YOU Choose the Story!
The Creator of All Things has opened a window to another world—a portal. We cannot step through this portal, but we may reach through with our minds. Concentrating, we see a young woman, Kaia, seated on a bridge of stone and ice, feet dangling over cobalt blue waters.
The Creator has invited us to act as Watch-keepers over Kaia and the friends she will meet along a dangerous path that lies ahead. The Watch-keepers must work together to help Kaia make good choices. These choices will not always be easy, and Kaia may not always do as we ask, for she is strong-willed. Will you accept this challenge with us? If you desire to take on the mantle of Watch-keeper, please use the comments section to answer the question posed at the end of each chapter of Kaia’s story.
The watch-keepers decided Kaia should stay and help Luco.
THE FOUNTAIN AND THE FLAME: CHAPTER 5
The river ran wide and fast beneath the bridge to Luco’s home city, Emen Yod, faster than it had appeared from the cliff trail above. Though, what had Kaia expected, with all those waterfalls to feed it?
“That fox of yours will draw unwanted attention once we’re inside the gate,” muttered Luco, casting a dark eye at Raz, who walked beside her. “Mark my words. He’ll be a nuisance.”
Why did he have to talk so much like a lord—so high and mighty? Already, Kaia began to regret her decision to help this rich boy rescue his sister. “I didn’t see you complaining when Raz tripped that orc and sent him flying over the ledge.”
“You’re only proving my point.” Luco nodded toward a set of three uneven towers, high on Emen Yod’s central hill, nearly touching the two bright moons. “He’ll be underfoot if our time in my uncle’s manor goes ill.”
Luco called it a manor. Kaia would have called it a castle. The boy’s gaze dropped to settle on a cluttered garden of timber huts and shanties outside the city wall. “I don’t expect opposition in the wharf district, but hide that blue hair of yours just in case. The only Frost Islanders we see here are the icemongers, and you are not brawny enough to pass for one of those.”
That blue hair of yours—as if the color of her hair were a mark against her. Kaia raised her hood, anyway. The wind whipping across the bridge was chilling her ears. “My mother says mine is more silver than blue.”
Luco did not seem to hear. Her bare forearm caught his eye as she lifted the hood. “And cover up your liege rune as well. We don’t need any unwanted questions.”
That earned him a glare. Kaia yanked her sleeve down to hide the triangular blue brand of House Advor. “I have no liege. Not anymore.”
“Try telling that to the city guards.”
The denizens of the wharf district offered no challenge. They lived by the code of Kaia’s class. Make no trouble, and receive none for yourself. The guards at the city gatehouse, however, had trouble to spare. They checked every face in the cue of city entrants, tipping hoods back with the points of their halberds.
“They’re looking for me,” said Luco, watching with Kaia from the corner of a locked shanty that stank of salted fish. “We’ll never get past them.”
“Aren’t there other gates we can try?”
“At this late hour? Don’t be absurd.”
She had grown tired of his condescension. “Well there must be something.” Kaia looked to Raz for support in her argument, but the fox no longer stood beside her. She glanced back in time to see him vanish down a muddy alley. “Raz!” she hissed, and ran after him.
The fox led Kaia and a grumbling Luco on a chase between shacks and shanties and over mud and gravel to a channel cutting inward from the river. There, he turned toward the main city, bounded over nets and barrels, raced along a line of overturned carts, and dove into the water. He reappeared a moment later, riding in the wooden bucket of a waterwheel that split the city wall.
“You were right,” said Kaia, panting as Luco ran up beside her. “Raz is a nuisance.”
“No. I was wrong. He’s brilliant. Raz has found us a way in.”
Luco jumped into the water first, catching the wheel with the bear’s head of his staff to pull himself over. But Kaia hesitated. He slapped the water. “What are you waiting for? Can’t you swim?”
Kaia rolled her eyes and made the plunge. The moment the hem of her coat came within the reach of Luco’s arm, he caught it and dragged her to him. He wrapped an arm around her waist, trying to hold her up. She kicked away. “Every Frost Islander knows how to swim, you imbecilic.” A bucket broke the surface beside her, and she caught it, rising out of the water. “But we usually have enough sense to stay dry on a cold and windy night.”
Locks, waterways, and barrel lines crisscrossed the city and poured through its many walls. “My great grandfather built these channels to take advantage of the waters surrounding Emen Yan,” Luco told Kaia as the two rode a pair of buckets through a brick arch, entering the uppermost circle. “He oversaw the placement of every rope, chain, and wheel.” Luco gave her a not-so-bashful smile. “I have a similar mind for contraptions.”
The buckets dumped them into a slowly-filling lock. Kaia climbed out onto a wooden platform to sit, dripping, beside Raz. She raised an eyebrow. “And yet a fox thought of using this one first.”
Luco needed no help finding a way past the men guarding his uncle’s gate. He led Kaia through a door behind an overgrown hedge and up a short stair to the lower court yard. “Nisa is up there,” he said pointing with his staff at the highest of the three towers. “My uncle banished us to the upper rooms after my parents’ death. He’ll have guards watching the stairs, but we can get past them using the kitchen.”
He made it sound so easy.
Kaia had never entered a nobleman’s manor. To her, it seemed as large inside as the whole of her island, with terrain far more strange and varied.
Their journey to the fourth floor involved an old oak growing from the courtyard stones, a creaking window, one room set aside for dresses only and another set aside for spears and swords, ending with a secret stair left them crawling out from behind a tapestry into a curved hall lit with flaming sconces.
“Why is the air so cold up here?” asked Kaia, shivering despite her northern heritage.
“Ice chamber.” Luco tapped an iron door across the hall with the head of his staff. Frost covered its surface “Filled with ice blocks to keep the meat fresh.”
Before Kaia could make a comment about the foolishness of rich men bringing the cold inside, Raz whined. The fox cocked his head, listening.
Kaia heard it as well. Footsteps. “Someone’s coming.”
“Some-thing, more likely. Sounds like one of my uncle’s orcs.” Luco started in the opposite direction. “This way. The kitchen is at the end of the hall.”
“No, wait. I have another idea.” Kaia let the frosted iron on the handle bite into her hands as she jerked open the ice chamber door. “We’ll hide in here.”
Luco protested, but Kaia pulled him inside. When he tried to close the door behind them, she slapped his hand away.
“Are you mad?” he asked, holding the smarting hand.
“Perhaps.” Kaia took his arm and backed in among the hanging carcasses of pigs and cows until she could see her own breath. “Let’s find out.”
Raz pressed himself tight to her ankles. Luco faced the door, staff ready. The footsteps ceased. The door opened wider, and a massive gargoyle head peeked in. The instant the orc saw them, molten fire burned behind its eyes and in the cracks in its skin. It charged.
“Scatter!” yelled Kaia.
The orc’s black sword sliced through the carcass between them as the two teens split. It stood, confused, for a few seconds, and then its eyes settled on Kaia and Raz. The orange orbs still burned, but dimmer than before. Frost had started to form on its armor.
The orc took a step toward her, slower than its earlier charge, and Luco smashed it in the back of its head with his staff. The creature roared and tried to turn, but its legs would not move. Bewildered, it looked down at its frozen feet.
It never managed to look up again.
The creature’s final roar began as a guttural rumble, and ended in a piteous squeak. The fire in its eyes went out.
“How?” asked Luco, approaching with caution.
“We don’t have these creatures in the Frost Islands,” said Kaia. “And now we know why. Their molten innards can’t handle the cold.”
Luco looked at her with admiration, and for the first time, Kaia noticed his eyes—green, flecked with gold. When they weren’t haughty or smug, they were kind of nice. He chuckled to himself and poked at the creature with his staff.
“Don’t!” said Kaia.
Too late. The orc teetered back and crashed to the floor, snapping off an arm and its gargoyle head. Kaia sighed. “Someone will have heard that. We have to go.”
“Right. To the kitchen.”
Oh, what Kaia’s mother could have done with that kitchen. The pots. The whisks. The ovens. Kaia knew enough of the world to recognize the copper washbasin and the butter churns but not the strange cabinet Luco opened at the far end.
He clutched a rope beside it and tilted his head. “Hop in.”
“This is another of my great grandfather’s contraptions. He called it the Lunch Lift. Climb inside. I’ll hoist you up to our rooms in the third tower where Nisa is waiting. Grab her, and then I’ll lower you both down again. The guards on the tower steps will never know.”
Kaia hated the way he never asked her to do things. He issued commands instead.
“Why don’t you go? You think I’m not strong enough to work the rope?”
“I don’t fit. And you’re wasting time.” Luco pounded the box with his fist. “Now come on!”
She did as he asked—or rather, as he ordered—but only for Nisa’s sake.
The box creaked and groaned with each of Luco’s pulls in the long ascent. If an orc or a guard interrupted him, Kaia might be trapped half-way—or worse, plummet to the bottom. As the box rose higher, though, the strains of a song reached her ears and pushed her worries aside. The voice was young and sweet, and the melody seemed so familiar. Unbidden, the image of Kaia’s mother, clutching her hands through the bars of the magistrate’s cage, returned to her.
Remember the lullaby I sang to you as a child.
The box bumped the upper reaches of its track. Kaia threw open the door to find a shocked little blonde girl, clutching a dolly to her chest. The two locked eyes.
“Don’t stop,” pleaded Kaia. “Sing it again.”
The box shook as Luco jiggled the rope to hurry them on. The song would have to wait. Kaia held out a hand. “I’m a friend of Luco’s. Quickly. Grab your cloak and come with me.”
The ride down went faster than the ride up—a little too fast for Kaia’s comfort. At the bottom, Luco lifted his sister out of the cabinet. “I heard screaming in the hall. A maid found the orc. The guards are on their way.” He set Nisa down and used his staff to pry a floor grate loose. Mold and grime caked the stone around it.
“What is that?” asked Kaia, climbing out of the cabinet.
“What’s it look like? A drain. And our way out.”
Raz gave the mold a sniff, wrinkled his nose, and then jumped in.
If the fox could do it, so could Kaia. She sat down with her feet dangling in the hole, set Nisa in her lap, and wrapped her father’s coat around them both. While she worked, Luco rummaged through pots and utensils on a cluttered shelf.
“What are you looking for?”
“Go,” he said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
She shot him a frown and dropped.
The fall did not last long before the drain curved to catch her, then spiraled into a wide turn. A few heartbeats later, Kaia and Nisa splashed down into another of the city’s channels. A film of slime rested on the surface.
Luco splashed down behind them, and Kaia punched him in the shoulder the moment he surfaced. “We’re all wet again, thanks to you. And now we stink.”
A dawn escape through the city water system left them soaked, but at least it washed the smell away. Luco led them to a cave in the forest hills to the south and lit a fire to warm them. Raz curled up beside him, watching with interest as the boy fiddled with an ivory box.
“Did you steal that from your uncle’s house?” asked Kaia.
“It is not theft if something is yours. By rights, I should have taken much more. But doing so would only lend truth to the lies my uncle will tell in my absence.” He tilted the box, allowing her to see the metal quill and vial of golden ink nested inside. “This, I took for you.”
Luco nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He took a breath, then tried again. “I . . . I cannot pretend to know the weight or hurt of what I am about to ask, but I believe it is necessary.” The haughtiness had vanished from those green eyes, as it had in the ice chamber. But this time, what remained stole the warmth from the fire.
Kaia swallowed hard. “I don’t understand.”
“I think you do. You’ve seen these instruments before. I’m talking about your liege rune. It will only cause us heartache on the road.” Luco lifted an amber medallion from beneath his shirt, showing her the silver, hawk-shaped symbol within. “However, if you were to take mine . . .”
“You want to brand me?” She jumped to her feet in disbelief. Luco wanted to carve his family’s mark into her arm, joining it to the one she had been given as an infant—a common practice when one noble purchased another’s thrall. The new family added their house mark to the old. Before her birth, Kaia’s father had been bought and sold so often that he wore an entire mural of runes on his arm. “No! You can’t!”
“Please try to understand. Any guard in any town or city can check your mark against my medallion. By taking the liege rune of House Fulcor, you’ll ease our travels. I’m not trying to own you, Kaia.” He glanced over at his sister and lowered his voice. “I’m trying to keep all of us safe.”
Watch-keepers, what should Kaia do? Should she:
A. Stand up for herself and her class by refusing to take another liege rune?
B. Accept Luco’s family mark to ease their passage south?