Silence hushed them. The only sounds heard were the bird’s awkward chirp; the slow movement of the river; the crash of the Titan Waterfall; the loud smack of Lin’s jaws as she chewed on her Creamer Bread. Sickness swelled in her stomach.
“What do you mean, mother?!” Lin cried out, “What path do you speak of?!”
“Lin!” Her mother said sternly as she reached for her little hand. “Lin… I know this is quite complex for you to understand, but—”
“No! It’s quite complex for you to understand because you know nothing about Ismus! Nothing! She isn’t taking me on any path! There is no path!” She snapped her neck back to drink her tepid cider and stuffed her mouth with antelope.
“And I’m never gonna stop talking to her!” She growled with a mouth full of meat. “I love her!”
“Lin.” Her mother gave her an upset stare, the dark, penetrating force of her eyes silencing Linnasoeta’s throat at once.
“One border divides each of you… ” her mother had rasped. Then, raising her voice to a terrifyingly loud tone that Linnasoeta recognized as the “Beast”, she said, “Stay within the borders of your own kin, Linnasoeta, and there you shall stay out of trouble. Those people are much too different for our bearing… and safety. Not with that history of theirs. I think it is time for me to tell you this story… this pressing matter.” Kima hesitated, as if she were thinking of what not to say.
“Listen to my words, child; eleven thousand years ago, there was a land which people were sent to. They were exiled people from a dimension unseen to our very eyes. Our people came from crossing into unknown lands, and settled in Jainu—do you know where that is, Lin? Many decades later they traveled across the Gallatin Ocean and came upon our current continent. They explored and called this land home, naming it Rodemina. We fished and ate and built homes and lived happy lives, and it stayed peaceful for ten thousand and nine-hundred years only because our allies – rather, our founders—were strong and cunning enough to keep others from finding out about our voyage—the people of Jainu. And it was a secret voyage, mind you, which is also why no one came for so long.
“But, as things go, nothing can stay secret forever; soon, the Chidaria Royals of Grudale came, and they fancied these lands just as much as our people. In fact, they loved it so much that they took it as their own. Since they had royal rulers, anything could come and go with a flicker of a royal’s wrist, and we loathed them very much.
“Yet our people were strong, knowing that the enemy could not just take their beloved land on a whim, and fought against them to keep the land. But—alas!—the reign of the country in which the settlers had come were too powerful for our people to tolerate. We battled bravely in the Night War, but our numbers were too few, and our soldiers too ill-equipped.”
Her mother laughed, but bitterly, and bore a face that would have rotted the Creamer Bread Lin was finishing.
“We were not ready for war, and the enemy wiped us out quickly, forcing populaces to flee for their lives. By daybreak, our population had suffered… and was decreased by ten thousand.”
Lin gawked, her mouth wide open in horror. “T-ten thousand?” She asked weakly, almost about to vomit her now tasteless bread. Her mother had nodded. Her gaze hardened as she looked far into the distance, toward the castle. Her eyes welled with angry tears and her cheeks faltered, but she stayed strong in front of her young daughter. She continued on in a hollow voice.
“They took control of everything: the land, the homes, the people. And it stayed that way for years. For years, our people suffered even greater losses, and not just their families were taken away, mind you. Everything our people ever cared about was deprived from Sorthon’s—Borthor’s Grandfather—command: their homes, food, money, farms, rights… Everything, Linnasoeta. EVERYTHING. They took over entirely and dominated the people with total power— brutal tyrants they were. Power was their fuel, and death was something they merely laughed about. They fed on our torture. As we slowly died from disease or starvation, they would merely watch, just watch us rot away… and they loved it. They loved seeing us die, Linnasoeta. They enslaved us.
“Few of us remained to see the effects of the Fire Revolutionary War. The militia under the command of Sorthon was defeated, forced into Émigré, and soon killed by the beasts of Wither Hollow. That was when the country, the country in which we live now, was split in two: Rodem and Serabi. And that was when the Border of Thangos was put into place. Just think of it Lin, dear: a deep trench splitting it in half like Mailberry pie.”
Lin’s mother laughed again, but this time it was more of a scoff.
She continued, “So the king of his time, Sorthon, signed the First Armistice of “Cease-Fire”, as those who did not serve in the war had called it, and soon split Rodem in half, all the way from the Sea of Condo to the Marsh Styx.
“Of course the Serabians did not split it evenly, for the border was no more than an immense line with jagged crossings. The giant, miles-long canyon in the land, the Thangos Trench, is mysterious. If they as much as saw the Rodem people cross the border, they would torture them to death. And that is when they found the vine… The Liana. They found it impossible to chop it down: it would always grow back, holding onto the bark tighter than the last time.
“And so you see, Linnasoeta, the Royals of Serabi are dangerous people. And I must not let you fall into the Queen’s grasp. ‘An apple never dwindles too far from the tree’ people say. And that is quite true for the Royals of Serabi.”
Lin nodded. She was not sure what she was nodding to. Her mother fell under a spell of momentary silence.
“Now, with that said and done, I need you to promise me something.”
Lin snapped back into the present; she had been dreaming of butterflies. Kima’s deep iridescent eyes startled her since they were wide with seriousness.
“I never want to see you near that border ever again in your life.” Her voice was low and raspy. “If you do, He Above please help me, I will not be there to save you. I know what the Queen can do—.” Kima touched her back and sharply drew her breath, touching something sore. Lin gasped as her mother’s white dress revealed a sliver of her opened skin; long, red cuts sliced into her flesh.
“She can hurt you Lin. Aloes can kill you.” Kima was looking Linnasoeta right in the eye. “Ismus is foul. I normally would not put that kind of negativity on youths, but she is rotten. Your friend is a curse to our people. She brings malice into the lands; she tips the scale of balance…that’s enough.” She sighed and clutched her forehead.
A moment’s silence filled the air. Tension sliced the atmosphere in two.
“Don’t cross the border.”
Her memory faded and she came back from the darkness. Linnasoeta’s mind stopped abruptly, and she forgot for a minute where she was and what she needed to do. She then continued forward, still strolling (for she was quite bemused).
The roads started to come back again once Lin had finished the trail. Lin increased her pace and dashed for the Grounds, which was now in her sight. Horse-drawn carriages and carts littered the rocky streets she sprinted down.
Even while she was several feet away, Linnasoeta could tell something was wrong. Once she neared the roads, she saw the entire village had gathered in a circle on the dusty, earthen floor around the old House of Gods—the Meeting Grounds.
Sea Serpent and Snake Biter (the confounded twin brothers) were having a discussion among themselves. The two men argued, both heated and angry, with their voices loud and fists in the air. Whatever they were arguing about, it must have been for a while because people were starting to yawn and suddenly catch eye of Lin.
But, as Lin came up close to the circle, breathing heavy and a little too loud, a thousand pairs of eyes turned toward her. She stopped in her tracks and there was a dead, awkward silence. And it was a dead silence. Her eyes darted about the circle. The birds coughed.
A shameful glance was cast from her father near the center of the circle, without question, just as embarrassed as his daughter. Linnasoeta pursed her lips, and she cleared her throat.
“Hey, guys,” she laughed as she snapped her fingers and winked. They responded with blinks and a few eye-rolls before reinstituting conversation about themselves. The Workclan had become well accustomed to Lin’s brashness and thought nothing of it.
Linnasoeta sighed and made an attempt to walk as effortlessly as she could toward her father. She hoped her attempts at confidence were not mistaken with arrogance; she was nearly certain they were.
Dragging herself along the dusty, red dirt, she reluctantly trudged to her father. Lin nestled right in-between her father and the rotten weasel Nyoka. Her father’s Workclan sat nearby him. Lin didn’t see it, but Nyoka was staring at her, a satisfied smirk resting on his lips. He placed his hand on her neck to feel her heartbeat. Lin swatted it away and scowled at him.
If only Lin’s mother were here now…
The tedious meeting lacked refinement. That was a fact for certain. It lagged on and on until the ends of the earth, and half of everything the men were talking of Linnasoeta ignored.
Not only was the meeting as bland as a watery bowl of the petrifying oatmeal the Workclan called food, but it was just as sordid as one.
While Alto Jack, for example, was giving one of his death-worthy lectures about a bunch of nonsense, Linnasoeta heard many disgusting noises: someone on the far side of the circle hacked up saliva; the loud, putrid, and the occasional sound of a burp every now and then; and, this may just have been Linnasoeta’s imagination, but she thought she heard someone… it was someone close to her who did it. She could say that because a foul odor had crept in the crevice of her nose, strong and repugnant. She twisted her face as if she were sucking on a lemon.
Alto Jack babbled on. Linnasoeta tensed once more. The smell intensified. Alto’s words ran into one as Linnasoeta’s perplexed heart beat faster. It was pungent, filling her nose and mouth with its horrid, squalid stench, suffocating her as it turned the air toxic. All sound muted around her. She leaned back behind her father to breathe out of the stench. What the demon is that? Linnasoeta exclaimed in her mind. Disgusting pigs! She came up from behind her father and waited for the profuse smell. She hummed. A scary, pudgy woman turned her way with a demented grimace. Linnasoeta faltered and stopped.
“And dats why we need so-mo sword work.”
Alto Jack smiled proudly—giving his toothless grin—after he had finished his speech, impressed with himself. He surveyed the crowd before the entire circle broke out in hisses and plenty of “BOOS!” to go around.
“You lump of baloney! Grow some sense!” someone shouted.
“Shut your face, you idiot!” Sea Snake and Snake Biter cried in harmony.
“Sit your ass down, Jack. Waste of time,” the obese woman seethed.
(Linnasoeta was relieved that people were yelling at Alto instead of her, and she found this part of the meeting quite entertaining. Normally they would discuss if the country was running smoothly, or if the Queen was planning another horror on Rodem. The yelling was a nice variation.)
“You are men, are you not?” Shen bellowed at them all. Lin jumped.
“The fate of our people rests in Serabi’s hands, and here you are laughing—at our loyal Alto Jack! Disgusting, the lot of you are who chortle along with this, and I am not in the mood to handle idiotic complications when there are larger, more fatal matters to attend to. If you are not men, then leave this meeting. Only those who intend to mend our nation’s problems without a lark on their lips shall stay.”
“Now on with the importance of this meeting: What I came to address is concerning our Demon—Serabi’s Queen. A week ago, Aloes saw a gathering of innocent villagers, right on the Banks of Soreyth. They were on their way to the Huntington Village, just crossing Olde Taylor Farm. Aloes saw this as an opportunity to kill more of our people. She crossed the border yet again and captured them. I learned of this only four days ago, since I was extremely busy dealing with—” He gave Linnasoeta a sideways glance. “—Some issues.”
Linnasoeta frowned. She didn’t mean to light the cavern on fire. Shen should have never hired her. Worse, rehire her. She could feel Nyoka’s smile press into her back once more. She whipped her head around before he could touch her neck again.
“I believe if this happens again we will be forced to call upon War’s aid. And that aid is not a certain, believable one.”
One workman answered this. “War is not the answer, Shen Lein of the Wither House. Her soldiers’ numbers dominate and multiply over ours. Swords must be forged, and the country has no money to be spent on a war.
“And if we did somehow defeat her army, what then? Will we take over Serabi and throttle the other poor villagers as Serabi did long before the country was split in two? What then, Shen?” The woman glared.
Lin’s father returned the look, only calmer and deeper. “It seems as though you know not of my plan.” He pulled a tattered scroll out from his crimson kimono, unrolled it, and held it out for the clan to see. He talked in a low voice rich with importance.
“This is ancient text that I found after, well… whenever it had been. It was… blowing in the winds,” (some people laughed at this) “so I took it and examined it. The text informs that there is something right under Serabi’s castle that may just help us win this… quickly. If this information is right, it will lead us straight to the Guardian of Fire.
“I have not spoken of this before because I had lost this one day eight years ago, and only now have I found it.”
A woman from the circle raised her hand. “And what exactly is the Guardian of Fire? And what use is it to us?” Shen’s voice sounded like thunder when he answered.
“It is the only the most destructive power below the earth. It is the—”
Just then, the belfry, directly above the circle, was hit, and rang with a loud purpose.
Filling their ears with an unswerving metal clank, a different man from the tower cried, “The border signal has been triggered! The girl has entered!”
Shen threw a look behind his shoulder, eyes and neck positioned like an eagle’s. Chatter among the circle grew into shouts and yells. Complete confusion and worry excited and startled everyone. Shen instructed them to make haste to their homes, for it was her.
The Queen’s daughter.
“Linnasoeta,” Shen grasped for his daughter as he submerged from the crowd, “See if it is her.” His dark eyes were pleading, yet influential. “Keep her from us.”
Without another word, Linnasoeta ran off south toward the border and weaved her way through the Golden Savanna. Like a cat, she climbed up a Maple Tree, clawing her chipped nails into the eroding bark, and perched herself up on the top branch. Linnasoeta looked out past the tree leaves, having no need to squint due to her astonishing eyesight. She gasped and felt time slow for a moment.
After twenty seconds of staring at her unconscious friend in the meadow, Linnasoeta jumped from the Maple Tree and dashed to the Creek of Hazalen, waiting to join her best friend. Before she stepped in, she looked behind her to see if her father was still there. Lin’s face fell.
He too had left.