Tag Archives: Choose your own story

Chapter 17: Rescuing and Being Rescued

“Alright. It may get us in a lot of trouble, but we shouldn’t leave them,” I said.

Faiza gave a nod of satisfaction. Rachael looked concerned.

“Alright,” Ethan said, “so who’s going to do it?”

“I am,” Faiza said.

“There should be more than one,” I said. “Two people will get it done faster than one, and it’s still a small enough group that there shouldn’t be trouble being stealthy.”

“Are you volunteering?” Faiza asked.

“I have the stone. If something goes wrong, they can’t hurt me.”

Faiza gave a nod. “The two of us then.”

“Shouldn’t I go?” We both looked down to Samel.

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to have an invisible person sneak up on a group of kids in the middle of the night?” Faiza asked. “We’ll have enough trouble keeping them from making any noise when they see us. A floating knife cutting through their ropes will—“

“They won’t see the knife,” he said. “I can make what I touch invisible if it isn’t too big. You didn’t see the pack on my back that night I snuck up on you did you?”

“Ropes that cut themselves isn’t any better,” Faiza said dryly.

“I won’t be invisible then. I’ll go like this and if any of the soldiers wake up,” he snapped his fingers, “I’ll be gone.”

“You could still be hurt though,” Rachael told him. “Dalan has the stone to protect him.”

“You’re not taking Dalan’s place,” Faiza said, for once agreeing with something Rachael said.

“I’m going in your place.” Samel’s lips quirked in a little smile.

“Not happening.”

“It should be me and Dalan. He has the stone, I have invisibility. We’d make a great team.”

I’m going.” Faiza was staring daggers at Samel’s curly head. It meant a lot to her to rescue those kids, but Samel was right, out of all of us it would be safest for him and me. Faiza wouldn’t give up her opportunity to do this though.

“Samel can go instead of me.” That earned me a scowl from Faiza, but I kept talking before she could interject. “Samel can’t give his magic to another person, but I can.”

“You’re going to let me wear the Hashna Stone?”

“You’ll need it if the soldiers wake up.”

Rachael stepped up. “You shouldn’t let anyone else wear it.”

“I’m not going to steal it.” Faiza rolled her eyes.

Rachael ignored her and continued looking at me. “If a grimulin comes, who is going to protect it from being taken?”

Faiza crossed her arms. “It’s not like I’m completely helpless.”

“But you don’t have the dwarves’ sword.”

“He can give me the sword too.”

“Can you use it?”

Faiza huffed. She had great aim with her bow, but she’d probably never held a sword before.

“I won’t give her the stone until it’s time,” I said, hoping to keep them from fighting. “I’ll take it back as soon as the children are free.”

“I guess there isn’t much chance of grimulin coming in such a short amount of time,” Rachael said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.

I sat and leaned against a tree. “Now we wait until they fall asleep.”

—–

Even with half a moon in the sky it was hard to see. Faiza and Samel were making their way down the hill toward the children but I could barely see them from where I sat on top of the ridge with Rachael and Ethan. It wasn’t until they reached the bottom that I saw a glimpse of their shadows against the glimmering orange ashes in the fire pit.

There was some movement to the side that must have been them getting the children up. As long as I didn’t hear the soldiers, that’s all that mattered.

There was the sound of a bunch of tree branches breaking, and I thought there must be a couple of really big owls landing in the trees. I hoped they didn’t wake the soldiers up.

The rustling got louder. It sounded like the owls were falling to the ground and hitting every tree branch on their way down.

Faiza yelled and I thought I heard a growl. I was running down the hill before I knew what I was doing. The soldiers were all awake now, yelling to each other. Faiza was hunched over on the ground with a mass of black twisting around her. Grimulin. There were more than one, but it was hard to tell how many.

They pinned her down. She couldn’t get up to shoot her bow.

I rushed in and swung my sword at the black mass moving around her. My sword jarred as it sunk into the flesh of one of them. I had no idea which part.

The grimulin turned on me and swiped me with its long claws. They hurt a lot worse without the Hashna Stone on.

I stabbed my sword into its chest. Its wings faltered and it sank to the ground, taking my sword with it. I just pulled my sword out when Faiza yelled, “They’ve got it!”

I looked up to see her hanging on to something in the grimulin’s talons. It was trying to fly off, but she was keeping it there. They were fighting over the Hashna Stone.

I went for it, but another grimulin came at me, blocking my path. I stabbed its side but that wasn’t enough to kill it. Its jaws clamped around the arm holding my sword. I screamed and tried to stab the thing again, but I couldn’t move my arm enough to swing at it.

A white blast shot past me and hit the grimulin. At the same time, a hot blast zapped my insides. It only hurt a moment, then the feeling was gone.

On the ground lay the unmoving grimulin. I had no idea what just happened, but I didn’t have time to figure it out now. I jumped over the grimulin and raced to Faiza who was still holding on to the other end of the necklace hanging from the grimulin’s talons.

She was too much weight for the grimulin to lift completely, but it was dragging her farther and farther into the woods. Just as I’d come up to them, Faiza’s hand slipped and she fell to the ground. The grimulin flew up with the stone in its clutches.

It was hard to see in the dark but I took a guess at where its leg was. I jumped in the air and slashed it. The grimulin shrieked but didn’t stop. It dipped just enough so that I could take another hit at it. I jabbed upward and stabbed it in the stomach. Blood spilled over my hand as I pulled the blade out, and the grimulin sank lower, shrieking. Once it hit the ground, I cut off its head to silence it.

“What the blazes?” It was one of the soldiers. The three of them stood at a safe distance, swords drawn, watching the strange creatures attack us.

“What’s going on here?” asked one as he stepped toward Faiza and I. Now that the grimulin were dead, he was brave enough to come toward us. “What kind of sorcery is this?”

“How should I know?” Faiza said. She was a little out of breath, but she sounded just as sassy as ever. “It attacked me. I sure didn’t tell them to do that.”

“Our captives are gone,” growled the tallest one, “and you’re here. Would you like to explain that?”

“I don’t know anything about your captives,” I said, glancing at the grimulin at my feet. I couldn’t run from the soldiers until I had the stone, and I couldn’t see it in the shadows of the forest floor. “We were too busy try to escape from these things’ claws.” I poked my sword at the dead body like I was showing it to them, but I was really looking for the stone. There was a glimpse of something glimmering under its body.

“Sure you don’t. Well since you’re out here and our orphans are missing, I guess you’ll have to replace them.”

“We aren’t orphans,” Faiza snapped.

“You are now.” The three of them started coming forward. My stomach leapt to my throat. I’d never fought trained soldiers before, much less three of them at once. All the sparring with my father couldn’t prepare me for this.

Before they reached us, someone came running out of the darkness at them. A white light came from the figure. It was the same light that zapped the grimulin that had my arm in its mouth earlier. The light hit the soldier on my left and his body jerked. He was consumed by the light for a moment, then he fell backward and the light disappeared. The other two soldiers stood for a moment, at a loss for what to do. Before they recovered, the a stream of white light came from the figure and blasted them. They stumbled backward and cried out, but only one dropped to the ground. The other started coming toward the person who’d blasted him but another stream of light reached out and zapped him again. He collapsed.

I kept my sword up, expecting the figure to shoot its light at me next, though I wasn’t sure what good my sword would do against it. No more light came though. The figure slumped to the ground.

Faiza and I ran to the spot. As I got closer, I recognized the person.

“Rachael?” I knelt beside her. Her eyes were closed and beads of sweat dotted her forehead. I touched her shoulder. “Rachael?”

Faiza stood beside me and Ethan and Samel appeared from the woods.

“She used too much magic,” Samel said in a low voice. It was the most serious I’d seen him.

“I’m fine.” Rachael said feebly. Her eyes were still closed.

“What do we do?” I asked Samel.

“We get out of here.” He nodded his head to the soldiers to our right. “They’ll wake up soon.”

“They aren’t dead?” asked Ethan.

“She just stunned them. There were too many for her to kill.”

“I’m going to find the orphans and tell them how to get to the Foxes,” Faiza said, heading into the darkness.

“I saw where they went to hide,” Ethan said, going after her.

Rachael opened her eyes and looked at me. Even in the dim moonlight, they looked deep blue. “Did you get the Hashna Stone?”

“It’s still somewhere by the grimulin.”

She sat up. “Let’s get it and get out of here before they wake up.”

I held out a hand and when she took it, I helped her up. She gripped my hand tighter and swayed a bit.

“Are you alright?” I was scared that she was going to pass out again.

“I’m fine.” She steadied herself and let go of my hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

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The next chapter will come out next Thursday. Be sure to vote for what you want to happen next!

 

Chapter 16: Soldiers

We made it back to Minaria without seeing any grimulin. I was beginning to think that the one that attacked us in Hashna was the only one.

“Do you hear that?” asked Ethan. We all stopped and listened. There were voices coming from ahead.

“Sounds like people,” Samel said. “I was beginning to think your Minaria didn’t have anyone living in it.”

“Do you think they’re soldiers?” Rachael asked. “What do we do?”

“We could wait for them to go ahead of us,” I said.

“Unless they are setting up camp,” Faiza said. They might be. The sky was darkening.

“We should see who they are and what they’re doing,” I said.

We moved forward without speaking. The closer we got to the voices, the slower we moved. Finally, as we crested a hill, we could see a group of men unpacking their things and setting up camp. The swords at their waist and the leather armor on their chest told me they were soldiers.

We crouched low and stayed behind the trees to watch them.

There were three soldiers, and they had five children with them, tied to each other with a line of rope. They must be orphans.

We moved back a bit before speaking.

“I guess we’ll have to go around them,” I said.

“We’ll stay here until night,” Faiza said.

“We can’t camp here,” I told her. “We wouldn’t be able to light a fire without them seeing.”

“We can’t light a fire anyway,” she said. “They’ll be able to see the smoke for miles. We won’t be able to get out of range before night fall.”

“Why not go as far away from them as we can? I’d rather get to the castle on our own. Not be tied together and dragged there.”

“Do you think those children like it?”

I looked in the direction of the soldier’s camp even though I couldn’t see anything. “There’s nothing we can do about them. Right now, we need to put as much distance between them and us as we can.”

“We can do something about it,” Faiza raised her chin. “We’ll stay here until it’s dark and when the soldiers are asleep, we’ll cut the ropes and let them go.”

“What if they wake up?” Rachael asked.

“They won’t if we’re careful.”

“I’ll do it,” Samel said. Faiza gave him a look. She still hadn’t completely forgiven him for sneaking up on us a few nights ago. “They can’t see me, even if I do wake them up.”

“A knife floating in the air will scare the children so bad they’ll scream and wake them up,” Faiza said.

“What are we going to do with the children once we get them free?” Rachael asked. “We can’t leave them out here, but we can’t take them with us.”

“We’re not taking them with us,” Faiza said. “We already have too many tag-alongs.” Faiza looked at Rachael and Samel.

“So we’re going to leave them out here on their own?”

“I’ll send them to the Foxes.”

“I don’t think we should do this.”

“You’re an orphan,” Faiza snapped. “Would you like it if I left you down there for the soldiers to take you to the castle and make you a slave?”

“I don’t like what they’re doing either.” I held up my hands. “But I don’t think we should risk being caught.”

“If you really want to help them,” Rachael said, “then we should get the Hashna Stone to the castle and get Ryker off the throne. He’s the one sending soldiers to get orphans.”

Faiza’s face turned red with anger. “You have nothing to do with this. You don’t know what it’s like to live on your own or be hunted by soldiers.” She threw up her hands. “You haven’t even lived in Minaria. If you don’t like what we’re doing, go back to Hashna with your little dwarf.”

It was really quiet for a moment and I wasn’t sure if Rachael was going to cry or yell. I guess the yelling won, only she couldn’t do a full yell because the soldiers were still close.

“Maybe you only have room to love one kind of people, but I care for both. Just because I love Hashna doesn’t mean that I don’t love Minaria too. And I may still have my father, but I know what it’s like to lose a parent. I think what those soldiers are doing is awful. But it’s because of Ryker that they are doing it. The sooner we get the Hashna Stone to the castle the sooner we can stop this.”

“Who knows how long it will take to get the real King back on the throne,” Faiza said. “We don’t even know if he’s alive. Taking the stone to the castle won’t free those kids. I say we do something about this now.”

I understood what Faiza was saying, but if they caught us, it could jeopardize this whole mission. They wouldn’t be able to hurt me, I had the stone, but they could the rest of them. At best, they would tie them up with the rest of the orphans. At worst? They could kill them. Or at least Samel. Dwarves were illegal in Minaria.

“I say we vote on it,” Ethan said, speaking for the first time since we’d found the soldiers.

“Well we already know what I want,” Faiza looked at Rachael, “and what she’d vote for.” She looked back to Ethan. “So what is your vote?”

Ethan looked down, then glanced at me. “Normally I would say that we should help them, but we promised Jocov to get the stone to Rachael’s father.”

“You think we should leave them?” Faiza’s nostrils flared.

“If we went to the castle and helped get the rightful king on the throne, then we would help orphans all over Minaria.”

“I think we could pull it off,” said Samel. “We can free them and still bring the Hashna Stone to the castle.”

“At least the dwarf is on my side.” Faiza shot a look at Ethan, and he cringed. Faiza looked at me.

Rachael and Ethan voted against and Faiza and Samel voted for. It would be up to me to decide.

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Chapter 6: A Warning And A Dog with Wings

The man who stood in front of me only came a few inches above my waist. He held his hand out, palm up.

“It isn’t yours,” he said.

I looked around the forest, wondering who he was talking to, but there was no one else among the trees.

He spoke again, hand still out as if expecting something to fall into it. “The stone isn’t yours.”

“I don’t have a stone.”

“You do. Around your neck.”

The gemstone. I looked down and was horrified to find that I’d left the necklace hanging in the open instead of safely hidden under my shirt.

I tried to shove it down my shirt, but my hands didn’t move. I felt strangely detached from my body.

“Danger will come,” said the small man. I looked away from the stone to him, and when I met his dark eyes, a chill shot through me.  “He wants the stone.”

Who wanted the stone?

Something black whooshed between us, knocking aside the man’s outstretched hand. In front of me was an animal like a black dog but without a tail and ears that pointed up like a cat’s. It didn’t stand on the ground like a normal dog, but hovered in the air, flapping the wings that sprouted from its back. Its yellow eyes focused on me and it bared its teeth.

I reached for my bow on my back. It wasn’t there.

“Hurry! Bring us the stone!” The man’s voice sounded distant and I couldn’t see him behind the flapping black dog. Was he leaving me to fight off this thing by myself?

“Where are you?”

“Hashna.”

The dog thing flew at my chest and knocked me on my back. Its teeth came down on me, grabbing the stone and ripping the gold chain from around my neck.

“We are in the forest of Hashna.”

—–

I shot up, sweat covering my back and torso. I blinked in the dark, barley making out the familiar shapes of the small hut that was my home since joining the Foxes. I put my hand over the gem underneath my shirt and leaned back down against the pile of blankets and animal skins that was my bed to wait for my pounding heart to slow. I was in my hut, not in the middle of a forest with some strange beast that was after the gemstone.

The creature was something that hadn’t been in the last two dreams I’d had. The last two nights the same small, dark-haired man appeared and told me that the stone wasn’t mine and I needed to give it to them or some sort of danger would come.  I didn’t know who “them” was or who the “he” was that wanted the stone.

The first time I had the dream, I thought it was just my subconscious replaying my feeling from the pawnshop earlier that day, but the next night when I had the same dream, I wondered if it meant something.

Now that this was the third time, I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. I rarely had nightmares and I never had the same dream three nights in a row. Something was trying to warn me about the gemstone.

Maybe it was cursed.

I thought about returning it to the cave, but that probably wouldn’t help. What if the curse stayed on the last person who touched it? Besides, the man in the dream wanted me to give it to him. He must be the owner, and if he had put a curse on it, it would continue haunting me until he got his gemstone.

I knew what he was. He wasn’t a man who was a bit short.

He was a dwarf. And there wasn’t much known about the mysterious dwarves living in the mountains of Hashna except that they were powerful magicians. It would be foolish to keep a dwarf necklace, but just as foolish to leave it somewhere in hopes of getting rid of the dreams.

Perhaps the dwarf in the dream was threatening me; letting me know that if I didn’t bring him his gemstone, something terrible would happen to me. Maybe he actually had a dog-like creature with wings that he would send after me.  Just because I’d never seen something like that before didn’t mean beasts like that didn’t live in Hashna. Who knew what kind of things those dwarves conjured up with their magic.

I pulled the stone from under my shirt and fingered the smooth edges. I had to get rid of it, but taking it to Hashna, like the dwarf wanted me to, would be difficult. Not just because of the distance and supplies I would have to get, but because it would mean leaving the Foxes.

Sure, I was ready to leave them three days ago when I thought I’d have money to travel with and live off of, but if I went off on my own with no money I wouldn’t make it far. Besides, once I returned the gemstone where would I stay? I doubted Faiza would let me come back after leaving without a word. She was a suspicious type and I don’t think she’d trust me if I just disappeared for a few weeks, then came back without an explanation. And I couldn’t tell her why I was leaving. There’s no way she’d let me leave with the gemstone.

As much as I didn’t want to be cursed or eaten by one of those winged dogs, I also didn’t want to be on my own again without any funds.

I ran my hand through my hair and let out a huff of air. I wished I could throw the gemstone into a lake and never think about it again.

I could ask Ethan about the dream. He’d grown up in a monastery so he probably knew a few things about magic and dreams and all that mystical stuff. But that would mean telling him about the gemstone.

I rolled over and groaned. I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I figured this out.

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Chapter 4: What to do with Treasure

I leaned against the cave wall and watched the rain fall, glad I’d found the hiding place when I was hunting last week. When the downpour came in a rush, I had a place to wait it out.   I hoped it would let up soon though. I’d been in the woods all morning, and still hadn’t seen a thing.  Coming back to the camp without a kill wouldn’t mean I’d starve—in the four weeks I’d been with the Foxes, none of us went to sleep hungry—but they depended on me to bring in a good portion of the meat since, besides Faiza and Ethan, I was the best shot.

I leaned my bow against the wall and slid down to a crouching position, thinking how nice it would be if deer were hunted with a sword instead of a bow. Then I would bring in more game than any of them. An image of my father’s sword came to my mind—a broadsword with a wolf’s face carved at the top of the pommel. If only it hadn’t been sold with everything else to pay the orphanage fee.

I picked up a stone and tossed it in the air, catching it when it fell back down.

It was strange to have nothing to do. Since coming to the little group of orphans in the woods, there hadn’t been a moment to rest.  All of us had our set jobs, the things we did every day, and the jobs we rotated on.  I had my own bow and was a good shot, so I went into the woods everyday to hunt.  The other jobs, like picking berries, fishing, gathering firewood, and washing dishes we all took turns doing.

I stopped tossing the stone and ran a finger over my dirty palm. My skin was thicker and the blisters I earned when I first came here were gone. I smiled.  I wasn’t such a “greentwig” anymore.

I tossed the stone into the blackness of the cave and listened to it clatter to the floor. I had no idea how deep the cave went. I grabbed another stone and launched it into the darkness. It too sounded as if it bounced along the floor, not as if it hit a wall. I stood, ready to throw harder, but the next thing I picked up wasn’t a stone.

It was too perfectly round and it was flat on one side while the other side was like a dome covered in smoothed ridges. In the shadows of the cave, I could see a small chain dangling from one side.  It was some sort of jewelry.

I brought it to the mouth of the cave for better light, not noticing the fat raindrops that bounced onto the cave floor and splashed my pant legs.

Attached to the golden chain was a large ruby encased in a circle of gold. The dull, rainy-day light glinted off its many delicately cut faces.  I didn’t move for what felt like an entire minute, thinking there was no way I could be seeing what I was seeing. It was the biggest jewel stone I’d seen, filling most of my palm. I had no idea what such a thing would cost.

A grin slowly formed on my face, then a laugh escaped. Who cares if it rains all day and I don’t see any game?  This could feed us for months.  Maybe years!

I scooped up my bow ready to face the torrent. News like this couldn’t wait. I had to show this to Faiza and Ethan.

I stopped just before stepping on the soggy ground.

Slow down Dalan. Think this through.  I’d never have something like this in my possession again. Was giving it all away really the wisest thing to do?

True, I didn’t need so much money now, but what about when I turned eighteen and didn’t have to worry about King Radon’s soldiers taking me? It would be nice to know I had some extra money hidden away for when I set off by myself. I didn’t want to be stuck in the woods with no supplies and dependent on squirrels for my next meal.

I could stay with the Foxes. They wouldn’t make me leave just because I was eighteen. But I wanted to do something more than hide in a makeshift village in the middle of nowhere for the rest of my life.

I turned the glittering ruby in my hand. With the money from such a gemstone, I could travel all over Minaria.  I could even leave Minaria.

There was something I’d never thought of. I could live in another country until I was old enough for the king’s soldiers not to bother.

I thought of myself in a faraway land, eating food I hadn’t hunted, skinned, and cooked. Wearing a different shirt than the one I’d had on for over a month.  Sleeping in a real room with a real bed, not just a hovel with a pile of rags and animal skins on the floor.  I would even have money to buy a sword—one like my father had.

I shook my head. What would I do with a sword?  I didn’t want to join King Radon’s army.  He hadn’t been the same since his twin brother died. Father lost respect for him after he made the law that let soldiers capture orphans and take them to work in the castle.

The drumming of the rain lessened. I slid the chain over my head, tucked the ruby under my shirt, and I stepped out of the cave while I had the chance.  I only took a few steps before stopping.

Perhaps I didn’t need a sword, but life in a new land might be just what I need. I could set off on my own right now.  I had my bow and canteen, and anything I needed I could buy.

I turned around and headed to a game trail that led to a main road.

What would Ethan and Faiza think when I didn’t show up tonight? Would they look for me, concerned something bad had happened?  Or would they guess I’d set out on my own and be angry?

Faiza said I could leave when I wanted the day I came here, right after I took that silly pledge.

I jolted to a stop. The pledge! I’d promised to share anything that I found with the Foxes.

Well when I said that, I didn’t think I’d come across a fortune in the middle of the woods. It was unfair to have to give up my only chance at a better life because of something I promised when I thought the only thing I’d find out here were twigs and animal poo. Besides, that part of the pledge was referring to berries and nuts and things not a piece of jewelry. No one was expecting that I’d find a treasure.

Besides, if I gave it to Faiza she would split the money between all the camp, which would leave me with too small of an amount to leave Minaria.

But then, it was unfair for me to be so ungrateful to Faiza and Ethan. They’d taken me in and shown me how to survive out here, and I was going to thank them by disappearing without a word.

I bet they wanted to live in a place where the solders couldn’t take them away like slaves.

I could take them with me. No, they wouldn’t leave the rest of the kids by themselves, and there wouldn’t be enough money for all of them to go.  Not to mention there’s no way we could get so many kids across the border without causing suspicion.

Still, I couldn’t just leave them all and do nothing for them.

I pulled the gemstone from under my shirt and held it in my palm, drops of rain splashing against its surface. I wondered how much it would be worth.

An idea came to me. What if I didn’t have to choose between helping the others and starting a new life?  A stone as big as this one would have to get me enough money so I could leave Minaria and still be able to give some to Ethan and Faiza.

I could sell it without telling them about it, then take what I needed to get out of here and give them the rest. Then Faiza couldn’t be mad about the money not being split evenly and I could still leave Minaria.

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I bet you were wondering if that red gemstone in the picture was ever going to make its way into the story. 😉

Oh, and I forgot to tell you at the end of the last chapter that I’m adding a character list to the Hashna Stone page, so it will be easier to keep track of characters once you meet them.

Can’t wait to see what Dalan decides to do with the gemstone!

Chapter 3: The Foxes

I never thought I’d actually consider joining someone who shot arrows at me, but staying with the crazy girl’s group of orphans was a better option than starving out here on my own or being picked up by the king’s army.

“I’m in,” I told the unseen girl.

“Finally.”

Some branches to my left rustled. I looked up to see a red-haired girl climbing down from an Elm tree a few feet away. The animal skins she wore and the way she scurried down in quick, sure movements made her look like an overgrown squirrel in deer-hide boots.

I started to move toward her, then stopped. Her bow was strapped on her back, so unless she had some other archer around that I didn’t know about, I was safe. I asked anyway.

“I am allowed to move now aren’t I?”

She reached the ground and faced me. Her hair was cut unevenly just above her shoulders, as if she’d done it herself with a hunting knife.

“Before we go anywhere, let’s talk about rules.” She strode toward me, face as stern as a general’s. “You are free to leave this group at any time, but while you are here there won’t be any rule breaking. I started this group and I lead this group. If you have a problem following,” She paused and her brown eyes bored into mine, “find your own group to lead.”

I held my hands up. “I’m not looking for anyone to lead. And if I don’t like the rules, I won’t stay around.” I wasn’t going to be pushed around by some snarky girl, no matter how good her aim. I didn’t get free of the orphanage run by a overbearing headmistress just to be trapped in another one run by a bossy girl.

“Good.” She gave a sharp nod. “Do you swear that as long as you are with the Foxes—“

“Foxes?”

“It’s what we call ourselves,” she said giving me a sharp look for interrupting. “So, as long as you are with the Foxes—“

“Why Foxes? What about bears or wolves?”

She let out a huff of air. “Are you already questing the way we do things?”

“I’m just wondering why you chose Foxes. Bears have a lot more strength and wolves—“

“Foxes are intelligent, stealthy, and quick. We have to be these things to outwit the king’s soldiers. If you want to be a bear or wolf, join the soldiers.” She stopped her rush of words and crossed her arms. “Now, if you still want to join the Foxes, quit interrupting the pledge.” She paused, and when I didn’t say anything continued. “Do you swear that as long as you are with the Foxes you will share any meat you kill, fish you catch, fruit, nuts or seeds you may find, or any other kind of food you may forage?”

“Um, yeah, sure.” I wondered if I were supposed to raise my right hand or something.

“Do you swear to bring anything you find to me, the leader of the Foxes, to distribute evenly among the group?”

“Yes.” The most valuable thing out here was dry branches for making fires. I could share that.

“Do you swear to look out for your fellow Fox and alert the group of any danger?”

“Yeah.”

“Most importantly, do you swear not to tell anyone about the place I’m about to show you, even if you do leave?”

“I swear.”

She thrust out her hand and gave my hand a single shake. “Welcome to the group, Dalan.” She tightened her grip and leaned in. “That little pledge isn’t just something I do to amuse myself. Anyone goes back on their word, I don’t take it lightly.”

I nodded, trying to look like her squeezing grip didn’t hurt.

“Good.” She let go, turned, and began walking. “And get your bow off the ground. Only a greentwig would leave it laying there like that.”

——-

 

Lean-tos and tents were scattered haphazardly among the trees. About fifteen kids milled around. They were all wearing a mix of cloth and animal skins. None of them were scrubbed clean, but they weren’t covered in layers of dirt like children living in a forest should be.  Most looked cleaner than me.

They stopped all activity when they saw me and stared as we walked by. The red-haired girl—whose name I still didn’t know—walked to a thin rope hanging in the center of the camp and pulled it twice.  It was attached to a bell hanging in the tree.  As it rang, children appeared from the woods. In just a few minutes the group had doubled.

I looked at the faces of the group. Most were between the ages of 12 and 17, but a few looked younger—9 or 10 maybe.

Once all of them were gathered in a half-circle around us, the girl spoke. “We have a new member of the Foxes. Dalan.” She nodded her head toward me.  “He has taken the pledge and will be staying with us from now until he’s old enough to avoid the King’s soldiers, or until he decides he doesn’t need us anymore.”

A couple of kids snickered. I guessed the idea of someone leaving the group was so rare that it was funny.

“You know the rules,” the girl continued, ignoring the snickers. “We’ve all agreed to give each other privacy.  He doesn’t have to answer questions about his past if he doesn’t want to.  You also know that anyone who sees someone breaking the pledge, and doesn’t come to a leader about it will be punished in the same way as the pledge-breaker.”  She looked hard into the faces around us and the kids stared solemnly back.   None of them seemed to fear her—not in the way the king’s solders were feared—but they did respect her authority.

“He’ll need somewhere to stay until he can build a place of his own. Who will share?”

A blond boy, who looked about a year older than me, stepped up. “He can share my place.”

She gave him a nod and looked back to the gathered kids. “Alright.  Enough gawking.  Get back to what you were doing.”  They dispersed, some staying around the clearing and others disappearing into the woods.

The blond boy came up to me and held out his hand. “I’m Ethan.”

“So you guys do have names,” I said as I shook his hand.

He looked puzzled, so I said, “I’ve walked with her for twenty minutes and still don’t know hers.” I glanced to my left to where the girl was standing, but she was gone.

Ethan shrugged. “She’s like that.  You’ll get used to it.”

“I don’t think I want to get used to having arrows shot at me.”

“That’s a onetime experience.” He grinned. “Now that you’re part of the group, she won’t do something like that to you. Unless you break your pledge.”

“What is it with that girl and her pledge thing?”

“Faiza.”

“What?”

“Her name is Faiza. And we’re all pretty serious about the pledge.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Look around.” Ethan gestured to the clearing and the kids in it. “These kids are from all over Minaria.  They come from different backgrounds and have different experiences.  We couldn’t all live together if we didn’t have some common guidelines.”

I guess that was true.   It made sense that they would all have to agree to share the food they found and help each other out if they wanted to survive.

“Come on,” said Ethan. “I’ll show you my place so you can put your stuff down.”

I followed Ethan through the make-shift camp. Everyone was busy. There was a circle of girls sewing patches into some worn shirts, a group of boys and girls sharpening stones into arrowheads, and a few gathered around a fire and a huge pot.  We passed a boy skinning a rabbit and I wondered if it were the same rabbit I’d missed earlier.  My stomach growled again.

We stopped in front of a tiny hut made of tree branches that came to my shoulders. Ethan pushed back the deer hide that hung in the entrance and said, “Here it is.”  He ducked inside and I followed him.

It was barely big enough for the two of us. Ethan sat on the blankets stretched out in one corner.  There wasn’t much.  Just a few personal items and a spear and bow leaning in one corner.

“Which one do you use to fight the soldiers with?” I asked.

Ethan laughed. “I use the spear to catch fish. The bow for hunting.”

“And your hands to fight the soldiers?”

He laughed again. “We don’t have to fight anyone. No one knows about this place. Secrecy is the best weapon we have.”

Hence the name Foxes—the animals that slunk around in the woods, staying out of sight.

“How does anyone ever find it then? I mean others that want to hide from the soldiers?”

“They don’t usually. We find them.” Ethan picked up a half-finished arrow head and began working on it. “Faiza or I sometimes go out to surrounding towns and find kids without parents. We tell them about this place, and if they take the pledge, we bring them back.”

“So you two started this place?”

“Faiza already had a few kids when I came, but I’ve been here since the beginning.”

The smell of food was slowly seeping into the little hut. I swallowed to keep myself from drooling and asked another question to keep my mind off of my empty stomach.

“How long ago was that?”

“A little over a year ago. Faiza got tired of dodging soldiers in town. She was earning a living by hunting in the forest and selling her kills to the butcher in town. She decided to keep what she hunted and live in the woods. After a while of that, she decided that others like her should be given a refuge, and that’s how this place came about.”

It was hard to think of Faiza as being compassionate. She seemed kind of prickly to me.

“How did she find you?” I wondered if it involved nearly being shot by arrows too.

“It was the soldiers who found me first.”

“You were taken to the castle?” I said, trying to keep my mind on the conversation and not on the smell of boiled vegetables and meet that was getting stronger.

“I didn’t get that far. There was only one soldier and he didn’t watch me closely because I was from a monastery. I guess he thought I wouldn’t try to get away.”

“Wait. How did they get you if you were at a monastery?” Occasionally, a monastery would take in an orphan whose parents didn’t leave enough money behind to pay the orphanages, but soldiers shouldn’t take anyone from there either.

Ethan frowned at the arrowhead in his hand. “I was in the market getting food when the soldiers came to collect orphans. Of course they didn’t listen when I told them I lived at the monastery and took me anyway.”

“I thought you just said that you got away because they knew you were from a monastery?”

“Oh, they knew I was from the monastery, but they didn’t care. I was on the street alone, within age, and didn’t have a paper with a guardian’s signature on it. Who was going to stop them? But I got away and Faiza found me.”

Just then, the bell started ringing. I thought Faiza was going to have another meeting, but Ethan said, “Food is ready.”

On cue, my stomach growled. I put my hand over it and grinned. “Finally.”

I thought of the rabbit I’d seen being skinned earlier. I wouldn’t be eating squirrel tonight.


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