Thursday, February 09, 2006


The border of the Locked Lands

“This is the closest he has come, Taiga,” the stolen child murmured against his companion’s leafy ear.

“Aye, and the longest he’s lingered,” the aging dryad agreed. He cupped a palm over his eyes, shielding them from the sun’s glare. “Move over Kale,” he grumbled, nudging the boy with his elbow. “I have no desire to sit in your shadow.”

Sunlight danced across the water. It warmed the backs of the two who squatted by the marsh, their eyes following a man who paced the opposite bank. The man was peering across the expanse of water, seemingly in their direction. In fact his searching gaze passed over his observers several times, but he seemed to stare straight through them, as though he did not see them at all.

Twice, as Taiga and Kale looked on, the man came down to the water’s edge and hovered there, one leg poised as if to step in. But both times, he backed away and instead took up his restless walking. A dense layer of fog crept in from the plains and drifted across the swamp, weaving through the tangle of rotting mangroves.
The man shivered, hugging scrawny arms close to his chest. He waded through the thick white mass, coming down to the brink of the swamp once more, gnawing all the while on his thumbnail. The man stared up at the long-needled brambles that had snaked their cords through the mangrove branches and strangled them. He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. Leaning forward, he skimmed one foot over the swamp’s oily surface. Brown sludge clung to his boot, globs of coagulated slime dripped from it. The man grimaced and shook it off. Then he crept further along the bank.

“Oh, for the sake of Feldar!,” Kale said, through gritted teeth. “He is so painfully slow, so uncertain. What does he see that we cannot?” Kale knelt down and briefly plunged his pale dreadlocks into the clear marsh water. He got up and shook out his dripping head, showering Taiga with droplets. “Why does he hesitate when he is so close, Taiga?”

Taiga eyed Kale with mild exasperation as he wiped the water from his face. “You know very well. His kin do not believe we exist,” he said in a crisp, matter-of-fact tone. “Hence, they cannot cross over to our side.”

“But it is absurd! To purge us and our magic from their memory, they themselves have conjured up barriers that are not real.” Kale shook his head with disgust. “And that is magic in itself.”

“Barriers we cannot see, but they are real enough,” Taiga corrected him. “Though you are right. It is magic, after a fashion. Powerful magic, for neither can we cross the marsh. Not until….” His voice trailed off as he thought better of finishing his sentence.

It was too late. Kale pounced on those two words. “Oh, Taiga!” His eyes widened “Do you really think, … could he be… the One?”

“Don’t speak foolishness.” Taiga clucked, his face hardening. He glanced around, as if he feared someone might be hiding in the reeds, listening. “There will be trouble enough if Xorse discovers that you are here, let alone that such talk has crossed our lips.”

“He could be the One who will be Tested.” Kale lifted his chin stubbornly. “He has persisted. This is his third attempt. He senses that there is something on our side.”

“Hush.” Taiga was no longer listening. “I hear something.” He tilted his head and listened, his eyes flickering. Then Taiga’s jaw went slack, his eyes seemed to grow flat and dull. “Surely not,” he muttered. “Not so soon! But I must make certain.”
He crossed to his willow and pressed an ear to its trunk. A rumble, faint but steady as a heartbeat, vibrated through the root system. A sound that drained the blood from Taiga’s brown face. He came quickly back to Kale, his face expressionless. “A pack of wild dogs,“ he said. “Listen to me. You must go to the caves and sound the alarm, so the children can be hidden in time.”

“But what about…?”

“I will stay here and watch. Go! Hurry boy!” Taiga turned his back on the boy, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the jogging shapes that would soon cloud it. Without another word, Kale clambered up into Taiga’s willow. He crept out along a sturdy limb, where he crouched for a moment, poised on his flexed toes and fingertips. Suddenly Kale sprang out into space, his arms stretched out to grasp a branch in the next tree. And he was off, swinging easily through the branches towards the caves.

Taiga looked up as a flock of disturbed shwills burst from the trees like a shower of airborne blossoms. He watched them fly over the marsh and come to rest upon the boughs that fringed the opposite bank, where the man still faltered.

“You can do it. You can,” Taiga whispered, pleading for the man to hear. “Come to us.”

As though he had heard Taiga’s appeal, the man stepped abruptly into the swamp. He sank in to his knees. The movement disturbed pockets of sulphur from its depths; they surfaced and burst with gentle splutters around him.

“I can do it. I can. I can make it,” the man murmured. He looked up at the mangroves that hemmed him in, and saw that ravens thronged their branches. They stared down at him, their orange eyes unblinking. A cold worm of fear writhed deep in the man’s bowel. “Raaaghh,” he shouted, flapping his hands to shoo them. The birds scattered, but soon returned to settle on lower, closer branches.

“It will be alright. It will be alright,” the man chanted in a trembling voice; the very words Taiga‘s lips were forming. “There is an end to this. There is firm ground on the other side.” Focussing his gaze on the web of mangroves ahead, he began to wade through the swamp. A raven pounced. It lunged low and fast, and the man stumbled backwards. He fell heavily, his hands flailing. As he sat, gasping and slewing muck from his face, a slit-eyed head rose out of the water; a beady head whose wide mouth grinned at him curiously. The man struggled to get up, but two ravens swooped, beating him down. More eels emerged, turning their evil heads to watch the silent ferocity of the ravens. The man thrashed about blindly in the swamp, choking on its foul soup till it streamed from his nostrils. When he tried to stand, thorny brambles plucked at his clothes and tore his flesh. The eels smirked and moved closer.

Taiga saw the man struggling alone in the clear marsh water; and watched him finally crawl back onto the bank. As the man fled across the wetlands, screaming and beating himself about the head, the light in Taiga’s eyes faded, though he had hardly allowed himself to hope. He looked over his shoulder and glimpsed a swirl of dust in the distance; dust rising from the patter of stealthy paws. Then Taiga placed both palms on the willow and melted into his tree.
© 2006 by Shelly Taylor

1. The Letter

Same day, Malak

Only one member of the hunting party knew that an intruder crouched in the hollow of the ancient oak behind them. But he said nothing of it, nor did he glance in that direction. His eyes, and those of his nobles, followed the flight of a falcon that floated high above them, its wings fully extended, and its talons tucked up under its downy white chest.

“A truly magnificent sight, Excellency,” breathed one noble, the whisper ruffling his moustache.

Moving in a downward spiral, the falcon circled the group, slowing its pace, before coming to rest on the emperor’s gloved hand. It flapped its wings twice as if to shake the feathers into place, before folding them away and settling. The emperor murmured softly to his bird and stroked its white throat. His eyes scanned the ameythr meadows, which covered the valley’s floor like a lush mantle.

The company stood silently in the warm breeze, waiting for the bird’s quarry to be retrieved. A moment later, a boy trudged out of the valley towards them, clutching a limp pheasant. A sea of purple grass sighed and swayed around his waist, and he brushed his spare hand along its silken tips. His face was flushed, and grubby from wiping perspiration from it with dirty hands.

The moustached noble chuckled at the sight, and called out, “Did he take the dead rat without complaining this time, Callun? To my eye, the kill seems near intact.”

“Iodis made no complaint, sir.” The boy panted up to them, and placed the pheasant into a sack that was nearly full. After a long swig from his flask, he poured a sparing amount of water into his cupped palm, removed his cap, and dribbled it over his hot head. Then he grinned up at his master, patting the sack proudly.

“There Excellency, that makes five,” he said.

“Well!” said the Emperor, smiling around at the noblemen who had hunted with him that day. He tossed his mane of glossy black ringlets from his shoulders and repositioned a slender gold circlet upon them. His face was smooth, and although he had ruled the empire of Malak for as long as anyone could remember, he appeared to have only just reached manhood.

“It seems that Iodis has taken the lead. Again! ‘Tis a shame to end our contest, but alas the approach of night dictates!”

The answering chorus of groans was light-hearted. It had been a good day. Chuckling and joking with each other, the company began to pack up their gear. Several pageboys loaded the spare goats with sacks bulging with fresh game. Others prepared the falcons to be taken to the castle. The nobles of the emperor’s court adjusted their sporting finery, and hoisted themselves up onto their splendid goats. Although they appeared to be absorbed by their task and in exchanging mocking jibes with each other, from time to time their gaze would drift across to the Emperor, to see if he was observing them. They were to be disappointed.

He stood motionless, eyes dreamy and remote from the conversation around him. His arm was still outstretched to support his majestic gyr falcon, who gripped him firmly with yellow talons.

“Excellency?” His pageboy approached him respectfully, but without fear. “Shall I take Iodis for you?”

The Emperor blinked away his thoughts, his eyes immediately alert. “I will linger awhile and savour the evening air,” he said. “Return to the castle with the others, young Callun. If you are careful, you can ride my mount, for I will walk back with Iodis.”

Callun’s eyes lit up. “Thankyou, Excellency.”

Beaming, he gathered the remaining equipment quickly, in a hurry now to leave with the others. Once the cheerful company had departed, galloping through the heart of the forest towards the castle, the clearing grew silent in the twilight. The emperor and his falcon gazed out across the valley, their profiles dark against the glowing horizon. Only the unceasing whisper of the grasses, and the occasional chirrup of a cicada rehearsing its nighttime melody, interrupted the stillness.

Suddenly the Emperor’s perfect face rippled, like a pond into which a pebble had been dropped. Pale lumps, like wet clay emerged from the disturbed surface. The emperor stiffened, eyes squeezed tightly shut as though he knew what was coming next. A tremor shuddered through his body and involuntarily his hands balled into fists. He began muttering rapidly in a dialect his subjects would have found strange and terrifying. His nose, eyes and mouth swam around in his face, writhing and convulsing, twisted almost beyond recognition. And then just as suddenly, it was over. The shapeless lumps dissolved back into his flesh. Each squirming feature firmed into its familiar shape and place. The Emperor’s skin was pale and clammy from the effort. He did not open his eyes for a time. The only hint of what had taken place was the single drop of perspiration that soaked a bright green stain onto his white tunic.

When he spoke at last, the Emperor’s eyes, deep blue as a peacock’s feather, did not leave the horizon, and he murmured under his breath, as though to himself.
“It must be important information you bring Wiggo, that you come in person to deliver it.”

A muffled reply came from behind the oak. “Yes Great One. I have news of Gorguon, your brother. From Pendelethe.”
“And that is?”
“Everything proceeds according to plan. Gorguon’s identity must be protected, so we have only spoken through the Rhian birds. He writes that his disguise is foolproof. He said you would understand his meaning.” Wiggo sounded curious, hopeful of an explanation.

The emperor closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, as though the words were a fragrant bouquet. “Glorious,” he breathed, with a smile that reached his eyes. “I had no doubt that Gorguon would use great sorcery to infiltrate the Watch. What fun! Their second worst nightmare sitting right under their nose, learning all their secrets. One day soon, the Watch will no longer be useful to us. Then they will pay the price for their arrogance.”

His eyes were once again hard and bright, like chips of flint. “But tell me, what is news of their beloved Andron. Has that troublemaker been dealt with?”

“Yes, Excellency.” Wiggo had emerged from behind the tree, but still stood a safe distance from his master. In amongst the shadows of the oaks, his dumpy outline resembled a knobbly tree stump. “King Phan has had Andron imprisoned for treason,” he said with a trace of smug satisfaction.

“Indeed?” purred the emperor. “ You have been weaving a spell over the royal simpleton. So Phan is without a herbalist?”

“No longer without, Exalted Lord. He is well pleased with the remedies and medicines that I now provide him.”

“Of course he is. I trained you well. And what about the other little job you are doing for me. Have you all the ingredients you need?“

“Yes, Gracious Majesty, we are well supplied,” Wiggo assured him. “In fact, the Thelpy tablets have been prepared.”

“Ahh.“ Thorasco’s mouth curved into an unpleasant smile, as he stroked his falcon. “Then all the Aryks in Pendelethe will soon go beddy-byes. Be careful that not even one eludes capture,” he growled. “Or you will envy the Aryks their slow death when I am finished with you.

Wiggo’s head bobbed. “The capture of the Aryks is taking place as we speak, Great One. I assure you, none will escape. Once we learn where the tapestries are, it is my unworthy opinion that your conquest of Pendelethe will be even simpler than that of Malak.”

“Tell me again why that is so, Wiggo. It is music to my ears.” Thorasco gazed out across the valley, as the sun’s red orb sank below the hills on the horizon. Thick splashes of crimson and amber still stained the sky. Down in the valley, a herd of shorthaired bitarx abandoned the camouflaging safety of the nearby trees, and crept out on all fours, like rippling shadows, to graze on the ameythr grass. Squatting down on stubbly backsides, they began tearing out generous chunks of the grass with long fingers. The adult bitarx periodically rotated their great hairy heads. They peered about with beady eyes, their leathery black nostrils dilating and twitching to detect any unfamiliar scents on the wind. Purple trails of grass-stained saliva dribbled down the pale brown fur of their jowls and necks as they chewed.

“Of course.” Wiggo had ventured forward a step or two. “E..E..Excellency,” he corrected himself hastily. "The two tribes who will remain in Pendelethe, they being the Tirans and the Pascans; well they have had no contact with the Aryks for months. I doubt they will either notice or care when the Aryks vanish, so consumed are they with their own perfection and knowledge, and…”

“Well, then they will adore me.” Thorasco’s lips curled in a sneer, revealing clenched teeth. He stretched his free arm, and wriggled his shoulders. The movement was as languorous and supple as a leopard slinking towards its prey. Wiggo shuffled back, closer to the safety of the oak.

“Yes, and who could not, O Light of Wisdom.” Branches once again muffled his voice. He did not see the irritation that flickered over the emperor’s face. “What is more, they do not believe in magic, so there will be no unforseen obstacles to stand in our… your way.”

“Then you have removed the ageless magic that plagues us?” Thorasco’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “The…” There was an audible gasp, as Wiggo recognized his mistake. “Oh no! How could I have overlooked the tears of Immo! I crave forgiveness, Merciful Majesty.” There was silence for almost a full minute, then Wiggo cleared his throat. “Thus far, I have been unable to find Andron’s supply of the tears.” A mixture of fear and loathing showed in his eyes.

“Slug,” Thorasco growled. “The Watch must not unearth those accursed tears. You need to find them first, and destroy them. Surely you can pay Andron a personal visit to learn of their whereabouts.”

“It would be my pleasure to question that fool in person.” Wiggo said bitterly. “Enough talk of fools. What is news of our daily bread? Has the mining for Pendelethe’s quartz begun?” His voice was eager. Throughout their conversation, he had not glanced once in Wiggo’s direction. Instead he gazed out into the distance, where all that remained of the day was a dull glow like dying embers, which illuminated the hills on the horizon.

“The quartz, Great One?,” Wiggo queried, buying time. All his earlier confidence was gone. “Ahh,… Well as you know, the King is obsessed by his hatred of the Aryks. Although that has been to our advantage, I fear it dulls his mind to other matters. But I will continue to press him, Excellency.”

“Very good of you.” A hint of menace had crept into Thorasco’s voice. “Listen to me carefully, Wiggo,” he said, spitting his name out as though it was a foul taste in his mouth. Wiggo’s plump shape wobbled unhappily, but he knew better than to talk back. “Pendelethe must have an unimaginable supply of quartz, if the tapestries have been lying there, undiscovered all these years,” Thorasco continued. “We need to get it and soon.”

“Certainly, Excellency.”

“I cannot come to Pendelethe and fulfil my destiny without the quartz to fuel me.” “That is true, Excellency.” “And don’t forget that it is your life source as well.“

“Yes, Excellency,” Wiggo agreed, nodding. “How can I forget? But… I am concerned.”

“You?” That one word spoke volumes. “Are concerned?”

Wiggo hesitated a moment, as though unsure whether to pursue his question. Then he blurted out, “Gracious Master, the quartz protects Pendelethe from the acid rays of the Unseen Star; just as it once shielded our beloved Malak.”
He paused.
Thorasco said nothing.
Wiggo cleared his throat and went on. “Malak is now just the shell of what it used to be, and I .., I..wondered. Well, once the quartz is gone, will not the extreme weather conditions that ravage our land half the year, also begin to eat away at Pendelethe’s resources?” Wiggo cowered near the oak. His exposed flesh seemed to radiate a faint green light.

In the darkness, Thorasco’s skin also appeared to glow. His jaw was clenched, and he rested his long lashes on his cheeks for a moment, before whispering, “Cretin! You dare to question me?” Wiggo gurgled something unintelligible. “The quartz is only a temporary measure, a building block. Once we have the tapestries, our existence will not be reliant on quartz. But we must have an endless source of strength at our disposal before we can hope to crush the source of the tears.” His voice was loud now and it trembled with passion. “Pendelethe and the Aryks may have forgotten about the Emir of Roa and his son Immo, but they are very real. And dangerous opponents, for the moment at least.” He laughed, but there was no mirth in the sound. “Ahhh, let them guard their precious garden. The time will come for that; we deal with Pendelethe first.”

Wiggo crept towards the emperor. “O ..Omnipotent One, it is the matter of quartz that brings me here in person…,” he said in a desperate groan.

“Yes…..? Speak, Wiggo, speak! And with haste! ‘Ere a search party is sent to find me!”

“Forgive me. pains me to trouble you, Excellency. But my personal supply of quartz juice…, it is nearly used up. I have begun to shimmer; mainly after dark, when I am tired,” Wiggo stammered. “No one has noticed yet. But soon I will have no control over it. We have worked too hard to risk being discovered now.” The words were tumbling from his mouth. “I hoped you might be able to spare me just…just a little more?” His voice trembled and rose slightly, pleading.

The emperor arched one slender eyebrow, his eyes narrowed. He pressed his lips into a thin white line. “Two vials remain,” he snarled. “Yet you gulp it down like it’s sugar water, you wasteful clump of dunghill scurf!”

Wiggo, once again cowering behind the oak, bleated in as aggrieved a tone as he dared. “I have been very sparing with it Excellency, I assure you”

“Oh yes?” Thorasco’s laugh was harsh and high pitched as a horse’s whinny. “How much quartz juice did it take to transport your stout form here, halfway across the world? On a whim.“ The Emperor’s voice was still low, but his teeth were bared, and his eyes thin slits. “And you call Andron the fool. Ha! Why did I afford you my last Rhian bird, do you imagine? So you could teach it tricks?”

“To send messages to you, Great One,” said Wiggo, no louder than a squeak.

“To send messages. Yes, dullard, yes!” He paused, breathing slowly and deliberately, stroking his bird while he regained his composure. Then he said in an even voice, “If the juice runs out before we find the tapestries, so do we. We must get to the source of Pendelethe’s quartz. It is of more importance at present, than finding the tapestries. But go now, for I grow weary of this patter. The vial you desire is hanging inside the tree, just above your head, wrapped in a piece of leather. Take it, and touch nothing else. And send the Rhian bird with your next message, or your welcome will not be so sweet.”

“Excellency.” There was relief and greed in the hidden man’s voice. “Thank you, Gracious Master.”

But the emperor had gone, picking his way through the gloom to the castle gates, not glancing back at Wiggo who waited for the complete cover of night to veil his more enigmatic departure.

Same day, Pendelethe

Blayre of Dins Hallow slithered towards the dancing feet on her belly, well camouflaged in her green cloak. Entranced by the music, the circle of dryads did not see her…

No. Tien shook her head with frustration. That’s not how it went. I described how they danced first, I think.

Tien’s toes had gone numb, so she wriggled them and stamped her sandalled feet. She puffed a warm breath up to thaw her nose, but it floated uselessly away in a soft white mist. Waiting was a tedious business. For what felt like the hundredth time, Tien peered around the honey-crisp apple tree; the only tree along the orchard’s sun-dappled avenue that concealed her and at the same time provided a good view of the farmhouse.

She knew her family was awake, she could hear them clattering about in the courtyard. But where were Eunaat and the cart? Tien absently plucked a cluster of milkweed flowers from the stalk at her feet, and inhaled the rich perfume of its star-shaped blossoms. She and Mama had methodically planted the milkweed under each tree last spring, in a ploy to lure the silent destroyers, aphids, away from the precious fruit above.

Come on, Eunaat, come on, she fretted. Soon someone will discover that I’m not in my bed, and then everything will be ruined. Tien closed her eyes and tried to still her nervous impatience. Instead she concentrated on all the details that filled her head, picturing exactly how this day was about to unfold. She bit her lip to stop from laughing in delight. It is going to be so exciting, she thought, hugging her cold arms and giggling in a whisper.

Mama and Papa would never, in their wildest imaginings, suspect that Tien would stow away on the fruit cart. Timid Tien never did things like that. Well that was all about to change, she thought, with a defiant glare. This was the only way she would be able to see Fanzine. Papa would never permit her to travel to Pojabe, although it was only an hour’s canter down the main road.

Tien shrugged her backpack from her shoulders, then sat cross-legged on the ground, with her back against the tree. Her pack was grey with age and made from thick, coarse material. Tien opened it as wide as it would allow. She ran her palm along the inner fabric, over the part which rested against her back when she wore it. Her fingers fumbled along the ridges of stitching, till she felt the hiding place. From a tiny gap between the pleat and the pack’s inner lining, she tugged out the thin folded piece of paper. A letter that she knew had been carefully placed there while she’d slept. By force of habit, she glanced cautiously around before opening it out. Then, with a smile playing around the corners of her mouth, she began to read.

Dear You, (I can’t write your name of course, for fear this letter may be intercepted)
I was overjoyed to receive your letter! And heartened to hear that your spirit is not broken;, though our tribe is backed into a corner. A bully king and his thugs cannot intimidate all Aryks.

Tien pulled a face. Not intimidated by King Phan’s special police? Has Fanzine actually seen the Raseen at work? she marvelled remembering their visit to her village not long ago. Their eerie howls still haunted her dreams; a sound that had nearly drowned out the screams of the Aryks they were marking. Long after the Raseen had galloped off, the piteous moans and sobs of broken people had continued. There had not been enough wind in the universe to banish the smell that lingered in Panzaar that day; air thick with the smell of scorched and blistered flesh.

Tien shook her head roughly, as if she could dislodge the image, but it was seared into her mind like the Raseen’s branding irons. What Aryk, in the face of such horror, could not be cowed, Fanzine? she thought. I am just as fearful as the rest.

She read on: By now, probably all the adults in Panzaar have been marked by the Raseen. ‘Marked’, what a feeble word for such cruelty. It is a small blessing that our parents were permitted to brand us themselves, after their own wounds had healed. Grandfather branded me and I never felt it till much later, thanks to that nasty Feltus draught. It put me to sleep for hours.

Tien’s hand strayed to the mark under her jaw. She rubbed it tenderly with her thumb as she read, as if it were still a raw wound.

Miss Roovil gave me some pages as well. How joyous to see words written on paper. I read them over and over. But with the Raseen swooping in at any moment, to check that we are all obediently branded and bookless, I have stashed them in our old hiding place. As you know, Miss Roovil snuck across the border into Tira and Pasco before her arrest. She told me that although we, the Aryks, are the only ones receiving the Raseen’s special attentions, Pendelethe’s other tribes are greatly changed.

What sort of changes, Tien wondered. Her lip curled. Perhaps the Tirans and Pascans found the wealth that had been heaped upon them suffocating. Or maybe there were not enough luxuries for them to spend their money on. How tragic. Oh, no she thought, clapping a hand to her mouth. I’m beginning to sound like Graic! She laughed softly, and after a quick glance towards the farmyard, she continued reading.

The Tirans now have a caste system. Three of the castes are distinguished by the bronze, silver, or gold dots on their foreheads. The highest caste of course, have the gold dots, and members of the lowest caste bear no dots. Our friendly postman is one of those, isn’t he? What a brave man! Tien smiled. Eunaat, the hired Tiran farmhand who always came to help them at harvest, was a quiet hero. If the Raseen had caught him smuggling her letter to Fanzine, the punishment would have been severe. Yet Eunaat had done it without hesitation. It is best the poor man knows nothing about today’s plan, she mused. Not even Fanzine knew. Tien’s gaze drifted back to the letter. In the capital city of Tira, Miss Roovil found everything to be perfect; a little too perfect. She never saw a single citizen with a disabled or flawed body. Miss Roovil was suspicious, and after a little sleuthing she fell over Tira’s dirty little secret: the Quarter. The Quarter is a settlement, a revolting and dangerous place to live. Defects (that is what Tirans call anyone who is less-than-physically-excellent) are snatched from their homes by cover of night, and locked away in the Quarter, away from the rest of society. It is on the outskirts of town and the Raseen keep their distance. Hence, criminals have crept in to inhabit its darkened corners. The Pascans have gone mad as well. They fancy themselves to be the scholars of Pendelethe. Their famous ziggurat is now known as the Library. (Remember that huge building we saw when we went to see Pasco with school, just before the borders closed?) It is full of books. And full of pompous Scholars who hold competitions to discover who is the smartest, who has the best memory, can learn the most languages in one year, can read backwards the fastest! Don’t laugh! I am not making this up. But for the most part, both the Pascans and Tirans seem unscathed and unconcerned by Phan’s regime. While we are fading away. Why?

“That’s what I want to know,” Tien muttered. She looked up past the tree’s leafy boughs. The morning sky was an seamless expanse of indigo, marred only by a faint cloud that drifted high above, pure white like a chunk of lamb’s wool. As Tien watched, the wind gradually stretched the cloud until it separated into pale ribbons. The strips of cloud soon melted into the atmosphere. The heavens were once again flawless. Tien sighed and read on.

Why are only Aryk books being burned? Why are we the only ones forbidden to cross our border? Why is ours the only flesh being branded? I want to know.

© 2006 by Shelly Taylor

2. A Visit From the King

“Well that’s the last of it.”

Tien jumped. She peeked carefully around the smooth trunk. Hurrah! Papa was speaking to Eunaat who had just brought the cart around from the barn. It was already laden with sacks of fruit. The goats were harnessed and hitched to the cart.

Tien folded the letter and slipped it back out of sight, her heart beginning to thump with anticipation. She strained to hear.

“I feel badly that I cannot send Graic up to the border with you,” Papa was saying. “But that was Phan’s orders.”

“It is not every day the King rides through Panzaar.”

“Yes, exciting times,“ Graic agreed. “And what about this present he has promised us, the reason we are all to gather in the village square. I, for one, could not sleep a wink last night for the thrill of it all. Though his Highness shouldn’t have gone to such trouble, because it’s the thought that counts. The satisfaction in knowing that he cares.”

“Peace, Graic,” Papa cautioned. “Perhaps he has had a change of heart about our tribe.”

Tien frowned. She could imagine Papa chewing on the corner of his lip, his mouth pursed. Her eighteen-year-old brother’s outspoken opinions, especially those about the king, caused Papa great concern. He worried that the wrong people should overhear. Which is ridiculous if you think about it. Everyone here quietly agrees with Graic. And in any case, no Aryk is in a position to rat to the king.

“A fair point, Papa,” Graic was saying solemnly. “Have no fear. I will be on my best behaviour when Phan unveils his image in bronze later today.”


“Papa.” Graic swept both hands through the air. His face bore an expression of injured surprise. “All jesting aside, what else could the big surprise be? Indeed, what more could we want? Freedom to roam our own country? The right to possess books? How very dull! No, a statue of our monarch, I tell you, is the perfect gift for this pampered tribe.”

Papa shook his head at Graic and raised his thick-fingered hands in mock defeat. He turned to Mama. “Sumina, have you given Eunaat the things you wanted him to sell in Tira? We… Haim!,” he shouted out suddenly.

The child who had been in the process of sneaking a piece of fruit from the cart, jumped guiltily.

“Put that orange back. You know very well that there are two full baskets in the kitchen.”

Tien grinned. Her twelve-year-old brother also knew that any fruit going to the Tiran markets was the best of the crop. The Raseen made sure of that.

“Here, Eunaat. The flax should fetch a fair price.” Tien could scarcely hear her mother. She peeped around the tree. Mama was handing the lanky farmhand a linen bag. A shock of auburn fuzz covered her small head, and she scratched absently at a scabby bald patch where the Raseen’s shears had torn her scalp. Mama’s shining curls were gone, tossed like garbage into the bonfire. Since that terrible day when the Raseen had forcibly dragged her over to the branding coals, Mama rarely spoke. Some days she did not bother to bathe or even change into fresh clothes.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Tien’s heart warmed at the comforting sound of Eunaat’s voice. Each harvest, Eunaat came to transport the fruit. He willingly took on any task, and proved to be honest and hardworking. While conditions worsened for the Aryks, and the adults in Tien’s life grew increasingly fearful, Eunaat remained the same. Tien had plucked up the courage, several weeks back, to ask him to deliver her letter, scrawled in coal on a piece of her old tunic, to Fanzine. Eunaat had taken it willingly. Only after she’d given him the letter, did it occur to Tien that Eunaat might betray her trust, and for the next three nights she had lain awake, trembling as she listened for the drumming of hooves that signalled a Raseen raid.

But now he has brought me a reply.

Graic's voice sounded again. Tien rolled her eyes. “Stop playing up to your audience, dummy,” she whispered furiously from her hiding place. “Let the man be on his way!”

She was desperate to leave now, and let the excitement carry her along. If she had much more time to think about it, she knew she might not follow through with her plan.

“Eunaat, I’ll get you to bring back the biggest container of lemon oil you can find,” Graic was telling the Tiran, with an earnest expression on his face. “I hope to discuss many things with the statue of our monarch, whilst I polish him thoroughly from head to toe.”

He mimicked zealous rubbing around his own backside, then smiled broadly as Haim fell about laughing. A smile played across Tien’s lips too, but it quickly vanished. Haim was too young to understand the bitterness behind Graic’s jokes. Graic, had been eight when Phan had come to power, old enough to remember how life for the Aryks used to be. Phan had changed everything. He’d made it clear from the start that he regarded the Aryks, not as humans but worker bees. ‘You are skilled farmers,’ he’d said, ‘and I will be pay you well to work within your own borders, where the soil is fertile.’

This logic had made sense. Aryk soil was rich and dark, and the abundant crops of grains, fruit, silk and flax plants were a vital part of Pendelethe’s prospering trade with neighbouring lands. Wealthy women, from around the world, adored the beautiful linen tapestries and shawls woven from the flax. So Phan had moved all the Aryks living in Tira and even in Pasco, back across Aryk borders ‘for now. Not long after, Tiran middlemen appeared, hired to transport the produce across the border. And then slowly, inch by inch, Phan’s mask had slipped, revealing his true feeling for the Aryks.

For decades Pendelethe’s three tribes had existed in harmony. Now, after ten years under Phan’s regime, the isolation of the Aryks from their countrymen was complete. They were little more than slaves, toiling the land for pittance, and expected to meet Phan’s impossible quotas. In recent months, Phan’s hatred had become more systematic and purposeful. First he had ordered that all the books in Aryk be burned, soon after came the blood-chilling announcement that every Aryk must be branded with the symbol of a purple clover, so that none of them could slip over their borders unnoticed. Through it all, the Aryks had barely let out a peep of protest.

Tien’s lip curled. She was too young to remember any regime other than Phan’s, but she’d read the history books at school, and had discussed with her teacher, Miss Roovil, about how the Aryks had once been. How could any sane person think that tolerating mistreatment is honourable, she wondered? Perhaps it had happened gradually. The Aryks were a gentle people, to whom respect and a humble attitude meant everything. Their honour code seeped in to influence every part of their life. It was Aryk culture to nod politely, come to agreement peacefully, and to never defy authority. Tien rubbed her own bristly scalp through the scarf. Had the Aryks grown to feel they deserved this treatment? That in some way they had called it upon themselves? She knew there would be no answers for these questions. The adults refused to discuss the situation at all. As if by ignoring it, they could pretend that nothing was wrong.

And now it was too late. The pattern was set. The Aryk way has been a grave mistake, Tien reflected, though I’d never let Mama and Papa hear me say it. She smiled at the irony. But now, it seemed that changes were afoot. Out of the blue, the king had requested that all the Aryks in Panzaar gather today in the village square to meet with him. The king’s envoy had mentioned a peace offering, the gift Graic had joked about.

But what good will it do? Tien thought glumly. In the face of Phan and his entourage, who will dare to say what they really feel? I’m not sorry to be missing the king’s visit. Especially if the Raseen are accompanying him. I’ve been planning my trip for ages, and nothing, not even Phan can stop me going. No one will notice. It is not as if they will count each and every one of us if this is a goodwill trip. Papa and Mama will notice, her conscience argued, and they will panic. Papa will be a nervous wreck.

“Well I don’t care. That is his problem,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “I’m going.”

“The load looks stable. I should make a start.” Eunaat’s voice broke through Tien’s ponderings.

She squashed herself back against the tree, as her family fondly farewelled him, their tenuous link to the rest of the world.

“Don’t forget,” Graic called after him, in a falsetto voice. “Only the very best lemon oil.” He muttered something about making ‘Phan smell like the lemon he is’, and Haim doubled up with laughter again, beaming up into Graic’s face while the juice from a snatched orange ran down his chin. Mama pretended to swat the boys away, but she almost smiled as she and Papa walked back inside, their arms entwined.

© 2006 by Shelly Taylor

3. A Hiccup

Two farm goats, sturdy but slow, pulled the cart out onto the track. Tien could hear the wheels creaking as they approached her hiding place. She tossed a quick look over her shoulder to make sure no one had lingered to watch Eunaat’s departure. The courtyard was empty. Tien moved around the tree as the cart rumbled past, and sprinted after it. Then, just like she had done in her mind many times over the last few days, she grasped the rail at the back of the cart and heaved herself up into it.

Tien flopped panting against the fruit sacks. Her eyes sparkled with pleasure at her success; her limbs trembled with exertion. This was easier than she had imagined. The goats didn’t seem to notice the extra weight, and Eunaat sat oblivious, high on his seat behind the beasts, singing at the top of his lungs. Tien stifled a giggle as she burrowed in amongst the sacks of oranges and apples. Eunaat warbling a tune! He was normally so quiet. At the orchard, he never spoke more than was absolutely necessary. She opened her pack, pulled out a thin sheet and draped it over her legs and shoulders. She could throw it over her head if anyone passed by.

I am going to be in deep trouble when I get home, Tien thought gleefully. But I don’t care. Fanzine will just die when she sees me on her doorstep! She nearly laughed aloud at the thought of Fanzine, slack-jawed with surprise. I’ll get a whole night and day with her, she gloated. It will be just like old times. A persistent twinge of guilt clouded her anticipation. She pictured the alarm and worry that would etch itself into Papa’s face when he found that she was gone. Mama would silently begin to wring her hands, over and over. Maybe I should have left a brief note. But then again, I couldn’t. There is no paper left. It will be all right, she reasoned. Papa promised that I could visit Pojabe after my sixteenth birthday. That was over a month ago, so I’m really just keeping his promise.

She rocked with the cart, her mind wandering. It was hard to believe that only three years had passed since her family had relocated from her birthplace, Pojabe, to the fruit-picking town of Panzaar. It had been a difficult move for Tien, who had missed Fanzine terribly. Fanzine had been her best friend ever since she could remember. The one with whom she’d shared every secret. Life with Fanzine had been tinged with excitement. She had the knack of turning the most tedious chore into an enjoyable experience. In fact anything she did became an adventure. And it had rubbed off on Tien. Fanzine’s exuberance for life had inspired Tien to take a few risks and laugh more.

The cart struck a pothole. Tien fell back against a fruit sack, snagging her scarf on the wire that secured it. She pulled it free, and tugged it back over her head. My thick braid was my one redeeming feature, and now I don’t even have that.

She rolled her eyes, remembering a comment she’d overheard years before. ‘More freckles on the girl than stars in a clear night sky,’ one of Mama’s friends had murmured to another. The woman had spoken carelessly, with laughter in her voice; talking loud enough for Tien to hear, but as if she was not there. ‘And such a stout face. A small blessing she at least inherited her mother’s thick chestnut hair.’

In that moment Tien realized she was not beautiful, that in fact she was plain. She had slipped away to her bed and lain there in the shadows, tears scalding her despised cheeks. Later she’d taken Mama’s mirror and scrutinized her face with its liberal sprinkling of freckles. Her eyes appeared more green than brown, with their rims so red from crying. She wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue, more at the lady than herself. Then she had made the lady a villain in her story.

Tien touched her face now, and smiled suddenly. If Fanzine had been described in such a manner, she would have just laughed and perhaps drawn attention the size of the lady’s backside, she thought. Fanzine didn’t give a scrap if anyone thought she was pretty or not. Tien missed the carefree spirit that Fanzine’s friendship had brought out in her, for deep down, Tien knew that she had a lot more in common with Papa than she wanted to admit. She was timid and cared too much about other’s opinions. It was maddening. I should be confident, proud of who I am. I should do the bold, exciting things I dream about, that Blayre of Dins Hallow does. Actually, she remembered with a grin, what I am doing now is bold and daring.

The cart rattled past neat rows of orange and apple trees, whose upper boughs were still shrouded in a silvery mist. Only the fruit, hanging from the lower branches like balls of candy, were visible. They left behind the dairies, where the sheep milled about, patiently waiting to be milked. Carts had begun to roll past in the opposite direction; farmers heading in to Panzaar to meet King Phan. Tien made sure that the sheet concealed her. The sickly sweet stench of the retting dams pervaded her nostrils long before she saw the shallow waters, golden with the putrid flax juice. Tien blocked her nose, and peered out with interest. Already the farmers were at work laying sodden flax plants out on the wooden tables. Other workers were beating them with thick mallets to break the outer hull and get at the valuable linen fibres beneath.

Poor Mama, Tien thought. She‘d love to be able to weave the linen into the intricate designs that our ancestors were famous for. If only her hands were not so clumsy and big. The Aryks had long ago abandoned the art of weaving. Their fingers seemed to grow thicker and shorter with every generation and as a result, the patterns they wove grew increasingly amateur. So now they reluctantly sent the dyed fibres to Tiran weavers, who created masterpieces.

Tien laid her head against her pack, trying to get comfortable. The secret pages that Miss Roovil had given her barely made a rustle in the lining of her pack. No one would ever think to look for them there, she thought, her eyes brightening. She resisted the sudden urge take them out and look again at the beautiful drawings that covered them. Miss Roovil had plunged her hand into the smouldering heap of books after the Raseen had left. Only a few pages were worth keeping, but she smuggled them to Tien before her arrest. Tien shuddered at the thought of Miss Roovil being treated terribly by the Raseen somewhere.

The road ahead had turned a rusty red and was now winding through the small canyon formed by the Ginger Rock Hills. This was the slowest part of the trip, but it was also the most interesting. The deep orange soil of the hills stood in stark contrast to the leafy bushes that covered them. The road was narrow and steep and the land around the five hills was wild and overgrown. Tien had always felt a thrill as she travelled past the Ginger Rock Hills, a longing to explore the untamed slopes. One day I will come back and discover the secrets of these hills for myself, she thought. Just not today. She settled back and closed her eyes, lulled by the cart’s rocking motion.


It felt as though she’d been travelling for an age. We must surely be there soon, Tien thought impatiently. She strained to see ahead, and felt a surge of excitement. They were going rounding a much smaller hill now, one not quite close enough to be part of Ginger Rock. Tien could not see what lay beyond, but the hill itself was familiar. She had come here many times as a child, to climb to the top and play among the boulders there. Pojabe was minutes away.

Suddenly, a bloodcurdling screech raised the hair on her neck. Tien heard Eunaat gasp. The cart lurched as he swerved to the right, to get off the track. Tien clung grimly to the side rail as Eunaat urged the goats behind a stray mulberry bush. Then Eunaat threw himself under the cart. Tien cowered beneath the sheet. Her limbs felt cold and wooden. She could hear Eunaat’s ragged breathing below her.

The initial screech was echoed by several answering shrieks, and then raucous laughter rang out.

“It is refreshing to find a man who is passionate about his job,” crowed a voice.

“That was just the beginning, my friend. There is still the quaint township of Panzaar, just full of juicy little Aryks to squash,” came the answering snicker.

Tien’s stomach churned as if something was sliding and writhing inside it. She heard Eunaat stifle a moan. He began to whisper. It sounded like he was praying, but the words were tumbling out, fast and confused. Tien closed her own eyes, and prayed that Eunaat would stop talking. Please don’t let them hear him, please, she begged silently.

“You’d do well to remember that the orders do not include actual squashing,” the first voice admonished laughingly.

“Are twelve carts really enough to carry them all?”

“Well there are not more than one hundred and fifty in all. They ought to enjoy the privilege of being allowed to stand. It will be the last time they do.”

“Ha! All right, let’s not dawdle. Gidallop!” As they galloped away, their harsh laughter fading, Tien peeped fearfully out at their retreating backs. The men who had spoken were uniformed. They wore loose red pants and white tunic shirts, each with a cruel-bladed scimitar tucked into a narrow belt. Long black extensions had been woven into their hair and swung in countless tiny plaits down their backs, miniature barbed shafts attached to the end of each. Though she couldn’t see their faces, Tien knew that their eyes were thickly rimmed with kohl, that their teeth were capped with black gold. Raseen!

Her skin prickled into goose bumps. She wanted to scream out to Eunaat to turn around and go back to warn her family about these nightmarish men and their carts, but the words stuck in her throat. She lay there, frozen in horror at what she’d heard. What could she do? Eunaat was muttering in a high-pitched voice, as he led the goats carefully back onto the track; something about getting to the shelter of Pojabe as soon as possible.

The township of Pojabe lay ahead, its huts blending into the landscape of hills and boulders. It looked exactly as she remembered it; small, or as Papa used to say, ‘a friendly size’. Pojabe was more a village than a town. The goats’ hooves thudded dully on the rich red earth of the main street. The market’s wares were all set out in their stalls. Smoke drifted lazily from the outdoor stoves, ready for roasting meat. Livestock brayed. Several chickens wandered about, clucking and pecking at unseen nourishment in the dirt. But there were no human voices, not a single person was about. Eunaat groaned and jumped down from his seat. Tien heard him running to look inside the first few buildings. She could tell by his panicked gurgles, which were growing louder, that they must be empty. Fanzine and all the people of Pojabe were gone.

What has happened to them, Tien wondered? Her brain felt thick and lethargic. Where have they all been taken? Are they dead? She lay there as the Raseen’s cruel words echoed through her head, over and over. With a rising sense of panic, the enormity of what she had just heard began to sink in. Mama and the others are about to face some unknown terror, she told herself, a sour taste rising at the back of her throat. And there is nothing I can do to help them. Another wave of nausea hit her.

“Well, what have we here?” Tien jumped. The voice was not loud, but in the silent street, it sounded like a trumpet blast.

Eunaat screamed shrilly, then whimpered like a kicked dog. Tien scrunched herself up into a ball.

“A little mouse has evaded capture, ha?” laughed the man whom Tien, from her hiding spot in the cart, could not see.

“Renda, come and look.” “What is it?” It sounded as if the man, Renda, was in a surly temper. “This one wasn’t taken. Shall we have our own fun?”

“Let me see.” Heavy booted footsteps came close, and there was a brief silence. “He is a Tiran, Maligo.” Renda’s voice was raised in exasperation. “See, there is no mark upon him. But he has seen us, so we cannot release him.” There was a muffled grunt from Eunaat.

“Well, all right,” said Maligo, sounding disappointed. “I’ll go and see what goods he was bringing, shall I?” Renda did not seem inclined to answer. Tien heard boots approaching the back of the cart. She stiffened, her mind whirling too fast for her to tell what she was thinking, or what she should do. She heard a rustle as the sacks near the back of the cart were opened and examined. “More stinking fruit!” Maligo grumbled. “We really should not have surprised these good people until they had roasted their meat. No self-respecting Raseen can carry out his duties while surviving solely on fruit. I’ll go soft and sentimental as a peach, if I have to eat another one. Give me a leathery slab of meat to gnaw on any day!“ His voice moved away. “All done,” he called out, from the front of the cart now. “Let us collect our bits and pieces and return to Tira. Phan will be pleased with our day’s work, I think.”

Adrenaline coursed through Tien’s body. Pure relief. She focussed on slowing her breathing. How could he have not seen me? she asked herself dazedly. Then a soft chuckle sounded next to her.

© 2006 by Shelly Taylor

4. Capture

“The mouse has a friend,” Maligo murmured, his hot breath tickling her ear. He called out in a loud voice, “Come and see this oversized fruit, Renda.”

He hauled Tien out of the cart, his fingers biting into her armpits. Then he thrust her into a heap on the ground. Tien lay immobile where she had landed, still cocooned in her sheet. She began to shiver uncontrollably, her heart slamming against her ribs. How could her heart beat so fast, she wondered, when she felt it would stop in terror? The sheet was torn from her. Blinking and squinting, she looked up at her captors.

“An Aryk girl!” Maligo crowed, his black teeth gleaming.

He stood over her, hands on his hips, his booted legs spread apart as though he still rode his goat. Tien could not drag her eyes from him. She stared as though mesmerized. Maligo was a short, swarthy Raseen, broad shoulders with almost no neck. He had tied his plaits into a knot, and their spikes fanned his head like a peacock’s feathers. Three silver dots formed a horizontal line on his sweaty brow.

Tien’s eyes flickered fearfully to the other Raseen who now joined Maligo, and she met Eunaat’s startled gaze. Held upright by Renda, Eunaat gaped first at her, and then at the cart, comprehension dawning on his face.

“We’ll take them both with us then, shall we?” Maligo was saying to Renda, who seemed to be his superior. “We can put the girl on a cart with her kin, en route to Tira.”

“Let me look at her.” Renda pulled her over to one side, pulling her head to one side so he could examine the mark just under her jaw line. Tien trembled under his scrutiny, but after a moment, he swung her braid back. “Use your eyes man,” he called out to Maligo, as he dragged her back to the cart. “A lesser Tiran girl with a nasty case of head lice, no more. She has no mark.” He tugged the scarf back on her head.

“Oh. My mistake.” Maligo was grudging.

Renda began to walk away. “We’ll take them both to Tira,” he called back over his shoulder.

Maligo scowled at his retreating back. “All right, scratchy. You heard him. Let’s go.” As Maligo grasped her shoulders with his hard fingers, something inside Tien snapped.

She clapped both hands over her ears and the scream that she had been trying to swallow down for the last few minutes exploded from her throat. The shrill pitch of it surprised even her. Caught off guard, Maligo loosened his grip. Tien instinctively fled.

“Oy, stop!” Maligo pelted after her. Catching hold of her tunic, he threw her to the ground and stumbled over her legs. “Now you be a good girl, alright,” he panted, lugging her back to the cart, his breath sour in her face. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll behave…Hey!,” Maligo broke off, as Eunaat barrelled into him, his fists flailing wildly. “Stop, little man,” Maligo gave a surprised chuckle, but Eunaat did not appear to have heard him. “Ok, that’s how you want to do it, eh?” Maligo’s tone had changed. “I don’t feel so soft and peachy anymore.”

He let Tien slump to the ground. In a blur, she saw him raise a short black stick. A blinding spurt of light crackled out from it, striking Eunaat in the centre of his forehead, He slid motionless to the ground. Tien didn’t stop to think. She pummelled up at Maligo with her own fists; tears pouring down her cheeks. She wasn’t aware that Maligo had raised the baton again, until a jarring pain consumed her, radiating from her spine to her fingertips and toes. Loud buzzing filled her ears and seemed to pour out of her.

“Careful, Maligo,” someone was shouting. “Enough! She can help us with information about the Aryks that she transported for. Phan will have your neck if she dies….” Then mercifully everything went dark and still.


The little girl scampered down the path, a stitch cramping her left side. Dry puffs of peppery dirt rose from her scuffed footprints, as she darted past the villagers in the main street. She cast an anxious glance over her shoulder. It was hot in the midday sun, so the child kept to the cool shadows of the lime trees. There was only one street for business in Pojabe; the other paths led to uniform clusters of round mud–plastered houses. Each group of huts encircled an open courtyard.

Rubbing the cramp fiercely, the child trotted down the short lane to her home. She passed beneath the low archway and stood still, panting; letting her eyes adjust to the dimness inside. The dirt floor of the single room was neatly swept. Clay water pots and a leather bucket were stacked up next to the door. In the centre of the room, a thick wooden post supported the thatched roof. Five hammocks hung from three smaller posts that were set into the wall on the far side of the house. The end of each hammock was roped to the centre beam. A small table and five stools took up the rest of the room. Sunlight trickled through the old thatched roof, sprinkling the floor with beads of light.

The child cocked her head as the sound of laughter and voices drifted in from the courtyard. “Mama!“ she murmured. Tien crossed to the window and stood on her toes so she could see out.

Several women sat around a pile of unspun wool. Mama was fanning a small coal stove under the shade of a neem tree. Haim toddled after a ball fashioned from cloth and string, a soggy piece of bread clenched in one fist.

Tien looked back towards the door. She had made it safely this far. Not wanting to chance being seen from the lane, Tien dragged a water pot to the window. She turned it upside down and clambered onto it. Then, hoisting first one leg and then the other over the window’s edge, she lowered herself down into the courtyard.

The good-natured prattle of the women did not skip a beat, but some raised their eyebrows and looked across at Tien’s mother.

“Ah Sumina, who is this little monkey coming to visit you?,” lisped one toothless old lady.

Tien scuttled into Sumina’s outstretched arms, burrowing her head into her mother’s embrace like a lamb. In Mama’s soft strong arms, she felt safe. After a few moments, Tien wriggled free and looked up into Mama’s hazel eyes, before settling onto a corner of a brown sisal mat.

“I didn’t expect to see you so soon,” said Sumina. She broke off a piece of hot bread, and blew on it before handing it to Tien. “Mmmmm.” Tien nibbled around the edge of the bread slowly to bide time while she figured out what her story would be.

“Are you sick?” asked Sumina. Tien considered for a moment.

“No,“ she decided aloud, remembering that being sick meant you had to stay inside all day.

“Did you forget your lunch?” her mother persisted. Tien shook her head. No, in fact that part had been so exciting, she had stopped under the first tree on the way, and eaten it all. “You haven’t left anything else behind, have you?”

Tien darted a look at her mother. Did she suspect? Surely not. Earlier, she had come back to fetch the string ball that she had ‘forgotten.’ But then she’d spent the rest of the morning hiding in the scrub just out of town, and capturing grasshoppers as pets.

The rustle of a crisp skirt and hurrying footsteps sounded close by. Tien’s cheeks paled. She had been so careful, making sure that she had not been followed.

“Someone else to see you, Sumina,“ one of the women called. Tien ducked behind Mama just in time. She gripped the back of her mother’s tunic with trembling fingers, as a young lady entered the courtyard. The women rose in welcome. Tien did not dare to peek around her mother’s back. As long as her eyes were closed, she knew she was invisible.

The visitor smiled at the women, greeting each one in the traditional manner. ‘How are you?’ ‘How goes your family?’ ‘How are your crops?’ They murmured the appropriate responses warmly, gesturing for her to share a mat.

When they were all seated, the woman turned to Sumina. “I have come to leave a message for your daughter.”

“Ah. Well I will be sure to tell her, when next I see her,” Sumina assured her. As she crouched behind her mother’s back, Tien listened with every part of her body.

“The children are practising for a harvest drama next week, and Fanzine told me to tell Tien: ‘There cannot be a cabbage patch with only one cabbage. Please come and be the cabbage patch with me’. ”

“I hope Tien gets this message in time, Miss Roovil,” Sumina said. “It sounds rather urgent!”

“Yes,” Miss Roovil agreed. “And I do hope that Tien does not miss the parade for the new students this afternoon. Each student will be carrying a flag.”

Tien’s jaw dropped. A flag? She marvelled. I can carry a flag? Just for being new at school? It was too thrilling!

“Miss Roovil, I can carry the flag,” she cried, bursting from her hiding place.

“Oh, hello.” Miss Roovil looked very surprised. She smiled at Tien, and then gave a puzzled frown. “Do I know you?”

“It is I, Tien,” said Tien, standing up straight so that Miss Roovil could see how big she was. “Today is my first day at school.”

“And it is mine too! I am on my way there now. Shall we walk together?”

Tien nodded. She looked at her mother, and tears welled up in her eyes. Now that she was a big schoolgirl, she would not be able to help Mama with her work. Poor Mama. She threw her arms about her tightly, and felt her mother kiss the top of her head. Then she let Mama go with a loud sniff, and wiped her eyes.

Bye, Mama. I have to go and show Fanzine how to be the cabbage patch,” she said with a watery smile. Tien’s head began to throb; waves of pain pulsed through her temples. She tried to rub them, but her hands would not move. Mama’s face faded into a blur and the women’s voices grew faint. As Tien’s eyes fluttered open, the huts and courtyard vanished. Oh no! Real tears slipped through her lashes as she realized it had all been a dream. That day in Pojabe was a lifetime ago.

© 2006 by Shelly Taylor

6.A Daring Plan

Tien stiffened, her chest heaving. Tears at her own helplessness stung her eyes but she blinked them away, determined not to cry. She forced herself to breathe slowly.
Fen is right, she thought. I’ll get the blame when those two are discovered missing. I could try to warn this guard about their plan. She rolled slightly onto her back to ease the pressure on her right arm, which had gone to sleep. Oh what’s the use, she told herself miserably. I wouldn’t be able to prove they were going to break out, till after they were already gone. Saka and Fen could just deny it.

The guard outside fumbled with the lock for a moment, before sliding back a small metal grate that was level with the floor. He grunted. “Good evening, my little canaries,” he said with a simper. He must have been kneeling with his face next to the grate, because they could hear him clearly. “Have you become acquainted with yer new little house guest yet? Given her the big tour of the place?”

He cackled as he pushed a flask of water and a battered tin plate bearing chunks of bread through the grate. A bowl of greasy broth with limp green shreds floating in it followed. Some of its contents sloshed onto the plate. “Dinner is soured. Sorry, I mean dinner is served.“ He pealed with laughter again. “Oops, nearly forgot; we can’t have you dining without the silver now, can we?” He shoved a spoon through the grate with much merriment.

“Warden?” “What is it lad? After a second helping already?,” the warden snorted.

“Warden, the new prisoner has not moved since she was brought in. She’s lost a lot of blood. I fear that the stale smell of it will begin to offend your nostrils, and those of your superiors.” Saka’s tone was careless, but he rubbed his temples in agitation as he spoke. “We would appreciate a cloth to clean it up. Please.”

There was complete silence. Tien held her breath. As she had told Fen, the orders had clearly been that she be kept alive. She could almost feel the warden processing the information from Saka, and weighing it up against his orders from the Raseen. She heard scuffling and grunting, the dull sound of flesh being pressed against the door. The warden must be getting to his feet.

“Oh.., Ah, the prisoner is sick, you say? Not moving? She cannot be dead, surely. They said the prod was not used too much on her.” The warden’s voice quavered, all his bravado sapped by the news. “Has she a pulse?” he asked.

“If there is, it is but a flutter,” said Saka casually, giving a thumbs up to Fen. The room was by now almost in total darkness, but Tien heard the confident smirk in his voice, as he manipulated his captor. Again, there was silence.

Finally, the warden said, “I’d better come in and have a look at her myself.” He made a poor attempt at sounding gruff. “First, put the food back through the grate; and the spoon. Especially the spoon.” Saka hurried to do as he said. “Good. Now,” the warden barked, “ both of you, get back against the wall where I can see you, and keep your hands up.”

Saka and Fen obediently went to stand against the wall next to the door. There was a jangle of keys, then the protesting screech of rusty hinges, as the guard forced the door open. He entered cautiously, his lantern flooding the room with warm light and wavering shadows.

Tien lay rigid, her eyes closed tight. She had no idea what she was supposed to do when the guard came in, or when he realized she was not sick, let alone dying. Don’t move, she told herself. Breathe slowly and don’t move. This was easier said than done. Tien’s shorn head prickled under the scarf. She longed to scratch it.

“Let’s see how she is,” said the guard. There was real concern in his voice.

He’s only worried for himself, Tien thought contemptuously. Worried that he’ll be in trouble with the Raseen. She could hear him moving towards her. Her body tensed, waiting for his hand to grab her wrist and feel for a pulse. I mustn’t flinch, she thought, because then he’ll know I’m faking. I have to go limp. She forced her muscles to relax, and allowed her aching limbs to droop. But then the plan seemed to go haywire.

Fen called softly, “ Oh, and Warden, we found these golden bangles in the girl’s pocket. There is a crusted diamond serpent wrapped around each one. It may not b ….”

The guard gasped at the description of the jewellery. Tien frowned at the blatant lie, and without thinking, her eyes flew open. She saw the guard stride over to Fen. His lean stoop-shouldered frame dwarfed her. “Let me see.”

His voice was incredulous. “How could the little thief manage to steal such bangles? They are only worn by the Tiran princesses.” His hand snaked out to jerk them from Fen’s grasp. He didn’t notice the smooth movement behind him, until it was too late. Saka clamped a cloth firmly over his nose and mouth, and within seconds he slumped to the ground.

© 2006 by Shelly Taylor

5. Fellow Inmates

Urgent whispers penetrated the dreams of the figure, lying awkwardly on the ground.

‘Give it here. Let me have a look at least.”

‘Shh! Honestly, must you whisper so loudly? We can’t take any more risks. If this doesn’t work, there will not be another chance till next week. The others will have given us up for dead by then.”

“ I know it has to be tonight, Saka. It’s all we’ve talked about for days.”

“Oh, this wretched, wretched thing!” A soft scuffle ensued, but Tien did not dare twist her head to look.

“A simple ‘please’ wouldn’t have cost you a thing, Fenrysienne. There’s no need to forgo your manners and good breeding just because we are in the bowels of Tira. Ouch!”

“You know I hate to be called that! Now, see? I’ve undone the first knot, while you’ve been jabbering.”

“Give it back, and I’ll stop.”

“No, let me get the rest out. My nails are longer. Honestly Saka, how did your belt get so tangled? ”

This had been going on for the last few minutes, as far as Tien could tell. At first it had seemed to be part of her muddled dreams. But as the throbbing in her head and arms brought her to groggy wakefulness, the whispering had not stopped. Bewildered, she lay still.

My head feels so thick and slow, she thought. Like I’m moving underwater through thick mud. Oh, my shoulders ache. Where are my arms? She wriggled her hands and found that they were clasped together behind her back. She couldn’t separate them or bring them up to her face. Why won’t they move when I want them to? Are they stuck? Her sluggish brain began to churn, backtracking over what she could last remember; wanting to make sense of the pain and unfamiliar voices she had woken to.

A jumble of images pierced through the haze of her memory. They flashed past like bats at dusk, vanishing before she could really see them. Bouncing in the back of a cart. A man’s laughter. Another man’s screams. Or had she been the one screaming? And then, a sudden jolt of agony. Fragments of conversation echoed nightmarishly inside her pounding head. ‘

Juicy little Aryks to squash. Juicy. Juicy. Ha ha ha. Little Aryks to squash.’ The Raseen! she remembered, with a thrill of fear. I’ve captured by the Raseen. Panic rose at the back of her throat. Every muscle tensed for flight. But she fought the instinct and lay motionless, straining to hear. The earthy smell of mould and soil filled her nostrils. Her garment was damp, and she shivered, though there was no breeze.

“…why has she been put here with us? There must a good reason,” the woman was whispering.

“Well, she has not stirred since she came in. The prodding she received may have nearly finished her off.” The reply was a man’s.

Thanks for the sympathy, Tien thought, indignation rousing her a little. Prodding? she mused. That sounds awful. It’s no wonder my whole body aches.

“Listen,” the man was saying, “ we cannot second guess every minute of what will happen. Let’s trust in our plan. And I’ll have my belt back, thankyou very much.”

Slowly, hardly daring to breathe, Tien opened her eyelids a fraction to get her bearings. A dark stone wall materialized before her fluttering lashes. Without moving, her eyes scanned what seemed to be a cramped and windowless room, bare of any furniture. Two small patches of light filtered through a crack where the ceiling met the wall. Could it be late afternoon? she wondered, because the light is dimming. How long have I been here? The whispering was coming from a shadowy corner opposite her, only just within her line of vision. Tien could make out the silhouette of a man. He had his back to her. He uttered a muffled curse.

“Saka, if you won’t let me fix it, at least light a waxmatch, so you can see what you have to untangle,” the woman hissed.

Someone struck a match. Tien gasped as the sudden flare illuminated the woman’s disfigured face. Her features were swallowed up again by the darkness, as the man dropped the match. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Tien chided silently, screwing her eyes tightly shut. When she dared to open them again, the two companions were kneeling over her. Another waxmatch cast a flickering light over their faces.

“Who are you?” the man whispered. He gently pulled her up, into the light of the match. As he stared at her, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open.

Tien groaned as he abruptly released his grip, leaving her to slump painfully back onto the floor. “Fen, see the mark on her neck? She is an Aryk. But look, she wears a Watcher’s cloak.“

Tien was fully alert now, and butterflies fluttered in the pit of her stomach. This must be a holding cell or a prison. Maybe Mama and the others had all been prodded and were stashed here somewhere as well. But who were these people?

The woman gazed at Tien. The skin on the left side of her face stretched tightly over her features, tugging her mouth and left eye into a permanent leer. The scarred flesh was shiny and uneven, as though it had been melted and then smeared across her cheek and jawbone before it set. A knotted scarf concealed her hair, but she had made no such effort to hide her scars.

“Who are you?,” the woman asked. Her eyes were troubled. “How do you come to have this cloak?”

What cloak do they mean? Tien wondered. She bent her head painfully to look at what she was wearing. Sure enough, her shoulders were shrouded in a dark material that she did not recognize. She looked up at the two of them, confusion darkening her eyes. What should I say, she wondered? Will they believe me if I tell the truth? She decided to try. She was in no condition to make anything up.

“I am Tien,” she said, trying to meet their gaze. “I do not understand why I have this cloak on me,” she said. Her voice sounded low and hoarse to her own ears. She cleared her throat. “I have never seen it before.“

Fen glanced at Saka, her expression lost in the shadow he cast. Saka crouched down on his haunches, close to where Tien still lay. He searched her face with suspicious eyes.

“Why have you been brought to the city jail?” he asked.

The jail in Tira, Tien told herself. I was right. She blinked. Surely this was a dream. Her body felt light and floaty as if she was watching this conversation from some distance. Nothing seemed real.

“I’m not sure,” she said aloud, wishing that Saka would stand up. “I was caught by some Raseen in Pojabe yesterday. At least, I think it was yesterday. One of them said that they needed to keep me for questioning.” It suddenly occurred to her that maybe Eunaat was here as well.

“Was anyone brought in here with me?” she asked hopefully.

Fen’s face softened. “No,” she said, “I think you were on your own”. A deep gong resonated around the room. Tien jumped. Someone was ringing a bell outside.

Saka tensed. “We’ve been distracted,” he said over the din. “We have to go.”

They’re planning an escape, Tien realized. Her mind raced. Why didn’t I see it before? She raised beseeching eyes to Fen. “You’re trying to escape, aren’t you? Please take me out with you!” She bit her lip, shocked by the words that had tumbled out of her mouth. What am I saying? she thought. These people are in jail. That means they’re criminals and possibly dangerous. Although, she remembered, I’m innocent and I’m in their cell. Oh what does it matter? The important thing is that they have an escape plan. I would never be able to find a way out of here by myself. I’d never have considered the possibility. Tien wanted to sit up, but she did not have the strength to, without her hands to help her. And whenever she stretched her neck, black dots clouded her vision.

Saka was shaking his dark head emphatically. “Not a chance.”

“I will go on my way afterwards, and never tell anyone I saw you, ” Tien pleaded.
“Think about it, Saka,” Fen muttered. “What will her fate be if we leave her here? She will be punished for not alerting the guards. And there is a reason for that cloak. I know it.”

The thud of heavy boots echoed on the stone floor outside. Saka tugged Fen, by the shoulder, over to the wall adjacent to the door. “We go ahead as planned! “ he hissed. Then he turned back to Tien. “Play dead.” His voice was urgent. “If they need you alive, as you said, he will come in to check on you. He may even untie your bonds.”

Heartless pig! Tien kicked the wall hard with her bound feet, till she had Saka’s attention again. “Please don’t leave me to the mercy of the raseen. Please?” She had get through to him. She did not want to die. Not here. Fear tightened her throat.

“You will never see me again afterwards,” she whispered. “I’ll disappear and I won’t tell a soul. Please?”

As Tien spoke, she thought she saw a softness flicker briefly over Saka’s face. Then it was gone. “Lie still and stay quiet if you want things to go better for you,” he said shortly, not meeting her gaze.

The footsteps slowed as they reached the door. “Your luncheon buffet is served, and if its aroma is anything to go by, it be the most unforgettable taste sensation in town!” rasped a loud voice, as a key turned in the lock.

Saka threw a last desperate look at Tien, before returning to stand near the door.

© 2006 by Shelly Taylor

7. Escape

The next few minutes were a haze for Tien. Suddenly Saka was bending over her. He picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Then he locked the cell door with the guard’s key, and loped after Fen, who sprinted silently ahead. Tien’s head bounced up and down on Saka’s shoulder, as Saka navigated the labyrinth of passageways. She could see where they were quite clearly, by the light of flaming torches bolted into the walls.

The torches reeked of kerosene, and spewed out thick choking smoke. Barred cells lined either side of the passageway. It was dark enough to be a dungeon, but Tien remembered the light that had seeped through the cracks in the ceiling. Dungeons didn’t receive any sunlight, at least not in the stories she’d grown up with.

As Saka ran, Tien could see that prisoners silently watched them, from their cells on either side. There were no startled expressions; no cries or yells for their attention. Just a blur of hopeless faces, whose vacant eyes stared dully out at them. Are they Aryks? she wondered, her heart skipping a beat. They can’t be, she told herself, though she tried to have a better look at them all the same. No, these prisoners had obviously been here a long time, for their cheeks to be so hollowed. They look like living skeletons with such grey, lifeless skin, Tien thought. The poor things.

Ooof! Saka stumbled slightly. He righted himself, repositioned Tien and then kept going. His breathing was loud and shallow as he struggled under her weight. It’s no fun for me either, mister, Tien fumed, her cheeks burning in the darkness. Being made to feel like a great sack of fruit.

After what felt like an hour of being hauled through the musty prison, she realized that the air smelt fresher; the aroma of fragrant cooking mingled with the pungent sweetness of spoiled fruit. Tien could hear the distant clamour of a busy city coming alive for the night. She lifted her head and peered around. There was a gate just ahead. It was wide open, and led into a small courtyard, lit by a flickering lamppost. From the empty baskets piled up to one side, and the compost heap fermenting ripely on the left, it appeared that this was the prison’s side entrance, where stale bread and fruit could be brought from the markets to feed the prisoners.

A second gate led into an unlit alley. Fen fumbled with the mass of keys, to find one that would open it. The key turned silently. Fen pushed the gate and it swung open with a yawning groan. The three fugitives held their breath. Nothing stirred from inside the prison. Fen released a shaky sigh of relief.

“I’ll go back now,” she whispered, holding up the keys.

Tien raised her head from Saka’s shoulder to look at Fen. Go back? she wondered, her heart sinking. What did Fen mean? Was Fen going to stay?

“Just unlock the first few cells,” Saka told Fen. “Then let them have the keys. They will have plenty of time. Vond should sleep like a baby all night and wake up with no memory of what took place.”

Fen nodded. “We’ll wait in the alley. Hurry!” Saka urged.

Hanging, helpless and ungainly, over Saka’s shoulder, Tien’s eyes widened in dismay. They cannot be serious, she thought. Feeling sorry for the prisoners, is one thing, but to free them all? Won’t someone notice an empty jail a little quicker than just three missing prisoners? Fen slunk off, disappearing back into the jail. Saka carried Tien out of the gate.

“Having all the prisoners on the loose will give us a head start,” he said, as though he’d read her mind. He snorted a soft laugh. “Well, it won’t really,“ he admitted. “It may cause half a day of confusion though, which is to our advantage. It’s our small way of saying ‘nah nah-nah-nah nah’ to the establishment. And anyhow, none of the wretches on the ground floor are there for any crime, other than showing compassion to those whom the king’s new laws exclude.”

Tien started in surprise. Saka talked as if he was against some of Phan’s ideas. But is he being honest? she wondered. Could it be a ploy to get me to feel comfortable, to let my guard down? But that is ludicrous. I have no information that is worth all that effort. She frowned. Maybe Saka and Fen were genuinely unhappy with the changes in Pendelethe.

Tien’s head ached and it hurt to think. She longed to rub her cold hands over her forehead. She wriggled her fingers. When they reached the safety of the alley’s concealing shadows, Saka set her down carefully. He placed her upright onto the cobbled road. Tien swayed precariously. Her legs were still tied together. Saka gripped her forearms and propped her against the wall of the jail. Yellow light from the courtyard’s lamppost spilled over into the alley, and Tien was able to make out his features.

Now that Tien was on her feet, she saw that Saka was not as tall as she had first thought, although he stood a good head and shoulders over her. He was obviously still growing, and a bit on the scrawny side. Saka’s face was typically Tiran, a firm jaw with a slightly prominent chin. No prince charming, but definitely not a frog either.

“Can you stand alright?” he asked, his dark puppy-eyes nearly hidden under an untidy thatch of dark fringe. He scraped it back impatiently. Tien leant heavily against the wall, and nodded at him. She still could scarcely believe that they had taken her with them. “Walk?,” Saka asked.

“I think so. It’s really my arms and the back of my head that hurt.” Tien instantly wished she had not admitted this. She did not want to reveal any weakness that could see her left behind. “I’ll be fine,” she added quickly.

Saka flashed a smile that transformed his face. His four front teeth were a little gappy and very white. “I am sure you will,” he said, producing a wicked-looking blade from his pocket. “Though I think that you will go better without these.”

Tien flinched and her eyes widened as he reached behind her back. Then she relaxed sheepishly. He was only trying to cut the cords that bound her hands and feet. Two deft upward slices, and they fell to the ground.

“So kind of Vond to loan us his knife,” Saka said, pocketing it again. Tien wriggled her toes in their sandals, and gently rubbed her tender wrists. Free! she thought, a smile spreading over her face. Then she remembered why she was in Tira. Somewhere, my family and all the Aryks are locked up. Are the Raseen hurting them? Have they been taken as slaves?

Images of the awful things her family could be enduring at this very moment, seeped into Tien’s mind like a black cloud. She couldn’t bear it. She screwed her eyes closed, rubbing at her eyeballs until she only saw blackness. The blood had begun to pulse freely through her limbs again. Pain replaced the pins and needles, distracting her tormented thoughts. It hurt. Tien gritted her teeth and sucked in a breath. She shook out her arms and legs, trotting on the spot to hurry the process along. Her cheeks flushed as she noticed Saka staring, but it was working. The pain was beginning to subside. Tien felt a tightness around her chest. She reached around and touched something bulky. It was attached to her back and covered by the cloak.

She twisted around and struggled to pull it off. Then she held it up for a better look. My backpack! Tien grinned. How did it get from the cart onto my back? She had a sudden terrible thought. Fanzine’s letter. Had it been discovered? Tien fumbled with the tie, and her trembling fingers probed the letter’s hiding place. Oh, thank goodness! It was there! Next she felt for the slight thickness, where she had sewn the precious pages from Miss Roovil into the lining of her pack. They rustled slightly under her fingertips. A wave of warm relief washed over Tien’s body. She felt like dancing and shouting with joy at this small triumph, but she was too weak. In any case it wouldn’t be wise to draw attention to the pack’s importance, she remembered. It was too soon to tell if Saka or Fen could be trusted.

Tien glanced at Saka, as she hugged the pack to her chest. “How did you get chloroform into the prison? Didn’t the guards search you thoroughly?,” she asked, with a burst of confidence.

Saka blinked, and then grinned. “Ha!“ he chortled. “That was no chloroform!” He leaned forward in a confidential manner. “Fen knows all about herbs and remedies. She remembered learning that the juice of a crushed roach, when mixed with an acid, becomes a sedative. It is powerful enough to put an elephant to sleep for half a day!”

His eyebrows lifted. “As you can imagine, there was no shortage of the live ingredient in our cell.” He chuckled at Tien’s grimace. “And then each day without fail that dreadful soup was served up. Guess what the green stuff floating in it is?” Tien shook her head, her aches forgotten for the moment. “Lime tree leaves!” Saka crowed. “And although they were wilted and cooked, they still managed to bring out the potency of the roach fluids. As poor Vond found out.”

Saka laughed unsympathetically. He seemed to mistake the incredulous look on Tien’s face as one of concern for the guard’s welfare. “Hey,” he said, with a shrug. “I was the guinea pig for Fen’s recipe before we used it on Vond, so I know first hand that he’ll suffer no long-term ill effects. Well, at least none that he doesn’t already have.” He stooped low, his arms and legs splayed, and skulked around her; a fair imitation, of both the roaches and Vond.

“Ugh!“ Tien smiled. Tiran roaches grew to be the size of a man’s hand. Being flat, they could slide under most doors. The roaches had invaded Aryk in plague-like proportions several seasons ago. Tien would never forget the night when she had woken to something scratching and pulling on her nightshirt. She’d looked down to see five or more glossy black roaches scrabbling over her. They had scattered harmlessly into the shadows, but long after the roach plague ended, Tien still wrapped her face in a scarf before sleeping.

She thought back to what the guard, Vond, had said about the bangles that Fen had shown him. Maybe Saka and Fen were thieves, caught stealing from the Phan himself. Had she escaped the jail, only to become trapped into something even worse? They both looked kind and seemed nice, but like Fanzine said in her letter, looks could be deceiving.

“What about those bangles? Were they really from the palace?” she asked Saka.

“What, these?” Saka grasped part of the thin belt tied around his waist, the belt that had so annoyed him. He held it up. It was bright yellow and fashioned from thin cords that were braided together. He undid some of the braiding, and then looped three or four sections. He laid them out in his palm, with the excess bits hidden, so she got the full effect. Tien saw how, in the dark, the yellow braiding look a little like gold bracelets. Ingenious, she thought, looking at him in admiration.

Fen skidded up to them. “Let’s go,” she panted, “before the entrance becomes congested.“ Tien looked down the alley. To the left, it ran along the length of the jail, disappearing into the darkness. The distant hum of music and laughter seemed to be coming from the opposite direction, where the lights of Tira glowed over shadowy rooftops.

“We’ll need to head towards an open, crowded place,” said Saka, pointing in the direction of the city. “The first areas the guards will look, will be the shadowy parts of town.”

Tien glanced uncertainly at him. The thought of walking freely through Tira scared her. Surely people would notice them, all grimy and crumpled from sleeping on a jail floor. Tien preferred the idea of keeping to the dark corners, where she at least felt safe. A metallic sound echoed hollowly through the hallway behind them. The clang of rusty metal doors sliding open. Tien jumped.

Fen placed a cool hand on her arm. “It’s alright,” she whispered. “The prisoners are freeing each other.”

“Oh,” said Tien, feeling foolish. Stop being so jumpy, she told herself, or they may strand you here. Saka had started to walk towards the well- lit part of Tira. He motioned for the others to follow. Tien forced her stiff legs to move. She glanced around, her heart thumping. She half expected a gang of Raseen to jump out at any second. Did Saka really know what he was doing?

“What about the other guards?,” Tien whispered. “Won’t they be looking for us soon?”

“No, no one will know we’re gone for hours,” Saka said airily. He sounded so relaxed! “We’ve only been in the jail ten days ourselves,” Fen explained, as they turned into a wider and brighter lane. “But the prisoner in the cell next to us has been there for nearly a year and was most informative. He had been going crazy with boredom, so he began to memorize the wardens’ names and their shift patterns. He discovered that, for ten hours every Friday night, there is only one warden on duty.”

“Oh,” said Tien, to show Fen that she was listening. They turned right, then immediately right again, heading towards the light ahead, like moths to a flame.]

“And at any rate,” said Saka. ”Vond, the guard on duty, will be held responsible when our escape is discovered, and he will not dare to let them know he was outwitted by two girls and a boy.” He gave a scornful laugh. “Nope, he‘ll come up with some story of a revolt, and of being overpowered by half of the prisoners in the jail, blah, blah, blah….“ He looked out at the brighter lights ahead, and stopped. “OK, we are almost there. Let’s make ourselves presentable.”

Saka and Fen took off the cloaks they wore and put them into their packs. Tien watched them and then did the same. Why are these cloaks significant?, she wondered. A Watcher’s cloak, is that what they called the one I’m wearing? What can a Watcher be? She reached a hand to her hair. The tie for her braid hung perilously from a tangle. She rescued it, and then combed her fingers through her hair, doing her best to reconstruct the braid, without the aid of a comb. Her hair felt coarse and filthy from the dirt floor.

Tien pulled a corner of the cloak from of her pack, and moistened it with a couple of drops from her flask. She gingerly sponged her face and neck. The others had obviously prepared earlier for mingling, and didn’t take long. After Tien hoisted her pack back over her shoulder and straightened, the three of them checked each other for missed spots, before moving on.

“Act as though you are enjoying the evening’s entertainments; we want to blend in,” Saka said under his breath.

Fen pulled up abruptly. “Tien,” she said. “Your head. We’d better cover it up, or you’ll be spotted as a Aryk.”

Tien ran a hand over her head, feeling the bristle of her fuzz. “My scarf must have come off in the prison,” she stammered.

Fen rifled through her pack, and brought out a piece of dark fabric. “Shall I do it for you?” Tien nodded and bent her head forward, wincing as the bone at the nape of her neck throbbed in protest. Fen deftly wrapped Tien’s braid in the scarf, which smelled faintly of sandalwood, and tucked in any escaping strands. She finished by draping the ties in such a way, that they covered the mark on her neck. “There, now we both look like peasant girls,” she said, her mouth lifting into a crooked smile.

“Thankyou,” Tien said, smiling. “ I’d forgotten about my hair.” I’m starting to like Fen, she thought. I really hope I can trust her. Saka stood by, clicking his fingers. “Ready?” he asked. The girls nodded. “Well, here goes nothing.”

They began a leisurely stroll. They’d been following the swelling music and laughter, and now the lane opened out onto what appeared to be the town square. Tall lampposts around its perimeter cast a soft, festive glow over the evening’s entertainment.

© 2006 by Shelly Taylor