Fog lingered over the passway like the stank breath that wouldn't brush out of a mouth. Moss grew over most of this passway, and somewhere down below I could hear the water lapping up against the stone sides.
I marched near the front of the group. The Runner with the missing sleeve marchec out at the very front, whip in hand, feet stepping gingerly over the stones beneath us. He slid along almost sideways, ready to pounce back at us recruits, or leap ahead at unseen enemies in the fog.
Before we stepped onto the bridge, Gratta had shown us how to use the clasps on our arms as a light. If we rubbed the gems fast enough, they would glow for at least a couple hundred steps before we had to rub it again. I glanced at my gem. It was a milky color, still quite opaque, and shining slightly. I rubbed my fist across it a bit more, and the light brightened.
“Best not to let that get too bright there.”
I glanced up to see Gratta leaning over the side of her horse; silver hair tucked behind her ears. She had a silver earring clamped around the whole top half of her earlobe. Her fingernail scratched at the skin around the metal.
I held my hand over the gem. “Sorry.”
“Nah, no need to be sorry just yet. Ya don't know better, that's why I'm tellin' ya.” Gratta sat up and swayed slightly. The horse's hooves clopped over the bridge. I couldn't help wondering why it was so important not to be seen if anyone could hear us coming from a mile away. Gratta clucked her tongue. “Disappoint me, though . . . . Oh, then you'll be real sorry.”
Gratta pulled back on the horse's reins, circled, and clopped to the back of the group.
Lodan scurried up, falling in step with me.
“What do you want?” I asked, glancing away.
“Look, Eric. I'm sorry, but . . . I've heard things.”
“Oh really?” I hissed. “Like what? Like how to be a terrible friend to people? How to let other people die? That sounds great to me.”
“No.” Lodan took a deep breath and peeked back at Gratta and the two surviving Runners at the very back of the group. “Things like if you touch someone when they're . . . .” He swallowed. “You know. Like what happened with Saltha. Earlier. If you touch them, then you get pulled into the light too.”
I sniffed. Not because I was crying, but because my nose was cold. Okay, maybe I had been holding back some tears, but I wasn't about to cry in front of these people. They didn't seem to appreciate weakness.
Maybe Lodan was telling the truth. Maybe he was right.
I turned to face him. “How do you know?”
Lodan leaned forward. “My parents knew a bookkeeper once. He came to their cottage one night before we worked for Boss Mandel in the rice fields. This bookkeeper told my parents about these gems. Drunk as rice roots, he was. And I listened.”
“What else did you find out?”
“Not much. Bits. I was young. Maybe five or six. All I know is the colors on the gems. They mean things. And once you've got one of these,” he held up his forearm. His gem was the same milky white as mine. “Once you got one, you're bound. Can't leave your bookkeeper. Until you finish enough jobs for 'em.”
The sleeveless Runner stopped. He spun around as I bumped right into his whip. “Will you two clam it up? You're gonna learn all kinds of things about these clasps, the gems, the jobs, the bookkeepers. But right now, we might run afoul of other things. So stay silent.”
“I thought this was a passway. Aren't they clear?” Lodan asked.
The Runner snorted and shook his head. “Stupid recruit. You're always stupid. Suppose even I was stupid once. Then you learn things. Like how passways aren't always safe. So shut it.” He spun back around and marched ahead, the orange light from his gem lighting up the fog.
We marched on. The other recruits behind us went between whimpering, shivering, straight-out crying, and plodding ahead in numb silence. Gratta hurried alongside the passway railing, glancing back, ahead, to the side, as if waiting for something. She tipped up her hat and peered into the gloom, almost daring something to fly at us, to try and surprise her.
My feet ached. It felt like my arches were cramping up, and if I took even five more steps, I'd fall over face first onto the stone passway.
The sleeveless Runner held up a fist. The fog ahead cleared, and a soft breeze wafted against my cheek. I shivered.
A stone arch hung over the pass with two turrets on either side. Windows with actual glass panes faced us, and candlelight lit up the right side. There was a wooden door at the bottom, open slightly. The door pushed open with a creak, and a man in a dark tunic and brown breeches sauntered out. A two-barreled pistol hung loosely from his left hand. He had dark stringy hair, a grizzled face, and a scarred eyesocket.
“Well, now.” He slapped a hand against the stone archway. “Look what trolled up here.”
Gratta's horse pushed through the crowd of recruits until she stood at the front of the pack. She slipped off the back of the horse. The back sides of her brown boots had spurs that jangled once as she landed. She held the rifle and her nose, spitting to the side. “We have a right fine bunch 'o business. That's what we have. And none of it is yers, so slip aside, Bonaventure.”
The man smiled and spread his arms wide. “I was just pokin' me nose about, pretty lady. That's all. I didn't mean to get ye caught up unawares. The turrets were long abandoned when I got 'ere, I'll tell ye that much. Somethin' foul's on the seas. And it doesn't take prisoners if ye catch my meanin'.”
Gratta narrowed her eyes. “Move along. And we'll be movin' right along as well.”
“Ah,” Bonaventure snapped his fingers. Five men clambered over the side of the passway with pistols slung at their waists. Four more crept up the other side, and one leaned out the darkened window above, a gold flintlock pistol aimed at Gratta's head.
I stepped back.
“Pirates,” Lodan whispered.
Sleeveless shot us a look and held a finger to his lips.
Gratta patted the horse beside her. “What do ya want?”
Bonaventure raised his eyebrows and smirked. “I want . . . ” he held up two fingers. “Two of yer recruits. I need some Runners in the employ. So who's it gonna be?” He clapped his hands together and stepped forward. His gaze ran over each one of us like we were fresh fruit at the market.
Gratta held up her arm. “None o' these. They're too fresh. Haven't had time to write their names in the books or nuttin'. You go and take on of these, and they'll die in a blast o’ purple faster than you can spit.”
“That's a mighty fine problem. That it is . . . ” Bonaventure tapped his forehead, tracing a finger down the side of his face, through his scarred eyesocket and ending at his chin. “What should we do about that?”
“I got a solution,” Gratta said. “Back off. And back away.”
Bonaventure wagged a finger in Gratta's face. “Ah, but that's not the way business is done, dear Gratta. Ye can't be waltzin' yer way through my seas without a penalty o' sorts. Words tellin' of stirrin's. There's things happenin' out in ole Abra, and I reckon I should have myself a pinch of insurance before it all blinks out like a snuffed lamp.”
He slipped around Gratta and stood beside her horse.
“Ya got no need o' horses out on the seas, and ya know it,” Gratta muttered.
Bonaventure flipped open a pouch on the side of the horse and pulled out a clasp. Saltha's clasp. “This'll do!”
“Drop that!” I shouted. “It's not yours!”
Gratta spun. Sleeveless stepped over and backhanded me across the face. “Not another word!”
I stumbled back with a cry of pain, clutching my cheek.
Bonaventure smirked and dangled the clasp. “This mean somethin' to ye, now?”
I clenched my teeth. My cheek quivered. I wanted to grab that clasp back, shove this scum off the side of the passway, and watch him panic in the water below.
“Ah. So it does.” He tapped a finger on the gem, tracing its cracks carefully. “These are rare finds in Abra. Used clasps. Belonged to a recruit. Who didn't know when to stay put.” Bonaventure stepped up to me. Lodan, Gratta, and Sleeveless all lurched back. I eyed the pistols trained on us, then glanced up at Bonaventure.
He held the clasp in front of me. “Friend o' yours?”
I nodded, one hand still on my stinging cheek.
“Tell me, boy. Do ye know what happens to them when they sees the purple light?”
I shook my head. “I don't. But I do know you should give that back.” My cheek still stung. But I didn't care. That clasp was all that was left of Saltha. It just seemed wrong in this man's hands. Wrong.
“When they sees the purple light, it's 'cause they be thinkin' of runnin'. They wants to run. And not in the direction of any job, mind ye. They's thinkin' of headin' out. Gettin' away from their bookkeeper. Always dangerous to run from a bookkeeper.” He smiled, baring his yellowed teeth and one silver one. “When the gem cracks, so does their very soul. Breaks 'em apart at the deepest o' levels, it does. And once they's broken, there's no bringin' 'em back to the land o' the living.” He tapped me on the head with the clasp. “So yer little friend is dead. Just like you’ll be. Got that?”
I nodded, a single tear slipping down my cheek. Saltha wasn’t just gone. She was erased. Never coming back. My stomach twisted with an ache, and for the first time that day, I realized just how hollow it really was.
“Ah, the poor wee lad's gone and cried over a broken clasp.” And then he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “And perhaps a broken heart.” He grabbed my shoulder and yanked me closer. The smell of rotting fruit drifted up from his tunic. “Beware the Queen, laddie. I reckon she take a bad sort of likin' to ye. Long live the rebellion.”
Then he whisked backward, pistol waving in the air. He fired once, and the blast rang in my ears. I slammed my fists over both sides of my head and blinked twice.
“Back to the ship, lads! We got ourselves a prize!” He held the clasp up and fired again, laughing and running straight for the side of the passway. He leaped over along with the other nine pirates, who slipped over the side and out of sight. I almost expected to hear splashes, but instead, I saw the fog part around a large white sail fluttering in the breeze. The pirates clung to the side of the sail, slipping to the deck of a wooden ship.
The last pirate wound his way down from the turret above, raced across the passway, and leaped to the sail, sliding to the deck and saluting us back on the passway.
The ship drifted away from the passway. It looked to be about the length of three cottages with a fairly bare deck, save the two harpoon guns lodged on either side, and two women with their ratty hair pulled back into braids. Bonaventure marched up to the ship's wheel and spun it. The ship drifted to the side, turning away from the passway into the fog.
Sleeveless smacked his whip on the stones. “I hate that kinda scum.”
Gratta shook her head. “They only took a broken clasp, not too much to worry about. Save the Queen might take my hide for losin' it.” She put both hands on her hips then pivoted on her heel, glaring at me. “You. Here.”
Lodan nudged me in the back. I stumbled forward, standing up straight once I stood in front of Gratta. She slapped me on the cheek and held a finger up in my face. “Don't ever try negotiatin' when I'm doin' the negotiatin'. I see promise in you, so don't go changin' my mind by doin' stupid things! Git it?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
Gratta winked. “Good.” She climbed onto her horse and held up her rifle. “Double-time, recruits! I wanna make it to Castos before sunrise! And the sun is a-comin'! So hoof-it!” She pulled her horse around and kicked its sides, sending the brute into a gallop.
Sleeveless cracked the whip again. “You heard her! Let's move! No one passes me, and no one falls behind Harith and Rudo back there! Come on!” He took off jogging at a steady pace, and we all followed suit. My legs were killing me, but I didn’t dare slow down, Runner Harith and his companion Rudo glad to use their bokens on anyone lagging behind.
We ran for what felt like hours until I saw the outline of an island ahead. The end of the passway. Finally. No more running across open seas. No more wondering if those pirates would come back for the rest of us. I couldn't help wondering what Boneventure had meant whispering to me like that. I almost wanted to tell Lodan or even Gratta, but for some reason, it felt secret. Too secret to share. I didn't know anything about any rebellion, but I did know about the Queen.
What we had been told was she ruled over the five islands of Abra and let folks go about their business as long as it didn’t conflict with hers. Some said she was a bit too harsh when she punished thieves and other criminals, but why wouldn't she? If someone had stolen a day’s ration of food from a neighbor, I supposed they should be thrown in stocks for a day. Made sense to me. Her castle was on this island. Castos, the largest island in Abra. Home to most of the bookkeepers as well.
I had never seen it until now. In the pre-dawn light, I could see tall, dry pine trees stretching out of dusty ground, rising up the rocky hills and blocking the rest of the island from view. The coastline didn't look like Jedros. No pebbles here. Just ruddy clay stretching away into haze.
Another archway stretched across the end, two more turrets on either side. Two female soldiers in silver armor with long spears in hand stood under the stone arch. Pistols hung from their belts. They crossed their spears, and each held up a hand.
Gratta's horse stamped the stones. “We're just passin' through to my stables.”
“We know.” One of the soldiers stepped up to Gratta and pointed at the rest of us. “Queen's orders. Every recruit is to be inspected before entry to Castos.”
“That's new. Ain’t gonna be an inspection o’ any kind ‘til I see this official order o’ the Queen’s,” Gratta spat.
A third guardswoman stepped from the wooden door at the base of the turret. She held a rolled up parchment. She handed it over to Gratta, who unrolled it with a flick. The old woman's eyes scanned the page. She shook her head and sighed. “Fine, fine. Make it quick! I'm on a schedule!”
Sleeveless snapped the whip. “Line up!”
We hurried into a jagged line. He snapped the whip again. We straightened it out. The soldier made her way down the line, picking up everyone's chin, poring over every clasp, and passing on to the next.
Lodan turned and whispered to me, “What are they looking for?”
I shrugged. I had no idea.
The guardswoman grabbed my chin with a gloved hand. She craned my head back and stared me in the eyes, squinting. What were they searching for? The woman hovered a little longer then dropped my chin before grabbing my forearm and gazing into the gem clasped there. She rubbed two fingers across the gem. Nothing happened. The stone stayed a milky white color. Just as opaque as before.
She dropped my arm and then hurried down the rest of the line. I let out a breath I didn't know I'd held. “Not here!” she called from the back end by Rudo and Harith.
The other two guards up front stepped to the side. “Welcome to Castos,” they said as we passed by, still in a single-file line. My feet met the clay, and I hoped we wouldn't have much farther to travel. Gratta led us to a path winding through the pine trees and head-sized rocks. The sun had risen over a distant hillside by the time we saw a set of buildings sprawled out over a compound ringed by a tall spiked wood fence below us. The buildings stood thirty feet below, nestled between us and the hills all around.
Sleeveless pointed out two medium-sized structures. “Dormitories. Girls’ on the left. Boys’ on the right. The two bigger ones between them are the Commons and the Casket. And then that little log cabin on the far side is Gratta’s house. Don’t touch it.”
We marched into the compound through two gates made of wooden posts slung together with chains and pulled back by two groups of four Runners, sweating and groaning with the effort. Sleeveless shoved me. “Pray you don't get put on gate duty.”
“Alright!” Gratta shouted as the gate closed back up behind us. She stood on her horse, trotting back and forth in front of us. “You're here at Gratta's stables now. There ain't gonna be no fightin' each other unless it's organized fightin' by my head runners. All y'all are gonna do what I say when I say it, or you'll be on gate duty. Or worse. You got some trainin' to do before I send you out! So move! I'll give y’all a few hours to rest. Trainin' starts today! Now git!”
Harith and Rudo ushered us in the direction of the dormitories, two-storied buildings with bars over every window. The building itself looked made of wooden logs, stacked on top of each other. I stepped toward the dorms, but a hand clamped down on my shoulder.
I spun around and saw Gratta's face leaning into mine as the other recruits hustled into the buildings.
Gratta held up a hand. “Tell me what that pirate said to ya, or I'm gonna knock ya cross-eyed!”
“He . . . ” I swallowed, closed my eyes, and tried to force my brain to bring the words back together. It had been such a long day. I was more worn down than I had realized. “He said something about staying away from the Queen. He also said, 'long live the rebellion,' ma'am.”
Gratta slapped me. “Don't ever say those words. Ever. You hear me? I don't want a swarm o' the Queen's guards descendin' on this place. Git it?”
I nodded. “Got it, ma'am.”
She straightened up and smiled. “You just forget you ever heard nuttin'.” She patted me on the back and shoved me toward the dorms.
“What were those guards looking for?”
Gratta tipped up the edge of her hat. The morning sun lit her eyes like fire. “They was lookin' for someone. Someone they ain't gonna ever find. Now git!”
I turned. And I got. All the way up to the dorm. I found a rough sleeping mat across from Lodan and a hundred other boys. I turned toward the wood walls, pulled the scratchy gray blanket over my head and cried.
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.