Hey everyone, this is the first story I've posted here. I hope you like it!
She felt detached as she stood alone on the beach, watching the majestic, green sailed ships drift slowly around the curve of the horizon, silhouetted against the fire-streaked sunset. It was as though she was watching another person's worst nightmare materialize before her eyes. But the horror that those ships bore was entirely her own.
The village had started to gather around her. Their eyes were fixed on the ships, each expressing varying degrees of horror or incomprehension. Nobody spoke. The cool breeze gently lifted their hair off their shoulders and fluttered their simple clothes. Kaira had never before heard such loud silence.
"How long have they been there?"
A gentle voice, no louder than the wind, spoke behind Kaira. She tore her gaze away from the ships.
"No more than a minute."
Sam Thatcher nodded. His grey eyes were hard and calculating.
"Do you know what this means, Kaira?"
She shook her head. She wanted desperately to hear comforting words---maybe that things were not as bad as they seemed---or to be told some sage wisdom that would allow her to forget that the ships were there, or that they had been there nine years before. But that was not the way the Coalition operated.
"It means we have to be prepared to fight. Come along."
In the middle of the night, the village looked gloomy and ramshackle. Log cabins balanced precariously against each other; roofs tilted at crooked angles; the cobblestone paths appeared worn and dusty. The gas lamps in the cottages had been extinguished nearly an hour before, and the shopkeepers and street vendors had packed up their goods long before that. The view depressed Kaira slightly as she surveyed the village from her vantage point in the highest branches of the oak tree that loomed over the village square; she was accustomed to the cheerful bustle and amiable brawling that characterized her home during the day.
"How late d'you think the tav's gonna stay open today?" Ryan Thatcher asked as he shifted his legs into a more comfortable position beside her. He seemed at ease at the top of the tree; his tiny, lithe frame and daring disposition gave him more monkey-like inclinations than Kaira, who felt as though the branch she was sitting on would snap under her weight any moment.
"I don't know."
Both of them glared at the annoyingly persistent light that shone from the windows of the tavern. Occasionally, a drunken shadow staggering past the window darkened the light for a moment. They could hear a faint, jaunty tune being strummed on a banjo.
"You been there lately?" Ryan asked, swinging his legs casually.
Kaira was not in the mood for conversation. Her mind was still fixated firmly on the ships that were drawing nearer to them with every second that Ryan whittled away with his frivolous talk. She tended to become intensely serious---to the point of being downright mean---whenever she was carrying out a task assigned to her by the Coalition.
"Well, I have," Ryan continued cautiously. "A few nights ago. My papa would've killed me if he knew. Maya Winby was there, and so was Cal Anderson. You should've come."
"Sounds fun," Kaira commented vaguely, wishing that her friend would shut up.
"And...Mama Gladys told a story," Ryan concluded in an unusually tense tone.
"Did she?" Kaira asked, her interest piqued for the first time since the night had begun. "What was it about?"
All of the village children knew Mama Gladys. She was the slightly senile grandmother of Rebecca Miller, the seamstress. During the evenings, while their parents were lazily smoking pipes and playing cards on the front porches of neighbors' houses, the children would gather in front of her stilted cottage and sit in her garden while she delighted and bewildered them with her rambling, digressive---though nonetheless fascinating---tales of faraway lands, of pirates and treasure, of knights and dragons, of buildings of glass and steel that brushed the clouds. The children would often laugh at her and question her sanity behind her back, but they showed up for every story in spite of how strange it was. A provincial mindset was hereditary in Evolonia; the things Mama Gladys told them about were beyond the imagination of most of the children who had lived in the village their entire lives.
"She told everyone about a dynasty of kings and queens in a land far away." Ryan paused and watched her face carefully for a reaction. "She also mentioned the Sapphire Palace."
"Shh! I know, my dad was furious when he found out. He thinks someone's a snitch."
"How could she possibly know about the Jeminies?" Kaira hissed.
"I don't know---I'm not sure she really does. And it's not like it matters, does it? Nobody takes Mama Gladys seriously."
"That doesn't excuse anything. Who would tell her?"
"I think Jeremy's a pretty shady character," Ryan said, grinning. Jeremy Schivley was his best friend.
Kaira glared at him, but before she could scold him for turning the Coalition's breach of secrecy into a joke, the lights in the tavern suddenly flickered out.
"Look!" Ryan whispered.
"Shh!" The door of the tavern burst open, and men began drifting out into the streets. Many of them veered off in the wrong direction before being steered by the few sober among them, and Rusty Richter staggered off the front porch and tumbled down the steps. Ryan and Kaira sat in silent vigilance as the men wandered slowly to their homes and shut the front doors behind them. The village lay in silence for several moments before they moved.
"Let's go," Kaira said.
Without any hesitation, Ryan threw himself backwards, catching the branch with his knees and effortlessly flipping over to a lower branch. He swung as though he were a child playing on a jungle gym and reached the ground in less than thirty seconds. Kaira followed more slowly, clinging to the trunk for support. When she silently landed beside Ryan, they both took off running without a word.
They raced swiftly to the crossroads that divided the town. Kaira took the left fork, and Ryan took the right, down to the beach. His light footsteps were eerily silent as he sprinted away from her. His destination was likely to be more fruitful than hers: the hunters' cabins were concealed in the thicket of forest that surrounded the ocean. Kaira had to hope that some of the common shopkeepers and craftsmen had not become too complacent in their security, and had saved the weapons that the Coalition had distributed nine years ago. They were needed again.
Kaira chose a cottage at random and crept silently up the front steps. She crouched under the window and peered upward to ascertain that the room was deserted. Then she walked stealthily to the front door and opened it slowly, wincing slightly as it creaked. Before anyone that happened to be looking out their windows could see her, she darted inside the house.
She was standing in a pleasant sitting room. The couches and armchairs were upholstered with hand-stitched fabric, and an intricately woven rug covered the rough, wooden floor. The air smelled faintly of vanilla and jasmine from the collection of scented candles that was displayed on every available surface. This didn't look like the type of place that would have what she was looking for. She was just about to sneak out the door when she caught sight of a metallic box on the mantel. It looked cold, hard, and glaringly out of place among the angelic figurines, flower vases, and gleaming trinkets. She crossed the room in two strides and stepped onto the cold hearth. She carefully lifted the box from the mantel and lifted its lid. Lying on a cushion inside was a polished pistol.
Feeling delighted, Kaira snapped open the cartridge and was thrilled to see that the weapon was loaded. The problem was not gathering enough guns---Ryan's raid of the hunters' cabin would take care of that---but rather the Coalition's lack of ammunition. The sale of firearms had increased frighteningly after the event nine years ago, but the villagers had failed to keep a supply of bullets handy when the panic had finally died down. Kaira was trying to salvage what she could, but she knew that it would not be enough. Looking surreptitiously around the room, she carefully gathered the bullets and slid them into the pocket of her tunic. She replaced the pistol and set the box gently on the shelf. Then she strode from the house, taking care that her presence did not disturb anything else.
She stole as silently as a shadow from cottage to cottage for the better part of the next hour. Most of the weapons were not kept in plain view, as the pistol in the first house was, and she was nearly discovered rummaging through her neighbors' drawers or cabinets several times. Several houses did not keep weapons at all. At the end of the hour, she returned to the crossroads bearing barely two pocketfuls of bullets, and what she had stolen from the young Anderson boys as a last resort: a dozen slingshots. Ryan appeared after a few minutes, carrying a bulging bag of weapons over his shoulder. Her surveyed her and frowned.
"Not much. You?"
"Plenty of guns. Only twenty bullets, in Mr. Jenkins' closet."
Kaira sighed. "We could always throw rocks at them."
Ryan chuckled humorlessly. They both knew that they were in trouble.
"And there's no time to call in aid, is there?" Kaira said dejectedly. "We have only a few weapons and barely anyone knows how to use them. If there's a full-scale raid, I don't know what..." Her voice trailed off. She stared at a point behind Ryan's shoulder with wide, alert eyes.
"Who's there?" she called.
"I saw a light," she whispered. "Someone's watching us."
Ryan wheeled around and scanned the darkness. "Where? I don't see---"
"Please," a shaky voice said. "I mean you no harm."
Kaira narrowed her eyes. An old man had appeared in a patch of moonlight. He was trembling and watching them with horrified eyes. His clothes were in tatters, and his face was strained and wan.
"Is it true?" he whispered. "Are they coming again?"
"Yes," Kaira said. There was no point in lying; he had probably heard most of their conversation.
The old man whimpered like a frightened child. "I remember the last time like it was yesterday," he said. "They set fire to everything; I couldn't see anything for the smoke---just burning, everything burning. And I heard the screams. Such terrible screams. And gunshots. It sounded like the world was being destroyed." His body convulsed in a shuddering sob. He took a deep breath and continued. "It's such a shame. Such a shame that the young are paying for the mistakes of the old. That children like you two have to fight because old folks like me were greedy and corrupt. You are braver and better than we were."
Kaira and Ryan exchanged glances.
"Who are you?" Kaira asked, taking a step closer to the old man.
He managed a weak smile. "Just a rambling old fool. Don't mind me; do what you have to do. Here." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a metallic case, which he pressed into Kaira's hand. It was tightly packed with silver bullets.
"Thank you," Kaira said, feeling equally bewildered and grateful.
The old man placed his warm, mottled hands on each of their cheeks. Kaira was startled to see that his eyes were mismatched: one was a pale blue, the other as dark as coal.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Before they could say a word, he turned and scurried away into the darkness.
Ryan and Kaira stared after him for a moment then ran away toward the old inn.
"Do you know why there are never any ships out there?" Jaden asked, absentmindedly picking up a conch shell and examining it critically.
"No. Why?" Kaira dug her small toes into the sand and let her long, raggedy hair fall over one shoulder. Her young, childish face was a mask of innocence and wonder.
Jaden shrugged. "I don't know. Where we lived before we came here, I remember there were lots of ships."
The two children were silent for a moment. The pavilion for the Midsummer's Eve party was being set up a stretch down the beach, and they could hear the cheerful bustle of the workers. Jaden watched them expressionlessly, his eyes slightly unfocused. Kaira could see that he was in one of his strange moods; these pensive, thoughtful periods always seem to coincide with the subject of their previous home being brought up.
"Why were there lots of ships?" she asked after a few minutes.
"You know, commerce," Jaden answered vaguely. His eyes were staring past the pavilion.
"What's that?" Kaira asked curiously.
"Uh...I think it's a fancy name for trade."
"What do people trade?"
Jaden seemed to snap out of his reverie. His sharp, startlingly blue eyes appraised her. "Gold," he said, smiling wistfully. "I remember most of the buildings were made of gold. Or white marble. You never see any of that here. And the streets were paved with diamonds. You could take a diamond brick from the ground and give it to someone, and they wouldn't even care. They might even get angry. That'd be like handing someone dirt here."
"Nuh-huh! You're lying!"
Jaden shrugged, as though it didn't matter one way or the other. "I remember our home was a really beautiful place."
"Evolonia's really beautiful, too," Kaira said defensively.
She was right. The island they lived on was an oasis of green forests in the middle of a sparkling, sapphire sea. Its villages were not grand, but the people were happy and productive.
"Yeah," Jaden agreed. "But I miss our old home."
"I don't remember our old home," Kaira pouted. "All I know is what you tell me, and you go and tell me all sorts of crazy lies."
Jaden's eyes met hers, and she caught a glimpse of a certain, deep sadness in his expression, which frightened her more than she would ever admit. His eyes held more wisdom than was usually allotted to a thirteen-year-old child, as though he alone knew some age-old secret. His unusual perception and insight---uncommon in the other, vulgar, rough village boys---was a favorite topic of discussion among the old wives as they gathered in their knitting circles and the fodder for scandalous gossip was scarce. Kaira didn't care about the rumors; all she knew was that she loved and admired her brother.
"Lies are better than the truth sometimes," he said solemnly, his piercing gaze never wavering from hers.
Kaira snorted incredulously, failing to heed the warning that his deadly serious tone imparted.
"Where is our old home?" she asked playfully.
"West. Straight into the sunset."
Keeping up with Ryan was like running with a deer. He darted around overhanging vines and protruding branches as though his body had become fog: weightless, ethereal, and elusive. They soon lost themselves in the tangles of wild forest that encompassed the village, tearing a path through the trees and hiding beneath the canopy of newly bloomed leaves. Soon, they burst through a tough cobweb of vines and emerged in a large, open clearing. There was their headquarters and their homes, thrown into sharp focus by the patch of eerily illuminating moonlight in which it sat.
The Artemis inn was not much to look at: it was built as a one-room log cabin several decades before Kaira was born and had been clumsily enlarged, giving it the appearance of an entire village of cottages smashed together and stacked in stories. The roof was littered with several crooked chimneys, and lopsided balconies were attached to upper story rooms. Ivy crawled up the facades of the house, and the woodwork was decaying in some places and supporting the house in others only by some miracle of physics. Its appearance of eccentricity and irregularity was glaringly at odds with the efficiency of the organization it housed.
As Ryan and Kaira approached one of the front porches (there were three), the door swung open and crashed into the opposite wall. A flood of light poured out of the room, and was just as quickly stifled by the silhouette of a skinny woman that appeared in the doorway. She stepped back to allow them to pass her, waving them inside frantically. She slammed the door shut on their heels and slid the deadbolt back into place.
"Your father's not here," she said tensely to Ryan as they walked down the torch-lit hallway, shucking their coats and throwing them haphazardly on the floor.
"Where'd he go?" Ryan asked. "Did something come up?"
"Not yet," Isabel Allen said, wringing her hands hysterically. "But he estimates that we have less than twelve hours. Their flagship crossed our first checkpoint about ten minutes ago. From there, the sailing's very smooth. He believes that they'll enter the bay before noon then wait for cover of darkness before they attack."
"They can't believe that that'll work," Kaira scoffed. "There's no way they can sneak up on us. They must realize that."
"That's what worries Sam," Isabel said. "They're taking an enormous risk, and he still doesn't know why. He's gone to warn Bayside of their arrival. He plans on asking them to find out anything they can." Her tone made it very clear what she thought of the Bayside villagers' ability to achieve this task.
Isabel pushed open the heavy door at the end of the hallway, and the three of them filed into the barroom, the main gathering area of the inn. One wall of the room was lined with a long counter, behind which was a large, tacky oil painting of an assembly of grim-faced men. Kaira knew that this painting hid the safe that contained the official documentation of the mission of the Coalition. Stools and hard-backed chairs were grouped around spindly, round tables, which were scattered indiscriminately in the middle of the room. At the far end was an elevated platform, around which were grouped several benches that resembled church pews. This meeting area was empty; all the inn's residents were slumped on the counter, with mugs of coffee and other stronger drinks sitting untouched before them. The dull roar of conversation immediately died down when Kaira and Ryan entered the room. At least two dozen pairs of expectant eyes met theirs.
"We found thirty-one guns total," Ryan reported. "Seventeen pistols and fourteen rifles."
"Better than expected," Kieran Loch said, nodding. "At least everyone will have the opportunity to defend themselves." He was second-in-command of the Coalition, and had been holding court in Sam's absence.
"If worse comes to worse, we have a fair supply of bows and arrows, donated by the Greenleaf village," John Burchett supplemented from a stool in the corner.
Loch inclined his head in his direction. "That's a good idea. We have several excellent archers here today. We can make use of those."
"What about the bullets?" a grim-faced woman sitting apart from the others called. "We shall not win this fight if we do not overcome that particular disadvantage. What did you manage to find?"
Kaira found herself quailing under the stern authority of Stella Starkman.
"A hundred and twelve," she said.
She had expected a collective groan, or the flurry of panicked conversation. The silence was worse than outright accusation. Twenty-two familiar faces stared at her with silent, irrational calm. Their eyes burned into hers.
"Indeed," Stella said, pronouncing each syllable as though it were a liquid in her mouth. "And how do you expect that we shall prevail with less than five bullets apiece?"
"We have other weapons..." Kaira flustered. "Bows and arrows..."
"And Kaira found slingshots," Ryan added unhelpfully.
The silence was denser and more terrible than before. Kaira felt as though she had failed miserably.
"We'll just have to make do with what we have," Ryan continued fiercely. "Kaira did the best she could. It's not her fault that the villagers don't keep loaded weapons in their houses anymore. John, how many bows did you say we have...?"
Ryan strode purposefully into the midst of the men and women, leaving Kaira standing alone. The tawny eyes of Stella Starkman were still glaring hatefully at her, piercing her through the crowd of Coalition members as they moved about, preparing for their first fight in nine years.
I hope that wasn't too terrible of a beginning. I feel like I left a lot of unanswered questions, but I promise that everything will be cleared up in the next few chapters. Please review! I like really specific review; be brutal. Some things to consider:
What is everyone's first impression of Jaden? I know I didn't talk about him much, but I'm curious as to how my portrayal was received.
I know absolutely nothing of village warfare. I hope it at least sounded somewhat realistic.
Did anyone notice the name of the inn??? Artemis is a Greek goddess usually depicted as a huntress with a bow and arrows. Unless stated otherwise, assume that everyone in the Coalition is a kick-ass archer!!! (Because it makes it more fun that way)