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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

The Chellion Days

The Chellion Days

By A.S. Morrison

Shakespir Edition

Copyright 2016 A.S. Morrison

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

1.

He could hear the carts when he woke—no horses, no animals of any sort, just people wheeling their carts through the dusty streets. They all wanted out, but there was nowhere to go.

He sat at the end of his bed and listened to the screams and moans—everyone going nowhere fast. He pulled on his shoes and pulled back the sheets hanging in place of glass. It looked worse than it sounded. Without a crack of emotion, he sat back down on his bed, wondering when his brother would arrive.

It had been quite a while since he saw his brother. Last he heard his brother was out in the Vastlands to the south, trying his hardest to keep back the invaders. It never worked. They were fast and sneaky, the two worst attributes for angry hordes with sharp swords. He heard his brother fought them back as well as anyone. He liked hearing the stories. But now that his brother was coming to take him away he wished his brother could stay in the stories and away from him. It had been so long after all. With everything going on he might be angry, or violent. He didn’t know how people turned when they fought like that.

It was a miracle, though, that the invaders were only just now getting to that little town. At first they didn’t pay the little towns any notice, as long as they didn’t have any clear signs of money. Not a person there had a piece of gold or silver between them, they didn’t even have animals to pull their carts. That all changed a few months back, when the last of the poorly defended castles was sacked. The invaders turned their sights on anything and everything. They hadn’t yet attacked the king’s castle, but everyone knew that was because he was divinely protected. Divinely protected by a big wall. A lot of the walled places hadn’t been hit yet, or so he’d heard. The manors around the castle were said to be safe as well. News stopped coming when the invaders started destroying the little towns on the banks of the Mothund River. His little town wasn’t on the river, but it was close enough.

That’s not to say that it was all bad though, living in that town with week old news and no idea where the invaders were. Before someone arrived a few days before with news of the other small towns, it had been a right nice place to live. But that seemed so long ago now to.

There was a knock at the door, well, more of a panicked rapping. He went down and opened the door just a hair. Hands pushed through the crack and embraced him.

“Oh, Ackerley, how are you? Have you been scared here all by yourself?”

The boy, Ackerley, shrugged. “No, I’m fine I guess. It’s not so bad.”

The woman held him at arm’s length and examined him. “Yes, you look alright. Your brother will think we’ve done a good job. He’s coming—don’t you forget—he’ll be here anytime. We sent the letter when we heard. Oh, you know—but he is coming. I promise. He’ll be here before night—I just know he will. But we should have cut your hair, you can’t see a thing.”

“I’m fine.” Ackerley said, pulling himself away.

The woman hugged him again. “You’ll be safe when he gets here, don’t forget it. He’ll know where to go. He’s fought them. He’s killed them. He can think like them by now. He’ll know what to do.”

“Uh-huh.”

The woman wrung her hands and nodded fervently. “He’ll know.”

A man came up behind her. His eyes kept glancing around wildly. “Come on, heaven knows how much time we’ve got left.” He said, a tremor to his voice.

The woman picked up a large bag with some difficulty and slung it over her shoulder. “He’ll be so surprised when he sees how big you’ve gotten. We tell him everytime—”

“Come on!” The man yelled.

People all around shouted—wheels squeaked and children cried.

The woman gave the boy a terrified smile and took off behind her husband.

Ackerley shut the door and shook his head. He listened to the chaotic sounds of the outside world for a bit and then sauntered back to his room. After a while of staring absently at nothing he picked up the last letter his brother wrote him. It was over a month old.

Ackerley,

How is everything? We’ve been in the Vastlands now for so long I keep losing track of time. Yesterday we encountered the Welgo’s but they didn’t stand a chance. We killed half the pack and sent the other half running. If only they’d go back to Welgland and leave us alone!

I heard a town like ours went up to heaven about a week ago. It’s a ways away from you, but if anything happens around there I’ll be back as soon I get word. Remember what I said before? There’s a place I’ll take you to, a better place than where you are now. But I can’t take you unless the town is going up, that’s the one rule they have. They can’t take everybody after all.

Tell Mrs. Tandry that she’s been a great neighbor to us. She didn’t have to check on you every day. Remember that she’s doing it because she’s nice. Don’t ever forget to thank her. I know it’s been hard since

Ackerley stopped reading. He didn’t like the next part. He was curious about the place he would be going to. He’d been alone now for over a year. Well, almost alone. He’d have liked it much better if crazy Mrs. Tandry didn’t keep coming by every day. She never really helped any. She’d poke her head in the door, ask if anything was wrong, and then disappear. It was useless.

That place, that better place his brother promised, it sounded interesting to Ackerley. He’d heard of better places but was never sure just how better they could be. The invaders, the Welgo’s as they called themselves, took out every place that could be better.

He sat there on the bed all day, making quick trips to the store closet to get food. As time passed the noise in the street diminished. Once it was quieter he began to wonder if his brother got the message in time. Even if he did there was no telling if he could get there before the Welgos. Ackerley shivered at the thought of them at the door instead of his brother. He got up and looked through the sheets. The street was almost deserted. Only one family remained. They had to keep stopping as things kept falling off their cart. They’d packed it far too high. One of them yelled to leave whatever it was, but two little kids kept grabbing the stuff as it fell, tossing the things back onto the pile.

He stepped away from the window and waited.

Evening came and he was afraid that his brother wasn’t coming. The town had been quiet for a while now. He was probably the only one left.

A noise made him jump. It sounded like a horse running into town. For a terrified second he was certain it was the Welgo’s, but then realized that they would come with many horses. Hoping for the best he ran to the front door and pulled it wide. A large brown horse came to a stop right outside. A man jumped down. The man looked at the boy blankly.

“Alright?” The man asked.

“Yeah.” Ackerley said awkwardly.

“Did you see Mrs. Tandry off?”

“Yeah.”

“You thanked her?”

“Uh-huh.”

The man nodded. He took a rope out of a bag hanging off the horse’s saddle. “I’m going to tie this around us for the trip. It’s in case you fall asleep. I don’t want you falling off somewhere in the dark.”

“Can we ride in the dark?”

The man smiled for what was probably the first time in a long while. “I’ve got this.” He untied a long stick that had been secured on the saddle and hung a small lantern off of it. “It’s a terrible thing, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Kenton?” The boy said, nervous about saying his brother’s name.

“Yes.”

“Where are we going?”

“It’s a big castle a long ways away. It’s perfectly safe. You’ll see. It’s a hundred times better than this place. There are rules though, but they’ll tell you all about them when you get there.”

Kenton helped Ackerley onto the horse and climbed on himself. He threw the rope around them and tied it tight. Ackerley hoped for more room, but he would take the constraint over falling off. His brother kicked the horse’s side and it took off. Ackerley strained to see behind him, to see the town he had lived in his entire life drift away in the distance. Out past the town smoke rose into the sky. He shivered and looked ahead, grabbing on to the saddle for support so he didn’t have to grab on to his brother.

The horse ran quickly down the small dirt road that led into the unknown. It didn’t take long for them to catch up to the families that left town last. The family with the over-packed cart were the slowest. The parents yelled as the children kept going back for things that fell off. They were only a blur as the horse sped by.

The ride was quiet. His brother would only talk to remind him to hold on tight or to tell him that they were making good time.

Night came before long. The lantern on the stick threw light in all directions. Kenton grew annoyed and often cursed under his breath at the light’s inability to keep even remotely still. Finally, he pulled the horse to a stop and blew the light out.

“If we keep up with that the Welgo’s will see us.”

“Do you think they’re nearby?” Ackerley asked, trying to hide his fear.

“It’s possible.”

Kenton tied the horse to a nearby tree. It was too dark to tell exactly where they were, and there were no lights to signal a town. He pulled a couple blankets out of one of the many bags tied to the horse’s saddle and laid them out on dead grass. Ackerley sat down on one as Kenton handed him a jar of beans and a spoon.

“Is this what you eat all day?” Ackerley asked, grimacing as he attempted to swallow a mouthful of beans.

“If we’re lucky. I’ve been saving these for you. Mostly we eat these hard cracker like things.”

They sat in silence for a long time. And then, when all the beans were gone and the jars had been put away, Kenton lay back and urged Ackerley to get some sleep. Ackerley found a comfortable spot on the blanket, but wasn’t sure if he would ever get to sleep out there with the thought of Welgo’s permeating his mind.

Sometime before dawn Ackerley was shaken awake by his brother. Within a few minutes they were back on the horse, speeding along through the countryside. Ackerley was too tired to keep his grip on the saddle and sometime in the early morning fell asleep with his head on his brother’s back.

When he woke up they were riding at a slower pace through a forest. Ackerley had only once been in a forest. It was a long time ago. His parents had taken them on a trip to see a relative. He didn’t remember who the relative was but he did remember the forest. It was so pretty. For years he had thought back to that day with fond memories. Being back within the trees made him smile for the first time in a very long time. He didn’t even fear the Welgo’s there. There was no way people so evil could find a place like that. He felt so good watching the little animals and swaying leaves that he didn’t mind what else was going on in the world.

“Do you see a lot of forests when you’re out?” Ackerley asked, watching the canopy above him in a blissful daze.

“Yeah, occasionally. There’s a big one to the west. We fought the Welgo’s there a few months ago.”

“In the forest?”

“In and around.” Kenton said emotionlessly.

Ackerley didn’t believe for a second that anybody could be evil near a forest. He looked out through the trees and was simply amazed that there was no end on either side of the trail. Nothing else mattered in the minutes spent gliding silently through that tree filled heaven.

Some time later, after eating the hard cracker like things, they left the trees behind, much to Ackerley’s dismay.

“We may have to stop in a few hours. I doubt we’ll make it tonight.” Kenton said sometime in the afternoon.

“What is this place?” Ackerley finally asked. He’d wanted to ask the whole time but found it difficult to talk to his brother.

“I told you about it in some of my letters. It’s a real big old castle that takes in kids displaced by the . . . well the current situation.”

Ackerley didn’t much want to spend the rest of the war against the Welgo’s in some place with a bunch of other kids. In fact, the only thing he wanted to do was go home and be alone, but that was out of the question at this point. And besides, he seriously doubted that they wanted him there. The kids there were probably all related to generals and nobility. Someone like him, someone from some middle of nowhere town nobody ever heard of would have a terrible time there. He was sure of it.

“And they were alright taking me?” Ackerley asked nervously, afraid of the answer.

“Well sure.”

That didn’t make him feel any better. “Are you sure, though?”

Kenton sighed. “The king is the nephew of the man who owns the castle. I told him about you and he talked to his uncle. In the end he agreed.”

In the end? Ackerley really didn’t like the sound of that. This castle owner had to be convinced to take him. For the first time he was afraid of going to this place. Of course they would treat him bad. He’d probably have to sleep out with the horses, if they had horses. He couldn’t say anything to Kenton about it; he’d probably just get mad.

The ground was hard and cracked. Miles went by without the slightest sign of life. Ackerley didn’t know if this was the work of the invaders or if the kingdom always looked like that. He never had the chance to explore or even learn about what was out there.

Evening approached and with it the first interesting sight. Sprouting out of the cracked dead earth came a small town. Even from far away the signs of life were unmistakable. Small tan buildings of all conceivable shapes lived in harmony in that wasteland. People and animals could be seen milling about along the edges.

“Are we there?” Ackerley asked.

“No, we won’t make it today. I thought we’d better stop off for a real rest. This town’s been of service to me every time I go home. I have a friend there who can give us shelter for the night. The less time we spend outside the better.” Kenton said wearily.

“How long are we staying?”

Ackerley very much wanted to stay there for the rest of the war. A place like that would be much more like home than some aristocrat’s stuffy castle. A small town of hardworking commoners was much more his style.

“Just the night. We’ve got to get you to that castle so I can get back to work.”

Ackerley wanted very much to know what it was like to fight in a war, but was still too nervous to ask.

The town was a dirty little thing. Sewage lined the dusty streets. None of the windows had proper glass, just like in the town they had grown up in. The people looked worse, if that was possible. They all wore layers of rags and had perpetual sorrow etched into their worn faces.

Kenton pulled up to a two level shack that looked ready to collapse at any moment. He untied the rope and slid off the horse. He helped his brother down and tied the horse to a post.

There was no door; only a ragged cloth blowing in the breeze. Kenton carefully moved it out of the way and they entered.

It took a while for Ackerley’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. There wasn’t much to see anyway. The room was empty except for a very old woman sitting in a rickety wooden chair. Her face was lined with age and scars from life. He wasn’t sure if it was a life well lived or poorly lived, but it didn’t matter much.

“Madame Orly, it is very nice to see you again.” Kenton said, kneeling down and grasping her hand.

Ackerley wasn’t sure she could hear him. She looked far too old to even know what was going on.

Madame Orly laughed heartily. “I hoped that I would both not see you again . . . and of course see you again.”

Kenton laughed as well. “In my line of work it’s better to be seen again.”

“And what a terrible line of work it is.” She said.

Ackerley was shocked to hear somebody say something negative about the war. In his hometown he’d often have people come to his house just to say that they were thinking about his brother fighting the hero’s fight.

“It’s only terrible when we lose.” Kenton said with a wide grin.

Madame Orly looked at Ackerley, who jumped a little under the old woman’s powerful gaze.

“Little Kenton, I’ve heard about you.”

“His name is—” Kenton began.

“I remember it.” She retorted. “But what I don’t know is why you’re here. Why did the king send his best adjutant away at such a time? I hear the news. I know the stories from the many fronts. If you can call them fronts.”

Kenton nodded slowly. “Our town was about to go up to heaven. I—well I needed to get my family to safety.”

Madame Orly sat up in her chair and frowned with a sense of knowledge unknown to Ackerley. “And where is this safety?”

“Chellion Castle.” Kenton whispered, looking a little guilty.

She shook her head and sighed deeply. “The big castles aren’t going yet but they will. And when they hit them it will be far worse than what they do to the towns.”

Kenton pushed Ackerley back a little as though trying to limit what he heard.

“I don’t really know if that’s true.”

Ackerley could tell his brother didn’t believe a word of what he said.

Madame Orly could tell as well. She gave him a slight smile and changed the subject. “Your room is open upstairs. People come by but nobody stays anymore.”

Kenton took a small purse from his belt that jangled quite a bit. “Thank you very much. Here, I’ve got the usual.”

“No, no, no, don’t you dare pay me for this. The roof will probably fall on your head or you might get slaughtered by a Welglander. There’s no sense in paying for that.”

Kenton put his purse back and thanked her yet again.

“Stop thanking me!” She got up from her chair with some difficulty. “There’s probably a hundred kinds of poisonous bugs up there.” She leaned in close. “But if you do die in here believe me that I’ll help myself to that money. That’ll be the deal.”

Kenton laughed again, though this time a little uneasily.

2.

The room was tiny with only one bed; not that it could much be called a bed. It had a frame—made of moldy wood. It had a mattress—filled with wet sand. And it had a pillow—filled with something Ackerley had no intention of touching. So it could by definition be called a bed. Kenton dragged a smelly mat in to sleep on and gave Ackerley the privilege of the bed.

Kenton sat on the mat, which squished under his weight. “We’ll leave early. We’ll get to the castle by evening that way. Don’t worry about this town. It’s got some of the worst people imaginable, but they’re our people.”

Somehow that made Ackerley feel better. “I guess the Welgo’s won’t attack then.”

“Sure won’t.”

Madame Orly brought up stew for them. It had pieces of meat, and was the first meat that Akerley had in a long time. He savored every little bit and was sad when it was gone.

Kenton took the bowls and set them outside the door. He curled up on his mat and went to sleep.

Ackerley sat around the rest of the day staring out the torn curtains onto the street below. When it got dark few lanterns lit the street. Several people walked here and there. He wondered what they were doing. He sighed and felt the uneasiness of going to the castle. It scared him a little, the uncertainty of it all. He tiptoed from the room and carefully walked down the hall. It felt better to move. He’d wandered all over his little town whenever he got that feeling. It worked at home, but didn’t quite have the same effect in that hallway. He’d always known that the future was out there, but never what it was. Now he knew what was going to happen. He was going to a noble’s castle to wait out the end of the war, if it ever came. And then . . . and then what? He shivered and walked back to the room.

Halfway down the hall a voice called to him. He turned. Madame Orly lay on a bed in one of the rooms. A candle flickered nearby, illuminating only a small portion of her face.

“Come in.” She said quietly.

Ackerley went to the doorway, unsure what to do next.

“Come on now. I want to tell you something.”

He slowly went into the room and sat on the edge of the bed.

She looked deep into his eyes. “I can tell you’re scared. I know that feeling anywhere.”

Ackerley looked away.

“Don’t be afraid of the future. It’s the only thing we have a say in.”

He shifted uncomfortably.

Madame Orly patted his back. “This war is fought for you. The king may be fighting for himself, but the warriors are fighting for you. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge of this kingdom as long as they can give children like you the most they can. Do you know it? Do you understand that?”

“I just want to go home.” He said, staring at the doorway.

She nodded in understanding. “I know you do. But I must tell you something else. Something that is even more important. There is no home.”

Ackerley looked into her sad old eyes and found himself looking back.

“That little town you lived in is gone now. The castle you are going to is only temporary. Every place you live in your life is only there for a time. People say they have a home because it makes them feel better about their situation. I want you to be free of all that. Be free of what the people around you want for themselves. Find a way to want differently. Find a way to believe differently.”

Ackerley didn’t understand what she meant. He nodded anyway so as not to seem rude.

“Oh my, I’ve gone and sounded crazy again, haven’t I?”

“No, I just . . .”

Madame Orly looked disappointed. “Go to bed, kid, you’re going to need it.”

He got up from the bed and quickly walked back to his room.

Ackerley jolted awake. Light poured in through the windows. At first he thought it was morning, but that wasn’t daylight. Kenton grabbed him and stood him up.

“Come on, we have to move.” Kenton said, a quiver to his voice.

Sounds of smashing and yelling shook the boy to full consciousness. Something was happening, something bad. The light he had seen was red and glowed hot through the curtains.

Kenton grabbed up what he had brought in with him and pulled Ackerley out of the room and through the hall. They stumbled down the stairs. Madame Orly stood near the doorway. The building across the street burned bright in the night.

Kenton stuck his head outside and pulled it back. He pushed Ackerley against the wall.

“I’m going to get Sidestep ready.”

“What?” Ackerley asked, his eyes wide with fright.

“The horse.”

He sprinted from the shack. People ran and yelled all over the place. Horses galloped through the streets. Ackerley couldn’t tell who was good and who was bad.

“It’s alright, kid, it’s going to be fine for you. Your brother knows what he’s doing.” Madame Orly breathed heavily, gripping the doorframe for support.

Kenton ran back in and grabbed Ackerley. Without the slightest glance toward Madame Orly they went out into the street. Sidestep stood completely still despite the mess all around. Kenton threw his brother on the horse and climbed on himself.

The building across the street groaned and collapsed. Embers erupted from within. Ackerley covered his face as the embers seared his arms. The horse took off. The boy frantically wiped his arms and looked wildly around.

He saw the chaos in clips and images. He saw a large man on a horse cut down someone running. He saw bodies in the street and buildings crumbling under the heat of large flames. And then he saw Madame Orly in the doorway of her inn looking after them. Several figures with swords shining in the glow ran into the inn . . . and Madame Orly vanished from view.

Ackerley grabbed onto his brother and buried his burning eyes in his back. Sidestep raced out of town and the sounds died down. The cool night air replaced the suffocating smoke and heat. For a few seconds the world tried to return to normal.

A loud shout tore through the recovering normalcy. Ackerley looked back to see one of the men with a sword catching up fast on a horse. He wore dark clothes that might have included fur, but the boy couldn’t tell in such a terrifying moment. Kenton pulled the reigns to the left and Sidestep understood. The horse kicked the ground hard and jerked to the left. The man with the sword cut to the left and followed. He came up fast and swiped his sword inches away from cutting into Sidestep. Kenton silently pulled the reigns to the left again and the horse ran in a half circle, galloping back toward the town. Kenton pulled the reigns harder and Sidestep completed the circle. The man with the sword did the same. No matter what maneuver Kenton tried they couldn’t shake him.

Kenton undid several bags from the saddle. Sidestep went a little faster. Another shout came, this one from right behind them and coming fast. The sword once again swiped at Sidestep, this time connecting with his tail. Kenton pulled the stick from the saddle that was supposed to hold the lantern. He removed his hands completely from the reigns. With one hand he pushed Ackerley’s head down and with the other he swung the stick and made contact with the man’s head. He shook it off and came closer. Ackerley could hear the other horse breathing. He peeked over to see it level with him. The man screamed again and Ackerley saw the sword glint as it came his way. The stick caught it inches from his face. The man pulled it out and swung again. Kenton was there with the stick to block it.

Both combatants had now dropped the reigns. Both horses swerved slightly so as to get their rider better shots. Ackerley watched in terror. He gripped his brother’s waist as hard as he could. After the fourth sword swipe cut through the stick and splinters rained down on Ackerley, the vicious man pointed the sword’s tip at the boy. Before he could strike Kenton hurled the stick at the other horse’s head. It connected with a whack and the horse fell off course. Kenton quickly took the lantern and flung it at the horse. It shattered across its face and broken glass cut into its skin. The horse stumbled and fell to the ground, its rider flying off.

Sidestep galloped on as if nothing happened. Kenton took up the reigns and pressed forward. Ackerley buried his face into his brother’s back again and quietly cried. His mind played the sword heading his way over and over again. Each time it looked as if the sword got closer and closer.

They continued on in the darkness. Before too long the first hints of morning lit the sky. Sidestep came to a stop near a stream. Kenton got off and gingerly lifted his brother from the horse and onto the grassy bank. He took a couple metal cups from the last bag attached to the saddle and filled them with water. He handed a cup to Ackerley, who took it with shaking hands. He hadn’t stopped shaking since the first shout rang out in the night.

They sat quietly on the bank of the stream for a while, listening to the calming water.

“I’m sorry.” Kenton whispered after a long while.

Ackerley tried to tell him it was alright, but nothing came out.

“I thought. . .” He sighed and shook his head, staring into the dawning sky. “I don’t know what I thought. Those things are everywhere.” He suddenly shivered and clenched his fists. “We were so close to. . .”

“It’s alright.” Ackerley croaked.

“No, no it’s not. That one, I think he saw my jacket. It’s a sign I’m with the king’s army.”

Ackerley took in the jacket for the first time. It was black with purple stripes at the shoulders. He shrugged.

Kenton got on his knees and threw his head under the water, shaking it around. He took his jacket off and splashed water over his arms. “Here, wash your face off. Let the water clean your eyes.”

Ackerley felt the water. It was cold. It wiped the black marks from his hands. He dunked his head and let the water into his eyes. It made him feel a little better. Unfortunately, he couldn’t wash off the memories.

They sat on the bank of that little stream for almost an hour. Sidestep casually ate grass as if everything that had happened didn’t bother him in the least.

“Is that how battle feels?” Ackerley asked, no longer afraid of the answer.

“No,” Kenton said, staring into the water, “that was much worse.” He looked at his brother sadly. “I’ve never had that much to lose before.”

“I guess that was a real Welgo. I’ve never seen one before.”

Kenton gave his brother a wry smile. “You were in a battle with a real Welgo. Not too many people your age get to do that. You’ll definitely have a few stories to tell at that castle.”

Ackerley didn’t want to think about the castle. As bad as he felt over what happened, the castle still somehow made him feel worse. “How do you go back to that? Isn’t once enough?”

Kenton let out a chuckle that was filled with relief. “I believe that it’s worth the fight, I guess. If we can get these horrible things out of here than we can get everything back to normal.”

“But it won’t.” Ackerley whispered, thinking back to what Madame Orly said. “We don’t have a home anymore. We don’t have anything to go back to.”

Sidestep came up and tenderly nestled his head on Kenton’s shoulder. “We’ll get a new one, a better one.” He said, stroking the horse. “My goodness, you’ve grown up so much.”

Ackerley looked away as his face burned. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I had a lot of time to myself this year.”

“I know.” Kenton said sorrowfully. “That’s my fault.”

“No it’s not. You had to be out there. Mom and dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

Kenton shook his head. “I should have come back as soon as I’d heard. I don’t know why I didn’t. It’s not fair for you to have to go through that alone.”

“I liked being alone.”

In that moment he suddenly realized that he hated being alone all that time. He told himself over and over again that he liked it, and some days were good, but he was awfully lonely. He shook off the feeling. He was tender in those hours after almost being killed.

Kenton kissed Sidestep and the horse wandered over to the stream. “Man, I love that horse. He’s come through for me on so many occasions. Did you see him back there? He knows exactly what to do to get out of trouble. I should tell you about this one time in the Vastlands—oh my he was so great.” Kenton noticed Ackerley staring off into the distance, frowning. “Ah, we better get going. We don’t want a repeat of this morning. I don’t even have a weapon now.”

“Why didn’t you bring your sword?”

“Technically all the weapons belong to the king. We have to leave them with other fighters when we leave.”

“They all belong to the king? You don’t have your own?”

Kenton shook his head. “No, but he will actually give them to people as gifts if they do something really heroic,” he lowered his voice, “or are family.”

Kenton got Sidestep ready and they set off again. The morning drifted into afternoon and they started getting hungry. Kenton had gotten rid of most of the food when they were trying to evade the Welgo and they only had a few hard biscuits left. They ate the rest for lunch and hoped that they would get to the castle before night.

“What is it you do in the army?” Ackerley asked, feeling a little better about talking to his brother.

“Officially I’m an adjutant.”

“And what is that?”

“It’s the same as any other role in the army: I do what people tell me to do.”

Evening came and with it the first sighting of the castle. Ackerley was in the process of dozing off when Kenton bumped him with his elbow.

“There it is, Chellion Castle.”

Ackerley lurched awake and looked up. In the middle of a vast landscape of nothing stood a massive structure. Only the top floor and a few towers could be seen over a very high wall. He gasped. He had no idea someone could build something so large. A slight ease washed over him. No Welgo would get over that wall. The uneasiness of what lay inside, however, nagged at him worse than ever. With every step that uneasiness grew until the boy wanted to jump off the horse and run back to that wonderful forest they’d seen the day before. He wondered if that was the real reason why Kenton put the rope around him.

3.

The closer the castle got the more nervous Ackerley became. His stomach hurt when Kenton pounded on the forty-foot-tall wooden doors. They opened with a groan and Kenton led the horse, with Ackerley gripping the saddle hoping it might just take off without its owner, onto the grounds.

The lawn between the wall and the front door was as long as the entirety of the small town Ackerley grew up in. They trotted up a thin gravel path. Several grounds people could be seen tending to small bushes or trees. A man came up to greet them.

“Mr. Kenton Morzha, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I am Yinnib.” The man said. He wore long off-white robes with gold edging. He certainly looked important, or at least tried to.

“The pleasure is mine.” Kenton said in return. “Can you tell Mr. Chellion that I have arrived?”

“Lord Chellion will certainly be informed.” Yinnib said happily. “I am certain that he will like a full recap of the king’s recent activity. He lived here for a year. Did you know? The king I mean. We bless him—and of course all of you as well—whenever we feel he is in need of it.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

Ackerley began to wonder if this fancy dressed man had even noticed him. He didn’t mind, though. He would have been perfectly happy if he never did. The man’s clothes and the way he carried himself made Ackerley feel even more sure that he would become some sort of outcast. There wasn’t a fancy thread in his entire wardrobe, which at that moment were the clothes on his back.

Kenton continued talking to Yinnib the fancy man about the king and all the times he came to this castle. Ackerley didn’t know much about the king or the history of the kingdom where he lived his entire life. He once heard that the king was a very old man. He also heard that Kenton was in the king’s army against the Welgo’s and that the king rode out and fought them himself. He couldn’t imagine a very old man doing that.

“And this here is my brother, Ackerley Morzha.”

Ackerley glared at his brother; not that he noticed.

“So it is.” Yinnib smiled widely at the boy on the horse; who immediately saw the fakest smile he had ever seen. “It is my immense pleasure to meet you, young Morzha.” He turned back to Kenton. “What’s the state of his education?”

Kenton lowered his voice but Ackerley could still hear him. “The town we’re from didn’t have the best educational system. After the war started the school closed.”

Yinnib frowned. “Hmm, that’s a shame. Education is usually the first to go. I guess the teachers are smart enough to leave, huh?” He let out an irritating laugh. “No matter, he will be educated by the finest tutors in the kingdom.”

“Great.” Kenton nodded his approval. “Could you perhaps run through what he will do here?”

“Ah, we will indeed.”

They came to the front door of the castle which opened when they got close. Two doormen stood just inside. They jumped off Sidestep and the horse was led away.

The entryway was huge. It was carpeted with intricate designs and had many colors throughout. Doorways led off to the left and right with a spiral staircase going up three stories before flattening out and disappearing. Ackerley looked to the ceiling in awe. It was so far away. People wearing expensive looking tunics and dresses wandered here and there throughout the large entryway. Each person’s outfit was white with gold trimming. Ackerley wondered why a castle out in the middle of nowhere needed their workers to wear matching outfits.

Ackerley looked up to the ceiling again attempting to take in the size of the room. A figure stood looking over the railing of a walkway near the ceiling. The figure wore long blue robes with its hood up. Ackerley suddenly realized that half of this person’s face was different than the other half. It looked slightly darker. He wanted to tell Kenton, but when he looked back the person was gone.

Yinnib put a hand in the air and a younger noble wearing a tunic appeared at his side. “Craith here will show young Morzha around the castle and tell him what to expect. Mr. Morzha, come with me and we will get you rested and fed.”

Craith motioned for Ackerley to follow him and headed up the spiral staircase. Kenton followed Yinnib through the doorway to the right.

“I hope you had a good journey.” Craith said as they walked up the stairs.

“Yeah.” Ackerley said casually, not wanting to talk about the Welgo attack.

“It is an honor for us that you are here. Chellion Castle will be your home for the remainder of the war. Here we go.” They came to the next level and Craith led the way through hallways and doors. Ackerley was lost after only a few turns. “We have a series of rules that you will follow. They aren’t too demanding. There are other children here. Many are sons and daughters of nobles or high ranking military officers. I do believe that you are the only brother here. Hmm.”

Ackerley felt a pang of fear. He knew what that hmm meant. It meant it wouldn’t be long before he was sleeping outside with the pigs, if they had pigs.

“Don’t worry about that though.” Craith said as if reading his mind. “We treat everybody the same. The children sleep in the back hall of the third and top floor. Your room will have three other boys in it. Everyday is structured. Monday through Saturday you will have structured time from eight in the morning until five in the evening. Sundays are free days. You will eat with the other children everyday. Two nights a week we have formal dinners where you will wear your formal attire.”

Another pang. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any formal attire.”

Craith nodded. “We will provide your day and night wear. You will have three garments. One is the formal tunic, the second is your day tunic, and the third is a shirt and pants set for free time and private time.” Craith opened a door and they stepped inside. “This here will be one of your classrooms. You will have study Monday through Friday.”

The room had thirty chairs with small tables next to them. Ackerley had never stepped foot in a schoolroom with four walls and chairs. It was bigger than he was expecting. “Are there this many children here?”

“Many more. There are around fifty children here. We have them in three separate groups so we can rotate their tasks. You will be in the third group. It has fourteen children. You will get to be friends. You will do everything with them.”

They kept going. They went down a much smaller stone staircase hidden behind a door at the end of the hall. This took them to very ornate dining room. It had marble pillars and a very long table covered with around sixty plates.

“This is the main dining hall. This is also where the formal dinners take place. The next one is on Wednesday. They are every Wednesday and Saturday. Since today is Monday everyone is having dinner in the small dining area on the third floor. Since it is your first night and your brother is here you will eat on the first floor with him. I’ll show you to your room tonight after dinner.”

He looked at Ackerley expectantly. Ackerley looked back expectantly.

“Any questions?” Craith asked.

There were a thousand Ackerley wanted to ask but he didn’t really want the answer to most of them. “Have the Welgo’s ever come close to here?”

“The Welgo’s are for quick raids. They wouldn’t attack a fortified castle like this. Did you see our wall? That’s the anti-Welgo wall.” He chuckled. “You’re plenty safe here.”

Craith showed him around the first floor. They went through the kitchens and a ballroom and to the backdoor where they looked out onto beautifully kept gardens. Ackerley’s mouth dropped open when he saw it. It was split into four parts bisected by gravel paths and centered around a large pool of water. The hedges, the flowers, the grass, everything was perfectly maintained and full of color. Two of the four quadrants, the upper left and lower right, had an intricately patterned hedge maze with small trees and flowers poking out here and there. The upper right and lower left had paths etched through the grass. The paths were all lined with flowers.

“These are the famous Chellion gardens.” Craith noted proudly. “People used to come from all over.” He added a little sadly.

“They don’t come anymore?”

“After the war started Lord Chellion closed the gardens to the public. It’s been a rough few years here.”

“I guess it’s been rough everywhere.” Ackerley added quietly.

They went back to the main entryway where a woman came up to them. She didn’t look much older than Kenton. Her hair was styled in braids on the top of her head. She held a pile of clothes in her hands.

“Good evening, Ackerley, my name is Loeua. I am the youth supervisor.” She said merrily when they approached. “I have here your three outfits.” She set the pile on a small table next to a vase of flowers. She took up the first one. “This is your everyday tunic.”

The tunic was green with embroidered bronze designs in places. It was by far the fanciest outfit he had ever owned, and that was just the everyday tunic.

She set it down and took up the second one. This one was obvious without her saying anything. “This one is the formal tunic to be worn at the formal dinners twice a week.”

It was the same white with gold edging as all of the uniforms he’d seen already.

“And finally,” she took up the third and final outfit. It was a very simple brown shirt and pants. “This is the free time and roughhousing shirt and pants set.”

This was the only one of the outfits that Ackerley liked at all. It was very similar to what he had been wearing his entire life. Loeua carefully folded the clothes and took them up to his room for him.

Craith then took him through the kitchens to a very plain room with a small table. There Yinnib was having a serious conversation with Kenton. When Ackerley came in Yinnib jumped up.

“Oh my, young Morzha, you’ve had quite the day today. Mr. Morzha’s told me everything. You are a very brave boy for getting through it so well.”

Ackerley didn’t say anything.

Craith set out two plates and several bowls filled with meat, rolls, and cooked vegetables. Ackerley took his seat and started piling his plate with as much as it would fit. He’d been starving all day and had never seen so much food in one place. Craith and Yinnib left the room.

“What do you think of it here?” Kenton asked, his mouth full.

“It’ll be pretty good if they have food like this.”

“Can’t beat that. But what about the rest of it?”

Ackerley shrugged. “They haven’t told me too much yet.”

Kenton nodded seriously.

“But I think it’ll be great.” Ackerley added. “The gardens are so great, have you seen them? And the outfits are so . . . neat.”

Kenton smiled. “It’s going to take some getting used to. When the war ends and we get rid of those horrible invaders I’ll come back and we can go live in a nice town just like any other carefree Chell Kingdom kid would want.”

“Why is it called that, the kingdom?” Ackerley asked suddenly.

“The line of kings are all named a variation of Chell. It comes from King Chell the Great. He founded the kingdom many years ago. The current king, King Chellias is his great-grandson. And of course Lord Chellion, who owns this castle, is the old king’s brother. Don’t worry about not knowing as much as the others. You’ll learn just like they did.”

After they ate Kenton went back to the front door. It was growing dark. Yinnib tried to convince him to stay the night but he said that he had already been gone longer than he had anticipated and needed to leave. One of the doormen went to get Sidestep ready. Kenton knelt down and hugged his brother.

“Remember, I’ll be back as soon as this war is over. We’ll crush the enemy as soon as we can.”

Ackerley nodded, not sure what to say.

Kenton stood up and shook Yinnib’s hand. Just then a boy ran up to Kenton. He wore a blue everyday tunic and had a rolled up piece of paper with a ribbon around it in his hand.

“Sir,” the boy began, “You are in the king’s army, right?”

“Yes.” Kenton said.

“So is my father. His name is Rogerseen.”

“Oh, commander Rogerseen, of course. He’s one of the king’s most trusted warriors.”

“Yes,” the boy agreed, “can you give him this letter for me?” He handed Kenton the rolled up paper.

“I will.” Kenton took the paper and put it in his pocket. “I will give it to him myself as soon as I get to the base.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The boy turned, quickly glanced at Ackerley, and ran out of the entryway. Ackerley watched him go. That boy was the first one he had actually seen. It made him feel a little better to actually see one of the other children he would be spending time with.

“Young Yarn is a great student and will make a valiant citizen.” Yinnib said proudly.

“I was his father’s adjutant before I became the king’s.” Kenton noted.

“Ah, and what does the king’s adjutant do? I expect you’re a great aide.” Yinnib asked with a rather unnatural smile creeping across his face.

Kenton breathed deeply. “I’m not much of an aide. Too many of his staff have died. I usually take messages to other armies or protect the king in battle.”

Yinnib’s face lit up. “That is a very important role. Your life is between the enemy and the king. You must be extremely proud.” Yinnib bowed. “I wish you the utmost success in your endeavor. Know that we here will be praying very hard for your success as the king’s protector. We will add you to our nightly prayers. May the Great Spirit continue your excellence till the worthless wretched heathen barbarian invaders are all massacred or sent back to their fake nation in tatters.”

Ackerley watched in awe as Yinnib’s eyes welled up.

Kenton thanked Yinnib for his loyalty as Sidestep came into view behind him. He put his hand on Ackerley’s head.

“I’ll be seeing you again real soon, Ackerley. Have a good time here and be good.”

Ackerley nodded.

Kenton stepped out into the night. He lifted himself onto Sidestep, tied a bag of food the doorman gave him to the horse’s saddle, nodded to Ackerley, and took off into the darkness.

Ackerley watched his brother go. For the first in his life he didn’t want his brother to leave him.

The doorman closed the door and Yinnib wiped his eyes. “That sure is a brother you have, young Morzha.” He nodded multiple times with his hands enclosed. “Now then, where did Craith go? He needs to take you to your room.”

Craith came and led the way up the spiral stairs. Ackerley looked up to the walkway near the ceiling hoping to see that person he had seen earlier, but they weren’t there. Craith went through hallways and up another hidden stone staircase to the third floor. Upon seeing the third floor Ackerley thought he was in a different place altogether. All the majesty of the first two floors vanished. The walls were rough and the floor wasn’t carpeted. The doors were all simple and wood. Joyous voices could be heard. Children only a few years old to nearly adults were all over the place. Some were chasing each other while others just stood and talked, watching those who ran around. It was an amazing sight. Ackerley felt like a little town of commoners had been dropped right into that fancy castle.

“This, as you can see—” Craith jumped out of the way as two young boys almost plowed right into him. A few kids laughed. “This is where you will be staying. Hey! Hey, Jamie, pants are for roughhousing. Where is your day tunic?”

“But I am roughhousing.” A teenager said as he wrestled another boy to the ground.

“Alright, just don’t let anybody important catch you.”

“If they do I’ll just say ‘but Mr. Craith said I could!’” He pretended to sob.

“You’ll be back with Mr. Jett if you do that.” Craith yelled over all the noise. “Anyway,” he said, turning back to Ackerley, “this is the third floor where you will be staying. The bedrooms are this way.”

They made it through the third floor carefully avoiding all the people running about. Craith opened one of the plain wooden doors. It was a large room with four small but nice beds in each corner. The room was divided in four parts by a small fence about three feet high. Three of the four parts were covered with clothes and sheets and the occasional wooden toy. The fourth part, in the far right corner near a window, was as neat as can be.

“That’ll be your bed.” Craith pointed to the clean part of the room.

The boy who gave the letter to Kenton sat on the other bed on the right side of the room, the one closer to the door. He stared at Ackerley.

Craith climbed over the wooden dividing fence and patted the bed. “We just cleaned it this morning. I see your clothes have been brought up. I’ll see if I can get you a little table like the others have. Well actually you can’t see Murdo’s table, he’s got a—is that an animal pelt on it?”

“Yeah.” The boy with the letter said casually. “His mom sent it to him, thought he might get cold.”

“She’s always sending him weird things.”

“He didn’t much like having to give up his storage area.”

Craith sighed. “I told him how many times that he couldn’t have half the room?”

The boy with the letter shrugged.

Craith climbed back over the fence and stood in the doorway. “Don’t worry about Murdo. He’s a sweetheart.” Craith rolled his eyes as the other boy scoffed. “Alright, so he’s not a sweetheart, but don’t let him scare you.” He raised his arms and let them fall to his sides. “Welp, my room is on the other side of this floor. If you need anything don’t hesitate to come and see me. Wake up is at six thirty. Breakfast is at seven. You’ll figure it all out in due time. Yarn here can tell you what the schedule’s like on Tuesday. See you tomorrow.” Craith shut the door behind him.

Ackerley climbed over the fence and sat down on his bed. It was very soft and smelled fresh. He set the three outfits on the floor and saw a loose fitting shirt and pants he took to be nightwear. He scanned the room; taking in the mess and stopping when he noticed that the boy named Yarn was staring at him.

“Is your name really Yarn?” Ackerley asked, trying to sound friendly.

“It’s pronounced Jarn.” He chided irritably.

He was a little taller than Ackerley with brown hair hanging down to his eyes. He occasionally threw his head to the side to get the hair out of his eyes. He stood up and picked a few things off the floor and flung them into a pile. He held his arms straight down—his thumbs constantly rubbing his knuckles as if he didn’t quite know what to do with his hands.

“Why do they all call you Yarn then?”

“Because that’s what his parents named him.” A man said from the doorway. He was by far the oldest person Ackerley had seen on the third floor, probably over twenty years old.

“No it’s not.” Yarn said angrily from his bed.

The man came into the room and dove onto his bed. He bounced a full three feet in the air and landed with a loud thud a few feet away on the floor. He got up and raised his hands above his head. “That’s got to be a new record. Hey little knitface was that a new record?”

“No.” Yarn huffed.

“Oh cheer up, doilyman.” He jumped clean over the fence and sat on Ackerley’s bed. “I’m Murdo, by the way. You’ll hear all about me by tomorrow.” He held out his hand. Ackerley extended his own. Murdo bypassed his hand and slapped him upside the head. “When you leave here you’ll have a few stories of your own to tell about me.”

Ackerley’s face reddened and he almost punched Murdo, but he was back over the fence and on his own bed before Ackerley could fully register that he’d been hit.

Murdo rolled over on his bed and faced the wall. “Knitface would you blow out that light already, it’s way too late for a tiny little boy like you to be awake. Don’t make me write your dad again.”

Yarn clenched his fists tightly and glared at Murdo.

Murdo snapped his fingers annoyingly. “Hello! Anybody over there? Get the light before I make a sweater out of you.”

Yarn stood up, his face red and his arms shaking badly. Before anything could happen Ackerley jumped up and blew out the lantern hanging from the ceiling. The room instantly went pitch black.

“Why thank you, new guy. You’re really one of a kind, you know that? And don’t worry, I’ll have plenty of fun nicknames for you soon.”

Ackerley sat back down on his bed and stared out into the blackness. He’d never met anybody like Murdo, and he’d have been perfectly happy if he never did. A large part of him wanted his brother to come in and treat that guy like he’d treated that Welgo that chased them.

A while later another boy came in. Ackerley could see his outline from the lights in the hall. He was talking to a girl wearing a purple dress with the same designs as the everyday tunics. She hugged the boy and he closed the door.

“Why is it so dark in here?” He seemed to be a teenager, maybe sixteen years old. “Murdo, did you make Yarn blow out the light again?”

The sound of Murdo bouncing around on his bed met Ackerley’s ears.

“He was being so mean to me.” Murdo said. “I asked so politely and he started cursing and yelling. I swear I’m the victim here.”

Everyone ignored him.

“Is the new guy here yet?” The teenager said.

“Yes.” Ackerley said from his bed.

“Great. My name’s Jamie. I think I saw you earlier. It’s nice to have you here.” His voice rose to near the ceiling and then over to the other bed near the window as he stepped over the fence onto his quarter of the room. Despite clearly being younger he sounded much older, or perhaps much more mature, than Murdo. “Alright everyone, get to sleep. It’s getting late and you all know we have to get up early.”

“You’re not the boss of me.” Murdo said even more childlike than usual.

“Shut up Murdo.” Jamie ordered.

Murdo didn’t make another sound all night. Ackerley no longer thought that he would have to sleep with the horses, but if he had to sleep in the same room as Murdo every night he would rather.

4.

The door opened and someone yelled for them to wake up. Ackerley rolled over with zero intention of sitting up. He couldn’t remember a time when he had to be up early and he definitely didn’t like the idea. He dozed off and woke again a few minutes later when someone shook him.

“Let’s go, kid.” Jamie said.

Ackerley sat up and waited for his sight to come into focus. The others had already gotten dressed in their everyday tunics. Murdo bounded out of the room and joined the loud voices of those who had also gotten ready. Jamie paused at the door and rapped his fingers on the frame.

“Show him to breakfast, Yarn, and make sure you tell him the schedule for the day.”

The girl appeared that Jamie was talking to the night before and they both vanished down the hall.

Yarn made his bed while Ackerley got dressed in his green tunic. He hated the idea of wearing the thing. He never even liked wearing shorts. It had long sleeves and came down to his knees. He tied the belt and felt really stupid. He mumbled to himself about how unnecessarily fancy everything was.

“I rarely even wash my clothes.” He said under his breath.

“They do all the washing.” Yarn said, laying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. “We leave the day clothes at the door on Sunday nights and the night clothes on Monday mornings. Everything gets back here on our beds by the time we need them again.”

“Oh, ok.” Ackerley said uneasily.

“Today we have the Tuesday schedule because . . . um . . . its Tuesday. You’re in my group so just follow me.”

They joined the others heading to breakfast. Ackerley made sure to keep Yarn in sight, but it was hard. Yarn quickly turned off into an empty hallway and through a door that led to yet another hidden stone staircase. It led directly outside on the side of the castle.

“Where are we going?” Ackerley asked. He noticed a small stable and horses walking about.

“I don’t like crowds.” Was all he said.

They went around to the front of the castle and knocked. The doormen answered and let them in. They didn’t seem at all phased that children were coming in from the outside.

To Ackerley’s surprise they didn’t go to the large dining room but back outside, this time out back. The gardens were even more beautiful in the morning. Yarn went straight to the left and through a door that blended into the wall. He ran up the stairs all the way back to the third floor. The halls were less crowded now. They finally ended up in a room with a bunch of tables. A long table in the back of the room was full of food. A line stretched back to the door.

“Why did we do all that if breakfast is right here?” Ackerley asked, still trying to catch his breath from running up the stairs.

“I like to take walks in the morning.” Yarn replied nonchalantly.

Ackerley’s plate consisted of slices of meat and cheese with a few slices of bread by the time they sat down in the corner of the room. He looked around at all the other children there and wondered how they ended up in a place like that. He assumed they all had important parents. Some had to of come from towns just like his. He was about to ask Yarn about it when Loeua came in and called for attention.

“Group one can go ahead to study; group two do your thing at med; and group three, you all know that you have reading first so get to it.”

“Reading?”

Yarn shrugged. “Yeah, we’ve got reading first. All the early tasks are two hours. After our second task we get to have lunch. And then it’s back to the third and longest task. It’s not all that bad.”

Reading took place in a small courtyard in the center of the castle surrounded by a cloister. Everyone in group three, there were fourteen of them, found a spot on the grass and read whatever book was handed to them by Craith.

“Craith oversees reading.” Yarn said. He opened his book and groaned. “I’ve read this one five times already.”

Ackerley received a book of poetry. He read some and actually enjoyed it a little. Unfortunately, however, reading poetry for two hours was a lot harder than it sounded. He kept glancing around to see that very few others were reading. Some were whispering to each other and some just stared at whatever they could find that was the least bit interesting.

He grew tired of reading about this poet’s obsession with his cats and put the book down. It didn’t take long for Craith to hover over him.

“Keep reading, Ackerley, only an hour and half left.”

He picked the book up again and opened it. He joined everyone else in pretending to read while really just staring at the grass.

As he was staring steadfastly at an ant climbing through the grass he noticed two people walking through the cloister. A woman led a young girl about his age. The girl wore a bright yellow dress that looked far fancier than even the fanciest dresses he’d seen the workers in the castle wear. She walked slowly, purposefully around the cloister and out of sight. He quietly asked Yarn who she was and he mumbled something about a princess without looking up from his book. Ackerley watched where she had been, wondering why she wore such an elaborate dress in the middle of the day, and also why he hadn’t seen her before that moment. He tried to ask Yarn some more questions but he shrugged him off as though he didn’t want to discuss it.

The last hour went so slowly that Ackerley found himself trying not to doze off. He jumped up when Criath announced that it was time to head to the next task.

“Is this all we do?” Ackerley asked Yarn as they plodded through the castle to med, whatever that was.

“You get used to it.” He answered.

“It’s just so boring. I figured I’d be doing something more interesting than sitting and reading for hours in a great big castle like this.”

“Remember,” he stressed, “we’re here for safekeeping until the war’s over. A lot of kids are here because they’re parents are very important. The last thing Chellion wants to do is something these important people may not like.”

“What are they gonna do? It’s not like there are too many places in this country that’ll take us, or are there?”

Yarn frowned. “This is it.”

“But what about that Chellion guy? Where is he at?”

Yarn glanced around to make sure nobody was listening. “I’ve heard rumors. Some say he died long ago and the supervisors just pretend he’s here. Others say he’s a crazy old man who is kept hidden away because he’s unstable. Personally I think he left the county and found a place not at war, if a place like that exists.”

Ackerley wasn’t fond to see that med took place in an empty room on the second floor. Mats were strewn on the floor. Everyone sat on one and then meditation time began. He couldn’t believe that they had to spend two hours sitting in one place with their eyes closed. Because there was a new person among them Loeua went over the basics.

“Meditation is for the soul.” She began airily. The great kings have always believed that it is mediation that cleanses us of our wrongdoing and allows us to continue our lives fresher than when we started. For the next two hours you all will become one with nature and—” she excitedly took a deep breath, “—if you are ever so lucky you might be touched by the Great Spirit and it will personally guide you to salvation.” She raised her hands to the ceiling. “Let it call to you and answer it or it shall pass and continue it’s wandering.”

Ackerley snickered. He looked around expecting to see eyes rolling and heads shaking, but he didn’t. Everyone stared transfixed at everything she was saying. Even Yarn nodded seriously.

When it came time to start Ackerley went ahead and tried it out. He closed his eyes, focused on his breathing, and waited until someone called to him. After ten minutes of waiting, and with no one calling to him, he stared at the wall and waited for it to be over. Unlike with reading nobody noticed that he wasn’t meditating because everyone else had their eyes closed.

“What was that all about?” He asked Yarn as they went downstairs toward the promise of lunch.

“What was what all about?”

“All that Great Spirit stuff.”

He stopped and stared at Ackerley with wide eyes. “What do you mean? Haven’t you even heard of the Great Spirit?”

Ackerley shook his head. Upon seeing the terrified look on Yarn’s face he quickly added: “I must have grown up away from all that. My parents never once mentioned a spirit or calls or even that this kingdom was named after some guy named Chell.”

“Some guy?!” Yarn stammered in disbelief.

His face suddenly changed. Up to that moment Yarn had always looked rather grumpy and defensive. All of a sudden his mouth widened into a huge grin.

“For months I thought I was the dumbest person here. At least that’s what Murdo always told me.”

“Hey!” Ackerley protested.

“Oh, I don’t mean that as a bad thing.” Yarn corrected. “I just mean I’ve been picked on by all the older kids because my family were all farmers before my dad got in the army. I didn’t know anything when I got here about history but I sure knew about the Great Spirit and the kings.” The smile faded slightly. “I never had any friends either.”

Ackerley stared at the floor guiltily. “Neither did I.”

Yarn shifted anxiously. “We can be in the loser club together.”

Ackerley nodded happily. “Sure.”

Lunch was served buffet style on the lawn out front. A few tables were brought out. Ackerley and Yarn sat against the wall near the front gate.

Ackerley felt at ease for the first time since hearing his brother talk about the castle. Not even what happened with the Welgo made him scared anymore. It seemed like so long ago. He felt genuinely safe there against that wall.

“So who was that girl today in the courtyard?” Ackerley asked.

“She’s the princess of somewhere. The only time anybody ever sees her is at the formal dinners. She just sits in the corner. They don’t let anybody near her—probably think we’ll contaminate her or something.”

“She doesn’t stay on the third floor, does she?”

“No, I think she stays somewhere on the second floor.”

Ackerley dropped it there. He didn’t want to seem like he was too interested, though he really was. There was a mystery to that girl and he found it hard not to think about her. He didn’t even get a good look at her face but the way she walked and the dress she wore really stood out. He imagined that the princess probably felt a lot like he had when he lived alone for so long. It was probably worse for her because she was living in a castle with a bunch of kids her age and couldn’t even be around them.

“Our final task is coming up and we get a choice.” Yarn said, getting up.

“I’m starting to think that these aren’t really tasks but things to keep us out of their hair for the day.” Ackerley noted, getting up also.

Yarn nodded. “You’ve learned so much already.”

“Hey what did you say your name really was again?”

“Jarn.”

Ackerley held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Jarn. I’m Ackerley, and you can call me anything but that.”

Jarn shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you Acks.”

Ackerley mulled it over. “I like that.”

Jarn led the way into the castle. He had a certain pep to his step that only making a new friend can generate. The entryway buzzed with life. It was weird and yet oddly nice to see so many well dressed kids in such an ornate castle. He felt a part of the buzz. He was part of a larger group and he greatly enjoyed it in those moments of discovery as he followed Jarn through the crowd to a quieter spot.

The joy didn’t last long as he saw Yinnib coming towards him. For a second Ackerley wanted to start running for fear Yinnib might get teary eyed again at the thought of Kenton.

“Young Morzha, I am so glad to see you doing so well and looking so great in your tunic. You will become a well respected citizen, I am certain.” Yinnib said, nodding fervently.

“Um. . . thanks.”

“How has your first day been?”

Ackerley shrugged. “Good.”

“Wonderful! I want you to know that we included your brother into our prayers last night and I am certain things will turn out well for him because of it.”

Ackerley wished he knew what the third task was so he could pretend they were in desperate need to get there right away.

Yinnib spotted Jarn and lit up even further. “You’ve become friends with the young Rogerseen. What a momentous happening for you, young Morzha.”

Ackerley noticed Yinnib often talked with his eyes closed. When he was done he would open them and look around to see if everyone was as impressed as he thought they ought to be.

“Yeah, but we need to get to our third task so. . .”

“Oh, of course, well be off then and have a great day.” Yinnib turned on his heel and was out of sight almost instantly.

Ackerley sighed. “That guy sure is happy about everything.”

“He’s just trying to make sure nobody gets too depressed in here. He figures if he’s overly happy he can spread it to us.” Jarn explained. “But anyway what do you want to do for our third task?”

“What are the choices?” Ackerley asked. “You know you’re being a terrible guide today. You haven’t told me one thing about what we’re going to do.”

Jarn looked taken aback, and then, realizing that Ackerley was joking, smirked. “We have a choice of three things for the third and longest task which will last for four hours.”

“Four hours!” Ackerley exclaimed, fearing that he might have to meditate or read for four hours.

“It’s not that bad.”

“You said that about the reading and that was horrible.”

“The choices!” Jarn said, ignoring Ackerley, “We can exercise outside. That usually ends with playing some stupid sport for a while.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

“Nah, all the big mean kids do that. You can go if you like, but be prepared for Murdo and all his idiot friends spending four hours pretending not to beat you up while they call you names.”

Ackerley shivered. “No thanks, what else is there?”

“We could go to the library and learn how to transcribe old books and important writings onto new paper.”

“That sounds way above my skill level for the first day.”

“It’s not actually that bad, but we’ll get to do that later anyway.”

“What else is there?”

“The only other thing is working in the kitchens and helping get dinner together. It’s kinda boring on Tuesdays. Wednesday’s are when it’s a little more bearable since the fancy dinner and all.” Jarn explained it as though it was the worst thing imaginable. He kept giving half shrugs and wincing.

Ackerley didn’t much like the sound of any of those, but that one didn’t sound as bad as the others. “That sounds a little interesting.”

“Well, I guess.” Jarn said, still shrugging and wincing. “Usually a lot of girls do it. So if you’d rather go out and, you know, hang out with the cool guys. . .”

At that moment Murdo and some other big guys ran through the hall shoving each other into the walls.

“Hey, its aches and pains.” Murdo said, putting an end to the roughhousing by simply coming to a stop. All his friends formed a half circle around Ackerley and Jarn, trapping them. “I heard your brother protected the king.” Murdo sounded impressed.

Ackerley was not about to be intimidated. He’d survived a Welgo fight after all. “I’m not really sure what he does.” He said casually.

Murdo moved his mouth around as if trying hard to figure out what to say next. “He sounds pretty cool. You know my mom works in the king’s castle. She sees the king every now and then.” He looked down at Ackerley threateningly. He seemed to be ready to judge him entirely on how that conversation went.

Ackerley thought about the mean things he said the night before and figured there was a history of problems between Murdo and Jarn.

“Is that all?” Ackerley blurted out. He wanted to say something smart, not stupid. He immediately wished he hadn’t said it. His face grew red and he started to sweat.

Murdo stared at him emotionlessly. He quickly glanced at Jarn and then back to Ackerley. “She doesn’t go out and fight, you see. She has plans to survive this war.” His voice was poison, his words deadly.

He led his friends away without another word. Ackerley’s face reddened further and he was surprised to find himself welling up a little. He shook it off and turned back to Jarn, forcing his face into a smile.

“Let’s not do whatever they are doing.” He gave a fake laugh. “It’s almost like you got them to come down here on purpose to sway me to go to the kitchen.”

Jarn gaped at his new friend. He nodded in understanding. “I may or may not have paid him to come around the corner at that exact instant.”

A few minutes later Ackerley found himself in the kitchens with a bunch of other people who didn’t want to write or get beat up. Though most were indeed girls. That didn’t bother Ackerley, who hadn’t properly met any of the girls in his group or in the castle at all.

The kitchens were large and had stations set out. Each one had a black bowl with a grill over it and drawers in every shape and size. The head of the kitchens came up and patted Jarn on the shoulder. She said that she was glad to see him so much wanting to help with dinner. Ackerley repressed a grin. They were put into groups of four and were given a recipe for a different part of that night’s dinner. Ackerley’s group got vegetables. The four of them started by shucking corn and getting peas out of their pod, which seemed awfully hard.

The other half of their foursome had two girls, Numa and Melexa. They were quick to start a conversation. Evidently they had shucked corn and shelled peas with Jarn on a number of occasions.

“How’s life with Murdo?” Numa asked.

“Ugh, can I go ten minutes without having to see or hear about that idiot?”

“I take it you saw him ten minutes ago.” Numa deduced.

Jarn shrank down in his chair. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“What about you?” Melexa asked Ackerley. “What’s your story?”

Ackerley told them that he came from a small town and that his brother was some kind of officer in the army. They seemed mildly impressed.

After the corn and peas, they also had broccoli and carrots to prepare, they grilled it all on a metal tray over a fire in that black bowl in the counter. The kitchen staff then busied them by having them take plates and cutlery up to the third floor dining room. When that was done they helped bring the food up. Finally, when everything was set up and ready they were allowed to go back to their rooms to get ready for dinner. Ackerley and Jarn sat on their beds and passed the time by talking about the Welgos.

“So I don’t really understand anything about the whole thing.” Ackerley confessed.

Jarn beamed at the chance to not be the dumbest around. “The Welgo’s are horrible invaders that came from somewhere and are doing bad things.”

“I get that, but what is really going on. Not much news gets to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. We heard that these people from Welgland came in and were destroying towns and things, but we rarely knew why. My brother’s letters were the only real source of news, and he couldn’t say too much for fear they might get intercepted somewhere.”

Jarn looked a little bummed at having to relinquish a little of that not dumbest prize he had been given. “This is what I know. My dad actually writes detailed accounts of events in his letters so that I can give them to the historians here and they can write them out for the Chell annals. He said that the Welgo’s came over the mountains to the north and started pillaging the towns and holy sights close to their border. This happened for a couple years—before this was called a war. After they got tired of that they started sending raiding parties throughout Chell. They destroy anything they can, especially towns now. A lot of people are scared; they don’t get what those things are trying to accomplish.”

“But we’re fighting back though, right? We should have defeated a lot of them by now.” Ackerley said, his voice shaking slightly.

“They’re fast.” Jarn added. “Deadly fast. They get up and down our rivers in their little boats faster than anything. They’re horses are also faster.”

Ackerley could hear the breathing of the Welgo horse in his ear. He shivered.

“The worst part of it all,” Jarn lowered his voice, “is they keep coming—over and over again they come over those mountains. There’s no end. There’s no shortage. When some die there’s a new batch coming over to take their place. They come and go so fast and so quiet. It’s haunting.”

“I know.” Ackerley whispered. “I’ve seen it.”

Jarn slid his legs off his bed and leaned forward. “What happened?”

Ackerley slowly and quietly recounted what happened in that town he stayed in. He told about Madame Orly and the sights and sounds he experienced. He wondered if he should tell him about the chase, and decided in the end he should.

Jarn’s mouth fell open. “Your brother really is great.”

Ackerley rolled up his sleeves and showed Jarn the red marks where the embers hit him.

“War badges.” Jarn said in awe.

Dinner was the same as lunch, except the food was better. The line for food stretched out the door. There weren’t any tables left by the time Jarn and Ackerley got their food so they took it out and sat on a window sill overlooking the gardens. Ackerley watched gardeners go about the hedges and trees, carefully snipping here and there for perfection. He asked if any of them were allowed out there.

“In our free time, sure. It’s not all that great. I went a few times to look around but it got boring.”

After dinner Ackerley finally got to his first free time. He quickly changed into his shirt and pants only to be reprimanded by Craith, who seemed to snoop around for the sole purpose of finding kids doing something wrong. Ackerley begrudgingly put his everyday green tunic back on and kicked his shirt and pants under his bed. Apparently he was never really going to wear them.

He set off through the castle intent to explore, but had a secret wish that he might come across a certain part of the second floor. He went straight there. The fear of Yinnib was enough to keep him from exploring the first floor alone. The second floor had multiple classrooms and the library, which was locked when he arrived. After a bit of wandering he found a door blocking what should have been a much longer hallway. He figured a whole part of the second floor had been dedicated to that princess. But why? The door, to his immense surprise, was unlocked. It was very dark in this corridor. He crept in and closed the door behind him. It was almost pitch black. He felt around and found a couple door knobs. After a few more steps he froze. His footsteps echoed off a hard floor. The carpeting ended. He stood in a large pillared room. A single candle burned in a chandelier on the far side of the room. Directly under the chandelier sat the princess in the yellow dress. She faced the wall and didn’t move when the footsteps echoed.

Ackerley didn’t know what to do. If he went up to her he might get in trouble, but he was already too far into the room to get out without making any noise. He stood frozen for quite a while before the intrigue of this lonely princess forced him a few steps further. His feet echoed louder still, but she did not move a muscle. He gathered all the courage left inside and let it out.

“Hello.” He said. It was barely a whisper but it was loud enough through the silence. “I’m lost I think.” He added.

Very slowly she turned to face him. Her hair was up in an ornate bun. Her features shined with refinement and what Ackerley thought was sorrow. She showed the slightest tinge of surprise, but she never lost her composure.

“Hello.” She said slightly uncomfortably. She looked like she didn’t know what to do in that situation.

“Are you here by yourself?” Ackerley asked, trying to sound carefree.

She didn’t say anything. The sound of someone running took too long to get from Ackerley’s ears to his brain.

“What in the world are you doing in here?!” A nasty voice scolded as menacingly as possible. It was the woman who walked with the princess through the cloister.

“I got lost.” Ackerley said innocently.

“I doubt that.” The woman roared.

She grabbed Ackerley painfully by the arm and dragged him back through the castle. He kept waiting for her to let him go but she didn’t all the way down to the first floor and up to a door. She rapped on it and Yinnib answered.

“What does the Great Spirit have here today?” He said brightly.

“This boy! This thing was in the princess’s wing just now. I thought you told all of those louts to stay out of there.” The woman spat.

Yinnib looked at Ackerley as if he couldn’t believe that he was the one to be dragged down there. “Young Morzha, I am very surprised at you.”

“Nobody told me anything about the second floor.” He said truthfully. “I was looking for stairs and thought they might be behind that door. When I saw someone I asked for directions.”

“Stop lying.” The woman dug her fingernails into Ackerley’s arm, which still stung slightly from the embers.

Yinnib looked relieved. “That’s all it was, a mistake. This is young Morzha’s first night. Craith must have forgotten to mention about the second floor. He would have never done this on purpose. His brother personally guards the king at all times, you know.”

The fingernails loosened. “The king’s private guard?”

“Oh yes.” Yinnib cried. “It’s marvelous to have a boy of that bloodline with us.”

Ackerley didn’t remember Kenton saying that he was a private guard, but whatever. If it could get him out of trouble he’d let Kenton be anything they wanted him to be.

The woman let go of his arm. “I hope you tell him about the second floor. And I expect a thorough punishment nonetheless.” She stamped her foot and waited for a decision.

Yinnib looked from Ackerley to the woman. “I will have young Morzha work with Mr. Jett tonight.”

“One night? He should do it for a month.”

“Now I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” Yinnib said, attempting to keep calm and lighthearted.

“Fine, but next time it’s a month.”

She stormed off.

Yinnib grabbed his chest. “So much stress for such a lovely night. Please do not go to that wing of the second floor again, young Morzha. Madame Thrindle can be rather, well, excitable I suppose. Once she dragged five children twice her size down here for just looking at the door. I don’t know where she gets her strength but we’d all be better with a little of it.”

Ackerley rubbed his arm tenderly. “Who is Mr. Jett?”

“Oh yes.” Yinnib smiled with relief. “He’s the head janitor. He goes around all night cleaning this place so it looks absolutely spotless by morning. He’s got a few staff but he always needs more help. I will tell him you’re coming. Meet him in the large dining room tonight at eleven. Until next time we meet young Morzha. I’m sorry to have to say goodbye so soon but it is getting late.” He smiled and closed his door.

5.

Ackerley meandered back up to his room. Jamie and Murdo were back. Murdo lay on his bed throwing a ball up and catching it. Jamie was reading. Jarn wasn’t there. Ackerley left the room and went looking for Jarn. He found him by the window they had dinner at. He gazed out the window at the gardens. It was too dark to see anything.

“Where have you been?” Jarn asked.

“I accidentally ended up somewhere I shouldn’t have been.”

“And where was that?”

“I don’t know. I went through some door on the second floor and all of a sudden some lady was yelling at me and next thing I know I have to work with somebody named Mr. Jett tonight.”

Jarn snickered. “You went looking for that princess, didn’t you?”

Ackerley rolled his eyes. “I didn’t go looking, not really. I wanted to explore and the door was unlocked.”

“And now you have to work with crazy old Mr. Jett.” Jarn seemed very happy about the whole thing. “I’ve gone a whole two months without having to see Mr. Jett.” He puffed up proudly.

“I guess I’ll get some sleep before that. Can you wake me up a few minutes before eleven?”

“Sure.” Jarn agreed. “Man, you sure are having an eventful first day.”

Shortly before eleven Ackerley was shaken awake for the second time that day. He sat up and rested his head against the wall. It took several minutes to fully wake up. He stumbled over the dividing fence and found the main dining room after only taking three wrong turns.

A surly old man leaned against a mop. He had short white hair and a beard. He shoved the mop at Ackerley.

“This’ll be yours.” His voice was rather smooth for such an old man. “I’ve been told it’s your first day here—must have done something exciting to get here.”

“Not really. I went through the wrong door.”

“Quite a few of those here.”

Mr. Jett quickly put Ackerley to work mopping the kitchens. He found it funny that just a few hours ago he was making the mess, and now he was cleaning it up. It took a full hour to mop it all. He hoped he did it correctly, he’d never mopped before.

Mr. Jett then showed him how to handle a carpet cleaner. It was a little device on a stick that picked up whatever was on the floor when he pushed it around. After going at it for a while, and evidently not succeeding, Mr. Jett took it away and did it himself.

“Not so bad for your first day, huh? That boy Yarn got five hours cleaning his first day.” He leaned in close. “Got caught trying to leave.”

“How come?” Ackerley asked.

Old Mr. Jett shrugged, “Guess he didn’t like the rules. Some of these kids come from kinda unruly places,” he gave a quick guilty glance toward Ackerley, “but that don’t make ‘m bad. It depends, I came from the worst kinda unruly place and I love the rules here. It’s the rules that make the place. They also make the kid. There are two kinds of kids here, Achey, the kind that likes ‘m, and the kind that don’t. Keep an eye out an watch ‘m bump heads a bit and you’ll see which you prefer.”

Ackerley nodded, not sure what to say.

Mr. Jett laughed softly. “It’s alright, Aches, when the nobles’s in bed we say whatever comes to mind. Don’t worry about it, this time is safe time. Provided of course we don’t go up in a Welgo attack, but there’s a lot of good kids out fightin’.” He paused and stared mysteriously at the wall. “I wonder what it feels like to take a spear to the body.” He snapped back to sweeping and chuckled. “It’s the late night, makes me say all sorts o’ things. But I sure do wonder, though.”

Ackerley wasn’t sure if it was the talk or the late hour, but at that moment he wanted to be in bed more than he had in his entire life. At around three in the morning Mr. Jett finally let Ackerley go. He barely made it over the fence when he got back to his room and went straight to sleep upon hitting his bed.

The next day Ackerley felt bitterly homesick, which was weird because at home he felt bitterly I-want-to-be-anywhere-but-here sick. Something about getting in trouble did that to him. It didn’t help that when he woke up he suddenly felt that there was never going to be an end to the war and he would have to live in that place until he died or the Welgo’s destroyed it. As the day wore on he managed to convince himself that he was in a better place and nothing bad was going to happen. The feeling subsided.

He hung out with Jarn as much as possible and dreaded doing the tasks. Wednesday consisted of more meditating, this time first thing in the morning, and then library time. The library was a very big room with two levels. Both had bookcases that stretched to the ceiling. He wondered how Jarn had ended up reading the same book five times when there were thousands in the library for Craith to have chosen from.

He was taken aside when everybody else started to transcribe those old worn pages onto new ones. A very old man, possibly twice the age of Mr. Jett if that was possible, feebly went over the rules.

“You’re going to. . .” He paused to rest. “. . . Write down what is on this paper,” another pause, “on this new paper.”

Ackerley nodded, picking up his pen.

“Now wait a minute.” The old man did indeed wait a minute before continuing. “This is a nib pen, have you ever used a nib pen before?”

Ackerley figured it was like any other pen. “Yeah.”

“It has a reservoir inside it.” He nodded continuously until Ackerley nodded back. “It has ink inside the pen. It is in fact a fountain pen.”

“Alright. And I just write what’s on this page on the new page.” Ackerley recounted, wanting to make sure the old man understood that he understood.

“Your writing needs to be perfect. Is your handwriting perfect?” The old man drawled on.

Ackerley shrugged. “I don’t write much. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect.”

The ancient man snatched the old paper away. “Instead of that.” He began. “You will do something else.” He hobbled away and didn’t come back for almost ten minutes. “Instead you will do this.” He carefully put an even older looking paper on the desk. “Our eyes are worn and we can’t make out much on these pages.” He lumbered around the desk until he was directly in front of Ackerley. “We can’t read these anymore. You are much younger,” another pause, “much better eyes. Write down what you can read from here onto the new page. Someone else will do the final copy that goes in our records.” He stared creepily at the boy for a time. “Calligraphy is tomorrow for your group I think. Make sure to pay attention.” He patted Ackerley awkwardly on the head and shuffled off.

Ackerley got to it. The pen was indeed unlike any he had ever used. At home he would often have to scrounge around for ink that hadn’t gone dry before finally going over to Mrs. Tandry’s next door to borrow a little every time he wanted to write a letter. The ink in the fountain pen came out so well that he accidentally made a few pools of it when he left the pen on the paper too long.

Reading the old page proved to be extremely difficult. There were holes in it and cracks all over—most finding their way perfectly through words to make them difficult to read. He strained to find meaning in the seemingly random collection of lines that might have looked like letters to more trained eyes. The new paper was soon filled not only with pools of ink but scribbles and scratches as he deciphered or realized he had deciphered incorrectly. He wished greatly that whoever wrote whatever it was he was reading had attempted a little more carefully to make the meaning intelligible.

The only good part, and it certainly was a good part, was that before he knew it the two hours were up. The old man took a look at what Ackerley had accomplished and gasped.

“Oh my dear, what has happened?” He looked about to collapse.

“I think it’s about a really pretty tree.” Ackerley theorized. “I think this part,” he pointed at one of the only string of words on the new paper that didn’t have a scribble through it, “is about bark and how beautiful it is.”

The old man seized the pen away from Ackerley as if it might be a deadly weapon. “Calligraphy. Tomorrow. Pay attention.”

Lunch once again took place outside. The food was alright; actually it was great considering he’d been living off of stale bread and whatever the neighbors felt like leaving at the doorstep. After lunch they had a history lesson. Every Wednesday was history class. Ackerley found it very interesting. He didn’t know much about history, and hadn’t had much of an education before. It took place in that first classroom Craith had shown him on the tour. The one on the second floor with all the desks. He took a seat in the back next to Jarn.

The history teacher was a squat middle aged woman with a powerful gaze and very long brown and silver hair. She greeted everyone individually, stopping at Ackerley. She already knew his name and asked if he knew who Vloraisha was. He said no as he’d never heard the name in his life. Apparently it wasn’t a person but a place—a sunny and beautiful country to the south past the Vastlands.

“Your previous education can’t be helped.” She told him gloomily. “But that does not mean that you are behind. Keep up with what we go over today and if you want I can see you separately sometime.”

She then went straight into the lesson. The first hour went by rather slowly as Mrs. Rapsire talked about places and names Ackerley had no knowledge of. A little over an hour in she finally said a name that sounded familiar.

“Chell was his son.”

Ackerley sat up and finally paid attention.

“Chell grew up in a Honias Empire that was falling apart. The current emperor had no power. He was only the ruler of the state while Chell’s father was the head of the military. When his father was killed in action fighting to reclaim the Vastlands, which as we remember from last time fell to local warlords, it was time for Chell to become the great king we know him as now.” Mrs. Rapsire was very expressive with her hands. As the topic turned to Chell she grew even more animated. She didn’t once look at the class. She paced the front of the room and stared at the walls, forgetting that there were fourteen pairs of eyes fixated on her. “He claimed his father’s status as general through armed combat with his father’s lieutenants and corralled the fleeing army before they went too far. He spoke words forever etched in the majesty of Chellios. Fight with me or against me, I care not. But if you choose against, today is your final day.” Mrs. Rapsire covered her mouth as if she couldn’t believe what she said. “And the army said as one: We shall fight with you! And they marched back to the Vastlands, and in one of the greatest surprises in history—they killed all three of those warlords and decimated their armies. The great battle of Chell will live on forever!”

Ackerley wanted to cheer. Never had he heard such a great storyteller.

“You would expect that they came home as heroes, and they did to the people, but the emperor was not as impressed. You see the emperor would always be emperor, even if Chell had all the power. That is because the emperor had the legitimacy. He would be counted as emperor and seen as emperor by those who mattered until he was dead or gave up the throne. In the months following the battle the emperor grew weary of Chell. He had done something so heroic, so marvelous that all the people of Honias called him their true ruler. The emperor couldn’t take it any more. He sent several assassins to Chell’s house in the night. When they arrived they were each slaughtered by the great Chell, who turned his vengeance on the emperor. Chell went to his house with all the loyal soldiers he could gather and overthrew the Honias government right then and there. He offered the emperor mercy, but the emperor did not want it. He jumped out the window and when he hit the ground the Honias Empire was no more. From that moment forward the Chell kingdom took its place. Chell the Great went on to conquer lands and by the time he died at eighty his kingdom was twice the size of Honias as its peak.”

She then told all about the little dealings of King Chell during his lifetime. Ackerley wasn’t as interested in this and waited until they got to the Welgos. Unfortunately, she spent the rest of the class talking about how great Chell was and how he revolutionized the world and did all sorts of other great things.

“That was kinda interesting.” Ackerley told Jarn as they climbed the stairs to the third floor.

“History has its moments.” Jarn said. “I’m not that into it.”

Ackerley forgot about the fancy dinner until he saw everyone in their white and gold fancy clothes. That didn’t stop the running about and carrying on that met them when they got to the third floor.

The room was empty when they got there, which was plenty fine with them. Ackerley changed into his fancy tunic only to find that it was far too big. His sleeves swallowed his hands and it was far too baggy. Jarn tried not to laugh.

“They must have given you the wrong size.” He said, screwing up his face so as not to laugh.

“I can see that.” Ackerley grumbled. “What am I supposed to do, I’ll look like an idiot with everyone else.”

“It’s alright, everyone looks like an idiot at these things. Nobody wants to be there. The only good thing is that the food is a little better. Why don’t you go to the tailor’s office?”

“There’s a tailor here?”

“Sure, people grow out of stuff. It’s down on the first floor somewhere.”

Ackerley quickly changed back into his green tunic and hurried down to the first floor hoping that the tailor might have an outfit in his size. He wandered around the first floor but had no idea where to go. None of the doors had names on them.

He hurriedly went around looking for someone to ask. He turned a corner and saw two people. He was about to go up and ask them but saw that one seemed to be distraught and crying. Ackerley jumped back around the corner and listened. He didn’t think they saw him.

“I just. . . I don’t know, I can’t do it.” One of them cried. Both men wore white and gold, but were too old to be students. They must have been workers of some sort.

“There’s nothing you can do, Orrand.” The other man said calmly.

“I—I—they’re coming; I know they are.” Orrand wept. “There’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing left anywhere.”

“You’re safe here. I promise.”

Ackerley heard the crinkling of paper.

“They went up.” Orrand moaned. “They went up and I was here. I couldn’t help them.”

“There’s nothing you can do about that now.”

Their voices sounded distant. Ackerley peeked around the corner and saw that they were walking away. One shook while the other patted him on the back.

The tailor’s office thankfully had a sign on it, but tragically it was closed for the day. Ackerley wondered if he’d be allowed to wear his green and not look like a fool.

He found Craith going room to room trying to hurry people downstairs. Ackerley told him about his clothes but Craith still made him wear the baggy one to dinner.

Ackerley figured it wasn’t worth the fuss to avoid the dinner altogether so he went ahead and tried to forget how he looked.

He pulled Jarn away from the group of kids heading down to dinner and told him what he heard the two workers say. Jarn shrugged.

“He must of gotten a letter saying his family was killed. I guess it happens in times like these.”

“Yeah, but what about the guy saying that they were coming. He said he knew they were coming. I think he meant the Welgos.”

Once again Jarn shrugged it off. “He’s just paranoid. People like my dad and your brother are out there to make sure those nasty things don’t get anywhere near us.”

“But you said yourself said that they’re fast and they can get anywhere before the army.”

Jarn grabbed Ackerley’s arms and shook him. “Listen to me, Acks, everything is alright, alright?”

Ackerley suddenly realized that he sounded panicked. He took a deep breath and smiled. “Yeah, I know. It’s just the way that guy was carrying on. You’d have to of been there. He was a real mess.”

“He was. That’s his problem. Let’s get this dinner thing over with so we can get back to some great old fashioned reading time tomorrow.”

“Ugh, I’d rather take the dinner.”

“Don’t say that just yet.”

The food was great, dinner however—not so much. Ackerley found himself sitting next to a four-year-old on one side and Murdo on the other. Evidently Yinnib knew that they shared a room and thought putting them next to each other would surely make them fast friends. The fear of Murdo making fun of him made Ackerley wish he had a four-year-old on either side. Even if the one to his left kept throwing food at him.

The large dining room was a buzz with people talking down the table at each other—it seemed nobody got to sit with their friends. Jarn sat all the way at the other end talking to Yinnib, who sat at the head of the table. Ackerley was very quiet and was surprised to see that Murdo was as well, at least for a while.

“How come I haven’t seen you outside for third task?” He asked midway through the third course, which was some sort of seafood.

Ackerley pulled up his sleeves for the tenth time and wished he could be anywhere but there. “I don’t know.”

“Come on out sometime, it might do you some good.”

Ackerley thought that might be a threat and didn’t respond.

“Hey, how come you hang out with that little knitface? He’s a twerp. Every time I say anything to him he makes fists and gets super red like he’s gonna burst.”

“Maybe you should try to say something nice for a change.” Ackerley instantly became super red himself.

“My mom sees his dad sometimes. She tells me he’s the same way—a little guy who doesn’t get his way and then pouts about it. You think we’re safe here with a loser like that as commander?” He scoffed and shook his head. “With people like that protecting us the Welgos ‘ll get here and murder us all any day now.”

Partly because everything that came out of Murdo’s mouth annoyed him, and partly because of what he overheard earlier, Ackerley really wanted to pick up his chair and hit Murdo over the head with it.

“You don’t know what Welgo’s are like.” Ackerley said under his breath. He wasn’t even sure what he meant by it.

“Oh, and you do?”

He really wanted to tell all about how he survived a Welgo attack. In fact, he wanted to say that he took the stick from Kenton and beat the Welgo to death with it. He figured Murdo wouldn’t believe it and he’d get some kind of nickname like stickface that all the big guys would call him forever.

“I’ve heard stories.”

“Well so have I.” He scoffed again. “I can’t believe I’m stuck in this place. I’m twenty-three and my mom won’t let me fight yet. Humph, you’ll see that this place is just a fancy prison when you’re older. It’s not a place to keep us safe, it’s only here so our parents feel good about themselves.” He lowered his head and looked about to well up.

Ackerley looked away at all the happy faces telling jokes and sharing stories.

Murdo was quiet for a long time, and then: “It’ll all end when one side is eradicated. That’s how these things end. It’s the same throughout history. The only reason we care so much is because the side with the castles and kings usually destroys the side without. No one can figure out why we aren’t. . .” He laughed. “Oh Great Spirit, they must have put something in our juice tonight.” He slapped Ackerley over the head. “Look at little Achey’s tunic, someone thought he was big Achey.”

A few people laughed. Some other big guy echoed it down the table and pretty soon everyone was craning to see. Ackerley didn’t know how one stupid comment could get that out of hand. He lowered himself in his chair and thought extensively about running from the table. That might make it worse so he stayed put.

Dinner came to a merciful end and it was time for everyone to crowd around in a little ballroom just off the dining room. Ackerley found Jarn and stood by him, hoping all those people still gawking wouldn’t want to gawk at two people. He forgot that before he got there Jarn was the one people laughed at. The staring and pointing only seemed to get worse.

Yinnib came in and told everyone to get a partner. Suddenly Ackerley realized why they were there.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was a dance?” He demanded.

“It’s the worst part of being here, I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.”

Ackerley stood around as everyone picked a partner. He didn’t know what to do or who to ask. Yinnib found his way over to him.

“I’m sorry to say that you are number fifty-one. Before you got here the pairings were perfect. I’ll tell everyone to switch partners after the first song and you should get to dance.”

“Is there any way that I can not dance and go to bed. I’m not sure I feel so great.”

For the first time Yinnib looked stern. “Get over it.” He put on his usual airy smile on and strolled away.

A small band of musicians started playing music. Dancing ensued. Ackerley watched from the corner, wondering if he’d get in trouble for running off now. He couldn’t imagine they could do anything except stick him with Mr. Jett for a few days.

He’d made up his mind, took a deep breath, and started slowly around the ballroom towards the door. He almost made it when something made him stop in his tracks.

Across the room a door opened and the princess glided in. That annoying woman came in with her, but Ackerley didn’t pay any attention to her. He stared transfixed at the princess, now wearing a bright pink dress. It was far nicer than any clothing Ackerley had ever seen. His heart skipped. She was the fifty second person. Without thinking he started towards her.

She sat in a chair against the wall. Ackerley got closer and suddenly found himself staring down at the woman who dragged him all over the place the night before.

“You!” She screeched a little too loudly. “How dare you come within a mile of here. Get back, get away you fiend.”

Yinnib appeared as he often did. “Young Morzha, what are you doing?”

“I don’t have a partner.” He sputtered. “She doesn’t have a partner.”

Madame Thrindle looked too dumbfounded to even protest such an idea.

Yinnib took Ackerley’s arm and led him away. “Princess Cerise doesn’t count. I thought what happened last night would have gotten that idea across.”

“How am I supposed to know these things? Nobody tells me any of this stuff.”

Ackerley was taken out of the ballroom. Before he left he glanced back. Instead of seeing the princess he saw fifty kids staring at him. He turned bright red and hurried to the exit.

Yinnib took him to the spiral staircase.

“The rules are simple here. First and foremost, don’t talk to the princess.” Ackerley tried to defend himself but Yinnib cut him off. “Secondly, don’t talk back to a noble or a teacher. Thirdly, and this is the most important thing for you, do not under any circumstances cause any sort of trouble.” He put a hand to his head and shut his eyes. “You kids are going to shorten my life. I don’t want to have to do this, but I must make you work with Mr. Jett again. Meet him in the dining room at eleven.” Yinnib sauntered back to the ballroom.

Despite how bad he felt, Ackerley had gotten out of there without dancing. He went ahead and counted that as a small victory.

6.

Ackerley threw off the oversized tarp that vaguely resembled a fancy tunic and flung on the pants and shirt. He sat on his bed and tried to get over how embarrassed he felt. There would never be a way back from that. Every fancy dinner, every task, every time he saw another living soul he’d be laughed at and called the kid who looked like a fool and tried to talk to the princess.

He rolled off the bed and found a window sill to sit on that overlooked the front of the castle. Torches were lit and he watched as guards marched back and forth from the front door to the gate. The gates suddenly opened and someone came in on a horse. Behind the horse trailed a large box. Ackerley wished he could hear what the rider said to the guards, who untied the box from the horse’s saddle and dragged it inside.

Ackerley hadn’t thought of anyone coming into the castle. He figured the gates stayed closed forever unless more children had to come through. It made sense that someone had to come through. That box probably had food in it. Shipments probably came every few nights to keep the castle stocked.

His mind finally turned from recent events and he was able to think clearly. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want to be anywhere. Home life wasn’t the best and now he just wished he could go to that Vloraisha place he’d heard about in class. All he knew was that it was sunny and beautiful. It sounded nice.

“Hey.”

Ackerley turned around and saw Jarn standing nearby.

“Oh, hey, how was the dancing.”

“It was alright after you left.”

“I’m sure everybody had a good laugh.”

Jarn chuckled. “Not exactly. No one could believe you did something blatantly against the rules. I heard people saying things like: ‘who was that guy?’ or ‘that was really cool’.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’m serious. People got a kick out of you trying to go up that girl like that.”

“Really? I mean they really did? They didn’t laugh or anything?”

Jarn sat on the window sill. “No. I mean at first they did, with the oversized clothes and all, but when you did that—I mean wow. The nobles here are really against anyone doing anything against the grain. Usually its just morons like Murdo sneaking out at night, but to do something forbidden with all the nobles in attendance—you’ll be a hero.”

Ackerley assumed Jarn was being too optimistic about the whole thing. The idea of being some kind of bad role model intrigued him, though. Not that he wanted to be bad or anything. Maybe there was a middle ground where he could gain their respect while occasionally going against the nobles. Of course if the other kids found out that he found the princess fascinating they may think he was weird.

“That’ll make going to tasks tomorrow a little better. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to take a nap. I have to meet Mr. Jett in a few hours.”

“I don’t normally ask this,” Mr. Jett began a few hours later in the dining room, “but what did you do to get here two days in a row? Even the people I see all the time usually wait a few days before getting in trouble again.”

Ackerley innocently told about how he tried to dance with the princess.

“I see it now. They like to keep her locked away for some reason.”

“Do you know the reason?” Ackerley asked, pushing the sweeper across the floor.

The two of them had been picking up the mess from the formal dinner. They just finished the dining room and were now onto the ballroom.

“I know she’s a princess of one of the outlying regions, but I don’t know much else.”

“What’re the outlying regions?”

“Well gee-wowz you don’t know much do ya?”

“I didn’t learn any of this fancy stuff at home.”

“This fancy stuff is your history.” Mr. Jett pointed out.

“I may live in this kingdom, but if I didn’t know the history how can I feel connected to it?”

Mr. Jett thought it over through narrowed eyes. “Got me there. Anyway, the outlying regions are three small kingdoms that the great Chell was never able to conquer. They bribed him with their loyalty if he’d stop trying to conquer them. Over the years they became a part of the kingdom, but they keep their own royalty and are allowed to run their land whatever way they like as long as they don’t go too far off course.”

“And she’s the princess of one of these outlier places?”

“Exactly. She’s from a little one nestled in the mountains to the north. You see why that’s bad, don’t ya?”

“That’s where the Welgo’s come through.”

“‘Xactly. That little place—I forget the name now—sits right there. They’s the worst hit. Her parents are king and queen and they sent her here thinkin’ its safer. They have to fight all the time to keep the place theirs.”

Ackerley both felt both more sympathy for her and more intrigued. He thought he had it bad with his brother out fighting. Her parents were keeping their whole country from going up to heaven. She must be so lonely with only that witch of an attendant. She desperately needed someone to talk to. There was no reason why it couldn’t be him. She most likely felt trapped. The same way he felt trapped at home without any friends or family. And the way he felt in that castle to a certain extent.

“You gonna get to it, or what?” Mr. Jett asked, a strange smile on his face.

Ackerley found himself staring whimsically at the spot where the princess had sat. The chair was still there. He snapped out of it and started sweeping again.

When the ballroom was spotless, and Mr. Jett went over every inch multiple times to make sure, they went back out and helped the three people on his staff finish up the halls and empty classrooms. At around three in the morning he was allowed to get to sleep.

The rest of the week passed without too much bother. He wasn’t the hero that Jarn made him out to be, but he also wasn’t laughed at. It seemed like everyone just forgot what happened that night altogether.

He was bored out of his mind for most the week and really wanted to wander around some. Calligraphy had been pretty bad. The teacher was an old woman named Ms. Henred. She was around the same age as that old man from the library, and she was equally disgusted at his handwriting. She set Ackerley in the hall and tried to train him. She didn’t see any improvement at the end of the two hours and made him come to her remedial handwriting class every day for third task. He was the only one there.

He never saw the man that made a fuss again, even when all the nobles were together. On Sunday morning, after a rather painful fancy dinner—the first with a fancy tunic that fit—he wandered the castle again, this time determined to have a real chat with that lonely girl to see who she was. He noticed that she took a walk in the back gardens every day around noon. He was determined to catch her alone. He set out a plan to catch her out in the maze of hedges. She usually took the walk alone, with her handler watching from the back porch of the castle. Because Sundays were free days he was able to get out and hide behind the farthest hedge and wait.

Time passed and he started to rethink his plan. This was his first Sunday so he hadn’t had a chance to see if she takes her walk that day yet. He started to feel awfully stupid sitting there when he heard the rustling of cloth. His heart pounded and he started to sweat.

The princess glided into view around the the last hedge.

He’d made a mistake. She probably thought he was really weird for trying to talk to her twice already. His stomach hurt. He felt sick. He was too afraid to look.

The princess came to a stop near him. She didn’t make a sound.

Ackerley peeked up at her. She stood over him, her face expressionless.

“I’m sorry.” He said, getting on his knees and shuffling away.

“Don’t go.”

Ackerley froze. She spoke. She actually said something to him.

He leaned up against the hedge. “I’m sorry about the other day. I didn’t mean to offend you or anything.”

“You didn’t.”

Ackerley’s mind raced for something to say. “Oh ok.” Surely he could do better than that. “Nice day.” Not much better.

She glanced over the hedge toward the back porch. “What’s your name?”

“Ackerley.”

She stepped around him. “I’m sorry, I have to keep moving.”

He took that to mean she was tired of him. “Oh, ok.”

“Come on, but stay low.” She ordered.

It took Ackerley a few seconds to realize that she was trying to keep evil Madame Thrindle from thinking something was wrong. That nasty woman was probably staring like a hawk to make sure nobody tried anything as stupid as hiding behind the hedges. Ackerley got back to his hands and knees and crawled clumsily along. It probably looked really stupid, but he wasn’t thinking about that at the time.

“I . . . uh. . . so what’s your name?” He asked.

“Cerise.”

Ackerley had heard Yinnib say the name but it sounded so much better coming from her.

“That’s a really nice name.”

“Do you have a last name?” She asked.

“Morzha.”

They came to the end of the hedge. Cerise paused. Her eyes didn’t waver from the back porch. “I have to go. It was nice meeting you, Ackerley.”

The princess was out of sight before Ackerley could think of what to say next. He sat back against the hedge and gave a huge sigh of relief. She didn’t think he was weird. She didn’t find him creepy. He dared to think that she might have even enjoyed their small chat. He watched from the last hedge until the princess and the harpy went back inside.

A few minutes later Ackerley found himself walking through a room he had never been to. He had been so caught up in thinking over the conversation with the princess that he hadn’t paid any attention to where he was going. The room was large and empty. The walls were painted with crude drawings of flowers and animals. It looked to be an old nursery. There were no clues as to who the room might have belonged to. The room echoed years of use. Imprints of furniture still marked the floors. But it held something darker. He felt an acute sadness. It may have been the colorful drawings hidden beneath wear and shadows, or it may have been something more.

He wanted to go back to how he felt before finding this place; when he still felt giddy over talking to the princess.

“Ackerley Morzha.”

Ackerley jumped clear out his skin. He stood completely still, too scared to even look. His curiosity overtook his fear and he slowly turned to where the voice had come from. The person he had seen on the first day, the one with the blue robes who looked down at him from the walkway, stood in the corner of the room. They hid in the shadows, but even that could not disguise that there was something not quite right about their face. Half looked fine, the other half looked . . . he could not make it out in the darkness.

“I’m not surprised you found this place.”

It was a woman. She stepped forward, but not enough to reveal the other half of her face.

“I got lost.” Ackerley mumbled. He wondered how many more times he could get away with that excuse.

“This castle isn’t the kindest to lost travelers.” She said. Her voice sounded distant.

“Are you a noble?” He asked, his heart beating rapidly. It knew to get going while his legs forgot to keep up.

“Not exactly.” Her voice was smooth. It glided through the room at it’s own pace.

“Then what are you?”

She backed up into the shadows. “The rarest of all in this kingdom: someone who knows how to survive.”

Ackerley tried to make out her outline in the dark. “Why are you here?”

She didn’t answer. The woman vanished among the faded flowers.

7.

Sidestep galloped valiantly through the yellowed roads of the Vastlands. Dead wheat filled the landscape. Stalks withered and cracked in the intense heat and blazing sun. No one stayed to tend to the most important crop of Chell. King Chell fought for the wheat, and now his great accomplishment died with it’s people.

Kenton rubbed his dry red eyes and blinked through the tears that came with the dust. He cursed the Welgo that forced him to get rid of extra weight that included food and goggles. Soon it wouldn’t matter. After several days of traveling and resting in odd towns he finally approached his base.

A few minutes later it came into view. The great castle rose out of the vast nothingness that this region, and the whole kingdom, was famous for. A few scars of war in the form of a broken tower and blood stained ground formed as a reminder to the effectiveness of the Welgo’s ability to grab and dash. Tents littered the area with hundreds of people of all stripes awaiting word of a new attack.

Kenton didn’t need to direct his horse. Sidestep went straight to the makeshift stables and the trough for a much needed drink. Kenton slipped off, grabbed the only bag left, and went to the largest of the yellowing tents.

A large table with maps spread across it had the attention of the handful of soldiers in the tent. Kenton bypassed all of them. He came to a large man with a large beard that sat a few feet back.

“I have returned, your highness.” Kenton said, getting down on one knee.

“You’ve been gone too long, Morzha.” The king said with a grunt.

“I am sorry. I engaged a Welgo. They destroyed a town a day’s ride from Chellion Castle.”

The king stroked his beard thoughtfully. “My uncle was smart. He built a wall.”

“Yes sir, but the proximity unnerves me.”

“Don’t worry about Chellion.” The king grumbled. “Worry about us.” The king glanced at Kenton. “You look terrible. Get some rest. You’re not needed today.”

“Yes sir.”

Instead of going to his tent Kenton went into the castle. It looked similar to Chellion Castle except it was much darker and dirtier. There were no janitors to clean up. Everyone who wasn’t directly engaged in the war effort had been sent away to fend for themselves.

Kenton jumped the stairs two at a time and found a little room with burn marks on the door. Inside he found a war meeting; one of a hundred that took place everyday.

“Sir.” Kenton said, approaching a thin man with a goatee. “I have a note from your son.”

Commander Rogerseen glanced uncaringly at the rolled up piece of paper. “Read it, then.”

“It’s not my place.”

Rogerseen gave him a stern glare.

Kenton wavered. He carefully flattened out the note. “Dear dad,” He looked up to Rogerseen, who didn’t appear to be paying attention, “I haven’t received a letter from you in a long time. You probably haven’t gotten one of mine either. I’m alright here. The nobles take care of us. We eat alright. I miss home. I know you do too. I miss mom. How is she? How are you? Is the war close to being over? I don’t know if I can stand another year here. I’m not complaining though, I really like it. It’s just not the same. Please send a reply. Jarn. P.S. I’m fourteen now. I know there are some fourteen year olds helping in the war. Can I come out there and help?”

Kenton rolled the paper and handed it to Rogerseen. The commander didn’t take it.

“Write a reply, Morzha.”

“It’s not my place.” Kenton repeated quietly.

“Just write it. Tell him he has to stay there. I don’t know what the boy’s problem is.” The commander sat down in a chair in the corner and shook his head.

Kenton turned to leave.

“Oh, Morzha.”

“Yes sir.”

“Tell him his mother’s dead.”

Kenton flattened the paper out again on a desk on the top floor of the castle. He took out a clean sheet and started writing.

Dear Jarn,

It was great hearing from you. I am fine. I can’t in good conscious invite you out here. It is very dangerous and I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to you. You are in the safest place in the entire kingdom. I know it’s hard. It’s hard for me as well. The war will end eventually. I hope sooner rather than later. Your mother

Kenton paused, the pen wavering above the page.

Is doing fine and sends her regards. Keep believing in us and put your faith in the Great Spirit. May its wanderings find you pious. Dad.

Kenton rolled it up and stamped it with the royal seal of King Chellias. He took it down to the messenger’s office.

“I have a letter.”

The woman there took it. “When the next messenger comes back it will be delivered.”

“Thank you.”

As Kenton went back to his tent to rest he heard the galloping of many horses. That was never a good sign. He breathed a reluctant sigh when he saw that they were of Chell. The horses came to a stop at the first tent and someone yelled that the Welgo’s were heading down a river towards a protected town only a few hours away. The riders were assured that a protected town was safe. The riders disagreed.

“It’s not a raiding party.” One of the riders yelled. “It’s a full army. Over fifty boats heading swiftly down the river. Countless Welgo’s. They could destroy a hundred towns.”

Controlled panic erupted through the castle grounds. The king rode around and shouted orders. The commander echoed the orders. Kenton found his commanding officer and asked if he could be excused to rest. The C.O. laughed darkly and handed him a sword.

“Protect the king with your life, Flora.”

As usual he didn’t care to remember anyone’s names.

Kenton ran to the stables and found Sidestep resting. The horse jumped to it’s feet when it saw Kenton.

“No, it’s alright. Stay here and rest. I’ll take another.”

Sidestep neighed angrily when Kenton led another horse out.

“You’re no good to me tired. I can’t lose you.”

Sidestep continued its protests as Kenton jumped on a buckskin and rode away.

The army dashed at full strength. Kenton kept close to the king, who continued to yell commands as they went.

It was a long afternoon. Kenton managed to get a pair of goggles from someone who had two and bartered a knife for a few two day old biscuits.

They found the river after an hour and followed it up to the nearest town. It didn’t take long to see smoke rise casually into the air. The horses found a new speed and raced towards it.

There wasn’t much left of the small town when they arrived. The bodies of horses and soldiers littered the ground. Not a single building was spared from the flames. The king roared into town. He slowly looked about, but finding that there weren’t any survivors he rushed through and out into the vast nothingness.

A small hill loomed in the distance. Atop the hill were a hundred or so Welgos in their furs and leather jackets made from a conglomeration of strips and odd ends. The king raised a shiny sword to the sun and let out a war call so mighty that even his own shivered with fear.

The Welgos raised their own swords and started down the hill.

“The Great Spirit is here!” The king bellowed. “If you die you will fall straight into its arms. The more beasts you kill the softer the landing. Now ON!”

The army ran straight towards the Welgos. Kenton pulled his sword and kept his eyes glued to the king.

The two armies clashed with a great force. All the feelings of pride and intensity vanished instantly as swords sliced effortlessly through skin and flesh. Horses whinnied and humans moaned.

Kenton engaged several Welgos. His sword was covered in blood in only a few moments. He lost track of the king almost at once and did all he could to keep the invaders from ending it all for him. The horse didn’t respond as Sidestep would have. It tried to stay brave, but as other horses fell all around it soon panicked and ran any way it could to get away. Kenton swung his sword at an invader but the horse jerked the wrong way. Kenton’s arm took a slice. He managed not to yell out as he jabbed the sword through the invaders neck.

The horse couldn’t take the commotion anymore. Somehow it found it’s way out of the fray and bucked Kenton clean off. It took off through the burning town and away.

Kenton slowly got to his feet. Plenty of Welgos and Chells ran around without horses. He returned to the action and took out several Welgos, including some that were about to kill his fellow warriors.

The mess lasted for a while longer. Kenton took a few more hits to the jacket, which was very sturdy and kept all but the sharpest blades from cutting through. His arm bled profusely and the blood flowed down to his hands and made the sword hard to handle.

He didn’t know how long it took, but after some time he collapsed to the ground and no one was there to attack him.

A friendly face came over. It sure was a relief after all that.

“Sidestep killed?” The other fighter, Marvie, asked.

“No, he’s back at base. I took another one.” Kenton said, his voice gruff from the dust and excitement.

Marvie had the rare gift of being able to smile and mean it through almost anything. He was of average height and rather thin for someone who wielded a sword for a living. “Good. I saw you on the ground and assumed the worst. That horse saved my life a few times.”

“I think I did that.” Kenton said, trying and failing at a smile of his own.

Marvie pulled a few clean strips of cloth from the inside of his jacket and started treating Kenton’s arms. “You just go where that horse takes you. It has more sense than half the people here combined.”

“You’re probably right.” Kenton grimaced as the pain of his wounds finally reached his brain.

“So when did you get back?”

“Right before having to come out here.”

“Let’s get you back to rest then.”

“Who won?” Kenton asked, looking around at the mess of bodies both dead and alive.

“The king always says we do.” Marvie whispered. “Who knows, really.”

Kenton rode back to base on a horse found wandering a good distance away from the battle. There was no sign of the one he took there. Marvie convinced the king, who always seemed to get through battle without a scratch, to let Kenton go back while the rest of the able bodied army continued to the next town. Marvie stayed back. He was the only one who could double as a medic who made the trip.

Late in the night and feeling woozy Kenton made it back to base. He went to the medical tent where they cleaned out his wounds and gave him plenty of water and dried meat. Being injured was one of the few ways to get meat, and the medics secretly suspected a lot of people took a few hits to reap the benefits. Kenton quickly went to sleep.

He found himself staring at the tent’s ceiling sometime in the night. A loud commotion had woken him up. Someone was being brought in, and all the noise meant it must be someone important.

“How did it happen?” One of the medics asked.

Marvie’s voice responded. “A few Welgo boats came down the river and shot arrows at us. He was hit several times in the legs. I managed to get him dressed but he’s been bleeding pretty bad. If only we weren’t so far out.”

“He doesn’t look good. Commander Rogerseen can you hear me?”

Kenton rolled over and shut his eyes. He figured he’d be writing another letter in the morning.

8.

It had been almost a week since that wondrous and weird day out in the gardens. Ackerley survived another week of horrible tasks. His handwriting was slowly getting better. The ancient man in the library finally let him transcribe a real page from an old book, though he gave someone else the same page later and took that one instead of his. The fancy dinner on Wednesday wasn’t so bad. He danced with several people. The princess didn’t show up to that one. He had a sinking feeling that the siren found out something and locked her away somewhere.

He thought about telling Jarn about the strange woman in the creepy nursery, but didn’t want him to think he was pulling his leg. It all sounded a bit farfetched, and the further the event got the more he wondered if it really happened at all.

Saturday night came with another fancy dinner. This time Cerise was in attendance. She sat against the wall and watched as she always did. Madame Thrindle glared at Ackerley every time he got within twenty feet of the princess. He didn’t care. He exchanged several smiles with the princess. Each one felt almost as good as the whole conversation they had last Sunday.

When it was all over Jarn and Ackerley wandered the grounds. It was becoming a tradition after a fancy dinner.

“You know I saw that.” Jarn said with a smug smile as they walked by the front gate.

“Saw what?”

“You making eyes with the princess. At first I thought you were doing it with that weird little woman she hangs around with, but then I saw that the princess was smiling back. So what’s happened? Do you know her or something?”

“We talked once.” Ackerley announced proudly.

“What?! And you didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t know if I should.”

“Uh, yeah. It’s not everyday that the princess talks to anyone. In fact, I think you’re the first person to ever get close enough to try.”

“It’s not that big of a deal.”

Jarn laughed. “This place is so boring that the goings on of that silent princess make news. Everyone wants to know about her and nobody is allowed to know. She’s almost as big a mystery as Lord Chellion himself. I still think he’s dead but that’s just me.”

“She’s from a kingdom in the mountains. They have some kind of connection to Chell but I’m not sure how.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Mr. Jett told me. He knows a lot about her.”

“That explains why she’s here. But why is she always kept away?”

“No clue.” Ackerley said. “I’d like to find out though.”

“Yeah, the nobles are weird. They probably think we’ll contaminate her. You know why we have fancy dinners, right? The nobles are trying to make us into real citizens. They think we’re all a bunch of commoners or something.”

“I am.” Ackerley said.

“Well sure, but they don’t want you to be.”

They meandered through the gardens and tried not to run into things. It proved too difficult in the dark and they returned to their room. Murdo sat on his bed and looked rather sour. Jarn took one look at him and decided it best to stay away until everyone was in bed.

Late that night Ackerley was gently shaken awake. He sat up and wondered if it was time to see Mr. Jett before realizing that he was good that day.

“Jarn?” He whispered.

“Nope.” Came an excited whisper.

“Cerise?” Ackerley whispered back, not quite believing it was her.

“Come on, get up before someone hears.”

Between the loud snoring of Murdo, the heavy breathing of Jamie, and the occasional whimper from Jarn, Ackerley figured they could talk normally and no one would notice. He got out of bed.

“What are you doing here?” He asked.

“Hurry up. I’ll wait in the hall.”

The softest of noises followed and the door opened and closed almost silently. He threw on his green tunic and hurried after her.

Princess Cerise looked as though she’d just helped someone escape from prison. She smiled guiltily and kept spinning around to make sure no one was there. Her hair was down and she wore a flowing periwinkle nightgown.

“This is crazy.” She said hurriedly, echoing what Ackerley was thinking. “I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while, but never had the nerve. I figured if I had someone to do it with I might. I jumped out of bed tonight and said: ‘tonight’s the night. It’s now or never.’”

“What are you talking about?” Ackerley said, unable to control a grin.

“I’ve lived in this place for well over a year and I’ve never—not once have I been able to roam around by myself. Every second of everyday I have to be with Madame Thrindle.”

“Oh my, that sounds awful.”

“Exactly! After meeting you I thought I might finally have a . . . you know. . . a friend.” She spun around a few times to make sure no one was there. “I was so surprised that you tried to talk to me. No one—I really mean it—no one has ever even attempted. I get stared at everywhere I go and it just makes me so mad. But not anymore. I . . .” She blushed, “I kind of jumped at the chance. I guess—” her eyes grew wide with fright. “Oh no! I just assumed you might want to be my friend. I’m sorry. I’ll go. You get back to sleep. I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

She started down the hall.

“Wait,” Ackerley walked with her. “I haven’t been here very long. I only have one friend. Look, I know how you feel.” It was his turn to feel a little frightened. “I mean—I don’t really. I lived by myself for over a year too. It was in a little town far away. I didn’t have anybody. My brother was off fighting and my—anyway he came and took me here. I mean—I know how bad it is to feel so lonely that your heart just aches for company.”

She gasped. “That’s exactly it. You do get it, wow.” She talked really fast. It was almost like she was trying to get a year’s worth of words in while she had the chance.

“So what do you want to do?” Ackerley asked, not sure if he should be excited or terrified. He chose excited, it felt a lot better.

She looked around and bit her lip. “I don’t know. I thought you might have an idea.”

“I don’t really know much about this place. It seems a little odd to me.”

“How so?”

He thought back to that weird woman he met in the nursery. “Oh, I don’t know. There’s just some strange people here.”

“That’s what happens when nobles get together. My dad used to have these big meetings with a bunch of nobles. I had to go to a few and they were terrible. They don’t care about the same stuff as regular people.”

Ackerley had a hard time believing that a princess who wasn’t allowed to do anything on her own knew what problems regular people had, but he let that slide.

“We could wander around and see what’s going on here at night. We’d have to avoid Mr. Jett and his team. I don’t think they would really care, but he might be more into the rules than he lets on.”

“Who’s Mr. Jett?”

“He cleans the floors.”

She puffed up with excitement. “I always wondered how the floors stay so clean. It’s not usually something people think about, but I do. I stare at them so much and they always shine.”

“I help a little with that.”

As soon as he said it he wondered why he even opened his mouth. He didn’t want to be known as Ackerley, the janitor’s helper.

“Why do you help clean the floors?”

He didn’t want to tell her that she was kind of the reason so again he changed the subject. “Let’s just see what’s around at night.”

They started off around the third floor. It proved rather boring as everyone was asleep. The second floor was a little more interesting because they quickly found Mr. Jett. He was busy showing some girl how to use the broom thing. He didn’t notice as Cerise and Ackerley ran around a corner to avoid him.

The first floor was where things felt a little more restricted. All the nobles lived in a back corridor kept off limits to the children. Ackerley had only been back there when Madame Thrindle complained to Yinnib about him being near the princess. This section of the first floor was guarded by a door in the middle of the hall just like the princess’s residence. Ackerley wanted very much to go through there and see what he could find, but found the prospect of running into a noble with Cerise to be too daunting.

While out that night he wondered if there was a punishment worse than Mr. Jett. He imagined Kenton getting a letter saying that his little brother was thrown out of the castle and forced to fend for himself.

Cerise didn’t notice his concern. She was busy being amazed at how everything looked at night. For the first time she was free to explore and wanted to do it right.

In the entryway Cerise decided to take the stairs back to the second floor. She decided that she wanted to keep the rest of her exploration for another day, and that she probably already took up too much of his time. As they climbed the stairs Ackerley noticed the walkway he had seen the woman in blue on.

“Where does that walkway come out from?” Ackerley asked.

“The fourth floor.” Cerise said.

“There’s a fourth floor?”

Cerise stopped on the stairs. “That’s where Lord Chellion lives. I suppose it’s off limits to everyone. I’ve never even been up there.”

“Is Lord Chellion real? I mean my friend Jarn says he thinks he died and no one wants to tell us.”

“I met him when I got here. I haven’t seen him since. I think he really likes his privacy.”

She continued up the stairs and Ackerley followed through the second floor.

“I understand the privacy thing,” Ackerley said, “but he wanted to bring all these kids here. To not even come down to see us during formal dinners is a little weird.”

“True.” Cerise stopped at a door that stood a jar. She carefully pushed it open and gasped. “Look at this.” She entered the room and disappeared into the darkness.

Ackerley slid in the room and left the door open a crack. It was just a classroom.

“I have history in here.”

Cerise ran her hands across the desks as she walked methodically to the front of the room. “I’ve always liked classrooms.” She said, her voice quiet and thoughtful. “I’ve always wanted to be taught in one.”

“It’s not that special.” Ackerley said.

“It is to me. I’ve only ever been taught in tiny rooms with a tutor.” She sat on the teacher’s desk and swung her feet back and forth. She looked guiltily out at the room.

Ackerley sat in the front desk. “What do you want to teach?”

“Hmm. Tell me about your life.”

“You don’t want to hear about that.”

“No, I really do. It’s no secret what my life’s been like. You saw it all the other night. I have to sit until I’m told to move and be quiet unless told to speak. Nothing much there. But you on the other hand. . . I really want to know about that. You’ve been out—you’ve done stuff.”

“I’ve done a lot.” Ackerley said trying to sound cool. It came across a bit pompous instead. He quickly lowered his eyes and smiled regretfully. “Well, not that much actually. Like I said I lived in a house by myself for over a year. My neighbors checked on me but I don’t think they really cared. I had a lot of time to think.”

“What did you think about?” Cerise said, her voice barely a whisper.

“All sorts of things. I had a lot of fantasies going.” He smiled at the thought. “There was only one book in the house. It was a little fairy tale about a boy who meets a tiny woodland sprite. But the interesting part is that he meets this sprite in the desert. They spend the whole book trying to get the sprite back to the woods. It was really interesting to read about their little adventures all over the place. When I was alone I would imagine that I was the boy and I had to get the little sprite home. We would go on all sorts of adventures. It was fun.” He shook his head. “No, it wasn’t fun. It passed the time occasionally. By the end I couldn’t think about it all that much without realizing all the horrible things going on. I would overhear people in the streets talking about Welgo this and Welgo that. Some didn’t make it. I mean they went insane and wandered off.” He shivered at the thought. “They were just certain everything was going to go up. Every night I sat alone and looked out the sheet over my window and waited for the Welgos to storm the town and kill everyone.” Ackerley forgot all about Cerise. He was fully in his own head, unaware even of his surroundings. “Every noise sounded like a hundred horses. Every voice sounded foreign. I was always scared at night. By morning I was alright, but at night. . . I couldn’t function. The fear was too much. I hid inside myself. I didn’t come out until on my way here. My fear was realized on the way.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “We were attacked by Welgos. The town we were in went up. That woman—that nice woman. I don’t even remember her name. She went up to. Kenton fought them off. I was only a few inches from death. The sword. . . it was so close to me. And the horse. . .”

Ackerley wiped his eyes and sniffled. He suddenly blushed when he saw Cerise and re-entered the world. She stared at him with caring eyes.

“I’ve never heard anything like that.” She murmured. “That’s a life.” She smiled and wiped her own eyes. “That’s a life that no one can take from you. You’ve lived, Ackerley. I wish—I wish I could live like that.”

Ackerley laughed a little with relief. “You want to be attacked by a Welgo?”

“Not necessarily. I just . . . I don’t really know. I want to go out and do things. And right now we can’t. Now we just have to wait.”

“Murdo was right. This place is a prison.”

She nodded. “A necessary one I suppose.”

“Murdo’s one of my roommates.” Ackerley explained. “He thinks that we’re only here so our parents feel better about themselves.”

“He’s right. He must be pretty smart.”

Ackerley snorted. “No, he’s really not.”

They sat in silence for a minute. Cerise went around the room and tried out different desks.

“What happened to your parents?” She asked from the back of the room.

Ackerley shifted in his chair to face her.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She said suddenly. “You don’t have to answer that. I don’t mean to pry.”

“They’re dead.” Ackerley said, his voice growing momentarily deeper.

“I’m sorry.” Cerise said. “Welgos?”

“No.” Ackerley really didn’t want to continue, but he pushed himself on. “About a year and a half ago our town was overrun one night with bandits. They went through some houses and took some stuff. Nobody got hurt. They got to my house and by then my dad, who often stayed up late in the night, knew what was happening. He tried to keep them out. Things turned south and they stabbed him. My mom came at them with something. I don’t know what. They stabbed her too.”

“Where were you?” Cerise asked, her voice shaking.

“My mom locked me in the store closet. The neighbors found me in the morning. My brother wasn’t there.”

Whether because of the conversation or the dark quiet classroom they both agreed to call it a night. Cerise walked with him back up to his room. They stood awkwardly outside the door, not sure what to say or do. Finally Cerise bid him farewell and started back toward her residence.

Ackerley sat on his bed and thought over things. He didn’t feel the giddiness he had after meeting Cerise in the gardens. He only felt a dull pain left over from having to think back on that horrible night in the closet. His heart ached, but deep down he felt the slightest sensation of true relief. For the first time in his life he told someone about the worst moments of his life. He didn’t know what healing felt like. One day he would know that he felt it for the first time that night.

9.

It was hard to keep his secret rendezvous with the princess a secret. There were multiple times that he almost blurted it out to Jarn during a task or while they wandered around the castle grounds at night. As much as he wanted to talk about it he wanted it to be a secret even more. He liked the mystery of it all. Cerise certainly didn’t want anybody to know, least of all that horrible sorceress Thrindle. Surely she would come up with a punishment for them both that rivaled being exiled from the castle.

The days didn’t drag as much as they used to. When he was tired of reading boring poetry or meditating he would fantasize about getting a little sprite to that wonderful forest he went through on the way to the castle. That quickly grew tiresome and soon he was fighting Welgos with an army of sprites, animals, suppressed royalty, and all the children of the castle.

Ackerley found the routineness of his days somewhat soothing. He became comfortable with the way things were run and what he had to do. When his first month came to an end he realized that he didn’t want things to change. He fully acknowledged that life in the castle was better than the life he lived before. The strange and hopefully unfounded fear of having to live with his brother, the same fear he felt when he learned he had to go to the castle, returned. The future after the war weighed on his mind. Being alone so long and only rarely hearing from his brother made him not really want to be around Kenton. There was an increasingly growing part of Ackerley that wouldn’t mind the war going on until he was old enough to leave the castle, however old that was.

News of the outside was hard to come by. That was alright with the children there. Most of them had parents in the war and no news was far better than bad news. This changed at a formal dinner one Wednesday night. Yinnib came into the large dining room holding a bundle of rolled up papers.

“Letters from relatives!” He exclaimed.

The silence and sudden wary eyes went unnoticed by him. He handed out the letters. He paused at Ackerley.

“This one is the biggest.” Yinnib said, weighing the paper in his hand. “I have a feeling your brother may have written about the war’s progress. He is very close to the king after all.”

Ackerley unrolled the paper and was relieved to see that it was written in his brother’s hand. He feared getting a letter that had to be written by someone else. There were two pages.

Dear Ackerley,

The second page of this letter is a progress report. Give it to a noble you trust. I want to start by saying that I am alright. I was injured in a Welgo attack shortly after I returned to base. Nothing too serious. I’m back to my duties now. The Welgos

“Oh my, young Morzha!” Yinnib had been standing behind him reading over his shoulder without him noticing. “Your brother has sent a progress report! Well go ahead and read it aloud so we can all hear how things are going.”

Ackerley quickly pushed the papers under the table. The damage had been done. Yinnib pulled the chair out from the table and lifted Ackerley to his feet with strength that betrayed his slender frame.

Ackerley put the second page on top and glanced at it. He figured there was no way to avoid reading it. He looked to Jarn for support. Jarn was busy reading his own letter with a smile.

“Um, alright.” Ackerley tried to read a little bit to himself first.

“Come on now.” Yinnib said.

“The war is going well.” Ackerley began. “The great spirit shines its power down on all of us. The Welgos are few and far between. When one is spotted it is usually fleeing a battle like a coward.” A few whoops echoed throughout the large dining room. “The king has grown stronger and his might is felt throughout the Vastlands as he hands each Welgo to their fake god. Continue to pray for our souls and pray the Great Spirit continues its wanderings. The great king is with us always. We shall be victorious!”

Ackerley quickly sat down as the dining room cheered merrily. He waited until Yinnib went to tell the other nobles to look back at the first page.

The Welgos are . . .

A few words were scratched out.

Don’t read this to anyone! The second page of this letter is to be read by the nobles. Do not read a word of this letter to them! The Welgos are coming down rivers at such a rate that they can get to any town long before we even hear of their approach. The very last town in the Vastlands went up yesterday and there is nothing left to fight for in this wasteland. They are heading west towards the manors and villas of the rich. Many of your nobles are from there and have family there. I’m afraid things might change if the Welgos are successful there. The majority of the money left in the kingdom are behind the walls of those villas. They are better protected than the monasteries they attacked first. The rich have their own militias to take care of them but it doesn’t matter now. The Welgos are too much. That isn’t to say that they can’t be beat. We will try our best. Ackerely, be brave and continue as though you haven’t read this letter. I want you to know but I don’t want anyone else to. I don’t think they can handle it. I know for a fact that you can handle anything. Stay strong and be as brave as you always are. Remember that you are safe there. That castle is still the safest place in the entire kingdom and maybe the world.

Kenton

Ackerley folded the papers and thrust them in his shoe. He nervously watched as everyone else read their letters. A few hours later on their way back up to their room Jarn mentioned his.

“My dad’s doing alright.” Jarn said. “Both my parents are. That’s pretty good considering everything going on. But your brother probably had the best news of the night.” He looked longingly off into the distance. “We might actually win this thing. Here, do you want to read mine?” He handed Ackerley the letter.

Ackerley took one look at it and gave it back. His heart sank. “That’s alright. That’s personal.” He watched Jarn through the corner of his eye. It was rare to see Jarn with such a wide, carefree smile on his face. Ackerley didn’t have the heart to tell his best friend that his letter was written by Kenton. Jarn was probably too happy with what the letter said to notice that the handwriting wasn’t his father’s.

After everyone went to bed Ackerley sat on the windowsill that looked out over the front entrance of the castle. He watched the guards walk back and forth and let their methodic movements lull him until his mind was at ease.

“Ackerley.”

He turned to see Cerise standing nearby. The letters and war vanished from his mind.

“Hey, did you want to explore some more?”

“No.” She said, taking quick looks over her shoulder. “I want to show you something.”

Ackerley jumped up from the windowsill.

“Not right now.” She said. “In the morning. Meet me in my area on the second floor. I’ll keep the door unlocked.”

“What about that nasty lady?”

She laughed. “Madame Thrindle has an all day meeting with the nobles’ tomorrow. Every few months she meets with them to tell them about how I need this or that. I don’t really need any of it. Anyway, I have to stay in meditation all day when she does that, but I really don’t want to.”

“Alright, I’ll see you there.”

Cerise smiled and walked as fast as she could down the hall and out of sight.

Ackerley completely forgot about his tasks when he promised to be there. On Thursday he had reading for two hours. Surely he could find a way out of that.

Someone knocked on the door shortly before dawn as they did everyday. Murdo and Jamie were ready and gone in seconds. Jarn shook Ackerley, who hid under his covers.

“Come on, get up.”

“Ugghh! I have the worst headache. I can’t read for two hours like this.” Ackerley moaned.

“Craith doesn’t excuse people from reading because of headaches. You’d have to be dying.”

“I think I am”

“I’m sure you are.” Jarn said doubtfully. “I’ll tell him, but you’d better be here and dead when he comes to check on you or you’ll be with Mr. Jett tonight.”

Mr. Jett sounded far better than reading. Jarn went to go get Craith. Ackerley jumped out of bed, already in his green everyday tunic, and ran from the room and down the stairs before anyone could ask him where he was going.

The second floor was quiet compared to the third. A few nobles milled about, but he managed to avoid them. He came to the door of the princess’s residence and slipped inside just in time to avoid nearby footsteps.

Cerise sat in the columned room where Ackerley first spoke to her.

“What is this place?” He asked, his voice echoing all around.

“Meditation room.” She answered. “I spend far too much time in here. If the Great Spirit doesn’t think twenty-five fours a week is good enough to come and see me then I’m really lost.”

“I really don’t think it cares. So, what did you want to show me?”

“Follow me.”

She started toward a door on the other side of the room. The purple dress she wore looked far too fancy for sneaking around.

“Don’t you have anything else to wear besides those fancy dresses?” Ackerley asked.

“I have fancy dresses and nightgowns. I would look a little too weird wandering around in a nightgown during the day.”

She led him through the fanciest part of the castle. The halls had thick plush carpets with heavily cushioned couches and realistic landscape paintings all along the walls. The doors were colored wood with designs on them.

“What is this place?” Ackerley asked.

“I think it was Lord Chellion’s residence before he moved to the fourth floor. It’s just me and Madame Thrindle now.”

“What do you do with all these rooms?”

“Some of them are locked and some are different bedrooms that I circulate through. I spend a month in each one.”

Ackerley couldn’t quite believe two people would ever want that much space to themselves. “I would never leave this place if I lived here. It’s so nice.”

“You spend enough time anywhere and it gets old.” She said with a frown.

At the end of the hall was a dead end. She felt around the wall. “Aha.” She exclaimed. Her hand pushed at a particular place and the wall opened like a door. A slight breeze rustled Ackerley’s hair as he looked into a dark stone passage. Cerise hurried down the stone steps and Ackerley followed. They came to another dead end and she pushed at the wall. They squinted in the morning sun. The door led straight outside.

“Now here’s the hard part.” Cerise rubbed her hands together and made sure the coast was clear. “Ready?”

“What, wait—”

Cerise suddenly took off across the sleek lawn towards the outer wall as fast as her dress would allow. Ackerley wavered for a moment and then sped off after her. He looked both ways as he ran and saw several people out tending to bushes and cows. He didn’t even know the castle had any cows. They didn’t seem to care or notice what was going on.

Cerise went all the way to the outer wall and kneeled down. “Wasn’t that great?” She said, trying to catch her breath.

“I guess. What are we doing out here?”

“I wish you would stop asking questions. Just wait.”

She felt around this wall as well. Ackerley kept a look out, thinking that Yinnib or Craith would appear with a small army of nobles to toss him in a dungeon somewhere. Surely a great castle like that had a dungeon.

She exclaimed again and a small hole appeared in the wall. She crawled in. Ackerey reluctantly did the same. He was starting to feel that her want to be free of Madame Thrindle meant escaping all together.

It took a while to find the end of the tunnel. It twisted and turned. Ackerley’s hands felt soft ground and he stood up.

“Here we are.” Cerise announced excitedly.

They stood in a small area encircled by the outer wall. It was covered with lush grass and bright flowers. A few tall trees poked up almost over the edge of the tall gray boundary between the outside world and the inner castle grounds. Vines climbed their way up the walls on all sides. A pool of water bubbled in the middle. Bugs and frogs ceaselessly sang their songs.

Ackerley let the wondrous feeling wash over him. It felt as great as the ride through the forest.

Cerise took a seat next to the pool of water and patted the stump for him to join her.

“How did you ever find out about this place?” Ackerley asked, sitting beside her.

“Madame Thrindle used to take me here. She doesn’t anymore.” Cerise stared deep into the pool. “It felt a little like our garden at home.”

“Where are you from?” Ackerley asked, watching the little fish swim around in the water. It was the largest body of water he’d ever seen.

“I’m from the Indigo Kingdom in the mountains to the north. It’s not very big or very nice—especially now. The Welgos keep attacking. That’s why I had to come here. My parents made sure of it. They didn’t want me there with all the fighting and danger.”

“It’s great that your parents haven’t given up.” Ackerley told her, hoping to make her feel better.

She stared at the water for a long time before speaking. “They’re under siege.” She said breathlessly, as though it took everything she had to say it. “An army of Welgos surrounded the walls of the town with the palace several months ago. They’re running out of supplies.”

“The king will help. Our kingdoms have a bond, right? He’ll defeat them.” Ackerley doubted this very much, but said it anyway.

“Your king hasn’t helped yet. And besides, he’s probably too busy celebrating after clearing the Vastlands. Madame Thrindle told me what your brother wrote.”

Ackerley didn’t have the heart to tell her what was really going on. “They’ll make it alright. Why do they want the castle so bad? I thought Welgos were more of the grab and run type. I didn’t know they cared about sieges.”

“They didn’t at first. They were indeed the grab and go type we all thought they were.” Cerise shivered and rubbed her arms. “And then a bigger group came over the mountains. They had catapults and were ready to wait. From the news we get we know they cut off all the roads and made it impossible for supplies to get through. Even if your king decided to do anything it wouldn’t work. These Welgos are far more impressive than the ones destroying your towns.” Once again she suddenly thought she said too much. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

“No, it’s fine.” Ackerley assured her. “You’re right. This is all just too complicated for me.” He laughed softly. “I don’t know up from down when it comes to Welgos and war. That’s my brother’s problem. I’m just here trying to stay out of trouble.”

She gasped and clasped her hand over her mouth. “I completely forgot it’s a weekday. You’re gonna get in so much trouble! I’m so sorry.”

Ackerley laughed uncontrollably. “It’s fine—it really is.” He couldn’t remember the last time someone got so vocally riled up about him. “I don’t mind getting in trouble. I get to clean the floors—how cool is that?”

“Have I gotten you in trouble before?”

Ackerley suddenly stopped laughing. “No, not at all—why?”

“I have, haven’t I? Oh, I’m so sorry Ackerley. I won’t ask you to go with me anymore. I’ll do it myself.” She nodded with finality.

Ackerley failed to suppress a grin. “I can’t have that. Let’s decide what we want to do next. We could try to find a secret room or come back here. I like it here.”

Cerise held up a finger. “You know what I really want to do? When my parents sent me here they sent all of the kingdom’s jewels and gold. Pretty much anything that the Welgos might want. After we got here it was hidden somewhere and I haven’t seen any of it since. In those crates was a necklace that my mother gave me. It’s a family heirloom that predates the founding of Indigo. If I could do anything I would look for it. That necklace, and the beautiful pendant, always calmed me when things got scary when I was little. When a letter comes I really want to have that pendant in my hands to calm my nerves, and I can’t. There hasn’t been a letter in a while, but just in case, you know?”

“Let’s go find it some night.” Ackerley said.

“Are you sure?” Cerise asked, biting her lip. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Don’t worry about that. I can handle a few nights with Mr. Jett.”

Ackerley didn’t want to leave that beautiful little garden. He waited until the first task was over and ran back into the castle. Unfortunately, he walked right into Craith on his way to his second task.

“And where were you this morning?”

Ackerley didn’t even bother making an excuse. He told Craith he had been wandering around. He ended up with two nights of floor cleaning.

10.

Kenton was thankful he had goggles this time. The dust from the dead wheat and dry ground was enough to send anyone off track. He even fitted Sidestep with his own pair.

The horse galloped along at a moderate pace. It was used to having extra weight, but that weight wasn’t usually so fidgety.

“Morzha, hey Morzha!”

Kenton rolled his eyes. “Yes, sir.”

Commander Rogerseen tightened his grip on Kenton’s waist. “Slow this thing down, would you?”

“We have to get to the next base before dark.” Kenton repeated for what felt like the hundredth time.

“Well in case you’ve forgotten I only have one leg. It’s hard to hold on with one leg.”

Kenton had definitely not forgotten. It’s all Rogerseen would talk about since they amputated it. Kenton had been made his aide simply because he was the only other person in the tent when the commander woke up. It was by far the hardest job he’d ever had. Rogerseen was difficult to deal with normally, but now that he had one leg and had to constantly take pain numbing medicine he was almost unbearable. It wasn’t entirely his fault. The medicine made it so half the time he didn’t even know where he was.

“We’ll get there faster if we don’t slow down.” Kenton said calmly. “And we can’t lose you to an attack. You’re too important.”

The road turned slightly and Rogerseen grabbed on even harder. “I don’t care about attacks. I don’t care about base. I just want this stupid horse to not fling me across the kingdom every chance it gets.”

Kenton wished Sidestep would knock the commander off. It would be a much more pleasant journey, but might end up with Kenton being dismissed or worse if anyone found out.

The castle they had been using in the Vastlands had been abandoned. The king decreed that the Welgos no longer cared about the area now that the last town had been destroyed. It took him several days to finally come around to this idea himself, long after the news of the Welgos moving on reached him. Kenton was one of the first to leave. The king believed that Rogerseen was the key to victory because of him being a masterful strategist. No one had ever seen this skill put to use, but the king swore by him and so everyone else had to as well. The new Rogerseen, complete with painkillers, was decidedly not a great strategist.

The new base was in the manor region to the northwest. The king decided that the defense of the already walled and militia heavy manor region was the kingdom’s top priority. They had done alright so far because the Welgos had not wanted to attack walled and defended areas unless money could be easily found. The kingdom had already lost the majority of their money through the sacking and burning of several key unguarded castles and holy sites early on.

If the king feared losing his soldiers because he couldn’t pay it didn’t show in the open. Though everyone knew that fleeing or speaking up about the now eminent lack of food meant they would be charged with treason and hanged immediately. They still had a great supply of inedible biscuits, but even that supply was growing worrisome.

Kenton didn’t actually care much about the food supply or the lack of payment. His payment had already been supplied through his brother staying at the only place still deemed safe. It was also the only place where Chell values were still being taught and believed in. Kenton didn’t care much about that either. He’d never known those values growing up. The castle staying safe was the only thing he cared about.

They found a small stream and stopped for a break. The commander slipped off the horse and landed with a loud thud in the water. He shouted unintelligibly with his face in the weak current until Kenton managed to get him out.

“That horse is trying to kill me!” He shouted through the airy silence. Kenton tried to hush him but he wouldn’t be quieted. “I am going to eat that thing the very next time it tries anything with my life. And where is my medicine? My leg is killing me.”

Kenton reached into one of the bags and pulled out a bulb of one of the medicinal flowers. He was saddened to see that there were only a few left.

“You’re going to have to stop going through them so fast.” He advised. “We need them to last.”

“You get your leg unceremoniously chopped off and we’ll see how you feel.”

“The doctor said the pain should have wavered by now.” Kenton said, splashing water on his face and arms.

“When the doctor gets his leg unceremoniously chopped off he can talk to me about how long the pain should last.”

Kenton handed him the flower and watched him devour it. A few minutes later Rogerseen was out cold, much to Kenton’s delight.

“Do you hate him as much as I do?” Kenton said, patting Sidestep’s neck. The horse shook his head playfully.

A few minutes later, and after a great deal of effort, both Kenton and Rogerseen were back on the horse and heading for the new base. The commander didn’t like the idea of being tied to Kenton, and so it was only when he was asleep that he allowed it.

Hours passed before the slightest thing happened. Rogerseen woke up. He wasn’t too keen on the ropes and, while still under the effects of the bulb, attempted to free himself. Kenton struggled with the commander for some time and they both almost fell off. Suddenly Rogerseen stopped.

“What’s that?” He said groggily, looking ahead.

Sidestep had turned off course and was heading towards something that was still too far off to see clearly. As they got closer a wooden wall came into view. Kenton slowed Sidestep and they moved with care towards the wall.

“A town?” Rogerseen asked, suddenly a lot more coherent.

“But there aren’t any.” Kenton said more to himself than to the commander.

“Apparently there are. Quick, let’s see how they survived.”

“I don’t feel right about this.” Kenton murmured.

“What’s not right? This is a sign that the Great Spirit hasn’t given up on us.”

Sidestep came to a stop and Kenton watched wearily for any signs of life. A few minutes later a couple people came around the corner of the wall. They were Welgos. It was clear with their patchwork jackets and scruffy appearance.

“They’ve taken over.” Rogerseen gasped. “They probably murdered everyone and took their houses. The fiends! Quick Morzha, go kill them all.”

“How do you expect me to do that?”

“Just do it, I command you.”

“I don’t think they took anything over. None of the towns in the Vastlands had walls. And that wood. It’s not our wood. It’s too dark. Trees like that aren’t native to the Vastlands. They came from up north. Possibly even from Welgland.”

“They’re making their own towns.” Rogerseen whispered. “They’re settling.”

“Let’s get a closer look.” Kenton said.

“What about getting me to safety?” Rogerseen asked, clearly scared.

“You’re right.” Kenton agreed. “But this is a big change. We need to see what’s going on if we can. I’m going to have to report to the king on this. Let’s wait it out and see if we can tell if it’s a fort or just a town.”

“Of course it’s a fort.” Rogerseen sputtered. “Now let’s go before they attack us.”

Kenton thought it over. “You’re probably right. Alright. Let’s go and tell the king about it. He can send part of the army if he feels he needs to. Wait, do you hear that?”

“What?”

Kenton listened closely. “It’s water. There’s a river near here, isn’t there?”

“It’s the Mothund.” Rogerseen said. “It goes all over the kingdom.”

“I lived near it.” Kenton said. “I didn’t know it came this far south. I think that river is our doom. If it goes everywhere then that’s exactly how they get so far so fast.”

“We already knew they used the rivers, Morzha. What’s your point?”

Kenton gave Sidestep a gentle tap with his foot and it started away from the town. “If they’re settling then it’s going to be almost impossible to keep them out. I think we should focus on keeping them contained to the Vastlands. We can move the boundaries of the kingdom up and defend a smaller area. That’ll keep us safer I think.”

Rogerseen gave Kenton’s back a very sour look. “The kingdom’s boundaries will not change. I won’t hear of it. We fight for everything or nothing.”

“Then we fight for nothing.” Kenton whispered. The commander didn’t hear him.

Kenton kept Sidestep slow as they went at an angle away from the town. He was afraid sudden galloping would be heard. It didn’t matter. Someone must have seen them. Four horses appeared and chased after them. Three of which had large scary Welgos. The fourth had a rather small man. Kenton didn’t have time to get the details. Sidestep sprinted away as fast as he could go with two people and several bags. It wasn’t fast enough. Kenton thought briefly about tossing Rogerseen off, but it was too late. The four horses caught up and surrounded them within seconds. Sidestep neighed angrily and Kenton pulled out his sword.

The Welgos spoke their language and Kenton couldn’t understand. When the barrier persisted the small man, who didn’t look like a Welgo at all except for the jacket, came up.

“Soldiers?” He said.

“He speaks our language.” The commander pointed out stupidly.

“We didn’t mean to get so close.” Kenton said.

“Of course not.” The small man said. “I’m Victor. It’s very nice to meet you. I hope we didn’t scare you. We’re only protecting our town.”

“We don’t mean it any harm. We’ll go ahead and leave, then.” Kenton tried to get Sidestep through.

“Now wait a minute here.” Victor said, holding up a hand. “Come on and see the town for yourself. We’ve just put the finishing touches on it.”

“No, that’s alright.”

“I really insist.” Victor said with a smile. The four horses steered Sidestep back towards the town.

Kenton tried to think up some way to let them leave, but nothing sounded good enough in his head. “We really need to get moving.” He said finally. “My friend here is injured.”

“The commander?” Victor gave them a toothy grin. “Shouldn’t have worn your commander’s uniform out here, it’s dangerous.”

Kenton couldn’t believe that he didn’t think about that. Although Rogerseen probably wouldn’t have taken the black jacket with yellow stripes at the shoulders off for anything.

The wooden wall opened to reveal a gate. The town had several rows of wooden buildings. They all looked the same. Everyone around looked to be soldiers. There were no families or children.

“What do you think?” Victor asked.

“It sure is something.” Kenton said happily, attempting to seem alright with being forced in there.

The gates closed behind them.

“It took many months to finish construction.” Victor beamed. “It looks like it took years doesn’t it? We’re really fast workers. Shipments have been coming up and down the river for almost a year. I’m surprised we’ve been met by such warm visitors. We all fully expected an army to arrive as soon as we put up the wall. I mean a few people have come, but not too many.”

“Where are they now?” Kenton asked, fearing the answer.

“Don’t worry about that. I find it really interesting that you came today of all days.”

“And why is that?”

“We’re getting ready.”

“For?”

“I’ll tell you later. For now, you two can rest up in one of our nice little homes. I’ll see to it that you have a good time. It looks like it’s getting late. The sun is about to go down. You two sure look tired.”

They came to one of the buildings and several Welgos came up and removed them from the horse. Ropes were put around Sidestep’s neck and he writhed angrily.

“Hey, don’t hurt the horse.” Kenton ordered.

“Don’t worry about the horse.” Victor said. “We’ll take care of it.”

Kenton argued for them to give Rogerseen his crutch, but they refused. The commander was carried into the house and set on an uncomfortable wooden bed frame without a mattress. Kenton sat on another bed without a mattress on the other side of the room. The room was otherwise bare.

Victor clapped his hands. “Alright, I’ll come by and see you all tonight.”

“We really need to leave.” Kenton persisted.

Victor ignored him and they were left alone.

The commander stared at the wall in shock. “They’re going to kill us.” He whimpered, his whole body shaking.

“We don’t know that.” Kenton said.

“We have nothing to barter with.” Rogerseen lamented. “They took the horse. It had everything we have.”

“We can work something out.” Kenton assured him.

“I don’t have a leg!” the commander complained. “If we tried to escape I would be left behind. The only way out is to barter, and that’s not going to happen. We’re dead and its all your fault for wanting to come closer. When the Great Spirit finds our souls I am going to tell it to murder you again!”

“Let’s not freak out.” Kenton said calmly. “When Victor comes back we’ll have a nice chat and see what we can do.”

The commander scoffed.

11.

“This is the weirdest part.” Mr. Jett said late that night. “I went to see what it was, and you wouldn’t guess.”

“Uh-huh.” Ackerley said.

Mr. Jett had been telling a story about. . . well Ackerley didn’t know. He had been thinking about Cerise and lost jewels and only heard a little bit.

“Go ahead, guess.”

“Guess what?”

“What?” Mr. Jett asked.

“What?”

“You said ‘guess what’.”

“Yeah, what did you want me to guess?” Ackerley asked, thoroughly confused.

“Oh, guess what I saw.”

“A bear.”

“No, a huge centipede.”

Ackerley had no idea what Mr. Jett was talking about and didn’t care. He was too tired to humor him. He pushed his broom thing across the floor for the final time that night and handed it back to Mr. Jett.

“I’ll see you tonight.” Mr. Jett said. “You know you should probably not skip a task again, especially that one. Craith is all about the rules.

“It seems everyone is around here.” Ackerley responded with a yawn.

He sauntered back up to his room and fell asleep hanging half off his bed. It seemed only a few seconds before the daily knock on the door sounded the morning’s arrival. He sat up and somehow got ready without even knowing what he was doing. Jarn had to stop him from wearing his pajamas to first task. Ackerley forgot he never changed into them the night before.

During calligraphy Ms. Henred finally gave him a passing grade for the day. He couldn’t believe it. That meant that he no longer had to come during third task. He could go back to choosing like everyone else. Reading was as boring as ever. Craith kept glancing over to make sure he didn’t vanish halfway through.

After lunch Jarn invited him to the kitchen, but he said he would take his chances and sleep instead. Everyone at some point tried to avoid third task by hiding in their room. Jarn told him that it used to be a serious offence and nobles had to be stationed at each entrance of the third floor. The rules had been relaxed somewhat and every now and then people got away with it. Ackerley was so tired that he figured he would try it.

When he got back to his room he noticed a note sticking out from under his pillow. It was written in a very loopy and flowery script

Hey,

If you can meet me in my residence after your last task I think I have a place to start looking. If you don’t want to then don’t. It’s alright if you don’t.

Ackerley momentarily forgot how tired he was. He wanted to run down there and start looking for the jewels straight away. The excitement died down a little when he realized Madame Thrindle would probably be down there until the third task ended. He went ahead and fell onto the bed.

He woke with a start when the door opened. It was nearing dark. He fell out of bed and jumped to his feet.

“Everything alright?” Jamie asked, hopping over the divider.

“Yeah, I just lost track of time.”

Ackerley rushed from the room and down the stairs. He stopped outside the door to Cerise’s part of the second floor and listened. For some reason he thought he would be able to hear if Thrindle was in there. He opened the door and sneaked inside.

Cerise sat on a couch in the hall that led to the dead end. She looked concerned when she saw Ackerley.

“I thought you might not want to come.”

“No, no, I just lost track of time. Do we have enough to look.”

“Less now, but I think we can get a start.”

“Where’s that woman?”

“She can’t talk after yelling at the nobles all day yesterday. She told me to do a full day of meditation while she rested. I did a few hours, but I really want to get started on this.”

She determined that the best starting place for that time of night was on the first floor as some of the children liked to sneak food out of the kitchens. She was an expert on their comings and goings as her handler took her to dinner around that time. The influx of students sneaking around meant they could sneak around and not look too strange. Ackerley was worried that a noble would notice her, seeing as she was wearing a bright green dress, but she was prepared for that as well. She managed to sneak a dull gold everyday dress from the laundry room the day before. Apparently she frequented the laundry room at night as it was the first, and for the many months, the only place she could sneak to after Madame Thrindle went to bed.

The first floor was indeed crawling with people when they arrived. Ackerley nervously tried to walk in front of the princess so no one would notice. For her first time out when everyone else was out Cerise acted as though her disguise was foolproof. To Ackerley’s surprise it pretty much was. With her hair down and no make up on no one seemed to notice the oft aloof princess. He couldn’t figure if it was because nobody ever really got a good look at her or if it was because they would never guess she would wander about.

They came to the door that hid behind it the nobles’ residences. They stood far enough away to see the nobles coming and going regularly.

“You want to check in there?” Ackerley asked.

“No, I want to check there.”

She pointed to a plain door nearby.

“What’s in there?”

“No idea. Sometimes on my walks I see sneaky people going in there. I have a feeling it hides a way to a hidden area. Stay close.”

She tried the handle and the door opened.

“It can’t be that secret.” Ackerley assessed.

“While these nobles like to keep people out of places they never think to lock the doors. For one the Great Spirit will help keep things secret and people away. And for another they don’t want to have to make too many keys.”

The door led to a staircase that went down into darkness. Neither of them knew the castle had a basement and they started down the mysterious stairs with a hint of excitement that continued to build the farther they went. After quite a while of stopping and listening they came out in a small room with doors all around the walls.

“Aha, I’ll bet this is where they keep all the secrets.” Cerise exclaimed, her eyes wide with delight. “Now which one to choose first?”

She tried the first one. A storeroom full of brooms and mops. The second had extra blankets, but the third—the third held a twisting corridor. It crooked one way and then the other, making it impossible to see all the way to the end. Cerise practically skipped down the hall, certain that they were about to come to a treasure trove of jewels and gold.

There was no door at the end. The corridor spilled out into a large dank room with a high ceiling and thick stone walls. Small carpets were situated every few feet. Each carpet had some combination of a large comfy chair, a desk or table, a footstool, or a small bookcase. Much to their dismay quite a few of the comfy chairs had nobles sitting on them.

It was quite a sight. Ackerley immediately felt like they came into a scene that wasn’t meant for their eyes. Something about the strange set up and the startled looks on the nobles’ faces made Ackerley feel like he’d fallen into an alternate reality. Yinnib, who as always appeared out of nowhere, stood before them with an unusually grumpy expression. He directed them back into the strange corridor and out of earshot of the other nobles.

“Now what is this?” He chided. It was then that he noticed Cerise. “What in all of Chell is this? How did you—Ackerley why did you drag the poor princess out of her residence. I thought we had an understanding.”

“I snuck out sir.” Cerise said. “I found Ackerley and wanted him to show me around. I am very sorry and I will go back to my residence at once.”

“I hope you do.” Yinnib said.

It was clear to Ackerley at that moment that Yinnib had no control over what Cerise did.

“What is this place?” Ackerley asked, still more worried that he may have inadvertently found the spirit realm than whether Cerise was recognized.

“This place,” Yinnib barked uncharacteristically, “is where we go to unwind. It’s our—well never mind that. Get out of here at once.” He stomped his foot until they disappeared down the crooked corridor.

“Did you feel as perturbed as I did in that room?” Ackerley asked.

“I’m just glad I got us out of that mess. And I think you realize it was all my doing.” She smiled uncontrollably at her success.

Ackerley couldn’t keep a smile from his own face at her joy of being so independent for once. He hoped Yinnib wouldn’t blab to the harpy, but didn’t want to say that and spoil Cerise’s mood by telling her he might.

“I guess that’s all for tonight, huh.” Ackerley said as they climbed the stairs back to the first floor.

“I doubt the jewels would be down there where any old noble could get at them. No, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but I really know where they are now. Let’s get to it.”

“It’s awful late.” Ackerley pointed out, not actually sure what time it was. “If we get caught again I’ll get in trouble. Not that I care,” He added quickly, “but it might be harder to look for them with Yinnib knowing we’re out. That man can appear faster than you could imagine.”

Cerise looked put out. “But I may not get another chance at this. If I find my necklace tonight, I don’t have to get you out of bed again.” She said, grabbing Ackerley’s arm.

He laughed. “Alright, but after this we need to get to bed. Where do you want to look?”

“The fourth floor.” She said simply.

“The fourth floor?! We—or at least I am definitely not allowed up there. How do we even get up there? If there’s any place in this castle that’s locked it’s definitely there.”

“Maybe.” She beamed. “But we won’t know unless we try. I don’t know where the stairs might be hidden. We’ll have to get to it. Not just yet, though. Let’s go back to my place and wait until everybody’s definitely in bed.”

And so they went back to that columned room and sat around waiting until it was late enough to venture out safely. Ackerley thought of all the ways he could get caught. The one that kept being replayed in his head was Yinnib suddenly falling from the ceiling of the fourth floor, grabbing him, and then the both of them sinking down to the basement where he would be forced to clean the bizarre carpet room for all eternity. It might have been a little farfetched, but if he was going to get into trouble he would rather there be a wow factor about it.

They talked a little. Ackerley told Cerise about his daily routine. She was in awe by it all. There was nothing she wanted more than to just be allowed to have a regular class. Ackerley told her to stand up to Thrindle and threaten to tell her parents that the old witch wouldn’t let her do anything. The conversation suddenly took a sorrowful turn as Cerise had to remind him that her family was in a constant state of war and that letters could no longer be sent or received.

A couple hours later they set out, determined to find the fourth floor. They went around the entire first three floors that they deemed safe and found nothing. Surely there had to be a way up there. As far as Cerise knew the fourth floor was only blocked off after the castle turned into a hiding place for the kingdom’s privileged children. There’s no reason she knew of that would cause them to destroy the way up. Unless of course it was to hide the jewels in case something bad happened. But everyone knew the Welgos wouldn’t be able to get past the wall.

Stumped, Cerise sat on a window sill on the third floor and crossed her arms irritably. “It’s got to be here somewhere.” She complained.

“Maybe they boarded it up after he died.” Ackerley suggested.

“Who died?”

“Lord Chellion.”

“Oh, He’s probably fine. Or on the beach in Vloraisha.”

“Then maybe one of the nobles has the entrance in their room and they’re looking after it.”

“But why would the stairs to the fourth floor be in a room? Surely anybody could get up there before the war. You can’t just hide a staircase when you need to. At home we have a number of hidden staircases and tunnels that lead all over the place. I used to look for them constantly when I was little.” She smiled nostalgically. “I found a fair few as well. My parents would get mad at me for looking. They kept saying, ‘Cery’ that’s what they called me. ‘Cery, don’t go looking for those. You might not like what you find.’ I didn’t know what they meant. And then one day I found the dungeons. I most certainly did not like what I found. People from town chained to the walls.” Her smile long faded. She made a fist where the pendant should be and sighed. “I wonder if there are dungeons here. I doubt it. This was always just a house for Chell.”

Ackerley sat beside her. “We’ll find it. There must be a place we—” He suddenly had an idea. “Have you ever been to the nursery here?”

“Nursery? I didn’t know there was one.”

“Maybe it’s not a nursery. I don’t know what it is. I found it by mistake the other day. It may not be anything. Do you want to take a look?”

They hurried down to the first floor and looked for that strange room Ackerley stumbled upon after his first chat with Cerise. It was much harder to find the second time. He knew about where it was but it didn’t seem to be there. They looked for quite a while, at one point forced into a side room when Mr. Jett went by. It grew far too late when Ackerley finally tried a closed door and was once again in the room with the child like drawings on the walls. The room was still too dark to see clearly, with the only light coming from the bright moon outside the windows and the soft glow of the hall’s lanterns. He immediately looked out for the woman in the blue hood. Thankfully she wasn’t there this time.

“I’ve never seen this room.” Cerise said, looking closely at the drawings. “It has the look and feel of a nursery, but there’s nothing here. What makes you think the stairs are here?”

Ackerley recounted the tale of meeting the woman in blue and how she disappeared without a trace. Cerise grew very excited at the prospect of an even greater mystery than hidden jewels and at once wanted to know as much as she could about the woman. He told her everything else he knew, which only consisted of seeing the woman on his first day, up on the fourth floor walkway. He kept the mystery of her face secret because he didn’t quite know how to explain that part.

Ackerley started feeling around the wall where the woman disappeared. It seemed like an ordinary wall and there wasn’t much to discern it from any other part of the room. After a bit of pushing and feeling he noticed an air current seemingly coming through the wall at one part. This current could be felt only in one particular longitude, but could be felt up to about his waist. This was no doubt the best clue they could find. Cerise felt it as well and they both made to find it’s meaning.

It was Cerise who had the “Aha!” moment. She had the advantage of having longer nails and was able to dig one into the wall. The wall needed to be pulled, not pushed. Her nails did the job well and a small doorway appeared, though two of her nails cracked in the process. She didn’t much mind this, though feared what Thrindle would say.

The small opening, only about three feet high and two feet across, gave a nice breeze from it’s depths. Cerise rubbed her hands together eagerly and crawled in without a thought to her own safety. She disappeared, leaving Ackerley to wonder if he should follow or wait for a response from the other side. The sound of her shuffling around grew quieter and then vanished. He waited a few minutes to see if she would say anything, and then poked his head inside and whispered her name a few times. When no response came he inched his way in.

“Cerise.” He stressed. His voice echoed softly.

“Come on now.”

Her voice came from far above.

Ackerley looked up but couldn’t see anything. “Where are you?”

“Here, I’ll send it back down. Watch your head.”

“My head? OUCH!”

Something hard and broad landed with a thud on the back of his head. He backed away and let it fall to the floor.

“What is this?” He winced, rubbing his head.

“Pull the rope. Come on, it’s fun.”

He crawled on top of the thing and reached around until his hand swiped against two ropes. He pulled on one but nothing happened. He pulled the other and the small platform lurched upward and then landed with a thud on the ground when he let go.

“Pull yourself up. Come on.” Cerise exclaimed from above.

After he got the hang of it, it wasn’t too hard. The platform was very light and it was really only his own weight that needed to be lifted. It took quite a while, however, as the next level was so far above. Surely this one platform took him all the way to the fourth floor.

It clicked into place when it reached its destination. He crawled off and could hear Cerise moving around next to him.

“This must be the place.” Ackerley said, catching his breath.

“Probably.” Cerise added. “Let’s figure out where ‘this’ is.”

They crept around for a bit, trying to stay away from the edge that would probably lead them to a nasty fall back to the first floor. Ackerley found a wall and pushed against it in various places. At one point it opened, revealing a regular sized door. They stood up straight in a very ornate little room with gold decorations along the wall and a small window from where the moon brightly shined. This room was rather small and had no opposing door, instead opening out into a highly decorated hall.

They proceeded down the hall cautiously. Cerise was certain that any one of the wrought doors contained passage to vast jewels, and more importantly, her pendant. She tried a few, and to her surprise they were locked. The one at the end, however, was open. Ackerley at once made it known that he was extremely worried that getting caught would mean getting thrown out of the castle for good. Cerise promised that if things turned ugly she would vouch for him even if it meant telling someone that she kidnapped him.

They went through the door and found a large sparsely decorated bedroom. A man stood at the window with his back to them. Ackerley grabbed Cerise and tried to back away without making a sound.

She came along willingly, having been quite startled by the man by the window. As they inched back Ackerley’s foot caught the edge of the frame and made a noise.

The man didn’t move. He remained stationary, looking out the window. The two children got all the way out and pulled at the door.

“I’m a little surprised that you two were the first up here.”

Ackerley wanted to bolt down the hall. He almost went but saw that Cerise opened the door wide and stepped in the room. Ackerley thought she’d truly lost her mind and stayed frozen in the hall.

“Come on in, you two.” The man said, turning around.

He was old to the point of old being a good description, but not his defining characteristic. His face was clean shaven and he wore a tight yellow cap, as was the custom for affluent men who had begun to lose their hair. His face showed warmth and kindness, and even a little humor as he noticed Ackerley’s terrified expression. He wore an extravagantly fancy nightgown that had tassels and thick borders.

Ackerley reluctantly stepped into the room and joined Cerise, who immediately bowed with one hand out in a gesture of prayer.

The man’s smile turned to surprise. “If anything I should be wishing you honor, princess.” He returned the bow.

“We’re very sorry for intruding like this, sir.” Cerise said, returning to her airy yet mature voice she used as a princess.

“It’s quite alright. I’ve wondered for a long time when a child might finally find their way up here. And don’t worry, princess, I will not tell Madame Thrindle that you’re here. It’ll be my secret if you indulge me in an after dark colloquy.” He looked at Ackerley. “And you, I hear a lot about your brother. I hear he protects my nephew.”

“Yes, sir.” Ackerley chocked. His fear had not yet subsided.

The man, Lord Chellion, chuckled. “He’s got his work cut out for him. My nephew is a hard one to keep track of when he becomes impassioned.” He sat on a plush bed and motioned for them to take seats on the other side of the bed. They did. “Good, now that we’re all comfortable let me ask why you two decided to seek me out.”

“Well, we didn’t exactly seek you out.” Cerise began. “You see, I—” She faltered, not sure if she should give the real reason. “We wanted to see if the fourth floor really did exist.”

Chellion lifted his hands in a carefree way. “It does indeed. But children don’t go rummaging around through a castle in the middle of the night just to find a mysterious floor. That is unless you think the mysterious floor has something truly mysterious.” He rested his eyes on Cerise.

“We—” She hesitated. “We heard rumors about you being dead. We wanted to make sure that the owner of this wonderful castle was indeed still alive.”

“Ah, rumors. I do love them so. I once started a rumor that I was half bird and could fly all through the sky any time I wanted. That was when I was a child of course.”

“Did anyone believe you?” Ackerley asked.

“Not a soul. That wasn’t their fault, though. It was mine for going a bit too far. But dead? That’s an interesting one.” He sighed deeply. “I don’t blame anyone for believing that. I haven’t gone down in so long.”

“Why is that, sir.” Inquired Cerise.

“Is it because of us? The children I mean.” Ackerley added.

“In a way, I’m sorry to say.” He sighed again, folding his hands neatly one on top of the other on the bed. “Not directly, I should note. Not really at all, actually. It’s just—I’ve known loss and at times can’t keep it wholly to myself. I found that the best path away from loss is to devote one’s self onto a path one can keep busy on. A road through many towns, I like to say. I, for instance, devoted myself to the Great Spirit. While it fulfilled a wish to be more spiritual—” He leaned in close. “The Great Spirit doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with me.” He whispered. “No, no I found that self-contemplation was the way to go. I wanted to know why I am who I am and discover my place in the world. The deeper I got the less I wanted to be around other people until . . . until I didn’t much want to leave here at all.”

“And what have you learned about yourself.” Cerise asked.

He frowned. “That’s a wonderful question. I’ll have to contemplate on it.”

Lord Chellion felt much relieved after telling his story and it could be seen that a heavy weight had been lifted from him. The three sat on that bed and chatted for some time about life before the war. Chellion told of all the dignitaries from all over the world that used to stop in to that castle because they had heard that it was the nicest in the kingdom. Cerise in turn told of the dignitaries that stopped in to her castle in Indigo because they had heard something similar. Ackerley told that once a noble had gotten lost and asked around his town for directions.

Before long the morning was no longer a distant thought and it was far too late to be chatting, even if they were chatting with a great lord. He told them that he would really like for them to stop in every now and then to break the silence and loneliness that he was not quite ready to have broken by going downstairs. They agreed and left him alone. They asked if there was a better way downstairs and he was quite surprised that they had taken the lift from the nursery.

“When my children were little they used to love going up and down that old lift.” He said with a nostalgic gleam in his eye. “The stairs are hidden in a plain wall on the third floor. I’ll show you to it from this level.”

The lord showed them which door on that floor hid the stairs, and even walked halfway down with them before wishing them well and returning to his hidden home.

12.

Many hours later, as the night neared dawn, Victor returned. He stood silently against the wall for several minutes, looking over the two captives. Rogerseen didn’t make a sound and kept his eyes glued to the floor. It was up to Kenton to try and get them out of this.

“I would like to speak to your leader.” Kenton proclaimed, standing up.

Rogerseen made a small noise that sounded like he thought the request was the worst possible thing Kenton could have said.

Victor bounced his back off the wall a few times. “That’s me.”

“Then I would like to speak to you about our release.”

“Release? You’re my friends. I wouldn’t hold my friends against their will.”

“Then we can go?”

Victor smiled mischievously. “You can go. Just know that I haven’t told everyone out there that you can go. If they see you they might get the wrong idea.”

Kenton stood his ground. “Tell them that we can leave.”

“I could.” Victor said slowly. “But what you don’t know is that your horse is my captive. Now I could let you walk away. I don’t think you’ll get too far without your horse, do you? No, I’m going to give you two options. The first is that the cripple can go and you can stay as my guest for a while. The second is that you can walk out into the endless nothing beyond the gates.”

Kenton folded his arms. “We both go on our horse and that’s that.”

Victor grew tired. “Basically,” he said, a touch of menace to his voice, “You are not going anywhere—what’s your name?”

“I am an adjutant for the king.” Kenton declared.

“Well, adjutant, you’re not going anywhere.”

Victor turned and left the building without another word.

“That’s how you decided to handle this?” Rogerseen complained. “I could have done better than this.”

“I didn’t see you doing a thing.” Kenton cried, no longer willing to deal with the commander. “We don’t have any money and we don’t have Sidestep. We’re going to get out of here, I promise you that.”

The sound of neighing and yelling met their ears. The door opened and a few large Welgos entered. One pushed Kenton against the wall as the others grabbed Rogerseen up and took him outside. Kenton broke free and followed.

Victor held the rope around Sidestep’s neck. A group of Welgo’s formed a circle. Rogerseen was thrown onto the horse. Victor took a sharpened metal rod and prodded the horse. Sidestep took off through town.

“You’d better not come back!” Victor shouted.

Rogerseen clung to the side of the horse as best he could. In a few seconds they were out of sight.

The Welgos dragged Kenton back inside and left him alone with Victor.

“Let me leave or the entire king’s army will come and destroy this place!” Kenton shouted.

“Come now.” Victor said. “You know perfectly well that that will never happen. The kingdom’s dead. It was never alive to begin with.”

Kenton calmly sat down on the bed and gripped the sides. “I’m nothing. I’m not needed by the kingdom at all. If you kill me nobody will care.”

“That’s exactly why we can’t kill you, not yet at least.” Victor stepped closer. “You’re worth far more to me than someone who matters.”

“What do you want me to do?” Kenton said, his voice faltering.

“I really like talking to you.” Victor said, settling onto the table with one leg firmly on the floor and the other hanging off the table. “You have something that most Chell’s don’t. You have a,” he snapped his fingers a few times—looking for the word, “You have a pleasantness about you. No, not a pleasantness—a non Chell demeanor. Yes, maybe that’s it. You’re very much not of Chell beliefs. I like that about you.”

“I am very much of my kingdom.” Kenton said defiantly.

The man clicked his tongue. “No you’re not. In all the times I’ve seen you—and let’s face it, it’s not that many—you haven’t once mentioned the Great Spirit. I find that odd. We’ve had plenty of visitors here and not a one can keep their mouths shut about it. ‘Oh, the Great Spirit will come’ they say. ‘It will find me and blah blah blah’, you get the idea. You haven’t said that. Why?”

Kenton remained silent.

Victor sighed and stood up. “I would really like to know. I’ll give you an hour. I would appreciate you telling me.” He walked to the door and paused. His hands rapped on the frame of the door. “Today’s a special day. A great Welgo warrior died yesterday to your army and our custom states when a warrior dies we can’t bury him alone. It’s customary to have one of the enemy tribe; the ones who caused the death, to play a very special part. It’s very special, but I have a feeling you’d like to avoid that.”

He left Kenton to his thoughts.

And what thoughts they were. He still didn’t know exactly what was going on or why the town was there. He would have so much to tell the king if he could just get to him. The special part he was bound to be forced to play didn’t sound good. He figured it would involve him apologizing or something. His mind wouldn’t allow him any darker thoughts on the matter.

An hour later Victor returned. He closed the door behind him and stood staring at Kenton for a long time before finally settling again on the table.

“So, what have we thought?”

“You aren’t much like a Welgo.” Kenton began softly. “I’ve met a fair few and all they do is grunt and run their swords through things. You know my language better than I do, and yet you’re still one of them.”

Victor smiled immensely. “Surely you can’t generalize like all that. Have you been to Welgland? Of course not.”

“I’ve met enough.”

“Ah, but what truly makes us a part of our kingdom? Being born in it? Being raised in their ways? It seems you have one but not the other. I on the other hand am a true Welgo, and I was brought up on two competing ideals. On the one hand my parents wanted for me a true Welgo warrior life. They wanted me out pillaging and ransacking places.” He waved his hands around joyously. “But I was far too small for that. I—hmm—may have been around one hundred pounds when I was fourteen. That’s far too light for a real Welgo. Lucky for me there was one way out of that life. A second ideal. Can you guess what it is, adjutant?”

“Coming here?”

The man laughed. “Here? Are you seri—here?” I have some things to tell you about your home, but in a minute. No, adjutant. My escape from certain death was in a library. I was taught by this great old couple. They knew everything about everything. Their specialty—pre-Chell Chell. Now isn’t that something? There was actually something here prior to this dirty little kingdom. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.”

“Actually I haven’t.” Kenton said truthfully.

Victor clapped his hands. “Ah, I love your style, adjutant! You’re just the Chell I’ve always thought existed, but I’d never seen in person. You don’t have a clue about your history. It’s something, really. I keep thinking: ‘how do all of these people in such a loosely governed kingdom keep up with all these stories’. Don’t you wonder that? I mean, how in the world can everyone be on the same page in a place like this?” He shook his head. “Who knows! Anyway, I was saying something about—oh, yeah. So I was taken in by this couple who saw something in me. To be honest the first thing they saw was that I was going to get killed in a second if I tried to be a warrior. But then they saw something else. Want to guess?”

Kenton stared at the floor.

“They saw a quiver. They saw a young man who was spouting out how great Welgland was and all that nonsense, but beneath it all they saw a boy who didn’t know what to do with his life. And they grappled that part of me. They taught me that I could be a Welgo and be historically minded. That paid off in the end. I only lead the settlers here because of that. I am one of the few who can lead the Welgos specifically because I am not one. Not in the strictest sense of what they want from themselves. Do you understand, adjutant?”

Kenton understood, but he didn’t know why any of it mattered. “I don’t—what does this. . .”

“Have to do with anything?” Victor finished. He rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. “I see that same struggle with you. I see someone who wants to do what is needed of a Chell, but isn’t fully committed.”

“I am committed.” Kenton said angrily, standing up.

Victor frowned severely. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

Kenton wavered. “I really need to get going.”

He knew that he would never be able to escape from a place crawling with invaders, and so he nodded and left the house with Victor.

Victor smiled again. He acted as a tour guide as they wandered through the town. He showed off various businesses that had sprouted up and where everyone went in their off time. The Welgos gave Kenton dirty looks as he passed, but none of them confronted him. Victor was the only reason they hadn’t killed him already. Kenton knew this, but didn’t know what Victor was playing at. Surely he had something in mind.

They came to the wall of the town and Victor pushed on it and revealed a small doorway.

They continued their walk out into the nothingness.

“The Vastlands used to provide the majority of the food for Chell.” Victor explained.

“I know.” Kenton said.

Victor gave him a sideways glance. “Then explain to me why your king let the wheat rot and the growers die.”

“I don’t know.” Kenton sulked.

Victor nodded slowly. “No one does.”

A few minutes later they came upon a gathering of Welgos. A large mound of dirt stood at the ready. Victor led the way to the front of the group. A wide hole had been dug out of the ground. In the hole lay a bearded man in the usual Welgo jacket. Displayed around him were a sword, shield, and various pots. The man’s arms were at his sides, his eyes closed.

The Welgos in attendance glared menacingly at Kenton, who tried not to notice.

Victor got on one knee and spoke in the Welgland tongue. He straightened up and looked sorrowfully at Kenton.

“This is the part I warned you about, my friend. Tradition states that we bury someone of the opposite tribe, and . . .” He glanced around. “You’re the only one I see.”

Kenton stood tall. “As you said I am not a true Chell.”

Victor raised his hand. Several Welgos came and grabbed Kenton. They pushed him to the edge of the hole and awaited the next signal.

Victor came in close. “You’re not.” He whispered. “But you know what? They don’t care.”

The Welgos threw Kenton into the hole. He landed awkwardly and immediately tried to climb out. The whole gathering started shoveling the dirt into the hole.

“Wait!” Kenton shouted. “Wait! Let me out. I’ll—” A large rock smacked against his face and he fell onto the dead Welgo. He struggled to his feet amid the dirt and rocks landing on him. “What do you want me to do?!” He shrieked.

Victor held up his hand and the Welgos stopped. “I want you to become the great Chell you need to be to survive in this kingdom.”

Kenton shook uncontrollably. “The Great Spirit will help me. If you kill me, it will find me and take my soul to the peak.”

Victor stared emotionlessly. “Climb out of the hole.”

Kenton readily clambered out of the hole to the jeers and hollers of the Welgos.

He limped in front of Victor. “Enough. What do you want from me?”

Victor patted Kenton’s shoulder. “I want you to evolve, my friend.”

13.

Sleep only lasted a blissful hour or so. When shaken awake by Jarn, Ackerley jumped out of bed, much to his and Jarn’s surprise. The thought of what happened the night before gave him such a refreshing feeling that lack of sleep couldn’t even make him feel tired. Going on further secret missions with Cerise filled his imagination all day. There were bound to be countless things hidden away in that castle just waiting for a couple curious youths to find them. He imagined numerous tunnels and secret rooms that led all over the kingdom as well as monsters and ghouls that probably hadn’t seen the light of day in millennia. He went so far as to wish that the castle had been built to cover up a passage to an unknown world far beneath the ground where all sorts of creatures dwelled. It was too much fun and eventually he came back to reality to find himself bored out of his mind with his tasks. At least Cerise still hadn’t found her pendant. That would at least give him one more adventure to look forward to.

Days passed and there was no sign of Cerise wanting to continue her search. Everyday Ackerley waited for a secret note or for her to suddenly appear somewhere and say she wanted another crack at the fourth floor and Chellion. He began to worry that Thrindle had somehow found out and punished her. His worry intensified after the next fancy dinner.

The dinner itself was lacking compared to usual. The food wasn’t nearly as good or as plentiful as it usually was. Jarn mentioned that he had never seen so little food. Long before Ackerley arrived the dinners had been even more extravagant and that they’d been slowly dropping off for a long time.

The dance followed as usual and it was here where Ackerley feared Thrindle. Cerise sat motionless in the corner as she always did. However, this time she didn’t even look at Ackerley. She kept her eyes peeled to the floor for the entire dance while the harpy looked menacingly around as though she expected someone to jump out and scare her.

Thrindle must have found something out. Ackerley wondered what that meant for Cerise, probably countless hours of meditation.

“No googly eyes at the princess?” Jarn said as they walked through the gardens after the dance. It was easier to see that night as a few lanterns flared nearby.

“What—oh I don’t know. We don’t exactly hang out.”

“You must be going somewhere at night.”

“I just like to wander around. Do you think all the fancy dinners will be that bad?” Ackerley asked, changing the subject.

“There have been a lot of changes since I’ve been here.” Jarn explained, waving at a man who was busy trimming a bush. “When I first got here we had a task where we all had to help knit a giant banner that professed our love for Chell. It was weird. The dinners were better; the nobles weren’t so crazy. Maybe that’s just me reminiscing. The tasks were a lot more structured. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but people are getting away with talking during reading. Craith used to be stricter than he is now.”

Ackerley hadn’t noticed. The last few times he had reading he spent his time imagining great adventures. “Maybe they’re just tired of enforcing the rules.”

“I guess, but you have to really think about why we’re even here.”

“To escape the war.”

“No, I told you before; they want to mold us into better citizens.” Jarn sat down on the edge of the large round pool of water in the center of the gardens. “When the king, or whoever, decided to send us here the nobility in Chell feared that us kiddies weren’t going to become civilized Chells during the war. They feared the influence of the barbarians. Of course they thought they could destroy all the Welgos in a matter of months. Their first priority was making sure we were taught the way the nobility was. They wanted us to be able to spew out Chell lore and be able to talk about how great the place is. They teach us in all the ways a good Chell should be taught. We read classic literature, we copy old books to new books, we meditate so the Great Spirit will love us. You know, all this stuff.”

“Yeah, but also to keep us safe.”

“I really believe that was their second priority.”

Ackerley sat beside Jarn and ran his hand through the cold water. “I’m here to be kept safe, I know that.”

Jarn didn’t say anything for a while. He stared out at the castle and sighed. “You know what?” He said finally. “I often wonder if Welgos would be able to get in here. I wonder why they’ve never tried.” He looked over to Ackerley. “Your brother wrote my dad’s letter, didn’t he?”

Ackerley scoffed. “What? Why would he do that?”

“You don’t have to hide it. Every time I get a letter it’s in a different hand. I saw the letter your brother wrote, the secret one. I shouldn’t have been snooping, but when you were out one night I found it under your bed.”

“I’m sorry.” Was all Ackerley could think to say. “I’m sure your dad just told him what to say.”

“No, he didn’t. My dad’s not one for writing, or telling the truth, or even being a good warrior. I know that things aren’t going well. Your brother’s letter was pretty scary, huh?” He laughed nervously. “The Vastlands are gone. The manor region’s next. If they’ve done that much then there’s no telling what else they would do. That’s going to really mess things up here. Every noble who ever lived was from the manor region. So are most of us.” He folded his arms and shivered. “Oh well, who needs to be thinking of all that? Your brother said that this was the safest place in the kingdom and I believe him.”

Ackerley splashed some water around, but didn’t say anything.

Jarn suddenly smiled guiltily. “Guess what else I found?”

Ackerley didn’t like the look of that smile.

“I found a certain letter written by—I’m assuming a certain princess.”

Ackerley felt flustered all of a sudden. “No, you must be joking. That was written by someone else.”

“Who?”

Ackerley wasn’t very good under pressure. “Igluoria.”

Jarn laughed heartily. “There’s no one in the world with that awful name. So where did you go with her? Did you see where she lived? Was it nice?”

“I haven’t done a thing, and I’m sticking to it.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone.”

Ackerley realized that he really wished he had someone to talk to about everything going on, and that included Cerise. He mulled it over and said quietly. “We went to the fourth floor.”

“The fourth floor?” Jarn whispered excitedly as if just finding out that a mythical paradise existed. “That’s super off limits. I don’t even think there are stairs up there.”

“There are.” Ackerley said very pompously. “But we took a dumbwaiter like thing instead.”

“Whoa? And what happened up there?”

“We met Lord Chellion.”

“He’s alive?! Or did you meet his rotting corpse?”

“No, he’s very much alive. He’s sad or something, I don’t know. He doesn’t want to come down for some reason.”

Jarn put his palms to his forehead and leaned back, almost falling into the water. “That’s just outrageous. You have to take me next time.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Just ask her, she might be alright with one more. I’ve lived monotonously here for far too long. I’d do anything to get some excitement going, even if that meant spending the next year with Mr. Jett.”

“I don’t know if we’ll be doing anything else. I think that handler of hers found out something.”

Jarn shook his head. “Surely that won’t stop experienced felons like you all, will it? Get back out there and bring me with you.”

Ackerley wasn’t too sure about bringing Jarn into the mix. He was willing to ask Cerise about if he ever had the chance, but that chance didn’t want to present itself. The first time he saw her since their adventure on the fourth floor, apart from the dances where she ignored him, was one chilly day while he was reading. The princess and Thrindle walked through the cloister as they did the very first time he saw her. She looked just as downtrodden as she did that day.

She stopped coming to the fancy dinners. Ackerley got so worried that he thought of going up to the fourth floor by himself and asking Lord Chellion to talk to Thrindle. He didn’t know if that would work since he presumed the only two people that had any control over Thrindle were stuck in a castle in the mountains fighting off Welgos.

Ackerley started to worry that Thrindle would find out that he was involved. He imagined her coming into his room at night with a band of tough ruffians who would drag him outside and catapult him over the wall. He liked the idea of having a great story to tell if he survived, but the whole idea of being thrown out of the castle didn’t appeal to him very much.

The fear of Thrindle was only a step above the dread he had of going into his room at night. Murdo’s mood deteriorated to the point where he was unbearable to be around. He would randomly tackle Jarn in the halls and somehow disappear before anybody saw him. He had an intense fascination with hitting people over the head and did it as much as he could. Some even said that they saw him pacing the third floor in the middle of the day, either crying or yelling at the walls. Ackerley never wished someone would go to war so much in his life. It was clear the prison idea seeped deeper into his brain. At night Murdo would randomly shout things in his sleep and had a tendency to get up in a rage and tear his bed apart. The only good nights were when he was with Mr. Jett, but as his anger worsened even Mr. Jett didn’t want him. Ackerley watched the situation with intrigue as he still wondered what punishment was worse than cleaning the floors.

All the anxiety caused by Thrindle and Murdo seemed to vanish one day as Ackerley was going up to his room for a nap instead of going to third task. With the nights being so terrible he had to get as much sleep during the days as he could. As he opened the door to the third floor he saw Cerise poking her head out of a closet. She quickly ducked inside, and then upon realizing who it was, she waved him over.

“What happened with Thrindle?” Ackerley burst out.

“I need you to come with me.” She exclaimed breathlessly.

“Did you think of a new place to look for that necklace?”

“Come on, we need to get there as soon as possible.”

She led the way back down the stairs to the second floor. Ackerley figured they were going to a secret door hidden in the wall and was surprised to see that they were instead going to her residence.

Cerise stopped at the door. “I need you to do something for me, alright?”

“What is it?” He said, growing nervous.

“That morning we got back from the fourth floor Madame Thrindle was waiting for me. She was really mad and figured I’d been kidnapped. She kept grilling me about who I was with and where I went. I told her that I was alone and that I just wanted to walk around a little. She didn’t buy it. For the last few weeks I’ve been in meditation ten hours a day. She plans on keeping me there until a reply comes from a letter she wrote my parents. She knows as well as I that that won’t happen.”

“She’s going to keep you prisoner here.” Ackerley said.

“Exactly. So I need you to do something for me. I need you to—maybe it’s best if we just go on in. Follow what I say and agree with me, alright?”

“Wait a second. You want me to talk to that crazy old witch? You want me to tell her that I was the person you were with. No way, I’m not going anywhere near her.”

“It won’t be so bad.” Cerise stressed. “I’ve got a plan that will help both of us.”

“Don’t drag me into this.”

“She already knows it was you.”

Ackerley stared in disbelief. “She what?”

“I told her this morning. We got in an argument over meditation—”

Ackerley paced back and forth muttering to himself, completely baffled that Cerise would sell him out like that.

“—I said I didn’t want to meditate for ten hours anymore—”

“I can’t believe you told her about me.”

“—I got angry and said she didn’t have any right to keep me locked away. It’s been so great going on adventures with you and I don’t want that to stop—”

“She’s gonna kill me. She’ll have Yinnib kill me.”

“—I need you to tell her that you were trained by your brother and by the guards of the king. She’ll only let me out of meditation if she thinks I’m safe. You need to be my guard.”

“She’ll hire Welgos to kill me.”

“Are you listening?” Cerise asked haughtily.

“Listening? I’ve listened to far too much of this. You sold me out. Why don’t I go get someone you don’t like and sell you out?”

She rolled her eyes. “This is going to work out, I promise you.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

She shrugged. “Then I’m sorry and I hope you don’t get in too much trouble.”

“Oh that’s nice of you.”

“Listen to me!” She cried angrily. “I’m in way more trouble than you are. I’ve found a way that we can both benefit from this. I’m going in there and you better be with me. It’s only going to get worse if you don’t.”

Ackerley bounced on the balls of his feet apprehensively. “But if this goes south I’m running straight to the fourth floor and people will be starting rumors that I’m dead.”

“That’s fine.”

Ackerley took a deep breath and nodded. Cerise did the same and opened the door as quietly as she could. They tiptoed through the dark residence until they came out into the columned room. Madame Thrindle stood against the far wall with her arms crossed and her expression full of anger and resentment.

Ackerley fought the urge to sprint from the castle and look for that forest he liked so much. He could survive in a forest by himself; he had no doubt about it. He would make friends with all the furry animals and teach them how to hunt barbarians and food. It would be an ideal life that he would one day write about. He, little Ackerley Morzha, would one day be the greatest writer in all of Chell and thousands of children would be forced to read about his cat obsession in breezy cloisters the world over.

Cerise put a stop to his fantasy by stepping bravely toward her handler. “Before you say anything—”

“I figured it was this little fool.” Thrindle said nastily. “I should have gone straight to Yinnib to have him thrown out for good. It’s about time he learn some—”

“Shut up!” Cerise bellowed.

There was an awkward silence as Thrindle looked at the princess in wonder and rage. “I—I wouldn’t—I can’t even imagine—”

“Ackerley Morzha is the brother of Kenton Morzha, the head guard that protects the king at all times. You know this. Before coming here, he was trained in the art of protection by the king’s guards. When I found out about this I went to Ackerley in the night and requested his protection. I know that my parents are under attack and what they want for me more than anything is a well-trained guard to protect me should anything happen.” She paused, awaiting a response.

“I don’t like him.” Thrindle said flatly.

“He’s the best in the kingdom not fighting for the king directly.” Cerise added.

Thrindle pursed her lips and stared evilly at Ackerley. “How long were you trained by the guards of the king?”

“Several months.” He said bravely. “While awaiting word of my acceptance into this castle I was fully trained. My brother thought that if I was not allowed here then I would be safer in the army.”

“That’s very sensible.” Thrindle said. “And that’s why you approached the princess before, was it? To see if she needed protection?”

“Indeed it was.” He responded.

“Hmm, your brother is very brave and very smart. I suppose you must have gotten some of that. It would put the king and queen of Indigo at ease knowing that a true guard of King Chellias is watching over their daughter. I am willing to try this on a trial basis, but there will be rules.”

Ackerley almost laughed out loud at how well this worked out. Somehow he contained himself.

“You will watch over the princess from a distance of at least ten yards during the hours of your third task. This will be daily, and all day on Sunday. You both will not leave this room and there will be no talking. I will be down the hall and noise travels there very well. If there is any talking, then I will know that you are not fully trained. We will see how this goes for one week. If all goes well then perhaps you will be expected to stand on the back porch while the princess takes her walk on Sunday afternoons. Is everything clear?”

It sounded awfully boring to stand around and not be able to say anything for so long. Cerise, who was just glad to no longer be in so much trouble, agreed quickly. She apologized many times for her recent attitude, blaming it on her worry for her parents. Thrindle begrudgingly accepted the apology and set out the rules several more times to make sure they both understood. The first trial day was going to be that Sunday.

Thrindle rubbed her head and left them alone for a minute, telling Ackerley that he needed to leave at once.

“Thanks a lot.” Cerise whispered.

“It should be interesting.”

“After the week is over I’ll see if I can push this a little further. I still really want that necklace.”

Ackerley meandered through the gardens for the rest of third task. When he went back inside Yinnib stopped him and congratulated him for his service to both Chell and Indigo.

“And to think that you never mentioned that your amazing brother trained you to be a real warrior. You’re the bind that’s keeping these two kingdoms together. With your brother protecting the king and you protecting the princess of Indigo—why, we’ll prosper together forever. Wait until your brother hears about this, young Morzha. The Great Spirit has found you in its wanderings, I’m sure of it.”

Ackerley nodded and agreed as Yinnib went on for a full ten minutes. When he jauntily skipped out of site Ackerley finally felt the anxiety drip away. Somehow he got himself a position as a guard. He just hoped Thrindle didn’t look too far into it.

14.

The first day of guard duty dawned with thunder lashing the sky and ground with all its might. Ackerley could have taken this as a sign to resign his post before it began, but instead he took it as the sky demanding he awaken early to better prepare himself. He dressed in his formal tunic and was the first person into and out of the breakfast room. He knocked at the door to Cerise’s residence and greeted Madame Thrindle with the friendliest bow he ever managed. And then began a full day of standing in the corner making sure no misplaced Welgo sprang upon the princess.

The first hour passed silently. Every now and then Cerise would move slightly closer to Ackerley, but remained far enough away so as to not break the ten-yard rule. By about the third hour his legs hurt tremendously, he had never stood up for that long before. Cerise motioned for him to sit but he refused. By the time the fourth hour hit he was so tired that he quietly sat down. Every tiny noise sounded like Thrindle’s footsteps and he jumped up multiple times before finally finding the courage to sit for an extended period. When her footsteps did finally ring through the room, he was up and in position before she appeared.

“It’s lunch time.” She announced. “I will go and retrieve it. The rules stay in effect at all times, remember that.”

She exited with a huff.

They remained silent for a few minutes, and then: “That was pretty awful.” Cerise said. “I’m sorry about all this. It was the only way I could think of to keep snooping.”

Ackerley, who didn’t find standing in a corner for hours on end to be much fun, feigned understanding. “It’s alright. This was probably the only way to make sure we didn’t get into trouble.”

She lit up. “So here’s my plan. After this week I’m going to say that I can’t stand being cooped up and need to take regular walks around. On one of these walks we’ll go up to the fourth floor, say ‘hi’ to Chellion and get my necklace.” She nodded proudly.

“That doesn’t sound too hard.” Ackerley admitted.

“Exactly! It’ll be tough to get Thrindle on board, but that’s my problem.”

“Uh-huh.”

With the plan set—though it wasn’t much of a plan—they decided to talk about the war in hushed tones. Cerise mentioned that she hadn’t heard any news since the news Kenton sent. That didn’t bother her, as with everyone else—or perhaps especially with her—no news was the best news. Ackerley told her that he didn’t fear it all very much. He knew the Welgos weren’t going to come bursting in the door any minute, and that the wealth of supplies flowing into the castle proved that things weren’t all bad.

“You know where all this stuff comes from, don’t you?” Cerise said.

“No, where?”

“The manor region. It’s not just for the rich. Well it is, but that’s because all the people with the necessary jobs live there. The people who make the food and stuff. Also there’s a bunch of farms near there.”

Ackerley thought for a bit. “Then why didn’t the Welgos attack there first?”

Cerise mulled it over. Evidently that wasn’t something she had thought of either. “They wanted the easy targets.”

“That makes sense if they were going to just attack and leave, but they clearly want more. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started settling.”

“Don’t say that.” Cerise grimaced at the idea.

“I’m just saying that if they wanted to get rich and leave they would have attacked there first, or at least before now. As far as I know, and judging by the calm of the nobles here, they haven’t attacked there yet. I just don’t get what they’re after here.”

Cerise didn’t much like the topic of conversation and grew very quiet.

Thrindle came back with soup, which seemed awfully watered down. Ackerley felt a little foolish for saying that the supplies were the indicator of good times when this soup was clearly meant to last. He wondered if anyone else would even notice. He’d watered down soup so many times when he lived alone that he’d catch it every time. Cerise didn’t seem to mind, but with Thrindle breathing down their necks she couldn’t say anything anyway.

“You should be happy, princess.” Thrindle said in her kindest voice, which still sounded nasty. “With all this meditating the Great Spirit will have no choice but to be pleased with you. It may even come and visit you sometime.”

Cerise nodded.

“And you, Morzha. I’m sure you being a guard to the princess came from the Great Spirit being proud of your brother’s work. He must be doing the best he can out there. We wish him all the best. Cerise prays for him every night.”

Ackerley nodded, not sure if he was allowed to speak.

After lunch Thrindle decided that the noon walk was still to advanced for Ackerley and told him to stay in the meditation room until they got back. He sat down as soon as they were gone and waited patiently for their return.

The day came to a merciful end a few hours later. Ackerley was so tired that he collapsed onto his bed and had no desire, or ability, to get up. He didn’t know if he had it in him to continue as a guard for the rest of the week, much less the rest of his time in that castle. He tried to think back on how becoming a guard helped in any way, and couldn’t think of any.

“What’s your problem?”

Ackerley jolted awake. He had almost fallen asleep when Murdo spoke from his bed across the room.

“What?” He said, too tired to sit up.

“I said what’s your problem, Achey?” Murdo said, his annoyance clearly coming through.

“It’s been a long day.” Ackerley responded irritably.

“Humph, yeah right. Why don’t you go out and die like your stupid brother probably will? Serves you right.”

Ackerley was too tired to really care what Murdo had to say. He turned over and ignored him.

“Hey, I said go die.” Murdo yelled across the room.

“You go die.” Ackerley responded.

“I would. It’s better than being trapped in here.”

Ackerley finally turned to face Murdo. “Then why don’t you just run away? Climb over the wall somehow and get out of here.”

Murdo fell silent. He clearly hadn’t thought about that. “Maybe I will.” He said defiantly. “See if you care that I die.”

“I don’t.”

“Yeah, well we’re all gonna go up if we stay here. You think those barbarians will spare this castle? It’s a miracle they haven’t knocked the thing down yet. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Please, I’d fight for them if I could. They’re clearly gonna win.”

“Then go fight for them.”

“I will. You think I won’t? I’ll go right now and join ‘em.”

“Just do it already.”

“I know. I’ll kill every one of you. They’ll be so pleased they’ll give me a rank and everything. I’ll be a hero.”

Ackerley sat up and rested against the wall. “You won’t do a thing. The only way to get out of here is to do it yourself. Your mom’s never gonna let you. But since you know that already—why are you still here?”

“Shut up.” Said Murdo stubbornly. “Just go die.”

“Is that how you’re gonna beat the Welgos? Just telling them to die?”

Murdo stood up threateningly. “I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not afraid to leave. I’m not afraid to fight. And I’m definitely not afraid of some stupid invaders. I’ll show them.”

Ackerley laid back down. “I’ll tell Yinnib that you’re gone.”

Murdo sat back down and was quiet. Ackerley fell asleep and when he got up in the middle of the night Murdo was snoring from his corner.

Monday wasn’t as bad as Sunday as far as guard duty was concerned. Ackerley only had to do it for his third task. Thrindle didn’t leave the room this time, making it even more difficult to sneak even the smallest of topics to Cerise.

By Tuesday Ackerley felt like he was getting the hang of it. That’s when Thrindle told him that he would be standing guard during the dance. He never did like the dance part of the fancy dinners, and being forced to stand in the corner sounded more fun than having to find someone to dance with. When Wednesday night came everyone gave him the same shocked look as they saw that not only was he allowed near the princess, but now he couldn’t leave. Jarn looked the most shocked, but after a while he smiled creepily at Ackerley every chance he got, occasionally raising his eyebrows expectantly.

The rest of the week passed uneventfully. Meditation was as boring as ever, as was reading. The only real excitement came when the old transcribing man, Ackerley could never remember his name, finally accepted one of his pages. Ackerley felt so good about it that he accidentally spilled ink all over it and was banished from the room for the remainder of the task.

Sunday morning Ackerley got in position in the corner of the columned room. Thrindle came in hurriedly with Cerise close behind.

“I have decided,” Thrindle announced powerfully, “that you will escort the princess out to the garden today.”

Ackerley nodded. “Alright.”

Evidently Thrindle thought the news would get a whoop or a cheer. “This is big news.” She declared. “It means I am growing to trust you.”

“Well, thank you.”

Thrindle fought back a dirty look and took her position near enough to make sure nobody talked. Several hours later, and after lunch, Thrindle allowed Ackerley to escort the princess out of the castle. She didn’t even come along to make sure they actually went.

“What’s with her?” Ackerley asked as they combed through the halls for the back doors.

“She just got up this morning and announced that the Great Spirit told her to let me out in the gardens with my new guard as he was brave and well respected.”

Ackerley grinned. “That’s really weird.”

“She takes great stock in the Great Spirit.”

“Apparently everyone here does.”

“You don’t?” She asked.

Ackerley pushed open the back door and held it open for Cerise.

“I never really grew up with it, you know. That’s one of those things you have to grow up with.”

“I believe in it.” She said flatly.

“Well sure, because you grew up with it.” Ackerley found himself getting defensive and decided to drop it. “It sure is nice of her, though. We can discuss the plan a little more and figure out how we’re gonna ask Chellion about the necklace.”

Cerise lit up. “Ooh, I want to go tonight.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. Sunday night is the perfect time. Everyone should be going to bed early to get ready for Monday.”

They strode around the paths lined with flowers and around the big pool of water. They chatted about the weather and about how pretty everything was.

It was a chilly day. Fall was coming in. The flowers that had been there when Ackerley arrived had been removed, replaced with others that could handle the cooler weather better.

“My friend Jarn found out about our nightly walks.” Ackerley said. “He kinda wants to come along sometime—not that he should.” He added quickly.

“Hopefully I won’t have to sneak pretty soon. If I can get Thrindle to realize that a princess needs her exercise, then maybe she’ll let me go around more.”

“How are you going to do that?”

She sighed. “I haven’t figured that part out yet.”

The rest of the day passed uneventfully.

Late that night Ackerley snuck out of his room and met Cerise at the door of her residence.

“Thrindle’s asleep. Let’s get going.”

They sneakily climbed up to the third floor and found the hidden stairs that led to the fourth floor. Cerise found a groove and the door slid open. The two late night adventurers made their way up the dark stone steps to the fourth floor. Ackerley didn’t feel the usual fear that comes with sneaking around. He knew Chellion would be happy to see them, maybe even a little annoyed at the amount of time it took for them to come back.

Cerise pulled the door open and they came out into the fourth floor. Chellion’s door at the end of the hall was open, and they started for it.

However, this time another door was open. As they passed, Ackerley looked in and was extremely surprised to see the woman in the blue robe sitting on a bed. He stopped and stared, wanting to take this chance to see her in a well lit room for once. For a brief moment he forgot that there was a body attached to his eyes and that he could just as easily be seen by her.

The woman glanced over and smiled. “The lord told me you’d be coming up sometime.”

As she turned toward them Ackerley gasped. The right side of her face was badly scarred. It looked as though it had been burned and sliced. Cerise tried to pull Ackerley away and down the hall. It took a few seconds for him to come back to reality and follow.

Chellion stood in the hall, blocking their path.

“Thora’s been wanting to meet you two.” Chellion said, motioning for them to go into the room.

Thora smiled politely as everyone came in.

“Lord Chellion, I wanted to ask something of you, actually.” Cerise said.

“In a minute.” He said. “I’ve thought about my role here at the castle, and I realized that if I can help two bright young minds understand different cultures, then that’s what I should do. Thora, would you like to tell your story?”

Thora gazed mysteriously at Ackerley. “I would indeed.”

Ackerley wanted to know the story behind Thora’s scars, but didn’t quite like how they were cornered. He felt something like a brief prisoner standing there in that room. For some strange reason the feeling of dread he felt on the way to the castle came back. He crossed his arms and took a quick glance at Cerise. She looked just as uneasy as he felt.

There was something about Thora that Ackerley didn’t like. Her small movements as she sat there didn’t seem quite normal. They were too smooth, too. . . too something.

“I just want to say that I have been somewhat interested in you, Ackerley Morzha.” She started softly.

The dread grew, but Ackerley didn’t know where it came from or whether or not it was valid.

“When Chellion told me that a commoner was coming, I became interested. Living here, all I see are the nobles and the children of that type.” Thora smiled. “I didn’t know how a common Chell would act. I imagined you’d be something of a ruffian. I was surely wrong. I see a sadness in you, young man.”

She looked about to continue describing him, and Ackerley did not want to stand there and hear that. “Are you a noble yourself?” He asked, trying to figure out how she hadn’t seen a common Chell before.

“I am a Welgo.”

Ackerley’s body tensed. His eyes widened and he stared at Thora as if she had just materialized from nothing. He had the sudden impulse to run away and fight at the same time. Instead he just stood, unsure of what to do.

Cerise made a small noise. Ackerley could only imagine what must have been going through her head.

Thora chuckled guiltily. “I know, I know. That’s not what you expected. As you can see I didn’t quite get along with the other Welgos. I was once in the army up there. I was in a search party to uncover the weakness to the great Chell kingdom. When I found it, I went back and became a small hero to my commanders. I am very sorry to say that I am one of the reasons why you two are here.” She lowered her head and extended her arm in a gesture of prayer. “May the Great Spirit find—”

“Weakness?” Ackerley blurted out angrily. “What weakness do you mean? What did you tell those horrible people?”

Thora scratched the back of her hand thoughtfully. “While here I found that this kingdom is extremely ill governed. It’s so big and the entirety of it’s government rests on the shoulders of one man, the king. It was obvious that all the Welgos had to do was stretch the king’s army and they could raid anything they wanted. One band comes over the mountains as a decoy, the king goes out to get them, and another larger one goes after the real prize. That’s what they did at the start and it really worked.”

“Why . . .” Ackerley started dangerously. “Are you here?”

Thora raised her hands defensively. “Let me finish. I thought a few raids were all that was going to happen. And for a while it looked that way. But then our great king died and all of Welgland descended into madness. Only weeks after the battle for succession started a voice rose above the rest. A man named Victor inexplicably took control of the army using his wit and quickly became the new leader. He dropped the title king and simply became leader. He greatly expanded the raids and sent large bands of warriors into Chell with the intention of taking over the kingdom entirely. I realized that this could only end in the end of both nations. I started telling lies to my commanders in the hopes that they would believe me and give up that foolish idea. Victor realized that something was up with me and well—did this.” She smiled, turning the scarred side of her face fully towards them. “I escaped and came here to give my services to the Chell army. I don’t want to see either of these countries end each other.”

Ackerley looked at Chellion. “You believe this?” He said irritably.

Chellion looked taken aback. “Of course I do. Thora has lived here and given valuable information for over two years.”

“Then why do you hide her away?” Cerise asked, also skeptical.

“It’s not easy for me to be among people.” Thora said. “I have to answer questions about my face, and with this place filled with the children of the Chell army, I didn’t know who I could trust. But I trust you, Ackerley. I know that, like me, you grew up away from all the rhetoric. And you did as well, princess.”

Cerise kept her eyes down, frowning at the floor. Ackerley stared steadfastly at Thora.

“I can see that this will take some time to get used to.” Chellion said with an attempt at a smile. “Here, let’s go to my room and you can ask me that question, princess.”

Cerise and Ackerley were out of the room as fast as can be. They went down to Chellion’s room while exchanging nervous glances.

Chellion closed the door behind them. “So, what is it that you wanted to ask me?”

“How can you have a Welgo here?” Cerise said loudly, trying very hard not to yell. Her voice had a quiver, as though trying to hold back tears.

“Now Cerise, you heard that she’s not a Welgo anymore. She’s been an important asset in the fight against the Welgos. I need you to understand that before you continue.”

Cerise wiped her eyes. “It’s just . . .”

“I know,” Chellion said softly. “I should have eased you into finding out about her. I thought it might be nice to meet someone helping to defeat the Welgos, that’s all.”

“She’s not helping my parents.” Cerise cried. “It’s because of her that they’re trapped—that I’m here.”

“No, no, no.” Chellion said calmly but sternly. “That was this Victor person. She is helping.”

Cerise took a deep breath and nodded. “I’m sorry for my attitude.” She said, talking once again like a princess.

Chellion nodded. “That’s alright.”

“We came up here tonight so that I could ask you for a pendant that was among the jewels that came with me when I arrived.”

Chellion clapped his hands. “Oh, yes, of course. I’ll go and get that. I think I know what you’re talking about.”

Chellion left them alone for a minute.

Ackerley wanted to say something, but couldn’t think of anything that would make the situation any easier to deal with.

Chellion returned with a blue pendant in the shape of a shell attached to a gold chain. Cerise took it gingerly in her hands and stroked it with a small smile.

“Thank you.” She whispered. “I’m sorry again. We’ll leave now.”

Ackerley followed Cerise out the door and down the hall. Neither looked into Thora’s room. Cerise opened the door to the stairs and nodded back to Chellion. He tried to say something but the door closed behind them before he could start.

It was a long slow walk back to the princess’s residence on the second floor. She didn’t look up from the pendant, which she stroked thoughtfully the entire way back. Once at the door she turned and smiled nervously.

“I got it.” She said happily.

Ackerley nodded. “It’s really pretty.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Thank you for coming with me.”

“Anytime.” He said soothingly.

She disappeared into her residence.

15.

The arid wind made Kenton cough. He could barely keep his eyes open as the sun was so strong and seemed to be getting stronger as it fell slowly through the sky ahead. The horse he rode kept throwing its head and swerving. It was as hard to maneuver as a cart with a stuck wheel. It was a very large horse that had no intention of doing anything its rider wanted. It resembled Sidestep in species alone.

Kenton held on tight to the reigns, his body slumped forward. He had been on this journey since before dawn. He ached all over, dried blood flaked off his face as he went. But it would soon be better. He could see green in the distance and knew the Vastlands were almost behind him. He even heard a stream somewhere, or perhaps not, he had been wrong before.

“Go on your way.” Victor had said early that morning as two strong Welgos dragged Kenton through town. “Remember what I said. Always remember it.”

Kenton shivered despite the heat. He went over what Victor had said so many times already. Surely he would remember.

The horse started to the right and off the path. Kenton tried to steer it back on course but it had no intention of doing that. Kenton was too weak to put much force behind his efforts and let the horse go. The sound of water grew louder and it became clear that the horse, whom he had nicknamed Biganmean, was heading for a drink.

Kenton collapsed off the horse and shoved his head under the cool water when they arrived. He drank his fill and lay sprawled out on the grass.

“You think this is the Mothund?” Kenton asked the horse.

The horse didn’t care.

“It might be. I think it might connect with another that will take us there.”

He sat up quickly and looked around. He could hear the unmistakable sound of people coming in his direction. he squinted in the evening sun and made out a large group hugging the river. The unmistakable sound of carts and children sounded lovely to his ears. He jumped up, finding long lost energy, and went towards them with a smile.

The whole group looked as worn as he did. A middle aged couple came to a stop in front of him. A couple children rode in the cart they pulled. No one else stopped, the rest of the group trudged on without them.

“Where are you coming from?” Kenton asked. “Not the manor region, I hope?”

“The manors?” The woman retorted with a sarcastic laugh. “Does this lot look to be coming from there?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Where are you from?”

“Doesn’t matter now.” The man said. “It’s gone. Burned up a week ago.”

“The Welgos?”

“Of course, who else?” The woman said angrily. “Now how abouts you? Where are you off to. You look like a Chell, but your horse sure don’t.”

“I’m an adjutant to the king.” Kenton said proudly. “My horse was taken so I stole this one. I’m heading to the manor region. The king’s army is there, or should be getting there soon.”

“Makes no difference to us.” The woman said. “He didn’t send help. We asked and asked as we knew those foul things were comin’. Never got a single army man to help. The king let us go up. We got out before, of course.”

“Where are you heading now?”

The man threw his arms up, clearly annoyed. “I guess Vloraisha. That’s where everyone’s going. Gotta get out a here. This whole place is gonna go up before too long. They care, those Vloraishans. My sister and her family went there months ago. I gotta letter telling all about how nice and such. It’s a place to see—so I hear.”

“You say everybody?” Kenton asked. “Everyone’s heading there?”

“Well sure.” The woman said. “That’s the only place to go. Desert to the East, sea to the West, anger to the North. All’s left is the South.”

“It’ll take weeks.” Kenton said. “Weeks and weeks.”

The man nodded. “That’s all we got is time. Nothing else matters at this point.”

They picked up the handles to the cart and started towards the group.

“Have you heard anything about the army at all?”

The woman scoffed. “Not a thing. They’d better all be dead if you ask me. Not helping us, can you believe it?”

Kenton walked with them. “What about Chellion Castle? Hear anything about that?”

“I hope it’s gone up too.” The man said. “I hope the whole world’s gone up.”

“Anything at all?” Kenton asked feverishly. “Any news at all?”

“Oh shut it about the castle.” The woman scolded. “Just get on back to your king and hope he’s still in one piece. You soldier types never cared about us. Nobody in this whole kingdom ever cared about us.” She suddenly stopped and pointed a dirty finger at Kenton. “And our town made the carts. You know it? We always made the carts and we weren’t even thought of when those things came. Try getting things places without a cart. We made ‘m and nothing.”

“Be careful about the river. The Welgos are building towns on rivers now.” Kenton warned.

“That’s another thing.” The man dropped the cart and pointed his finger at Kenton. “They don’t care about us neither. They destroyed our town, but we see them coming and going everyday and they don’t care a thing where we’re going. It’s like they only care to destroy the stuff. Once we’re on they could care less. I hope we find their town and I hope they let us in. This’ll be South Welgland before long and we’re just fine with that.” They stormed off in a huff.

Kenton went back to Biganmean and watched the group go. “I hope they get there.” He said quietly.

The horse had enough for the day and sat down by the river. Kenton tried to get it up, but it wouldn’t budge. He decided to let it rest for the night and did the same.

The morning dawned and Kenton had a hard time getting up. His body was so sore he could barely move. He cleaned off the remaining dried blood and stretched. He found the horse chomping on grass nearby and started on towards the manor region.

He felt better than he had the day before and made pretty good time. Biganmean wasn’t as moody that day and occasionally did what Kenton wanted it to do.

Hours passed uneventfully. The weather cooled as they went further north.

Sometime in the afternoon they came to the burned remains of a town. Kenton had seen many burned towns in his years in the army, but this one hurt more than the rest. Usually he passed through them on the way to engage a Welgo army. This was the first time that he really got a good look at one. The smell was what he noticed first. The sickening smell of burned homes caught his nose and he couldn’t hardly stand it.

Burned bodies littered the streets. This town must not have had any warning. He noticed that some of the bodies were those of Welgos, but he didn’t feel any sort of happiness from that either. Kenton thought briefly about stopping to bury some of the townsfolk, but decided against it.

The smell and sights became too much for him and he pressed on. To his surprise he came upon a small house not five minutes from the town. The house stood alone among the backdrop of green grass and a few small hills. There was not a single mark on the house that brought a struggle to mind. Having gone so long without a break, Kenton dismounted the large black horse and knocked on the door.

It opened and woman only a few years older than him answered. She looked shocked to see him, but let him in without a word. Kenton bowed and entered the house. The woman went out and tied the horse to a post.

“I thought you might come.” She said, sitting down in a comfortable looking chair and motioning for Kenton to do the same.

He sat down and looked around the small, yet finely decorated room. Paintings were on the walls and a carpet on the floor.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

“I assume you’re with the army to get my take on the town over there. Are you not?” She busied herself with putting her long hair into a bun.

“I’m just passing through.” He said honestly. “I am, however, with the army. And I am indeed surprised that your house is so well maintained through the war.”

“Uh-huh.” She said absentmindedly.

“How have you avoided them?” Kenton asked.

“Who?”

“The Welgos.” He was a little perplexed that she had to ask.

“Oh, they don’t care about me. They only go after towns. You know, places that might have something. I think they just like to put on a show as they take over. That’s what they’re doing after all. Though I suppose I shouldn’t tell you that—or that I shouldn’t have to tell you.” She shrugged and glanced around.

“I do indeed realize—”

“Is the king still alive?” She asked. “I don’t get any news anymore.”

“Uh, yes, I think so. I’m going to see him now. I’m his adjutant. That’s just a fancy way of saying I do stuff for him. Guarding mostly.” Kenton liked talking to this lady, even if he hadn’t asked her name yet. It felt good talking to another common Chell again.

“Sounds good.” She said offhandedly.

“Are we close to the manor region.”

“Just a few hours away. A lot shorter since you have a horse.”

He stood up and nodded. “Well that sounds fine. I guess I’ll be leaving then.”

The lady folded her arms. “I guess they got the farms.”

“What’s that?”

“The farms. All the farms are near the manor region. I could see the smoke yesterday. I think the Welgos destroyed them all. That’s where all the food is. That makes me think, you know?”

Kenton felt that this woman wasn’t quite with it. “Think about what?”

She bit her lip and her eyes widened. “Their next step.” She started counting with her hand. “Religious sites—castles without walls—towns—farms—what’s next?”

Kenton sighed. Victor’s face loomed in his mind. “That’s almost everything.” Kenton said. “Only one thing left.”

“The manor region.” The lady mulled thoughtfully.

“Nope.”

She gave him a furtive smile. “Then what?”

“I wouldn’t worry too much.”

“How did you get a Welgland horse?” She asked.

“I stole it.”

“Those horses only trust a Welgo. That’s the way it works.”

“It’s just a horse.” He reminded her.

“Those horses are not just horses.”

The front door opened and a large man with a beard stepped in. Kenton would recognize a Welgo anywhere.

“What is this?” The man yelled.

“He’s with the king.” The woman shouted suddenly.

The Welgo pulled a dagger from his belt and ran toward Kenton, who jumped out of the way and out the door.

There was no time to get the horse free. Kenton ran at full speed away from the house.

After several minutes of running, and realizing that no one followed, he came to a stop and looked back. He fell to his knees and held his side. If only Victor hadn’t taken his sword. It didn’t matter now. He’d lost his horse and all the food he was provided for his trip. At least the manor region was only a few hours away by foot, unless that woman lied about that.

Thankfully she didn’t lie about that. Several hours later he came upon the large stone wall that all the nobles hid behind. Several guards paced back and forth in front of a tall gate. One of them recognized Kenton from training several years earlier. He helped the tired and defeated Kenton inside and into a small office where a medic looked him over. Marvie came in and gave Kenton a big hug.

“I can’t believe your alive!” Marvie exclaimed. “Rogerseen came riding in a few days ago and said you were dead. He said he saw you strangled by a Welgo while prisoner in some town somewhere.”

Kenton rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe he’s still alive.”

“So what happened, Morzha?”

Marvie started checking for wounds.

“We found a Welgo town.” Kenton said simply. “They let him go and kept me a while.”

“Well it looks like they did a number on you. At first glance nothing looks broken. You do have a bunch of bruises, though.”

“I figured.”

Kenton remembered being punched repeatedly by a couple Welgos. “I’m sorry, adjutant.” Victor had said. “What would they say if you strolled up to the king without a scratch?”

“It’s alright now.” Marvie said with a wide smile. “You’re safe. This is the safest place in the whole kingdom. I’ll tell the king to let you off easy a few days until you’re better.” He clapped his hands and looked very pleased. But then he frowned. “How did you get out?”

Kenton could see Victor telling him something. He shook his head and the image vanished. “I snuck out at night and stole one of their horses. I lost the horse, though.” He looked at Marvie seriously. “They are indeed settling.”

Marvie nodded. “We’ll regroup. We’ll get them. Give them a little payback for everything. That’s the new plan.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll have the king explain. He’ll be thrilled to see you again.” Marvie chuckled. “It’s funny. He was so distraught when he thought you’d died. He said: ‘that man was my best guard. He was the only one I could trust’.” Marvie smiled toothily. “How about that?”

Kenton stared at the floor and gripped his chair. “I never realized he valued me so much.”

Marvie helped Kenton from the office and down a road lined with larger houses than Kenton had ever seen. Each one had an eight foot wall around a giant yard. Kenton looked in awe as Marvie led him up to one of the houses. He told him that that particular manor was being used as a hospital for only the richest of nobles and most important of commanders.

The house bustled with nurses and bandaged soldiers. They went up to the third and top floor where a room was provided for Kenton to use.

“I’ve been told to save this one in case anybody important enough showed up injured. I’ll take that to mean you.”

Kenton sat back on an extremely comfortable bed and looked around at the room. It only had a bed, a couple chairs, and a cabinet, and yet was worth more than the entire town he grew up in.

“Rogerseen’s down the hall if you want to see him.”

“Never again.” Kenton said.

Marvie laughed and went to tell everyone that he was alive.

Kenton tried to get comfortable, but before he could King Chellias came bounding into the room. Marvie tried to follow him in, but the king quickly closed the door behind him. The two looked each other over for a minute before the king finally spoke.

“I’m glad you’re alive.” He said gruffly.

Kenton nodded.

Chellias took a seat in one of the nice chairs and groaned loudly. “You’re one of the few I trust, Morzha.” He shook his head. “So many have deserted. I don’t know. I just don’t.”

Kenton had never heard the king talk like that. In fact, he couldn’t remember the king saying so many words to him in the two years he knew him. “That’s what happens in war.”

“We’re going to invade them.” He said, staring steadfastly at Kenton for his reaction.

Kenton kept his face emotionless. “If you think that’s best.”

“That’s all there is.” The king grunted. “We got word this morning of a large amount of ships heading this way. We’ll fend them off and then launch a counter attack deep in Welgland. That should force them back up there. If we can take the capital before they figure out what we’re up to—then we can inflict immeasurable damage.”

Kenton nodded slowly.

“Speak freely, Morzha, what do you think?”

He never knew what ‘speak freely’ really meant. But he took a deep breath and did as he was told. “I think that we need to realize that an invasion will take a lot of soldiers. It’ll cost us a lot as well, maybe too much.”

Chellias jumped up.

Kenton pushed himself back against the headboard, fearing the worst.

The king paced the room, stroking his beard. “There’s nothing left. If we had more options, then sure. But we don’t. They are just going to keep bringing more and more in. Word from our neighbors is equally bad. Rogerseen told me they’re settling. They’ve taken the Vastlands already. There’s only two places left in the whole kingdom that we still have control over.”

“Then make a deal.” Kenton stressed. “Meet their leader and work something out. Give them the Vastlands in exchange for going away. Pay them off somehow. I know that worked in the past at various times.”

“This kingdom will not be separated!” The king howled. “I will let it be destroyed before that.”

“You’re the kingdom!” Kenton shouted back. “As long as you’re here the kingdom can continue. Very few people out there care if they live in Chell or Welgland. Condense the kingdom and start over. We can build towns and walls and build a relationship with the Welgos. And then, years from now when we’ve gotten back on our feet we can strike back. When we’re stronger.”

The king glowered at Kenton, who took far too long to realize that he had just yelled at the king.

Chellias closed his eyes and gave a relieved sigh. “I’m surrounded by yes-men.” He let out a snicker. “I needed that, Morzha.” He opened his eyes. They shined with a kindness no one in the army had ever seen. “For the last few days I’ve been trying to figure out who can replace Rogerseen. He’s no use to me the way he is. I want you to be the new commander.”

Kenton frowned. “The what?”

The king laughed. “There’s usually a ceremony, but in the current climate that’s obviously not going to happen. I’ll get you the jacket in a bit.” His usual frown returned. “I like your idea.” He said quietly. “But they won’t negotiate with us when we’ve got no value. We have to invade their land and show that we are just as strong as they are. When we do that we can negotiate.”

There was silence for a long time as they both thought things over.

“Thank you,” Kenton breathed, “for making me commander.”

“You’re the only one here worth anything.” Chellias said, his kind smile returning for a brief instant.

“I just ask that you protect Chellion castle.”

“I told you before, Morzha, that’s the safest place in the world.”

16.

Guard duty became routine for Ackerley. There wasn’t any skill required to stand in a room for hours on end. It was boring, though everything in that castle was boring. After two weeks he began to feel like he might have a knack for it. He found himself thinking that when the war was over he could go to Indigo and be Cerise’s permanent guard. The thought led to fantasies of him rising through the ranks of that tiny kingdom and one day being the commander of all of Indigo’s army. It couldn’t be too hard; they were an awfully small country after all.

The changes in the castle usually took a while to notice. Soup having to be watered down wasn’t all that bad. That changed one Saturday night during a fancy dinner. When everyone was settled into their places Yinnib came in looking rather grim.

“I am sorry.” He began; a tear in his eye. “Our dinner tonight will not be as extravagant as those in the past. I do hope you enjoy, nonetheless.”

Murmurs broke out up and down the table. Yinnib was out of sight before anyone could ask him about it.

The food arrived and he was right, it definitely wasn’t extravagant. Workers went down the table giving everyone a couple slices of bread and some extremely watered down stew. For the kids used to a wealthy upbringing it was downright unacceptable. Several stood up and protested, and a couple left without eating a thing. Ackerley reminded himself of how he had to live before and ate his share without complaint. Jarn didn’t complain either, though he looked rather put out by this new development. Ackerley cautiously looked down the table at Murdo, who he fully expected to be having a fit. Instead Murdo ate quietly and kept his eyes downcast. It was at that moment that Ackerley realized that Murdo had been awfully quiet for a while. Usually he had been too tired to notice.

After dinner Ackerley started for his position near Cerise’s chair. Loeua came in and told everyone to go back to their rooms. She looked really worried about something, but claimed that the whining about dinner was the reason for the dance being cancelled. Ackerley didn’t much care, and went to Cerise’s residence to tell her.

The door was locked. He knocked a few times and waited. No response. It had only been a little while since third task when he had to guard her. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary then. He figured he’d see her in the morning and went up to his room. No one was there. The halls were busy with kids complaining so he went to the second floor to find a window sill to sit on. He looked out over the front lawn and the guards pacing back and forth.

After a while Jarn came by.

“Ah, I was looking for you.”

Ackerley grunted his recognition.

“Things must be getting bad out there.” Jarn said, looking out the window.

“I wish we could get some news as to what was going on.”

“I heard someone say they saw a messenger come by today. It must be really bad if Yinnib didn’t even want to announce anything.”

Jarn sat down beside Ackerley and looked him over. “Was that like what you used to eat?” He asked timidly.

“Usually I ate whatever the neighbors had. They liked to bring me food. Most nights I reheated the soup they’d make on Sundays.”

Jarn folded his arms and sighed. “There’s more talk of people leaving. There’s always talk from the big kids. They like pretending to leave.” He snickered. “I think they just like worrying the nobles here. Their parents would kill them if they really left.”

“Hmm.” Was all Ackerley felt like saying.

He had a sinking feeling that something really bad happened. Surely Yinnib and the others would say something if it meant they were in danger. Of course no one ever thought they’d be in danger, not directly anyway. Though if there was a food shortage they’d certainly be in direct danger.

“I doubt lessens will change any.” Jarn mused. “We don’t really do anything anyway.”

Ackerley continued to stare out the window, not really listening.

“If I was a little older I’d leave.” Jarn said sometime later. “The food was the only thing keeping me here anyway.”

“That’s odd.” Ackerley said suddenly.

“Well it was good food.”

“No, not that. Look outside.”

Jarn glanced out the window and stood up. “I wonder what that’s all about.”

The gates were open. Ackerley hadn’t seen the gates opened since that large crate arrived.

A couple nobles went to the gates and led three people onto the castle grounds. They hurriedly bustled down the sweeping lawn toward the front doors. Two were adults. One of them carried a little girl. All three wore rags. Not even Ackerley had been reduced to wearing clothes that shabby in his little town.

The two boys stared unwaveringly out the window at the event going on below them. Warm light flooded the lawn as the main doors opened and the people disappeared inside. And then it was as dark and quiet as it always was.

Ackerley looked to Jarn. “See anything like that before?”

“Never.” He said with an expression of utter amazement. “They looked like commoners. I mean—like really common commoners.”

“I doubt they’re related to anybody important.”

Jarn shrugged. “Who knows, maybe.”

They sat and talked about what they saw for a few minutes more, though mostly going in circles as the answers weren’t going to be discovered that night by the window. After a while they decided to get some sleep and look into it in the morning.

“I do like a good mystery.” Jarn said excitedly on their way back to the room. “And this one you can’t keep me out of like all those others you go on.”

“It’s not that exciting to stand in a room and stare at the walls all day.” Ackerley defended.

“I mean about the fourth floor.”

They turned the corner to their hall and saw the second strange sight of the night. Murdo was walking quickly toward them, looking back to make sure nobody was watching. He saw them and stopped dead. He carried a large bag over one shoulder.

“What do you want, knitface?” He grimaced irately.

“You’re not seriously trying to leave, are you?” Ackerley asked while Jarn screwed up his face angrily.

“What of it?” Murdo grunted.

“It’s gonna be rough.” Ackerley stressed, trying to sound supportive. “You don’t know where the army is.”

Murdo noticed and exhaled deeply. “I’ll start at the manor region. Someone there will surely know.”

“Those Welgos are mean. Are you sure you want to tangle with all that?”

“You saw that fancy dinner tonight. It means something’s very wrong. We’re losing, Aches.” He hiked the bag a little further on his shoulder. “I can’t sit here knowing that anymore. It’s torture to someone like me.”

Ackerley nodded and stepped out of the way. “Good luck.”

Murdo smiled at him for the first time. “If I meet your brother I’ll tell him you’re doing fine.” He gave them both a nod and hurried down the hall.

Jarn snorted. “I’m putting my stuff on his part of the room.”

The next morning an emergency meeting was called during breakfast. Everyone had to report to the ballroom and be counted. Word got out quick that Murdo left, but he wasn’t the only one.

After everyone was counted Craith paced in front of them. “Eight of your buddies skipped out last night.” He said sorrowfully. “I will have you all know that behavior such as that will not be tolerated.”

Loeua glared at them from the corner while Yinnib sniffled sadly beside her.

“If anyone is caught trying to join them,” Craith’s voice grew threatening, “they will be severely punished.”

Once again Ackerley wondered what sort of punishment they could dole out. As far as he knew Mr. Jett was still the only one.

All the nobles sauntered around somberly for the rest of the day. Every time Ackerley got near one he could tell they changed the subject of whatever they were talking about to say loudly how upset they were that those poor children ran away. He figured they were upset over whatever news arrived the day before. He tried multiple times to sneak up on any one of the many pairs talking in hushed tones around the castle, but they all seemed to sense him coming and wail about the runaways when he got anywhere near them.

Being Sunday morning he went to stand guard over Cerise, but her door was once again locked. He knocked and waited for almost an hour for Thrindle to open the door, but she never did. Getting worried, he looked around for Yinnib, but for once he was nowhere to be found. Ackerley was wary of asking any other noble, but relented and asked Louea. He found her sitting alone in the big dining room. She seemed surprised to see him. He nervously asked if she’d seen Cerise. She looked as though she wanted to tell him something important, but then just frowned and walked away.

Things were beginning to look dire. First the terrible dinner, and then the big kids leaving, and now Cerise being locked away again. Ackerley feared the worst, and thought about going to the fourth floor to ask Chellion. He had a feeling Chellion wouldn’t tell him anything either.

He made up his mind to try anyway, and started for the stairs up. That’s when he thought of one other place that she might be.

He went out the back door with the gardens and followed the outer wall until he came to the place where Cerise had showed him that secret entrance. The entrance to the tunnel was harder to find than he originally thought. After a while of poking around Ackerley found it and slid the door open to reveal the hole. He crawled into the tunnel and carefully made his way through the twists and turns until he was able to stand up in that beautiful and hidden wonderland. It smelled better than ever. The vines covering the walls made him feel like he could be in a place far removed from the problems of Chells and Welgos.

Ackerley took in the sight for a while before settling his eyes on the girl in the black dress sitting on a log by the pool of water. He started for her, but stopped. Something didn’t feel quite right. Cerise sat hunched over, staring unwaveringly at the ground. For a moment he thought of leaving her be until the door to her residence was opened. He stood there for a bit trying to figure it out, finally deciding to go up to her.

He sat on the other end of the log, a good three feet away, and smiled brightly. His smile immediately faded. He could tell that she had been crying. She didn’t look at him or even acknowledge his presence. She only stared at the ground unflinchingly.

“Are you alright?” He asked comfortingly.

She looked about to say something, but didn’t.

He looked into the pond at the little fish swimming about. He didn’t want to pry. They sat there together for a long time. Ackerley was getting used to it now; he could sit there all day. He thought about leaving, but something told him to stay. He hoped he could be a calming force until she was ready to speak.

“Ackerley.” She said after a great while. “How did you get over being so alone?”

That definitely wasn’t what he expected her to say. He thought about it for a minute. “I don’t think I really did.”

She looked in his direction without actually looking at him.

“I mean,” he said quickly, “I think there’s a big difference between getting over something and getting through it. I got through being so alone because I had to. There wasn’t any other choice.” He stared at one particular orange fish that moved gracefully through the water. “But I never really got over it. I still think about it a lot—or try not to think about it, I guess. One day I’ll get over it. But for now I’ve only gotten through it.”

Cerise looked up at the sky, at the clouds rolling carelessly over the thick gray walls covered in green. “I feel it now. I feel lonely.”

Ackerley figured he knew what she meant. It sounded like that messenger brought bad news from Indigo.

Cerise confirmed it. “I’m not a princess anymore.” She let her head slowly come down until she was looking straight ahead. Her eyes wide, it was clear she hadn’t really thought about that until she said it.

Ackerley really wished he had some idea as to what to say, but he didn’t. “I,” he began, “I’m so—” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. He remembered so many people coming to his house in the days after his parents were killed. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’ they all said. Sorry for what? They didn’t die. They didn’t have to deal with it like he did. He remembered promising that he would never say that to someone. “There’s nothing I can say to you now.” He whispered, echoing his internal thoughts. “Nothing that you haven’t already felt or will feel. But I’m here, and if you want to say anything—I think that’s better than me trying to make you feel better, because I can’t.”

Cerise nodded, tears rolling down her face. “Let’s not say anything.” She choked. “Let’s just sit.”

And they sat together on that log all day. No more words were shared. They didn’t need to be.

Ackerley thought back to his own parents. He feared so much that he would forget the way they sounded or the way they acted as he got older. He feared it so much that for over a year he tried his hardest not to think about them at all, so that one day when he really needed it he could bring them forth in his mind and they would be there with him as if coming back from a long trip. While he sat there and watched the fish swim around he did just that. He brought them forth in his mind and listened to his dad’s stories about all the places he’d traveled, and hear his mom’s versions of some of those same stories but with more action and funnier acquaintances. He could even hear Kenton’s carefree laugh and taste the dumplings they had for dinner so often.

Ackerley sat there on that log and cried along with Cerise. Unable to hold it back anymore he led it out for the first time since being locked in that closet those many months ago. Somehow, while sitting in that garden with all the war outside and all the problems inside, Ackerley Morzha got a little bit over his parent’s deaths, but only a little bit.

When it got dark and they couldn’t see each other anymore Cerise stood up and quietly led the way back to her residence, using the hidden door on the outside of the castle. She didn’t turn around until they were in the plush hallway with the couches. She gave Ackerley a sorrowful smile and a long hug. She then took a key and went to unlock the door to the residence.

Madame Thrindle stood in the center of the columned meditation room. She carried several large bags. “I’m sorry.” She cried. “I really am, but without your parents—I, well I—” She gave a low bow and walked away.

Cerise watched her go without saying a word.

17.

Ackerley avoided his room until well after everyone went to bed. He didn’t much want to talk to anyone. The next morning, he got up and pretended that everything around him was just fine and that the world was going to go on uninterrupted for all time. He smiled when saying good morning to Jarn and Jamie and even had a spring to his step as he went to breakfast.

While waiting in line to fill their plates Jarn nudged him. “Hey, hey isn’t that that girl we saw? The one from the other night?”

A little girl sat alone at one of the tables, eating off a large plate of bread with a look of amazement that anyone used to how the food used to be would never have. She wore a light blue dress in the style of all the other everyday dresses.

“Maybe.” Ackerley said. He didn’t get a good look at the little girl being carried in the other night.

“Well I’ve never seen her before and I’ve seen enough of everyone here to know that she’s new.”

“I guess you’re right.” Ackerley agreed, forgetting momentarily that there were indeed only a set number of children there.

“I’m gonna go talk to her.” Jarn declared.

Ackerley grabbed Jarn’s arm as he tried to go over to her. “You can’t just bombard her with questions.”

“I want to know if they’re letting any old child in now. And what about her parents, they’d never let adults in. At least they didn’t use to.”

“Just wait until we get our food and then we can sit with her—say there wasn’t any room anywhere else. Make it look casual.”

Jarn waved a finger in the air. “Good thinking, Acks. That’ll be much less creepy.”

They got their food—bread really was all they had—and went over to the little girl’s table.

“Anyone sitting here?” Jarn asked nicely, pulling out one of the chairs and sitting down before the girl could answer.

Luckily every other table really was full by the time they got their food.

The girl shook her head and shrank down in her chair, staring at her last piece of bread.

“You’re Igluoria, right?” Ackerley asked.

Jarn covered his mouth in a vain attempt to keep himself from laughing.

“No.” The girl said in a small voice.

“Oh, then what was your name again?”

“Ayya.”

“That doesn’t sound familiar.” Jarn said. “Are you new here?”

The girl nodded apprehensively.

“Sounds good.” Ackerley took a bite of bread and nodded happily. “It’s nice to have you here. I’m Ackerley, and this is Jarn. Where are you from?”

Ayya looked about ready to run away. Her eyes darted to the exit as she sank lower into her chair. She muttered something incoherently.

“I think I’ve been there.” Jarn mumbled through a mouthful of bread. “Real nice in the wintertime.”

A man came up to the table and put his hands on the backs of Ackerley and Jarn’s chairs. “Excuse me, sirs but I believe it’s time to get to your first lesson.”

They welcomed Ayya and did as they were told.

“That’s her father!” Jarn whispered excitedly as they headed to the cloister for reading. “He’s a noble now, or he’s pretending to be one. They’re letting him pretend to be one!”

Ackerley did get a better look at the two adults that came in that night and he knew that Jarn was right. “That’s real interesting.” He pondered thoughtfully. “But this probably isn’t as strange as we’re making it out to be. This has probably happened before.”

“No, it hasn’t.” Jarn breathed, barely able to control his enthusiasm. “This is big; this is real big.”

“Calm down, Yarn.” Ackerley crowed in a feeble attempt at mimicking Murdo.

Jarn ignored him. “I just can’t tell if this is good or bad. It may be good. Or it might be bad, real bad.”

“It just is.”

“No,” Jarn insisted. “It isn’t just is or whatever. I told you how when I first got here we were making a giant banner that professed our love for Chell. I also told you that the nobles were trying to turn everyone into little nobles with all this junk we do all day. They wouldn’t just let anyone in with that attitude. There were murmurs about you when you first arrived. I remember overhearing a noble say that they were worried you’d be some common rapscallion or something like that. These people have predetermined ideas about commoners. They think they’re all bad news—unable to grasp the ways of a true Chell. No noble would purposefully invite a super commoner family dressed in rags to be a part of all this.”

“I’d believe you, but things are changing. Just look at the food. If things are getting that dire then letting in some people from a regular town should be no problem.”

Jarn shook his head as if Ackerley couldn’t possibly understand what he was trying to say. “Do you know how many towns have gone up to heaven since this war started?”

“Including mine, I have no idea.”

“A lot.” Jarn stressed. “And how many commoners have been allowed in here? None. Only you, but with your brother’s closeness to the king they didn’t see you as a real commoner. Trust me, Acks, before you I was as common as it gets. But my dad entertained many nobles on our farm before he became a commander, and I know how they talk. When we were just a normal farm making corn and milk for the manor region even my dad was looked down on.”

They came out into the chilly cloister and sat in the grass, waiting for Craith to show up.

“Don’t put too much weight on this.” Ackerley warned. “There’s a chance we don’t want to know how they ended up here.”

“This is a mystery and I want to solve it.” Jarn announced stubbornly. “It’s so boring here and with the food situation the way it is I’m gonna need something to keep my mind occupied.”

Ackerley gave up trying to convince Jarn to let it go. He was interested in finding out why Ayya was there as well, but a smidge of dread tends to grow before dissipating completely.

Craith came out into the cloister with his usual stack of books. He handed them out quietly and stood wearily by to make sure they didn’t talk. The rules had relaxed so much in recent weeks that quiet conversations didn’t usually bother him. Not so that day. Craith shouted at the first person who talked so loudly that his voice rang through the cloister for some time after he’d stopped. It made the two hours go by painfully slow, even more so than when they had to be quiet before as any tiny movement received a menacing glare from Craith.

Walking up to their second task, Ackerley and Jarn didn’t say a word as they feared Craith would suddenly appear and shout at them. They had never seen any of the nobles get that worked up over something so small.

Loeua never allowed talking in meditation so they hoped she’d have no reason to yell at anyone. Yelling was the farthest thing from Ackerley’s mind when he went in the meditation room. In fact, everything fell from his mind when he saw Cerise talking to Loeua in the front of the room. She wore a red everyday dress, and if Ackerley had any notion of color he would have realized it was in fact the color cerise. Jarn nudged Ackerley in case he may not have noticed.

Ackerley tried to play it cool and sat on one of the mats as though he really hadn’t noticed. Cerise saw him and sat down next to him, forcing Jarn to sit behind them. It was nice to see her smile after what she had been through.

Ackerley feigned surprise. “Woah, what are you doing here?”

“Yinnib came by this morning and told me I could finally start going to tasks if I wanted to.” She said radiantly. “Of course I jumped at the opportunity. I’ll be in your group. I would have been reading with you this morning, but Yinnib spent a whole two hours telling me how things were going to go now.” The smile faded and the pain underneath came through momentarily. She caught herself and smiled again. “This should be fun. I’ve never meditated with other people before.”

“I figured you’d be bored with it all.”

“I’m never bored with being around people.”

A hand flew in between them. “I’m Jarn, it’s nice to meet you, princess.”

She became very rigid and took his hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you.” She said. “But I’m not a princess anymore.” She added quietly.

The hand faded from view. “Oh yeah, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” She said with a smile that Ackerley realized was plastered and fake.

“So you’re the queen?” Jarn asked foolishly.

Ackerley gave Jarn a dirty look, though he secretly wondered that as well.

The smile disappeared for good. “There’s nothing left to be queen of.”

It grew real awkward really quick. Jarn, having realized that he made the worst first impression ever, scooted back a ways and didn’t speak again for the rest of the task.

Ackerley’s mood dampened considerably for the first twenty minutes or so, but then rebounded as he started thinking of all the things he could do with Cerise now that she was free of her prison-like life.

After meditation they all went to lunch together. Jarn dragged along behind them. Cerise, who ached for more friends than just Ackerley, didn’t let him feel bad for too long. She held back and walked with him. They talked about Yinnib and how crazy he was, Commander Rogerseen and his rising up from farmer to commander, and even about the architecture of the castle. Cerise clearly knew more about that and instructed them both on the time period the castle was built and how long it probably took. By the time they got to the lunch table, which because the weather grew cool was now inside the main entryway, Jarn felt much better.

They sat outside and ate their lunch, which thankfully consisted of an egg sandwich and milk. Jarn was happy to say that the milk and eggs probably came from the castle grounds, as he knew the stables had cows and chickens.

“Maybe we’ll be getting more of the food grown here.” He wondered aloud. “It’s about time they gave us something that I’m used to eating.” He took a bite of his egg sandwich. “So when are we going to go on an adventure together?”

“I don’t think I’ll be going on many adventures.” Cerise said.

“Yeah, I’m adventured out.” Ackerley agreed.

“But you can’t be.” Jarn protested. “What about that girl? There’s something going on there and we need to figure it out—for the good of Chell.”

“What girl?” Cerise asked.

Jarn retold the story of Ayya, elaborating quite a bit. He insisted that her father picked them up and threw them out of the breakfast room with his bare hands.

“That is strange.” Cerise agreed. “I’ve never heard of people coming in in the dead of night except for the occasional food supply or messenger. And you say she’s one of us now?”

“Indeed. We need to figure this out. It may mean that the Welgos are in the area and heading this way.”

“If they were in the area,” Ackerley began, a little spooked, “then we’d be seeing all sorts of new faces. If the nobles would allow more people in. I’m certain she’s just a one-time exception. Her parents probably had a note from the king or something.”

“Keep your eyes peeled.” Jarn said seriously. “We may be seeing a lot more new faces in the coming days.”

Thoroughly creeped out, Ackerley decided to go back inside in hopes that he wouldn’t have to hear any more about the Welgos or people running from them.

For the first time in several weeks Ackerley was allowed to pick what he wanted to do for third task. He briefly thought about going out and playing a sport for the first time now that all the biggest and meanest kids were gone. Jarn convinced Cerise that the kitchens were the place to be and he went along with them instead.

They had a good time slicing bread and making sandwiches. They were informed that the last shipment was only bread, and that the people who brought it said it would be the last one for a while. The head of the kitchens promised them that they had enough food in storage to wait out however long that would be, but that didn’t stop Ackerley from getting worried anyway.

Numa and Melexa were there as well. Ackerley hadn’t seen them in a while and couldn’t remember which one was which. They were greatly fascinated by Cerise being there, as was everyone else. She had a crowd around her as soon as she sat down; everyone in the kitchens asked her as many questions as they could before she finally stood up and said that they were being awfully rude and should be concentrating on making dinner. The crowd dispersed, and things went back to relative normalcy.

Later in the evening, after dinner, Ackerley walked Cerise back to her residence.

“Some day, huh?” Ackerley said, eagerly awaiting her reaction to being normal for once.

Cerise nodded and walked slowly into the columned room. Her shoulders hunched forward and her steps sounded heavy and dull. All the joy and confidence she showed throughout the day vanished instantly.

“Thank you.” She said softly. “That was a lot of fun today.”

“Are you alright?”

She grasped one of the columns for support and slid to the floor. She put her face in her hands and began to cry.

Ackerley started towards her and then stopped. He never knew what to do in situations like that.

“It’s just I—I—I don’t know.”

“It’s alright. You’ve been through a lot recently. It’ll take time to figure it all out.”

She wiped her eyes and looked irritably across the room. “Thrindle’s even left me. I never really could stand her, but she left so suddenly.”

“Don’t think about her. She shouldn’t have left you like that.”

“The messenger,” she began with a quiver in her voice, “he told us what happened. He heard it from someone who was there. One of them finally found one of the secret tunnels into the castle. They let everyone else in. The Welgos went in and destroyed whatever they could. They killed my mom trying to flee.”

“You don’t have to tell me this.” Ackerley breathed.

“Thrindle didn’t want me to hear it but I told him not to stop. They found my dad in the throne room.” Her eyes grew wide and she barred her teeth. “Guess what he was doing? He was sitting on the throne. He could have escaped. There are secret passages in the walls that would have gotten him out of there, but he didn’t go.” Cerise wiped her eyes and clenched her fists. “He died for that stupid throne instead of escaping. All he could think about was that stupid title. He died for that dead country. He didn’t once think of me. It would have been so easy for him to escape and come here, at any point in the last couple years. I waited. I always hoped they’d come through that door and tell me they’d given up being king and queen to be with me, but they didn’t! They didn’t care about me as long as they had that stupid throne.”

She banged her hands on the ground a few times and yelled into the quiet room. And then she stopped. For a minute she just sat there on the floor and stared into the semi-darkness. Very slowly she stood up and took a deep breath. “I just needed someone to know. I needed someone to tell. You’re all I have now, Ackerley.” She closed her eyes and nodded gently. “Thank you for trying to talk to me and wanting to be with me. Without you, I’d. . .well I don’t know.” She looked around sadly. “I’m moving up to the third floor tomorrow. I’m leaving all this behind.”

“Are they forcing you to?”

“No, I want to. This is far too much room for me. It always has been. You should stay here tonight, there’s plenty of rooms. You can invite Jarn as well. In fact, invite everyone. Let’s fill every room down here—just because.”

They ended up not inviting anyone. Cerise slept in her favorite room and Ackerley tried all the beds until he found the best one there was. It was by far the softest most perfect thing he’d ever slept on, not that there was much competition.

18.

Cerise settled into her new life over the next few days. Despite willingly giving up her giant residence, Yinnib insisted that she was still a dignitary and gave her her own room on the third floor. It proved to be useful as Ackerley, and occasionally new friends she made, could have a place to talk without the chance of being overheard by anyone. She found classes to be delightful and excelled the most in transcribing. The old man in charge of transcribing was so overjoyed with her ability that he refused to let Ackerley and a few of the others anywhere near the old manuscripts.

“We have a true genius on our hands.” He said excitedly midway through the task. “Some of you,” he looked directly at Ackerley, “can go read or something.”

History with Ms. Henred had grown awfully boring since she’d finished the history of Chell. With Cerise there she decided to go back and start the history lessons all over again. Most people didn’t find this at all exciting, as apparently she had started over several times before Ackerley had gotten there. Cerise found it fascinating and couldn’t wait to find out as much as she could.

Cerise appeared happier than ever with her new life, but occasionally when alone or lost in thought she’d shrink down and look very sad. She’d usually catch herself after a bit and find the smile again. Sometimes Ackerley could tell that the smile was fake, but much of the time it looked genuine.

Jarn hadn’t given up his obsession with Ayya. He tried to corner her multiple times that week only to be reprimanded by one of her parents, who always seemed to be lurking around. They’d tell him to hurry off to his lessons or not to dawdle in the halls. He didn’t know what group she was in and wondered if she was in one at all.

That changed one night when Ackerley and Jarn were wandering the castle together. They found Ayya staring out one of the windows on the third floor by herself. Jarn put on his best friendly face and went right up to her.

“Yo, Ayya, what’s going on?”

Ayya nervously looked down. “Nothing.”

Jarn, fearing that her parents were going to spring out of nowhere at any moment, got straight to the point. “Where are you from? We saw you coming in late one night.”

Ayya backed away looking terrified.

“It’s alright. We just want to know how things are out there.”

She stopped, looked up, and said quickly. “It’s bad. Our farm got destroyed. They all did.” She turned and ran away.

“That explains about the food.” Ackerley said.

“I wonder. . . about our farm.” Jarn said quietly. “I guess it’s gone.”

Ackerley patted his friend’s shoulder. “But you didn’t have any relatives there, right?”

“Sure I did—cousins, grandparents, all sorts. I—they’re . . .”

Ackerley was overwhelmed by recent events. It felt weird having already gone through what his friends were currently feeling. A small part of him knew that they had it better since they had friends to go through it with. But that didn’t much help them. He figured all of Chell was going through it.

Jarn went to bed early that night. Ackerley was too spooked to sleep yet. All he could think about were Welgos and invasions. He never felt that way at home, and there wasn’t a giant wall there. Or perhaps he did get scared of a sudden raid and just forgot. He lived all those days without giving much thought to his inner emotions. Now, with friends and the hope of getting out of the war he let those feelings come. That made all this talk of death a lot scarier.

He sauntered around the castle for a long time trying to shake that feeling. More nobles were around than usual. They all looked sad or scared as well. No one spoke to each other, they all just meandered around. Somewhere near the large dining room an all too familiar voice called out to him.

“Oh, young Morzha.” Yinnib called sadly.

Ackerley turned and waited expectantly.

“Such sad tidings all around.” Yinnib sighed. “Things will be changing I’m afraid. Don’t fret, however. You and all your friends will be perfectly safe here.”

“Uh-huh.” Ackerley said, wanting to get away.

“There’s a good bit to learn from all this.” Yinnib continued. “Stories will be told with misty eyes one day. You’ll be a real leader when you’re older, I’m certain of it.”

“O.k.”

Yinnib’s voice suddenly deepened. “You’re used to nothing, kid. Not all of us are.”

“It’s hard.” Ackerley said.

Yinnib looked at him with sad eyes. “We’ve been selfish here. We can’t any longer. I’ll tell you more later.” He rubbed Ackerley’s head. “Get to sleep, young Morzha, we’ll speak again.”

Yinnib left Ackerley standing there feeling utterly confused.

Yinnib was barely out of sight when footsteps came quickly to the scene. Ackerley hid behind the table even though no one was in view. An angry Craith could be heard.

“You can’t tell me that the rumors are true, Yin.”

“I’m sorry to say that they are.” Yinnib defended bravely. “You knew changes would happen if things got bad enough.”

“But this?” Craith spat. “Did you forget why we’re even here?”

Ackerley started slowly around the table trying to get a view of what was going on.

“To keep the children of Chell safe during the war.” Yinnib answered.

“No—don’t give me that! We both signed up for this to train the next class of nobles. To teach them in the ways of Chell. It’s only been going downhill since then. And now I’m hearing that you’re letting commoners in. I don’t think you realize what you’re doing.”

Yinnib shushed Craith. “I’m here to protect all of Chell, not just nobles.”

Ackerley came around the end of the table. Two figures came into view in the hall. He could see Craith standing threateningly over Yinnib, who stood his ground.

“They aren’t Chells.” Craith breathed. “Those commoners don’t know a thing. They live in the kingdom provided by the nobles and don’t even know its history. That boy you and Chellion let in didn’t even know what the Great Spirit was. They’re all like that.”

“And now look where Ackerley is.” Yinnib said. He had completely lost the airy way he talked and sounded deep and severe. “He’s a right fine young man and can be a very honorable noble one day.”

“If this stands then I’m leaving. And I’m not the only one.”

“Where will you go? You know this is the only place that can keep you safe.”

Craith backed away. “We’ll go home. No one can invade the manor region. That’s why they haven’t yet. It’s protected by the Great Spirit. Why do you think only commoner towns have been destroyed?”

“And all of our sacred sites.” Yinnib reminded him.

Craith ignored this. “Promise me you won’t let those people in here.”

“I will not promise that.” Yinnib insisted. “If you want to go out there and die then you’d better leave now. I won’t have any naysayers in this castle.”

“What would Chellion say to that?” Craith sneered.

Yinnib stepped towards Craith, showing that he would not be intimidated. “Chellion gave me control of the lower floors and I will use my power the way I believe best. I’d rather have a thousand commoners than one of you.”

Criath glowered angrily and continued to back away. “This whole place is going to fall down on your head with that many commoners. No food—no army—I’ll take my chances in the manor region with the king and the greatest army ever assembled.” Craith turned and ran down the hall.

Yinnib held the wall for support and made his way back to the table. He collapsed into one of the chairs and began to sob.

Ackerley sat on the floor out of sight for a bit, not knowing what to do. If he tried to leave Yinnib would surely see him. He waited for Yinnib to leave. After several minutes of waiting he finally got up, attempting to sneak away.

“Oh my, I did forget you were there, young Morzha.” Yinnib said, wiping his eyes. “I’m very sorry about all that.” He chuckled. “It’s the way of war, I suppose. I’ll bet your brother has conversations like that with the king all the time—actually I hope he doesn’t.”

Ackerley sat down across from Yinnib. “I think it’s great that you’re going to let in more people.”

“We’re all Chells.” Yinnib whispered, staring longingly at the wall.

“Well . . .” Ackerley thought long and hard if he wanted to continue his thought. He decided he did. “Maybe we aren’t all Chells—not really anyway. He was right, I didn’t know a thing about being a real Chell until I got here.”

“There’s no such thing as a real Chell.” Yinnib said sadly. “It took me so long to realize that.”

He got up, wavered, and waved carelessly at Ackerley. “I’ll be seeing you then. I do need some sleep. The mornings always look better than nights, don’t they?”

Ackerley watched him go, still wondering what made up a real Chell.

When he got back to the room both Jarn and Jamie were asleep. He thought about waking Jarn to tell him what happened, but decided against it. It was awfully late and he decided to see if Yinnib was right about mornings being better.

He woke up early and jumped out of bed. He didn’t feel much better, but wasn’t as tired so he counted that as a victory.

The castle was eerily quiet as Ackerley wandered around for a morning walk. For a moment he thought of going down to Cerise’s residence before remembering that she was up on the third floor now. Instead he went down to the first floor to see if there were any nobles left at all.

A couple sat around the big table talking, but got quiet when he walked in. They all looked concerned about something.

Ackerley went up to breakfast a little later and found that Cerise was the only one there. She sat quietly in the corner eating the now daily breakfast: bread.

“You’re up early.” Ackerley said happily as he sat down across from her with a small roll in his hand.

“Thrindle always got me up at dawn. I can’t seem to shake it.” She smiled as she looked at her own half eaten roll. “It’s a little boring, isn’t it?”

“Boring isn’t always bad.” Ackerley pondered.

“Oh, definitely not. But it’s a little hard to feel truly bored with everyone walking around all depressed. It’s dreadfully quiet this morning.”

Ackerley shrugged nonchalantly. “I think a bunch of nobles ran off in the night.”

He glanced at Cerise and was astonished to see that she didn’t look fazed.

“It’s about time. I figured they’d run off a long time ago. So is this it? Did we get word of the Welgos coming?”

“No, I think they left because Yinnib wants to invite a bunch of the people whose towns went up.”

She laughed darkly. “That’ll do it. Ayya must be one of many coming.”

“I suppose.”

Jarn came in a few minutes later as the room began to fill. Ackerley informed him of everything he heard the night before. He looked a little more shocked than Cerise, but soon came to the same conclusion that it was bound to happen eventually.

A half hour later Yinnib came in and addressed the crowded breakfast room. He had a sad expression that looked as though it might adorn his face permanently.

“The schedules we have gone with these last few years will no longer be used.” He declared glumly.

An intrigued murmur broke out.

“You see we have decided that it is best if some of our own . . .” Yinnib looked around the room, his eyes resting on Ackerley and Cerise’s table. “No—there’s no point in hiding it.” He looked at the floor as if afraid to see the reaction to what he was about to say. “Last night a good number of the instructors and workers here left.”

The intrigued murmur turned to gasps.

“Getting back to relative normalcy is going to take time.” Yinnib continued. “Things will be different from here on out. For your first task I want everyone to get some exercise; so go out and walk through the gardens for a few hours. For second task . . . just treat it as a Sunday and do what you want. I’ll talk to you all again at lunch.”

He went over to Ackerley, Cerise, and Jarn. “Meet me down in your old meditation room for first task.” He told Cerise and the others. “I have a special task for you three.”

A few minutes later the three of them headed to Cerise’s old meditation room, talking hurriedly about what they thought this special task was.

“I’ll bet he wants us to go after the nobles.” Jarn said, giving his sixth and most unlikely idea.

“Doubtful.” Cerise considered. “Maybe we have to clean the floors. Does anyone know if that janitor is still here?”

“No idea.” Ackerley said. “I think he wants us to make up new schedules that don’t require noble supervision. The walking sounds like a good first task. Now we just have to come up with some others.”

Yinnib stood in the center of the columned room. He feigned a smile when they entered. “Everything is getting rather dubious.” He said casually. “This is rather irregular coming from me, but I have a very special and important job for you three. I want you three to help me with the new people coming. The closest town to here is several miles away. I know that you have met Ayya, she is from this town. Her parents came here one night and begged to be let in. This happened many times in the past, but we never let anyone in. I—I finally realized that that was the wrong thing to do.” His eyes filled with tears, but he continued heartily. “I immediately sent a messenger to the town to tell them to come here should anything happen. Ayya’s parents told me that the latest news told them that the Welgos were on their way. I expect the townsfolk to be here any day now.”

“That’s why all the nobles left?” Cerise asked as if she didn’t know the answer.

“Unfortunately, yes. Many found that the Welgos coming this close meant that they would then get to the manor region. They went to help protect their families.” Yinnib’s eyes briefly made contact with Ackerley’s, and then shifted away. “Will you do the honor of accepting these new responsibilities?”

They all agreed readily.

19.

The night air came lazily through the open window of Kenton’s room. He sat on the windowsill and looked out over the many large houses that seemed to stretch on forever. Guards marched in the street, talking amongst themselves. Their footsteps slowly faded away and all was quiet again.

A few lights hung in windows of the many and varied homes. Kenton watched a few children playing some type of board game in the house next door. Every now and then they got up and chased each other around the room. He chuckled softly at their antics.

Kenton could remember being a little kid and hearing about the manor region for the first time. He promised his parents that he would be living there one day. At the time he didn’t know that wasn’t possible, and yet there he was. The usual rules that would have kept him out were in the past. Almost all the rules were now.

A quiet knock forced his return to reality.

“Come in.” He said, quieter than he had intended. “Come in.” He said a little louder.

Marvie entered the room and took a seat on the end of the bed.

Neither spoke for a while. Kenton continued to stare out the window, taking in as much as he could while he could.

“Feeling better?” Marvie finally asked.

“Yes.” Kenton murmured.

“Glad to hear it, commander.”

Kenton glanced over to an ornate chair where Rogerseen’s old commanders jacket lay. Black with yellow stripes on the shoulders. “Hmph.” He looked back out the window. “Doesn’t mean much now, does it?”

“There’s still a king.” Marvie pointed out. “There’s still an army.” He stood up and took a couple careful steps toward Kenton. “Are you ready?”

Kenton rolled his eyes and focused on a glowing torch in the street. “There’s not much to tell.”

“We really need to know what happened in that town. What did they do to you?”

“Nothing.” Kenton lied, his voice barely able to find its way out.

Suddenly Kenton was back in that town. He could see Victor nodding his approval from a few feet away. Sidestep neighed angrily nearby. “I never go back on a promise.” The Welgo had said. “As long as you keep up your end there won’t be a problem. Remember, adjutant, I am the only one left for you to trust.”

Kenton shook his head softly and smiled at Marvie. “I got a little beat up as I escaped.” He said. “That’s all.”

Marvie took a step back. “I believe you. The king does, and so do I.”

“Thank you.” Kenton sighed with relief. “Now on to what’s really important. How long until those invaders get here?”

Marvie shook his head, watching his friend pityingly. “Soon. Any day now. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though. It took them a year or more to get into Indigo.”

“And look what they did when they got in.”

“We have the Great Spirit’s protection.” Marvie said matter-of-factly.

Kenton rolled his eyes again. “I suppose.”

“Well, I’ll leave you then—if you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

Marvie chuckled. “Remember training? Remember how I always got in trouble and y—”

“Please.” Kenton said sharply. “I really do need some sleep.”

Marvie chuckled again, a little embarrassed. “Yeah, you got it commander.” He quietly left the room.

Kenton put his face in his hands and shook his head violently. “I know, I know. I won’t forget—I won’t!”

He woke up late the next morning. He had sat on the windowsill thinking for most of the night. The night felt better than the day. He had to deal with people during the day. At night he could just relax.

He heard shouts coming from the street. He tensed up. His mind raced back through various battles and lingered on fighting that Welgo with his brother hanging on tight.

He dressed in a hurry and went to the end of the hall to a window that looked out past the wall. Way off in the distance a dark mass was coming their way. It was without a doubt the Welgos.

Kenton didn’t get scared. His body relaxed as he saw the impending battle. He crossed his arms and watched as Chells raced all around trying to get ready. They knew what was coming. They should have been ready by then.

He walked casually back to his room, thinking about his brother. He’d much rather have the invaders there than at Chellion Castle.

“Hey!” A voice croaked from one of the rooms.

Kenton was well past the room when the voice reached his brain. He went back and peaked his head in to see who had called.

“Oh, it’s you.” A bedridden Rogerseen grumbled. “I heard you were on this floor.”

Kenton nodded and continued on.

“Wait a minute—get back here!”

He did as he was told, hovering in the doorway.

“What’s all the commotion about?”

“The Welgos are here.” Kenton said plainly.

Rogerseen swore under his breath. “We’re done for.”

“Probably.”

“You’ll survive.” Rogerseen said. “But me, no one’s going to care about a washed up commander with one leg.”

“Probably not.”

“Thank you.”

Kenton was shocked. “For what?”

“For having a smart horse. That thing got me back here faster than anything. It saved my life.”

“Oh, your welcome.”

The former commander flopped his hands around for a few seconds, nervously battling his pride. “You saw my son, didn’t you? You got that letter from him?”

“Yes.”

“When you see him again, tell him—well just tell him he’s alright.”

Kenton frowned. “He’s alright?”

“You know! Tell him he’s a good kid or something.”

“Or something?”

Rogerseen swelled up with rage. “Tell him he’s the best darn kid that there ever was if you want. Tell him I didn’t want him to come and fight because I needed him to run the farm one day. It doesn’t matter now, of course. But I want you to tell him that.”

“I’ll tell him you love him.”

“Don’t get all sappy.”

Kenton returned to his room and tried to shake the melancholy away. It wouldn’t help a commander to be gloomy in a time like that.

Someone came and told him the king needed him right away. Kenton put on his commander’s jacket for the first time, took a deep breath, and left his room.

This was only the second time he’d left the house he was staying in. Earlier in the week he took a brief walk outside to show the nurses he could manage on his own. This time felt a lot different. People were running all around getting ready, most not knowing what to do.

Kenton usually tried his hardest to stay calm through the frenetic energy before a battle, but the farther he went in the streets the more an acute feeling of anguish crept in that he couldn’t quite find meaning to. It appeared as he saw his comrades rushing about, but its origin felt distant. He brushed it off the best he could and went to get Sidestep. The horse was very happy to see him and neighed triumphantly upon being led outside.

He rode the horse over to where he saw the king, a good way away from the wall. The king was busy calling out orders to scared looking soldiers. Kenton didn’t recognize a lot of the soldiers there that day and guessed they must have come from nearby towns that got destroyed.

“Morzha!” The king called.

Kenton took his time getting over to him. “Yes, sir.”

“We’re going out to meet them. I want you to take the first group and head them off as far from here as you can.”

“But sir, they can’t get through.” Kenton assured the king. “We’ll be fine in here.”

Chellias shook his head and swung himself up on a horse that was brought to him. “This is the real Chell we’re protecting here, not some town somewhere. Get out there and do what you’re told.”

Kenton gripped the sword at his side and agreed.

He rode Sidestep over to the gate. A small part of the army stood by. All eyes were on him. He took his sword from its sheath and waved it through the air. “Open the gates.”

The large gates opened with a creak. No one moved. Kenton took Sidestep to the front and faced the two hundred or so soldiers he had to work with. He tried to think of something heroic to say. Nothing came to mind. He shook his head angrily and turned to face the oncoming mass. They greatly outnumbered the entire Chell army, and probably every Chell left in the kingdom.

Kenton gave Sidestep a nudge and the horse took off. The shouts of his small army were drowned out by the wind.

It was all happening too fast. Kenton felt like he just woke up a few minutes before and there he was heading out for perhaps the last time. Two hundred soldiers followed behind their new commander, none of their names even known to him.

He glanced down his horse’s mane as the wind whipped it around. The ground sped by far too fast. Kenton looked up and could see the Chells coming at him in slow motion. The closer they got the less he felt. Fifty feet . . . forty feet . . . Kenton glanced back. The soldiers kept up—their faces contorted with anger and fear, all mixed into looks of pure insanity.

Twenty feet.

The Welgo’s drew swords and bows. The whine of an arrow sliced the air only inches from Kenton’s head.

Ten feet.

The Welgo dead ahead raised his sword. It caught the sun and glowed white. Kenton watched as it started down. He lowered his own, aiming it carefully.

AAAAAGGGGHHHH!!!

Kenton’s sword ran straight through the Welgo’s neck. He pulled and it sliced clean through. He sliced wildly, sometimes hitting thick jackets, sometimes hitting skin. Sidestep maneuvered carefully around the much larger horses.

His own jacket took the brunt of many a slice. It was very thick and could outlast all but the sharpest sword. Many that came were rather dull. A few made contact with his leg or cheek, but he didn’t seem to notice at the time.

The king stood on the top of a lookout post on the wall and watched. Fifty archers took up posts around him.

The majority of the invaders didn’t even pause when the small army attacked. They continued on and were now closing in on the wall.

The king raised his hand and then brought it down in a signal to the archers. Fifty arrows rushed down to meet their targets. Only a few made contact, and none caused significant damage. The archers continued firing, but the jackets of the Welgos repelled most hits.

A few of the invaders held torches over their heads and hurried in at the large wooden gates of the manor region.

An attendant pulled the king away from the edge as arrows flew up and over the wall. The king raced down from the wall and through the street as the majority of the army took their place near the gates.

Gasps echoed through the manor region. Chellias turned to see the smoke rising from the gates.

Kenton reached the back of the Welgo army. None waited long enough to kill him. Their main goal was always the manor region, and they ran at it without much care to the small part of the army that tried to distract them. Kenton turned to see the full scale of the invasion for the first time. In a huddled mass that stretched out half a mile were well over two thousand Welgo fighters, all crowding around the gates. Kenton quickly looked himself over and saw that he was bleeding from several areas. He didn’t pay much attention to it.

The soldiers that had come with him were either limping along without their horses or dead on the ground. The jacket may have saved him, but it wouldn’t save the many houses and families inside. He could see the black smoke and knew it wasn’t long before Chell joined Indigo as a memory.

Kenton breathed deep, wiped sweat and blood from his face and tried to determine what to do next. By himself he wasn’t going to be much help. The invaders didn’t seem to care about him at all. They disposed of his small army in only a couple of minutes. He looked away from the walls and for the first time that day thought about his brother. A pain welled up inside of him. If he had thought about Ackerley just once that morning, he would have quit and ran straight for Chellion Castle.

Sidestep tried to head back to where the fighting was but Kenton pulled the reigns the other way. He let himself dream about living in a little house near the shore of Vloraisha. He imagined Ackerley living nearby with a wife and a family. Blood trickled down his sleeve and onto his hand. He absentmindedly wiped his hand on his pants and slowly nudged Sidestep away from the fighting and into the miles of nothing that was once Chell.

And then he caught sight of something. Three horses came into view, each trotting slowly towards him. Two had large Welgo sized warriors. The third, and center horse, had a much smaller man on its back. Kenton recognized Victor immediately. He looked back at the gates to see the Welgos disappearing inside.

Victor’s sneer suddenly loomed large in Kenton’s mind. He returned to those minutes shortly before being allowed to leave that Welgo town.

“Why are you invading?” Kenton had asked, beaten and bruised on the floor. “What do you get from all this?”

Victor had looked sadly at the wall of that small house. “We’re a warrior race that has been pushed around by you Chell’s for too long. When we saw how weak your current king is and figured out that he is just a figure head we had to act. This kingdom is very sparsely populated and the only people the king cares about are the nobles holed up in that lavish paradise. So we figured, why not destroy the countryside and see what happens? Not much. Sure he sent an army, but the real prize for us is the only place he really feels needs protecting. That’s what we really want. But now we’ve gone too far. We want the whole thing. We don’t really want to kill Chells, adjutant, we want them to be Welgos.”

“Then just kill the king and this will all be over.” Kenton had said.

Victor knelt down to look Kenton in the eye. He placed Kenton’s sword in front of him. “I realize that.”

Screaming reached Kenton’s ears and he shook himself back to the present. Large clouds of black smoke rose high into the air from behind the walls. He glanced one last time at the approaching horses. Though they were far away, Kenton could have sworn he saw Victor nod in his direction. The commander looked away. He pulled a rag from a small bag attached to the saddle, cleaned off his sword, and returned it to its sheath.

Sidestep neighed concernedly. He needed to know which way to go now.

Kenton knew he should go back and help fight. He had survived a full on attack. It must be a sign to continue on. He jerked his hands as if to pull Sidestep in that direction, but then stopped.

A good brother would go straight to Chellion Castle and warn them of the impending—he looked back at the smoke—the current disaster. But if the walls of the manor region were no hope, how would the walls of Chellion keep them out? A good soldier would go to Chellion Castle and help them prepare.

But a good Chell would go back and fight. And he was a good Chell . . . wasn’t he?

Victor was so close; his voice could be heard.

The thought of that man made Kenton want to vomit. Or perhaps it was the stream of blood running down his arm that did it.

Kenton pulled the reigns and Sidestep started toward the walls.

It was a massacre. Welgos had already set fire to many of the manors. Flames reached out of windows as the screaming was now hopeless and guttural. Whole families ran through the streets toward the gates. Invaders on horseback raced through the streets cutting them down as if playing a gruesome sport.

A family of five saw Kenton and started towards him. Their faces etched with utter terror. Each parent held a little one while an older boy, maybe twelve, ran between them. A Welgo caught sight of them, raised his sword, and with an alarming cry went straight at them.

Kenton quickly pulled his own sword. Sidestep, not needing prodding, took off down the street. The family dropped to the ground as the two fighters exchanged sword blows above them. Sidestep launched his hind legs off the ground giving Kenton the angle he needed. With a punishing blow he propelled the blade down into Welgo’s skull. He dropped from his horse, which then clambered away.

The family looked too terrified to move.

“Get out of here!” Kenton shouted. “Go get that horse and go!”

The king prodded his horse over and over again as it ran through the din in the streets and away from the fighting. The helpless calls for help didn’t distract him. There was nothing he could do now. The horrid invaders were busy setting fire to anything and everything, and the once proud army of Chell scattered in seconds to try and protect their homes or families.

The king’s great castle loomed ahead but Chellias turned off the road down an alley between two walled manors. He knew where to hide until everything was over, if it ever was over. For the first time in his life he realized that he didn’t want to be king. But there wasn’t much he could do about it anymore.

20.

It had been a very busy day. Ackerley woke at dawn with news that the first wave of families had arrived from the nearby town. He dressed quickly in his fancy tunic and headed down to greet them. He showed them inside and told them all how to get to the that room in the basement that had once been where the nobles went to unwind. Cerise waited for them at the stairs to make sure they were going the right way, and Jarn met them down below where little sections of the floor had been made into modest living areas. Around a hundred mats and blanket sets littered the floor.

Every time Ackerley thought it was over, more people came through the gates. The groups didn’t stop until late afternoon. And even then he was told that more were coming. It wasn’t just the one town either. When Yinnib’s letter reached them, the other towns that hadn’t gone up yet were notified. Far more people were coming than had been accounted for. It wasn’t long before Yinnib came to the gates with a worried expression.

“We may need more room.” He said, catching his breath. “We’re almost out of mats.”

“What about on the second floor?” Ackerley suggested, staring out into the nothingness beyond the gates. It was the closest he had come to leaving the castle grounds since arriving.

“There are a few empty rooms.” Yinnib considered. “But I don’t want anyone downstairs wondering why they didn’t get a room.”

“Take the biggest families and put them in their own rooms.” Ackerley said. “Or the families with the youngest kids.”

Yinnib gasped with amazement. “That’s why I came to you.” He said proudly, and then jogged back to the castle.

Ackerley stepped beyond the gates and took a deep breath. He squinted in the distance, trying to find anyone coming that way. No one could be seen.

It felt nice standing just out of reach of safety. Deep down he could feel the slightest hint of danger. He had lived his whole life in a small town with no walls or defenses, but this was the first time he ever felt exposed. For a brief minute it felt good, daring even. But then the obvious truth of Welgos nearby brought him somberly back. He worried about his brother. He hadn’t heard from him in a while. The Welgos being so close probably meant his brother was close. Maybe even close enough to stop by and say hello.

Just then a few people came around the edge of the castle. Ackerley jumped back behind the wall and peeked out. It was just a few more Chells. He welcomed them to Chellion Castle and told them how to find Cerise, who would then lead them to their new home. They thanked him and went on their way.

Night fell and Ackerley’s fear grew. There hadn’t been a group for almost a half hour and he figured it was about time to close the gates. Cerise came by with dinner, and they stood just outside the gates and ate, keeping their eyes peeled to the darkness.

“It’s a bit spooky with the gates open.” Said Cerise, shivering.

“Yeah, I think we should probably close them for now and wait to see if anyone knocks.” He glanced up at the large wooden gates. “I think we could hear knocking.”

“I keep thinking,” Cerise said quietly, “about what’ll happen when the Welgos come. Just in general. I mean, surely we can’t live here forever. The war won’t last forever. What happens when it’s all over?” She put her empty plate down and crossed her arms.

Ackerley bit his lip and stared into the night. “Well, assuming we win—”

“No—” Cerise breathed. “I don’t want to. I’ve already ruled that out.”

Very suddenly Ackerley felt an acute fear unlike anything he had ever felt. He was no stranger to fear, even intense fear that took all hope from him for long periods of time, but this was different. This was an all consuming fear that didn’t have a discernable end.

When his parents died he knew the worst was over and that he would eventually get over it. When attacked by a Welgo everything had happened too quickly for the fear to set in too deep. But now, after hearing the words he had been too scared to truly think, he felt fear that had no end, at least not an ending where he wasn’t lying dead from a sword wound.

“In that case . . .” His voice shook. He tried to steady himself. “In that case we should run, shouldn’t we?” He looked at Cerise.

To his surprise she was smiling. “That’s what I was thinking.”

Relief edged its way through the fear, but couldn’t take over entirely. “So where do we go, and when?”

Cerise rested her back against the wall. “You’ve heard of Vloraisha?”

“Yes.”

“It’s supposed to be great down there. I went once when I was really little. I don’t remember much, other than sitting on a beautiful beach. As far as I know the Welgos haven’t gotten there. Hopefully they don’t have any want to either. It’s due south.” She took Ackerley’s hand. The fear really did fall away now. “Let’s do it. If we hear anything about the Welgos closing in—or if your brother gets here—or, or just if we feel like it.”

“But it’ll be so dangerous.” Ackerley said, disappointed. “And we don’t have any horses.”

Cerise’s eyes shined with determination. “Then we wait for now. The second we get an opening we’ll go. There’s nothing else here for us. There’s nothing else anywhere, actually.”

Ackerley nodded exuberantly. “Chell’s gone.” He said. He didn’t feel the pang like he thought he would. “Vloraisha’s the only hope for people like us.”

Cerise wrapped her arms around him. “Don’t go without me.” She whispered in his ear.

“Never.”

He didn’t want it to end. He hadn’t had a proper hug in a while, and this one was far different than the ones his parents used to give him.

“Come on now, you two.”

The two of them jumped away from each other, looking to see who the voice belonged to.

Jarn walked towards them, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Right here in front of everyone?” He said.

Several people including Yinnib watched from the doorway across the front lawn.

Jarn barely suppressed his grin. “Time to go in, but don’t worry, I’ll leave you two alone tonight.”

“Shut up, Yarn.” Ackerley said, his face burning. “We’ve had a good day today, that’s all.” He grabbed his friend by the shoulder and pulled him in close. “Here, one for you too since you’re feeling so left out.”

“Oh no, I’m good.” Jarn pulled himself away. “I’ve gotten about twenty hugs from people so relieved to be someplace safe . . . though none quite like that.”

Cerise looked resentfully at him but didn’t say anything.

They closed the gates, locked them, and went back inside.

Yinnib clapped his hands together, his eyes welling up as usual. “I knew I picked the three best candidates for this. You all grew up with such great families, the perfect trio for work like this. I know you’ll do Chell great when you’re older, I just know it.”

Ackerley agreed half heartedly. His mind was filled with never ending fear and the promise of a country he had only recently found out about to escape that fear.

The next day it was their job to take registry of all the families. They went around the basement cataloging their names and where they were from. Yinnib seemed to think a registry was just the sort of thing posterity needed.

“One day, future Chells will want to know who lived here during the war. The history of Chellion castle will undoubtedly be taught to every young Chell. My name will be right there as the fearless leader who helped hundreds.” He said excitedly to the three of them when they had finished.

The few nobles who were left tended to the children on the third floor. Yinnib didn’t trust them with the families down below.

Food was getting scarce. No new shipments came and the worry grew that something bad happened to the manor region. Ackerley didn’t have time to dwell on that too much as his duties with the families grew. He dealt with their needs. At first it was easy as they all were so thankful for the safe place to stay. But that changed by the end of the second day. Age old feuds swelled up among two of the towns that had evidently started over a hundred years ago with the stealing of a goat. Ackerley spent most of that afternoon separating the families from those towns, sending them to opposite ends of the large room. It didn’t help much as they could still yell foul words back and forth over the heads of whoever was in between them.

The food scarcity only made things worse. To make sure everyone got at least something to eat only one meal a day was promised. This made almost everybody in the castle peeved.

“I thought this was a great castle?” Someone had yelled at Ackerley. “And suddenly you don’t have any food. It’s because we’re not nobles isn’t it?”

He lost track of how many times he had to explain to people that the Welgos had torched all the farms and food. That should have been something that they knew already.

“They just want someone to blame and nobles are the easiest target for them.” Cerise explained. “Thrindle always blamed the commoners, so it goes both ways.”

Yinnib carefully explained that Ackerley wasn’t a noble either. “He’s just like you all!” He had said, expecting all to be well. All that did was turn their anger towards him or Cerise.

On the second night the four of them huddled together in Yinnib’s bedroom on the first floor. The walls were covered with bookcases, and all the bookcases were filled with little wooden figurines. Some were of people, but most were animals or little houses. Yinnib dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “I get bored.”

“It’s getting to be a nightmare with them.” Jarn lamented. “If we had food that’d be one thing, but since we don’t. . .”

“We just have to explain the situation to them better.” Yinnib said hopefully. He looked ragged and tired.

“We’ve been explaining it to them.” Ackerley groaned. “I don’t know what more we can do besides saying ‘deal with it and shut up’. It’s not like they have any place better to be.”

“They’re just scared.” Cerise said calmly. “People do weird things when they’re scared, especially in large groups. Be glad there hasn’t been an uprising already.”

Jarn yawned loudly. “I can see why so many nobles left.”

“Don’t say that.” Said Yinnib kindly. “The princess is right, it’s just the fear talking.”

Cerise shifted uncomfortably at being called a princess.

“What’s the long term plan?” Ackerley asked, glancing quickly at Cerise.

“It’s best not to think too long term.” Yinnib said. “I’ll go into the food stores tomorrow and ask Chellion if he knows of any other food that’s been put away.”

“We can ask.” Jarn exclaimed, clearly ready and able to finally check out the fourth floor.

“Alright, go on tonight if you want. He usually stays up late.”

A few minutes later the three of them were on the third floor, the hidden staircase open in front of them.

“It’s about time I get to go on an adventure up to the fourth floor.” Jarn said happily. “I’ll lead the way.”

The fourth floor hallway was as nice as always. The door to Thora’s room was thankfully closed. Ackerley had no intention of dealing with her. He noticed Cerise’s hands clenched into fists as she walked by the room, refusing to look at it. At the end of the hall they knocked. Chellion opened the door and invited them inside. Jarn took in the large ornate room with awe.

“You’re Rogerseen’s boy, right?” Chellion asked. He was wearing a thick nightgown and the usual yellow cap.

“That’s right.” Jarn answered, bowing deeply.

Chellion chuckled softly and shook his head.

“Sir,” Cerise began, “Yinnib sent us up to see if you had any extra food hidden away somewhere. There are so many people in the basement that it’s getting hard to feed them all.”

“Ah, what a wonderful idea that was.” Chellion said dreamily. “It’s so nice to be helpful to your neighbors.”

“Um, yes, but do you have any food?” Cerise asked again.

“I have a store room under the gardens. And aren’t they looking dreadful? The gardeners all left. But anyway—yes, there is a hidden entrance to it right in the fountain. The water’s been drained so it should be easy to find it. My father built this castle. He sure did like his hidden rooms and such.” He gave a small laugh. “I do to. It’s always nice to have a touch of mystery.” He suddenly grew very serious. “I’m terribly sorry to hear about Indigo.” He looked at Cerise sorrowfully.

Her face went red and she mumbled something.

“Of course the Great Spirit will have been very friendly to your family.”

She folded her arms and stared at the ground.

“Thank you.” Ackerley said loudly, wiping sweat from his hands. “We’ll go and check the store room tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, and I have something for you, Cerise.” Chellion went over to a drawer and pulled out a key. “This is for the room across from Thora’s. It’s where I kept all the treasure from Indigo. I figure it’s all yours now, so you should have access to it.”

Cerise took the key and managed a weak “thank you”.

They left Chellion’s room and stopped halfway down the hall. Cerise put the key in the lock and turned. The door glided open with a small click. The light from the hall flooded in and revealed stacks of crates, all with the word Indigo printed on them. Cerise touched the word tenderly and opened a crate. She pulled out a small silver pitcher. It glistened in the hall light.

“This was my mom’s.” She said faintly. “My grandmother gave it to her.” She held it out for Ackerley and Jarn to see. “You leave it open by your bedside. After waking from a wonderful dream you snap the lid on.” She said, her voice growing stronger with nostalgia. “And when you want to have that dream again you open it right before going to bed. But you have to make sure the windows and door are closed or it might get out.” She giggled. “Then someone else might have your dream.”

She looked at the jug longingly. As if it might hold mysterious powers. “I think I’ll bring it down. Maybe she left me a good dream.”

Cerise wasn’t in the mood to look through all the stuff that night. She locked the door, checking several times to make sure it was locked. She gave a meaningful glare to Thora’s door and together they went back downstairs.

They went all the way back to the first floor in hopes of finding some food—they hadn’t had any dinner yet—when Yinnib ran into view. He was out of breath and looked frantic.

“There’s a storeroom—” Jarn began.

“Not now. Morzha, come quick.” He ran out of sight down the hall.

Ackerley followed at a brisk walk. He hoped it wasn’t another feud starting up.

They found Yinnib standing in the doorway of one of the rooms down the hallway where the nobles stayed. He waved them forward wildly.

Ackerley nervously took a look in the room and gasped. His brother lay in the bed.

21.

One of the few nobles who had stayed busily cleaned and bandaged the sleeping Kenton. Ackerley stood over him, watching his brother’s labored breathing.

“He arrived right after you went up to see Chellion.” Yinnib explained, tears rolling down his face. “He barely made it in the gates before both him and his horse collapsed. The horse is in the stables being looked after.”

Ackerley nodded, not sure what to feel. The wounds didn’t bother him; he was alive after all. Jarn and Cerise stayed in the doorway, looking curiously in. After a few minutes of wringing his hands anxiously Yinnib sent them to bed. Ackerley stayed, sitting in a chair in hopes his brother would wake up and give them all whatever news he had. When Kenton was properly bandaged Yinnib and the noble left Ackerley alone.

He sat there for several hours waiting for his brother to wake up. Sometime deep in the night Yinnib returned and sent Ackerley to bed, promising to wake him as soon as anything happened.

It was hard to sleep with the the idea that his brother held some dark secret that they all needed to hear. He woke after just a few hours and took his position next to his brother.

Kenton woke up around noon that day. Ackerley stared at him, expecting him to suddenly shout out that Chell was dead and the Welgos were only minutes from the castle. Instead Kenton took in his surroundings slowly, and smiled when he saw Ackerley.

“How have you been?” He asked.

“Good.” Ackerley said timidly. “It’s been nice. I’m glad you took me here.”

“I like your outfit, you look like a real noble’s kid.”

Ackerley tried not to smile as he looked down at his fancy tunic. He hadn’t even noticed that he had gotten used to wearing it.

Yinnib burst in the room. “You’re awake, how wonderful.” He stood expectantly by Kenton’s side.

“Yep, just woke up. This is a nice room.”

Yinnib seemed absolutely delighted for some reason. It quickly made sense as he pointed to Kenton’s coat, which had been neatly displayed on a nearby chair.

“I couldn’t help but notice your new jacket, Morzha. It gives me such great joy to know I am in the presence of a commander.”

Ackerley took in the shabby black coat with yellow stripes on the shoulder. It didn’t look like much to him.

Kenton looked at it sorrowfully. “It’s just a coat.”

Yinnib guffawed in an unsettling way. “Oh, you’re just being modest. It’s a true achievement. The only one with more power than you in the entire kingdom is the king himself.”

“I suppose.” Kenton said weakly.

Yinnib was simply beside himself. “If only we could have a sumptuous dinner to celebrate your arrival. If only we could . . . But don’t worry. We shall cook up what we have and it will be delightful in its own right.”

Ackerley had forgotten how annoying Yinnib could be. The past few days had sobered him up and made him somewhat pleasant to be around. He assumed that was all over now.

“So,” Yinnib said, clapping his hands together, “what great news do you have for us?”

“Actually, could you give me a few minutes alone with Ackerley? It’s been a long time and I want to catch up with him.”

Yinnib bowed deeply and backed slowly out of the room. “Absolutely. You two talk and I’ll be back with some wonderful food. The best I can find.” He gave a joyful grin to Ackerley and pointed at the jacket again as if he might have missed it. And then he was out the door.

Kenton waited several seconds to make sure Yinnib was sufficiently gone.

“So what’s going on out there?” Ackerley asked, bracing himself for the answer.

Kenton sighed. “It’s a mess. The farms are gone, there’s no food. The manor region is . . .” He suddenly became very interested in his bandages. “It’s gone too.”

The fear and dread Ackerley felt the night before came back with full force. “It’s—it’s gone?”

“The Welgos burned the whole thing to the ground.” He undid and retightened a bandage around one of his fingers. “It didn’t take them any time at all. They got in and destroyed the place. I got out and came straight here. Poor Sidestep barely made it.”

Ackerley wanted to run from the room, out of the gates, and straight to Vloraisha. If only it didn’t take so long to get there. “What do we do now?” He said faintly.

“Everyone said the manor region was going to be perfectly safe. They said no invader could get in. That’s what they said about here too.”

“Mmhmm.” Ackerley mumbled, rocking back and forth, racking his brain to figure some way out of this mess. “They’re . . . um, they’re coming here?”

“Eventually—probably.”

“Then we should run.” Ackerley suggested shyly.

“I’ll have to talk to Chellion. I don’t think that everyone can make it, but I saw whole towns moving that direction with little to no problems. It may be the best bet. Only . . .”

“What?”

“Only I don’t want to take everyone.”

Ackerley didn’t like the idea of leaving anyone behind to face the Welgos, but he knew his brother was right. A small group, maybe only a few, would fare much better when they got to where they were going, and be much quicker.

“Just us.” Kenton said.

Ackerley looked at him with wide eyes. “No. I can’t leave Cerise and Jarn.”

“Who?”

“Cerise is the princess of—was the princess of Indigo. Jarn’s my friend, Jarn Rogerseen.”

Kenton bit his lip and stared at the wall. “Four might not be so bad.”

The door opened and they both jumped. Yinnib bounced in jauntily and set a tray with bread and soup on Kenton’s lap. “It’s not much.”

“It looks great!” Kenton said, and he was serious. “I haven’t seen much food recently.”

“Oh, wow.” Yinnib chuckled, positively flushed with excitement. “If you say so.”

“Now if you please.” Kenton pointed to the door.

Yinnib looked crushed. “Of course, take your time.”

When he was gone again Kenton’s frown returned.

“I—I’ll have to tell everyone.” He said, looking forlorn. “When everyone knows the situation we can figure out how to proceed.”

“What about—” Ackerley paused, unsure if he should continue.

His brother looked at him expectantly.

“What about Vloraisha?” Ackerley said, becoming very interested in the design on the carpet.

“That’s what I was thinking. It’s really the only place to go. But I don’t want to go just yet. I need to find a way to strengthen the defenses here. I can’t in good faith run without at least trying to protect it.”

“I’ll be ready for when the time is right.” Ackerley said.

Kenton pushed himself up a little more in bed. “I’ll take a look around today, talk to everyone, and see if there’s any way to further Welgo-proof this place. For now get on with whatever you usually have to do today.”

Ackerley went out to the hall where Yinnib waited.

“Does he need anything?” He asked eagerly.

“I don’t know, go ask him.”

Yinnib bounded into the room.

Cerise and Jarn were down in the basement handing out bread and butter to everyone for breakfast. Ackerely joined in, and after handing it all out they climbed back up the stairs, eagerly awaiting an update.

Ackelrey didn’t want his friends to have to wait to hear the news from Kenton. So when he thought they were completely alone he stared at the floor and told them everything his brother had said.

Cerise grabbed her necklace and gasped. Jarn leaned against the wall for support, he looked distraught, his breathing shallow.

“He’s a commander. Which—which means . . .”

“He didn’t say.” Ackerley said quickly. He completely forgot that Rogerseen was the old commander.

“I think I’ll go lay down for a bit.” Jarn said, slowly walking away, keeping one hand on the wall.

Cerise turned her expression of fear into determination. “We’d better go see if we can find any food under the fountain.”

On their way out of the castle he did his best to talk of happier things.

“Did you have any insightful dreams last night?” Ackerley asked, thinking about the jug Cerise found.

She smiled serenely. “No, just the usual. I guess it was empty.”

The gardens already looked different. The flowers wilted and the bushes were already growing out of their shapes. The fountain stood empty in the center of it all. They jumped in and began looking around for the entrance. Near the rounded back wall they saw grooves in the shape of a square. Cerise got down and tried to pry it up. It wouldn’t budge. Ackerley stepped carefully around the fountain’s head. A small stone looked oddly out of place. He stepped on it and heard Cerise let out a cry. The square flew open revealing a passage with stone steps.

Cerise led the way down and they came to a large storeroom. It was hard to see with only a patch of light coming from the entrance, but it looked stocked with all kinds of gardening equipment. Ackerley felt around the back wall and found several crates full of dry pasta.

“Better than nothing.” He said.

“There’s some preserves over here.” Cerise said from the opposite wall. “This should last a little while, but we’re still going to run out fast.”

Ackerley put the crate back and slouched against some kind of large gardening device. “We can’t just wait here until they show up.”

Cerise grabbed as many jars of preserves as she could carry and started up the stairs. “One problem at a time. Let’s feed some people.”

The two of them spent the morning carrying all the food from the storeroom into the kitchens with the help of a couple nobles. The head of the kitchens, whom Ackerley finally found out was named Rathsa, decided there was enough food to have one final fancy dinner. It wasn’t going to be terribly fancy, and everyone would only get two helpings of pasta, but it was dinner and everyone was as excited as they could dare to be for such a time. Yinnib decided that it would be best to wait until after dinner to break the news. Though it wasn’t hard for anyone to guess that it was bad as Yinnib spent the whole day gently sobbing as he paced the entire castle.

Kenton got to work immediately with as many people as he could get to make a netting of everything metal and relatively flat to put on both sides of the wooden gates. Ackerley went out to help and was very surprised to see Lord Chellion himself watching over the progress. He wore a bright green tunic, as fancy as can be, with a long black jacket over it.

“‘Bout time I came down from my perch to help.” He said upon seeing Ackerley. “I’ve been a very poor host, and I do apologize. Your brother came up and told me what happened. I can’t fully believe it.”

Chellion found a bunch of old shields that were given away by the kings for service to the kingdom. They were mainly for decoration, but they were fire resistant and that’s all that mattered. The netting was finished by late evening, all the children helped. The shields and other metal odds and ends were lifted up over the gates with ropes. The gates could still close and Kenton was pleased that they would help protect the castle from the same fate as the manor region.

Everyone came inside to see that the large table was filled with bowls of pasta, cups of milk, and loafs of bread. Everyone downstairs was invited up in groups to sit at the empty seats when the kids started to leave. It was the happiest anyone had been in weeks. The whole dining room was filled with joyous talk and the sound of bowls being emptied. Even Jarn cracked a smile, though he didn’t join in the conversations.

But soon it was over and everyone was called into the ballroom. All the children and the nobles that remained crowded inside. Yinnib stood tall and strong before everyone and cleared his throat, he looked as though he had just stopped crying.

“Thank you all for helping with the castle’s protection today. It fills my heart with hope for the future of this great land that we have such wonderful young people as yourselves.” His voice suddenly grew deep and detached. He stared at the floor. “However, things are not going well on the outside. Commander Morzha comes today with horrible news from the manor region. And—” His eyes began to well up again. “And I’ll have him tell you.” Yinnib ran out of the ballroom, his face in his hands.

Kenton wrung his hands and attempted a weak smile as he looked out at everyone. Distressed murmurs broke out.

“As Yinnib was saying,” he began, his face blanched, “the manor region fell a few days ago.”

The murmurs were immediately replaced with loud chatter mixed with wails of anguish. Some fell to their knees and others grabbed friends for support.

“I hope,” Kenton yelled above the noise, “that we will be joined by your families soon. Believe me when I say that the Welgos are not ones for genocide. While they have killed many, they want the land more than the lives. I assure you that—”

“It’s over!” Someone shouted.

“We’re doomed!” Came a high pitched cry.

“No, we’re not doomed.” Kenton assured them. “Listen to me. We are safe here.”

Ackerley knew it wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter what he knew, it only mattered what they believed.

“And I promise you that your families will be arriving. They know how to get here and I’m sure they are on their way now.”

Some of the crowd began to calm down while others couldn’t be consoled.

“If we stick together as one. If we truly believe that we are one Chell, then the Great Spirit will come and protect us all. It will hide our location from the enemy and we can ride out the rest of their rampage and take back our kingdom for good.”

Ackerley had never heard his brother talk like a Chell before. It sounded weird and he doubted that Kenton believed a word of what he was saying.

It did the trick, though. A lot of the children and nobles nodded and dried their tears at the thought of the Great Spirit.

“Now let’s all get to bed, and tomorrow I’m sure your families will start arriving.”

He quickly left the room. Ackerley ran after him.

“Do you really think their families are coming?” He asked his brother.

Kenton didn’t slow down. “I’m sure someone survived. This is the only place for them to go now.” He gave his brother a troubled smile. “I told the truth about the Welgos. They really don’t want to murder everyone.”

“How do you know?”

“They told me.”

They started up the stairs in the main entryway just as Chellion came rushing down, putting on his yellow cap.

“Oh, oh, I hope you told them about their families.”

Kenton bowed. “I did as you instructed.”

“Great!” He shouted excitedly.

Both Ackerley and Kenton gave him bewildered looks.

“Great?” Kenton asked sharply, looking rather annoyed.

“Certainly!” Said Chellion, patting Kenton on the head as if he were a dog. “Because they’re here.”

“What?” Kenton cried out.

“I saw them from my window. The king and everyone. It’s a little crowded, but we’ll manage. I’d better get those gates open.” He dashed past and out the doors.

Kenton followed closely, as did Ackerley. Jarn and Cerise came into the entryway and ran out with them.

“What’s going on?” Jarn asked, speaking for the first time since that morning.

“Apparently a bunch of people are here.”

Jarn’s mouth dropped open. He looked hopeful. “You were right, Ackerley’s brother.”

“It’s Kenton.” Kenton shouted back.

The five of them sprinted across the lawn and pulled the gates open. A large group of people stood in the dark. They were lit by a large torch held by a man on a horse. He was dressed very well and Ackerley took him to be the king. The man chuckled heartily when he saw Chellion.

“Uncle, may we take refuge in your wondrous home?”

Chellion laughed with relief at the sight of them all. “Get on in here, Chellias. Everyone, come on in and make yourselves at home.”

The large group looked worn and tired, but they brightened up considerably upon entering the gates.

Back up at the front doors curious onlookers flooded out when they saw what was going on.

It was a truly wonderful sight as parents and children reunited on the dark lawn. There was much merriment and surprise as more and more came out.

King Chellias jumped down from his horse and gave his uncle a one armed hug, holding the torch away with his other arm. “It’s been far too long, uncle.”

“It sure has, but you’ve been busy.”

“Ah.” The king said proudly as he watched all the reunited families. “They were so worried that something happened to this place. It’s great to see it untouched.” The smile faded. “There’s nothing left back there. There’s nothing left anywhere.”

Lord Chellion waved his arm carelessly. “The Great Spirit clearly found you all. It’s here now with us. We can’t be harmed.”

Ackerley noticed Kenton looking troubled. At first he was as happy as anyone else at all the families, but now he looked at the king nervously. He waited for Lord Chellion to lead the way back into the castle and went up to the king.

“There you are, Morzha. I thought you died back there.”

“No sir, I came here to start the defensive enhancements.” He pointed to all the metal on the gates.

“Great idea.” The king said loudly.

Kenton lowered his voice. “But sir, you shouldn’t be here.”

“Nonsense.” The king gave Kenton a hearty slap on the back and walked away.

Kenton went after him. Ackerley followed closely, trying not to be noticed.

“You know you’re the one they’re really after. You are Chell. You need to leave the kingdom at once.”

The king was trying not to listen. “Look at all this love, Morzha. It’s so nice to see after everything we’ve been through.”

They joined the crowd heading into the castle and Kenton dropped it. Ackerley fell back, looking for his friends.

Jarn stood rooted near the gates as Cerise began to close them. He shook slightly and Ackerley realized that his father was not one of the group. Ackerley went over to help him back inside.

Just as Cerise was about to shut the gates someone shouted from the darkness.

“Wait a second, I’m coming!”

Jarn looked up in disbelief.

Cerise pulled the gate open again and a horse plotted along through it. They all stared at the rider-less horse, looking confused.

An arm came from the other side of the horse as an old bearded man attempted to pull himself back onto the animal’s back.

“Dad!” Jarn shouted, going over to help.

“Is that you, boy?” The man grunted, slipping back down the side of the horse.

“Here, I got ya.”

Jarn held onto his father, who couldn’t hold on anymore and fell to the ground, bringing Jarn with him.

“I hate those stupid beasts!” Rogerseen roared, flailing about.

“Dad, where’s your other leg?”

Rogerseen sat up and caught his breath. “Buried somewhere in the Vastlands I suppose.”

Jarn never looked happier as he helped his father to his foot and acted as a crutch as they made their way to the front doors.

Ackerley had seen his friend smile before, but never so broadly and never for so long.

Cerise put Rogerseen’s other arm around her shoulders and together they made quick time in getting him inside. The whole castle was filled with the sounds of happy families making their way to the ballroom until sleeping arrangements and food could be figured out. Both Cerise and Ackerley snuck back upstairs to be out of the way. They went to Cerise’s room and closed the door.

Cerise fell onto her bed and sat up with difficulty. “What a day.” She said, exhausted but smiling.

“It’s been a whirlwind.” Ackerley agreed.

She rubbed her hands together thoughtfully. “Maybe things will turn around.”

Ackerley couldn’t hold it in any longer. He told Cerise what he overheard his brother saying to the king.

She bit her lip apprehensively. “Hmm.”

“What do you think he meant by saying the king is Chell?”

“He’s clearly worried that the king is putting us all in danger by being here. I wish we knew what he knows. And you’re sure he said that the Welgos told him?”

“That’s what he said, ‘they told me’. I couldn’t have misheard it.”

Cerise stood up and looked out the window. “Something tells me someone like Chellias isn’t used to having people tell him what to do, or even what he should do. I doubt he’d leave unless someone he really trusted told him to.”

“His uncle?” Ackerley suggested.

“Maybe.” Cerise said slowly. “But we’d never get him to believe it either. And I really don’t think that the Welgos don’t want to murder. If they didn’t want people dead, then they would have spared the towns out in the middle of nowhere and . . .”

Ackerley knew she was going to say Indigo. He joined her at the window. All he could see was their reflections.

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “One way or another everything’s going to come to a head pretty soon.”

“Then . . . Vloraisha?”

Cerise smiled at him in the reflection. “Wouldn’t it be nice? I hope what happened tonight doesn’t get in the way. But if it does, we now have access to several horses.”

“Kenton said he would come. You, me, him, and Jarn can all go if we hear that the Welgos are coming.”

Cerise looked away. “But we can’t. Jarn wouldn’t leave his father and your brother can’t leave the king. If he does the king could have him killed.”

Ackerley’s heart sank. “Then if we want to survive we’ll just have to make a run for it, I guess.”

“I always wondered if that’s how it was going to end.”

“Begin.” Ackerley corrected. “This is the beginning. Right now we’re in between.”

“I suppose.”

22.

The castle didn’t stay long in merriment. Sobbing quickly took the place of joy as a lot of children found out that their families wouldn’t be coming. Jarn’s happiness of being reunited with his father also faded when he was told that his mother didn’t make it. On top of that the tiny fragment of the army that had come with the king broke the news that most of the older kids that left the castle to fight had died, including, to both Ackerley and Jarn’s sadness, Murdo.

It was weird looking at Murdo’s empty bed that night. Jamie stared at it for a long time muttering that he should have gone as well. It didn’t stay empty long, however, as Rogerseen moved in the following morning after spending the first night being checked for injuries.

That day was dark and cloudy with intermittent rain showers. Fog settled in overnight and wouldn’t go away. Several soldiers were stationed on the roof at all hours for signs of Welgos, which proved to be quite an ordeal as they couldn’t see anything.

The king and Chellion took over for Yinnib, having relieved him of his duty as a sign of respect for having done such a great job for so long. Yinnib didn’t like this much and he paced the castle at any and all hours in boredom. The noble families took the remaining rooms, including Cerise’s old residence, while some bunked in their children’s rooms if extra beds or mats could be found. Jamie’s family moved in with him. They took up half the room with their beds, forcing Ackerley out. He didn’t mind as he moved in with Cerise. Kenton was supposed to as well, but he chose to spend his nights on guard duty and slept in Ackerley’s bed for only a few hours during the day. Cerise liked the company and was happy not to have people she didn’t know move in with her.

The castle was now so overcrowded that food became a real concern. At first the king refused to take a meal cut as he was the king and all that. Chellion convinced him it was in his best interest and he reluctantly agreed. But even with that it was still hard to find food. Yinnib made it his job to be in charge of food and counted up everything they had. Two days after everyone arrived he found Ackerley wandering through the gardens and shared some bad news.

“I think,” he said fearfully, “that we only have one week’s worth of food left. And that’s if everyone only eats one meal a day.”

Ackerley figured something like that was going to happen. “What do you think should be done?”

Yinnib looked as though he might drop dead from exhaustion at any moment. “Who knows, young Morzha. Do you have any ideas?”

“Leave the country?”

Yinnib gave him a stern look. He looked about to say why that wouldn’t work, but then he sighed and shrugged. “At this rate that may be the only option.” He tried to look cheery. “But we don’t know that the Welgos would even come here. There’s no point in leaving if we’re perfectly safe.”

Ackerley sat down on the edge of the fountain and looked out at all the hedges that were starting to grow wild. “Perfectly safe while starving to death.”

The old noble sat down beside him. He was so hunched over, he faced the ground. “It’s just so hard to figure this all out.”

“No it’s not.” Ackerley said, growing a tad excited. “We can leave in groups to Vloraisha. It’s safer than here and we don’t have to worry about Welgos.”

For a second he was afraid he’d said the wrong thing. Yinnib mumbled something about being a Chell, but it was beginning to get hard for even him to believe in all that now.

“We’d never make it.” He said gravely. “Most of us would die just from the journey, not to mention being attacked. I know I wouldn’t make it.” He smiled at Ackerley. “I like the idea, though. You’re thinking of ways to help everyone survive. If you ask the king he might agree. Perhaps not now, but when the food really runs out he’d have to.”

Ackerley shook his head. “Without any food we’d definitely never make it. The only way to do it would be to leave now—right now. We could make up all the rest of the pasta and give it to people to eat along the way. Of course we’d have to leave in groups; I don’t think the Vloraishan’s would necessarily like to see a giant mass of us at once. I’m sure they already have to deal with a bunch of Chell’s that have shown up.”

Yinnib mulled it over for a long while. “If you could convince the king then . . . then it might be a possibility.”

Ackerley hadn’t wanted to talk to the king about going to Vloraisha. He was sure that someone so deep in Chell lore would be against it. On top of that why would he ever listen to him? It made more sense to try and get Kenton or Chellion to convince him.

The only problem was that neither seemed to be around. Ackerley looked for them for most of the day. He went to the basement only to see that the old feuds had returned in full force and guards had to be placed around the clock. The fourth floor was empty except for Thora, who tried to talk to Ackerley, but he quickly ran away at the sight of her. The first three floors were crowded with people milling about because they didn’t have anything better to do. It took twice as long as usual to get around the halls with so much traffic.

Finally, near evening he found Kenton coming down from the roof, having spent the day on lookout duty.

By this point Ackerley didn’t want to tell his brother what he was planning for fear he would shut him down. He knew Kenton would rather just go in a tiny group.

“Do you know where Chellion is?” Ackerley asked.

Kenton looked dead tired and didn’t notice him at first. “What’s that?”

“Chellion, do you know where he is?”

“No clue. He said something about a garden, but I didn’t see him out back.”

Ackerley thanked Kenton and ran off. He didn’t know why he didn’t think of it sooner. For someone so used to being alone, going to the one place left with quiet was an obvious choice.

The small doorway opened and he snuck in the tunnel without anyone seeing him. He came out into the hidden garden between the walls and saw Lord Chellion sitting by himself near the pool of water. He was surprised to see Ackerley, but the surprise turned into a smile and he motioned for him to sit beside him.

“I suppose Cerise showed you this place.” Chellion said, a wisp of nostalgia to his voice.

Ackerley nodded. The sound of frogs and bugs calmed him right down. “I need to talk to you about something important.”

Chellion, who looked just as tired as everyone else, seemed in a state of tranquility in the garden. “I suppose you want to tell me that you have some magical way of getting us out of this mess. My nephew has been talking my ear off with idea after idea. I couldn’t take it anymore. Not because they were ideas to get us out, but because they all ended with him singlehandedly taking over the Welgo capital.” He chuckled. “He sure does take after his father. My brother had all sorts of kooky ideas. Anyway, what’s yours?”

Ackerley looked into the water and pretended Cerise was sitting next to him. It was hard to imagine, but it gave him just enough courage to speak his mind. “I think that we should go to Vloraisha. It’s the only place I know of that’s safe now.” Chellion was about to say something. Ackerley continued on quickly before he could be cut off. “I know it’s dangerous and I know we might get attacked. I know all that stuff. Yinnib told me that we only have a week of food left. If that’s true, then we’re going to die of starvation if we don’t do anything.” Once again Chellion tried to butt in and once again Ackerley sped up. “We can go in small groups, or we can go in one big group. The important thing is to get away. Maybe the invaders don’t want to come here—maybe they do. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have food.”

The lord sat quietly with his finger in the air as if to retort. He lowered it and gazed into the water at a little turtle poking its head above the surface. “Kenton told me about a large group he saw heading there. Of course we don’t know what happened when they got there. He said that we should send all the people in the basement as it is their best chance for survival.” He watched the turtle swim around a little before continuing. “You’re right. It is also our best chance. It would be dangerous.”

“I know.” Ackerley said.

“We’d have to cross the dangerous Vastlands where nothing’s growing anymore.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I—I’ll tell Chellias about it and see what he says. Since he’s here we have to listen to him now. He’s in charge.”

“I understand.”

A small bit of relief edged through some of the dread. It would be a hard sell, but with Chellion being the one to talk to the king, it seemed plausible that they would be heading to Vloraisha sooner rather than later.

Chellion went to tell the king. Ackerley stayed in the little garden attempting to relax as much as possible. When it was too dark to see he made his way back into the castle. He was nervous about what the king said and tried to find someone who might know if anything had been decided. He found Jarn helping his father around and he quickly asked if the king had made an announcement. Jarn said he hadn’t heard anything.

Yinnib found Ackerley and at once told him to head down to the basement where the king had made and important decision. On the way down he told Ackerley that the king decided that the townspeople had to leave at first light for Vloraisha.

When they got down there the families were getting their things together as the king went around trying to drum up support for his idea. Ackerley was put in charge of handing out rations to everyone; there wasn’t much to go around as the king decided that commoners could last longer than nobles without food. When that was finished Yinnib explained that the king felt that with them gone the food would last longer.

“So we aren’t going as well?” Ackerley asked.

The king overheard him and came over. “You’re Kenton’s brother, right?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, I’ve heard great things about you.” The king talked far too loud and every one of the townspeople listened closely. “I’m putting together a small force to go and raid deep into Welgo territory. We’re going to send those cowardly invaders right back up there to defend the place. By the time they get there we’ll be gone with more jewels and food than anyone’s ever seen. It’s an ancient tactic. Raid them while they’re busy raiding you. Many wars were won that way. It’s the only thing left to do.”

“But—sir.” Ackerley croaked.

“What’s that, boy?”

“I just—I think it’s important to get to safety.”

The king’s eyes twinkled with a courage that couldn’t be expressed with words. “We’re going to make our home safe. There’s no point in going to someone else’s and expecting what we can give ourselves.”

Ackerley had to admit he liked the idea, only it was far too late for it to work. If the king had done that before waging an endless war in the Vastlands, back when there were more troops and more to fight for, then it probably would have worked. Now with only a single castle left to call Chell it sounded far too desperate.

The boy didn’t know how to talk to the king and so remained quiet. A few minutes later he sat on his bed and told Cerise everything that happened. She admitted that the idea would have been great before Indigo had gone up.

“It’s far too late now.” She said, echoing his thoughts.

“He’s in charge.” Ackerley said sullenly. “Chellion said we have to do what he says.”

“Then let’s run away tomorrow. We can take one of the horses and get out of here, just the two of us.”

“Kenton . . . Jarn . . .” He lamented. “We can’t.”

“I know it’s hard, but eventually you’re going to have to just think about you. Your brother can take care of himself. He has so far. We can leave him a note and he can visit.”

Ackerley was really close to arguing that she only said that because she didn’t have anyone to think about, but he didn’t want to annoy her. “I know.” Was all he said.

First thing in the morning the gates were opened and the townspeople in the basement streamed out of the castle and into the unknown. Ackerley and Cerise watched from the window of their room. Some looked happy to be going toward a land of promise, while others complained loudly that they didn’t want to leave. The king and Kenton went around trying to calm those down who were making the most noise. When everyone had gone the gates were swung closed once more.

“We can go tonight.” Cerise whispered, still staring at the closed gates down below.

“It’d be too dark.” Ackerley whispered back.

“Then tomorrow.”

He stared longingly out the window. “Maybe.”

The overall mood of the castle improved slightly as the king went around telling everyone that the food supply had been taken care of. Around twenty commoners stayed to be a part of the small force the king was putting together. These twenty spent the day getting drilled in what was expected of a warrior of Chell and how they were to behave. With the rest of the army present they had around sixty fighters to invade Welgland. Ackerley had to avoid the king as every time he was seen the king asked if he was ready to fight the good fight and go along with them. Kenton had forbid him from going, not that he would have anyway, and he had to decline or go momentarily deaf and run away.

Chellias wanted Kenton to be the one to actually lead the charge, and promoted him to commanding general, which in reality didn’t mean anything. The king promised that he would come close behind, but didn’t want the people of Welgland to see that the Chell king was out of Chell. He assumed they all knew what he looked like and assured everyone that his face was known around the world.

Cerise seemed to think this was a good thing. “I really hope nothing bad happens to him.” She assured Ackerley as they strolled through the gardens that afternoon. “If he’s out of the way then we can leave a note and take off right after he leaves. I really doubt your brother is going to invade Welgland. He’ll probably come back a few days later and tell the king to do it himself.”

Clearly he didn’t want anything to happen to his brother, but Ackerley couldn’t help but agree. “I don’t think he likes the invasion idea any more than we do. The only problem now is making sure they don’t take all the horses.”

“We’ll see. If they do, then we can leave and try to catch up with the commoners. If Kenton’s right about the Welgos not wanting to kill, then we should be fine.”

“What will we do when we get there?” Ackerley wondered.

Cerise smiled as though remembering a particularly fantastic dream. “We’ll build a little house on the beach near a nice little town. It’ll be a Chell town and only former Chells will live there. We’ll name it Chellion. Jarn’ll live there. Kenton will live there. Maybe even the king if ever comes to his senses.”

“And what’ll we do?” Ackerley said distantly, allowing his fears to float away.

“We’ll just live. There won’t be any meditation or fancy dances. No more nobles or commoners—only people living in Chellion and occasionally remembering the days before all this.”

Ackerley leaned up against a hedge absent-mindedly. “Yeah, and one day we might come back and visit Chelgland as they’ll probably call it.”

Cerise laughed. “You can do that. I’ll stay down at the beach forever.”

“Ok then.” Ackerley said, getting stern. “Tomorrow morning right after Kenton goes with the army we’ll sneak out.”

“Agreed.” Cerise slapped her hands to her side seriously. “I’ll get some provisions from the kitchens. You see if you can get Chellion to tell you if there’s a hidden exit through the wall somewhere.”

With everything set they went their separate ways. Ackerley went straight to the fourth floor to talk to Chellion. Surely he could keep himself from sounding too suspicious. There was only one door open on the fourth floor, and it was unfortunately Thora’s. She came out into the hall when she heard him come up.

“Don’t you look determined.” She said slyly.

He ignored her.

“I hear your brother is going off to Welgland tomorrow. You know I can help him.”

Despite wanting nothing to do with her, he turned to face her. “Why are you telling me? If you want to help so bad, then go and find him.”

“Don’t you trust me?” She asked, sounding rather amused with herself.

“There isn’t one thing about you that I trust. If it were up to me, you’d be on your way back where you came from.” He said through gritted teeth.

She gave him a bemused smile. “You could do well as a commander yourself. You should go with them and fight.”

Ackerley pulled himself away and knocked at Chellion’s door. Nobody answered.

“He’s not here right now.” Thora sang.

“No kidding? You’re such a help.” He stormed back down the hall and slammed the door behind him.

He was certain there was something beyond her nasty Welgo-ness that annoyed him so much. Whatever it was, he couldn’t quite place it. He kept his fists clenched and his expression angry all the way down to the first floor where Chellion and Chellias were sitting at the large table discussing strategy.

“And right then,” Chellias growled, “I will know that they’ve left us alone for good.”

Chellion looked impressed.

Ackerley didn’t want to say anything while the king was there and decided to wait for him to leave. The only problem was that he sat there talking for what felt like hours. He almost fell asleep waiting, and then, sometime in the night, the king was called away.

Ackerley trudged into the dining room as soon as the king was out of sight. Chellion looked up grimly and then smiled when he saw who it was.

“Ah, if it isn’t my favorite young man. How are you holding up with your brother leaving?”

“I’ll be alright.” He said hoarsely. The one good thing about the king taking so long to leave was that he now knew what to say.

“I know you wanted to go to Vloraisha, but this will be even better, I’m sure of it.”

Ackerley nodded slowly. “I just—I’ve been a little worried about something.”

“What’s that?”

“Well,” he gave a long enough pause to pretend to be really worried, “there are a lot of hidden passageways in the castle.”

“That’s true enough.”

“Are there any from the outside in? I mean are there any that the Welgos could use to get in if they discovered them?”

“Oh, I don’t think you’d have to worry about that.”

It didn’t go quite the way he hoped. Ackerley thought for a second and then continued.

“But are there?”

Chellion looked at him suspiciously. “Why so interested in that? Thinking of escaping?”

They both laughed, Ackerley a little nervously.

“No, no. I just wanted to be sure.”

“Trust me; there is nothing that you need to worry about now. The king has it all under control.”

Ackerley couldn’t help feel that Lord Chellion was a bit too trusting.

Feeling defeated and tired he went back up to his room where Cerise had already put the food she got into small sacks.

“One for you, and one for me.” She said proudly.

Ackerley explained that he couldn’t get any information out of Chellion. Cerise thought that what he said proved that there was a way out, but it didn’t matter as they still didn’t know where it was.

It would have been easy to sneak out of the gates before. Now it was next to impossible as guards stood on the front lawn and on the roof. Their best bet was to hope that all, or at least most, of the guards would leave with Kenton in the morning. Speaking of Kenton, he showed up to say goodbye.

“I won’t be gone as long this time.” He assured Ackerley.

“I know.” Ackerley mumbled.

“If this works then we’re free, I hope.” He took Ackerley by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Don’t worry, alright? I’ll be back and we’ll do what we have to do then. If anyone attacks here hide in that little garden. Chellion told me about it. He said he was going to put some extra food and water there just in case. Make sure you get there fast. It won’t hold everyone. He told me if things get really bad there’s a secret way out from there. Only go in the dead of night and only if there’s no other option, ok?”

Ackerley nodded. He gave Cerise a sideways glance.

“If I hear anything I’ll meet you in Vloraisha. Find a safe spot near the border and I’ll find you.”

Kenton gave his brother a long hug and left to be with the soldiers for the night.

“At least now we know.” Cerise said.

“That sure was easy.” Ackerley sighed, a tiny wisp of hope taking root in his mind.

Deep in the night Ackerley turned over and grunted in his sleep. He was having a rather peculiar dream about a baby deer chasing him when a persistent noise woke him up. He lay awake for a bit, staring at the ceiling. Torch light danced above him. Someone was moving around outside under his window. The light went out all of a sudden, but the noise continued. It took a while for his mind to become fully aware of what exactly he was hearing, but when it did he jumped up and looked outside to see what was happening.

The guards were shouting as they ran into the castle. The doors closed with a thud and it grew too dark to see anything. And then something caught his eye. A torch looked to be lying on the gravel path that led from the gates to the front door. Why would someone drop a torch, and why would they be yelling about it? While these questions rattled around in his brain he noticed another torch nearby. But surely it wasn’t there a second ago. And then another appeared on the grass, and another, and another.

And then it dawned on Ackerley what he was looking at. These weren’t torches at all. These were arrows with flaming tips. And then the worst realization of all came. They were under attack.

23.

Ackerley stood at the window dumbfounded for a long time. By the time he came to the ground was littered with arrows and some had even hit the wall near the window. He shook Cerise awake and they went out into the hall. No one was up yet. It was only a matter of time before the castle descended into madness, so they ran through the empty halls before that could happen. The first floor was filled with people running about. The soldiers that were getting ready to leave ran about, trying to find the king to give them orders.

The two kids weaved through the din unnoticed and found calm in the ballroom.

“What d’we do?” Ackerley gasped. All the negative feelings exploding within him.

“Um . . . um . . .” Cerise looked about frantically as if a much needed weapon hung about somewhere. “We should go to the garden, right?”

“I don’t know if we need to do that yet.” He listened closely, breathing deep to calm down. “They shouldn’t be able to get through. We should be safe.”

“They tore right through the manor region.” Cerise pointed out.

Ackerley felt a little braver, remembering that he already faced a Welgo once, and left the ballroom to find his brother.

The king was shouting for everyone to return to the basement while he assessed the situation. Ackerley and Cerise stayed out of sight and ran up a hidden staircase to the third floor. From there they sat in a windowsill and waited for something to happen.

The arrows died down and there was silence. It crept into their minds. They gazed unwaveringly at the gates, expecting to see them burst in to flames at any moment. But they didn’t. They held strong.

After a long while of waiting and watching Cerise stood up and began to pace back and forth, mumbling to herself.

“Maybe we dreamed it. Maybe they’re not out there. You know the king may have sent a messenger. Perhaps they left.”

Ackerley didn’t move. For hours he stood as still as a statue waiting for something—anything to happen. The darkness began to lift and the sky lightened. As dawn approached he couldn’t help but think that everything was just a dream. That is until it was light enough to see that the ground was littered with arrows and patches of burned grass; some of which still smoldered slightly.

“Why’d they stop?” He whispered.

Cerise, who had been sitting on the floor a little way down the hall, came over and looked out the window. “They just wanted to get our attention.”

People started waking up at this point. In order to keep calm a few nobles went around telling everyone to hurry up and go to the ballroom for another important message. Within twenty minutes everyone was there and awaiting the king. The news had traveled fast and hushed conversations sounded alarmed and defeated.

Chellias made his appearance and stood before everyone, even he looked saddened by the turn of events. Unlike Yinnib and Kenton who had tried to unify the audience with optimism, the king did just the opposite.

“Our worst fears have been realized.” He began, nodding gravely. “The invaders are at our gates and want nothing more than to murder us all.” Several people shouted. Someone in the front fainted. While a few nearby fell to their knees to help, Chellias continued. “I have spent the last few years dealing with these beasts and I know perfectly well what they are capable of. I experienced true horror, as some of you did as well, in the manor region a few days back. Now they are here, our last great holdout. It is important for us to stay together and brave this storm. I am a firm believer that this castle is much better equipped to handle their terror than the manor region. However, I ask several things from you. Firstly, do not go near any of the windows facing the front. Secondly, if they should get in I want you all to head to the basement where we can wait out their attack. We have secured the door to the basement and believe we can hide there without them finding us. And thirdly, I want all of you to pray to the Great Spirit to get us through this hard time. My commander Kenton and I will come up with a plan and we will see to it that those horrible things leave here.”

Almost everyone went straight to the basement thinking this was the end. The army that was to head out stayed in the ballroom to await further instructions. The king and Kenton went to the fourth floor to make up a plan. Ackerley went to the library, where he sat and looked at the books while wondering if this truly was the end.

The castle sat silent and still the whole day. No one dared move too fast and some resigned to sobbing in corners awaiting death. It was eerie.

After sitting alone for a few hours Jarn and Cerise joined Ackerley in the library.

“I wish I could just sit and transcribe.” Jarn said sadly. “I guess there’s nothing left now. They’ll get in and end us.”

“We don’t know that.” Cerise whispered.

Ackerley looked through a book about plants, absent mindedly staring at the drawings. “I wonder.” He said slowly. “I wonder what the king decided.”

“Who cares.” Cerise exclaimed. “He hasn’t been any good to us. The only way to survive is to leave.”

Jarn took a book off the shelf and started to flip through it. “My dad is going to be hard to move.”

“I don’t understand why your brother said they didn’t want to kill.” Cerise said. “Sure they do.”

An idea hit Ackerley. He finally understood something his brother said. “I think they’re only after the king. That’s why Kenton wanted him to leave. He is Chell. As long as he’s alive the Welgos can’t fully take over the kingdom. He’s the only one they’re after now. And I think they’ll kill anyone they need to to get to him.”

Cerise jumped out of her seat excitedly. “That’s it! We can just throw him to the Welgos and they’ll leave the rest of us alone. I don’t care what becomes of this kingdom, I’m going to leave anyway.”

“No,” Ackerley breathed, thinking it over, “They only want him because the Chells all know that he has the kingship. If one of us sends him over, then the Chells may come after us. It has to be his decision. We need to convince the king to step down for the good of the kingdom. Until then this is still Chell, and will be as long as he’s king. It’s a legitimacy thing, right? Remember what Mrs. Rapsire said?”

Jarn looked thoroughly appalled by this line of thought. “You want the king dead?” He chocked. “You sound like one of them?”

“Get off your Chell horse.” Ackerley pleaded. “You need to see that he’s the problem here. Now remember what Mrs. Rapsire said about that emperor before the first King Chell?”

He shook his head, still looking taken aback.

“Chell couldn’t ever be king because of the emperor. He had the legitimacy and those who mattered would always think the emperor was the rightful ruler. The only way for Chell to become king was for the emperor to give up his throne or die. The emperor committed suicide and Chell became the great king we know of today.”

“Wow, I’m surprised you pay attention in history.” Cerise chuckled.

“Just that day, really.” Ackerley admitted. “But that’s what the Welgos are doing. They aren’t so much destroying the kingdom for nothing. They’re trying to the king to surrender. They want us to hopelessly run after them as they are seen as stronger. And they can’t take this place over entirely until the king is gone. They’ve been following him. They’ve been trying to get at him.”

Jarn stood up and paced the room. “You don’t sound like a Chell at all. No real Chell would say such a horrid thing.”

“We’ve talked about this.” Ackerley said gently. “I’m not a Chell, not a real one.”

“Well then!” Jarn growled. “I can see why all those nobles left. Some of you commoners aren’t to be trusted.”

Ackerley was sad to see Jarn reverting back to the angry and stubborn boy he first met there. “You’re not seeing the big picture.”

“Big picture?” He shouted. “I see that you want to destroy this kingdom. I know that the king’s all that’s left. I see that. Everyone does. But to want him dead. To want Chell dead. . . I—I can’t believe it.”

“Don’t you want to survive?” Ackerley barked, growing heated. “Do you see another way out of this?”

“The king will come up with something. He’s done it before.” Jarn said, clearly stretching his own belief.

“When?! Give me one time that man ever did something good for us? All I see is a man who is too steeped in his own greatness to realize he’s hurting everyone around him.”

Jarn kicked a bookcase and half the books spilled to the floor. “I’m going to go tell the king right now what you’re planning. I really don’t believe you, Aches. And your own brother a commander.”

“Jarn.” Cerise whispered.

“You shut up! Your kingdom’s already dead and you want the same thing here.”

Jarn stormed out of the room, slamming the door so hard that more books tumbled off the shelves.

Ackerley had a hard time calming himself down. He sat awkwardly in the library for a few more minutes. Cerise’s look of understanding and pity grew very annoying and he went off to wander. He wandered all over the place and at times almost forgot what waited just beyond the gates. It always came back with a jolt as he saw a family huddled together somewhere whispering calming thoughts to each other. Finally, after a few hours he was able to think clearly. He looked around for Jarn, but he didn’t seem to be anywhere. He did, however, find his brother as he went back to his room.

Kenton stood with his back against the door to their room. He frowned at the floor and grumbled to himself. Upon seeing his little brother, he bounced off the door and took Ackerley down the hall. Kenton opened the secret door that hid the stairs to the fourth floor. They stood on the stairs and Kenton closed the door, leaving them in utter darkness.

“I’m going out there.” Kenton blurted out.

“Where?” Ackerley inquired, feeling quite positive he didn’t mean beyond the gates.

“I’m going to talk to the leader of the Welgos. He’s out there. I went up to the roof today and saw them all. They’re just sitting there.”

“Why you?” Ackerley said, growing panicked.

“I was held prisoner in a town they built for a couple weeks. I know their leader and maybe I can talk something out with him.”

“Send the king out. Let him deal with them.”

“Ackerley!” Kenton shouted, grabbing his brother’s shoulders. “I’m doing this. I didn’t bring you in here to debate it. I brought you in here to tell you that if I should fail—If I don’t make it back in—I need you to go straight to that garden and leave in the middle of the night. If you want to bring Cerise and Jarn that’s alright, but no more.”

Ackerley shook. He wished his brother wasn’t holding on to him. “Just Cerise.” He said sorrowfully.

“Whatever. Just make sure you’re there. If I come back and can’t work anything out, then I’ll go with you tonight. One way or another we’re out of here tonight, alright?” He shook him again.

“Yes, I get it.”

“I’m going to go now. I want you to go to the roof so you can see. If you see me go down, or you don’t see me again by evening just go. I wish you could take Sidestep, but I don’t see any way of getting him out secretly.”

Ackerley nodded, realized his brother couldn’t see him, and audibly agreed.

Kenton led the way up to the fourth floor and then through yet another secret door, this one leading to a hatch with daylight pouring in. Ackerley came out into the breezy afternoon. He could see over the tall wall from there. A large mass of people sat casually outside the gates. He shivered at the sight of them. Kenton gave him an encouraging smile and disappeared back down the stairs.

Kenton Morzha rushed to the front doors of the castle where King Chellias stood waiting for him. The king gazed out the doors, which were opened only a crack. He noticed his commanding general and nodded slowly.

“Are you sure about this?”

“It’s the only thing I can think of.”

The king shrank back, appearing as nothing more than a lost child. “I’ll let you get to it, then.”

Kenton slipped out of the doors. Instead of heading straight to the gates he made his way along the side of the castle. He ran across the lawn to the large stone wall and felt around for the access point. He found it and on his hands and knees crawled through the tunnel. He came out into the little garden. Chellion told him where the door to the outside was, but it was hard to find. Eventually, after looking around for a good bit, he found the hidden doorway behind some ivy. He pushed it open. A cool damp breeze rustled his hair. The dark stone path was just high enough for him to walk through. It curved a little this way and that, meandering towards the back of the castle. It ended in a stone wall with a notch carved into it. He took hold of the notch and pulled the stone door back, revealing the outside world. He carefully pushed it back in place, took note of where it was along the wall, and walked bravely towards the Welgos.

As the wall curved to reveal the horde of large scruffy warriors Kenton’s pace quickened. It only took a second for one of them to see him. They ran towards him, sword held high. Kenton lifted his arms in defeat and shouted the only Welglandish he knew.

Thwarlick niron Victor!”

The Welgo stopped short, his face contorted with a mix of surprise and anger. He put his sword away, grabbed Kenton by the arm, and proceeded to drag him to a small tent that had been pitched right in the center of the lot. The other Welgos jeered and spat at him, some of them recognizing him from the town.

Kenton was hauled into the tent and thrown to the ground. Three Welgos stamped their feet on him so he couldn’t move. Kenton heard movement and then saw two feet appear before him.

“Adjutant, what a surprise!” Victor said happily. “Who knew you’d be here? I did, but I mean who else did?!”

Victor then said something to the Welgos and they removed their feet, pulled him up, and dusted him off so hard he almost ended up on the ground again.

Kenton looked around the small tent for any sign of escape. Welgos blocked the only entrance. Victor sat down on a small wooden table and had the chair he had been sitting in brought around for Kenton, who refused to sit.

“So, how’s it been?” Victor said brightly.

“Why are you here?” Kenton coughed, barely able to get his voice out.

“To see my friend of course.” Victor teased.

Kenton stared into Victor’s joyous gray eyes, searching hard for some type of humanity. “We had a deal.”

Victor drummed his fingers on the table, looking bored. “We did. I agree that we did. However—and you may not realize this, adjutant, but for a deal to go through both sides have to do what they promised. And I don’t believe you’ve held up your end of the bargain.” Victor looked on both sides of Kenton as if trying to see if something were behind him. “Unless you brought it with you—of course it’d still be barking stupidly, now wouldn’t it?”

Kenton clenched his fists, which brought the Welgos in a little closer. They rubbed up against him threateningly.

“Now, now, let the boy have some room.” Said Victor sternly. “He’s by best friend in this wonderful kingdom, after all.”

The Welgos backed up.

Kenton stepped forward, his mind racing furiously through the speech he had prepared. “You ask too much from me. Just leave this place and you can have most of Chell. Leave us a little land right around here. We will build a few towns. We’ll gladly sell you whatever we make and give you at least half of whatever profit we have. We will acknowledge again and again that we are Welgos, through and through. Allow us this, allow us to live and you will be rewarded.”

Victor had been glancing around at the other Welgos while Kenton spoke. He smiled at one and did some kind of hand gesture that brought laughs. When Kenton finished he looked at the commander through narrowed eyes.

Most of Chell?” Victor said, his eyes gleaming with power. “Do you think that we went through all this trouble for Most of anything? When you bake a cake do you hope that most of it gets done?” Kenton sputtered, but Victor continued. “When you’re in battle do you hope most of you survives? When you eat a berry do you hope most of it isn’t poisonous?” He grew angry, rising from the table menacingly. “I don’t adjutant. I go into something wanting the whole thing.”

“I just—” Kenton stammered.

“I don’t want most of our deal. I want the whole thing. Now where is it?!”

Kenton stepped back, right into the Welgos, and lurched forward. “I said that we will be Welgos. I mean it. I want to be a Welgo. I told you before. I only want land inside Welgland. This land here. It won’t be Chell—forget I said the word.”

Victor sat back down on the table and rubbed his eyes. “Do you even remember what our deal entailed? You may not you—what were you doing—I think you were on the ground bleeding. Maybe some of it slipped through.”

“I remember.” Kenton said through gritted teeth.

“Then you remember what I promised you. I already told you that you could have this castle and the land surrounding it. You’ll be a Welgo lord. I’ll leave you and your brother alone and let you do whatever you want. Now doesn’t that sound nice?”

Kenton stared at the ground.

“Doesn’t that sound nice, adjutant? Answer me.”

“It does.” He whimpered.

“Now what did you have to do to get that great deal?”

Kenton refused to answer. He refused to do anything but stare at the floor between himself and the table.

While Kenton grew smaller Victor grew larger.

Victor sighed loudly and threw a leg onto the table and rested his hand on his knee. “I’m going to give you two hours.” He said quietly. “Then, when its night and all the little families and rich nobles are scared of the dark and the creatures outside their gates I’m going to come in. I’m going to murder every one of them until I find your king. And I’m going to figure out which one’s your brother and I’m going to have him skinned right there in front of you. And then I’m going to do what I told you to do in the first place. I’m going to behead that oaf and everything will be mine. And then to finish off the night I’m going to start a great big fire right out here and throw you into it. Oh, am I going to enjoy the moans of my best friend.” Kenton stood rooted to the spot, too afraid to move. “And then in the morning when everything’s mine I’m going to send word to Welgland and we’re going to come in droves, adjutant. We’re going to make this huge empty kingdom our own and be done with that tiny speck of land that your Honias ancestors left us and your Chell friends kept us in.” He stared at Kenton so hard and so angry that the commander forced himself to look into the cold gray eyes defiantly. “All that is going to happen tonight, unless—” Victor smiled warmly and the cold anger vanished. “Unless you do what you promised. Then there will be no skinning, no fire, and best of all, no need for me to murder so many people. After that you can have this fine castle and I’ll never bother you again. I’ll even send you monthly food allowances provided you don’t make me angry. You see, I like you adjutant. I really feel that your non Chellness makes you trustworthy.”

Kenton shook from head to toe. “I’ll—I’ll see what I can do.”

“No, you’ll do it. Because that was the deal that kept you alive in that town. I let you go on a promise, and so far you’ve done very little with the gift of life I gave you.” Victor jumped off the table and put his face inches from Kenton’s so that he couldn’t look away. “I let you keep your life, friend. Everything you do from here on out is because I allowed you to live. Now go get me the head of your king or I’m going to have to revoke that gift.”

“Whatever I do,” Kenton said slowly, staring into Victor’s eyes, “Whatever you do—do not touch my brother.”

Victor smiled. “You do what I’m telling you to do or I’ll chop him up with the dullest knife I can find. You have no more power as a commander, as a brother, as anything until I say you do.”

He said something else to the Welgos and they grabbed him and threw him from the tent. Kenton landed in a heap on the grass. Several Welgos whisked him up and carried him away, punching and kicking him as they pleased. And then they dropped him about a hundred yards away from the wall and went back to their camp.

Kenton struggled to his feet. His eyes glanced up to the roof of the castle, just visible over the wall. He could make out his brother’s form watching him.

24.

Ackerley Morzha watched as his brother was thrown from the tent, carried away, and beaten by the Welgos. He tensed up, but knew he was useless. He watched his brother slowly walk around the wall and out of sight.

He rushed down from the roof and down staircase after staircase until he was in the entryway, making it there right as his brother limped inside.

“How’d it go?” The king said eagerly, wiping dirt off his commander.

Kenton collapsed into a chair brought for him. A doctor from the manor region began to look him over.

“I think,” he looked at the king as if for the first time, “I think we should talk in private somewhere. I need to tell you what they said.”

The king looked around the entryway as if a secret place to talk was going to appear any moment. “How about up on the fourth floor?”

Kenton nodded, wiping his face with his sleeve. “I’ll meet you up there in a few minutes.”

Chellias jumped up the stairs three at a time.

Kenton glowered at Ackerley. “Hey, go where you promised.” He said quietly so no one else could hear.

“But, what happened out there?” Ackerley asked.

“Just go, alright? I’ll meet you there in an hour or so.”

Ackerley reluctantly agreed and raced up the stairs to the third floor. He went to his room. Cerise sat on her bed, looking out the window.

“What’s going on out there?” She asked.

“I don’t know. Kenton wants us to go to that little garden. I think he wants to run away now.”

Ackerley looked around the room for anything he could take with him. He realized he didn’t own anything and so grabbed his clothes and stuffed them into a small bag Cerise had given him.

“Does he think they are going to attack?” Cerise started shoving some of her things in a bag as well.

“I don’t know.”

Cerise suddenly gasped. Ackerley looked at her in alarm.

“The crates on the fourth floor. What’ll happen to them?”

Ackerley shrugged. “I guess . . . I don’t really know.”

She clutched her necklace and danced anxiously on her toes. “I can’t leave them. I don’t want those things to get them. I’ll bring what I can carry. Just a few things in this bag.”

“Alright, but we’d better hurry.”

They made their way down the hall toward the secret entrance to the fourth floor. Ackerley glanced out the window and dropped his bag. He backed up to the wall and shook all over. Cerise came over and also glanced out. She dropped her own bag and covered her mouth.

Down below a Welgo stood before the gates. For a terrified second Ackerley wasn’t quite sure what he was seeing. And then the Welgo threw the gates open and a flood of large mean looking warriors overtook the grounds.

“We . . . we . . .” Ackerley stammered. “How did that one get in?”

Cerise gave a furtive look towards the hidden stairs. “We can make it.” She said stubbornly.

“No we can’t.” Ackerley shouted. He grabbed Cerise’s arm and ran for the stairs down.

He didn’t know where to go and ended up running all around the third floor and back to where they had started. Glancing around wildly, he remembered the secret staircase Jarn had taken him down on his very first morning. They found it and a few seconds later barreled out into the back garden of the castle. No Welgos were there yet. Together they ran as fast as they could to the little garden. Cerise stopped at the entrance. She looked back at Ackerley with fear in her eyes.

“It’s open.” She said.

Ackerley looked around her and saw that the stone hiding the little tunnel was already pushed aside.

“Chellion must already be in there. Let’s go.”

Several Welgos came around the side of the castle. The two kids managed to crawl into the tunnel and slide the wall back into place before being seen.

Kenton heard the gate open and without a second thought raced out of the entryway and up the stairs. In no time at all the halls were filled with screaming. He shouted above the commotion to remind people to head to the basement as quickly as possible.

While rushing along the second floor he heard banging and shouts from below. It sounded as though the Welgos had gotten inside.

A noise jolted him from his mind and into a corner, where Yinnib sat crouched, rocking back and forth, his head in his hands.

“This can’t be happening.” He whimpered shrilly, tears streaking down his face. “This just can’t be happening.”

Kenton kneeled down, gently took hold of Yinnib, and tried to hoist him to his feet. The noble shook him off and continued rocking.

“You need to get to the basement.” Kenton comforted. “Come on now, get up.”

“NO!” Yinnib shrieked, pulling himself away once more.

Kenton couldn’t waste any more time. “You need to get down there right away.”

The commander stood up and continued on his way.

The fourth floor seemed eerily quiet with everything going on downstairs. Lord Chellion’s door stood ajar. Not wanting to take chances, Kenton moved slowly toward it. Someone appeared in the doorway and Kenton jumped in shock. It was the king.

Chellias resembled a large terrified child. He wrung his hands as he cried silently, sniveling occasionally.

“It’s alright, sir.” Kenton assured him. “I think we’re safe up here.”

“They got in.” The king moaned.

“Yes, I know.”

The sounds of the castle being torn apart sounded far away.

“They killed him. I don’t know how, but they killed him.”

“Killed who?” Kenton asked, not sure what was going on.

Chellias moved out of the way and let Kenton into the room.

At first nothing looked out of the ordinary. The bed was nicely made and everything was in its proper place. But then Kenton saw two feet poking out from the other side of the bed. He slowly made his way over. The carpet was stained red, and lying next to the bed was the body of Lord Chellion. His face was covered in blood, his yellow cap askew on his head.

Kenton’s heart beat very fast. “Who could have done this?” He croaked, taking in the gory scene.

He got on his knees and examined the body. No less than ten puncture wounds littered the old man.

“They got in.” The king sobbed from the door.

“But how?” Kenton wondered.

Chellias took a long quivering breath and punched his chest a few times. “I am the king.” He told himself. “I am brave and I will weather this storm.”

Kenton continued to stare at the lord’s body, attempting to grasp what was going on. “No Welgo could have come up here.” He mused to himself.

“I am a soldier,” the king went on, “my father was a soldier. He fought the Welgos in Welgland and won. And here I am . . .” He pulled his sword from it’s scabbard and tossed it on the bed. “I’m losing my kingdom. I’m failing my kingdom, Morzha. I’m unable to stop simple barbarians.”

Kenton stood up and looked at the king seriously. “Make peace with them, sir. Save what you can while you can. Give them the Vastlands and they might be lenient.”

The king gave his commander a confounded grimace. “Give them my kingdom?”

Kenton stood tall. “If it saves just a little Chell, then yes.”

“No, absolutely not. Chell will not fall while I am king. I will not fall, ever!”

“Then you risk losing all of it.” Kenton begged for the king to understand. “They don’t care about any of the people here or elsewhere. Trust me, I know their plan. They want to expand. They want more than what they have in Welgland. They will kill anyone who gets in their way of that. Please think about the children here. Save them by making peace and giving them the space they want. They are going to take it one way or another.”

The king went over to the window. Faint sounds met their ears, as occasional rumbles shook the castle. “I am the kingdom now.” He said faintly. He turned to face Kenton, tears in his eyes. “I need your protection, Morzha. Take my sword.”

Kenton took hold of the sword by its bejeweled handle.

“Raise it.” The king whispered.

Kenton raised the sword to his face. He stared into his reflection on the gleaming surface. And then he raised it higher, until it touched the ceiling.

“Promise to protect me, Morzha. Promise to protect this kingdom and everything you care about.”

“I will protect—” the walls shook. “—Everything I care about.”

“You are now my guardian. You and I are all Chell has now.”

Kenton lowered the sword, not taking his eyes from his reflection.

The king walked to the open door. “They will never find their way up here. If we wait long enough they’ll go away, thinking I escaped.”

Kenton pried his eyes away from the sword. He noticed the king’s jacket wasn’t nearly as thick as the jackets the Welgos wear. His wasn’t made for fighting.

“Do you hear that?” the king asked, leaning out the door. “Do you think they’re getting closer?”

“Yes.” Kenton said, his voice emotionless.

With swift hands Kenton struck the king across the back.

Chellias howled and fell to his knees. Kenton jumped in, grabbed the king by his hair with one hand, and plunged the blade into the king’s neck with the other. He slowly and methodically pushed the sword deeper until the king’s guttural chokes died away.

The commander and guardian let go of his charge and stood up. He stared down the hall, breathing calm and deep.

And then he began to shiver as the full weight of what he had done reached his brain. He dropped the sword on the motionless body of Chell and backed away, almost tripping over Chellion. Kenton ran to the window. He stared out the window without actually seeing anything. Somewhere deep inside Kenton was happy.

A noise made him flip around. A woman in blue robes stood in the doorway, unable to take her eyes from the once proud king of Chell. She had scars on half her face.

“What have you done?” She said calmly.

“Who are you?” Kenton said, his voice quivering.

“You just killed the king of this land.” Her voice didn’t sound angry or sad, on the contrary she sounded impressed.

Kenton edged closer to her, eying the sword he dropped. “Tell me who you are. Are you a Welgo?”

“Yes.”

“How did you get up here so quickly?”

“I live here.”

“What?”

The woman picked up the sword and tossed it to him. Kenton caught it and held it out threateningly.

“I live here. Chellion let me live here in exchange for telling him Welgo secrets. He then told those secrets to the king.”

“And you . . .” Kenton saw dark splotches on her blue robes. “You killed him? The lord.”

Thora nodded.

“Why?”

“It was time to change sides again.” She said simply. “Same as you.”

“I’m not changing sides. I’m protecting the Chell that I love.” Kenton said defiantly.

Thora backed out of the room. “I’d better go then. I need to tell Victor everything I’ve done today. It took a lot of hard work letting those Welgos in and killing the lord.” She continued to look at the king. She then turned and raced down the hall.

“No!” Kenton shouted, chasing after her.

Thora grabbed the door to the stairs and pulled it wide. Kenton grabbed the door as it closed and ran down the stairs after her. He tripped and collided into her. They both tumbled down the stone steps and into the hard wall at the end. It was too dark to see what was going on. Kenton took the sword and lunged it blindly. Thora screamed and tried to find Kenton’s neck. When she did her hands slipped, they were now covered in wounds and blood.

“I need this!” Kenton roared.

After a few seconds of struggle Thora’s hands fell to the ground and everything was silent.

The commander struggled to his feet and stumbled into the third floor hall. It was empty. He assumed the Welgos hadn’t gotten that far and the Chells were all hiding in the basement. His clothes and arms were covered in blood, but he didn’t know which was his and which wasn’t.

Slowly and carefully—his head swimming, his eyes in a daze—he found his way to the second floor and to the first. Welgos and Chells ran indiscriminately all around. Several bodies could be seen and he tried his best not to step on them. The doors were wide open, so were the gates. Kenton slid the sword through his belt and continued on with his hands up, ready to say the one Welglandish phrase he knew should it come to that. Surprisingly no one stopped him. That is until he came to the tent. The Welgos there recognized him. They grabbed him and led him inside.

Victor sat at the table looking over a piece of paper.

“Oh my, adjutant, you don’t look well at all.”

Kenton was pushed into a chair. He almost fell out; he was so close to losing consciousness. Victor called for water and a pitcher was brought. Kenton downed the whole thing as quickly as possible. He felt a little better and sat up.

“I did it.” He said, distraught. “Call them back.”

Victor put the paper down and gave a wide, horrible smile. “Who?”

“The Welgos. Call them back. I did it.”

“Where’s the head?”

“On the fourth floor. I can tell you how to get there. I can show you.”

“No, no, I believe you.” Victor said. “I see you have his sword.”

“Then call them off.” Kenton repeated loudly.

Victor stood up and paced the small tent. “They haven’t found most of the people in there yet.”

Kenton stood up as well, anger rushing forward. “You lied to me. You told me I had two hours.”

“Yep.” Victor said playfully.

“Well I did it so get your hounds out of my castle.”

Victor stood quite still. “Your castle?”

“You said—”

“I don’t recall what I said.” Victor lamented. “I’m so forgetful sometimes.”

“We—we had a deal.” Kenton said miserably.

“Did we? Oh well, if I don’t remember then I can’t very well take up my end of it.”

Kenton dove at Victor. Several Welgos came in and grabbed him at once, taking his sword from him.

“YOU PROMISED ME!” Kenton shouted.

Victor punched Kenton hard across the face. “I don’t care—and you know why? Because I’ve got them and you have no one. I have the whole kingdom now and you have NOTHING! Now I’m going to make you a new promise. I’m going to let you leave and in ten minutes I’m going to send these here friends of mine to kill you and your brother. I’m going to flay you both and set you on fire—you know why? Because I want to.” His eyes turned demonic. His voice poison. “I want to see you burn up and breath in your smoke because I can. Now get going. You only have five minutes.” He turned away.

The Welgos tossed Kenton and his sword out of the tent. Kenton picked up the blade and immediately ran around the castle to the entrance to the little garden. He pushed open the entryway, crawled through the tunnel, and appeared in the calm and gentle garden.

Cerise stood by the far wall, twisting nervously. When Kenton appeared she didn’t take her eyes off him. He was so bloody and bruised.

“Where’s Ackerley?” He asked darkly.

“He went back inside.”

Kenton looked about to shout, but thought better of it. “Why did he do that?”

“He wanted to get Jarn.” Cerise said, looking serious and overwhelmed, but not scared.

Kenton turned right around.

25.

The castle was now fully overrun by the Welgos. They trashed all the rooms, throwing beds through windows and slicing through doors. They ran this way and that, trying their hardest to find where all the people went. The hiding place was secure for now. Those who made it sat huddled in the dark basement, every noise sounded like impending doom. Those who didn’t get to the basement lay sprawled in hallways, blood still seeping though sword wounds.

Ackerley Morzha hid in one of the secret staircases, listening hard for the Welgos in the hall to pass. He had tried to find his friend Jarn, but when he entered the castle he was immediately chased by several of those horrible invaders. Now he just wished that he could get back to the little garden and wait for all this to be over. Fear gripped him and forbade his movements. Each time he tried to push the door open he heard more people coming and quickly backed away up the stairs.

The door from the floor above burst open. Heavy footsteps came pounding closer and closer. Without a care to what was in the hall Ackerley shoved the door open and took off running. It didn’t take two seconds for him to run headlong into what felt like a brick wall. He fell to the floor and saw two enormous men standing before him. One picked him up effortlessly and held him tight with one arm. They spoke to each other in an unknown tongue.

Ackerley kicked and scratched to no avail as the large man walked casually down the hall with his catch. He joked with his fellow Welgo and patted Ackerley on the head a few times as though helping a lost dog.

The boy was certain that this was the end. Why had he gone in to look for Jarn, who was probably safe in the basement? All those months staying out of the way and now he was probably only seconds from death.

The Welgo carried him down to the first floor. Standing in the main doorway was a man much smaller than the other Welgos. He had a nasty grin on his face as the invaders dropped bodies at his feet. Ackerley was set down right in front of this man, the Welgo who brought him holding tight to his shoulders.

“Hello there.” The smaller man said pleasantly. “Who are you?”

Ackerley was too scared to say anything.

“I don’t suppose—no, you can’t be Ackerley?”

Ackerley still didn’t answer.

“I’ll take it you are. You look a little like your brother, you know that? Not too much, but I do see it.”

“I’m not.” Ackerley croaked, his voice shaking.

“No need to be shy about it.” He motioned for the Welgos to back up. “Now, now, let him go, he’s my friend.”

The Welgo removed his hands and stepped away.

The man very politely introduced himself as Victor. He shook Ackerley’s hand, keeping the overly sweet smile on his face.

“I know your brother; did you know that? We’re friends. I saw him a while ago—now where did he get to?”

Ackerley remembered hearing this man’s name from Thora. Victor, the leader of the Welgos. What stood before him definitely didn’t match the image in his head.

Victor looked around innocently and then shrugged. “Who knows where that crazy kid went off to.” He slapped his arm around Ackerley and steered him down the hall, toward the dining room.

Ackerley went along, not sure what else to do.

“I saved his life—your brother. He somehow ended up in a Welgo funeral and I got him out—no harm done.” Ackerley looked puzzled. “Those are dangerous things, those funerals. Never end up in one.” He chuckled and squeezed Ackerley’s shoulder playfully. “Oh, what a day. It’s been fun here, hasn’t it? I always love a good bit of excitement. Must not have gotten too much of that in this great big castle for so long. Your brother, now he’s had some excitement. It was nice of him to bring it here for you to enjoy too.”

They came to the dining room. Ackerley was pushed into the only chair that wasn’t in pieces. Victor sat casually on the table. He stared at Ackerley with pity. “Now you know this is the hard part. I don’t want you to fret, you little scamp. I’ll handle everything.”

Ackerley tried to get up, but Victor pushed him down harshly. “Nope, not going anywhere.”

The boy somehow found his voice. “I need to be . . . over there.”

“I like you, kid.” Victor said, pulling a dagger from his belt. It was plated in gold and had a very ornate handle. “There’s something about you that I like.” He rolled the dagger around in his hand, examining it thoughtfully. “I think it’s your non-Chellness. Yes, I think that’s it.”

“There is no Chell.” Ackerley whispered, deciding it best to buy some time until his brother arrived. After all he knew this man.

“No, I suppose not.”

“And it’s your fault.”

Victor feigned a look of surprise. “My fault? No, no, I don’t think you understand your history, little boy. Let me inform you of it as it may be the only real history lesson you ever get.”

Ackerley tried to get up again, and again was forced down.

“A very long time ago there were was this great empire right here in Chell called the Honias, you’ve heard of it?”

Ackerley nodded.

“Great! Well this empire is the exact same one that exists today, just with another name.”

“No,” Ackerley said, “the Honias leader was different.”

“Oh dear me,” Victor exclaimed, tossing the dagger in the air, “you know so much. But not really all that much. You see, young man, the emperor had no real power, hadn’t for centuries. The ones really running the show was the family in charge of the military, the Chells. They had all the real power while the emperor was just a figure head. And with that anonymity the Chells were able to engage in huge campaigns in neighboring countries under the banner of Honias.” Victor’s eyes filled with awe. “Oh, and what campaigns they were. Their favorite target was that of little Welgland, a country so small that they were beginning to have boundary issues because their population was growing so large. And can you guess what they did?”

Ackerley didn’t say anything.

“Guess what they did?” He said, growing angry.

“They attacked Welgland.” Said Ackerley dully.

Victor suddenly pounded the table fiercely. “Did they ever! They destroyed towns and murdered everyone they could. EVERYONE! By the time they were done Welgland was only a shell of its former self.” Victor’s face changed from anger to serenity in an instant. “Now you can probably guess why we are here now, right?”

“But we didn’t do that.” Ackerley said, growing braver. “It wasn’t the people who are alive now that did that to you. You’re getting revenge on their descendants, who didn’t do anything.”

“I’m not getting revenge.” Victor said coolly. “You’re right; it’s too late for revenge. I’m only trying to expand our land. It just so happens that your king has become a figurehead himself. He didn’t have any power and he controlled the military. When we saw how little power he had we knew it was time to expand our territory, just like his ancestors did.”

Victor backed up to the wall, a smug look on his face.

“I still think you’re terrible.” Ackerley said.

“I’m alright with that.” Victor said simply. “But now things have to get rough. I’m so sorry, little one.” He stepped forward and brought the dagger within an inch of his face, as if examining a smudge. “This dagger is my favorite possession. I do all my best work with it. It’s freshly cleaned too. I found a Chell earlier and did my best with it. Look how it sparkles now, as though nothing happened.”

Ackerley stood up. He could no longer feel his body. It was as if he was looking through a window into another world. Very slowly he edged toward the hall, ready to run.

“I like the sounds, I think.” Victor went on, his voice barely a whisper. “They’re so funny. People forget how to talk. They just make noises.”

Ackerley couldn’t take any more of this. He started at a run.

“AAAARRGGHHH!”

Ackerley tripped headlong on a leg of a broken chair and collided with the wall. His eyes blurred, his head pounding, he could only watch as the fuzzy shape came closer.

Victor laughed loudly, hopping over pieces of chairs. He kneeled down and held the dagger a few inches from Ackerley’s neck.

“That’s just it.” He said, his voice trembling with excitement. “That’s the sound I’m talking about.”

The image cleared. Ackerley lay on the ground, terrified of the man kneeling over him, whose face was contorted with suppressed elation.

Victor let out a squeak, his hands shaking. “This is my favorite part.”

With swift hands he sliced Ackerley’s arm.

The boy didn’t feel it. Nothing but the sight of the demented Welgo reached his brain.

“HO—HA!”

Victor dragged the dagger across Ackerley’s face, drawing blood.

The boy pushed at the man’s face.

Victor caught his hand and slowly pushed the dagger into Ackerley’s wrist.

“I’ve got a basement full of fun waiting for me.” Victor said, his voice growing deeper. “One by one, the rest of Chell.” He took the dagger from Ackerley’s wrist and held it under his chin. “I keep forgetting that I need to hurry.” He swallowed. “Ok, let’s go.”

Something whizzed through the air. Victor let out a rasping screech and fell to the ground. An arrow sticking out of side.

Ackerley came back to his body with the noise.

Old Mr. Jett stood in the hall, a bow in his hands.

The two Welgo guards stared stupidly at him. They looked to each other and drew their swords.

Mr. Jett pulled another arrow from his pocket, steadied it, and shot one of the guards through the neck. He crashed to the floor.

Ackerley jumped up, grabbed the dagger laying near the crumpled, moaning Victor, and plunged it into the other guard’s leg. He stumbled back with a sharp yelp.

Mr. Jett grabbed Ackerley and together they ran from the room.

They blazed past several Welgos who were two slow to stop them. He led the way down several hallways until they were in a place Ackerley had never been to. A place with a dead end. It looked to be over. Thundering footsteps grew close. Mr. Jett pulled a small key from around his neck, slid a piece of the wall out of the way to reveal a small hole, plunged the key into the hole, and turned it. The wall to the right slid out of place, revealing a passageway. He pushed Ackerley inside, jumped in, and closed it behind them.

They stood in the pitch blackness for a while, listening to the Welgos pounding at the wall, unable to get inside.

“Thanks.” Ackerley panted.

“SHHH.”

A minute later the pounding stopped and the Welgos went away. Mr. Jett shuffled around in the dark. A small flame suddenly appeared with a sizzle. The flame lit a lantern and the darkness ebbed away.

They stood in a comfortable room. A table and a bed sat against the wall and a carpet covered a large swath of the floor. There didn’t appear to be an end to the room, it went on into darkness.

“Is this your room?” Ackerley asked, his voice echoing.

Mr. Jett sat down heavily on the bed and wiped his forehead, the bow still clutched tightly in his other hand. “Sure is.”

“And they can’t get in?”

“No one gets in ’cept me.”

Ackerley leaned against the wall, his head swimming. “Thank you. That was—I was about to—”

“I can’t believe this all happened so quick.” Mr. Jett said, reaching under his bed and pulling out a box. “Here, let me treat ya real quick.”

Mr. Jett took out several bandages and covered everything that was bleeding.

And then they rested for a few minutes.

After a while Mr. Jett stood up, taking the bow with him. “I’m out.” He said, looking at the bow. “But I can still get out there and find your brother. I saw him sneaking around a few minutes before I saw you. I’m sure he was lookin’ for ya. Just wait here and I’ll go and get him.”

“I need to get to the little garden in the wall, you know it? That was our meeting place.”

“I know it.” Mr. Jett said wearily. He’ll meet ya there then? Alright, let’s see if I can get us there in one piece. Then I’ll come and get him if he ain’t there.”

Mr. Jett took the lantern from the wall and started into the darkness.

Ackerley stood still, watching him.

“Well, you coming?” Mr. Jett called back.

Ackerley started after him.

Footsteps echoed off the stone floor. The passage didn’t seem to have an end. Darkness persisted just out of reach of the light.

“Where are we?” Ackerley asked.

“This was supposed to be the family crypt. Each royal who died was going to get a space down here. It never panned out.”

Ackerley thought that weird that they wouldn’t put the dead royal family underground someplace, but he didn’t want to say anything.

After a long while of walking into nothingness a wall finally appeared. Mr. Jett took out his key again and the door slid away.

Ackerley jumped back, his hands instinctively covering his mouth as smoke billowed into the tunnel. The passage led out back. The once beautiful gardens were engulfed in flames. Mr. Jett pushed Ackerley into the shadows as several Welgos danced around near the flames. They didn’t seem to notice them.

“We can make it.” Mr. Jett assured him.

“No,” Ackerley said, his eyes burning, “I’ll go. You stay safe in your room. I can make it.”

“I can’t let you do that, Ackerley. I need to protect you.”

“You already did.” Ackerley coughed. “Now get back in there before the smoke fills it up.”

Mr. Jett shook his head. Ackerley didn’t want to be mean, but time was wasting. He shoved Mr. Jett away and ran for it.

The side of his face burned and his eyes hurt so bad that he couldn’t keep them open. But he continued running. The crackling and the whooshing of the flames was so loud he couldn’t tell if anyone was after him. He managed to see enough to know he was getting close to the spot. He wiped his eyes and saw the area.

Ackerley pushed the stone out of the way, slipped inside, and replaced it.

The cool damp darkness felt good. He wiped his eyes, letting the tears wash the ash out.

The pain and exhaustion finally caught up to him. For a while he couldn’t find the strength to get off the ground and continue on. His wrist hurt worst of all. The bandages were soaked through. He held it tenderly, moving his fingers to make sure they still worked. He coughed uncontrollably, vomiting a little.

Once his head stopped pounding and he didn’t think he would faint by trying to get up, Ackerley crawled through the tunnel, his good hand propelling him forward.

The garden looked and felt as lovely as ever. The smell of greenery and the trickle of water made his head feel a little better.

Cerise sat in the grass against the far wall, staring up into the sky. She got up quickly when she saw him. Her eyes scanned his body, pausing momentarily on the bandages.

“What happened?” She said, her voice hollow.

Ackerley shrugged. “I got attacked. Where’s Kenton.”

“He went looking for you.”

Ackerley sat on the log by the water, wondering if it was safe to drink.

“Let’s wait a bit, and then get going.” He said.

“We should go now.” She said gravely. “It’s only a matter of time until they get here.”

Ackerley bent down and drank from the pool. It tasted a little strange, but he was so thirsty it didn’t matter to him.

“Ok, but just a couple more minutes.”

And so they waited. Cerise sat back down and stared at the sky. Ackerley drank more water. When he had gotten his fill he plunged his head in and shook it around. It felt good.

A noise made him jump to his feet. Kenton crawled out of the tunnel. He wore a Welgo jacket, which was much too big for him. He saw his brother and came towards him angrily.

“Why did you go back?” He roared, seizing Ackerley by the arm and leading him towards the wall. When he saw the bandages he let go. “What happened to you?”

“That Victor guy attacked me.”

The anger dissipated, replaced by awe. “And you escaped?”

“Mr. Jett shot him with an arrow.”

Kenton looked impressed. “That was very nice of him. Did you thank him?”

“Of course.” Said Ackerley irritably. “He saved my life.”

Kenton went over to the wall and pushed the door open. Together the three of them went through it.

“I’m going to get Sidestep. You two wait here until you here this knock.” Kenton rapped on the door leading to the outside a few times. “Alright?”

They agreed.

Kenton slipped through and out of sight.

Cerise and Ackerley waited patiently. They stood silently, each watching the door nervously.

He thought of a bunch of things he wanted to say to her. So many questions entered his brain. What was her favorite color? Did she miss Indigo? Would she miss the castle?

He opened his mouth, but then shut it. Those could come later. If everything worked out they would be seeing a lot of each other on the way to Vloraisha.

“What’s taking him so long?” Cerise said after they had been standing there for a good ten minutes.

Ackerley’s stomach lurched. What if he had been killed? What would they do? They could wait there until everything blew over, but what if it never did?

“He’ll be here.” Said Ackerley certainly. “He’s gotten past them a bunch of times before.”

Someone knocked on the door. Both of them jumped a foot in the air. Cerise took several calming breaths and opened it slowly.

Kenton pulled Ackerley out, glancing around wildly. Sidestep nudged him gently as Kenton threw the rope around him.

“Not this again.” Ackerley moaned.

“Don’t give me that!” Kenton shouted.

Ackerley looked at the ground; a little embarrassed.

Kenton helped Ackerley on the horse and then gave Cerise a boost to sit behind him. Kenton got on in front and finished tying the rope around his brother.

“What about Cerise?” Ackerley asked. “Do you have another rope?”

Kenton looked at him irritably, but Cerise cut in.

“Its fine, Acks, I’ll be fine.”

Kenton’s face softened. He tied the rope tight, gave Sidestep an encouraging pat, and they were off.

Sidestep galloped swiftly away from Chellion Castle. Ackerley twisted around until he could see his home for the past few months shrink away. Black smoke billowed from the backyard; most of the windows were smashed.

And then he saw something that made him gasp. Four large Welgos on even larger horses pelted around the wall after them. Ackerley tried to say something—only weak moans came out.

Kenton looked back to see what was wrong and swore, pounding his hand onto his leg aggressively. He kicked Sidestep, something he rarely did, and the horse knew it was time to go all out.

The horse ran faster than it had in a long time. The Welgos were gaining, their swords drawn.

Sidestep couldn’t keep the pace for long. It held strong for about a minute. And then it began to slow—it wasn’t used to so much weight.

Kenton glanced back at Cerise, a frown on his face. Ackerley caught sight of it.

“Don’t you dare!” He warned.

Kenton pulled a sword from his belt, readying himself for what was to come.

All four Welgos arrived at the same time. Each held their swords high and came down with a crashing force. Kenton didn’t need to tell Sidestep what to do. The horse turned quickly, narrowly avoiding the strikes.

Kenton engaged one in a sword fight. The blades clashed over and over again. Sidestep drove hard into the opposing horse, giving Kenton an opportunity to catch the Welgos wrist in his hand and slice the horse, which fell to the ground, sending its rider flying.

“Don’t!” Cerise screeched upon seeing the horse fall. She grabbed onto Ackerley as hard as she could.

With Cerise and the rope, he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it, even if he didn’t get hit by a sword.

Kenton ignored her. The other three swung their swords all around. One hit Kenton’s black jacket and bounced off. One caught Cerise across her shoulder. She let out a high pitched shriek and her grip loosened. Ackerley turned back and pushed her down, covering her body with his arms.

Sidestep came to a stop, allowing the other horses to pass. Their size made it harder for them to double back. Kenton pulled the reigns with his free hand and they started in a different direction. It was no good; the poor horse was already too worn out.

With the sword in front of him, Kenton directed the horse straight at one of the invaders. The two fighters jabbed as hard as they could. Kenton lifted his sword at the last second and gave the Welgo a cut across the face. He dropped his sword. It hit Kenton’s jacket with little power and fell to the ground.

Two down.

The last two came at full speed, both their swords aimed at Sidestep. The horse twisted just in time. One swipe grazed the horse’s side as the other missed. Kenton smiled with relief. He took his sword with both hands and came down with a sickening blow, cutting the Welgo across the back of the neck.

He couldn’t believe his luck. Outnumbered four to one and with only one left, everybody was more or less alright. That is until he heard his brother’s low whimper behind him.

Turning back, he saw Ackerley hanging limply off the side of the horse, unable to fall off. That last strike may have missed Sidestep, but it hadn’t missed Ackerley’s side. Blood seeped through the ropes. The gash only a millimeter above the rough binding that secured him to his brother.

Kenton watched his little brother as if in slow motion. The boy rose and fell, his arms waving carelessly around. Cerise glanced up when her protection vanished. She screamed, grabbing onto Ackerley. Kenton watched her mouth open and her eyes bulge, but didn’t hear the sound.

The commander gripped the sword hard, peeling his eyes away and looking frantically for the last Welgo. The villainous beast charged in from the side, sword pointed at the lifeless body barely hanging on. Kenton, in a fit of fury, flung the sword with all his might. It caught the Welgo across the chest, landing briefly on the horse’s back, and then got tangled in the horse’s legs. The oversized animal fell to its knees, the rider landing with a terrible crunch in front of it.

They couldn’t stop. It was still too dangerous. Kenton and Cerise propped Ackerley up—his head resting at an odd angle on his brother’s back. Cerise cried softly, still holding her own injured shoulder.

Sidestep continued on for a quarter of an hour, growing steadily slower. When it could only muster a moderate trot Kenton steered it over to a small stream and quickly undid the rope. Cerise hopped off and together they lowered Ackerley onto the bank of the stream. Blood covered his white tunic. Kenton dug his hand into a small bag that hung off the saddle. He took out a couple rolled up bandages and threw one at Cerise. She splashed some water on her shoulder and quickly wound the bandage around it, and then went to Ackerley’s side.

She felt his neck.

Kenton stared at her, too afraid to look down.

After a few seconds her hand moved away, trembling horribly.

26.

They sat there for a long time watching and listening to the water. Every couple minutes Kenton looked back at his little brother—heavily bandaged—laying perfectly still—his breathing weak and shallow. He had cried for a while, and then he had stopped, promising to be strong. And then he cried some more. Cerise stared silently ahead, she hadn’t moved since she finished helping Kenton with the bandages.

“You know what I miss most about that little town we’re from?” Kenton said as it started to get dark.

“What?” Whispered Cerise, not taking her eyes off the distant, promised future that grew so dim.

“The sounds—just those everyday small town sounds that filled the place. You know the ones? The carts going through the streets and the people talking about whatever mattered in their simple lives. I missed that most of all when I left. Second of all I guess.” He looked back at his brother. “He’s all I got left.”

“He’s all I got left.” Cerise said, finally looking away from the distance. She buried her face in her hands. “What d’we do now?”

“I don’t know.” Kenton breathed.

“How long will it take to get to Vloraisha?” She asked.

“A couple days. There’s nothing we can do for him until then.”

Kenton looked like a man who didn’t know what to do with himself. He stared at nothing, looking lost and confused.

The hours ticked by. Night came and it grew too dark to see. Kenton didn’t dare light a fire. He was certain that Welgos had been sent to finish them off. If Victor was still alive then he would probably want nothing more than to do it himself.

Ackerley stirred around daybreak. Neither Cerise nor Kenton had slept any. They turned to face him. The boy turned his head a few times and his eyes fluttered open.

Kenton rushed over, relief exploding within him.

“You’re alright.” He assured him.

“What—?” Ackerley rasped. “S’where are we?”

Kenton rustled around in a little bag and pulled out a flower bulb. It was wilted and turning brown.

“Here, eat this. It’s medicine. It’ll take the pain away for a few hours. I brought several.”

Ackerley ate the bulb and Kenton gave him some water. A few minutes later Ackerley fell unconscious.

Kenton got Sidestep ready, placing the bag with the bulbs carefully in his pocket, and took out the rope.

“Are you sure he’ll be alright?” Cerise asked as she helped put Ackerley onto the horse.

“We’ll go slow.” Kenton said. “I’m almost out of that medicine and we need to get to Vloraisha before the Welgos catch up.”

“Do you really think they’re after us still?” Cerise asked fearfully.

Kenton climbed onto the horse. “The king’s dead.” He said simply. “I was second in command. If Victor still thinks the country’s not his I’m the only one left for him to go after.”

Cerise jumped onto the horse and held Ackerley across the shoulders, making sure to stay clear of his side. The boy’s head fell limply on his brother’s back.

Kenton patted Sidestep affectionately. They started off at a canter.

The morning passed slowly. Both Cerise and Kenton were so afraid of something happening to Ackerley that whenever Sidestep got too fast or too slow they gasped and made sure the movements didn’t jar him too much. Kenton took some bread out of one of the bags and gave it to Cerise. There wasn’t much, but they were too hungry to wait any longer.

Around midday Ackerley woke up. They had to explain to him what was happening. Kenton asked every minute or so if he wanted any more medicine, to which Ackerley always declined, despite the pain growing harder to handle. He knew that they didn’t have enough to get all the way there.

They experimented with Sidestep going faster. Ackerley managed alright at a gallop, which made everyone breathe a little easier.

They passed several burned shells of old towns. In the afternoon they stopped to rest a little; Ackerley took the medicine. In the evening Sidestep found the little forest Ackerley had thought so much about. It was just as amazing as before. The pain had subsided with the bulb and Ackerley was able to fully appreciate where he was. The little garden didn’t do the real thing justice. The smells stronger—the sounds more beautiful.

The boy allowed himself to dream once more. He imagined a life down by the water, filled with seafood unlike he could ever imagine, and the freedom to live and travel as he’d never experienced. It sounded so great—felt even better.

Unable to control himself, he asked Kenton what kind of little house he could look forward to.

“I think I’ll build one.” Kenton said, also allowing himself the simple pleasure of the future.

“We’ll build it together.” Ackerley said, his voice shaking with glee.

“Yeah, and then in a few years you can go out and build your own.”

“I want one right on the water.” Cerise added. “It won’t even have a door. I’ll put a curtain up and anybody can just walk right in if they want. I’ll have a little table and we can all sit around and think about how great we have it.”

Ackerley laughed, which made his side hurt. “I’ll come by a lot.”

“You better.” Cerise ordered.

They talked on about all the great things they were going to do. And then—

“What was that?” Cerise said suddenly.

The end of the trees could be seen in the distance. Somewhere behind them came a noise that sounded uncomfortably like frenzied voices.

“Sidestep.” Kenton whispered, patting the horse. “Let’s go.”

Sidestep quickened his pace. The noises did as well. Whoops and hollers cascaded from all around.

For a brief optimistic moment Kenton hoped these were the voices of Chells who had hid in the forest.

That hope came crashing down when twenty or so invaders launched themselves from behind trees and bushes.

Sidestep jolted away through the last few feet of forest and into the flat nothingness beyond. On either side thundered a whole cavalry of Welgos on their oversized black horses. Far in the distance walls were being erected on new towns.

The older Morzha glanced back at the younger. His eyes gravitated to the red on the white tunic.

“I’m alright.” Ackerley said. “Go.”

Kenton turned back around and kicked the horse hard. Sidestep pounded away across the dirt road. The enemy gained quickly. Cerise pushed herself against Ackerley, holding on tight. Kenton lamented losing his sword. Only speed could save them now. He took the reigns in one hand, removed one of the bags from the saddle, and let the contents empty. Then, bag in hand, he waited for the Welgos.

The black horses rumbled closer. Swords swiped at the air. Arrows whizzed by.

The first Welgo caught up to the tail of Sidestep. Kenton threw the bag back. It landed square on the black horse’s face. It slowed, shaking its head until the bag dislodged itself.

Kenton took another bag. This wouldn’t work forever. They had been caught. Sidestep wouldn’t be able to keep them off more than a few seconds. Everything that he ever worked for: leaving his family at sixteen to join the army, trying to protect his brother, it would all end by execution in only a few hours . . . or sooner.

Several of the large black beasts closed in on the sides. The Welgos aimed their swords at Sidestep . . .

Cerise put her head on Ackerley’s shoulder.

“I—I.” She stammered.

Ackerley turned. Their eyes met. For the briefest of instances Cerise looked scared. And then she smiled serenely. Hair blowing—tears streaming down her face—the princess of Indigo launched herself off the back of the horse.

She seemed frozen there, mid jump. Her body falling back, her eyes watching his. Ackerley’s hand reached out, but she was gone.

Sidestep’s pace quickened. It just had enough to get through. The Welgos couldn’t keep up.

Ackerley pounded on his brother’ back.

“Kenton, go back! We have to go back.”

Kenton didn’t take his eyes off the distance. “We can’t. We’ll be killed.” He bellowed.

“She fell off!” Ackerley sobbed. “I can’t leave her!”

“She knew what she was doing.”

Ackerley’s fingers clawed at his brother’s hands, trying to pull the reigns from him. “PLEASE!” He screeched. “I can’t—”

Kenton swung an elbow back, striking his brother across the face.

“I’m not letting you kill yourself!” He yelled. “Now, stop it.”

Sidestep galloped on. Ackerley tried fruitlessly to gain control of the horse. When that didn’t work he tried to free himself from the fraying rope. Kenton punched him hard.

Finally, helpless and frightened, Ackerley gripped the sides of the saddle and cried.

Sometime late in the evening Kenton slowed the horse. He untied the rope, handing his brother a bulb. He reluctantly took it.

Ackerley gingerly slid to the ground, wincing. He took a seat by the little stream they had found. The sun faded to his right. Out of tears, pain growing, Ackerley sat motionless until it was time to continue.

White hot guilt burned at his insides. His mind raced through what had happened again and again. If only he had been able to stop her. He was certain they could make it. And if not, he would have rather they all died together.

Kenton sat beside him. “I’m so sorry.” He breathed. “She was trying to protect you; you know that right?”

“I don’t need protection.” Ackerley said dully.

“You’re all I have now.” Kenton said slowly. “I will do anything to make sure you’re safe.”

“Now I don’t have anything left.”

Kenton got up and brought Sidestep over. “Let’s get going. We can get there by tomorrow.”

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Sidestep made good progress and sometime in the night, guided by stars and the moon, they were deep into the Vastlands. The dust churned in a light breeze. Ackerley kept his eyes closed.

They traveled the whole night and the whole next day, stopping only to rest. Ackerley ran out of medicinal bulbs and spent the remainder of the trip in agonizing pain. Worse still, he started to feel pain all over. The gash in his side looked horrible. Kenton changed the bandages twice a day, and then they ran out of those as well. Ackerley was certain that it was infected, and that’s why he was feeling worse. His head ached terribly, his body shook and felt chill. Near daybreak on the third day he started vomiting uncontrollably. The ride didn’t make anything better, but they couldn’t stop. There were no known doctors anywhere. Kenton could only hope that Vloraisha had some near the border. On top of all of that there wasn’t any place to get more food or water. They didn’t come across any more streams. Ackerley wasn’t sure if he was going to die of infection, starvation, or dehydration. If they didn’t get somewhere soon he’d have a good chance at any of them.

And then—the ground changed again. Grass took the place of the endless dust. Fields with fences sprang out of nowhere.

“I think I know where this is.” Kenton said. “I think we’re close now.”

One long tall fence blocked their path forward. A dense forest lay beyond. They traveled parallel to the fence for a long while, looking for an entrance. A gate came into view. It was guarded by two men wearing orange. They didn’t look like Welgos; the wood of the fence didn’t look like the dark wood of Welgland. Kenton steered the horse up to one of the men.

“Is this the entrance to Vloraisha?” Kenton asked, smiling vibrantly.

The man stared at him, looking over the specks of blood still on his clothing. His eyes stopped and took in the large black coat.

“Where you from?” His voice was gruff.

“Oh!” Kenton quickly pulled off the coat. “I stole this. I’m a Chell, commander of the king’s army.”

The man looked past Kenton to Ackerley, who quietly retched, trying desperately not to vomit.

“Wha’s wrong with him?”

The second man came over and goggled at them as if this were some form of entertainment.

“He’s very sick. I need to get him to a doctor quick. Is this the gate to Vloraisha?”

The first man nodded. “If you’s a commander, where’s your army jacket? Don’t they all get jackets?”

“I had to take it off in order to escape the Welgos. Now can you please let us in?”

The Vloraishan looked them both over some more, an expression of boredom on his face. “We’ve had too many of your kind in here. We’s been turnin’m back for while now. I think they’s been up a town or two out thatta way.” He pointed straight back to the Vastlands. “Ain’t no more gettin’ past. That’s the orders anyhow.”

“We need to get in. Why would you not let anymore in?” Kenton asked, growing flustered.

“Too many. We didn’t need this fence before. We had to put it up to keep’m out. They used to flood on through here.” The first man said.

The second Vloraishan chuckled stupidly some ways away.

“He’s very sick.” Kenton protested. “And I have news—important news for your leader about the state of Chell.”

The Vloraishan looked mildly impressed. “Oh yeah, like what?”

Kenton gripped the reigns tightly. “I can only tell your leader. It’s urgent.”

The man sighed. “Why didn’t you just say you was a messenger.” He said, looking as though he was tired of dealing with them. “We let messengers in all the time.”

He stood out of the way and let them pass.

Thank you so much.” Kenton said.

“Alright, just heads on down this here road until you come to the sign pointing the capital out. It’s a ways. And don’t be going down any other paths. Only one takes you there.”

Kenton’s smile returned. “Yes, sir.”

Sidestep took off down the road through the forest. The trees were thinner and taller than any Ackerley had ever seen. If he hadn’t felt so bad he might have really enjoyed it. He definitely did not enjoy the dozen stops they had to make for him to vomit into the bushes. By the eighth stop he couldn’t even get anything to come up, and he was forced to stand, gagging and retching, until it passed.

A fork appeared. The sign pointing left said capital. Kenton didn’t even look at the other. He pulled Sidestep to the left and continued on.

It was much warmer in Vloraisha then it had been in Chell. That didn’t help Ackerley, who was now sweating uncontrollably. But that wasn’t the only thing worrying him.

“They didn’t seem very nice.” He croaked.

“No.” Kenton said nervously. “Let’s hope the people at the capital are better.”

“What about what he said about the Chells?”

“Like I said—we just have to hope.”

The trees thinned the farther they went. The road curved sharply to the left. Kenton thought he could smell the ocean, though he had never been close enough to know what it smelled like. He was proved correct a few minutes later. Off to their left they could see where the trees stopped and the sand began. Without a second’s hesitation Kenton pulled Sidestep off the road and over to the sand. The ocean went on forever. Small waves lapped quietly onto the shore.

“That sure is something, huh?”

Ackerley moaned his agreement.

“Alright, we’ll come back when you’re feeling better.”

Back on the road it took only a short time for the capital of Vloraisha to appear.

The roads and buildings were all made with a graying stone. The corners of each building were covered in colored wood planks. A different color for each one. All the people milling about had on bright outfits of orange, yellow, or red. The two Chells stuck out easily. Some people looked up at them skeptically, some downright annoyed.

Kenton tried to ignore them as they made their way to the largest building of all. It stood right in the center of this rather small city, a tower on top reached high into the sky. It’s wood corners were painted in a multitude of colors.

They came to the perimeter fence of this great building and met with another guard.

“Business?” The guard asked pompously.

“We have news for your leader.” Kenton explained. “We need to see them right away, it’s about Chell. And we also need to see a doctor immediately. My companion is very ill.”

The guard looked at Ackerley, pausing at the red stains on his white tunic.

“What did that?”

“We fought off about a hundred Welgos to get here alive. He took a mighty slash.”

The guard didn’t look all that impressed. “Is that so? And you thought this place—” He pointed back to the large building behind him. “—this place of governance was the place to go with that problem?”

Kenton sat in stunned silence for a moment. “I just thought there might be a doctor nearby. He needs one desperately.”

The guard chewed on something that made his teeth an unsavory green. His mouth opening wide and noisily with every chomp. “Alrigh’ well what was that news from Chell?”

“I—I’d rather tell the leader.”

“That’s not gonna happen, so you might as well tell me.” He said unpleasantly.

Please, sir.” Kenton begged. Please tell me where I can at least find a doctor.”

The guard continued to stare distastefully at Ackerley. “Don’t know a doctor who can do anything at this point. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” He walked around the fence and turned back to face them. “Go around this building and continue till ya get to the beach. Turn left. Go up that way till ya get to a little village. It was made by Chells who got in before we closed the border. I don’t know if they have anyone to help ya, but it might be nice for the little one to spend his final minutes amongst his own kind.”

In any other circumstance Kenton would have kept fighting for entrance. But now, with Ackerley in such a state, he chose to find this town and hope there was a doctor who could help.

The beach wasn’t too hard to find. It was right past the capitol building. Kenton turned left as instructed. Sidestep trotted across the sand. A few families lay out on the golden beach. Kenton watched the water, unable to fathom just how much of it there was.

Twenty minutes later little wooden buildings came into view. They were a mishmash of shapes and sizes, and all seemed to encircle a central longhouse. Kenton slowed Sidestep, undid the rope, and jumped off. He led the horse into the village, looking around for someone who might help.

Children played by the water while adults chatted merrily nearby. Kenton greeted them kindly and asked them for a doctor. They took one look at Ackerley, who had fallen across the saddle and was hugging Sidestep, unable to get back up. The adults jumped out of the plain wooden chairs they were sitting in and led the way to one of the smallest round houses in the village. It stood right on the edge of the forest. An old man with a long salt and pepper beard bustled out. Despite his advanced age he had a youthful strength and demeanor. He easily lifted Ackerley from the back of the horse and carried him into the small house.

Kenton followed them inside. Several simple beds filled the house. Ackerley was placed upon one. Two youth’s, a boy and a girl only a little older than Ackerley ran around the small dwelling. They pulled things out of glass jars and took bandages out of drawers. The girl helped Ackerley choke down a medicinal bulb. The boy took Kenton gently by the hand and led him back outside, promising that they would get him when Ackerley was ready for visitors.

The former commander walked in a daze through the village. Sidestep had been taken to a trough where he took a long drink. Several little kids threw buckets of water on him, beginning to wash the days of wear away.

A middle aged woman wearing a plain tan dress with her hair in a ponytail came over to him, a friendly smile on her face.

“I’m sure you have quite a story to tell.” She said to Kenton. “Won’t you come in to the longhouse and tell us about it?”

The woman introduced herself as Murraya, the leader of the small village of New Chell. Kenton accepted her offer and together they went into the comfortable longhouse and sat at a finely carved table.

Kenton, full of relief and happiness about his brother finally being cared for, told everything there was to tell. He started at the beginning, when he joined the army and left his family. He told about the war, the manor region, and Chellion castle. He finished with the castle being overrun, the king being killed (leaving out who did it), and their final escape.

Halfway through he found his eyes welling up, tears streaming down his face, and his body shaking uncontrollably. All the emotion that he had somehow kept bottled within him came rushing out with the story. He thought about his brother, about all the poor people who had died, and about his brother’s friend, the princess who gave her life for theirs. When he finished, his head dropped to the table, his hands pounding the smooth wood as he cursed the invaders and every sorrow they brought.

Murraya rubbed his back tenderly. “You’re safe now. You’re home.”

27.

It took a full two weeks before Ackerley was able to leave the hospital house. The Morzha’s had been welcomed with open arms. The villagers helped Kenton build his own little round house. It was finished by the time that Ackerley was deemed healed. After the first few days everyone had had enough of the stories. They had told Kenton about how they each escaped. Some of them left right after news broke that the Welgos had entered Chell, a full three years ago. The villagers treated them as if they had lived there always.

Ackerley spent most nights sitting on the beach, watching and listening to the waves until it was far to dark to see. He thought about Cerise a lot; about all the things they could have been doing together. He wondered if she’d like the village, if she would have stayed with them or tried making her way in the world alone.

He missed the castle. He missed the structure of the day and the nice room with the nice bed. The further he got from living there the more he forgot about how much anxiety he felt. All his mind could hang on to was the food, the times hanging out with Jarn, and the walks alone with Cerise.

Kenton didn’t seem to know how to sit still. He was often away. Sometimes he would go back to the capital and try to get an audience with the leader. Other times he would journey into Chell and see how things were doing. He would always bring back news. When they had lived there for a whole year Kenton went on one of these trips, coming back with news of how different Chell was now. Chellion Castle had been renamed South Welgland Castle, and was the center of governance. Victor had survived and become the king. Welgo towns had sprung up everywhere. There was little talk of what became of the Chells who survived. Some said they joined with the Welgos and tried to hide their roots. Others said they all were massacred by Victor. None ever showed up in the little village. Kenton was only ever allowed back into Vloraisha because he bought the traditional bright clothing and pretended to be from there. He tried on various occasions to bring some Chells with him, failing to get them through the gates each time.

Ackerley wasn’t exactly alone when his brother left. The villagers tried to keep him company the best they could. But it was hard for him to get to know anyone. He much preferred keeping to himself now. The kids his own age, there were only a couple, thought he was weird and didn’t want to put in the extra effort to be his friends. Ackerley didn’t mind. He overheard them saying that he wasn’t quite right: “the Welgo’s really messed him up” they would say.

A little girl about ten often sat with him at the beach in the evening. Ackerley would tell her to go away; that he didn’t want her there. She never left. He was grateful to her though, at least he wouldn’t be completely alone. She would tell him about her life and about how the Welgos took her parents. He assumed they she meant they killed them. She lived with her aunt now. She too kept quiet around others and didn’t want to make friends. Just like with Ackerley, the other little kids thought she was weird.

Three years passed. They went by in a blink. Ackerley spent a lot of his time fishing and going to the capital to sell all the fish the town could spare. Eighty percent of the profits went to the town fund, the other twenty to his pocket. He hoped it would be enough for him to leave when he turned eighteen. His fantasies turned slowly from what could have been done to save Cerise, to what he could do with a bunch of money out in Vloraisha. He thought about finding another beachfront village and starting over, just him—no past, no problems, no previous existence at all. A small part of him, though it grew bigger, even thought about going back up into Chell—or whatever it was called now—and trying to live among those Chells who had survived and built their own towns. Surely there must be some. And then an even smaller part thought of traveling up to Indigo. He wondered if anything was left. He wanted to meet people who knew Cerise. To hear stories about the royal family and to see the castle that she grew up in.

Kenton came back from his longest trip of all only two weeks before Ackerley’s eighteenth birthday. Ackerley had spent the last few months planning his life out. He was going to leave. He had made enough money to last a whole year, hopping from town to town until he found the right one to settle down in. The hardest part of planning was trying to figure out what to say to his brother. Kenton always came back from his trips with a speech about how glad he was that his brother was safe in New Chell. How his brother wouldn’t be able to find a better place if he looked for a century. But now was Ackerley’s time to give him a speech. He would tell his brother that he was almost eighteen. That it was time for him to get out of that place where no one liked him that much and find a place where he could start over.

Early one morning, about dawn, Ackerley got up to head down to get in his little boat and fish, when he heard what sounded like a great many people coming closer. He waited to see what was going on. Murraya ran out of the longhouse anxiously. She always feared the Vloraishans coming to kick them out. They both breathed a sigh of relief when they saw that the group was led by Kenton. About ten people followed him into the ring of houses.

Ackerley moved forward cautiously. Kenton appeared far too happy. He laughed and joked with the people as though knowing them his whole life. They all wore the bright oranges and greens of Vloraisha, but their features were more of Chell.

“Hey, Ackerley.” He said glowingly upon seeing his brother’s quizzical expression. “I finally managed to get some Chells in. It took quite a while to smuggle all the clothes out one at a time. I had to wear two layers each time.”

“Uh-huh.” Ackerley said. He cleared his throat. This would be the best time to say what he had been planning.

A young woman stepped out from behind Kenton. For a searing, painful second Ackerley felt a sudden fear. He recoiled.

This girl, about his own age, looked dirty and worn. Her bright clothing contrasted greatly with her disheveled hair that fell raggedly and unevenly about her shoulders. Her arms were scarred with unmistakable blade slashes. Despite all this, it was her face that made him back away. The right side of her face was discolored and deeply damaged. Her right eye shut; a long scar across her shriveled eyelid. For the briefest of moments, he was certain that Thora stood before him. His brother had told him that Thora had been the one to let the Welgos into the castle.

Ackerley looked more carefully. This wasn’t Thora at all; this girl was much too young. He stared at her for a while, unable to move or speak. She smiled broadly back at him.

“I really can’t believe it. Your brother told me you were safe, but I still didn’t want to believe it until I finally saw you.”

“C—Cerise?” Ackerley chocked, forming the word with great difficulty. It was the first time he had said her name aloud in over three years.

She nodded, a tear running down her left cheek. Without saying another word, she grabbed him in a tight hug. They stood there, embracing for quite a while. The whole world disappeared around them.

Ackerley’s eyes burned as the tears flowed freely. He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to open them again. He knew—he just knew that if he did she would disappear; the same way she did in so many dreams.

“I thought—” he sputtered, “I thought for sure you were dead.”

“No.” She sobbed, squeezing him a little tighter. “They took me as prisoner.”

She let him go, wiping away her tears on her shoulder. “Let’s go somewhere. I’ll tell you about it if you tell me what you’ve been up to all this time.”

Ackerley grabbed her hand and led her over to his little boat and away from the growing crowd welcoming the Chells. They walked the length of the shabby pier to where the boat was tethered. He helped Cerise in, climbed in himself, and quickly untethered it. The little thing bobbed merrily away from the pier, out into the ocean.

He couldn’t help but stare. He tried to find some semblance of the beautiful princess he once knew. It was there—buried deep under a guard he could tell was starting to fade away. She no longer needed it.

“I built this.” Ackerley said awkwardly, picking up the oars. He had fantasized about talking to her again countless times, easily forgetting all of it now that the real thing was back in his life.

“It’s really good.” She said, looking over the boat.

“The first two sank when I got in. Old Mr. Thim—he was an old fisherman who died a few months back—he helped me with this one.”

Cerise stared at Ackerley unflinchingly. “I can’t believe you survived. The Welgos that took me said they killed you both and buried you. They kept telling me how great it was for them to kill the boy who injured Victor.”

“I never injured him.” Ackerley confessed.

“Well, Victor made it sound like you were the one who did it. He sure was glad to know you died. They took me back to him; thought we were cohorts. He turned me and everyone who survived in the basement into slaves. We cleaned up everything and did whatever the Welgos wanted.” She stroked her arms thoughtfully. “I got a slash every time I did something wrong. One day the food was too cold; another it was too hot. Sometimes it just wasn’t there fast enough. This lasted for the first year. After that I went with Victor to Welgland to stop a coup. Evidently the people there thought he was spending too much time in the South and thought a new leader was in order. Anyway, I went with him as his assistant—or whatever it was he called me in that horrible language.”

“What was it like up there?” Ackerley interrupted.

She shrugged. “I don’t know, pretty much the same as it is anywhere.” She skimmed the top of the water with her hand, frowning at the memories. “He decided to quell the people there and tell them that I was going to be the queen. I don’t really know why that quelled them. He was the only one I could understand and he didn’t exactly keep me well informed. I think he was going to use me as a second ruler, since the territory had grown so much. He said they always liked Indigo, and that most of them didn’t even know it had been destroyed.”

Ackerley clenched his fists, refusing to accept what she was saying. He convinced himself that it was alright; this was all in the past.

“He didn’t have any interest in me to really be the queen. He just wanted to shut them up. He’s good at that, getting people to shut up.” She stared out at the water, steady and impassive. “I escaped. The first time they caught me, brought me back, and did this.” She didn’t have to point to her face, Ackerley knew what she meant. “I spent—I don’t know how long—slowly making my way back down to Chell. I found a little village like this one where Chell’s had gathered. I lived there for a long time. But I always remembered about coming here with you. After saving up a bit I finally made my way down, hiding whenever I could. It took a long time. I got up to another little Chell town near the border. That’s where I was when Kenton found me. I sure was surprised to see him. He helped me get here.”

“He’s good at getting people to safety.” Ackerley mused thoughtfully. He watched the people on land celebrating the new arrivals, sneaking little peaks at Cerise. Each time he looked at her it felt as if for the first time. He thought back to that day he saw her walking around the cloister. That same magical feeling returned in full force.

“So what about you? What’s your story?”

He laughed nervously. It wasn’t exactly as heroic as escaping a potential life of slavery and painstakingly making his way through a large country, but it was still something worth telling.

He told her about escaping the Welgos, finding the village, and about the boring endless days since then.

“Wow.” She said, awestruck. “That’s the life I always wanted. A little village where everything’s casual—no danger, no overly strict rules. That sounds so wonderful.” She giggled nervously. “I think I want to stay here forever.”

“Me too.” Ackerley agreed quickly. “This is a great place.”

They spent several hours in that little boat talking about all the things they wanted to do in life. When they got back the largest feast ever held in New Chell was being set up. It consisted mostly of fish, but no one cared much about what was eaten, least of all Ackerley and Cerise. They pulled the table out of Ackerley’s round house and ate with everyone else.

For the first time in a long time Ackerley felt like he belonged somewhere. For the first time in years, both Cerise and Ackerley could think about their future in happy, vibrant discourse. And for the first time in either of their lives, there wasn’t a better, brighter future someplace far away.


The Chellion Days

  • Author: A.S. Morrison
  • Published: 2016-08-23 03:35:18
  • Words: 86194
The Chellion Days The Chellion Days