The Mark of the Owl and the Phoenix. Chapters 1-4

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Prologue

Once upon a time, two kingdoms ruled the continent of Savokriston. They were Pholuxon, and Sowlengard. They were powerful allies and they have their national animals to impose fear and awe among its people and outsiders. Pholuxon’s a phoenix-an ancient bird from fire. Sowlengard’s a snowy white owl-the intelligent hunters across the bare and the wide open tundra. They traded great things to each other as well. Cool, fine silver from Sowlengard, and hearty, rose-tinted gold from Pholuxon.

One day, the kings and queens of these two kingdoms had a baby, on the exact same day. A princess of Pholuxon, and a prince of Sowlengard. The two kingdoms rejoiced in such a miracle, and the rulers betrothed them right away, hoping for a lasting beautiful alliance and friendship between the two.

Suddenly, from an ocean away, King Norbert of Reverin invaded these two kingdoms. Pholuxon first, then three-quarters of Sowlengard. King Norbert’s armies were so powerful, and stirred up so much fear, that the rulers had a hard time keeping the peace. They tried to war against Norbert’s armies, but the weaponry of the armies were terrifying, dark, and, as said later in history records, much more advanced than theirs. Many Pholuxonians and Sowlens died as their ships exploded, as the enemy bombs decimated their forces, till victory for Norbert seemed imminent.

King Norbert stormed into their castles demanding they step down from their thrones on their own, or face certain death by his sword, Silence. The rulers simply had no choice.

On the night they stepped down, the rulers hid their children. Both were, fast asleep, under a bed, the blankets covering their hiding place. But when the rulers were spared, and went to find their children, they were gone. No one knows where they went. They searched everywhere, until they found them each being taken care of by someone else. Looking at how dangerous their lives were, the rulers let them, and wept for their loss. Those choices were the hardest made, but the rulers hoped that one day, their children will return, victorious, to their arms to claim their birthright.

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Chapter 1

All the king’s men and all the king’s horses, Swan Petterson thought as she saw them ride past the fertile soil in the morning, are here to slay us and line us up in fear.

It was spring, and she was helping her parents plant seeds in their two acres of farmland to grow wheat. All this in her usual faded maroon dress, the skirt reaching to the knees. Flinging the seeds out into the ground, she thought about last night, when the King’s Men burned up the Ramsons farm that was just a valley away.

The Ramsons were strong people, and they always boasted that their grapes had much more worth than their wheat, though Swan and her family knew their wheat was precious the same way as their grapes were to the Ramsons. Swan actually thought of them at times as arrogant jerks. But now, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for their lost fortune.The King Norbert of Reverin Lands, complained that their grapes weren’t fresh enough, rich enough, or good enough at all. Furious, he sent the King’s Men to burn down their fields and farmhouse, just to punish them. The man has a thing with burning things and other people when they didn’t reach his standards.

Neville Ramson, a blond stout boy of 12 years, waddled next to her, as they completed another row of planted seeds. He came here because his family couldn’t support themselves anymore, now that their way of life has been completely destroyed. King Norbert has spread across marketplaces that the Ramsons were “brute, lazy swindlers who care more about getting money than growing ‘proper’ crops.” Only a handful of loyal neighbors were good enough to take in the Ramsons, as long as they all went to work to pay them.

“Stop your muttering, Petterson.” Neville complained. ” Life’s bad enough already.”

For you, perhaps. Swan thought. Judging from the distance from they began to where she is now, they must have covered five-eighths of the fields. No big deal. Just a few more…

One of the King’s Men shouted,” Stop there! I have a message from the King!”

Oh, goody. Swan thought sarcastically. The King has messages sent to every business to see how they did. But they were lists of petty complaints that they should’ve ignored if Norbert wasn’t the King. Once, her family had to temporarily give away half of our farmland all because Norbert found one little mold spot on his bread. What, would it kill someone to just pull it out and forget it? But, Swan knew her family were just lucky. The bakery the bread came from was burnt with the baker locked inside. Maniacal.

But today, it seemed different. The atmosphere felt tense, like something was about to go wrong. The messenger, if he sending the King’s complaints, would hold a grey flag with a gold outline of a hand holding a scythe for work. Right now, he was holding a black flag with a red outline of a knife-for an announcement of a crime and the punishment. The flag waved quickly and harshly. The knife quivered, asking for blood.

Swan paled and her hand gently held her throat in rising fear. What have we done? We are innocent!

Neville squealed like a pig who found out he was going to be bacon. “The crime flag! He’s going to burn us!” He glared at Swan and shouted,” I didn’t know you lowly wheat farmers are traitors of the King!”

Whatever adrenaline that resulted in fear, Swan geared up to anger and retorted,”What you mean, betray the King? What are you-”

“Dyuh know nothing, little farmer?” Neville shouted, his pig eyes dark with hate.”The King wouldn’t send the Red Knife unless you did the act of betrayal!”

Swan looked again, and realized the stupid pig was right. The knife was dripping with red drops, for betrayal.

She was doomed.

The knight held the scroll down, and when he was going to read the words, he just shrugged and threw it in the dirt. For some reason, it gave hope to Swan. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Neville the pig is wrong. Swan looked back, and saw that her parents are with her. Her mother, always smelling of herbs from making tea and always calm, was wide-eyed with fear, and shaking. Her father, known with his bright eyes and brilliant smile, were replaced with stormy eyes and a frown that wondered what was wrong. Swan wanted to reassure them that everything was fine.

But reality slapped her across the face, when the knight said these words.

” Pettersons,” the knight announced, his tone cold and hard and wounding,” lowly wheat farmers, are hereby punished for the crimes of betrayal and treachery against the Just King Norbert of Reverin.”

Her mother suddenly shrieked,” But we haven’t done anything! We paid your taxes, we praised his highness every night, we followed every single goddamn rule he put on us!”

” Leave us alone, sir. You have no business here.” her father stated in a low voice, though hiding a roar of anger underneath. This sent a chill down Swan’s spine. Whenever he wanted to make Swan understand something, like why they should obey and respect the tyrannical king, he would often speak to her in a soft voice that told you that he was upset and that you shouldn’t cross him. No one did, or would want to. He was often easy going and optimistic and blithe, going through his farm work every year with rigor and determination to provide for his family.

But the knight was an exception. He didn’t leave. He didn’t stop.” You were hanging the flag of Pholuxon last night.” the knight continued.” The kingdom that was destroyed and the land they gave up was cured. You didn’t pledge allegiance to the king and to the promising future of Reverin. You pledge allegiance to the Phoenix devils, drunken, undisciplined, and overconfident. They have caused their own fall.”

This was my fault. Swan realized with crushing guilt. Not the fall, of course, but her family being accused of treason. Her task, every day, was to put down the flag every time after each meal, when the Watchers come back to their hourly shifts, making sure that every villager obeys Norbert’s laws. The reason the Pholuxonian flag was there at all, was because her family still looked back to the days when the Phoenix was still on the throne. But last night, after dinner, she forgot. She was to feed the cows and then take down the flag and replace it with the flag of Reverin. She fed them, all right, but stupidly went to bed, exposing their horrifying of deeds. Stupid girl, she thought, scolding herself. Now you gave what your parents never deserved.

Three more knights showed up behind her and one grabbed a strong hold of Swan. She screamed and cried for her parents to save her. They reached out for her, but they were under the strong grip of the knights as well. Neville has vanished. Lucky pig. He better run while he could, as fast as his stubby legs could make him. Swan, was now going to face the punishment for her crime, being dragged into her home and having it and the fields of her family’s work be burnt with her inside. And it stabbed her, watching her parents suffer it with her.

But their faces weren’t angry. They were resigned and calm. This scared her some more. Are they even alive? She screamed,” Mother! Father! It was my fault! I forgot my duty to put down the stupid flag. You didn’t deserve this!”

Her mother reached her hand out, and gently stroked her hair. She hadn’t done this much ever since she was ten, when Swan began to work longer and separated from her mom’s tea-making to make more money. ” Your father and I knew that it will happen eventually. You must be brave, Swan. Be a good girl.” Her father looked at her with determined eyes that carried a message that he often stated to her and their friends. Don’t get too wrapped up in your own sins. 

They landed just at the doorway, with the windows blocked and the doors locked. Swan ran and went hysterical, trying to save herself and get her family out, begging and pleading in tears for mercy and another chance. Till a man with rough hands grabbed her from a window and put her down.

Her father.

He stared at her with a stern look, put his hands on her wet cheeks and said,” We can’t stop it, but we’re not going to let you die.”

Her mother ran back when the door and the wall, suddenly exploded in flames. The knights started their deed of punishment. The three ran to the other end to the back door, which was also locked and barred. She and her mother frantically looked everywhere for an exit they missed.

Then her father said,” You two, wait.”

Swan looked back to say something cruel, until she saw the carpet a few feet away from the back door, had been removed to reveal a latch door with a huge ring to open it. Swan recognized it. It was the deep storage room, where grain, water, wine, and clothes were stored. It led to an entrance to the woods outside. That, only she and her family knew.

Her mother put her hand to her lips in shock. ” Oh,” she said to Swan’s father.” This hasn’t been used in years, John. And even if we went out, they’ll still will hunt us down when they realized our bodies hadn’t been burnt along with the house-”

” What other choice do we have?” her father asked. ” They will expect us, yes, but we can’t break the oath, Ella Thyme. We can’t let Swan die.”

What oath? Swan wondered. But she soon found out the gist. Horrified, she pleaded,” But, father! I-”

Then her father hugged her hard, as if to hide her away from this, but Swan could still see the smoke, the flames eating away the stairs, everything that they touched in the house they loved.

” The knights will expect bodies, but they only look to see if there are as much as the people inside. But you must run, Swan.”

The latch was opened and Swan jumped down and grabbed the nearest cloak she could find. When she looked back up, her parent’s faces shone before her. Her mother’s face was gentle and benevolent, like chamomile tea.”Run to the forest,” her mother said, “and the white bird will find you. Then he will protect you.” Before Swan could ask what she meant, they kissed her and said their goodbyes, and turned to each other. Her mother’s head lay on her father’s chest and her father held her tight, not ever letting her go. The loving couple, who raised a girl who betrayed them will be together until their last breath.

Wiping tears, she whispered goodbye, and fled down the secret road to the outside that she had known so well.

The trees came to view as she went out of the dark, underground tunnel. She ran to the surface, and looked back just in time to see her burning house collapse to the ground, trapping the people she loved.

Crying out in despair, she wailed and sobbed, because her parents were dead, died because of a crime she committed and because they chose to stay and be wreathed in flames.

Run to the forest, and the white bird will find you.

Then, she heard the knights giving orders. They were going after her. Ending her cry, she ran full speed, deep into the woods, like the Devil was chasing her. In her case, it seemed true.

Run to the forest, and the white bird will find you.

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The knights in their steed chased her for a while, then all of the sudden stopped. Because they knew where they are.

The leader, the one who announced Swan’s crime, stopped and looked around asking, “What place, have we brought ourselves into.”

“The Night Woods,” his fellow replied, recognizing these trees. “They secured the borders of the Old Kingdoms, back when they were once brilliant monarchies.”

The groups looked at the fellow with shock. No one, but the king, was allowed to speak freely of the Old Kingdoms. It was a terrible crime to commit. The first time, will result in a whipping until nightfall, no matter when in the daytime it happened. All of them died from such agonizing torture.

The leader on his horse trotted towards the fellow, whose sweat was everywhere, hyperventilating. ” I hope you’re as tough as steel. The punishment will not go easy on you.”

Another knight, still staring forward, then asked,” What do we do with the girl? She escaped her punishment.”

As much as the leader wanted to chase her down, and give her a slow, violent death,-one even worse than what her parents received-he knew better. The woods were dangerous. No brave knight ever came back. It was no use.

With a smirk, he answered,” Let her go, the bitch will die on her own, anyway. Probably get eaten by wolves, or get maimed by a bear or an owl. Besides, what can she do?”

Chapter 2

High up, in King Norbert’s castle, his rage rang across the castle walls.

Swinging his sword at whatever was unfortunate enough to be close to him, he wanted to kill something. Someone. His lust for blood consumed him for half an hour.

When his cowardly knights reported her escape to the Night Woods, he had enough. How could that bitch escape her punishment? And his knights…he was disappointed. He trained them to be fearless, not little children who believed in their mommies’ bedtime stories.

Luckily, he knew what to do if his knights failed him.

He went to the HEKN. The Hunters of Enemies of King Norbert. Trained from early childhood, they are exceptional, disciplined, and will be better at catching the girl than any knight in service could do.

He went to their Academy, the east wing of the castle. There, he saw them practicing their marks, all reaching bull’s eye. All in white uniforms with a silver stripe across the jacket, and tough, yet shiny black boots. All in the way he wanted them to be.

He approached them all with the same grim look, to demand respect and  He went to Commander Highfree, and darkly grinned, giving him their signal.

” Prepare the HEKN.” he said to the commander. ” Make sure the criminal is found and brought to me. So I will finish her.”

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Swan ran for two days.

Except for resting and foraging for food, she never stopped. Not even when a branch scraped her leg. She never noticed until it began to hurt and felt something on her leg. Stopping, and holding back tears, she washed her scar beside a stream, and tore part of the dress she wore to tie around her leg to help it heal, and not infect it. This she knew from her mother.

According to her memory, her mother came from Another World. When Swan was little, she was restless and could not be put to bed. So her mother would sit beside her and tell her about the world she was from. About steel wagons that are connected together that carried objects and people. About buildings made of metal and glass that pierce through the sky, for that called skyscrapers. Even how the roads were paved, and the metal horseless carriages that grownups drove. And women and men have looser rules of society, strange foods and clothing, and bright futures. Her mother talked like she could never stop, her mouth moving faster, remembering before the memories fade away. Once, when Swan was seven, she asked her mom,” Do you miss the world you came from?”

Swan could still remember that moment like it happened last week. Her mother looking down and saying,” Yes. Sometimes…I do.” But she smiled, and hugged her, adding,” But if I came back, I would’ve never met your father and raise you, my little swan.”

Remembering that was putting salt on the wound, as the memory transported to the fire. The flames that killed her gentle mother and her strong father, who never deserved their demise. Tears fell down non-stop as she wept for their loss. It was my fault. she thought. I exposed their secret, and ruined everything. This was my fault. My fault…my-

Swan.

A voice called after her. She raised her head, wondering who. She looked around, getting aware of her surroundings-something she never liked doing. She didn’t see any time for that.

The world came to sharper focus. The trees were towering, and bare, like it was still winter. What was going on?

This was when she looked up and back. But when she looked forward, her mouth dropped to the ground.

In front she was looking at a wintry forest in the night. The moon loomed bright in the woods, and the endless crisp white robe of snow cloaked the ground everywhere. Swan looked for an end in either side-left, right, up down-but there wasn’t any. This wintry scene was really there.

I’ve died she thought. Somewhere in the woods, I died and this is my hell, a dark cold scene that I’ll be trapped in forever. But she knew she wasn’t dead. At least some part of her still knows that. Still, this frightened her. She was afraid of the dark beyond her, and hated winter for it’s creeping and pinching cold. Now, because of her crime, she was punished to go to the land with everything she hated and feared.

I deserve this. she thought with despair. Swan knew it. She was too self-indulgent and it cost her the lives of her parents and that’s her punishment.

She forced a step into the dark realm.

The snow was freezing so harshly she immediately jumped back. Swan expected herself to be back into the world she just left, but the cold was still there. Even worse, she was barefoot. Her feet vulnerable to the winter. Swan looked around, and saw that the world she left was gone, she was trapped.

Swan dreaded what will come next. Her feet will become red. Soon, it will be pale out as the cold really creeps in. Then, her toenails will turn black and die, leaving Swan with no choice but to cut them off.

In pure self-hate, frustration, and despair, she screamed into the night. The horrible blast echoing the dark world before her.

As she fell down-disgusted with life-she barely noticed the flames that came from within her and enveloped her with warmth as she fell down. If she did, she no longer cared. She was just finally glad, that soon, she was going to die. Her misery, over.

With that in mind, she closed her eyes, and surrendered.

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Many miles away from the edge of the wood, to a lake shore as wide as a lane, echoes of Swan’s yell could be heard from the tent and campfire made by two hunters of the night. Both are of Sowlen origin. They have both set camp for the night, as they travel. Where to, they don’t care, for they were trying to get away from something. What it is, is a secret.

One of them, Rafael Durane, a dark-skinned hunter with curly hair, stood up, instinctively holding his bow. Goswin Lestrin, a pale boy of sixteen with dark, wavy hair that reached the shoulders, stood up as well, looking around with his sky-blue eyes, his hand clutching his dagger.

” What was it?” Rafael asked, looking to his friend to see if he knew.

” I don’t know,” Goswin replied, looking up. He then transformed into an owl, and flew up to the sky, to see what was going on. His friend followed him to see as well.

He expected a falling tree, but there was no sound. A murderer, but no whoosh of an arrow, or the banging gunshots in the air. He flew to the highest above trees, and saw a red light glowing from the distance. He knew this to be fire.

When Rafael saw it, panic shot him like an arrow, and soon enough, Rafael was racing towards the lake, screeching,” HELP! HELP! THERE’S A FIRE THAT’S BURNING THE ENTIRE FOREST! HELP!” Rafael had a fear of fires, which is ironic to the campfire they had set hours earlier. Goswin chased him, screaming,” STOP!” in order for him not to get too in over his head.

Rafael obeyed, and Goswin caught up with him. They found themselves in the middle of the huge lake, meters away from their campsite for the night. But they were above the lake, trying hard not to collapse and drown in the waters below. Rafael, of course, failed, and before you could say, ” What the hell, Rafael?”, he was screaming for his life, now human, flailing his hands for Goswin to rescue him. Goswin, holding his wrist, is trying hard not to feel dizzy from the constant waving. Using all his strength, which isn’t quite much, he dragged Rafael to shore at high speeds, and when he knew he was in shallow waters, he collapsed, turning back into a human. Gasping for air, and lying on the ground, he wheezed,” Ra..fael…please…why are…you so…stupid? It was…just…a campfire!”

Rafael, feeling traumatized, stood up, and helped Goswin up, and answered,” You’ve seen that fire, right? It looked like it was gonna grow into a giant firestorm. What if I’m right?”

Curious, Goswin asked,” How come you’re not scared when we make a campfire? How come you don’t run away screaming?”

” Because yours are controlled,” Rafael replied.

” And other people’s fires aren’t?”

Rafael refused to answer that question, for he had no answer. Fear does that, it comes with no reason whatsoever. Still the question hung in the air.

Who screamed in the forest, and why?

Willing to figure that out, they transformed into owls and sped through the trees, closer to the flames. Rafael, who was behind Goswin, dreaded those flames. He pictured them burning-licking on trees, burning, burning, burning…

He shook himself out of it. It’s just a campfire/it’s fire/ just a campfire/It’s Fire! Burning hell! Ring a bell to you!/Just a campfire!!! Goswin said so!!!

That usually ended all internal debates between him and fear.

They landed on a tree branch, and turned back to humans just to look.

And what they saw, shocked them.

A girl, in a man’s cloak, was wreathed completely in flames, yet her form stayed at rest, and isn’t burning to ashes at all. It wasn’t obvious if the girl was aware of what overcame her. Snow melted around her-apparently because there is fire, and the grass nearest to her was burnt. But the flames never went anywhere. They stayed on the girl, as if hoping to burn her, somehow.

They wondered if this was a vison, for this cannot be real. But the heat and smoke told them that it was.

Goswin stared at this strange girl, wondering who she is. He had no idea what strange feeling overcame him, but it made him want to stare at her for a long time. To wake her up and introduce himself to her. Which, indeed, is strange.

Rafael shook him and after a few minutes of effort, Goswin snapped out of it, and looked at him, asking,” What is it?”

” Time to go.” Rafael replied,”Besides, those flames will take care of her. It will probably last all night.” He turned into owl form and flew off to their campsite.

Goswin wanted to beg to differ, but he knew he was wasting time where they were. If they stayed here any longer in the forest, they were easy prey. The HEKN was trained to look past the trees and hunt for prisoners. Turning into an owl as well, he joined Rafael, his thoughts about the girl in flames trailing along with him, like falling leaves.

Unbeknownst to the pair, the flames around the girl, began to fade, becoming less and less solid, until there was only an apparition of it. The heat was dying out as well. After a long second, the fire completely disappeared.

Chapter 3

Death, she thought, When are you coming?

Images flashes around her. Flames, snow, a face, speeding into the woods, light. She almost thought she was going to finally be taken by Death, and smiled, just a bit. Feeling at rest and tired, she fell unto unconsciousness…

Dreams became vivid and wild, which was weird because Swan never dreamed at all. Her parents denied this at all, saying that she may have forgotten them, but it’s true. She never did, until she was actually close to death.

In the first, she was in the kitchen, 9 years old, still working with her mother in the tea shop before King Norbert raised their taxes, just to challenge them.

But that would be three months from this little memory.

Swan gave the needed herbs-rosemary-to her mother, as she put them in the hot water for the flavor to spread for five minutes. They were doing this for Anais Ramson, Neville’s mother.

” She’s obsessed with these, like her brother-in-law, Andrew, is obsessed with ale. She thinks it protects her shape or something.” Her mother looked at her with a mischievous light in her eyes, telling her that it doesn’t, really. She knew that it only enhances memory. Then, her mother turned back at the pot, and to her work.  A rich lady wanted chamomile tea. She just couldn’t sleep.

Suddenly, her mother looked back at Swan, with a determined look on her face and told her something that made her realize this isn’t a memory as a dream, but a dream shaped like a memory.

” You can’t change the past,” her mother said. Soon, the setting changed from the ordinary tea shop, into the burning hell of their house. Swan, now sixteen, screamed, and grabbed her mother’s wrist, trying to get her out of the flames, but they consumed her anyway.

Next thing she knew, she was looking at the night sky. Something in her mind told her this was a very, very distant memory. Everything looked soft and watery. But looking at her hands, now tiny palms, Swan guessed she must be a little toddler then.

Someone large held her tight against it’s chest with one arm. Swan then heard a knocking on the door, it opening, and her father’s voice, asking,” What are you doing here?”

Her mother’s voice flowed softly as she asked,” Who is this child?”

” Our only chance.” The person holding her replied, a woman’s voice stung with desperation. ” Please, take care of her. Until the time’s right. Then, she must seek the white bird, and make things right. Please…”

Soon, the woman’s arm forgot it was holding someone, and Swan fell, screaming again-this time in the dark.

Finally, she landed, now sixteen, in a burnt forest. The infernos burn red at a distance, with the gray ground everywhere, ash covering the sparks that threaten to burn something, then she saw a pure black castle before her, shedding no light on it whatsoever. Everything about it, from the sword-sharp towers to the wailing of the suffering that echo from it was bleak, compressing, and threatening.

Swan wanted to run, but her legs were paralyzed. She tried to force her legs to move, but her body revolted, like it was in a stomachache. Everything in her felt nauseated fear, like it didn’t want to move. Why? she thought. Why can’t I move?

A wave of cruel laughter echoed throughout the entire landscape, and Swan felt so, so small. The dark castle grew and changed to a giant tall man with a sharp jaw, with eyes made of fire, and an iron knife gleaming on his pitch-black tunic, cold, harsh, and violent.

King Norbert. she thought, and she wanted to run away, wanted to be anywhere but where she was in right now. Swan again tried to run, but she only succeeded in stumbling back and falling on her hind.

The king laughed wickedly at her weak attempt to escape. You can run. He breathed, his words as dark as he. Run for the rest of your life, but I will find you, and everything would be for naught.

Suddenly, a white owl dove between her and the king, his talons reaching out to her. Swan, somehow, knew the owl was there to save her. The owl didn’t say so, nor did his talons look soft or dull at all. She just looked at his wide golden eyes, and just knew.

The owl grabbed her wrist, pulling her up and she turned away from the King Norbert to run. But she stumbled a lot, her mind trying to adjust to the fact she’s running. The owl let go and led her on.

She heard the king howl with rage and turned her head to see him with a gleaming knife. With deadly accuracy, he threw it straight at the owl.

Frightened, Swan ran straight toward the knife, protecting the owl. Her parents are gone. She can’t have somebody else get hurt for her.

The knife pierced through her hand, blood pooling all over. The owl screeched in horror. Screaming for the third time, she closed her eyes and woke up sitting up. Quieting she opened her eyes.

Swan looked at her hand, to see if there was any blood or a knife penetrating through it.

But there was nothing. No scar, no cruelty done to it, no nothing.

Relieved, Swan looked around to see where she was.

Daylight streamed on her and the quiet forest landscape. Everything looked pretty, peaceful, and no sound above some cold breezes dared to be made. All this Swan could have admired for hours, if she wasn’t on the run and her bare feet were exposed to the outside.

Standing up, she ran through the forest, hoping there might a place to feed herself, or at least get some shoes to cover her feet. She was running so fast that her feet barely touched the snow, and before she knew it, she was a few yards away from a tiny campsite on a lake shore.

She was facing a tent and a fire which had already gone out. A few miles ahead, she saw two boys packing some things at the beach. She looked and at the edge, saw a pair of boots just outside the tent.

Back at her home, she was a good thief, as well as a good tea-maker, and farmer. A honey cake just set on the table, a toy horse behind a little boy’s back, even a coin that hung out of a lady’s purse, she can get them without fear. She was then caught stealing an apple out of the chopping board from her mother when she was ten, which resulted in a scolding telling her that if she wanted things, all she had to do was ask, and it shall be given. But not everything should be hers. Thus, she hasn’t done some stealing since.

Now, she wasn’t sure if the boys will let her have their pair of boots. They’d probably laugh and push her away and call her crazy. So, she decided to steal. Her feet needed to be warm.

Her instincts coming back to serve her, she quietly crept to the tent, put on the boots, tied them, and ran back to the woods. The shoes stank from being worn too long, and they might be two sizes too big, that Swan had to tie it really tightly, but did so without a sound. At least her feet are warm again.

She was a few yards from the shore and into the woods, when she froze. Because a boy’s voice cried out, screaming,” Hey! Where are my boots?!”

Swan looked back at the direction to where the shore is, which can barely be seen, and ran a few more meters to avoid to be caught. Along the way, she tried to fix up an apology for stealing their boots.

My feet were cold…I came in through some stupid portal…I’m running for my life from the HEKN and from King Norbert…my crime is not stealing, it was something else…I can’t say, just go away. Please…

It all sounded futile.

Chapter 4

” I swear to Sonalus,”  Rafael angrily shouted to the sky.” when I find the thief, I’ll make him so sorry, he’ll be begging to be dead!”

Goswin observed the tracks the thief left behind. ” Whoever stole your boots,” he said to Rafael,” wasn’t careful. He left his footprints for us to follow. He must’ve been in a hurry.”

“Yeah” Rafael retorted as they followed the footprints ” to go to hell, it looks like. My guess, it might’ve been the burning girl we saw last night!”

Was it last night? Goswin thought. But then he knew it was. He remembered.

They raced through more tracks, some parts were hard to see because of the fallen dead leaves. Finally, Goswin felt that if they were going to catch the thief, whoever it was, they might need to fly.

He looked at Rafael and asked,” Want to fly?”

” And see who’s the thief and catch it faster?”  Rafael smiled at the idea. ” You bet!”

Goswin immediately changed form, and sped through the treetops, following the tracks faster than any human could go with less effort, and saw him. Her.

A lady with copper-colored hair was racing through the forest, and with excellent sight, he could see Rafael’s boots on her speeding feet. From the looks of it, the girl must be from the Warmlands, a stranger to the cold. It took him a moment to realize that it was the same girl covered by fire just last night.

Who now stole his friend’s boots.

He picked up speed and landed in front of the girl. She stopped a bit and turned, enough time to turn back and grab her wrist.

The girl turned back and tried to break free from his grip, but he held steady. He wasn’t going to loose hold of her, even if she might burn him with the fire-thing she’s got.

” Stop it! Let go of me!” she cried, trying to pull his fingers off her wrist.

” Give us the boots, thief. I’ll let you go afterwards.” Goswin considered that a good deal. He didn’t want to fight with this girl, theif or otherwise.

“Yeah!” Rafael wheezes, as he came close to them. Even catching his breath, he looked threatening. ” Those are my shoes you’re wearing!”

” No, I won’t,” the girl said stubbornly. ” My feet would freeze without them.”

Rafael changed from anger to shock. ” How come? You came into this land without any shoes?”

Though surprised, Goswin didn’t loosen his grip,” What happened to yours?”

” I came through some portal off Heather’s fields,” the girl replied, sounding completely contrite.” and came here to this snowy place, and I was running for my life from the HEKN. And King Norbert.”

” Why?” he asked, suddenly curious. Another fugitive, running from King Norbert’s forces?” What did you do?”

” Possibly thievery,” Rafael suggested, but his voice lost some hardness.

The girl looked at him. ” I needed your shoes, but thievery wasn’t my crime. It’s even worse.”

Goswin lowered his arm, letting go of her. Something told him that this girl was going to tell her story. But he stayed vigilant. If this girl could steal Rafael’s boots, what else could she steal?

” I was planting seeds for wheat in my family’s fields. Then, the King’s Men came, punishing my family for something I did.”

” Which is…” Goswin asked.

The girl looked ready to cry, features tightening, her eyes, sapphire blue, filling up with tears. Goswin could tell that it must be really bad, something that happened recently.

The girl whispered something, but the two men didn’t hear her. They leaned closer, Rafael asking,” Can you say it again, girl?

“Please?” Goswin added,” we’re fugitives, too.”

Rafael looked at Goswin with shock, but he ignored it. He thought it would be something to help the girl not be so anxious, and that she didn’t need to be so scared.

It worked a little. She then replied softly, but loud enough for them to hear,” I hung the Pholuxonian flag, and forgot to put it down. The King’s Men came…” She stumbled, crying, and gasping. She turned her face away, and sobbed.

Goswin put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Rafael gave a look of sympathy and said,” I never knew…” She didn’t need to finish to tell them what they did. The two of them knew. Memories came into Goswin’s head, remembering what the King’s Men did to his family: the lighting of a torch;his mother screaming and confessing on her knees in front of the guards before they shot her;his father trying to kill him, just so he wouldn’t face punishment…

Gritting his teeth, he pushed them away, to the darkness, to the back of his mind where they should be. At least until he could face them.

The girl then wiped the tears off her face, and blew her nose with the top lid on the shirt of her dress. ” Well,” she said, ” Now I’m here on the run, because my mother…before she and my father died…she told me to run to the woods, and the white bird will find me.” She then looked confused. ” Do you know what she meant?”

Goswin shook his head,” Sorry, I’ve no clue.” then he included,” My name’s Goswin. Goswin Lestrin.” he put his hand out to be shaken.

The girl recognizes his intention, smiles (she has such a pretty smile) and shakes it in a friendly manner, saying, ” I’m Swan. Swan Petterson.”

Rafael steps up and shakes her hand saying,” I’m Rafael Durane.”

Swan nods in greeting, and Goswin couldn’t help but wonder if she liked to be in their group. She seemed valuable, and they were all against a common enemy. Plus, if she made it this far on her own, she must be very street-smart. But since this isn’t the Warmlands she’s used to, she would need some help.

So, Goswin asked,” Want to join us? We’re also running from the HEKN.”

Rafael suddenly looked alarmed, his eyes wide and anxious. Which grew larger when Swan replied,” Oh, sure. That would be great.”

Goswin grinned and was about to celebrate, when Rafael nervously asked,” Uh, can I speak with you about that?”

The two hunters walked to a side and Goswin asked,” What is it, Rafael?”

” We can’t have the girl with us.” Rafael stated, pointing at Swan.” We’ve got enough troubles without her around sucking it up.”

” What do you mean? She’s like us, runaways because of something we did.” Goswin asked. Rafael isn’t usually so hostile towards other people.

” Wake up, Goswin.’ Rafael retorted.” She’s the girl who stole my shoes. Worse, she’s from the Warmlands. She probably wouldn’t survive a week on her own in this environment.”

” Well, nor could we, if either of us were alone.” Goswin replied.” And we’ve stolen things too, Rafael. Every time we’re low on supplies.”

” Yeah, well,” Rafael started, but before Goswin could hear an answer, gunshots ran in the air. Along with the echoing thunder of horses.

He knew where they came from, and knew they were out for them.

” Get out of here!” he shouted, and they immediately started running towards the lake shore.

Rafael at the right, runs alongside him, their speed almost the same. But Swan at the left, was only a few feet behind. Goswin could see her trying, but just couldn’t.

Racing towards the tent, Goswin on instinct loudly smacked his palms together. Instantly, the the tent reduced into a leather satchel, which Goswin caught in midair.

” Goswin!” he heard Rafael shout. ” How are we going to escape? We have a girl from the Warmlands who can’t fly!” Rafael almost seemed eager to leave her behind.

Goswin felt tempted to turn into an owl and fly away, but all reasons were against it. One, he can’t leave Swan behind at the mercy of the HEKN. They would kill her, and not even painlessly. And, second, they have guns. Even if she could turn into a bird, he didn’t want to risk having one of his friends get shot dead from the sky.

Which leaves him one choice. One he isn’t used to. Yet.

Steering back to the forest, he yelled,” Rafael, can you find a pine tree?”

Rafael and Swan first looked at him as if he was going insane, but then Rafael understood, pointed forward, and said,” There!”

A tall pine tree 5 feet away. Good.

His hand reached into his satchel, grabbing a necklace with a sea blue pendant shaped like a crescent moon. with it flying in the wind, Goswin felt that they were soon going to escape. Just throw it at the tree. he thought.

But when he raised his arm to do so, he heard someone shriek in pain. He turned and saw Swan, collapsed on the ground, her leg bleeding bright red onto the snow.

One of the HEKN held her fists together behind her back, and another beside her held a pistol towards her head. Several more on horseback surrounded them and the pine tree. Most had their guns aimed at them all. One of them held a burning torch, nearing it towards the tree.

For self defense and to protect Swan, Goswin got out his dagger, flashing in the daylight, and Rafael stretched his bowstring taut with an arrow. Both waiting for the signal to start fighting.

Then, the commander-dressed the same, but has two black stripes slashed across his jacket-barked,” Lower your weapons!”

Immediately, the HEKN did in a robotic manner. Simultaneously, they laid their guns at their laps, then raised it vertically held by his right hand. A move Goswin and Rafael has seen multiple times. Goswin sheathed his dagger in response. He didn’t want another man’s blood on his conscience. He winced as he thought about what had happened. He wishes he could forget.

But Rafael didn’t lower his weapons. He just aimed it out towards the HEKN, his target changing from one hunter, to the next. His eyes, wildly furious, yet fearful.

The commander looked at him directly with hard, cold, ice-blue eyes. ” You too, Durane. I don’t want to have to kill you before sending you three criminals to his Highness himself.”

His voice was familiar. Goswin knew whose voice it was, beyond any doubt. ” Solven Highfree. So you’re now one of them, aren’t ya?” He felt like someone had stabbed him in the chest. Before he left, Solven was angry towards the King’s Men for hurting his chances for mercy. He was twelve, and one of the people he deeply cared about. Did he forget that?

” Commander Highfree, you filthy ingrate!” he barked back, but Goswin can almost see that familiar light in his eyes. But he knew, other than that, the boy he was three years ago, when he and Rafael left, was gone. Heard it a few months ago, that he became commander, driven to hunt them down, when given the signal.

Swan tried to get up and attack, but the hunter pulled her back, and she cried at the pain of her injured leg. ” Bloody bastards” she managed to say, before the man with the pistol hit her at the back of her head with the edge of the gun. She gave him a fierce glare, which faded a few seconds later.

Rafael, still not putting down his bow, said, ” So, Commander,” the first word loaded with sarcasm. ” What made you think it’s so awesome to be on the side you wanted to spit on when we escaped for our lives a long time ago? You promised.”

Highfree replied,” You promised to be there for me! Where were you, when the King’s Men took my sister and murdered her? Just for laughing at a general. Where, huh?”He almost sounded insane at the last few sentences. ” You probably didn’t remember her name!”

Evelynna Highfree. Lynna for short. he remembered. Her kindness, and her amazing sense of humor. Those were what she was known for. Everyone wished she would smile less, but no one was annoyed at her for long. She was too good for that. Murdered. By the King’s Men. Only they would do such things. It was the truth. They were taught to be heartless, beyond any doubt.

He glared at Highfree and stated,” Well, all the more you shouldn’t have joined the HEKN. They’re even worse than the people who killed Lynna for what she did. I know I wasn’t there for you, but you were the one who told me run for my life in the first place.” Goswin remembered. Originally, he wanted to kill himself, finish what his father wanted to do. Of course no one knew that. He was hiding in the forest, thinking whether it was the right choice. But Solven came up to him and said, You should run. Like really fast and away from those guys. I’ll make sure they won’t see you when you leave.

For a few moments, the commander looked lost, and Goswin can easily see the boy he was three years earlier. He walked closer to the commander, who was once the ten-year-old lying on the snow with a broken leg. ” Please,” he said softly, ” don’t do this.”

But the boy he was, faded as quick as it came, the cruel commander taking back control. ” Foolish,” he said. A word Solven would never say in a million years.” trying to unnerve me? So you could what? Convince me to let you escape?” He looked directly at Swan with disgust and said,” Put her down, please. I want to see a needed reaction.”

The hunter holding her, pushed her down to the ground. Swan screamed,” Get me up! Why are you doing this?”

Rafael shrieked a battle cry, aimed his bow at a tree branch, and let go. The arrow hit the branch with so much force, a huge amount of snow came down on the HEKN.

Most of them, including the couple who were holding Swan captive were disoriented by the snow. Swan as well. Goswin pulled her out, ignoring the pain that may have resulted that came from her leg. She tried to stand, but whimpered when she put her injured leg down. Some of their horses roared, startled from the sudden snow fall, and ran off away from them. Making Solven, the only one unfazed by the snow, yell at them to stop being foolish.

” Goswin!” he heard Rafael shout,” The necklace! Now!”

At first, he didn’t know what he meant, but then he felt his grip on the necklace and remembered what he had to do. Turning to the pine tree, left unharmed, he threw the necklace towards the trunk where the pendant exploded, making a bright light, which made a picture of land near a river.

” Come on!” he yelled, and Rafael immediately jumped inside. Swan hobbled with all her might, which seemed too slow, then leaped into the portal. Finally, Goswin looked back to see if anyone was chasing them. He saw Solven glare at him with such hatred, he felt punched in the gut. He collapsed, picked up the necklace string, and shoved himself in the portal, but not before Solven said something that would haunt him.

 I will hunt you down, and I won’t rest till I do! I swear it!

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