Mist curled between my fingers, arching from knuckle to knuckle and slipping away into the vast grayness that spread from the tips of my hands. I stared into that mist. Watching the way it swirled from side to side, sometimes caught in a wind, sometimes dropping with a sudden lurch.
A single crackling leaf drifted past my face. I snapped out to catch it, and for a breath, I held the stem in my fingers. The leaf struggled against the breeze, wavering from side to side before ripping away from my hand and vanishing deeper into the gray.
I must have been dreaming.
It was the only way I could make sense of what I saw. I blinked, and the rice paddies on Jedros faded into view. My mother, working at the fields with sweat dripping down her cheeks. She never glanced my way. Only focused on the rice. The job. Getting things done. My father was no better. The brow of his straw hat hid his face from view. It had always hidden his face. In that moment I realized I had never seen my father's eyes before.
Were they like mine? Seeing things I wished I had never seen?
And then the mist blew, and I saw Gratta's compound—all the recruits and runners fighting each other with blood on their knuckles and bo staffs in their hands, clacking against each other's weapons and sometimes shoulders.
Grayness settled back into view.
A distant pinprick of white light shone through the mist, like a beacon. I stumbled forward, finding movement like trying to slug my way through knee deep rice paddies. The light shone on my chest. I ran my fingers through the beam and hurried toward the source. It had to have a source.
I sludged ahead, feeling sweat plastering down my hair.
A girl came into view. Her back was to me, but I could see she had long dark hair draped over one shoulder and tucked away from small ears. She wore a simple green dress with billowy sleeves and matching flat shoes.
Her face tilted my direction. “Find me, Eric,” she whispered.
“I'm trying. Where are you?”
“I'm not far. Find me before they do. Please.”
“Who else is trying to find you?”
Her head snapped around to face the other direction. “They're coming. You have to hurry. I can't hide much longer.”
“Hide? Hide where?”
“Don't follow your heart, Eric. Hearts are deceitful and tricky. Follow the truth. The truth will always set you free.”
The girl stepped forward. Her foot crunched over something. A blur of motion came at us from her right. I threw my hands up and thrashed as two strong arms grabbed mine and threw me to the ground.
My eyes blinked, and I saw Raciel and Cassie standing over me.
“Dreaming much?” Raciel asked.
I nodded. “Do you have . . .” I coughed. “Do you have any water?”
“I'll fetch you some.” She darted out of sight, and I heard the splashing of water into a stone cup. A moment later she held it out to me. “Drink this. It'll help.”
I gulped down the water, every drop cooling my throat. “Thank you,” I mumbled.
Cassie smiled and took the cup back. “De nada.”
I sat up and shivered.
Raciel crouched down and handed me the scratchy gray blankets that had fallen around my feet. “You're cold. For a time we thought you might be sick. But it seems to have passed.”
I swallowed. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Two days,” Cassie called. “We were about to eat dinner. You hungry?”
As if on cue, my stomach gurgled angrily at me. I suppose I deserved an angry rumble from my gut after depriving it of food for two days. Saving Cassie must have taken a lot out of me. More than I had anticipated. Then again, I had been running for my life for nearly a day before that.
Raciel clapped me on the back. “I suppose that means yes.” He held out a hand to me. I took it and froze. Brown eyes. He had brown eyes under his tightly pulled back gray hair. I shook my head and stood up with the big man's help.
The room was fairly sparse, but somehow it felt warm and cozy at the same time. A wooden table with four crudely carved chairs sat in the center under a three-candled chandelier. A bed had been pushed up against the wall behind me, and I noticed where I had been lying on it was covered in sweat. A rack of spices hung over a wood stove across from the bed. A staircase wound up to the top level of the outpost.
Raciel waved at the chairs. “Please, sit.”
I sat, and Cassie and Raciel placed a pile of food in front of me on thin stone platters. There was flat bread and ground meat and chopped onions and celery and even a splattering of goat cheese. Cassie took the place next to me, and Raciel sat across from me.
The smells of the food wafted up to my nostrils, and I took a long breath and closed my eyes. I had never actually sat around a real table with a real family eating such delicious smelling food before. And for the first time, I felt a strange pang ring through my chest. A feeling that told me all in one breath that this was a moment to savor because it would not last.
I was a runner now. Runners didn't have families and lives and meals around tables. Runners ran.
Raciel reached out a hand to me, and Cassie slipped hers into mine before I could blink. “We always thank Yahweh for what He's given us. Especially . . .” Raciel sniffed back a tear. “Especially now that I have my precious Cassie back.” He smiled at her.
Cassie blushed. “Papa, it's okay.”
The big man squeezed our hands. “I know, I know.”
Cassie cleared her throat and threw back her head with a grin. “Thank You, Yahweh, for this food, for this company, for my family, and for all the blessings of life You've given to us. Let it be so.” She gave my hand a slight squeeze and then rolled up the meat and onions into her flatbread and ate.
I was going to enjoy this meal. Even if it was the only one I ever had with these people like this, I was going to enjoy it.
And we did. We laughed and talked, and Cassie and Raciel told me all about their lives in the village, and about fishing at the local pond, and about the coast just north of the outpost. A strange peace settled inside my bones. A peace I never wanted to lose. Never.
After dinner, Raciel wiped his mouth and told us he had things to care for outside. He excused himself and hurried out the front door.
“Will you help me clean up?” Cassie asked.
“Sure,” I said. We picked up the plates and carried them to a spigot with a pump handle in the corner of the room. I had never seen one before, and Cassie showed me how to crank the handle, and then water would dribble out. It was connected to a well dug underground and outside the outpost. A genius invention, really.
Cassie tossed me a thin rag. “Wipe those down, okay?”
I set to work wiping the dishes.
She smiled at me. “Eric, what were you doing in the Pale Woods?”
“I can't tell you.” I wiped another dish clean and set it on a wooden shelf over my head.
I glanced at the clasp on my forearm. “Because. I'm a runner. I can't talk about it, really.”
“So you really are a runner then?”
Cassie stared at the clasp. “But how could you do what you did? To save me? I never knew runners could do those sorts of things.”
“I don't know.” I cleared my throat. “I was training with other recruits, and it just happened. Everyone . . . everyone kind of looks at me sideways, you know? Like no one knows exactly what to do with me.”
“I think you're a hero,” she said. “And I really can't thank you enough for saving me. What you did was impossible.” Cassie turned back to a bucket of sudsy water and the stone cup in her hands. She traced the rim of the cup with her finger, and a single tear slid down her cheek. “And if you can do the impossible. . . . Can you . . .” she paused and twisted her mouth to the side.
“Can I what?”
She spun to look at me, one elbow leaning against the bucket. “Can you bring back my mother?”
“Bring her back? From where?”
“The Pale Woods,” she whispered.
“Was she a pale too?”
Cassie shook her head. “No. But . . . oh, it's a long, boring story. I shouldn't bother you. I suppose you'll be leaving soon anyway. What with jobs to run for.”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “Tell me. What happened?”
She took a deep breath. “Mother . . . she . . . I don't know how it started, really. One night I heard her. Whispering to the windows upstairs. Papa was asleep and snoring, but I could still hear her soft words, spoken to the open window. She was staring into the Pale Woods, unblinking, saying things I didn't understand.
“I stood behind her and tried to see what she might be staring at, but I saw nothing. The next day, she started becoming more erratic. She would leave right after dinner on 'walks.' I don't know where she went or why. She would just go. Sometimes she'd be out all night long and would stumble back into the house, mumbling to herself and climbing the stairs back to the loft.
“And then I mentioned it to her. She laughed at me, told me she loved me, and then her eyes glazed over with a look like death. Eric, she forgot my name. She couldn't remember it. I would tell her, but the words bounced off her like water on stone.”
“Finally, I caught her sneaking out on a moonless night, telling me she was leaving for good. She lowered the drawbridge and crossed into the Pale Woods before I could stop her. I was only seven. And I stood at the end of that drawbridge calling her name over and over, but she never came back to me. She disappeared into the mist, and I've never seen her since.”
I swallowed. “I'm sorry, Cassie. But if she went into the Pale Woods, then—”
“I know!” She shook her head. “She's probably dead long ago by now. Or become one of those things herself. I just thought . . . if you . . . if you ever found her, you could bring her back to me. Just tell her that her daughter still loves her. That I miss her more than anything. There's nothing I wouldn’t give to see her sitting in that empty chair at the table laughing with us like old times.”
Cassie smiled at me and brushed a hand over my hair. “She would have liked you. Brave. Honorable.”
I nodded, wondering if my parents remembered me. Or if I had become some fleeting thought that disappeared with the setting sun.
The door banged open, and Raciel stood there, panic etched onto his face. He slammed the door closed behind him.
“Papa! What is it?”
Raciel held a finger to his lips. “Eric, you have to leave. Now.”
I jumped up. “Why? What is it?”
“Soldiers in the village. From the queen's own palace. They're searching for runners who may have come by these parts. Runners with unusual abilities.”
The tips of my fingers went numb. Runners with unusual abilities could only mean one person: him. Panic tore through my chest. I had to leave. I refused to let this little family be hurt because I had been here.
Raciel threw a stack of flatbread into a rucksack along with a small block of goat cheese and a flask filled with water. “Take these. Follow the coastline out of town. I don't know where you're heading or what you're about, but don't let them catch you. The queen mostly keeps to herself, but when she's interested in something, that something doesn't escape her notice for long.”
I nodded, feeling a lump catch at the back of my throat. “Thank you both. For everything.”
Raciel clapped both hands on my shoulders. “No. Thank you for saving my daughter.” He pulled me into a hug, and for a moment, I wondered if this was what fathers were supposed to be like. The people who cared about you, hugged you when you needed it, but also kicked you out the door when it was time to go.
Tears ran down Cassie's face, and she hurried up the stairs.
“Goodbye,” I whispered before slipping toward the door and ducking outside.
The moon hung yellow across the ocean in the distance. Mist hung over the waves, and down below in the village, I could see a horde of soldiers on horseback holding torches and tromping through the streets. They really had come for me.
A cough echoed from above. Cassie leaned out the window and smiled sadly at me. “It was too short, Eric. Be safe. And if you see my mother, Ysella, please give her my message.”
“I will. I promise.”
Horse hooves pounded the path winding up from the village. I scrambled around the side of the outpost, and slid onto my side down a rocky crag, and into a narrow ravine at the bottom. The horses stopped outside the outpost, and a deep female voice shouted, “Open up! Queen's business!”
The door creaked open. “Yes? May I help you?” Raciel.
“Have you seen any runners come this way recently?” The female voice again.
“No runners here,” Raciel answered.
I breathed a short sigh of relief and decided not to stick around any longer. I hurried down the ravine until I reached the shoreline. Staying close to the edge of a rocky outcrop that rose just over my head, I ran down the beach as quickly as I could. Sand drifted into my boots. With every few steps, I could feel the grains squishing between my toes.
The night passed, and soon the Puerta Vida faded into the distance behind me. Mist descended over the sand, and I kept one hand on the rocks beside me to make sure I didn't stumble into the ocean.
My feet ached, and finally, I tripped and plummeted to my face. “Ouch . . .” I mumbled, rolling over and staring up until the gray haze above me. Even the moon had disappeared from sight.
I nearly dozed off, but crunching in the sand jolted me awake. I sat up slowly and stared into the mist, watching as a faint yellow glow drifted into sight, bobbing up and down over the beach. I huddled up against the rocks and found a small divot I could nearly sink into.
The yellow light drew closer, and I could see the faint outline of a man trudging in my direction. The man paused a moment and held up his forearm. The yellow light grew brighter.
It was a runner.
I could barely make out the black jacket he wore over a loose black tunic, with equally dark boots. He had a tri-cornered hat on his head, with the front tip dipped over his face. He held out a rough parchment and unfolded it, casting the light from his clasp on it.
“Close,” the man said. His voice carried through the mist, and I held my breath. I didn't need to let anyone else know I was here.
And then I saw a pinprick of white light in the distance. Out in the ocean.
The runner's head shot up and whirled to face the light.
“Find me, Eric. Hurry. He's almost here!” The voice echoed inside my head.
And then the runner broke into a sprint, straight toward the white light and into the ocean.
Love what you read then
When Eric was only thirteen, he was taken from his family and the peaceful rice fields on the island of Jedros to become a Runner. Roaming the five islands of Abra, Runners are tasked with jobs -- jobs they must see to the end. Either finish the job or die.
And then a mysterious benefactor arrives with a bag of gold and Eric's first job: find the girl spotted somewhere in the northern islands responding only to the name Bella. Simple enough. But this job is not what anyone thought. Others are searching for the girl. Others who will kill to keep Bella a secret.
But Bella has her own secret to keep. And if it gets out, the very fabric of the known world will change forever.
Audience: Ages 10 to 14
Shaun Stevenson has always loved a good book. Ever since he first picked up his great-grandmother's ancient copy of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he has wanted to take readers on crazy journeys through imaginative worlds where the danger and mystery never stop. He lives in the Great Northwest with his wife, enjoying the coffee, the thrifting, and of course, the writing.