Keiara woke with the sunlight filtering through her window. It was dappled as it passed through the canopy of her forest home. She got out of bed with excitement filling her heart and hurriedly and quietly got dressed. She pulled on her long skirt and threw on a simple white shirt. Then she grabbed her wrap and carefully arranged it over her upper body until it was situated just right. She took her lustrous black hair and pulled it up into a ponytail. When she was finished, she tiptoed to her door, pulled it open as quietly as she could and headed down the hall to her little brother’s room.
She opened his door as quietly as her own and silently went inside. She found Asher underneath his covers, his feet near the head of his bed and his head near the foot. He was snoring loudly, the sawing noise of it making her feel like giggling. She stifled it and gently shook him.
“Asher,” she whispered.
He moaned, turned over and then started snoring louder.
She smiled. Then she reached out a hand and shook him again, this time rougher.
His eyes flew open.
“Wha-?” he asked, his voice a sleepy slur. “Wha’s goin on?”
“Asher, wake up,” she whispered.
His eyes fluttered open.
“What are you doing?” he complained. “I don’t have any chores to do. Lemme sleep.”
“Nope,” she responded. “And be quiet. You want mom and dad to hear us?”
That caused him to get up, his body alert and cautious.
“What do you mean?” he asked, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What are you planning?”
She smiled mischievously. Her brother might only be twelve, but he was definitely sharp.
“Oh no. No. Absolutely not,” he shook his head. “Mom already said no.”
“I know, but it will be such an adventure. Just imagine it,” she returned, a wild gleam in her eyes. “We’d get to see the forest and the animals. Then there’s the wide open air. The beautiful sky. I’ve seen it, Ash. It’s like nothing you’ve experienced before.”
Asher sighed miserably. His big sister was a notorious adventure seeker. She was always looking for the next thing to sate her seemingly insatiable need to explore.
“Mom and dad are going to kill us if we go.”
“That’s why we leave before they notice we’re gone,” she replied, flashing him her most charming smile.
He let out a miserable breath.
“Fine, but only because I have to be the one to look out for you.”
“Whatever, Ash,” Keiara replied. “Hurry up and get dressed. I’ll meet you at the backdoor.”
She got up and left him to it, navigating herself downstairs and through the back hall to the kitchen.
She stopped suddenly. It felt like someone was behind her. She turned around slowly and a gasp of fear escaped her.
“Good morning, dear,” her mother, Aeole, said. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she had a disapproving look on her face. “Where are you off to so early in the morning?”
“You know, the thing is,” Keiara started, fumbling with her hands nervously, “I thought I would get some work done.”
“There is no work to do as yet,” her mother replied.
“There’s always work to do?” she tried.
“Is that a statement or a question?”
“Whichever sounds more convincing?” she tried again.
“I told you I didn’t want you getting more akavi herb for Heari,” Aeole said.
“Mom. Please. I’m not a child anymore. I can handle it. Haven’t I proven that many times now?” Keiara pleaded.
Her mom seemed to think it over. Keiara felt a fierce bit of pleasure rise up in her. She could tell when her mom was going to crack and she was exhibiting all the classic signs.
“I’ve been looking forward to this all week,” she begged. “And Heari really needs the herb. Her store of it is nearly gone. I’ve gotten the herb for her, successfully, over a dozen times before. Why can’t I go now?”
“Because you’re getting too old for this nonsense. You are needed here. That life isn’t for you, honey,” Aeole said, nearly pleading herself.
“Then what is? Yours? I don’t want a life like…,” but she stopped herself, her voice dying out. She put a hand to her own mouth in shock and she looked with pleading eyes at her mother.
“A life like mine?” Aeole asked. There was a touch of sadness to her eyes.
“That’s not what I meant,” Keiara replied, but she didn’t sound very convincing.
“No. If that’s how you feel, then by all means go. Gather the akavi. Don’t let my life dull your spirit, Keiara.” She abruptly turned her back on Keiara and left, heading back upstairs without another word.
She watched her mother disappear up the stairs and felt horrible for what she’d said. It was true, but she never intended for her mother to know that. She debated with herself to make things right or go ahead on her journey. She spent an agonizing few minutes fighting internally with herself and ended up deciding to continue on with the journey. She could make it up to her mom later. Right now, she was too enthralled with the idea of another adventure.
She went around the kitchen and grabbed enough food for both her and Asher. She packed a big loaf of bread, various berries, two wheels of cheese, some noodles coated with a thick herb sauce and two canteens full of crystal clear water.
Just as she was finishing up, Asher came down. He wore a pair of black pants with grey patches over both knees and a loose hunter green tunic. His bow was strung and dangled in his left hand. A quiver with a full set of arrows was slung across his back.
“Did you and mom get in a fight?” he asked.
“A little one. Where’s my dagger?” Keiara asked.
Asher pointed to the chest that rested against the left wall. Her dagger sat on top, glistening in the scant sunlight.
Keiara grabbed it and sheathed it in the scabbard that hung across her left hip. Then she draped the pack with the food over her shoulder and opened the back door.
“Do I have a choice?” he asked, sarcastically.
“No,” she responded, with a wide smile. “You need to expand your horizons, Ash. You need to see what our world has to offer.”
She never took her brother with her on these kinds of expeditions but she really wanted him to experience it. That’s why she wanted him to come with her this time.
“Fine,” he answered, dryly.
They headed out the backdoor and stepped onto their porch. The world wove itself into view and Keiara paused a minute to look at the splendid beauty of her home.
She looked down, and down, and down. Her house was almost four hundred feet in the air, suspended in one of the giant monoak trees that made up the Qarri Forest. Each one of the majestic trees rose so far into the sky that their tops were covered in heavy, thick clouds and mists. The forest itself covered nearly half of Purga and there were millions of the great trees in it with the Terraquois city-tribes nestled throughout it. The others were beautiful, but she loved her home, the city-tribe of Vitari, most. It was by far the biggest and most complex city of her nation.
“Are we going or what?” Asher asked.
She smiled and nodded.
They stepped onto a bridge that was suspended between their house and the gigantic building in the exact middle of Vitari. It acted as a central hub and most of the other buildings and homes were connected to it by suspension bridges.
It was a ten minute walk from her porch to the hub and when they got there it was already full of people. They said hi to several of them, but Keiara was trying to keep small talk to a minimum. She was excited to leave and didn’t want any long delays. They picked their way through the throng of people until they came to a bridge that disappeared into the forest beyond. It was one of the several bridges that ended at the forest’s edge.
It took more than half the day to get to their destination. That included stopping for lunch at the mid-station and the several times they gawked at some of the wildlife that came in close enough for them to see.
It was nearing evening when they finally spied a simple hut amidst the branches. They came up to the door and knocked. It opened and a man Keiara had known most of her life greeted them. His name was Gar and she smiled brightly when she saw him. He was an older warrior, his body a map of scars from old injuries. He walked with a noticeable limp and around one shoulder was a small monkey with brown fur and a pure white face. It chittered happily at them as they walked up.
“Hush up, Fortun,” the old man grumped. The monkey kept on chittering. His body went up and down with excitement. “Damned monkey doesn’t know when to quit.”
“Gar, don’t be mean to him. He’s so cute.” Keiara laughed. She stuck a hand into her pack and pulled out a couple of berries.
Fortun chittered more excitedly. Then he crawled down Gar’s arm and snatched the berries. He climbed back up to his perch on his human’s shoulder a moment later and gobbled up the berries quickly and efficiently, not wasting a bit of the tasty food.
“And where are you two headed?” Gar asked.
“Out into the Javardi Desert. Heari needs more akavi herb,” Asher answered.
“Ah, I see,” Gar responded. “Well, have a seat then. Get some dinner in you two before you go traipsing about in the desert. You’ve had a long journey.”
Keiara was about to pull some food out of her pack, but Gar quickly stopped her. He went to the small kitchenette where a pot was simmering over his wood-burning stove. He grabbed some plain bowls and ladled thick stew into each. He pulled out half a loaf of bread and brought that and the bowls over to a nicked and pitted table pushed against one wall. There was only room for three chairs so they all took a seat and started eating.
“This tastes great,” Asher proclaimed, shoveling spoonful after spoonful of the stew into his mouth. He was barely slowing enough to chew.
Keiara ate hers more slowly, savoring the rich taste and the thick cut vegetables in it. She tore off a chunk of bread, dipped it into the stew, and then ate it.
“This is good,” she said through a mouthful of food. Her cheeks expanded like a chipmunk’s.
Gar and Asher both laughed.
They ate until their bellies felt like exploding and as they finished, the sun was disappeared in the west.
Keiara looked over that way, tracking its slow fall through the sky. It was easier to see here, at the outer edge of the forest. The leaves were thinner and the canopy was less dense. She could even see the Javardi desert out there. Sand dunes humped and flowed over it. The vegetation was mostly sparse, scratchy looking bushes and spiny cacti. Desert animals flittered here and there. Lizards, desert foxes, insects, snakes. Keiara wasn’t worried about them though. Most animals weren’t a problem to the Terraquois.
Gar got up and walked over to the center of his lonesome building and popped open a trap door. He kicked a heel on the edge of the hole in the floor and a ladder suddenly unwound itself and fell to the ground far below. He beckoned Keiara and Asher over and helped make sure each started down it safely.
They climbed down as fast as they could. The sentry post was up in the higher elevations of the tree to provide maximum security and the most advantageous point of view. It was a long (slightly unnerving) climb to the ground.
Keiara looked up but couldn’t locate Gar’s hut. It was too far up and blocked by all the branches and leaves. She waved anyway, readjusted her pack, and then her and Asher headed to the edge of the forest.
Most of her people were nervous to stray away from the protection the forest offered, but Keiara was different. She enjoyed going. She loved the feel of the open air and loved seeing the millions of bright stars in the dark night sky.
Asher, on the other hand, was one of the nervous ones. He didn’t like the open air. In fact, it felt oppressive. It was a weight that settled heavily on his head and shoulders. It seemed to make it hard for him to breathe at times. But he did his best not to let it get to him.
“Come on, Ash!” Keiara yelled, laughing. She started running out into the desert. “Come see what I was trying to tell you.”
Asher bit down on his fears, took a deep breath, and ran to catch up to her. Sometimes he really hated being related to her.
“Wait for me!” he screamed, but she didn’t listen. She just kept running.
Asher poured on the speed and finally managed to reach her. They raced next to each other for a bit, both of them running fleetly over the shifting, desert sands. They ran on like that for a few more minutes. Then they both slowed down until they were walking. Their faces were red and sweaty but the brisk wind blowing through the desert quickly cooled them off.
“Why do you always do this?” Asher suddenly asked. “Why can’t you ever just be happy with the life we have at home? It’s a good one you know.”
“I know it is, Ash,” she replied. “But that just isn’t for me. I can’t explain it. I have to see what’s out in the world or I don’t feel complete.”
“What about the Rooks?” he asked, looking in the direction of their lands. The sky over there was as dark as the rest, but he could imagine them there, invading Purga like a plague all the same. “Do you have to see their cities? Do you have to explore there?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, ignoring the shocked expression on Asher’s face. “Can you imagine what those cities are really like? How wonderful they must be?”
“Wonderful?” Asher asked, disbelievingly. “I always thought you were crazy, sis. Now I have proof.”
“I’m not crazy,” she told him. “I just like to see and experience new things. Why is that such a crime?”
“Because Rooks are dangerous. They just want to destroy us,” Asher replied.
“How do you know?” she shot back. “Have you ever met one?”
“No, but I don’t have to meet one to know that. It’s a fact,” he replied.
“Maybe I’ll just keep an open mind until I’m proven wrong.” She smiled at her brother. Then she broke off and started running again, heading toward the akavi thicket twenty yards to their right.
Asher let her run, electing to keep his sedate walking pace. He thought about what his sister said and a shudder of fear ran through him. For the first time, he realized just how dangerous her ideals were to her. If she wasn’t careful, she was going to get hurt.
And he couldn’t let that happen.
He came to the akavi thicket and quietly helped her pick as many of the herbs as they could fit. They didn’t talk and the silence thickened around them.
“Look,” Keiara said, nodding her head to the left.
Asher turned to where she was pointing and found a curious desert fox sniffing the air a couple of feet away. Its dark eyes seemed to twinkle from the moonlight as it watched the two of them.
“I am like that fox, Asher. It knows we could be dangerous to it. It knows we could end its life, but it still gives in to its curiosity and watches us.”
She turned to the fox.
“Come here, little sister.” She beckoned the little tawny-furred fox over. It raised its head and then did as Keiara demanded. It stopped at her feet and sat on its haunches, staring up at her. She bent down and gently rubbed the fur on top of its head. The fox’s eyes closed in pleasure. “You see. Sometimes it pays to follow your curiosity. You never know where it can lead.”
“I bet it’s nowhere good,” Asher replied under his breath.
Keiara fed the little fox a couple of berries from their dwindling stores and then bid it to leave.
Asher watched it run away, its little body swift and sure. Then he went back to picking the akavi herb, focusing intently on the task. The bush was littered with painful thorns.
For a long time, they picked and filled the bags in silence. Then, when they both had them packed to the brim, they started back to the forest. They walked together, their conversation turning lighter and filled with more laughter. For the moment, the only thing in the world were the two of them, the open sky, and the sand beneath them. Nothing else mattered.
Asher had to admit, it was kind of fun and he was slowly losing his fear of open spaces. He looked around, searching the wide landscape around him. It shocked him how long it seemed to go on. He never realized how big the world he lived in really was.
He turned to look back at Keiara and as he did he saw something glint in the light of the moon.
“What is that?” he asked before he could think better of it. The minute it was out of his mouth, he slapped his hand over it, cursing himself for being such an idiot.
Keiara’s eyes took on that wild glint that always caused him so much grief.
“Let’s go look,” she said.