The Caravan swayed and bumped along the track with rickety creaking noises and everyone in the caravan bumped with it, the plodsteed’s hooves clopping across the cobbled road. There were five children in all Jay’ell, Dazda, Montery, Jasper and Aiv. All of them had the same, slightly reflective bronze coulored skin and golden eyes of Kindleborn, a strange new race of humans who had started to appear over the last 20 years. All of them had been taken by Stirben, under the license of a, supposed, Ashclad; a division formed for the sole purpose of hunting down Kindleborn and taking them to be “Extinguished”. They all had little to no memory of what their previous lives had been like as they had all been raised by Stirben and Suza from as young as they could remember.
Dazda moved to one of several barrels, that took up most of the room in the caravan, and fished through it for clothes Jay’ell could wear. Montery was reading a book, his bald head rocking backward and forward on his spindly neck as he sat, utterly engrossed. “What’ve you got there?” Jay’ell asked, accepting the proffered jerkin and trousers Dazda handed him. Montery ignored him for a moment before, responding after his name was shouted at him a few times, “This?” He asked in a small voice, holding up the book in his spidery hands, “It’s Cayde’s Accounts. It’s about how the Lunari were driven back from the Crescent mountains with the power of the Promethiun.”
“The Promethiun?” Jay’ell asked.
“Lunari!” Dazda exclaimed freezing in place and dropping cross-legged ready to listen.
“I thought it was forbidden to write about the Promethiun since the Devouring?” Jay’ell asked, talking over Dazda. Montery’s head turned from side to side as the two fought for attention. At 15 Montery was neither the oldest, nor the biggest but they all treated him as an oracle or font of knowledge. “To answer your question Jay, it has BECOME forbidden to write about it in certain parts of the land but not to READ it. And to you Dazda yes, the mountain folk, lunari, they are in here.”
“What does it say about the Lunari?” Aiv asked, her legs still hanging out the back of the caravan. “It err, it says quite a lot,” Montery said nervously, his spidery fingers running over his shaved head as everyone’s eyes trained on him. “It says how they used their vast battle experience from long lives to set up crucial garrisons throughout the mountains. How they could use the power of the moon to transform and hunt man. But when…” He paused, unsure of what to say. “With the great flame, the humans could drive them back. At night or day. I’ve not finished the book so there’s more to read.”
“I’d love to see a Lunari,” Dazda said wistfully, tearing off a piece of bread and extending it to Aiv.
“None of us have ever been past the Crescent mountains Dah. I reckon anyone on the other side of these mountains would see through our stupid act in 5 minutes. It’s only this part of the land that doesn’t seem to be aware that kids like us even exist.”
Dazda flushed, “I was only saying I’d like to see one.” Jay’ell swallowed a mouthful of his bread.
“Well maybe on a night we can run and hide in the mountains. Maybe one will turn up.”
“Are you planning an escape? Or just dreaming?” Came a voice from the front on the Cart. Jasper who had been quiet up until this point was the oldest of all of them. He was tall, like Jay’ell but stocky, with thick curly hair and the darkest skin. He wore nicer clothes that the rest of them, thought it was still poor quality, and he had a deep soothing voice. At 18, he had played the part of “The Witch” the most and knew Suza and Stirben the best. “If I were you, I’d stick to dreaming. It’s better that way.”
“Why have you ever tried escaping?” Montery asked, turning from his book. Jasper looked over his shoulder at him, his hands still holding the reins to the plodsteed. “Once,”
“I didn’t know you’d tried.” Aiv said as they all looked at each other.
“What happened?” Jay’ell asked, leaning forward to listen. Jasper’s stare was intense and calculating, but Jay’ell could see that he was lost in reminiscence.
“I waited till Stirben had fallen asleep, and Suza was counting money, then when a cloud covered the moon I ran.”
“How far did you get?” Dazda asked, leaning forward intently, eyes wide.
“Far. I made it to a farm. Banged on the door till it opened, man and his wife, and told them everything. The kidnap, the squalor, the performance, everything.” Everyone was listening now, even Aiv, who usually maintained a placid, disinterested vinere, was wide eyed and hungry for detail. “They invited me in and put me in a spare room.I though I’d made it.” His eyes turned dark and his expression lowered. “Then they locked the door and sent for an Ashclad. Guess who happened to be in the area.” They all looked at Jasper now with a mix of sympathy and wonder. “Stirben dragged me straight back, laughing all the way at how pathetic it was thinking anyone would accept me and my story. Ashclad’s are infallible, Stirben’s scheme might be a scam, but his license is legit and here outside the Crescent mountains.” He gestured to the monumental hills they rode past, “They believe every word he says.”
He turned back to the plodsteed, “So honestly. Keep reading books, keep dreaming, learn what you want about the world and live it in your head. Cause you sure as sunlight aren’t going to see it for yourselves.” They all exchanged looks, a mix of defiance, hopelessness and frustration. “Way to kill a mood,” Jay’ell said, sinking back against the hard wood and taking another bite of chewy bread. Aiv was still looking at Jasper. “You only tried once?” She asked him, provocation in her tone. Jasper didn’t answer, leaning forward to concentrate on his job. “Sounds like you gave up pretty easily. There’s more of us now, we could easily outstrip them surely?”
“And go where?” Jasper replied curtly, “We look different Aiv. We shine in the light, we don’t burn our eyes our golden. These people don’t trust a thing that they find unfamiliar. That’s why Stirben’s little con works so well.”
“Why stick to this side of the hills?” Aiv asked, gesturing to the mountains. “Why not cross into the Crescent? Seek refuge in the city.” Dazda’s little eyes lit up at talk of the city.
“I’ve always thought about seeing Aushen one day.”
“Because we’ll never make it across. Besides do you really think they’re any different in the city?”
“How do you know?” Aiv snapped, “You’ve never been there.”
“Neither have you.”
They all fell quiet for a while after that. “Montery, do you still have that pamphlet?” Dazda asked softly. Montery looked up from his book and frowned, “The one for the job? “Acanologist wanted”.” Montery closed his book and, pushing past Dazda, reached into one of the many boxes and rootled around till he pulled out a thin piece of parchment with some writing on. “Read it to us again,” Jay’ell said smiling at Dazda. The small boy crossed his legs and stared at Montery. He loved hearing about the great city and the land beyond. Montery sat up straight, cleared his throat, and began, “Dear Sir *stroke* Madam. Are you an ambitious scholar with expertise in time before the age of the Promethiun and Medeter culture? If so, High Arconologist Galohan is…” Jay’ell knew the rest pretty much by heart. It spoke about life in the very heart of the city. High rise structures with magnificent views across the ever-turning great wheels of the Arcanocraft factories in the city’s heart. So tall they rivalled the mountains themselves, with wealth that could probably buy a small town on the side that they travelled on. He tried to close his eyes and picture it but, couldn’t help watching Dazda out the corner of his eye, enraptured.
When night fell, Suza and Stirben drew both their caravans to a halt and ordered everyone to make camp. They did so as usual. Jay’ell unloaded and pitched the tents while Dazda set about the fire. Aiv and Jasper disappeared for firewood, berries and anything else they could forage. Whilst all this happened Stirben and Suza, counted their coin talked heatedly and drank Ale from an old cask. By the time the moon has half risen a pot was simmering over a fire along with a chunk of questionable meat that Dazda intended to blacken to make sure it was safe to eat.
When it was ready, he served Suza and Stirben first, the largest portions, then shared the rest out among the other young ones. Stirben by this point, was pretty drunk and Suza, barely touching her meal, instead counted some coin and went into her caravan to stow if all away. Montery continued to read his book by the firelight, Dazda gathered up the scraps that Stirben wasn’t finishing off and stored them, while Aiv Jasper and Jay’ell played a game of Stone capture. Montery had berated them once that it was a Lunari battle-map turned board game, but no one was really interested. When their game had finished Jasper turned in, leaving the others round the dying fire.
“Do you guys want any extra? Before I barrel it up?” Dazda asked, his demeanour like that of a caring mother. “No,” Jay’ell replied, “Thank you,” Aiv spared the boy one of her rare smiles.
“I’m fine Dah, save it for tomorrow.” The moon was high and bright, casting a brilliant glow up the sides of the mountains, riming them in silver light. Jay’ell was lying back and staring at the stars, enjoying the warm air when he heard Aiv get up suddenly. She was looking at Stirben, fast asleep. “Just like Jasper said.” She whispered. She looked down at Jay’ell, “C’mon let’s go!” Jay’ell furrowed his brow, “What?”
“Let’s go. Now, let’s just leave. Get out of here. Run.” He sat up as she began to march toward the feet of the mountain. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m going even if you’re not.” True to her word she turned back toward the steep slope and made her way swiftly up it. Jay’ell turned his head and looked around. Dazda and Jasper were in the caravan, Stirben was asleep, Montery was asleep with a book on his face. “Speth it,” he hissed, got up and ran after Aiv.
Catching up with her, they walked shoulder to shoulder panting like animals up the hill. The camp getting further and further away, the campfire a distant orange glow beneath them. The higher they got, the more the sparse trees thickened and grew against the slope creaking in the harsh wind. Suddenly, Aiv stopped, putting out a hand to stop Jay’ell. “What…” She shushed him, her face a frozen mask of terror. Jay’ell looked where she was looking and saw why. A wolf stood its ground before them, not ten paces away. Its coat was glossy and grey, with black eyes like the night-sky itself. It stood as a sentinel guardian to the mountain, its eyes fixed on the two kindleborn in front of it. “Step back,” Aiv whispered, “Really, really slowly.” Jay’ell did as he was told, keeping his eyes fixed on the wolf. It didn’t move, watching them as they backed away reverently.
“It’s not following us,” Jay’ell whispered to Aiv as they made it 20 paces away.
“I know,” Aiv hissed, somehow still adding sarcasm to her tone when terrified. “I think it’s just protecting something.” They were just about to take another step when a flash of silver whizzed past Aiv’s ear up at the wolf. It stuck fast in a tree root and the wolf, leapt backward, disappearing into the trees. The two whipped around and saw Suza, Stirben’s heavy crossbow in hand, glaring up at the spot where the creature had just been. She then moved her glare onto them, “You two,” Her voice was toxic. “You two. At it again?”
“We’re not at anything,” Aiv snapped at her. Jay’ell felt a rush of embarrassment and shame cut off his voice. “Get down this hill now. I should flog you. Wandering off in the night. Trying an escape!”
“We just wanted to get some air.” Aiv replied frostily making her way past the dishevelled woman.
“Shut your backchatting mouth. Selfish girl, don’t you know what you two are worth? It’s spething dangerous on these mountains, you could have been damaged!”
“So what if we were escaping?” Jay’ell said, courage absent from his voice, “Could you blame us?”
Suza raised an eyebrow in surprise at Jay’ell before leering at him. “There are people in this part of the world, who would kill for an opportunity like yours! Travel, a job, regular meals, clothes, friends. And you have the ingratitude to try and “Escape”” She babied the last word to rub salt into Jay’ell’s already hurting pride. “You have it good, boy. Don’t forget it. You try and get away again, I’ll hunt you down like a real Ashclad, and not spare you the bolt.”
“You just said we were valuable,” Aiv retorted. Suza pointed the cross bow at them, and even though there was no bolt in it, the two froze. “We can always find more.”