Not that many had visited Goats Island, but those that had would invariably speak of two peculiarities to an otherwise unremarkable place. The first was that the island's only export was livestock. No other substance was allowed off the island; not tree, nor rock, not even a half-filled canteen of spring water. This was the law and the law was absolute.
The people were allowed to travel. As Goats Island was a territory of the crown republic of Aeryoine, they could roam across the choppy strait to the mainland, all the way north to Fin, or south to Brianne, or inland until the Clou Mountains grew too cold. However, the islanders rarely chose to leave, and while the families that lived on the Island led a simple existence, some could trace their lineage back to the Old World.
The other notable fact about the island was that the natives took their obscure law very seriously. At any time, there were twenty or so guards posted around the island; along its waterways, coves, and up the rocky peninsulas. The posted guards had one job; to ensure that no undesirables attempted to smuggle anything off.
…Not that anyone did smuggle anything on or off. There were no pirates in this day and age. Even if there were, the reefs and strange currents around Goats Island would make vagabonds think twice about trying any unconventional route.
At twelve years of age, Tessa Cerbi was a bit on the young side to undertake the Examinations. Captain Shanter, who had begrudgingly accepted her into training prematurely, argued against her parent's written request for special consideration. However, the decision ultimately fell to the Island Council who they naturally consented, for Tessa was a Cerbi, and the Cerbi household had unfailingly produced the guard of the Western Peninsula post from before there were such things as Councilmen and guards on the island. The only other household on the island who could make the same claim were the Castaras.
There was never a question of whether Tessa would become a guard; it simply a matter of when. Besides, Tessa's own granduncle, whom she occasionally called 'Grandpa Lorin', had taken the Examinations at thirteen and passed. Now at the grand age of seventy-four, Lorin was ready to pass the mantle to another Cerbi.
On the morning before her Examination, Tessa headed down from the main house on the hill to the little abode beside the chicken hutch where Grandpa Lorin was quartered. She removed her cap and smoothed her hands over her hair to check that her curly brown locks hadn't escaped the tight bun underneath. Her hand moved down to her cadet's tunic, checking it over for crumbs from breakfast. She adjusted her satchel so that strap and bag sat snuggly against the base of her back. Her shoes were polished to a mirror sheen and she had taken extra care not to let the black soil of the island dull them on her walk down. Only when she was sure that everything was in place did she knock on Lorin's door.
There was a moment's pause before the sound of dragging footsteps were heard from within, followed by the sound of fumbling, before the door swung open.
"Sir!" Tessa delivered a crisp salute in way of greeting the man at the door. He was tall, very tall, but age had bowed him enough that he no longer had to stoop at the doorway. His eyes were the same yellow-hazel as Tessa's, though his gaze was not quite as sharp as hers anymore, not since he fell sick last winter.
"At ease, child." Grandpa Lorin said with a warm smile. "Every time I see you, you're taller again."
"I'm taller than Youghn. He doesn't like it," Tessa said enthusiastically.
Youghn was a cadet two years Tessa's senior. He was technically family because Youghn's brother, Corey, had volunteered to beget Tessa's sister, Melbourne, with child.
Grandpa Lorin turned with a chuckle and beckoned her inside. "Come. I have something to show you before you go."
He moved slowly, with shaky, jerking movements that filled Tessa with a strange sense of unease. Grandpa Lorin had always been so tall and so strong. Now, she feared that he may fall at any moment. She dared say nothing, only took her usual chair at the his small, rickety table. It was here that Lorin taught her to read, to write, to love books, and most importantly, to uphold her duty to the island. Reading and writing weren't technically requirements of the Island Guard, but Lorin's grandaunt had taught him, and he taught Tessa, because nothing much ever happened on guard duty. Reading, and penning the occasional poem or prose, were popular ways for Cerbis to pass the time.
The dwelling was simple, with a partial wall between the bedroom and the rest of the space. Tessa waited while Lorin shuffled into the bedroom to retrieve a wooden box that he kept by his bed. He set it down on the table, slid the lid off, and unwrapped the contents with great reverence.
"Do you know what this is?" he asked.
It was the hilt of a sword with a polished guard of copper that had gone to green over time.
Without glancing at it, Tessa nodded. "It is Vert Glace."
It had hung at Lorin's side every day he was on duty.
"Ah, so I've spoken of it with you in the past?" He sounded relieved.
"Yes, sir. You've taught me the command words and we've practiced them down by the falls."
Lorin's gaze grew distant. He sighed. "Ah, so we have. So we have."
Tessa smiled and tried not to let her worry show. In recent years, her granduncle had started to forget a great many things, but he should not have forgotten anything pertaining to Vert Glace. It was the family heirloom; the emblem of the family's sacred duty to their island home.
"And your Examinations… are you to take them soon?" he asked.
"Today, sir. You said to see you beforehand."
Grandpa Lorin nodded. "So I must have." His eyes shied from hers. "Well, I should not keep you longer." He began to rise from his seat, but his knees buckled and he stumbled. Tessa lurched forward and caught him at the elbow just in time.
"Ah, my body's not quite awake yet," he said with a shaky smile. "Help me back to bed, would you? That's a good girl."
Tessa knew her granduncle to be an early riser, but she wasn't going to point this out. When he lay down, she tucked the end of his blankets under his feet the same way he used to do for her.
"A few more hours of shut eye and I'll be as good as new," he said. "Will you-"
"I'll come straight back afterwards."
He was smiling when he closed his eyes. "That sounds lovely, my dear. I can see you in your maroons already."
Tessa crept out quietly and closed the door behind her. Maroon was the colour of the Island Guard's coat. She had spent all her life preparing to be a guard; that she may fail the Examinations was a thought that never crossed her mind, though she still felt a bit nervous.
The town was a morning's walk downhill where the black stone bluffs and vivid green tuffs smoothed out into soft rolling hills of grassland perfect for grazing flocks. The sky was a brilliant blue studded with stars.
On her approach, Tessa noticed more activity in town than usual. By the time she got to the main street, she felt faint at the sight of all the unfamiliar faces. The building that held the Council Chambers and the Guard headquarters, the only two-storey building on the island, was a hive of activity. Tessa spotted a guard with his bow at the Council building's doors. He was a familiar sight, usually posted down at Sanctuary Cove.
"Giles." Tessa greeted upon approach. "What's happening?"
Giles was ten years Tessa's senior, and already a fully-fledged guard, but there had always been an unspoken sense of comradery between them; Giles was a Castara. He was taller than Tessa, almost as tall as Lorin back in the day. He was tanned from standing in the sun, with dark hair that fell to his shoulders, and a quality to him that made him feel dreamy yet dependable.
"You don't know?" Giles asked, surprised. "A Minister of the Aeryoine Parliament is visiting today. He and his entourage are expected to arrive at any moment."
Tessa didn't know much about politics, but even she was subjected to news of visiting Ministers from time to time. It must be close to election time. Whoever was here must have been desperate for votes. Whatever the case, it was of no consequence to her.
She frowned. "What about my Examinations?"
Giles rolled his eyes. "Is that all you care about?"
He shook his head. "You know, there's more to life than being a guard."
He cut her off with a wave. "Go around the back. Captain Shanter's set up in the cells."
Tessa frowned. "The cells?!" The Examinations were traditionally held up on the second level with a Councilman or two to bear witness.
She looked to complain to Giles, but someone else had come to him to ask for directions, and Tessa had to hurry on, seething. She didn't know what bothered her more; that her Examinations would be held in the cells, or that Giles had said that there was more to life than being a guard. How could a Castara say that?
Tessa was so disturbed that she almost forgot to stop when she reached the cells, but the sight of Captain Shanter was enough to pull her up. She snapped to attention and delivered a sharp salute.
"Cadet Cerbi, please enter," came his familiar, clipped tone.
Captain Shanter was quite handsome, or so the spinsters of the island claimed. He had greying hair which he wore short. His nose was as straight as his back, and he had high set cheekbones that marked him as a mainlander. Tessa didn't think the captain handsome, but she did think him the strictest man on the Island.
The cells were large and rarely ever used; those prone to mischief were kept busy at the herd stations or the main jetty where they were paid a decent wage and soon became productive members of society. Besides, if someone did have thieving or herd tipping inclinations, they would be dobbed to their families, which would put an end to that sort of behaviour. The cells then were usually an extra training space for the cadets on rainy days. If there was an overflow of paperwork a clerk would sometimes be sent to the cells to finish it off.
Tessa took three measured steps to stand before the desk where Captain Shanter was seated. She saluted him again and returned her arm stiffly to her side. The captain returned her salutes with a nod, barely looking up.
"Start with reciting the code, cadet."
The code was the start of the Examinations.
"Sir," she said only very reluctantly. The word almost didn't leave her mouth. "Shouldn't we wait for a Councilman to be present?"
"The Council are indisposed. They have asked me to oversee your Examinations and grade you," Captain Shanter said in his usual matter-of-fact way, as though circumstances weren't at all unusual.
Tessa didn't dare press the issue further. Despite her doubts, she began to recite the code. It was the first thing she learnt to recite, even before she knew her letters; Grandpa Lorin had made sure of that.
Had she not trained for this her entire life, the Examinations may have been difficult. After reciting the code, Captain Shanter asked a few questions related to the laws of the Island and the location of the different posts. Then, he observed Tessa's skill at arms.
Lorin had made sure that she was equally fluent in stick and staff, bow and sling. Vert Glace was none of these, and Tessa noted bitterly that Captain Shanter did not ask her to show him her patterns with the sword, her preferred weapon. Not that she should wanted to show off, anyway, she told herself. The captain listened to the sound of her horn blow; it was strong, steady, and loud. He asked her to solve scenarios involving injuries, poor weather, and misunderstandings with offshore workers who came in droves during sheering season.
Tessa's execution of every task was perfect, but Captain Shanter remained unimpressed. If anything, he appeared more resigned with each flawless performance.
"And what would you do if a Councilman himself tried to take something off the Island?" Captain Shanter finally demanded. "Cut him down? Drag him to the cells?"
Tessa blinked furiously at the sudden, preposterous question. "Sir, a Councilman would not go against the laws of the Island, not when they have been born and bred here."
The captain, while distinguished, hadn't been born on the Island. Clearly, he didn't understand the importance of the laws to those born and bred here.
"They wouldn't, would they? Are you certain?"
"Yes sir. It would never happen."
Captain Shanter made some more notes on her paper while Tessa alternated between fretting about her answer and being annoyed at the captain for asking it. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he put the pen down with a sign.
"I don't think you're ready," he said.
Tessa stiffened. "Sir, I have-"
"-but I can't stop you from becoming a Guard," he continued over the top of her. "Congratulations, you have passed the Examinations. Full honours, I am compelled to disclose, despite a complete and utter inability to think for yourself."
"Sir, I passed?" Tessa asked. She feared that she might have misheard.
The man looked as though he would say more, but changed his mind and let out his breath slowly. "Yes, you have passed. Go around the front to see the Council's clerks. If they are busy, you must wait. Ask to collect your uniforms. Tomorrow you will resume the post on the Western Peninsula and live a quiet, windswept life."
I passed! I passed, I passed, I passed! Tessa thought jubilantly. She was now a guard.
The wave of relief didn't diminish her ever vigilant adherence to decorum. She saluted, stepped back, and saluted again before turning crisply on her heels and marching herself out of the cells.
The clerk, usually with nothing more to do but yawn at her desk, was swamped with queries today. She waited in line as she was instructed. There was a commotion outside; the sound of hoofs treading delicately up the building steps, the sound of gasps and stammered greetings exchanged. The others in line craned to peer through the open doors and murmur to each other, but Tessa kept her eyes forward. Now that she had passed the Examinations, there was no need to think any more about the Council today. What they and the ministers of Aeryoine did was not her business. So what if some crazy minister wanted to ride his horse into the Council rooms? It wasn't against Island law. It made no difference to Tessa.
She waited patiently until the clerk could attend to her and blushed when she was congratulated.
"Your grandfather would be proud."
Tessa donned the maroon coat as soon as she received it. The sleeves were a bit long, but she didn't mind. She wanted Giles to see, but he wasn't out front when she left. Everything was a mess today because of the ministers, but Tessa told herself that things would be back to normal tomorrow. She kept a steady, respectable pace through town, but once she was beyond the first hills, she quickened her pace to just short of running.
The Western Peninsula was only a short detour from home. Tessa climbed the worn black stone up to the post by the only crop of trees that had managed to take hold in the crags. From this vantage point, she had an uninterrupted view down the peninsula from where black rock cliff faces smoothed out into grassy flats that in turn gave way to pebbly shores and smooth waters. A small, unused jetty jutted from the peninsula's tip. She breathed it all in before turning to descend the steep path again.
Tessa passed the family home at a jog, heading straight for Grandpa Lorin's abode. She checked herself before knocking on the door.
"Grandpa Lorin!" she called. "Grandpa Lorin! I'm back!"
But there was not the sound of dragging footsteps and the door remained closed.
"Sir? I'm coming in," she announced as she tried the door. It was unlocked.
She let herself in and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the relative darkness. The first thing that Tessa noticed was that Vert Glace was still on the table, right where Lorin had left it.
Stillness hung in the air like forgotten muslin sheets.
Tessa crept around the dividing wall, an inexplicable pit in her stomach. She almost relaxed when she saw her grandfather still with the blanket tucked carefully under his feet.
He looked to be sleeping. Maybe he was just asleep. It was just that he was very, very still. Tessa went back to the kitchen table and carefully packed Vert Glace back into her box. She came back with the box and her usual chair. There she sat, waiting for Lorin to wake up so that she could show him her maroon coat.
This was written for the July-August 3K Short Story Competition on the Labyrinth Forum. The challenge was to write an 'on ramp' to a larger story; a self contained story that leads into something bigger. If you liked this story, and want to read some great works, head on over the the forum and fast forward to the last page of the 3K Short Story Competition thread. Entries should be trickling in through August, and you can vote for your favourite in early September. You can write your own on ramp if you like, just read the rules and get it in before August 31.
This story about Tessa and Vert Glace was originally a way to escape my sorrows in 2013. It became my first fully fledged and edited novel-sized story, and I've always wanted to see it become a real book. The original version had Tessa start off as a guard, but that didn't quite fit the slice-of-life, stakes-are-high-but-not-really feel I had for the story. It's been 4 years and I've really enjoyed the opportunity to re-work the entrance to Tessa's world. Tessa shares a world with another youngen by the name of Sasha Suter, so if you'd like to read more, there is Birthday Present (which started as a contest entry) and Heart of Fin, which feature Sasha Suter as the unwilling protagonist in my first attempts of romance.