“Fare slow down!” Era screamed from behind him. “I’m going to fall off!”
Fare felt Era’s tiny fists pressed against his abdomen. He turned to see her heart-shaped head bouncing violently as Derek’s horse galloped through the field. Behind them two long rows of corn stretched out in perfectly straight lines. Not fifty feet off bright red fire sprouted among the crops. Fare could hear popping as the flame engulfed each bundle of corn.
We’ll die if we slow down. Fare faced forward and dug his heels into their horse’s flanks. As the horse jolted forward Era cried out and wrapped her arms tighter around Fare’s stomach.
Anger continued to consume all of Fare’s thoughts. All except one: he had to get Era to Ustelm. It was the only place she’d be safe from the fire. Fare strengthened his grip on the leather reigns draped across both of his palms and pulled hard to the right. The horse veered through a gap in the row of corn, bringing them onto a path that ran through the center of the field. It was wider than the others, and Ustelm rose into view at the end of it.
From afar Ustelm looked like a pyramid with a brown foundation and white stone crowning its top. As you got closer, however, the structure broke into thousands of individual buildings. They progressively rose in height until finally culminating in a white castle with a tall tower at its center. The Watch Tower. It stood in stark contrast with the dilapidated wooden shacks that ran along the town’s edge. As they approached Fare saw men garbed in the same loose-fitting orange pants Fare wore running towards the field with wooden buckets filled to the brim with water. One among them carried a long, sheepskin hose. He sprinted in Fare’s direction, stopping only when he was at the edge of the row Fare was running up. Four others followed him with a wooden cart. They came to a halt about five yards behind him and moved to either side. Once they were in place they began pumping two large levers that stood parallel to the cart’s wheels. The men thrust their arms towards the ground and back until, after a few seconds, water spouted from the hose and rained down on the field.
They’re trying to soak the soil, Fare realized. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and if the fire spread as far as Ustelm the outskirts of the town would go up in flames like dry twigs. Fare’s anger flared up again in his chest. As common as fires were in these parts, the Hatalts and other elites had only equipped them with a pitiful hose and a few buckets.
We’re at the mercy of fire and they do nothing. They sit safely in their stone estates at the heart of the city while we’re left to burn. Fare groaned.
The heat of the growing flames behind them pressed against Fare’s back. He could hear Era murmuring into his shoulder, but he couldn’t make out her words; his ears were deafened by the crackling of the rapidly approaching fire. He urged their horse to go faster, ignoring the sting of pebbles that struck his bare arms and face as they ran.
They were only twenty yards from clearing, but their path was blocked by the men operating the wagon and hose. The man with the hose had wandered a fair distance into the field and was now only a few feet away. His dark eyes widened in fear as Fare veered around him, barely missing him, and continued on at an incredible speed.
The attached wagon remained before Fare. The gaps between it and the lines of corn that ran along the sides of the path were too small for Fare to pass through. Fare’s horse began to slow, but he pressed it forward. The four men that stood pumping the wagon’s levers yelled at him to stop. When he didn’t, they leaped into the stalks.
Fare’s stomach sank as his horse jumped up and came crashing down on the cart. It knocked over the tubs of water as it sprang off of it again and landed back onto the ground with a thud. Fare crouched down and hugged the horese’s neck, pulling Era down with him. The horse galloped down the rest of the path and emerged in the clearing before Ustelm.
The town was alive with activity. Men were joined by their wives as they carried water into the fields. Others ran between the buildings towards the center of the city, clutching their belongings to their chest and pulling small children along behind them. Fare looked in their direction and saw the Watch Tower.
Energy surged through Fare’s entire body again. Heedless of the risk, he continued at a gallop and followed the fleeing villagers into Ustelm. He darted between the people, forcing some to jump into alleyways to avoid him. He was determined to reach the Watch Tower. He needed to bring it down in flames.
Without warning, a woman jumped out in front of him. She had gray hair that was streaming out from her red bandana, and her hard eyes were locked on his.
“Stop!” she screamed.
Fare, tried to go around her, but as he passed her she grabbed the horse’s reigns.
“Fare, look at me!”
Fare couldn’t. He could only see the Watch Tower rising above them. He jumped to the side and attempted to flee.
Fare was yanked backwards by his neck. He screamed out and turned to face his attacker. The woman stood calmly in front of him. Her red dress billowed in the wind that whipped through the street.
“Fare, look at me.”
Era poked her head out from behind her. Her face was streaked by tears. Fare felt the energy ebbing from him. His vision began to clear. The woman took a step toward him, and his heart began to race again. With each beat his anger rose.
“Fare, you have to calm down. Think about who we are.”
She glided towards him. Before he could react, she placed her right hand on his chest. A coolness emanated from it. It flooded through him, easing the strain of his muscles and slowing his pulse. Fare looked down at the woman’s familiar, upturned face. Now that she was close he could see concern etched into her wrinkled forehead and lips. Recognition washed over him.
“Fare, who am I?” she asked him quietly.
“Aunt Dret,” he responded.
Her shoulders slumped in obvious relief, but then anger flashed in her eyes. She jerked her hand away from him.
“What were you going to do?” she cried. “Attack all of the overseers? Oh yes the bards will sing songs about you! The idiot that faced the Hatalts and their puppets alone but for his little sister, knocking women and children down on the streets all the way.”
Aunt Dret closed her eyes and sighed.
“There are exercises you have to learn. But for now just breathe deeply, and follow me.”
Fare opened his mouth to respond, but Aunt Dret cut him off.
“Do not ask questions; we have more dire things we must attend to before sating your curiosity.”
Aunt Dret went back and grabbed Era’s hand, leaving Fare dazed in his place. His head swam. He felt like he was about to fall.
“What happened to me?” he asked, his voice wavering. “What’s going on?”
Now that he had calmed, memory of the fire and his anger filled him with confusion and fear. Aunt Dret turned to him with a look that he had known since he was a child; the severity of it used to leave him quivering in his boots.
“You will not ask questions until I say you may,” she hissed. “Am I understood?”
Fare nodded reluctantly,
“Good. Now we will leave this… beast” she said gesturing towards the horse they had taken, “and continue on foot. Follow me.”
Aunt Dret scooped up a large satchel from the street, reached for Era’s hand again and strolled over to a nearby alleyway. She turned and disappeared into it, all the while murmuring to herself, “Riding into Ustelm on a Sult’s horse. Bah!” Fare stumbled after her, nearly falling over his feet with his first step. He cursed, and broke into a jog until he settled in behind his aunt and sister.
The alley was not a usual walkway. It was littered with trash and pieces of long forgotten furniture and tools. As they passed a particularly large pile Aunt Dret reached down and grabbed a rag. No, not a rag. A shirt. She threw it back at him.
“Put this on. If we’re seen I don’t want those welts on your back to call attention to us.”
Until that moment Fare had forgotten about the lashings he had received. At the mention of them his back flared up in pain. He gingerly put the shirt on.
“It’ll do,” she replied and continued walking.
They had only gone a few feet when Aunt Dret pulled Era behind an old, rotting table and gestured for Fare to follow. Fare jumped behind it and leaned back, cursing as pain shot through him again. Aunt Dret looked at him, put a weathered index finger up to her lips and then pointed down the path.
Three men in the same white tunic that the Sult had worn appeared where they had just entered the alley. These men, however, were dressed far more ornately. They each had a gold necklace with a thick chain and a single blue sapphire, and the swords that hung at their hips were encrusted with jewels.
“Hatalts,” Fare whispered.
The Hatalt family ruled the empire; the Sults, along with everyone else, were merely their pawns. The Hatalts were an elite class of warriors that for the most part only appeared in towns as small as Ustelm during Tin’Aldu, a festival that celebrated the creation of the empire. So why are they here now? Surely a field fire isn’t enough to capture their attention. The three glanced down the alley, and then continued along the main road.
“We need to get out of the city,” Aunt Dret said in his ear. “We’ll go through the fields.”
“We can’t,” Fare responded. “Have you not seen? The fields are ablaze.”
A vision of the strange red flames shook him. Aunt Dret studied him for a second, and then replied “I don’t think they are anymore.”
She turned, and pulled Era away. Era glanced back at Fare, her expression unreadable. He tried to smile at her, but he feared that it looked more like a grimace. Fare fought to hide the emotional turmoil he was experiencing from her. He was scared, exhausted, and in tremendous physical pain, but he needed her to stay calm. So he shrugged, put one foot in front of the other, and kept moving.
They turned down several more paths, and then finally arrived back at the fields. When they first appeared Fare swept his eyes across them, searching for the red glow. Nearly a quarter of the main field was black and charred, but there was no fire. Era gasped.
“They put it out so quickly. How did you know they would?” Fare asked.
“No questions,” his aunt responded.
Still holding Era’s hand, Aunt Dret entered the field and Fare followed. They ran the length of it towards the Wandering Forest. With every step Fare’s back ached, and he struggled to keep up. After a half hour of running, they stood at the field’s southern edge and looked up at the tall trees that formed the rim of the forest. Fare turned, expecting to skirt along the edge of the field to one of the roads that ran out of the city. There would be some travelers to avoid, but night was approaching and they could easily travel unnoticed in the darkness.
His Aunt grabbed his arm.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Towards the roads. Are we not leaving Ustelm?”
“We are,” she responded. “But not along the roads. We will travel through the forest.”
“Are you mad?” he asked. “No one travels through the Wandering Forest! We’ll be safer on the roads.”
His aunt looked at him, scowling. “Don’t be a fool.”
With that she ran between two large trunks and into the forest, Era still in tow.
Catie Carberry is an English major at the University of Pennsylvania. She was first drawn to literature by action-packed books complete with magic and adventure. Now that she has begun writing her own stories for children she tries to capture that same energy that made her fall in love with reading in the first place. When Catie is not writing or reading she enjoys running, skiing and staying active, which is probably yet another reason why her characters are always in motion.