My father’s shout pierced the quiet of the midday lull of the village.
I sat outside, weaving a fishing net. A striped lavender parasol protected me from the glare of the sun but not its heat. Though it was early Semon, the ninth month of the year, the temperature and humidity still stifled with their intensity. My head snapped up when I heard him. He had gone fishing, not to return until tomorrow night.
“Pirates!” He ran toward me over the main dirt path, raising the alarm.
I jumped up, rope and hook falling from my lap. He barreled into me, grabbed me by the upper arm, and pulled me inside our cottage. My eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness of the interior while he bent over, hands braced on his knees, trying to catch his breath.
“Luna, you must run,” he managed between gasps. He pressed a dagger into my hands. “Take this. Hide in the woods until tonight. We will drive them off.”
“I can help—”
“No,” he interrupted with a sharp shake of his head. His hand on my lower back, he pushed me toward the rear of our home. “You know you must stay hidden. They can’t know about you. Go out the back window so they don’t see you. Yes?”
I turned to face him, and he took my face in both his hands, his gaze pleading with me to agree. I wanted to put his mind at ease, but we only had each other. “Father, I can’t leave you.”
He bent down to look right at me. “Luna, you are my life’s light. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you. Please go. All will be well, but you must stay out of sight. Go.”
We’d heard rumors of pirates pillaging up north on Cortia. It had been foolish of us to believe we were safe by virtue of being farther south on the large island. Relative safety for the past thirty years had resulted in complacency we would now pay for.
He was right, though; I had to stay hidden. I didn’t want to waste time arguing when mere moments could cost us our lives. I couldn’t risk staying and having my true nature revealed, which my father and I had worked hard to conceal all my life. I nodded and hugged him hard. He relented for a brief moment and clasped me to him.
When he pulled back, he grabbed my waist, giving me a boost to the windowsill. Though he was getting frail with age, my small frame didn’t weigh much. I looked over my shoulder at his face lined with worry and his graying hair, that moment capturing his human fragility. The light streaming through the window reflected in his glistening eyes.
Beyond him, the front door burst open, and I gasped.
A pirate clothed in wide pants and flowing robe paused in the doorway. Framed by the sunlight beyond, he was no more than a black outline. He was so tall that he bent his head to enter. Leather bands and brass buckles held his outfit together, and more cloth swathed his head and the lower portion of his face, leaving only the eyes visible. Both hands held curved steel blades, their sharp edges catching the light.
“Go,” my father said and gave me a push that sent me over the edge. I landed on the gravel outside and stumbled, going to one knee and bruising it on the sharp tiny rocks. The forest was only feet beyond our cottage, a safe haven.
Screams and crying, curses, and the clash of weapons came from the village. A roar of rage cut through the din, coming from our cottage, followed by my father’s scream of pain.
There was nothing to debate. With the dagger clutched tight, I scrambled over the ground, coming up running. It took only seconds to round the hut.
I burst through the door. The pirate knelt over my father’s body, his arm raised in the air, poised to strike. I lunged at him and drove my dagger into his back. He screamed and reared up. Clutching the dagger, I took it with me as I jumped back.
“No!” My father’s voice was weak.
“You will pay for that,” the pirate growled, turning and glaring at me, his hands still clutching both scimitars.
I saw my last chance at that moment. He expected me to run and tensed in preparation to attack. Instead, I pounced at him, using the element of surprise, and drove my dagger into his upper stomach. I angled it to thrust up into his rib cage and chest, our great difference in height helping me position the blade as my father had taught me.
Hot blood gushed onto my fisted hands where they met the pirate’s body. I shuddered and pulled, wrenching the dagger free. He groaned, his gaze moving from me to the gushing wound in his belly as he sank to his knees.
Without giving him another look, I rushed to my father’s side.
No, no, no
His skin had a pallor to it underneath the leathery tan that came from a lifetime in the southern sun. Both hands clutched at the wound in his neck, and a pool of blood expanded under his head.
Hesitant, I caressed his cheek and rested my hands on his shoulders. “Father?”
To my relief, his lids trembled and lifted. His tongue wet his lips. “Luna.”
“Shh, don’t tire yourself, Father. You’ve been wounded, but I can heal you.”
“No, Luna, go.” His voice cracked, coming from a parched throat.
I put one hand to his lips to quiet him. If I ran, he would die. I had the power to save him, but little time. I moved one hand to cover his where he clutched his neck. My other hand closed around my malachite pendant, a striking green stone set in silver.
I focused inward. In my mind, I saw the energy that pulsed through me, powered my body, and caused my blood to flow, my lungs to move, my heart to beat; the energy flowed through the universe and through all things in it. Using the malachite to help gather it within me, I forced it through my arms, into the tips of my fingers, and farther on, into my father. I willed the energy to heal him as I had healed so many before, pictured it flowing through his body, carrying the force of life with it.
He sighed, and I held my breath, hoping this would be enough as I had little left to give. He opened his eyes, a spark of life there.
“Luna, you must go, now. Before it’s too late. More of them are coming, and if they find you here…”
I didn’t answer. I forced more of my energy into him, giving all I had. More than I’d ever given before. Nothing had ever mattered as much as this moment, and I would make him well again, even if I killed myself in the process. With each heartbeat, I drained myself and grew weaker, but still I gave him more. And still, it didn’t feel like nearly enough.
Finally, I sagged to his chest, my hand still clenched in a death grip around the pendant. I met his blue gaze, his expression soft and sad.
“You can’t heal me, I’m beyond saving.”
“No.” It came out a mere whisper. I raised my head and watched the pool of blood around him continue to grow. Holding my gaze, he let his hands fall away from his wound, and I could see he was right. No matter how much I gave, it would never be enough to heal the killing blow.
“Go before it’s too late. They will come here, and when they find their man dead, they will kill you.” He took a shuddering breath. “Do this last thing for me.”
I nodded and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you, Father.”
“You made my life worth living. Be safe, and let go of the anger in your heart. Your mother loved you very much.”
I nodded through my tears. This was no time to argue. My lips brushed his forehead, kissing him for the last time, my heart a lifeless lump.
I ran for the window and climbed out. The fight still raged on in the village, but, hidden by the wall, I was out of sight. I took a moment to make sure no one had seen me, and when nothing happened, I ran for the tropical forest, pushing myself with what little strength I had left. Any moment now, they’d see me and give chase. Terror helped my blood flow and gave my feet strength to fly over the tall grass. The trees were mere feet away, and I was almost safe. I knew the fastest way to the little waterfall where I bathed, and I would hide in the cave behind it.
The inevitable shout of alarm came as I hit the tree line. I couldn’t help it—I looked back. Another pirate, this one swathed in silks of blue and black, pointed to me and leaped into motion.
Behind him, the entire village spread out. Fire everywhere. The thatched roofs of the wood huts burned, and beyond it, our little fishing boats in the natural bay burned as well. The houses in the village were close enough to each other that they would all catch fire soon.
The sight captured me for a moment, a moment the pirate took to continue toward me. I tore my gaze away and forced my body into action. The trees surrounded me as I flew into them, running heedlessly over the mossy ground, branches whipping at me, stinging my skin. The tropical forest of my childhood was a cacophony of colors. The greens of the palms and tree ferns, the pinks and yellows and purples and everything in between of the flowers that grew in bushes and climbed their way up tree trunks, and the colorful feathers of the hummingbirds and butterflies and parrots that flitted about, unconcerned with my plight.
I gasped for breath, having already been exhausted before I even started. Trying to heal my father had sapped all my strength, and I knew I wouldn’t last long at this pace.
Forging ahead, I slowed down with each step, my breath so ragged I was sure it could be heard for miles. I couldn’t keep going. I conceded I would never reach the waterfall at this rate, not if he was close behind me. I had to find a spot to hide. I glanced about, looking for something, anything
, as I forged deeper into the forest. Branches broke somewhere behind, and I knew he wasn’t far away now.
A few feet to my left lay a fallen tree, hundreds of years old, its trunk a giant dark carcass on the forest floor. I scrambled over it, heedless of the rough bark. My white knee-length skirt snagged on its broken branches, and it scraped my skin blood-deep.
Being small helped in this instance. I wedged myself deep under the log, in the little sliver of space between it and the ground. I closed my eyes, ignoring the crawling insects. Damp and shielded from the sun, smelling of wet earth and rot, this space was a breeding ground for many things I chose not to think about.
I concentrated on controlling my breathing. If nothing else, the ragged gasps would bring the pirate straight to me. One hand grasped my father’s dagger so tight my hand was numb, and with the other, I clenched my pendant to my chest. My limbs felt leaden. It would take days, to regenerate all the energy I had expended on healing my father. If I slept now, I wouldn’t wake until tomorrow.
In and out, in and out
, I chanted in my mind, willing my breath to slow and deepen. As I calmed, the sounds of the forest came into focus. Birds twittered, parrots called out to each other, insects chirped, and leaves swished in the breeze. My tropical paradise I had grown up in had never seemed so ominous before.
I strained my ears. As minutes passed, I began to hope he had given up and gone back.
A branch snapped nearby.
My heart stuttered and skipped a beat, then picked up its rhythm in a mad rush.
It had to be him.
He moved almost silently through the forest for someone used to ships and wide-open seas. Only the rustling of grass marked his passage. He is coming for me.
I focused on the little energy I had left, trying to gather it about me in a protective shield. When strong and well rested, I could use such a shield to be all but invisible. All it took was picturing a protective bubble around me and infusing my energy into that image, willing
it to hide me. Now weakened, I did what I could. Even if it didn’t make me invisible to his eyes, I hoped it would be enough to deflect his gaze, to make sure he didn’t look too closely at my hiding spot.
Another branch cracked, this time farther away in the distance.
Relief flooded through me, and my body sagged into the soft mossy floor. I was so exhausted I could pass out within moments if I let myself go. I should try to sleep now, to gather enough strength to help once I got back. I would heal others’ injuries in my usual subtle way, and no one would suspect my comforting touch was anything more than what it appeared.
I laid down the dagger and placed both palms on the earth to draw energy from it. I had learned as a child this was something I could do, but my skill at it never flourished. Still, it was something. Though weak and unfocused, it flooded my veins with a sparkle.
A large hand grasped my upper arm and dragged me out of my hiding spot, making me exclaim with surprise. Clasping me in a bruising grip, the pirate dressed in black and blue jerked me to my feet and regarded me from his height. He glared at me with kohl-rimmed eyes narrowed in fury. His breath came heavy and loud from under the head cloth. I tried to pull away, but the grip was too strong.
My empty hands flexed, and I regretted letting go of the dagger. I was completely at his mercy, and begging would do no good. I hoped he didn’t know I had killed his comrade.
He set a fast pace back, dragging me along. I stumbled after him, my clothing and limbs catching on each bramble, but his grip around my upper arm held me up. The horror of my situation sank in as we neared the village. In a haze of blurred tears, I saw what was left of it, some spots still burning and smoking. Bodies of those I had known my whole life littered the ground. Lifeless, discarded refuse. Blood caked the main dirt road. Sobbing and whimpers of the injured filled the air. Moans ended abruptly as pirates dispatched all those they deemed useless.
Surviving villagers huddled near the beach in a small group of about a dozen. My father was not among them. The black-and-blue pirate pushed me toward the group, and I fell into them. Exhausted, I could barely stand, but their hands supported me. A gentle embrace enveloped me. I sagged with relief when I met Eva’s red-rimmed brown eyes. She too had been crying.
“Your father?” she whispered.
I shook my head and felt her nod against me. “Your family?”
She shook her head in response. One of the pirates guarding us glanced our way, and we said no more. We clung to each other while some of the pirates killed off the injured, and others carried out what little booty our village had to offer. It was a surreal moment, set against the familiar backdrop of our village, illuminated by the crimson blaze of the setting sun.
The pirates joked among themselves as they worked. I suppose it was a good day for them. Before long, they loaded us onto skiffs that took us to their steamship anchored a couple hundred feet away. A black sail with white skull flapped in the wind, and wide metal columns thrust into the air, steam billowing from them. I was used to our crude little fishing boats, and theirs was one of the biggest ships I’d ever seen, though I’d lived all my life by the sea. I knew from my books the rest of the world used steam technology to power their ships and houses, factories, and airships. But here in our secluded world, we were insulated from all the modern developments.
They made us climb rope ladders to the wooden deck, and then herded us down into the dank underbelly of the ship. The sickly sweet odor of rotting vegetables competed with the musty smell of moldy wood. I could see they used this cavernous space to store their food and other common supplies while booty more financially precious was likely stored elsewhere. Wooden crates occupied one part of the dim, cavernous space below the ship. Another group of captives huddled in one corner. Their presence confirmed my suspicions—we’d been captured for the slave market. The pirates deposited our group in another corner, and a couple of them remained to guard us.