Chapter One- LIVIA
I stand near the top of an ancient pine, my long black hair spiraling high into the air. The cool winds have drifted down from Wolfmere Peak and I’ve spent the whole morning listening to pine needles rustle softly in the wind. I sigh along with them.
I’ll turn sixteen in two days. Even though the day shouldn’t feel different than any other, the itch to leave has gotten stronger. The Black Pines are the one place I’ve always been able to go to clear my head. They’ve been my home--but lately they’ve felt more like my prison.
The pines surround me, stretching out for miles. For centuries these trees have thrived, from as far back as when magic once covered our land, when mystical plants and creatures were found and all four kingdoms flourished on their gifts given by the Guardians of Maker Adon.
I cautiously brace myself on the sturdy limbs below me, knowing that a fall from this far up would mean my death. By now, Amah will be looking for me. I sink back down into the shelter of the pine and grab my pack to begin my descent.
I should’ve been back hours ago. But I got bored, scaled a tree, and daydreamed my day away. I hadn’t wanted to carry out mundane chores. I was in desperate need of an adventure.
My foot slips, causing me to slide down to the branch below. Scaly plates of bark flake away from the scrape of my boots. I squint through the limbs, and see Amah’s thin frame stalking my way. I already can see the disappointment etched on her face.
When both of my parents died, Amah brought me to the Black Pines, taking it upon herself to raise me as her own. She’s my caretaker, and her expectations of me have always been high. I’ve never understood why, and it’s annoyingly suffocating. But this is the way it’s always been.
Continuing down to the lowest branch, I brace my hands against the trunk and push off. Pine needles cushion my landing.
“You found me!” I announce.
Amah startles, and I grin. It’s rare I ever catch her off guard.
Her brow angles down over the slant of her eyes, causing my grin to falter. More winds gust through, blowing her cropped hair into a black-spiked mess. With her serious expression, I find the combination rather amusing. I bite the inside of my cheek, trying not to laugh. I know better than to test her patience.
“It’ll be dark soon. Let’s go.” Her words are crisp and harsh. Even though she often comes across this way, she’s never outright punished me. Her disappointed looks are punishment enough. We begin to walk.
Our cottage is tucked deep within the Black Pines between Wolfmere Peaks and Horn Lake, a plentiful area for us to hunt and fish. The closest village is a ride of two days to Kale, where we travel every other month to barter and trade. It’s the only other place I’ve ever been.
We always stay at the same inn, talk with the same people, and go to the same stores. No matter how many times I carefully plan something different, Amah is right there, guiding me right back to her calculated schedule. It’s a struggle to break free.
Amah says she’s simply never found a reason to go anywhere else or do anything different. I’ve told her I want to travel to the capital city of Pynth, to see Willobourne Castle, where our kings and queens once dwelled. The stories I’ve heard paint a picture of a wondrous place that can only be magical--chock full of adventure I am dying to have.
But she always denies my requests; she refuses to go back to a home she barely escaped from. A home my parents knew, before they died in a raid brought by the erratic king in the East, almost sixteen years ago now. That unfortunate raid is what has kept me out here in seclusion my whole life.
To this day, Amah doesn’t speak much about the night my parents died, but from what I’ve gathered through the years, it was my father who commanded her to leave during the raid, and to take me with her. When I asked why he’d asked her, she only said she was our family’s protector, and left it at that.
I know she carries the guilt of leaving my parents behind, and it pains her to speak of them. But I love when she shares her rare stories of them. It is always on those nights when the weather doesn’t allow us to go outside. We sit in front of the fire, and she tells me about the life of the castle.
My parents were the High Healers to the king and queen of the Western Kingdom. They gathered plants and herbs outside the city, where fields upon fields of plant life were grown and harvested. They knew how to make remedies that could keep our rulers healthy and treat them when sick. They carried on the much-imitated tradition of healing that our whole kingdom once possessed.
I used to think it was exciting how close my parents were to the king and queen. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if my parents would still be alive if they hadn’t worked for them. After all, the raiders came after the king and queen--not my parents.
I don’t remember anything about my parents, but I’ve always hoped to become a High Healer like them one day. There isn’t a king or queen anymore in our kingdom--for only a descendant of our true Guardians can sit on the throne. Regent Grif rules in their place, waiting for the missing heir. He’s a Northern Prince, brother to the late queen.
A gust of wind sweeps my hair into my face, and before I have time to push it aside, I bump into Amah. I stumble back but she catches me by the arm. Her eyes narrow, looking off into the distance. I follow her gaze, but I don’t see or hear anything.
Without a word, she continues on, and promptly picks up the pace until we are almost home. Soon enough, we are passing the shed where we keep our everyday supplies. It isn’t anything fancy, but the thatched roof and pine walls give it plenty of character.
“I think I’ll go fetch some wood for the fire.”
If anything, gathering wood will show that I’ve accomplished something today--unlike the berries I forgot to pick.
She eyes me curiously, her lips set in a thin line.
“That would be wise, but don’t linger too long.”
I walk along the raked dirt, and head towards the shed. It’s a walk I’ve made thousands of times. But I no longer want to repeat these steps. I can’t live the rest of my life out here.
If only I could truly become a High Healer. And even if I didn’t manage to become a High Healer, I could train to be something else--anything to be around other people.
It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed being raised by Amah. She has been good to me. But I long to see so much more.
All I know is from our past. Now I want to use the present to build a life in the future. But I can never tell this to Amah. She would never understand.
Once when I was reading one of the books on Amah’s shelf, I found a passage that spoke of the mission of our Maker Adon. When he created our world of Erets, he sent four Guardians to establish his four kingdoms. He did it so we could live free--not be stuck in one place. Yes, each kingdom had its own specific gift, but he hoped we would all work together. Living separately we could not survive. And that has stuck with me ever since.
That was written when magic flowed throughout each kingdom, and the people all worked alongside one another. The kingdoms flourished until something horrible happened to change everything. And Maker Adon’s dream fell to pieces.
I notice the shed door is ajar as I approach. The hairs on my arms rise. It’s rare the door isn’t securely fastened--there have only been those few times that squirrels have managed to break through.
I push the door farther in. Slipping inside, I peer around but see nothing out of place. I relax my posture, feeling foolish for thinking the worst. It’s not as if anyone would actually be in here.
I go to the back of the shed where the firewood is stacked neatly against the wall, and begin stacking some in the crook of my arm. If this winter is anything like the last, I’m not looking forward to the long days trapped inside.
The shed moans against the wind, mirroring my thoughts. Who knows, maybe this winter I can weasel more stories out of Amah, and add them to my store of fond memories I could’ve had myself.
My arms are full, and I turn to leave. The light from outside shifts, sending shadows flickering across the floor. An imprint on the dirt floor catches my attention. Shifting the weight in my arms, I lean to get a closer look. A large footprint dusts the ground, and I realize quickly it’s neither mine nor Amah’s.
Out beyond the shed walls, a scream slices through my puzzlement.
The firewood falls from my arms, crashing to the ground. I dash out from the shed. Amah has never screamed before and fear fills me. What could have caused her to scream?
I run to the back side of our quaint cottage. My eyes dart around searching for Amah, and when they don’t find her, I make my way around to the front.
I stop. Amah is pinned to the ground. A burly man in a hooded black cloak hovers over her. A sharp blade is in his hand, pointed at her breast. Amah’s blade is out of reach on the ground next to her.
Amah’s eyes burn with anger. When they shift to mine, the man turns his head to follow. On his face, there’s a red mask. Fear tightens inside my chest. This is no ordinary intruder. This is a Silent Watcher!
I unsheathe my knife from my boot. My heart pounds inside my chest and I’m unsure of what to do next. There’s no way I can take down a man this size. And with a knife? Amah has always made me carry this knife, but I have fallen short on how to wield it--unlike my bow. But the bow is too far away.
I shift the knife’s handle between the tips of my fingers and throw it as hard as I can at the red-masked assassin. He brings his arm up to block it. Suddenly, Amah thrusts up and jams a concealed knife into the thick of his neck.
Without releasing a single cry, the light leaves the Silent Watcher’s eyes. His body slumps forward, and Amah quickly moves out from beneath him.
I stare wide-eyed at the unmoving form splayed on the ground. Amah stands, and wipes blood from her knife. I watch as she tucks it away and then goes to collect her blade.
I study my hands. A sick feeling brushes over me. Amah motions for me to come help her. I stumble my way over to the dead body. How did this all happen? No one is supposed to know where we live.
The strong scent of iron hits my nose. Unable to restrain myself, my stomach lurches and I dash away, emptying my stomach’s contents near a rose bush we planted last spring.
Amah’s footsteps come closer.
“I’m so sorry, Amah.” Shame washes over me as I turn to face her.
“There is nothing to be sorry for, En Oli. Now go inside. Warm yourself by the fire, I’ll be in shortly.” She brushes her thumb across my cheek, then turns and walks away.
En Oli is a nickname she’s used for as long as I can remember. It means My Light. Whenever I was scared or anxious, she would only have to call me by that name and my inner turmoil would calm. It comes from a lost language that is derived from that of her ancestors, who lived outside the four kingdoms in the Tar Islands.
I know she used it to calm me, but it isn’t working. Not now. I fear the Silent Watchers. I walk up the wooden steps to our home, and go inside.
I sit down on my favorite wooden chair, one lined with fur, and tuck my feet up underneath me. We haven’t heard a whisper from these assassins for years. That one of them has found his way to our makeshift life is beyond unsettling. Silent Watchers were the ones who raided my family’s home, and murdered them. These men are the reason Amah has kept us hidden away.
I thought we were safe.
I thought wrong.
As flames dance in the hearth, I think back to the lessons I’ve had on the Watchers. How those lessons frightened me. But Amah was insistent that I know about the evil ways of the Eastern Kingdom, the place where the Silent Watchers are trained to kill.
The Silent Watchers serve King Kgar. They are the merciless shadows that do his bidding. They constantly try to penetrate our kingdom, hoping to find our weakness.
It’s why The Wall was built. The Western and Northern Kingdoms fought against the Eastern Kingdom, forcing The Wall up to keep the invaders in the mountains to the east. A single gate was built to allow limited bartering and trading of goods. But that’s it.
It’s why it came as a shock when they succeeded in their raid against us sixteen years ago. Come to find out, the Southern Kingdom’s Enchanter had been aiding them.
A bright light outside snaps me out of my thoughts. I go look out the window, and see a large fire tickling the night sky. Amah stands nearby, watching the flames.
I squint towards the fire to see what she’s burning. An unsettling feeling comes, and I’m afraid I know the answer. The flames part just enough, and I see the assassin’s body.
I hurry back to my chair, terrified. Minutes later, the front door opens. Amah trudges inside, shutting the door firmly behind her. I watch her as she pulls off her outer layers, her cheeks already pink from the cold. She steps over to the fire and begins to warm her hands.
I don’t know why I’m so unsettled by her actions. I should’ve been able to put it all together. A master in weaponry, a protector to my family. I just can’t imagine her harming anyone, let alone killing someone. It is something that goes firmly against my very being. I can’t exactly explain it. It is something that just runs through my veins.
A shudder skitters down my spine, and I shove it away. I can’t focus on the actual killing. It was a tense situation, and there was no way around it. I know this.
Amah turns slowly; the light behind her casts her face into shadow.
“It’s no longer safe here. We’ll leave tomorrow.”
Words I’ve so longed to hear are finally spoken. But I fear it won’t be the adventure I’ve envisioned.