Spears peppered the water behind us as we hauled up the pilings to the dock. I ducked my head as another spear flew past me and landed with a thud into the planks. Telisa grabbed my elbow and yanked me sideways as a spear clattered beside us.
Soldiers raced down the gangway to the dock, pounding over the wood.
Zinnia and Poinsettia raced out of hiding and galloped toward us, skidding to a halt as we jumped up their stirrups and onto their backs.
Nice to see you again, Zinnia said with a neigh.
I nodded. “Good to see you too. Ride!”
“To the horses!” one of the soldiers behind us shouted.
Tied to one end of the dock were a pack of gray horses, stamping their hooves and snorting wildly. Twenty soldiers dashed to the horses, whipping out their ropes and slinging themselves onto their steeds.
Stone and mortar houses whizzed past us as Telisa and I rounded a corner. The thunder of horse hooves rose as the soldier galloped around seconds later.
“We can lose them in the streets! Follow me!” Telisa shouted back.
I nodded, leaning forward and hanging on to Zinnia's neck as Poinsettia's legs blurred. Zinnia neighed and struggled to keep up, darting down alleyways as the soldiers chased. I ducked under a low hanging wooden sign announcing shoe repairs and skidded around an abandoned flower cart in the middle of the street.
Right side! Zinnia screamed.
I spun to the right and saw a soldier pulling back her fist and swinging at me. I jerked left and the soldier lost her balance, toppling to the cobblestoned street with a clatter. Behind me a row of soldiers on horseback galloped side by side, pounding after me, frowns on their faces.
Ahead, Poinsettia and Telisa slid to a halt as another row of horses clopped around the corner, soldiers holding out spears at us.
Telisa waved a hand at me. “Use yer clasp!”
I shook my head. “It doesn't work anymore!”
“What?” Telisa slid a double bladed sword from the strap on her back. “Never mind. Talk to me later. Poinsettia!” Telisa whistled as the horse nodded. She dropped to the cobblestones and swung the sword back and forth. “Come git me!” she shouted, spreading her arms wide.
Two soldiers rushed at her as Telisa swung the blades, matching both of their weapons. Sparks shot into the air. Telisa whacked them both in the helmet, leaving a dent, and kicking one of them over as she shoved the other to the ground.
Telisa backed toward me, eyeing the horses and soldiers hemming us in on either side of the street. Zinnia whinnied. Hold tight.
Poinsettia stamped her hooves twice as more soldiers disembarked and marched toward us, more cautiously now. The horse started running in a tight circle around us, her red-starred forehead beginning to blur as her legs pumped faster and faster. Dust whisked up around us. The horse became a blur of brown and crimson light. Tendrils of ruby-colored lightning licked the stones, zipping across the street and smacking into the approaching soldiers. Their armor lit up red, sending them flying through the air and smashing through boarded up windows and doors on either side of us.
My eyes widened. This was definitely a new trick.
A few spears flew at us, but each one bounced away from the whirlwind surrounding us.
The other soldiers backed away, but Poinsettia ran faster. The lightning grew thicker, zapping through the air and sending crackles of energy snapping past us. The red light shot the soldiers in the stomach. The queen's horses bucked, toppling some of the soldiers to the ground. Poinsettia let out a loud neigh that rocked the mortar on both sides of the street. Dust trickled down to the stones, and the ground shook beneath us.
The pack of horses whirled about and galloped away, leaving their riders to race after their horses in panic until the street was empty.
Poinsettia ground to a halt, tongue to the side, and fell over promptly, panting loudly.
Telisa hurried to her side and stroked her mane. “Good work, girl. Good work.”
The horse turned its face to us and then I saw it: the spear sticking out of Poinsettia's side.
No . . . Zinnia whispered.
Telisa tightened her fingers to a fist and held it to her mouth. She placed her palm across Poinsettia's red star and let the tears drip down. The horse whinnied in pain, legs twitching slightly.
I held a hand to my mouth, feeling the bile ripple up my throat until I couldn't hold it back. I threw up onto the stones.
Poinsettia tried to lift her head one last time, but instead, she slumped to the stones, still.
Telisa cried out, clenching her fists. “Curse you! Curse you all!” Her face reddened, and then she stood, backing away with one fist held to her forehead. “You ran well, Poinsettia. Ran well indeed.” Telisa wiped a hand across her face and hurried toward Zinnia and me. She swung up behind me and didn't say another word as we galloped down the street and out of Rhinejoon for good.
* * *
Trees whirled past me, blending together in blurs of green and brown. Zinnia's pace remained steady enough that the rocking slowly lulled me towards sleep. Telisa wrapped both arms around my waist. She didn't have to say a word. I knew I could sleep.
So I let sleep wash over me.
Light flashed through my dreams. Bursts of orange, gold, green, white, racing past my line of sight and into a distant purple horizon. A line of mountains grew into the skyline, dark silhouettes with tinges of purple glowing over each frosty peak.
I stood in the middle of a large, grassy field, every blade bent in the wind and pointing away from me. My feet dragged across the dirt, leaving long gouges in the grass.
Dark laughter echoed from behind the mountains, and I turned around, planting both feet and desperately trying to march away from the growing light in the distance, purple fingers reaching over the edges of the mountain on thousands of luminescent hands, all reaching for me, clamping down on my shoulders and yanking me backward.
I fell to the dirt and flew toward the mountains, a silent scream etched across my face as rocks dug into my shoulder blades.
As I reached the base of the mountains, rough hands reached out of the grass—human hands—grabbing my shoulders and holding me steady.
My eyes opened.
The dream faded.
And I saw Telisa, a hand over my mouth, one on my shoulder, crouching over me. A row of thorny bushes sat behind her, and beside me, Zinnia had dropped to sit.
“You was hollerin' in yer sleep,” she whispered.
Zinnia nuzzled my shoulder. Soldiers. On the road. They're looking for something. Probably us.
I nodded, leaned up, and whispered back. “How close are we to the queen's castle?”
Telisa leaned her head up to look over the bushes. “Closer than we was. But not close enough.” She grabbed my clasped wrist and held it up. “And ya didn't tell me about this!” she hissed, poking a finger at the cracks lining my gem. There were more now. Zig-zagging their way across the entire surface of the jewel. One smack, and it would probably crash apart, sucking me into a purple vortex I would never return from.
I swallowed. “It's worse. I didn't think it was that bad already.”
“Well, it is bad. Mighty bad. You don't realize what happens when your gem cracks do ya?” She leaned forward and dropped my wrist into my lap. “Ya die.”
“I know!” I scrambled up to a sitting position and pushed her away. “You don't think I know?” I stood.
“What are ya doin'?” Telisa asked, brushing aside her ponytail.
“I'm taking a breather.”
“I will, all right?” I snapped. My fingers tensed and shook.
Zinnia ducked her head away and down to her forelegs with a huff.
I ducked around the side of the tree and marched a few steps down to a rock and a thin stream trickling its way through the woods. The Castos Island dust rose with each footfall, and I plopped onto the rock, dipped my fingers into the water, and splashed my face with both hands.
A strange coldness had settled onto my shoulders, dropping down my spine, and into my gut. I shivered, staring at my warbled face reflected back on the water's surface. What had happened to me? I could barely recognize my own self. Dark purplish bags hung under my eyes. My dark hair had grown out a bit and hung over the tips of both ears. I looked sick: thin, scraggly, ready for death to swallow me up with a single gulp.
The clasp on my arm felt heavy. What if I just took it off? What would happen to me? What really would?
I thought about Saltha. Vanished into purple light what seemed ages ago now. Was she really dead? Gone forever? Is that what happened when we died? The loneliness I had felt here on these islands magnified forever? Or would I stop remembering everything altogether?
I dug my fingers beneath one edge of the clasp and paused. I stared, breathing hard. I tugged at the edge of the clasp and felt a shot of pain race up into my brain.
I wavered there for a moment, my head listing forward, my fingers still dug beneath the clasp.
The voice. Out of the water? Out of the clasp? Out of my own delusion? I didn't know.
But the words were unmistakable: “Stay in the fight.”
My eyes snapped open. I wrenched my hand away from the clasp and took a long breath. The same cracks were there. The same multi-faceted reflection of my face. But a slight glimmer around the edges of the gem glowed for a moment and then faded.
Eric! We have to go!
I took a quick gulp of water from the stream and hurried back to Telisa and Zinnia. Telisa had her double bladed sword in hand, peeking above the edge of the thorn bushes. She saw me and her eyes widened. I ducked up alongside her and glanced through. Five of the queen's soldiers on horseback trotted past, thick broadswords at their sides, jangling against the metal armor covering their legs.
Four of the soldiers stopped beside the thorn bush. They scanned the surrounding woods before slapping the reins to catch up with the fifth rider ahead. We held our breath, watching the road through the thorns until we couldn't hear their hoofbeats any longer.
“What do we do?” I asked.
Telisa leaned away from the bush and lowered her sword to the ground. “We have to get to the queen's castle to get that girl.” She glanced at my clasp. “And if we don't hurry, you'll be good as dead.”
“Don't remind me,” I whispered. “If the soldiers are watching the road, how do we get there?”
Telisa closed her eyes. “Queen's guards gonna be all over the countryside by now. Along with depictions of our faces. And without Poinsettia—” her throat caught, but she shook her head and continued. “Without Poinsettia, we can't speed our way there.”
The Old Roads.
I glanced at Zinnia. “The what?”
“What's she sayin'?” Telisa asked.
The Old Roads. Telisa will know of them. Not safe. But our best chance of making it to the castle undetected.
“Zinnia says we should try the Old Roads.”
Telisa's eyes widened. She scowled at the horse. “You plum crazy? We'd do better to take our chances with the queen's guards than take the Old Roads! We'll be dead within a night!”
“I don't think we have much time either way,” I said. Another slight crack traced over the gem on my forearm. “I'm dead if we stay here much longer. What are these Old Roads?”
Telisa sighed. “The Old Roads was carved out by pitters a long time ago. Under the ground. And they is dangerouser than dangerous. Every wicked evil thing lives down in those tunnels.”
But some say there is a path to the castle dungeons. It's worth a try.
I stood up. “Okay. This is my job.” I glanced back at the stream down the hill. “And I say we keep trying. Until we're dead.”
Telisa shook her head. “This is crazy.”
“How do we find these Old Roads?” I asked.
“We just have to find ourselves a pitter. And seein' as we're near the holin' grounds, that shouldn't be hard. We drop in, find the roads and carry on our merry way to certain death. That's all.”
I swallowed. “Let's go then.”
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.