Chapter One : Part One

The Runaways

She wished she was a boy. She wished she was tall and strong and clever, dressed in armor with a sword at her side, off on adventures and exploring the world. Boys did that. Girls, she was told, were quiet and pretty, with perfect manners and fluffy skirts and a desire for nothing more than a good marriage and a nice hot cup of tea.

She was not a good girl. She liked to run barefoot through the grass and play with frogs and other slimy things. Her hair was always tangled and dresses got in the way of tromping through creeks. And she liked the idea of running off after dragons or beating back hordes of goblins. Not that there were goblins in Cyrea. Or dragons for that matter. But it sounded exciting all the same.

As she looked out the window at the broad expanses of perfectly manicured lawns trimmed with shrubs and flowering gardens, Aiyana found herself dreaming of murky, tangled forests and towering mountains interwoven with winding paths. She imagined what it would be like to explore uncharted lands with never-before-seen creatures.

She thought, not for the first time, of escaping, of going somewhere far, far away where no one knew her name, where no one told her who she should be or what she should do or how to act and she most certainly never had to hear…

“Aiyana, are you listening?”

Was she listening? No. She’d long since allowed the fantasies in her head to drown out the day’s lesson – history, maybe – recited in Beswarik’s even tones. It’s not that he was a bad teacher, but the subjects of his lectures seemed so pointless when there was a world to be explored firsthand, even if only in her imagination.

The other students were looking surreptitiously at her. She heard more than one tittering laugh poorly veiled behind delicate hands as some of her peers blatantly stared, reveling in her disgrace.

But Aiyana didn’t care. She boldly met Beswarick’s gaze and, after the briefest moment scrutinizing him, she replied, “You were telling us, again, of the Great War of the First Age and how the High King banished the fallen Vaim’solda for their treachery against the throne.” She smiled then, daring him to challenge her further.

Instead, Beswarick’s brow furrowed, and he stared intently at her. The intensity in his golden eyes made Aiyana want to look away, but she forced herself to meet his gaze. If it was a challenge of wills, she would win.

As the silence between them stretched on, she heard her classmates shift uncomfortably in their seats, as if they felt Beswarick’s displeasure directed at them the way Aiyana did. Finally, without shifting his gaze, he said, “I think that’s enough for today. Class dismissed.” As the students breathed a sigh of relief and noisily rose, gathering their belongings, he looked away and called out, “But I expect your essays on the First Age to be on my desk in the morning.”

*   *   *

“I thought his head was going to explode!” Fitch declared as he practically danced around Aiyana. His feet kicked up hay and dust and the horse they were sharing a stall with whinnied indignantly and stomped the ground in response.

“Shhh!” Aiyana whispered back, grabbing hold of her best friend and slapping a hand over his mouth.

They’d bolted from the classroom as Beswarick called out her name and darted through the halls, down the stone staircase to the servant’s quarters, and out the scullery door. From there, they’d had to run as fast as their legs could take them to cross the servant’s courtyard, skirt around the guard training grounds and reach the stables unnoticed. But if Fitch didn’t lower his voice, or, worse, caused the horse to startle, all that running would be for nothing.

Fitch tugged at her hand, which looked especially pale against his dark, sun kissed skin. She peered at him, her expression communicating silent reproach and warning, before dropping her hand.

Fitch immediately opened his mouth to continue, though he wisely spoke in a rushed whisper. “I’m just saying… He knew you weren’t paying attention. We all knew you weren’t paying attention. And you still knew exactly what he was talking about. How do you do that?”

How did she do that? Aiyana was as mystified as her friend. Sometimes she just knew things. But she wasn’t about to let on to Fitch, so she shrugged and set about twisting her long white hair into a messy knot at the back of her head as she replied, “Because that’s all Beswarick ever talks about. Now, turn around.”

Fitch rolled his eyes, but did as she commanded, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared at the back wall of the horse’s stall. Mulishly, he said, “One of these days you’re going to be wrong, and he’s going to nail you for it.”

“Oh yeah?” Aiyana countered as she reached under the feeding trough and pulled out a rough wool bag. She dug inside, drawing out a pair of homespun trousers and a loose cotton shirt. “And what’s he going to do? It’s not like he can actually punish me.”

As quickly as she could, Aiyana shed the dark blue velvet dress she was wearing and slipped into the clothes she’d bought off one of the young stable hands. The pants were too loose by far, but she tied them off with a length of rope and said, “Okay, you can turn around.”

Fitch turned, his arms still crossed, and tilted his head to take in her transformation. “Not bad,” he said after a moment, “But…” He pulled the cap off his own head and settled it on hers. “That’s better. At least it hides your hair a little,” he said with a shrug.

Aiyana tucked as much of her hair under the cap as she could. “Thanks,” she replied, silently wishing she had a mirror to take in her own transformation.

Fitch, meanwhile, shrugged off his forest green tunic, trimmed in silver, and untucked the loose white shirt beneath before running a hand through the dark mop of hair on his head to tousle it. “Just about right…” he said, his dark brown eyes squinting as he looked around them.

A smirk crossed his lips, and he slipped through the stall door, returning seconds later with his hands covered in dirt. In a flash, he brushed his fingertips over Aiyana’s cheeks, chin and nose, before repeating the gesture on his own face and rubbing the excess off on his clothes, wrinkling the expensive fabric in the process. Triumphantly, he declared, “There! Now nobody will recognize us.”

Aiyana didn’t have the heart to tell Fitch that the dirt blended in almost perfectly with his skin, but she hoped it helped conceal hers, even just a little. As long as they could keep moving, there was little chance anyone would see them as anything other than peasant children. Though they were both ten years old, they were small for their age, standing at least a head shorter than their peers, and would likely pass as younger. But if anyone got close enough to really see them, it didn’t matter how much dust Fitch covered her with.

The people of Cyrea were varied in their appearances. Some had bronzed skin and dark brown hair, like Fitch and some were even darker than him, their skin and hair the color of ebony. Others were fair, with pale or red hair and bright blue or green eyes. But even dressed as a street urchin, Aiyana’s appearance would stand out. Her hair was stark white, not even the faintest hint of blonde, and her skin, beneath the dirt, was pale, with a silvery glow to it, as if someone had touched her with fairy dust at birth. And only three people in all Cyrea shared her striking violet eyes. She could try to hide her hair and skin, but one look at her eyes would give them away.

Aiyana self consciously tucked one last strand of hair beneath Fitch’s cap and sighed. It would have to do. She’d just keep her head down and pretend to be shy if they were approached. Fitch seemed determined to talk enough for both of them anyway. Reaching under the feeder again, she extracted a well-worn leather satchel and stuffed the wool bag inside.

“Were you able to get everything?” Fitch whispered as they ducked their heads out of the stall.

She nodded. “I could only lift one water skin from the barracks, Cheven came back before I could find a second one, but we can share.”

Whatever grumbling reply Fitch would have made was cut off as Aiyana shoved him back into the stall and once again covered his mouth. It was time for the afternoon shift change, and Eiric, one of the stable hands, walked past their hiding place a moment later, whistling the happy tune of a man about to return home after a long day. Aiyana had been watching him and knew they’d have a short window to escape the stable as he lingered over his last inspection of the mare who was due to give birth any day.

She peeked around the corner and saw him stride into the last stall on the left. She turned to Fitch with a finger over her lips then grabbed his hand and the two darted as quietly as they could from the stall.

It took only minutes for the two children to race around the paddock, through an open field and into the hedge maze just off the formal gardens. Aiyana knew the path by heart and sprinted through with ease, Fitch following closely behind her. When at last they reached the back wall of the maze, and the gardens themselves, Aiyana turned to Fitch with an expectant grin.

“Are you ready?”

The boy nodded, his eyes dancing with excitement, and his feet nearly doing the same.

Moments later, the two pushed through a hidden opening in the wall and onto the worn cobblestone road beyond, squealing with triumph as they ran toward the city rising up in the distance.

Related Posts

1 Response

Leave a Reply