After an unexplainable incident at the Carnival of Games, Sara is forced to flee to the neighbouring region of Merrywater with her mother and seek shelter with an uncle and cousin she has never met before. Here, Sara learns of a secret kept hidden from her all her life, that her newfound family are amongst a select few people in the whole country who can use Magic.
Sara learns from her cousin, Shumuti, that Magic is an energy found in the natural environment, allowing nature to bloom and flourish. But take too much from the landscape, and the land begins to wilt and die, meaning that with the ability to use Magic there also comes the responsibility to protect this energy, to prevent exploitation of the natural world.
Following several attacks from an unknown enemy, Sara’s uncle, Seaglen, establishes that Magic is being misused to the north. Wanting to help, but unable to wield Magic herself, Sara accompanies Shumuti and her friend, Aurielle, to investigate the situation. Warning them that there are people there who may wish to take advantage of their power, Seaglen advises them to undertake their task discretely.
Targeted Age Group:: 14-30
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I started writing stories with these characters when I was growing up and it was always my secret dream to become an author. Fantasy storytelling is a huge interest of mine and I love that in some small way I've been able to be a part of it by writing my own book.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Most of them have evolved and changed as I've been writing and my favourites among them have switched as well as I've been going along. Some of them I have a really clear idea of how I want them to be in my mind, or a specific detail like their clothes or one characteristic in but others I add details to as I edit.
Sara woke early one morning to see a glimmer of sunlight filtering in through the open window of her room. A soft, cool breeze wafted gently through the air and it was just chilly enough to wake her up completely. As it blew into the room, it mingled with the scent of lavender originating from a cutting above her bed.
She got up and wrapped a warm blanket around her shoulders before wandering over to close the window on the opposite side of the room. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a blackbird perched on the window ledge and halted. The floorboard beneath her feet creaked and startled the bird, which darted off into the sunrise, twittering away to a second bird that swooped up to join its companion. Together they danced off into the sky towards the forest.
Sara watched them disappear over the horizon where dark oak trees thronged high above the village borders. A determined-looking rabble of grim-faced, steely-eyed woodcutters were marching up the grassy bank with axes resting over their shoulders. They hiked towards the outer boundary of the forest, following the river, and Sara saw the sunlight glint off their sharp blades. She traced the flow of the water back with her eye as it gently meandered down into the village below her house on the hill, gurgling under the bridge. The Spring River then ran off into the distance to join other tributaries of the vast main Winterburn River, miles off to the west, leaving her village of Silverspring far behind.
An overly large cockerel occupying the roof of a nearby farm abruptly interrupted the calm tranquillity of the dawn, proclaiming the start of the day for everybody to hear. The signal was repeated twice more by the bird, but the third time it was replaced by an ear-splitting horn, which resonated out and reverberated around the valley. Highly doubting that this had come from the rooster, Sara repressed a jump and scanned around quickly for the source of the noise.
A moment later she located its origin, emanating from a large party of bright figures descending on the valley from the north. They had begun to trail towards Silverspring and were heading for the village. Early dawn sunlight illuminated banners of red and gold from the borders of their group. But more interestingly, it also reflected off polished silver plates of armour worn by a select few members on the edges of the company. She could even faintly hear the jingle of bells and the accompaniment of drums.
Curiosity aroused, Sara briefly ran a comb through her brown-black hair and splashed her face in the small bowl by her bed. Glancing at her appearance in the faded mirror and the green eyes reflected at her, she was satisfied with it, and snatched a brown hooded cape from the end of the bed before sliding around the door, shutting it from behind with a hollow thud.
“Morning,” a figure said over her shoulder. Her mother’s voice rang out from the table as Sara flew by.
“We’ve got guests from the north,” Sara informed her.
“Yes, I heard,” Astrid replied, “wait a moment, and I’ll join you.”
Sara stood by the door impatiently, tapping her foot as her mother gathered her boots and cloak. Sara’s mother was the local healer, but her swiftness at healing did not reflect her speed at getting ready. She was so infuriatingly slow that in the end, Sara had to drag her out the door, regardless of whether she had remembered her scarf or not.
“Sara. Just because you came of age last month does not mean you have the right to boss me around in any way you see fit.”
Her mother heaved a sigh of surrender and broke into a jog behind her as they made their way down the hill slope to the village. Sturdy houses loomed before them as they approached. Each was compact and designed to be resistant to the river water, constructed from stone, topped off with a neatly thatched roof and set far back from the floodplain. A churning water wheel rotated rhythmically on the house beside the bridge, and the water splashed back into the river noisily.
“Ah, Astrid!” an old man heralded her mother with a friendly grin on his face as they reached the bottom of the hill, “will my magical ointment be ready by tomorrow?”
“Yes, I’ll come and deliver it in the morning!” she called back over her shoulder to the man, who tipped his hat in thanks.
Her mother had earned a reputation for being able to find a cure for almost any ailment. When Sara was younger, she had been fascinated by the skills her mother possessed. As she grew older, Astrid had taught her about different herbs and how to heal, but some of the things she did with healing Sara never thought she would be able to understand. Magic seemed like as good a description as any for it, if only such a thing existed, and naturally, Sara had grown up very healthy as a child.
Crossing the bridge over the stream in the centre of the village, they walked swiftly past the abandoned shops and houses to reach the far end of Silverspring. The town stood completely deserted since everybody else had had the same idea as Sara and Astrid. A small crowd of equally interested residents accumulated beside them as the village strolled forward to investigate the newcomers to their small community.
Open fields stretched out to the horizon, broken by green hills and a few beech coppices, but marching down from between the two hills nearest the village was a contrasting snake of gold and red. The group of travellers reached the fields just on the border of their settlement and halted there. Red banners fluttered gently in the morning breeze, and horses whinnied in the bright air.
Sara glanced at a board to her left and a brown poster that was crinkling at the edges. On the parchment was advertised the coming of the Carnival of Games to Elmdale. The notice depicted a painted troop of red and golden clad figures performing various athletics, with twisting flames curling at the edges and brightly coloured silken fabrics swirling all around. The Carnival came to Silverspring at the end of every summer to celebrate the changing of the seasons.
Sara and Astrid looked out again. The first travellers had begun to set up tents in the fields near to the village. Bright red tents were pitched, emblazoned with orange flags and golden shimmering designs that sparkled and blinded, even at long distance. The Carnival had come down from Attaching, the region to the north, their banner decorated with a fiery wolf. The contrasting colours of these new arrivals transformed the once green fields, and as the sun rose, dotted around the tents and tacked up on posts, application forms for entering the competitions were slowly being laid out.
As the entire village appeared to have emerged onto the field, by midday the lists had almost filled up, with some people’s names being signed twice, to be sure they would be able to compete. Astrid cast over the entries for the healing competition and the prize of a leather-bound ingredients pouch and 100 golden pennies, before finally adding her name to the list.
Sara looked at the different competitions, but nothing caught her eye. She kept returning to the form for a riding competition entitled, ‘The Quest to find the Golden Star’, but all of a sudden a tall, surly man rather rudely whipped it out from under her gaze.
“Not for young girls, this one.” He snarled and quickly scratched his name at the bottom of the long list before taking it away with him and handing it to a man dressed in burnished armour, half concealed by a red cloak. This man resembled one of the King’s senior soldiers. Sara blinked in surprise. What were they doing at the Carnival? Her anger faded to curiosity as she took a second closer look and noticed a long, thin scar running from above his right eyebrow to the tip of his ear. Sara winced slightly, that scar looked as though it had been freshly cut.
“Sara, come over here!”
She hastily scurried away from the soldier as he smoothly whipped his cloak back down to conceal the steel plate beneath.
“Look,” Astrid said, “horseback skills, men and women. You could enter.”
“Hey,” she began, unable to take her eyes away from the man, “have you seen…?”
“The soldiers?” Astrid raised an eyebrow. “Yes, it is strange. The Carnival has never needed protection before. I want to get another look, take your time over that form.”
Sara took it from her and spent as long as it felt reasonable to read it through and add her name to the end. A horn blasted out nearby, and she jumped, ruining the last letter of her name in the process. Then a steady roll of drums boomed out with an almost war-like chant. The soldier departed swiftly towards the centre of the village, and the uneasy atmosphere faded with him.
“I wonder what that meant?” Sara said.
“Why don’t we find out?”
Astrid set off at a distance, keeping her eyes fixed on the soldier. They crossed back over the small stone bridge that ran above the fast-flowing water and found the main stage of the Carnival. A circular games arena was undergoing hasty construction, and a large crowd had gathered around a raised podium where a tall man dressed in a deep red travelling cloak stood proudly.
Two more soldiers flanked him on either side. Each was wearing a red cloth to mask their face, leaving only their eyes visible. Both rested a hand on the hilt of their sword and scanned the crowd continuously, with the attentiveness of a hawk hunting for prey. Five more soldiers were patrolling at the back of the gathering. Sara met the gaze of a soldier on the left, and he glared back at her accusingly. She stared back at him for a moment until she felt her arm grabbed roughly, and she was steered deeper into the heart of the crowd.
“Keep your head down,” Astrid hissed, “I do not like the expression in their eyes. Something doesn’t feel right here.”
Alarmed, Sara stared at her mother. She could not remember ever seeing her so agitated before.
“Why?” Sara asked, “why are these soldiers so suspicious? Why are they even here? The Carnival is supposed to be a fun competition.”
“Glad I’m not the only one to think something is wrong,” a low voice said.
Astrid turned, one hand reaching out instinctively towards Sara but she stopped when she noticed who was standing there.
“Stephan!” Astrid almost managed to mask the relief in her voice.
The boy that Sara had known almost since she could walk stood across from them, with a wry look in his eyes.
“Did you think I was a soldier?”
Neither Sara or Astrid answered him.
“They’ve stirred up things a bit, haven’t they?” his expression turned solemn, “suspicion and soldiers, the village is full of it, and they’ve only been here a few hours.”
“I wonder what’s different this year?” Sara asked.
“They seem to be searching for something. Maybe the soldiers think there is something here we need protecting from.”
“Like what?” Sara raised an eyebrow.
“These are the King’s senior soldiers. They don’t leave the city for anything less than serious.”
“It’s a long road from Attaching to here,” Astrid said, “perhaps it is not us they are protecting, but the Carnival members.”
“You think something might have happened to them on the way?” Stephan asked.
“One of the soldiers I saw looked like he had been in a fight recently,” Sara said.
“If that’s the case, I hope they haven’t brought it here with them,” Astrid said.
Sara stared at Astrid, suddenly feeling apprehensive, before switching her gaze to the distant horizon. Part of her half expected to see a giant black shape charging over the hill towards them, but the day was warm and bright. Nothing broke the line of blue, not even a cloud.
“Sorry I've got to go. I’ll come by tomorrow,” Stephan apologised, before saying goodbye and disappearing back into the crowd.
Sara watched him go with a growing sense of unease in her stomach. At the limit of her hearing, the Carnival member on the stand was explaining each of the contests and the rules of the Games, but to Sara, it only resembled a buzz of meaningless noise.
“…Twenty separate contests this year, ranging from healing to archery and fantastic prizes for the winners of each event. The regional champions will join others from across Meteorath for the chance to compete in Lyria before the King himself…”
“Come on, let’s go. We don’t need to hear this,” Astrid said, leading Sara away from the crowd.
Sara was lost in thought as she walked away. She hardly noticed where she was going and barged into somebody going the other way, turning to apologise but the man had already gone. Her eyes flickered upward for a second, and she noticed that the soldier on the left of the podium had vanished. Sara dropped her gaze and hurried back through the streets, back home.
When they arrived back, her mother wasn’t herself. Astrid was on edge and seemed to react to the smallest thing. She also was reluctant to confide in Sara, which was unusual. So finally, Sara gave up asking and wandered upstairs, leaving her mother alone.
The competitions began the next day. Astrid left early in the morning to compete in the healing, but Sara decided to stay away from the Carnival. Instead, she got dressed in her riding gear and padded coat to head out and find her horse, Arrow. Sara hesitated for a moment by the door and quickly grabbed a small hunting knife in a sheath from the rack by the door, sliding the blade down inside her boot. She heard the clatter of hooves behind her and saw Stephan ride up towards the house.
“Don’t get off.” Sara held up a hand to him. “I need to practice for the riding competition tomorrow.”
“Then let’s go.”
They rode around the hills until the full extent of Carnival was spread out below them and Sara immediately noticed something else that was new this year. A broad, wooden lookout post had emerged behind the rows of flame-coloured tents, so it was practically invisible, except up here. The observation post faced back the way the Carnival had come from, and as they watched, two tiny soldiers far off down below took over the watch from their comrades beside them.
“That must be where the soldiers are staying,” Sara said.
“All nine of them?” Stephan asked, “that thing could house more than thirty.”
“What if there are more who we haven’t seen?”
As Sara took in the length of the lookout, she realised just how easy it would be to conceal a large group of soldiers in there without a problem. The more Sara thought about it, the easier it seemed. The men could remain inside so that nobody would be alarmed to see so many of them in the village, but in the event of an emergency, there would be enough present to hold off an attack.
“I suppose you could be right,” Stephan said, “the red masks they wear makes it impossible to distinguish one from another. They could easily swap places with without anybody paying much attention to who was who.”
“Except for one. The man with the scar on his face, he is distinguishable from the rest.”
“Do you think we guessed correctly then? They’re watching for something coming from the road?”
“Perhaps. Could it be a wild animal of some sort?”
“There are plenty of wild animals living in the woods of Elmdale, but something like that shouldn’t cause the soldiers from Attaching this much concern.”
“Something human then,” Sara said, thinking back to the soldier’s scar. It had looked thin and sharp, so a sword or knife could have easily made it.
“But who would attack the Carnival?” Stephan asked.
Sara fell silent. Silverspring was a village in the region of Elmdale and Elmdale was bordered by Attaching to the north and Merrywater to the south. These three regions lived peacefully together, and the enormous Winterburn River bordered all three on the west. But beyond that was little more than a barren desert wasteland, home to people who were just as unfriendly to any who happened to set foot on their shores. Usually, the two western regions, Boctor and Nimaz, remained isolated from the remaining three. Occasionally attacks and raids were known to occur by people from Boctor and Nimaz, but so little was known about either of the regions, mainly because nobody wished to set foot there.
In significant contrast to the two regions that lay opposite them, grass, rivers, forests and colour blanketed the landscape in Elmdale, Merrywater and Attaching. Boctor used to be the same before it was won over by Nimaz and appeared to have suffered visually from its alliance with the darker region. All Sara knew of Nimaz was that deep ravines cut through it and barely anything but bedrock covered its surface.
Although all five regions together made up the one country of Meteorath, each was separated and cut off from the next by tributaries of the Winterburn River, which carved a natural boundary between each. Between Attaching, Merrywater and Elmdale, the Winterburn was little more sizable than a stream in most places, but between the western three and the other eastern regions, its broadest width resembled more of a lake. It would take considerable effort for anything to cross into Elmdale from the other side.
“The Carnival travelled down from Attaching,” Sara said, “perhaps the danger comes from up there.”
“We could go down and ask the organisers of the events?” Stephan said.
For a moment, Sara considered going down to the Carnival and wondered why she felt so uncomfortable with the idea of just talking to the travellers from Attaching. She faltered when an image of the soldier with the searching eyes flashed into her mind, and she hesitated. Sara might be able to recognise that soldier, but she realised with some uncertainty that he might also remember her in return. No matter the colour of his armour, somehow he did not feel like a friend to her.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Sara answered.
She turned Arrow and trotted back the way they had come, and Stephan left her to ride down to the centre of Silverspring. The moment she dipped again behind the crest of the hill, she sprang her horse into a canter and headed towards the house.
Sara busied herself for most of the afternoon, but as darkness began to engulf the horizon, she could no longer talk herself out of a new worry that had been growing for the last few hours. Astrid had not yet returned. On any other day, Sara would not have given her absence a second thought, but today Sara found herself beginning to overthink over what might have happened. Astrid had said that she would be back after the competition and that had finished this morning.
Sara made a snap decision and grabbed her cloak from behind the door. Pausing for a second, she hastily constructed a scribbled note and left it on the table in case her mother returned and headed out the door. She half ran down the hill to the outskirts of the village and ducked quickly behind the sidewall of a bakery as she spotted a soldier guarding the central passageway into town.
Nervous that it might be the soldier with the scar, Sara cautiously pulled her hood up to shield her face, before taking a long, winding route through the houses. All was quiet in the street outside Stephan's house, and she could see by the glow from his window that he was in his room. Sara took her favourite route into her friend's house and scrambled up the wall outside, before jumping to the oak tree and grabbing hold of branches that twisted their way towards his open window. Sara leapt silently from the tree into his room and suppressed a laugh as Stephan toppled backwards in surprise.
“Sara!” he exclaimed, before dropping his voice, “use the door, will you? What if one day I have a guest in here?”
Sara raised one eyebrow at him.
“What kind of guest?”
“You know, a girl, or something?”
Sara’s raised an eyebrow.
“What? It could happen.”
Sara's smile faded. “Stephan, I need your help.”
“Astrid hasn't come home since she left for the competition. Have you heard anything? Normally I wouldn’t worry, but…”
Stephan paused for a moment, thinking.
“Let's go to Hunter’s Square. There are celebrations there every night of the Carnival.”
“You're suggesting I forget about it and drink?”
“It is the best place in Silverspring to gather information. Most of the people in the village will be there, and someone might have seen her. Come on. I'll grab my coat.”
As they left Stephan's house, it was almost entirely dark, except for the street heading towards the centre of the village, which remained alive and busy. On the first day of the Carnival, there was an excitement that would only grow over the week. The brown stag carved into the central pole at the centre of Hunter’s Square beckoned welcomingly, cast in the warm light of several fires outside. So Sara and Stephan slipped between the multitude of people, to find their way to the centre and the small bar that had been laid out alongside tables of travellers selling their handmade trinkets or local goods from Attaching. Stephan immediately struck up a conversation with the man behind the bar and asked if he had heard any news.
Sara took her drink and looked around the square on the slim chance that Astrid happened to be here as well. Out of nowhere, a stream of fire shot into the air and Sara’s eye was drawn, along with many others, towards a duo from the Carnival now wielding a staff, which was alight at both ends and his partner encircled by a hoop, adorned with six long candles placed at equal intervals around its edge. They began to twirl and dance around a small cleared area of the square, getting seemingly dangerously close to the crowd before retreating to the centre. Amongst the sea of faces in the group were many that Sara recognised, but none were her mother. She spotted Thalia, who had not long since become an apprentice of sorts to Astrid and approached her.
“Thalia!” she called, “did you enter the competition today?”
“Hey, Sara. I did.”
“How did you do?”
“Well, I didn't win. Your mother took the first place but honestly, I am almost glad I didn't win.”
“What do you mean?”
“All the winners of each competition were taken off to a tent, and they all came back saying that they had been questioned, almost as if the soldiers were trying to learn something from them. A lot have said it wasn’t worth the prize to go through that interrogation.”
“Do you know what they asked?”
“I have no idea.”
“You haven't seen Astrid since, have you?”
“No, sorry. The last time was once she won. I saw being her led away towards the back of the Carnival camp. To be asked the same questions, I would imagine.”
“All right, thank you.”
Thalia turned back to the friends she was with, and Sara meandered slowly back to Stephan.
“Any luck?” she asked him.
Sara informed him of what she had learned.
“Do you think she’s still in the soldiers’ camp?” Stephan asked.
Sara thought about what Thalia had said. All the winners of the competitions had found themselves subject to questioning, but the others had returned.
“I don't know what to do. I mean, there is a chance she is at home and safe. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing.”
A commotion at the back of the crowd interrupted their conversation as two soldiers bustled their way through into the square. Stephan took hold of Sara's arm and pushed her back into the third line of the crowd, so that they were more concealed from the illumination of the flames. The two fire dancers halted their performance, indignantly gesturing towards the soldiers who now stood in the centre of their arena.
“What is the meaning of this?” the barman asked.
“We are looking for one of your villagers,” the soldier said, “the girl belonging to your village healer. Is she here?”
“Why do you want her?”
“We have some questions.”
Sara took a step behind the man in the row in front of her, so that she had to peer over his shoulder to maintain a direct line of sight with the soldier. A small discomfort during the movement reminded her of the long hunting knife that she had concealed inside her boot earlier that day. Thalia hesitantly glanced over in her direction, and Sara panicked. Dropping lower to the ground, she dragged Stephan after her as she pushed through the crowd in the opposite direction and into the cover of darkness. The pair stole back to the outskirts of Silverspring, circling the houses to avoid lights and groups of people.
“Sara, why are the soldiers searching for you?” Stephan pulled her to a halt, once they were clear of the village.
“I don't know.”
“Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“No! You know as much as I do.”
Stephan's eyes glinted strangely in the moonlight.
“I promise you, I don’t know anything,” Sara insisted.
“I don't want to let those soldiers get their hands on you. I don't trust them.”
“You shouldn't go back into the village tonight.”
“They must still have Astrid,” Sara said, looking back, “I can't return to the house. What if there are soldiers there too?”
“Come back with me,” Stephan said, “you can camp out at my house. You'll be safe, I promise.”
Sara nodded uncertainly and followed Stephan back.
Have you read this book? Tell us what you thought! All information was provided by the author and not edited by us. This is so you get to know the author better.