Sweat dripped down my forehead as I swung my “sword” at the tree. It snapped in half. I tossed the broken branch I’d hoped to practice my swordsmanship with and cursed the orphanage for not allowing me to keep my wooden practice sword. At fifteen, I still had two years before I’d be considered an adult and allowed to be free of this place, but after five months, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to stand it that long, even if it was for my own protection.
I moved to a fallen log and slid my hand in the hollow opening. I skimmed over the tiny pouch of coins and pulled out a bow and quiver of arrows wrapped in an animal skin. They could take my wooden sword, but I wouldn’t be parted from these, no matter what their ridiculous rules were. The head mistress relented when she found out it was from my father. What son should be separated from the only thing that he had left from his father? She let me keep the bow and quiver but took the arrows so I wouldn’t “hurt anyone.” A few days later, I snuck into her office and found them tucked away neatly behind her desk. I only took five of them so she wouldn’t notice. Keeping them out here was a precaution I took in case the head mistress did realize that the arrows were missing. She could search the boy’s dorm all she wanted, but she wouldn’t find any proof that I had taken the arrows.
Besides, it was easier to sneak out if I didn’t have a bow and quiver full of arrows to carry.
I notched the arrow onto the string while congratulating myself on skipping out on another day of tedious bookwork at the orphanage.
I pulled back the string, bringing my hand to my jaw.
The faint sound of a bell echoed through the small clearing. The monastery bell only rang for two reasons: for services or for trouble. I lowered my bow. There was no service today.
I quickly wrapped my bow and arrows in the animal skin, shoved it back in the log, and ran through the woods toward the orphanage.
As I got closer, the smell of smoke accosted me and the woods grew foggy. I could see an angry orange glow even before I broke through the tree line. People were shouting.
My senses told me what was happening before I could see the orphanage, but I didn’t believe them until I stood staring at the building that I had left only a few hours ago sitting sleepily as the orange, first light of the sun bathed the walls. Orange light still covered the walls, but it wasn’t from the sun. It was fire.
I joined the people standing in front of the burning building, watching the orphanage burn with either looks of glazed-over shock or enraged disbelief on their faces.
“Why is no one trying to put the fire out?” I asked an old man near me. I was surprised that my voice wavered. I didn’t know any of the other orphans too well, and I definitely wasn’t sentimental about the building. Perhaps it was just the reminder that one moment could change everything in your life, like the news that my father was killed on a mission I didn’t even know he’d been sent on.
“It’s too late,” said the old man, eyes never leaving the flames. “The building can’t be saved. The fire is too big.”
“But what about the people inside?” There was a small group of teachers standing on the other side of the crowd, but I didn’t see any of the orphans.
“There isn’t anyone inside. They’re gone.”
“You mean they…they all died?” I choked on the last word.
“No, just gone. The soldiers took them.” The old man looked at me for the first time. “Aren’t you an orphan? Why didn’t they take you?”
“It doesn’t matter.” I brushed him off. “Why would the soldiers burn the building?”
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but it seems that when the solders asked to have all the orphans who were above the age of twelve, the headmistress caused a stink about it. They’re only supposed to take orphans from the streets you know.”
I nodded impatiently. I knew about the law King Radon had enacted two years ago stating that parentless children above the age of twelve could be inducted into the king’s service. Father had come home angry the day it was announced. He joined the King’s soldiers to defend the nation of Minaria not to kidnap neglected children.
“I guess they didn’t like being argued with,” the old man said, looking back at the flames. “They took all the children, younger ones too.”
I thanked my lucky stars that I was in the woods when they came. The only reason I stayed at this orphanage was because it kept me from being nabbed by the solders. Once they caught you, you were no better than a slave. The lucky ones were trained as soldiers, but most were sent to work in the kitchens or stables. From that point on, the castle owned you. Even once you reach adulthood, you weren’t allowed to leave.
Something snapped and a piece of the roof collapsed sending a plume of smoke into the air.
I may have been fortunate enough to avoid capture, but now I was without a place to stay. A few moments ago, I couldn’t wait for the day I’d leave this place, but now that it was melting before my eyes, I was at a loss for what to do.
All my life, I’d wanted to do what my father did, but the idea of joining the King’s army had slowly lost its appeal. In the last few years, father wasn’t happy with his work. He said King Radon was never the same after his twin brother died and he missed the days before Ryker had passed from the illness that had taken him. His death left his brother borderline crazy. Which my father didn’t understand. They may have been identical twins, but they were never close.
Even if the king weren’t acting strange and father had no complaints about being one of his soldiers, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to show up at the castle and ask to join the army. At my age, I would need a parent’s permission and since I didn’t have that, they would know I’m an orphan and probably send me to clean the chamber pots or something.
I could find another orphanage, but I wasn’t sure if they would take me in without money. My father’s belongings and the house we lived in had already been sold to pay the people at this place to take me in. If anyone could get in for free, then none of the orphans would stay on the streets for the soldiers to take. Although it didn’t look like orphanages protected you from them anymore. The children at this orphanage weren’t.
Maybe I could find work here, or maybe I could set out on my own. I had a bow. I could feed myself from fresh game and sleep under the trees, and I could buy some other supplies with the money I had in the log.
I’d never had so many options before, and the choice was mine alone to make. I just hoped I would make the right one.
The decision is made. The poll is closed.
Are you as excited as I am?! We’re finally doing this! The first chapter is out and it’s time to decide what will happen next. I can’t wait to see what you guys choose.
The poll will close Sunday at 10 p.m. (central time), so make sure you get your vote in by then.
Let the fun begin!