By Jeri Baird
Jolly Fish PressCopyright © 2016 Jeri Baird
All rights reserved.
Outskirts of Puck's Gulch, North Province
On the eve of the New Year, Zander hiked beneath a crescent moon. Tomorrow his life would change, but today he hunted.
The crunch of his leather boots against fresh snow quieted the evening call of the birds until silence surrounded him. He stopped to inhale the crisp air and check the snow for tracks. Rabbit prints led him to a pile of twisted fur and blood. Perfect. The leftover carcass, likely from a hawk kill, would draw the prey he sought. He leaned against the rough bark of a Scots pine, his hemp pants and leather tunic blending with the dried winter thicket, making him nearly invisible — just as he liked it.
A single white feather hung down the side of the ebony hair Zander tucked behind his ear. He closed his eyes to listen for sounds of Elder Terrec, upon whose land he poached. He tamped down the anger that rose. The elders had no right to control the land when so many in the village hungered.
He willed his energy into the earth, connecting himself to the quiet of the forest. An owl hooted behind him. Although the feathers would fetch a nice price in the market, tonight the owl would live. Father wanted a pelt.
The comfort of the woods tugged him into his center, where his thoughts split between the hunt and the time of magic that would begin the next day. Along with the other sixteen-year-olds in his village, he'd have six months to gain tokens before the five-day quest; six months to win the favor of Moira; six long months to avoid earning omens.
A crunch in the snow caught his attention. He lifted his bow, pulled back the arrow, aimed, and released. His arrow flew true. A coyote twitched and lay still, dead before it could yelp. Father would be pleased if he wasn't drunk when Zander returned. He strode to the carcass and tied the legs. As he worked, a yip from the dense brush startled him.
"Stars!" He wouldn't have shot if he'd known she had a pup. It was the wrong season for pups. A tiny amber body trembled in the bush. Zander knelt in the snow and dug in his pocket to offer a sliver of deer jerky. "Come here, boy," he whispered.
A tiny, black nose appeared and sniffed at Zander's hand. The pup inched closer and grabbed the meat before pulling it back in the brush. It would be a mercy to kill it. A pup that young wouldn't survive on its own.
Zander rubbed the back of its neck. It was his fault the pup was motherless. And Zander knew how that felt. He had to care for it or it would die. He could train the coyote to hunt, and Zander could use a friend. Even if it was a scraggly, four-legged one that didn't talk. Maybe better it didn't talk.
The pup popped his head out, and his ears twitched forward. His alert blue eyes matched Zander's. It didn't make sense unless it was an early patron from Moira.
Zander tensed. He felt a tremor before he heard the three-beat drumming of horses as they cantered across the frozen forest floor — lots of horses. Trying hard to keep from panicking, Zander scooped the pup into his pack, grabbed the dead mother by her legs, and ran. As he fled the land only the elders and Protectors legally hunted, he glanced back.
Zander sped up, the panic rising in earnest. Terrec was the one elder who wouldn't hesitate to chop off Zander's hand for poaching.
He smirked. Good thing he could run where a horse could not. He zigzagged through a maze of dried, tangled weeds and disappeared over the edge of the gulch. His feet scrabbled against the rocks as he slid down the steep slopes. After leaping over a fallen log, Zander skidded across a patch of ice and dropped the dead coyote. He scrambled to grab the tied feet and sprinted for the largest oak in the gulch. He followed a small stream, mostly covered in a thin crust of ice, that wound past the tree's gnarled roots. Once he knew he wasn't followed, Zander slackened his pace and caught his breath. As he walked eastward down the gulch, Zander heard his name floating from the treetops and winding along the stream.
"Zander," it whispered.
"Leave me alone, Puck," Zander hissed. It was a hazard of hiking in the gulch. The founder's ghost liked to tease him.
"Unite the tribes and save the village," the tortured voice murmured.
"Tell it to someone else," Zander muttered. "It's not my job."
At the elm tree, he turned and hiked up the steep wall of the gulch. He grunted as he reached the top edge and bent over to catch his breath. No matter how many times he climbed the steep sides, it winded him, but he was safe. No one could prove he'd hunted the coyote on private land. As if a coyote was dumb enough to venture to the fringes where every boy with a bow stomped around. No matter. Elder Terrec hadn't seen him.
Another successful hunt. Another escape. Another day to keep his hand.
Whistling as he hiked along a worn path, Zander soon came in sight of his home. His cheerful mood evaporated as he watched his father stumble through the door. The jug of mead he carried warned Zander to keep his new pet a secret. He darted to the back of the mud-covered, twig-and-straw hut. Another chunk of clay had fallen off the side, and Father hadn't seemed inclined to fix it. Zander was the one who slept on the other side of the wall, shivering when the wind blew through.
The stink of lye drifted from the tanning pit and burnt his nostrils. How Father stood it day after day was a mystery. He cleared out a corner in the pelting shed and moved the skins to a higher shelf, where the coyote wouldn't be tempted to chew them. That would be a sure way for Father to turn the pup into a pelt to match its mother.
He knelt and opened his pack. The pup whimpered as Zander lifted him out. He held out another piece of dried venison. The coyote snatched it and scampered to a corner with the strip hanging out his mouth. A pang of guilt ran through Zander. He'd made the pup an orphan.
"Don't worry, boy. I'll come for you after Father passes out." It never took long. Zander set a bowl of water in the corner and latched the door. He'd be back soon enough.
Zander stepped into the single-room and blinked to adjust to the dark, wondering what mood Father'd be in. He shared his father's Kharok tribal traits of straight black hair and brown skin, but not his black eyes. After two-hundred years in Puck's Gulch, most of the tribes had intermingled. It showed in Zander's blue eyes.
Father slumped over a cup of mead. A loaf of raisin bread and a carrot cake sat on the lone table. Even as the sweet aroma made his mouth water, anger burned in his gut. Father shouldn't be wasting what little coin they had on treats meant for the rich.
He breathed in and held it, pushing down the fire. Showing emotion had no place in his life. Father had taught him that. Zander felt a perverse satisfaction that he hadn't cried since he was five. Controlling his anger was taking longer.
"Good hunt?" Father slurred.
"Coyote. I hung it from the post to bleed. I'll skin it tomorrow."
Bloodshot eyes glared at Zander. "Only one?"
Zander crossed his arms over his chest. Seconds ticked by as he sifted through a dozen replies. He settled for the one least likely to bring his father's contempt. It also happened to be the one that was true. "I was lucky to shoot one. Elder Terrec rode through and made enough commotion to scare the prey for miles."
"The stupidity of the elders knows no end," Father grumbled.
"Were the useless Protectors with him?"
"I'm not sure. I ran."
Most of the elders were arrogant, but the Protectors were different. Zander had a gift with the bow. He dreamed of training with the men who protected their village, rather than apprentice as a furrier with his father.
"Fancy dandies, all they are." Father stumbled to his feet and punched his fist in the air. "Parading around protecting us from what? Our own people aren't allowed out at night or to hunt the forests that should belong to all of us. The elders are idiots if they think anyone would invade a piss hole like this."
Father cared about others? Zander turned to hide his grin. But his ranting about the elders meant Father wasn't yelling at Zander.
Glassy-eyed, Father teetered in the sparse light of a single lantern. "This came for you today." He held out a package wrapped in purple cloth and tied with a gold cord. "New year, new group of questers," he muttered. "Moira loves her drama."
Zander accepted the parcel. He unfolded the cloth, and rubbed his hand across the white journal. The scent of lavender drifted from the pages. He stilled himself by breathing slowly as he'd learned from hunting. He wouldn't give away his excitement to Father.
He'd first learned of the time of magic as a ten-year-old. His dream of becoming a Protector had risen the day he'd heard the fortune-teller talk of Moira choosing your destiny.
"Moira's a foul mistress." Father rubbed at his eyes. "We raise our kids for sixteen years, and Fate decides who lives and who dies."
We? The villagers? What did Father mean? Zander had vague memories of a mother rocking him, but Father wouldn't speak of her. Zander wanted to ask, but he wouldn't interrupt now. This was more talking than Father had done for a long while.
"You're prepared for the quest in the gulch. You'll survive." Father scratched his forehead. "And then maybe our lives will be good again."
Zander nodded, but couldn't remember a time he'd called his life good. After the quest, life would be good if he could move away from Father's drinking and lying.
Father said, "Tomorrow, you'll join the other questers in the dedication ceremony. Tonight we'll roast outside, and let the scent go as it pleases."
Living so far outside the village had its advantages. Zander snorted. Many times they'd broken the law requiring abstinence of meat before a holiday.
With the quest in his future, three things stood between Zander and his dream. First, he had to prove himself to Moira. His shoulders relaxed. He could do it.
He ran his tongue over a chipped front tooth, a constant reminder of the second. He also had to overcome his terror of riding a horse.
And of course, he had to survive the quest itself.CHAPTER 2
The Market at Puck's Gulch
The yeasty fragrance of baking bread pervaded Alexa's bedroom from the kitchen below. She threw open the window, knowing it would make no difference. The smell suffocated her. She scowled at the slice of moon floating above the forest as if it were to blame. Leaning over the sill, she inhaled the sharp sting of winter. The cold burned her lungs, but did nothing to replace the stink.
Living above the kitchen meant the odor permeated her clothes and her hair. One sniff and strangers could identify her as the baker's daughter. With the Festival of the New Year starting the next day, Alexa had spent the past week helping her mother bake the special treats in demand for the private celebrations. It paid well, but Mother was exhausted.
Alexa's time of magic would begin with the festival and end in six months with the quest. Then she could leave the bakery and its smells behind. A jolt of guilt shot through her gut. She ran her fingers over the bloodstone beads threaded throughout her golden hair. What would Mother do without her help?
No matter. She couldn't explain it, but Alexa knew she would not be a baker.
Periwinkle yarn sprawled across the yellow coverlet on her narrow bed. She wound it into a ball and added it to the other colors in a willow basket on her nightstand. As Alexa threw the covers to the side, an errant needle jabbed her thumb. "Stars!" She pressed against the spot of blood with a finger. It wasn't the first time she'd pricked herself.
Her door opened, pulling Alexa from her thoughts.
"Alexa?" Flour smudged Mother's face, and her hair glistened from working in the hot kitchen. Dark circles under blue eyes reminded Alexa of the late nights Mother worked.
"You've worked hard these last days." Mother held out a warm bowl of rabbit and carrot stew thickened with mushroom gravy.
This scent tickled Alexa's nose, and her mouth watered. She smiled. Mother risked the ire of the church for eating meat the day before the holiday, but then, her mother never was one for following the priest's rules. "Thank you."
Like most descendants of the Chahda tribe, Alexa and her mother had light hair and skin, but Alexa's eyes were dark while Mother's were the blue of the sky. A familiar sense of loss overwhelmed her. She'd never known her father.
Mother smoothed her apron. "It seems like yesterday I cradled you in my arms, and now you're a young woman of sixteen and beautiful." Searching Alexa's face, she sighed. "After the quest, maybe our lives can be perfect again."
What was Mother thinking? When had her life been perfect?
"There's much you can't understand until you've completed the quest. Moira will choose the bakery as your apprenticeship, I'm sure of it." Mother shuddered as a breeze fluttered in from the open window.
Alexa flipped her hair. "Mother! Are you worried I won't return from the quest?" Her mother paled. "How could you think I would fail? Really, Mother, do you think so little of me?" Her heart thudded. Not everyone returned from the quest, but surely Moira would find her deserving.
"No, no, of course I don't doubt your return." Mother twisted her hands. "But you need to be careful not to tempt Fate."
"Moira? Why would I tempt her?" Alexa's stomach tightened.
As her mother picked at the dough under her nails, Alexa suspected she was hiding something. But then, Alexa had her own secrets, and apprenticing anywhere except the bakery was one of them. She took a deep breath and scooped a bite of stew. "It's wonderful, Mother. Thank you."
Smiling, her mother caressed Alexa's hair. As she turned to leave, she glanced back. "Soon now, Alexa. I promise everything will be better."
"Yes, Mother. It will be better."
Alexa had her own plan she shared with no one. Not her favored teacher, not her mother, who would be shocked to know her daughter capable of such an idea, and not her best friend, Merindah. With a small favor from the fortune-teller, Alexa felt confident she would not be a baker, whatever Mother might think.CHAPTER 3
First Day of Magic
Zander woke as the sun struggled to light the room through dust-covered windows. Father stood over him. Too late, Zander pulled the ragged quilt over the pup nestled under his arm.
"What's this?" Father whistled. "Moira gave you a coyote?" He grabbed the pup by his scruff and shook him. "You better watch yourself, Son, if Moira thinks you need a predator for your patron." He dropped the whimpering pup to the straw sleeping mat.
Panic twisted through Zander's chest at the thought of losing the pup in the quest. "I won't need him to protect me. I want to train him to hunt."
Father leaned down, the stink of the night's mead on his breath. "There's no room in this world for a soft heart. You learned that long ago." He stood. "Train him and use him when you need him." Father stomped across the room. "Get up."
After cutting thick slices of the carrot cake, Father slathered butter across the soft surface, where it stuck in large clumps. He handed a slice to Zander, and said in his way of blessing, "Eat and be grateful."
"Eat and be grateful," Zander murmured back. It was about as much church as Father allowed, which was fine with Zander.
As much as he hated what Father must have spent for the cake, Zander loved baked sweets. But today the aroma of cinnamon and sugar triggered a memory of his mother's embrace. His happiness vanished like the flame of a snuffed-out candle. He struggled to finish and held the last bite out to the pup, which he'd named Shadow. The coyote sniffed, licked the butter, and gulped the cake. Shadow didn't seem to miss his mother, so why did Zander?
Sitting at the hewn table, Zander swallowed hard and cleared his throat. Father was sober. This was his chance. "Tell me of your quest. Did anyone die?"
Father bowed his head into his hands. "One. He was my best friend."
So that was why Father never talked about his quest. "What happened?"
"What happened? Moira deemed him unworthy to live. That's what happened."
"But why? Was he bad?"
Excerpted from Tokens and Omens by Jeri Baird. Copyright © 2016 Jeri Baird. Excerpted by permission of Jolly Fish Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Token and Omens has a unique fantasy story - of a village where all the teens undergo a rite of passage at the age of 16, where they are determined, by the personification of fate Moira, to be worthy of a continued life or not. The plot takes us, through the mind of Axela and Zander, as they undergo the long 6-month preparation for their Quests; the preparation includes a time of magic in which their good and bad deeds/thoughts earn them tokens and omens, respectively, which signify what they will face during the actual Quest. Axela is determined to the master of her own fate, while Zander is trying to aspire for something he cannot hope for, as per village policy - basically, both don't want to follow the path that seems laid out for them. They get their gifts early from Moira, who continuously judges all the questing teens on their behavior. Along the way, they learn stuff and try to strategize how best to come out of their Quests alive, when fate herself seems to against them. The actual Quest, though, doesn't arrive until the last quarter of the book, and for all its build-up, it seemed disappointing in a way. The omens and tokens literally translated to what they would face, and it was like a board game reading through them sending a hawk against a snake and what not. The stakes were life-or-death, sure, but I did not feel invested in the characters even until that point - they just seemed so one-dimensional to me, even the main ones. They are all expected to be Good Children, with no place for sins in their heart. (They can't even be angry without earning an omen for it - like WTF Moira, let them have their emotions!) Even the antagonist was pretty boring right until the end, and am not a fan of the forgiveness without redemption plot. Overall, interesting world-building but lacklustre plot and poorly developed characters.
The Young Adult fantasy TOKENS AND OMENS by Jeri Baird introduces an intriguing societal concept where 16-year-olds in “their time of magic” can earn tokens for their good deeds and omens for their bad as they prepare for a solemn trial that could possibly end in their deaths. There is something significant for all mankind in that we reap what we sow and are always better off doing as much good in the world as we can. TOKENS AND OMENS is a story holding lessons about the dangers of envy, pride, anger, overindulgence, and greed. It handles the subjects of mistakes, forgiveness of self and others, and that strong bonds between friends don’t always begin that way. This story, where religion and fate work together, is fast paced from the beginning. As the author unravels mysteries throughout the story, she throws in surprising twists and turns that keep the reader guessing. TOKENS AND OMENS has a tense, yet satisfying, ending that leaves an open invitation to the next book in the series (which I’ve heard is scheduled for September 2017). My favorite quote from the story: “Your life has meaning. Your struggles have meaning. You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can always control how you respond.” Content advisory: TOKENS AND OMENS has no sexual content or foul language. There are a few kisses on the cheek and some mild violence. The single reference to a minor character harboring same-gender attraction is extremely brief and probably won’t bother those with opposing views.