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.
After much debate, the Watch-keepers decided Kaia should take Luco’s liege rune.
Read on to see how it goes.
Kaia sat cross-legged on the cave floor and held out her forearm, rune up. “I’ll do it.”
Her skin already bore the blue mark of House Advor, a house that might even now be looking for her thanks to the magistrate who took her mother. Attempting to hide the mark with a cloth wrapping would put all three of them in danger at every outpost, crossing, and town. At least with the silver mark of House Fulcor on top, she could pass gates and checkpoints in relative freedom, so long as Luco did not abandon her.
He reached for her wrist, but Kaia pulled back. “For Nisa, not for you.”
Luco nodded. “For Nisa.”
He took her wrist and laid her forearm across her knee, then soaked the corner of his tunic with his flask and scrubbed at the grime covering the original rune. He scrubbed too gently.
“You’ll take all day at that rate. Are you afraid to soil your fine clothes?” Kaia yanked the wet cloth from his grasp. “Let me.” She scrubbed hard, until her arm shone pink and raw. “There. Now do your worst.”
“Um . . . I wouldn’t say . . . Never mind.” Luco placed the quill on a stone so that its black tip rested in a tongue of flame. The remnant of ink from its previous use began to smolder away. While the quill heated, he rolled the ink vial between his palms.
Nisa removed a small porcelain jar from the box and dabbed Kaia’s rune with red cream. “This will ease the pain. The salve is—”
Kaia nodded. “An extract of shalnesh—tranquility leaf. Yes, I know.”
Luco stopped rolling the ink vail. “You know your herbs.”
“I know shalnesh, because it lies in the order of herbs between misarech and vailetavarro.”
The siblings exchanged a look. Luco narrowed his eyes. “What?”
Kaia dipped a finger in Nisa’s jar and rubbed another dab of cream into her arm. “My mother taught me to read, but the lords of the Frost Islands don’t exactly keep a library for the fishwives. Mother scrounged every parchment and scrap of old text she could lay her hands on, including a portion of an old sailor’s order of herbs. The entries began with misarech—stinkweed—and ended with vailetavarro—path root. I’ve read those pages more times than I care to count.”
The ink in Luco’s vial, once dull gold, was now glossy silver. Kaia guessed the solution held dust from both metals. Once he finished the rune, her forearm would be her most valuable possession.
Luco left the ink vial to warm on the same stone as the quill and lifted his chin. “All right. Let’s see. Which root might a sailor use to stay awake for the night watch?”
“Correct. Annd . . .” He leaned back and squinted at the rocks jutting down from the ceiling, and Kaia hoped he’d reached the end of his herbal knowledge. No such luck. “What needles should I stew in water to relieve a belly ache?”
She stared at him.
“You don’t know? I did give you a clue. Needles.” He grinned. “But I suppose the answer is not between misarech and vailetavarro, is it?” When she still did not answer, he shifted his gaze to the pines outside the cave. “The needles of the kachel tree, the blue foxtail.”
Raz perked up.
Kaia shot the fox a frown, then turned the frown on Luco. “Will we be playing this game often?”
“It is entertaining.”
“I’d rather let you carve a rune into my arm with a searing hot quill.”
“Right. Sorry.” He lifted the quill. The tip glowed bright orange. “Here we go.”
If Nisa’s salve truly dulled the pain, Kaia could not tell. Without it, she imagined she might have passed out, as Luco had to complete hundreds of tiny stabs to set the ink. And the shaking of his hand did not inspire confidence. Kaia fought the urge to jerk her arm away as he made each tiny jab. “I thought all lords learned to use the iron quill from a young age.”
“You are his first,” Nisa said, watching with her nose a little too close for Kaia’s comfort. “His parchments are pretty, but he’s never drawn on a live subject. Our uncle had the butcher shave a street cat for him once, but even then—”
“Nisa.” Luco’s sharp tone quieted his sister. He grimaced. “That poor cat. He looked so cold.”
The completed rune did not look anything like Kaia had imagined—more of a red, puffy wound than a house mark. “Well done,” she said with a flat expression.
“It will heal, and then the ink will show.” Luco cut a strip from his tunic, the same piece Kaia had accused him of not wanting to soil. He rinsed it with water, covered it with salve, and wrapped her arm. “This will speed the process.”
The pain and itch of Luco’s work could not prevent Kaia from sleeping. All three and the fox slept well into midday, until the fire had burned to cinders. Kaia awoke to the sound of Nisa humming, the same melody she’d been singing when the two first met.
Kaia waited until they were on the road south and hung back with the little girl while Luco walked ahead with Raz. “Nisa, what was the song you were humming in the cave?”
“The Song of the Sleeper. Our mother used to sing it to me.”
“Mine as well. But I’m struggling to remember. Could you sing a few bars to help me.”
The little girl beamed at the suggestion. She hummed the melody first, velvet shoes pressing into the dirt in time with the rhythm.
“The Sleeper wakes from a waking dream,
On path of gold, ‘neath silver gleam.
Of stars in a midnight sky.”
A slow twirl brought Nisa in front of Kaia, pacing backward with utter faith in her steps. The song had drawn Raz away from Luco. The snow fox walked between the girls, tail swishing, ears at their full height.
“Child beckons, follow me
To mountaintop by crystal sea.
Take my hand, and we shall fly.
And the sleeper wonders, where are all the dragons.”
Luco spun on his heels, stopping the other two. “Have you gone mad?” He focused his ire on Kaia. “Don’t bid her sing those words in the open.”
Nisa stopped dancing and looked down at her toes, cowed. Luco had clearly growled at her for the song before. Her shoulders trembled.
Kaia gave him a hard look. “Calm down. You’re frightening her.”
“Good. She should be frightened. The Sleeper’s Song is dangerous.”
“It’s a nursery rhyme.”
“It is a call to war.” Luco balled his fists, grit his teeth, and then relaxed. “I can see you don’t understand, so allow me to explain.”
He started walking again, forcing Kaia to double-step to catch up, while Nisa trailed behind with Raz. Luco glanced warily at the trees. “The Sleeper’s Song is drawn directly from the Sacred Word, inscribed into the fabric of time by the Maker himself. The words, the melody—they pulsate with his power. There are dark creatures in the wilds far worse than frost goblins or iron orcs. They can feel that power. Some will flee. Others will come hunting for the singer.”
He said nothing more for a long while, and since Kaia had no inclination to speak to him, she kept silent. Despite his warning, nothing terrifying came barreling out of the woods. No dark arrows or dragon fire fell from the sky. Their road remained peaceful, climbing and descending over endless hills covered in ash and pine.
But the peace could not last.
“Can you fight?”
The question came without explanation or preamble. Perhaps Luco had started the conversation in his head and forgotten to include her. Kaia only blinked.
“You handled yourself well with the orcs, but have you any training? Do you know anything?”
Do you know anything? What Kaia heard was You know nothing. She bit back an angry retort and lifted her chin. “I can shoot. I can pick a fish out of the sea with an arrow at twenty yards.”
“Yes. A fish. At twenty yards.” She didn’t like the disappointment in his tone. He was supposed to be impressed. “The sea toys with archers. Shooting fish is no easy feat.”
“So you’re an archer.”
She might have been stretching the truth to grant herself such a title. “Yes.”
“And yet you carry no bow.”
“It . . . sank.”
“Into the sea?”
“Because the sea toys with archers?”
She did not turn to meet his gaze, but she could feel his smirk.
They passed between a matched pair of hills, and Luco came to a halt on the other side. He leaned his staff against his shoulder and unfastened the buckle at his waist.
Kaia took a step back. “What are you doing?”
“You need a weapon. And from what you’ve told me, you have a sharp aim. Sadly, I have no bow.” He slid a dagger nested in an ivory sheath from his belt and held it out to her. “This blade will serve. Keep it under your cloak.”
When Kaia did not accept the dagger, he waggled it before her. “What’s wrong? Take it?”
She did, and slowly drew the blade from the sheath. The smith had worked three or four different alloys into the steel and swirled them into a pattern of tears. The hilt was a silver falcon, wings spread wide to form the cross guard. Kaia drew a breath at its beauty, then felt her cheeks flush with rage. “No.”
“You heard me. From one moment to the next, you’re telling me what to do and who to be. Hide your hair. Go to this cave. Wear my rune. Carry my dagger.” She let the sheath fall at her feet. “No more. I’ll do what I like, wear what I like, and carry what I like, thank you very much.” With that, Kaia hurled the dagger at the trees. She meant to cast it into the underbrush and make him search the rest of the afternoon as punishment for his arrogance. But the dagger stuck, hilt quivering, into the trunk of an ash.
Luco stared after it open-mouthed. By the look in his eyes, she might well have stuck the blade into his chest.
She had stung him. Good. He needed to understand he was not her lord.
Luco let out a breath, and she braced herself for shouting match, but he merely turned and pointed up the road. “See the fork? The smaller road leads southwest to the marsh town of Lemoth Keras. We need supplies, and with the Maker’s favor my uncle will have sent no men to those muddy streets in search of us. His mind would not conceive of his noble nephew traveling there, rebellious or not.” Luco wrinkled his nose. “A forever-stench hangs over the marsh.”
“So it stinks.”
“And what if I don’t want to go to this stinky marsh?”
“Then for once, we are agreed.” He nodded at her bandage. “Your rune has not healed, and the binding will draw undue attention. If it should please your blue-haired highness, continue on this road, and Nisa and I will meet you at the crossroads to the south.” He turned from her and made for the fork.
“Perhaps I will.”
“And perhaps I won’t.”
Nisa did not follow. She called after her brother. “I’ll stay with Kaia.”
He stopped and bowed his head, then set off again. “Of course you will.”
Luco raised his staff in the air. “And you, Fox. Everyone do as they like. As long as it’s clear that I’m not in charge.” He took the fork, descending quickly, and disappeared behind the next hill.
Kaia watched the empty fork, expecting him to come back. She hadn’t meant to be quite so harsh. “Wait! What about your dagger?”
He shouted back to her, voice fading. “Not my dagger! Yours! Is this not the whole concept of a gift?”
A gift. Luco hadn’t commanded her to carry his blade. He’d offered her the blade as a gift. How did she not see that?
Luco said nothing more. He wasn’t coming back. Kaia snapped out of her stupor and found Nisa had picked up the sheath. The little girl wiped the dust from the ivory and offered it to Kaia. “Please, don’t leave Aethia behind.”
“Aethia. The dagger. If you leave her in the woods, Luco will be so sad.”
Kaia had a sense that abandoning the dagger would make Nisa sad as well. She scrunched up her face. “Then why didn’t he take . . . um . . . her back.”
“He can’t.” Nisa took Kaia’s hand and led her to the tree. “In House Fulcor, a gifted blade can never return to the giver.” She looked up at the falcon hilt. “Carry her, or give her away. But please don’t leave Aethia behind. She belonged to our mother.”
Kaia wanted to crumble into the road—vanish into dust. “Your mother?” She laughed at her own foolishness. Perhaps it was the sting of her new rune or the exhaustion of her road thus far, but she had been so ready to fight another order from Luco that she missed a gift placed right into her hands, beautiful in so many ways. “How about this,” she said kneeling to put her face even with Nisa’s. “I will carry Aethia for a while, and in time I will gift her to you. Do the rules of House Fulcor allow this?”
“They do.” Nisa gave her a solemn nod, a smile behind her eyes.
“Then it’s settled.”
Removing the dagger from the ash tree proved harder than Kaia anticipated. She yanked and pulled, but the blade would not budge. She pulled so hard it, in fact, that it seemed the ground shook beneath her feet.
Then, between tugs, the ground shook again. A massive thump came from deep in the forest.
“Kaia . . .” Nisa stared at the trees, eyes wide.
“I heard.” Kaia tried the dagger. It wiggled. Progress. Again, the ground shook, and then again. Wood cracked in the distance. Kaia leaned to look past the ash tree. The shadows of the forest beyond seemed to move as one.
“Hurry,” Nisa said, backing into the road.
Kaia was not going to leave the dagger behind. Not after what she’d learned. She filled her lungs, clenched her teeth and gave a final, mighty tug. Aethia came free, and Kaia fell stumbling back onto her seat next to Nisa and the fox.
The three watched the forest. Whole groves seemed sway in time with a slow, steady pound. Raz growled. What had Luco told them? There are dark creatures in the wilds far worse than frost goblins or iron orcs. They can feel that power. Some will flee. Others will come hunting for the singer.
The singer. Nisa. Something had come hunting for her.
Watch-keepers, what should Kaia do? Should she:
A. Take Nisa and run for it along the main road.
B. Take Nisa and race down the smaller road to catch up with Luco.
Or . . .
C. Stand her ground with her silver dagger and face whatever may come out of the forest.