The bright autumn sun shone like a polished sphere of gold over the waving fields of wheat and corn approaching their time for harvest. A brisk breeze blew through the golden stems, making them dance and ripple like and endless and strangely coloured ocean.

Linnie held her head back to let the breeze ripple through her long black hair, too. Her eyes seemed to reflect the endless blue of the sky and her bronzed limbs seemed almost to be the same colour as the crops. She almost seemed to be a part of the summer itself. In any season she seemed to blend into her surroundings; pale as the snow in winter, brown as the autumn leaves at harvest, and her eyes seemed to change; resembling a sun- kissed sky or an icy pool depending on the weather.

She was always happiest when surrounded by nature and escaped the confines of the village where she lived as often as she could, going to the farmland or forest ... anywhere to get away from the dark, grim, streets and bleak, soot-blackened stone walls. If only escaping from Mentonia, the bleakest and most oppressed country on the face of planet Merranda, was as easy.

Linnie dropped her head and began to walk, trailing one hand through the corn stems, walking against the wind so that it held her hair out of her way and cooled the smooth skin of her face. She had thought of escape, many times, but even though she was certain she could slip past the guards, she had no idea of where she could go, and she couldn't convince her family to go with her, or abandon them. And yet, she couldn't go on living like this. She couldn't go on in the slave-like existence the poor half of the kingdom suffered. She couldn't go on watching friends and family starve because the majority of the harvest was going to the cruel king and his nobles. She couldn't go on living in the poorly maintained, vermin infested villages placed as far away from the castle and the residences of more important people as was possible.

"What am I going to do?" she whispered to the greenfinch sitting on her shoulder, "I'll die if I have to put up with this for much longer!" The tiny bird chirped in an almost reassuring way and pecked a few pieces of grain out of her outstretched hand. It was a wild bird, but Linnie had always had an natural affinity with all animals, and they seemed to trust her, seemed to know that she would never hurt them and that she trusted them too.

"If only I could fly away like you," she sighed, "Away from the despair ... no turning back." Again the bird chirped and ruffled its feathers, and then it took off, disappearing into a distant belt of trees bordering the field.

Linnie sighed. One way or another she wouldn't be in Mentonia for much longer; if she didn't escape she would die of despair, of that she was certain. Heart sinking, reluctant to leave the beautiful morning behind, she turned and headed back to the dilapidated cottage that somehow she had never been able to call home.

Linnie reached the cottage and forced her shoulders hard against the door, straining against the rusty hinges. The hinges protested loudly, but Linnie was able to open the door enough to squeeze into the small, cramped kitchen.

A woman looked up as she entered, her face pinched and pale. Her dark hair hung limply over the faded, threadbare shoulders of her gown, which was tight against her too-thin frame. Her eyes, dark as an acorn, seemed to have lost all their light. But when she saw Linnie she smiled.

"Hello, sweetheart."

"Hello, mother," Linnie crossed the kitchen to where the woman was draped in a chair by the fire and kissed her, "How are you feeling today?"

"Tired," her mother replied, "Oh Linnie - why can't you face it? Your father's not coming back from the war and I'm not going to last much longer ... why don't you get yourself out?"

Linnie's throat constricted. She hadn't wanted to believe it when they'd got the message from the army, telling them that her father had gone missing in action, presumed dead. She'd convinced herself that they'd made a mistake, that any day now he'd come striding down the street, grinning and whistling.

That had been two months ago. The war was over. He hadn't been among the survivors.

And as for her mother ... some part of Linnie knew that she was looking down at a dying woman, but she refused to accept the possibility that her mother would be taken from her.

"Don't talk such nonsense!" she said lightly, "You're only thirty-five .. you're going to live on for years yet!"

Her mother managed a weak smile, then subsided into a fit of coughing. Linnie bent over her, slapping her on the back as the coughs tore at her mother's throat and turned her face red with exertion. The handkerchief clutched in her bony hand was spotted with blood. Linnie bit her lip, unwilling to accept this evidence of the sickness of the lungs that had taken so many lives in the village already.

"Linnie," her mother took her hand and squeezed it gently, "You're sixteen years old now ... old enough to look after yourself. Please, don't hang around for me. You have your whole life ahead of you, don't waste it by remaining here."

"What place do I have other than here with you?" Linnie's voice was choked with emotion, "You're my mother!"

Her mother sighed, "Sit down dear ... there's something I must tell you." Linnie looked confused, but sat herself on the floor in front of her mother's chair.

"Sixteen years ago," her mother said, "There was a huge rebellion in this village. It was utter chaos; fights broke out between villagers and the king's men, people died, fires raged ... everywhere you looked there was carnage and, I must admit, I fought as viciously as anyone. I claimed my fair share of lives," she sighed, "I was fighting on the far side of the village, just where the street ends and the farmland begins. I had just downed my opponent when I heard something I had not expected to hear on a battleground."

"What?" Linnie asked. Her mother reached out and grasped her hand, putting her face very close to that of her daughter.

"I heard," she said, "A baby crying. I immediately started to search, threading my way through the crops, following my ears until I found you."

Linnie gasped; not sure she believed her ears.

"You couldn't have been very old then, probably no more than a few weeks following your birth. There was a man lying beside you, holding you tightly in his arms ... he was badly hurt. Once all the commotion had died down I enlisted the help of two of the villagers and brought you both back here..."

"What ... what are you saying?" Linnie stuttered, "That we're not related? That all these years have been a lie?"

"Linnie, please ... you have always been like a daughter to me and your father ... and I promised I would look after you."

"What happened to him?"

"Your real father?" she sighed, "He was terribly wounded ... he didn't survive the night. He had enough strength and sense left in him, however, to tell me your name ... Bolindia. He explained to me that your mother was gone ... I presumed he meant she had died giving birth . and that he'd been trying to get you away from the fighting when the archer shot him. He knew his time was short, Linnie; he begged me to watch over you. Then he asked to hold you, then he passed away whilst you were in his arms."

Linnie felt the tears stinging the backs of her eyes. Her whole world was crashing down around her. How could this be happening? Had her entire life been a lie, a pretence?

"Linnie ... sweetheart..." her mother said uncertainly after a lengthy and uncomfortable silence, "...please say something..."

Linnie shook her head. What could she possibly say? There was nothing about the way she had been brought up that she could fault ... except living in Mentonia, which couldn't be helped. It would have sounded terribly ungrateful if she'd lost her temper and blamed her mother - the only mother she had ever known - because she was adopted.

Her mother leaned forward and laid a comforting hand on Linnie's shoulder as tears began to roll down her cheeks.

"My linnet," the older woman sang softly, "Born of the spring, voice as clear as the mountain brook and the morning dew..."

It was a song that Linnie's father - her adoptive father - had always sung to her when she was very young. The next verse came to her mind ... a cold reminder of all that was lost to her: "Remember me when you fly from winter's chill, when you take your flock and start life anew. When the shadows fall and old lives pass into darkness..."

She burst into fresh tears and her mother pulled her into a crushing embrace.

"Linnie," she said gently, stroking the satin hair of the head that was bent before her, "There is nothing here for you. Your father wrote that song for you because he wanted you to fly free."

"You can't fly free without the wings of freedom," Linnie said bitterly, "And this land is like a chain ... a manacle around my heart."

"Then break free. Break free before that cold steel drains the warmth and the beat of life from you!" "I'll not leave you!" Linnie cried, "Not when you're ill like ... like..."

"Like all the others who have died from this disease," her mother finished for her, "Linnie, you know as well as I do that there is nothing more you can do. I had the priestess come around this morning while you were out..."

"No!" This harbinger of impending doom sent Linnie's heart racing.

"I'm dying!" her mother voiced what Linnie was refusing to accept. "And soon! I don't want you to be here when that happens!"

"Mother..."

"Listen," she grabbed Linnie's chin and tilted it up, so that her dark eyes met the blue-green jewels that where her daughter's, "You're in danger and you need to escape while you can..."

Her words were suddenly cut short by a violent coughing fit. She bent over almost double, her body convulsing with the force of each racking cough.

"Mother!" Linnie slapped her on the back, feeling the outlines of her mother's spine as she did so. Cough after cough assaulted the older woman, bringing up bright, crimson drops to stain her blue lips and paling face.

"No!" Linnie moaned, "No, not now ... not now, please!" she knew not if she was calling out to her mother or to the gods themselves ... either way her words seemed to make no difference. Her mother slumped onto her, her weight bearing her daughter to the ground.

Her heart hammering, Linnie laid her mother gently on the bare earth floor and leaned over her, pressing her ear to the older woman's face and gazing through teary eyes at her chest - watching and listening for any sign of breathing.

Silence. Still.

"No!" Linnie wailed, "No ... no, please!" she threw herself over her mother's body and wept. For how long she stayed there she didn't know, but eventually she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and looked up to see three of the women from the village, no doubt summoned by her pitiful wailing. Numb with shock and grief, she made no resistance when one of them drew her away and the other two lifted her mother's corpse and bore it to her room, where they would lay it out on the bed.

Before long she was sitting in the chair by the fire, having a steaming cup pressed into her shaking hands. Melka, the village priestess, paused beside her for a while, murmuring condolences and reassurances that Linnie barely heard, before going to pray over the body.

Linnie felt fresh, burning hot tears sting her eyes when she heard Melka's otherworldly voice, intoning prayers and enchantments, drifting in the candle-scented air around the cottage. It seemed so final ... as if those last rites sealed her mother's fate, as if the priestess's words made certain that there was no way Linnie's mother could back, or if she was really sleeping.

"Linnie..." someone said gently. Linnie looked up, into the eyes of Keyana .. .her oldest friend. Keyana's blue eyes, the same shade as Linnie's, were full of sympathy. "I'm sorry..."

Linnie sobbed and wrapped her arms around her friend, burying her face in the taller girl's shoulder. Keyana returned the embrace, rocking Linnie gently and muttering soothing noises as she stroked her hair.

"It was the lung sickness, Keyana ... how could I be so stupid? I should have gone to get help when she first became ill."

"Darna never wanted help ... Melka told me. You couldn't have forced her to see a healer if she knew she couldn't afford it. Besides, there is little that can be done for the condition."

"In many ways, it is better for her now," Melka had re-emerged from the bedroom and joined the two young women beside the fire, "She is not in pain, and Mauna is a wonderful place ... much better than Mentonia." Linnie closed her eyes, knowing, but unable to admit, that this was true. Her mother had hated this country ... just as everyone did.

"I know she wanted you to leave," Melka continued, "And you should ... there's something about you, Linnie, something special ... but whatever your destiny is, you won't find it here."

Linnie shook her head, "If my mother is to be buried here, I can't leave her grave."

"What lies in that room is Darna's body, only. Her spirit is already in the otherworld and you will be able to reach her, wherever you may go. Besides, Darna had a wish to be cremated ... you could always take her ashes with you."

"Scatter her ashes somewhere new, Linnie," Keyana said, "Somewhere where her spirit can be free." Linnie looked down at her hands and, slowly, nodded. She had a sudden urge to break free, to run as far and as fast as she could.

"I'll take mother with me," she vowed to herself, "And set loose her ashes where the elements can embrace them ... I will find freedom, even if it is too late for her."

She turned to Keyana; "Will you come with me?"

"Of course," her friend replied, "There is nothing left here for me, either."

"You should take as many people as will go with you," Melka replied, "And I think you'll find that most people will ... there are mainly young people in the village." A look of pain crossed the priestess's face as she thought of all the people who had been carried off by the lung sickness ... the very old and very young had succumbed to the disease, leaving only the older children and young adults. "But be careful who you tell ... you don't want Mentos's army swooping down on you."

Linnie felt a sudden thrill of fear and trepidation, but when she looked back towards her mother's room it strengthened her resolve.

"I'll leave," she said, struggling to speak past the lump that constricted her throat, "As soon after my mother's funeral as possible."

*

Linnie kept glancing nervously at the door as she packed up all the possessions she wanted to take with her. The floor of the cottage was littered with various items of clothing, ornaments, trinkets, the few things that had belonged to her mother. Linnie felt her heart wrench when she realised that she had to decide what to leave behind ... it was obvious that she was going on a long journey, and she didn't want to burden herself unnecessarily. She held one carefully wrapped package - the urn containing her mother's ashes - to her for a moment , then gently laid it with the other packages that she was going to take with her.

She stood up and brushed the dust off her clothes . plain brown trousers, a white shirt and a plain, un-dyed wool cloak - she had thought they would be most practical and inconspicuous for the dangerous journey out of Mentonia. She laid her hand on her new sword - forged for her by the local smith, one of the few mature people left in the village, in exchange for taking him and his family with her.

Everyone had been really helpful when she had told them what she planned to do - almost everyone wanted to go and all had offered something to her in exchange for the freedom she offered. The carpenters had been kept busy constructing wagons for the emigrants to travel in; farmers and breeders donated horses and cattle to carry loads and pull the wagons, as well as food; the baker had also contributed a profusion of food; the weapon smith had produced crossbows, long bows and spears - both for protection and hunting when travelling.

Linnie could hardly believe that it had only been a month since her mother's funeral ... it had seemed to go so fast with all the activity in the village. Things had already changed dramatically ... everyone seemed more cheerful as they prepared to leave. Linnie had even caught Keyana singing as she worked at her loom, producing wagon covers and material to make travelling garments for everyone. The tanner, usually straight-faced and serious, grinned broadly at Linnie every time she passed his workshop and, much to her surprise, had presented her with a beautiful sheath for her new sword. The whole village had taken on the air of a public holiday ... everywhere she looked there were smiling, happy faces and the village was full of laughter for the first time in years.

It was a good job the guards and the army rarely ventured this far out from the centre of the kingdom, Linnie thought grimly as she carried another armful of packages outside and carefully stacked them against the wall of her wagon - one of Fraden's finest, she noticed. What would the officials think if they saw Quartz Village now, with a wagon and pack animals outside every door?

She grinned and waved to Melka, who was loading up a packhorse with the various instruments of a priestess. Linnie had been afraid that Melka would remain behind, but when it was apparent that a few people were staying and that one of them was an elderly priestess more than capable of caring for the few who didn't wish to travel, she had decided to come.

"Morning Linnie!" Fraden called, a smile transforming his face and causing his grey eyes to twinkle, "Nice day for travelling!"

His voice was loud and clear enough to carry up and down the village and over the babble of exited voices. The comment was enough to draw peals of laughter and applause from everyone and Linnie's smile broadened ... the happy atmosphere was infectious.

"That it is," she agreed, "Let's hope it sticks around for a while."

"Linnie!" a young girl ran up to Linnie, panting for breath, "Tobias wants to know if you want the sheep brought along or if he should set the flock loose?"

"Set it loose," Linnie replied, "A flock of sheep will hold us up..." but then, she thought, they might decide to form their own settlement and they would most likely need the sheep and their wool to make clothing. She paused, pondering the dilemma. Then Fraden spoke up.

"Linnie," the young carpenter said, "I made a few special wagons for livestock, if you'd like to take a look.

Linnie nodded and followed him into his workshop. She couldn't contain a gasp of surprise. The thee wagons were similar to the ones made for the humans, except that the sides where higher and carved in such a way that they made a bared cage. That back walls of these wheeled cages were fixed on hinges and bound to the side walls in such a way that, if the bindings were loosened, the back wall would drop to form a ramp on which the livestock could be lead up or down.

"Fraden ... they're wonderful!"

"I thought we might need to transport sheep," Fraden said, obviously delighted by her response.

"Cattle are too heavy, I'm afraid . but they're easier to lead." "The cattle are being used to pull wagons anyway," Linnie said, "But these are marvellous! You should get beasts and take these to Tobias straight away ... before he sets the flock loose."

Fraden bowed and winked, then ran off in search of one of the breeders. Linnie went back outside and continued to pack her possessions. Then someone began to sing:

"Don't care about the past; I'm leaving it behind."

Linnie glanced at Keyana recognising her friend's clear, sweet voice. Keyana grinned back, even as someone else picked up where she had left off:

"Don't care about hunger; I'm feeding my desire to survive," sang out Fraden, reappearing with three horses following behind him. Keyana continued to hum in the background, supporting his singing.

"Don't care about war; I'm fighting for peace," Melka sang, her priestess- trained voice vibrating through the warm air. Keyana and Fraden continued to hum, alternating between different chords, creating background music just with their voices.

"Don't care about the night; I know the day will come,"

"Don't care about the winter; I know spring will come to call."

Voices were ringing out all around. Those who had already sung continued the supportive background chorus whilst others took their turn at a verse.

"Don't care about Mentonia; my own land is calling," Linnie sang out, bringing a burst of laughter and applause from the others before the rhythm and the atmosphere of the song were resumed and maintained. Then Tobias, appearing with his dogs and his sheep, surprised Linnie...

"Don't care about Mentos; we've got our Linnie!"

There was more laughter and applause and Linnie felt her face redden ... since she had expressed her wish to leave, she had been informally elected as a kind of leader by the others in the village. She didn't know it, but she had risen to the challenge spectacularly; assuring that every family had a wagon and a share of the supplies, that those who needed it had help to pack up; that those who were remaining were left with enough resources to supply them or enough money to travel to the homes of relatives in other villages if they so wished. Despite her young age, Linnie was becoming a very effective and efficient leader ... and she was well liked among her followers.

"Don't care about what lies ahead; we'll see it through together," she sang out, grinning broadly, even though she was still blushing.

"Don't care about the future; we'll be together forever," Keyana responded. Then everyone started to sing the verses over again, then again, getting faster and faster each time. The result was a fast paced, lively song that boosted everyone's spirits and brought smiles to everyone's faces. Finally the words died to a final chord sung by Keyana and everyone laughed and applauded.

They'd continued to work as they sang, and Linnie was surprised to see that the packing was done and that the morning had quickly disappeared.

"We're ready to leave!" she exclaimed, bringing cheers and applause from the villagers. The expectation was mounting; Linnie could sense everyone's impatience to leave. She grinned, closed the door to her grimy cottage, feeling only a slight pang of remorse.

She turned to the few who had decided to stay behind.

"Are you sure you won't come with us?"

"I'm old," said the priestess that had volunteered to remain, "I'd only hold you up. Besides, I'm showing early signs of the sickness and it may be that the gods will call me back to them before much longer."

"We still have family in this kingdom," said a younger couple, "And they cannot travel ... we will go to them."

"What if the army comes this way?" Linnie asked.

"Oh," the priestess's glittered with mischief, "I do hope they do ... I want to see their faces when they see that only an elderly priestess remains here - for surely the others will be gone to their families before much longer!" She chuckled, "Not to worry . if they ask me which way you went, I'll send them in the opposite direction!"

"Gods bless you, Kayla," Melka took the older priestess's hands and kissed them.

"Gods bless you, child," Kayla replied, grinning. "I always knew there was something special about this generation," she added, looking at all the young faces, "Ever since Darna brought Linnie into the village, I knew." She turned to smile at Linnie, "You're a born leader, child ... lead them wisely, lead them safe."

"I will," Linnie bowed to Kayla respectfully, "Live safe."

Then she climbed up onto the front of her wagon, picked up the reigns, readjusting her seat - dramatising it slightly to draw laughter from the crowd - then, much to everyone's relief, she said:

"Let's go!"

There were shouts of assent, laughter and applause from the others, who all scrambled for their wagons or horses. Linnie glanced up and down the street, at the abandoned homes with their bleak, empty windows and thought that the village looked even less like home than it ever had. It seemed almost unwelcoming and unfamiliar - almost as if it wanted them to leave.

"Goodbye Mentonia!" she called loudly, wanting to hear the others laugh to lift her own misgivings ... not realising that she was also lifting those of everyone else.

"Safe journey!" Kayla called, waving. The young couple and the few others remaining smiled and waved too, their eyes glistening as they watched old friends departing.

Linnie swallowed hard when she realised that she would probably never see them again, then she snapped the reins and the two horses harnessed to her wagon set off at a brisk trot out of the village. She corrected their direction and glanced back at the others. Keyana grinned at her, then drew breath and sang out a single, clear chord.

"Don't care about the past; I'm leaving it behind." Someone sang out in response. Linnie grinned, sang out the next verse, then joined her voice with Keyana's as she changed the chord. Some of the younger children - those who had survived the lung sickness, started a rhythmic clapping to support the singers.

The joyful, optimistic song of the travellers was caught by the wind and whirled around them as the caravan of wagons made its way towards the marshes that would lead them past the other villages on as inconspicuous a route as was possible. Without realising it, Linnie had planned the journey so that they would bypass other settlements - and therefore avoid excess trouble - and had settled into the role of leader. The others followed her without question, trusting in her ability to lead them out of Mentonia, over the border and into the unknown land beyond - into freedom.