Part 1

The Faithful Ones: Part 1

Chapter 1

A little girl sat near the water’s edge, watching a woman draw water from the small lake, the sun shining through the wispy clouds. The woman stood and walked home, leaving the girl to listen to the insects. A ripple echoed off the stony shore, rebounding into a hundred more tiny ripples, and then came a gurgling splash and a quiet voice.
“Come child,” came the call, and the girl looked around, confused, “Come to the water’s edge.” She moved closer the the lake and crouched on the rocks. The Water Spirit was there, her heather-coloured hair melding with the reflected blue of the lake.
“What’s your name?” the naiad asked.
“Raine,” answered the child nervously. The naiad was a mystical creature, and Raine was a bit scared of her.

“Few know my name, but I shall tell you: Nimue. Do you know what your name means?” Nimue asked.
“No,” Raine shook her head.
“Rain brings hope, and through that hope it brings life,” the Water Spirit smiled, and Raine returned the smile. “Raine, you are special.” Nimue raised a translucent hand and tucked Raine’s wispy brown hair behind her ear, gently holding the child’s wrist. Everywhere the Water Spirit touched was marked with something the villagers called Spirit’s glitter. Raine looked at her hair and wrist, marvelling at its wonder. It was as though a rainbow had become part of her hair and skin.
“It’s beautiful,” Raine breathed.
“And it proves how special you are, because I’ve never seen my glitter have colour before,” curiosity had filled Nimue’s eyes and voice as both starred at the glitter. Then, with a splash and a ripple, the Water spirit swam back beneath the surface and disappeared.

Raine couldn’t sleep that night. Her aunt had tried to remove the Spirit’s glitter and failed, and now where the glitter was ached from scrubbing and scrubbing. As the moon peeked through the window, shifting the thin curtains, Raine stole through the house and down to the pool. She dipped her fingers into the water and absent-mindedly swirled them around. The Water Spirit came to her.
“Can’t you sleep?” sighed Nimue kindly.
“No,” replied Raine.
“Have you ever heard that one who brings hope will be chosen?” Nimue asked after a moment.
“My mother used to talk about it all the time. But my family died in a fire while I was visiting my aunt. I live with her now.”
“I”m sorry to hear that. But Raine, it must be you. You’re named after something that brings hope, and my mark is different on you. I didn’t choose, but the magic has, and there’s no going back. You are a special one,” the Water Spirit breathed. Raine frowned, because she thought he was no-one special or different, and she shivered but not with cold. She looked at her right hand where the glitter was and when she looked back at the lake Nimue had gone.

The sun rose, and Raine’s aunt discovered Raine had slept by the water.
“What are you doing out here worrying me to death?” Raine’s aunt scolded.
“I couldn’t sleep,” murmured the child, barely audible.
“That Spirit’s glitter still hasn’t come out,” the aunt said despairingly.
“Why should it?” asked Raine, now fully awake. “Everyone knows it can’t be gotten out, and the glitter brings luck and protection.”
“I don’t believe any of that. Besides, it must be a bad omen, because it’s rainbow and not clear. You must cover it.”
“I won’t,” argued Raine. He fear of being chosen had vanished with the night as though dawn had chased it away, and the glitter meant so much to her now. She would bring hope, and that was a feat only ever talked about in stories. So she kept her knowledge that she was chosen in the back of her mind as she grew, and often talked to the Water Spirit.

~~~

The Water Spirit called Raine to the lake, her voice familiar after a year. The glitter had never faded or worn away, and Raine was proud of it. It was a reminder that she was chosen, special, somehow different. There were six other children at the water’s edge, each with special glitter.
“Magic has spoken, and I’m sure you will all be life-long friends. You each have a different mark, and I’m not sure I understand it. But you must understand this: you’re all different and this is marked by your glitter. Go on and introduce yourselves,” said the Water Spirit.

“Hi, I’m Rose. When I met the Water Spirit she said roses are symbols of love.” Her glitter was pink.
“I’m Sunny and I’m always cheerful. The sun can be a symbol of joy,” smiled a child with almost-gold glitter.
“Hello, my name’s Salma, and my name means peace.” Salma had silver glitter, the closest colour to Nimue’s normal markings out of anyone there.
“I’m Freya and I’m patient.” She had blue Spirit’s glitter.
“Hi, I’m Matthew. The Water Spirit said I’m always good, kind, and gentle,” said a boy with green Spirit’s glitter. He was a distant relation of Raine’s, and the only one she really knew.
“I’m Blaze, but my name doesn’t match because I have great self-control,” the last child said. He had orange hair and glitter to match.
“And I’m Raine. The Water Spirit said that rain brings hope.” The naiad instructed the seven to get to know each other, and said that if they needed a leader to look to Raine or herself. It was strange meeting others because the Water Spirit had asked it, and strange to think that they would really need a leader. Regardless, meeting the others had been a good thing, because Raine was a quiet girl who was mostly kept in her house, and previously had had no friends.

Two years had passed and strong friendships formed. The Water Spirit called them all together early in the morning a a late spring day.
“You haven’t realised yet, but you’re all trapped. There are four things you must do to win freedom, and they will be hard but you will be able to make it through. At the end of each you will receive a message that tells you what the next task is. The first of these is to go to the cliff near the old lighthouse, which is south of the Coastal Mountains,” the Water Spirit said.
“How are we trapped?”
“Are we just leaving and going somewhere we’ve never been?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You are trapped by this world, this life, everyone is. It’s difficult to explain. Yes, you’re leaving the village. You’ll understand with time, and I can’t teach you enough. Each of you has the courage and strength needed. Good luck,” answered the naiad. The seven children obliged, going off to pack things they might need, and left just after midday. Raine felt as though she felt the heaviest load, because she was their leader. How could she keep them safe and lead them when she was so young and had so little experience?

Chapter 2

Bright flowers grew everywhere, and streams trickled through the stones that formed their riverbeds. There was heaps of food around, which Freya and Blaze helped others to recognise. There had been many times when someone thought a particular plant was a weed and therefore inedible, but were always proved wrong when it filled their stomachs well at night. Raine slowly learned what the plants looked like, but still got confused very often. Leading was mostly making sure everyone was safe and fed, Raine found, but she knew that it would surely grow harder. Raine was glad it had  been easy so far, because she didn’t know if she should really be their leader, but Nimue had said she must be.

“What do you think we have to do?” wondered Rose, who’d asked that question several times on the journey already
“Who knows. Maybe we’ll have to fix the lighthouse?” suggested Freya.
“How are we supposed to know how?” asked Sunny.
“I wonder how long until we actually find out what we’re doing,” said Raine. They’d gone through a lot of possibilities, each more wild than the the one before it – this was one of the most boring ideas for a while – but none seemed to fit.

It was nearly a moon since they left. Raine had counted the days, since she had little else to tell the passing of time with. Wind blew her hair around, getting in her eyes, and she tucked it behind her ears even though the effort was useless. The sun began to set as the gusts turned into a gale, and then the seven were on sand. The sea was before them, a cove protected by two cliffs. The right one had a lighthouse. Raine led her friends up the hill, struggling against the gale into the twilight. Screaming, they suddenly found themselves falling, plunging deep into the sea. Raine struggled against the water, breathless, searching for the surface. She found air then another wave snatched it away from her, and she had to swim up again. The ocean tossed her, teaching her that not everything she’d always known about water was true – the waves were merciless. The remaining light showed the seven where to swim, and even though the current was strong they kept moving forwards. Struggling to see, Raine blinked and rubbed her stinging eyes in an effort to free them of salt.

When she opened her eyes again a bright light flashed in a sweeping arc, and Raine realised the lighthouse was on. The others saw this too and were equally surprised. Breakers picked up the friends and carried them to shore. Eventually they were washed onto the sand. They picked themselves up, exhausted and soaked, and the lighthouse turned off.

“How did the lighthouse turn on? There’s no-one in there,” frowned Rose.
“I don’t know,” said Rained, shaking her head. Then she felt a piece of paper integrating into her hand.
“What do we do now?” Sunny tossed her hair that had stuck to her dripping face.
“I just got our message: we will camp here tonight, and tomorrow we’ll begin to travel north to the Dwarven Caverns.” They searched for firewood and built two fires, and soon the night meal was ready. Raine only focused on getting warm and dry, and eating her dinner. She ignored the fires as well as she could, memories flashing through her mind, and when she’d finished eating she went to sleep to get away from the flames as she always did.

Raine was running through a snowy forest in dim twilight. She heard a growl and, thinking it was a wolf, Raine ran faster. A large marbled creature was following her through the trees. Searching for an escape from the nearing animal, Raine climbed up a tree, panting. The growling went away and a snow leopardess padded to her tree and looked up.
“You’re lost Raine. Come with me, and I will show you the way. Trust me,” encouraged the leopardess.

Raine opened her eyes and found Matthew standing next to her. She blinked, bleary-eyed, and knew that the familiar dream was gone. It was always the same, every day, although it was not usually as vivid as it had been this morning. Raine had learnt that if it was vivid something important had happened or would happen, so she assumed that their falling off the cliff last night held some importance. Well, they’d gotten the instructions for the next task, so they must have been the first task. But it was so strange, and although Raine trusted Nimue, this was such a weird thing to do. And the dream always led to questions: what did it mean?

The sun rose upon each new day, the same as it always did. Raine and her friends woke, and travelled. They gathered food whenever they saw it. Each child shared with the others what their life had been like in the Village, and retold how they’d met the Water-Spirit. Raine missed Nimue, as did everyone else, and as they neared their home they were tempted to abandon their tasks. The seven had already risked their lives, falling into the sea, and it didn’t make sense, but when they passed close to the village, they continued north to the Dwarvern Caverns. It was the beginning of the second moon; two months since their adventures had begun.

Raine plaited blades of grass, listening to her friends talking, sometimes adding to the conversation. Rose and Salma were discussing what they would do to celebrate Midsummer since they weren’t at the Village to join in there. They would of course have the usual feast, but Rose didn’t know how they would gather the food and cook it while they had to keep travelling.
“The note didn’t say we had to be there by a certain time, so I don’t see why we can’t stop and prepare our small feast on Midsummer’s Day,” said Raine.
“Oh,” Rose smiled.
“Come on, let’s practise our song,” Salma said. The pair had been adding to an old lullaby, and Raine was eager to hear it.

Raine watched her friends prepare for Midsummer, only planning to help cook and join in the dancing and singing. The longest day of the year was in a week. Sunny was making up a dance with Freya and Matthew, and also integrating new parts to an old song. They travelled slower now, spending time to gather food and practise. When the sun was a hand’s width from the horizon they stopped so that they’d have daylight time to sing and dance, and on the day of Midsummer they didn’t go anywhere. Matthew and Blaze went to hunt early in the morning, wile Freya, Sunny, and Rose went on their own hunt for herbs and spices to cook with, and Raine and Salma built the fire. Around mid-morning, Matthew and Blaze proudly returned with two rabbits. When the girls returned with arms full of plants, Raine took their water skins to the nearby river and brought back enough to fill the one pot they had. The rabbits were skinned and put into the boiling water along with whatever tubers had been found. Raine made a salad with the other plants, then went to get more water. Soon the sun was nearing the west, and thankfully the preparations were finished.

“My friends, we have worked hard all day so that we can celebrate Midsummer’s Feast. May all the creatures of magic bless us and the times ahead. We thank the sun for its light,” Raine said the customary words that began the Feast. The others joined her to say the last part, and they celebrated with the food, dancing, and singing.

Chapter 3

Stamping out a beat, Sunny sang as she spun in a complex leaping pattern. Matthew and Freya galloped around the fire in some kind of tangled dance that looked difficult.
“Fire, fire, like the sun,/ brightness always again will come./ Green, green, like the leaves/ of the oak’s spirit that never leaves./ Water, water, like the sky,/ giving life to all that fly,” Sunny sang the song many times, and by the ends everyone was singing it until the last repeat of the chorus.
“Oh sun, oh sun,/ give us life!/ Oh sun, oh sun,/ keep away strife!”

Then they all dances to the energetic beat of leaping feet whose legs carried their owners cavorting around the flames as the sun set. Raine, Rose, Sunny, Salma, Freya, Matthew,and Blaze sang and danced for a little while more, then sat and listen to Roe and Salma.
“Sleep, sleep, little one,/ you are free./ Sleep, sleep, little one,/ you are safe.” That was the new part, and it was sun between each of the old verses. “Sleep, sleep, little one,/ the wind is kind./ Sleep, sleep, little one,/ the wind is strong./ Sleep, sleep, little one,/ the stars are bright./ Sleep, sleep, little one,/ the stars are here./ Sleep, sleep, little one,/ the river runs./ Sleep, sleep, little one,/ the river sings.” Rose’s voice could reach higher than Salma’s, creating a beautiful harmony.

Now the stars had taken the sun’s place, and a sliver of moon hung just above the west. The fire began to die down as the seven prepared to sleep. Raine turned away from the embers, unable to face it any longer. It was easier to think about things other than the fire on some days, something Raine was glad of. The summer had been good so far, and the friends had fallen into routine. It was simple, and all they had to do was keep going north.

Raine dreamed of the leopardess again, and again she wondered what it meant. By noon she’d gotten distracted by talking about what the future held; each was curious about what they had to do at the Dwarvern Caverns. Rose was certain they’d have to help the dwarves with something, but Salma said they’d find pout when they arrived. Raine usually agreed with Salma, not wanting to add something to her list of things she pondered over in her spare time. She tended to get distracted when they were talking about the tasks, thinking about how the strange tasks could set them free from whatever it was that held them captive. Nimue had said it was this life and this world, but it didn’t make much sense.

“We’re running out of water, and we need some food before nightfall,” Raine announced.
“I’ll get some water,” Freya said.
“Salma, Matthew, and I will find some food,” Sunny volunteered, smiling as always. So off they went, leaving the other three to rest.
“How long until we get to the Dwarvern Caverns? Rose asked.
“I’d say a couple of months,” Raine answered.
“We’ll probably have Autrin’s Ehv before we reach them, Raine,” Blaze said, “so will we do the same as what we did for the Midsummer Feast?”
“Yep. It’s not that soon though, is it?
“It’s in a month or so.”
“But Midsummer was two weeks ago.” Blaze nodded, and Rose sighed as if to say ‘really, haven’t you noticed that Autrin’s Ehv is at the very end of summer?’ Raine hadn’t been counting the days like Blaze had been.

Raine tore a strip of fabric off the bottom of her dress, which was already fraying a little. Her aunt had given her a sewing needle and threads a while ago, and Raine had brought them. Now she had a use for it: She was going to embroider the fabric with the adventures they were having. with the blue, she depicted water and showed the lighthouse and the seven with the black. Raine only did simple pictures, wanting to save the thread. It took a while and the others were back before she finished, but the beginning of the fabric was embroidered by nightfall.

The sun rose to a cloudless day, and they got ready for another day of travelling. the landscape was beginning to look the same however far they travelled, and very little changed. Raine had dreamed that she talked to the leopardess, as she sometimes did. The usual dream went first, and after the big cat said Raine was lost she replied that she didn’t know what they had to do at the Dwarvern Caverns, or when they would arrive.
“You’ll be there by the end of the fourth moon. As to what you must do, you’ll have to remember all that Nimue told you and remember why you’re there,” the leopardess answered . Sometimes Raine asked a question in her dream that she wanted to know, and each time the leopardess answered in a somewhat vague way.There had been a strange smile that hinted at future things and a yearning in the big cat’s eyes at the end of the dream. Raine had seen those things before, and more often lately the yearning was there momentarily. She wondered what it mean and, unable to find answers, gave up. As it usually is with dreams, the wonder they bring is gone when the day starts to take hold on one’s thoughts. So Raine looked up from the ground to see a little more land laid out before them.

They stood catching their breath, having just climbed a steep hill. Before them were green folds in the earth just like the folds in Raine’s dress. On the horizon was a thin, dark smudge that must have been the Northern Rang. Raine, Rose, Sunny, Salma, Freya, Matthew and Blaze stood a while on the hilltop before descending. There were berry bushes in the little valleys between hills, and in one valley there ran a stream flanked by oaks. The seven split into three groups to search the area for what food they could find. Raine, Sunny, and Salma found some rosehips, and gathered as many of the small fruits as they could. They’d boil some water and make tea with them. Birds sang and the water bubbled over the pebbles. The three headed back, walking in the stream as all the dust on their feet was washed away. The hills provided a beautiful supply of food, and the group enjoyed it. After they ate, they splashed in the water, laughing as they attacked each other with wide smiles and handfuls of water emptying over their heads. Then they moved on as the afternoon took hold of the day, exploring a little as they traversed the hills.

Some hills had little cliffs, and others were covered in heather and wildflowers. Sunny danced along, a bit ahead of the others, picking flowers to make a chain with. She hummed as she went, sounding vaguely like a bee. Salma was deep in thought, possibly daydreaming, while Blaze and Freya walked facing the sky as they watched the clouds twist and morph. When night came, Rose carefully braided Raine’s hair. Matthew sat close to the fire, needing the light to carve. Then, later, when the others slept and she couldn’t, Raine listened to the night. Crickets chirped a light breeze rustled the grass and bushes, and the dying fire crackled gently. A few creatures called out, but other than that it was quiet. And somehow it wasn’t that different from the day, because everyone had run out of stories to tell.

Chapter 4

A familiar tune floated in the air, almost too quiet to hear, growing louder. Rose joined Sunny’s humming, then Matthew, and Freya began singing. More quickly now the rest joined in., It was a song they all knew, and it was easy to sing. Soon they’d grown bored of singing it on its own, so they sang it in rounds. the four short verses were sun over and over, all at once.
“Close your eyes and listen/ as the wind swirls all around./ The leaves are falling to the ground/ and the stars shine in the indigo./ Hear the creatures waking/ despite the night, seeking food./ There’s an owl in solitude searching in the silent sky./ Taste the freedom of the cold night air,/ travelling over a land that’s fair,/ hunting for what’s needed./ See the sun now rising/ and the wolves no longer howl./ Returning home is the owl/ who in the dawn is flying.”

The combination of their different voices sounded beautiful. Raine found herself walking in time with the beat, and smiled when she noticed. Maybe the journey wouldn’t seem so long if they sang, Raine mused as she stared out over the moor — they’d left the hills now. Bushes and grass covered the moor. Raine looked up to the sky, to see the waning moon, and realised Autrin’s Ehv was within the next seven days. Looking back out over the landscape, she wondered if there was enough food for them to find while they travelled over this part of the land. A rabbit bounded through the grass, and Raine smiled, knowing she needn’t worry

“The mountains are getting closer,” Freya said.
“We’ll be there soon,” Raine nodded.
“I wonder what we have to do.”
“I had a dream once that answered that question. We have to remember all the Water Spirit told us, and why we’re there.” Freya frowned, trying to puzzle out the meaning. Unable to understand it, she turned to face the sky, and Raine did the same. They watched the clouds for a short time before facing the land again. The pair gathered two armfuls of wood between them, and built a fire.

Golden light spilled from the sky into the dawn. Birds called out, each voice a song. The grass was damp with dew, and the few clouds were wispy. The seven woke and readied themselves for the day, singing as they worked, Blaze and Salma hunted, as Matthew, Freya, and Rose gathered plants. Raine and Sunny built the fire.
“I’ve always wondered why Autrin’s Ehv is at the beginning of autumn. It’s basically still summer,” Sunny said.
“But the autumn is still beginning, and it takes a while for the leaves to change colour and fall,” Raine replied. “Change is usually gradual rather than immediate.”

Rose braided Raine’s hair into an intricate mess of plaits twisted somehow into a bun. Sunny was making a crown of oak leaves, ivy, and wildflowers with Blaze’s help. The crown was a tradition many hundreds of years old, and was given to the one chosen to say the Season Promise. To be chosen for this role was a great honour. Freya had gone looking for something, and Matthew was helping Salma cook. The sun began to near the horizon.

Freya returned, And held her hand to the horizon, measuring the daylight.
“We’ve got an hour left until night-time,” she declared, walking over to Sunny and Blaze to say something Raine didn’t quite hear. The three came to Raine, with the crown. Freya held a long piece of ivy.
“Close your eyes,” Rose said. Something was put on Raine’s heads that must have been the crown, and the ivy was wrapped around her arm. Raine opened her eyes, and everyone gathered around. They blew air so it sounded like the winter winds, mad a sound like water flowing, then shouted.
“Summer’s light, winter’s night, autumn’s hope, spring’s growth. Cycle, circle, rhythm, round. By this we are bound!”

“Like dusk and dawn, like day and night, all things come to life then go to dust. Summer is sun, buttercup yellow, always shining. Water is snow, glittering white, ever freezing. Autumn is wind, orange-brown, always promising. Spring is leaves, joyful green, ever growing,” Raine smiled, looking around at each of her friends, “Autumn — Autrin — is hope and promise. Life and death, fall and rise, a repeating cycle. It’s the spark of stars in a moonless night, promising, vowing, that dawn always comes.” She knew the words off by heart, having heard them many times before. Her friends cheered. The sun sank to the horizon as they ate.

They lay on the grass, looking up at the stars in the moonless sky, talking. The friends sang, filling the early night with songs that told tales. Raine’s favourite was about how a fairy tricked a cunning wolf. The wolf had stolen the fairy’s magic, but by a strangely worded request she tricked him and her magic was returned.
“Look how the stars move slowly across the sky, always so far up like floating candles,” Rose said.
“They’re so pretty. Which constellation is your favourite? Mine’s the rose.” added Sunny. Rose liked that one too. Raine liked the lion, it had always seemed more mysterious and compassionate. When she looked at it a whispering thought said that the lion called her.

Now the mountains had grown from a smudge to a rough line about a finger-width tall. The hills and moor were far away, and the Village even further. Everything seemed so long ago. Raine listened to the wind and birds, and her friends. Matthew was carving while he walked, and some were singing the stories. She moved to Matthew’s side.
“What are you making?”
“The Water Spirit. See, this will be her face rising out of the lake,” he pointed to a rounded part of the stick that branched out.
“Looks good,” Raine smiled.
“Thanks. Do you want me to carve you a fairy when I’ve finished this?” Matthew asked and she nodded. His crafts were always so beautiful, and he always knew what would please someone most, and how to capture a single moment or emotion. It made them look alive.

The seven friends sang as they walked. Raine vaguely thought about getting Freya and Sunny to help her make up a song. She watched the grass flatten as she stepped on it, and looked at the horizon where the mountains lay. They seemed to have gotten taller, but the seven had just gotten closer. A crescent was in the blue sky, and birds flew south. The wind blew Raine’s hair around and flattened the grass a bit. The sun was nearing the west.

“Somewhere, away to the west, is the sea. I think I remember the Sage teaching us that there is a town there,” Rose said, pointing, then adding, “I miss everyone at home.”
“Me too. I particularly miss the Water Spirit,” replied Raine.
“Yeah. Remember how she gave us our glitter?”
“She told you that roses are symbols of love, and that rain brings hope. She told me that I’ve been Chosen, and I didn’t what to be different.”
“Yes, you complained once that there was nothing special about you-”
“And I’m not special!” Raine insisted, and Rose laughed.
“But remember that day when my family’s dong died and nobody could help me feel better, not even Sunny or Salma? The n you heard what happened and came to make me feel better. Even though I was still sad, you put a smile on my face, and I got up to play.”

Chapter 5

“How are you, Rain?” asked Blaze.
“I’m alright. You?”
“Yeah,” he smiled then looked at the hand-high mountains, thinking for a moment, “What do you think the dwarves will be like?”
“I don’t know… What did the Sage say? They’re headstrong, spirited, fierce, and yet not warlike. They sound like they’ll get on well with Rose,” Blaze replied and Raine nodded.
“But they speak Dwarvern. How will we be able to understand them?”
“We’ll have to learn Dwarvern.”
“Didn’t we learn a bit a long time ago?” Raine asked.
“The only think I remember is that ‘Tekzû’ means hello,” Blaze sighed.

The winds blew harder and colder, and the days seemed slow although they were shortening. Raine found herself anxiously checking the mountains to see if they were any closer a few times The journey was long and the seven were tired, but the leopardess had told Raine that they’d reach the Dwarvern Caverns by the end of the fourth moon. The moon was only just beginning to wane; they were almost there.

Clouds began to gather overhead and darken, making twilight come early. When Raine looked up after eating the midday meal, she decided that they shouldn’t continue travelling that afternoon. With what they could find, they built a shelter from branches and leaves. Sitting furthest from the small fire, Raine same with her friends.
“Rain pitter, rain patter./ Sing louder, together./ Glow fire, glow brighter./ Keep warming forever./ Rain pitter, rain patter./ Be stronger, hope always./ Sing louder, together./ Grow taller, grow trusting./ Let loving continue./ Rain pitter, rain patter./ Stand braver, leave nothing./ Be stronger, hope always./ Sing louder, together./ Come arise, come answer./ Wind drifting away.”

The rain was a steady drumming on the roof of their shelter. Outside, it was cold, but in their little stick tent the seven were warm. Crickets chirped and the fire crackled. Raine glared at it, annoyed that fire was such a vital part of life — it was dangerous — but there was nothing she could do about it, so she started a game.
“Riddle time! I have a heart that never beats, a hope but i never sleep. I love to play games with my brothers. I’m a king among fools. Who am I?”
“How am I supposed to know? It’s been ages since I heard that one!” laughed Sunny.
“This is the one one we we learnt that time the Sage showed us the Buchod Room, right?” Salma asked.
“I got it! It’s a King of Hearts!” Matthew cried, and Raine nodded.

“What is red and blue, purple and green? Nobody can reach it it, not even a queen. What is it?” Matthew asked. Freya tried to think, but neither she nor Blaze knew the answer
“It’s got something to do with Raine somehow…” Rose couldn’t figure out the answer either.
“No it doesn’t!” Raine refused.
“Yes it does! It’s a rainbow!” shouted Sunny, and they all groaned. “It is tall when it’s young and short when it’s old. By some, but not all, time can be told. What is it?” Salma asked for the riddle to be repeated, then slowly muttered the words to herself.
“This is one of my favourite riddles,” said Matthew.
“What, because you can never remember the answer?” teased Sunny, and they all laughed.
“We heard this in the Buchod Room on a rainy day, not that that helps us remember the answer,” said Rose. They puzzled over it for a bit, then Raine remembered the answer.
“Candles!”
“Yes. Now who else has a riddle?” Sunny said.
“I do,” Blaze replied. “A farmer sells half his chickens at the market plus one, and has one left over. How many did he have before coming to market?”
“Easy: three,” answered Salma. They continued to ask each other riddles for a while.

Nightfall came, and the rain hadn’t stopped since it started. Rose and Freya had a few vegetables in their packs, and although they weren’t quite enough, the seven enjoyed them . They slept. Raine dreamt of lonely comforts in the Dwarvern Caverns but it turned into a nightmare where everything was on fire. Then she was running, running, running, and it was winter and the wolves were hunting her. she climbed a tree and the leopardess came. The usual words were spoken, then the leopardess said the fire was only a dream and she told Raine not to worry. As the dreams faded into bright morning the leopardess’ eyes took on the yearning look they sometimes had.

The sun glittered off water beads in the grass and an icy wind tossed the girls’ hair. The mountains were so much closer now, and there were only a few days left until the end of the moon Excited, the seven ran a little through the day, and when they had breath they sang. Matthew finished the fairy for Raine. when he gave it to her she gasped at how well it was made; each line and mark showed his craftsmanship. Raine wanted to make something, but she didn’t know what and she had nothing to make with.

How close the mountains were, that the day seemed slow.
“we’re so close, but the mountains aren’t getting any nearer,” Freya sighed.
“we’ll be there soon,” replied Raine.
“Ha! They’ll be here soon, will they? I say to them, ‘open your eyes!'” a voice called. Raine and Freya looked up in surprise. There, in an opening into the mountains, were two dwarves.

Chapter 6

Finally the seven had arrived. They ran the last few steps to the warm shelter of the dwarves.
“Tekzû,” Raine said.
“Viekëlm. We have watched you travellers all day. Are you likely to stay long?”
“We’ll be staying a while, but I don’t know how long,” Raine said.
“That is well. I’m Zadut.”
And I’m Taigat-Zhëtzen. Come, we’ll take you to Gatûkai-Zhëtzen.” The two dwarves led the Westheathites through fire-lit corridors to a hall with a throne on a dais.

The King — Raine assumed he was Gatûkai-Zhëtzen — sat on a padded stone throne, with a golden jewelled crown. He nodded to Zadut and Taigat-Zhëtzen, acknowledging his visitors.
“What are your names?” the King asked. The seven introduced themselves.
“Why are you here? You’re too young to be traders.”
“We were sent, but we don’t know why. A message will come when we’ve completed our task,” explained Raine.
“That is well. I look forward to getting to know you all,” Gatûkai-Zhëtzen said. Then he instructed Taigat-Zhëtzen and Zadut to find rooms for the Westheathites.

While Taigat-Zhëtzen went to get some clothes, Zadut gave them a brief tour of the rooms. They were arranged around a more open space that would be a courtyard above ground. In one room there was a small waterfall that they could use to wash themselves. The other rooms were furnished with beds, drawers, and a thick rug to soften the hard floor.
“Why do you have spare rooms?” Sunny asked.
“It’s where the traders usually stay when they come,” Zadut answered.

“I found clothes, but they mightn’t fit,” said Taigat-Zhëtzen.
“That’s alright. Thank you,” Rose smiled.
“I’ll come to get you at the tëlëvai-biezhel — the twelve-bell — for dinner. Don’t wander too far or you’ll get lost,” the dwarf instructed, and the pair left. The seven took turns washing, and helped each other make the clothes fit. Raine quietly said that she thought the dwarf King wasn’t terribly grand, but the kind of plainness that comes from too much grandeur, and most of the others agreed. Some went to sit in the courtyard. Matthew was examining the two relief carving on the walls that depicted a forest and a mountain range. Rose asked Raine how long the dwarves had taken to carve out their home, and Raine said she didn’t know. They speculated about various things wondering about all they had to learn from the dwarves, since they hadn’t been taught much by the Sage.

“Come on, you seven, time for food! We’ll go to the Radû Kaloutûpai feast hall, since that’s my clan,” said Taigat-Zhëtzen.
“Hang on, the rar-duh-kar-low-what?” Salma asked.
“Rar-duh Kar-low-tuh-pai: Red Clan. We’re mostly fire-keepers, hunters, and buchod keepers. Although the buchod keepers are the strangest and the hunters don’t like them much.”
“What are fire-keepers?” Blaze inquired.
“I’m a fire-keeper. We keep the torches lit so that nobody has to walk through dark tunnels,” answered the dwarf.
“Is it hard?” asked Blaze.
“Some days lots go out and I get heaps of messengers telling me where they are. Other days, none go out and I sit at the entrance cave,” said Taigat-Zhëtzen. “We’re here.”

The feast hall was large, and entirely filled with dwarves. Taigat-Zhëtzen pushed through the crowd and the seven followed. Dwarves looked up in wonder at the Westheathites, and they looked back — down, of course, for the dwarves only came to their chests.
“Tëm nëze kienô utie kenradezhû thaidtan kiedatôzhû,” said a dwarf next to Taigat-Zhëtzen.
“Tafô gudf’lë. Utie atai Ëzdhathiemzhû,” replied Taigat-Zhëtzen. Raine was just about to ask what they were talking about when Taigat-Zhëtzen answered the question.
“He thought you were the traders’ kids. It’s around the time they usually come, so the idea isn’t entirely unreasonable.”
“When will the traders arrive?” asked Blaze.
“Eight of them usually come around the first week of the fifth moon, and two more in the second or third. Don’t worry about the rooms, we’ll just tell them to share.” The seven had only taken up three rooms, so it wouldn’t be much trouble.

They woke early in the morning, although they couldn’t tell. They dressed and sat in the courtyard. After about an hour, Taigat-Zhëtzen came and took them to the feast hall for breakfast, which was porridge. The Westheathites hadn’t had porridge since the last morning they’d been in the village, and they ate with gusto. Afterwards, Taigat-Zhëtzen led them to the carvers.
“Zadut, show these seven your works, would you?” he said.
“Sure!” Zadut put down his tools and explained his role. There were two groups of carvers: the bright carvers made jewellery and such pretty decorations, and the cold carvers brought life to stone. Matthew paid attention to each detail, greatly interested in it all, and when the others went back he stayed to watch Zadut work.

“How did you get those glittery marks?” Zadut asked. He and the seven were sitting in the courtyard.
“The Water Spirit gave them to us. She lives in the pool near our village,” replied Rose.
“She gave them to us to remind us of who we are and that we’re Chosen — what for, I don’t know,” said Raine.
“But you were Chosen to bring hope, weren’t you, Raine?”
“H-how did you know?” Zadut shrugged.
“Some things fill one’s heart with such a light that it cannot be contained.”

Zadut took them to a Buchod Room. The books were different and more numerous than the few in the Spirit-Pool Village. The ones there were thin and plain, with only a few pictures in the margins. The Dwarvern ones filled many shelves, were fat with knowledge and stories, and filled with pictures that each took a page to themselves. The ink was bright, the images were beautifully creaed by skilled hands, and they were incredibly detailed. The books were bound with leather and many had clasps. The large room was quieter than most places in the Dwarvern Caverns, and there were sweet-smelling herbs in the torches and hearths. This created an enchanting and wondrous feel to the Buchod Room, and the seven were most certainly captivated by it.

“Hello Zadut. Shouldn’t you be carving?” asked a woman emerging from the shelves with a pile of books in each hand and on her head.
“Yes, but I brought the seven Westheathites and decided to stay a while,” he replied.
“I suppose that’s well,” she turned to the seven, “I’m Amedël, a buchod keeper.” Thee Westheathites introduced themselves, and talked with Amedël. She showed them where the section of books written in the common speech was, and explained that she and the other buchod keepers had copied most of the books by hand. What books they hadn’t yet copied, Amedël pointed out, and even read a little for the seven. Then she sat at her desk to copy and draw a new book while the seven immersed themselves in chronicles and mythology.

 

Chapter 7

Raine found a pretty book about something called the Forgen. It was made from gold, silver, and many kinds of crystals, forged into a hollow sculpture of a phoenix flying from a lavender rose. The book had a wonderful picture of it. ‘The Forgen’ was a shorter name for its much longer one: Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen, which was Ebëldatën Zrahgaithën-Guëlie-Gatûkai Farietûkaithiem in Dwarvern. A humming could be heard near the Forgen, but no-one had figured out why for certain. Some believed a spirit lived inside the Forgen, and others believed that the Forgen magnified the mountain’s song to an audible level somehow.

“Amedël, could you please take us to see the Forgen one day?” Raine asked.
“Of course. We can go right now if you’d like,” she replied.
“I’ll ask the others,” nodded Raine. They were all interested, so Amedël led the seven to see the sculpture. She took them past the cold carvers’ workshop where Zadut spent his time.
“The Light Clan did a lot of work in making the Forgen, but it’s deeper into our caverns and more towards the Hollow Clan area. If you listen carefully you might be able to hear its song.” The seven were quiet. Soft footsteps, the trickle of a small underground stream, then a distant humming. As they walked, it grew louder and louder until Raine could almost feel it. The song was a bright, lilting melody. Amedël started singing in Dwarvern, a song made to fit the tune emanating from the Forgen. When they reached the sculpture the seven found that it was truly a work of art, more beautiful than any picture could tell. The Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen was splendid, and each delicate crystal had been shaped to fit into the exquisite phoenix. It was huge, and with the song it hummed it was no wonder that people believed it to be magical.

“What does the song mean?” Sunny asked.
“Forgen, Forgen, oh why do you sing?/ Your gold is bright,/ your crystals light,/ and you guard us in our caverns./ Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ singing, always singing,/ what magic do you bring?/ Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ echo in us all./ Although we may not hall/ hear the humming,/ it repeats, repeats,/ through the tunnels. / Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ singing, always singing,/ what magic do you bring?/ Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ echo in us all./ Ever wondrous,/ created with magic./ Silver melody, golden fire,/ bright and shining crystals./ Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ singing, always singing,/ what magic do you bring?/ Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ echo in us all./ Shine, illuminate the stones,/ let our home echo (echo)!/ Sing, raise your voice, / let our home echo (echo)!/ Shine, illuminate the stones,/ let our home echo (echo)!/ Sing, raise your voice, / let our home echo (echo)!/ Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ singing, always singing,/ what magic do you bring?/ Living Bright-Jewel-Gold Forgen,/ echo in us all./ …Echo in us all, echo…” Amedël said.

“It would sound wrong if I tried to sing it in common speech,” she added.
“Why can’t everyone hear the humming?” Freya asked.
“Nobody knows. I sometimes think it had to do with whether or not they believe the humming exists. The popular answer is magic, and it probably is, although some of us don’t believe magic exists.”
“It exists. This is proof. The Water Spirit near our Village said the magic Chose me to bring hope and life, and marked each of us with her Glitter,” Raine raised her hand to show the Spirit’s Glitter on her wrist. She’d been feeling brave for a moment, but then she felt nervous. She traced the Glitter on her wrist.
“You were Chosen to bring hope? You’ve spoken to a naiad? What was it like?” Amedël asked.
“We all talked to the Water Spirit heaps,” said Sunny.
“Yeah, we’ve spent a lot of time at the lake’s shore,” smiled Rose.
“I was nine when I first talked to the Water Spirit. She gave me the Glitter and told me was Chosen, and a year later I met Rose, Sunny, Salma, Freya, Matthew, and Blaze. At first I was scared, but I accepted the magic; I hadn’t wanted to be different, but I found six friends who were as different as me. We grew close,” Raine looked at each of her friends, still tracing her Glitter.
“Wow,” Amedël said.

Raine dreamt that a torch hanging on the wall became a fire that spread through the tunnels. She ran, not knowing where her friends were, hoping they were safe and just fleeing as she was. The flames were chasing her. A familiar song echoed through the caverns, growing louder, then a phoenix was flying beside Raine. The song had words that Raine couldn’t understand, and through the flames the phoenix became Raine’s reflection. Pounding feet led Raine out of the caves and into twilight. She was running through a forest, still fleeing the fire, but the fire had gone and now wolves chased her.

Raine climbed a tree, and a leopardess padded towards her.
“You’re lost Raine. Come with me, and I will show you the way. Trust me,” the leopardess smiled.
“Why did the phoenix become my reflection?” Raine asked,
“Soon you will know a new melody and begin to understand more of the magic in this world. Until then, know that everything will become new like a phoenix rising from its ashes.” The leopardess rarely made any sense. As the dream faded, the creature smiled and yearning filled its eyes, and it murmured one word.
“Soon…”

“How are you today, Raine?” asked Matthew.
“Good, besides the strange dream I had last night,” she replied.
“What happened in it?” Raine explained the two parts. She often talked to Matthew about her dreams when there was nothing else to do, like today, since the traders had arrived and the dwarves were busy.
“That is a strange dream. I don’t think it’s meant to make sense, although as usual with that leopardess the meaning should come with time,” said Matthew.
“What do you think the last part means?” Raine inquired, tilting her head.
“I don’t know, but I think that’s for you to decide,” replied Matthew.

The traders had come to the Spirit-Pool Village, so the Westheathites recognised them. Lucas was a carpenter, Finn was a blacksmith, and Evan was a stonemason; they helped the dwarves with fixing things the dwarves didn’t quite have the skills for. Matteo, Zac, Zane, Ulric, Odin, and Lachlan helped with whatever they could, selling their services — Ulric, Zane, and Lachlan were the only ones who actually brought objects to sell. Piper was a bard, bringing news from other places, so he helped the dwarvern bards and record keepers. Odin and Zac were really just travellers working wherever they stopped, but the dwarves considered them traders. They’d arrived a week earlier than usual, which Taigat-Zhëtzen and Zadut were happy about.

“Oh hey Raine. Uh, what’re you doing here?” Piper walked out of his room and did a double take when he saw Raine sitting on the bench in the courtyard.
“The Water Spirit told us to come,” she replied.
“Well everyone in your village thinks you’ve died or something,” said Piper, and Raine looked down for a moment.
“We’re well and truly alive.”
“I see that. Why did the Water Spirit tell you to come?”
“Piper, are you coming?” asked Lachlan.
“Yep. We’ll talk later, Raine,” he nodded.

 

Chapter 8

Piper took the seven to the Hollow Clan to see the bards. They went past the Forgen and down a deeper path towards the gëmenzrzëtûm (community center). As the Forgen Song faded they began to hear many voices chattering and then they were at the gëmenzrzëtûm. If Raine hadn’t known there were no markets in the Caverns She’d have thought this was one for all the people in the huge space. Piper wove through the crowd and down another tunnel. It was quieter but there were still a fair few dwarves walking along. It lead to a smaller cavern that was equally busy and filled with dwarves, although music and singing took the place of babbling.

“Hello Miedôlle, Glazalkr, and Jadaihz-Hailëm. How’s your project going?” Piper said to the three dwarves. Two were female and one was male.
“Oh hey Piper. Nearly finished. Come on, we’ll show you,” replied a female with gold hair. The three stood from their scribing and led Piper and the seven Westheathites through the tunnels. For the first time since entering the Dwarvern Caverns, the seven encountered stairs. They were going up inside a hollowed-out mountain. Usually the floor sloped instead of having stairs.
“Who are you, young seven humans?” the male asked friendlily, smiling. They introduced themselves and the dwarves replied with their own names. Miedôle had gold hair, Jadaihz-Hailëm had ginger hair and green eyes, and Glazalkr was the male.

When at last they stopped climbing stairs, they’d arrived in a smaller cave with natural walls. A river babbled through a deep channel in the floor.
“This cave is where the entrance of the Zôthëriemtrazle River is. It runs through much of our caverns and we’ve irrigated its two tributaries to supply a third of our water,” said Jadaihz-Hailëm.
“Our project was to add a little whimsy to some of the waterfalls and stretches of the river. With the help of the water keepers and carvers we’ve made music,” Miedôle explained. “Glazalkr, do you want to put the first one in?
“Yep, I just ned to-” He grunted, pulling some object across the smoothed stone floor. There was a splash as it settled in the water, and then music began to play. The seven listen to the wonder of it as Piper helped Glazalkr attach it firmly to the floor.
“First one in. Would you like to come with us while we put in the rest?” Miedôle asked, and the seven nodded eagerly. So the eleven of them traversed the caverns, the three dwarves setting up their musical contraptions. Sometimes it was a xylophone that sat beneath a waterfall, and other times it was a box nestled into a river channel that made music that sounded like a music box as the water flowed through. These boxes were almost always in community centers, and were sometimes made to look like a bridge.

One such box, Raine’s favourite, was in the Ice Clan’s community center which was sort of like a garden. There were magnificent stone plants, some with jewel flowers, and an oak with little jewel mushrooms at its foot. It was wonderfully intricate and detailed
“How long did it take to make that oak?” Raine asked.
“A year and a half’s hard work from fourteen fine carvers,” Glazalkr replied, grunting as he set the box in place with a small splash. The music began, a nice tune that matched the grandness of the oak.

“So why did the Water Spirit tell you to come here?” Piper asked as they returned to their rooms.
“We came because she said we were trapped by this life, this world. She said we have the courage and strength needed,” said Raine.
“That doesn’t make sense,” replied Piper, and the seven nodded. Freya told the story about how they fell into the sea at the lighthouse.
“How does that help? Are these things you have to do random?”
“Seems so,” answered Rose.
“You know, I’ve talked to the Water Spirit a couple of times. The first time, she said music is the heart and soul of a people. The second time, when I was last there, she said that hope had come and there was something on the move with powerful magic,” said Piper. Salma suddenly remembered something.

“The rhyme the Spirit taught us! ‘In an autumn deep beneath the stone, keep in mind all the stories I’ve told. For when, in the next spring, you must wait, a thing truly wonderful will unfold. Something, someone, shall be on the move, with powerful magic eons old,” Salma recited with the others.
“Yes! ‘Keep in mind all the stories I’ve told’! That’s what my dream meant by ‘You’ll have to remember all the Water Spirit told you, and remember why you’re there’,” realised Raine.
“To keep a promise safe you must not lock it away in the dark. Share it so that everyone can know the promise and keep it alive,” said Sunny. It was a lesson the Water Spirit had taught them with a story once.

Raine, Sunny, and Salma spent the day in the Buchod Room, while Rose and Blaze visited the Ice Clan and Matthew carved with Evan the trader and Zadut. Raine started reading a trilogy about someone who had to throw a ring into a fire, Sunny found a book about four children and a lion, even though it was in the middle of its series, and Salma began that series from its start. It took them a fair while to finish, not being the best at reading but getting faster as they went. When Raine finished reading after about two months of solid, dedicated reading, she went with Rose and Blaze to the Ice Clan. She enjoyed listening to and learning from the record keepers, healers, and gatherers that made up most of the clan, and became friends with a bard who seemed out of place in that clan but still managed t fit in. The Ice Clan members loved their music box. Dwarves of the Ice Clan seemed to prefer the world above, unlike their fellows, and that showed in the bard’s songs. It reminded Raine of travelling, and she realised she missed it.

 

Chapter 9

“Keep telling the stories,” murmured the leopardess near the end of the dream, blinking slowly. Raine nodded.
“Soon…” the big cat said, more like a promise to itself than information for Raine, but after hearing the word so often in her dreams she knew it was a small piece of knowledge. Raine just didn’t understand it: what was soon? She woke. The leopardess almost always ended the dream like that now, and whatever was coming soon seemed to be getting closer. Raine sighed, turned the dream from her mind, and got dressed after washing in the waterfall room. Taigat-Zhëtzen came to take them to breakfast as he usually did, even though the seven now knew their way around a fair bit of the Caverns.

As it had been for the past four weeks, — or was it five? — the seven could go where they liked within the Caverns. Usually Raine went to a gëmenzrzëtûm, but today she felt like wandering. There was an unused tunnel on the way to the Ice Clan Rose had pointed out the day before. Raine had asked what it was, and the record keepers of the Ice Clan had said it was nothing in guarded tones. Of course that made Raine curious to explore. So she followed the tunnel with one hand on the wall to guide her way, as none of the torches were kept lit. Then she saw a dim blue light that grew brighter as her eyes adjusted more, and found a small cave with a lake at the far end filed with bioluminescent creatures. Raine heard a quiet song being sung in Dwarvern, so quiet she didn’t even know if it was only in her head of not. Stopping to listen, Raine learnt the song quickly.
“Zhan, hourai,/ zieën rôge haze./ Gudf’ë zieën angliet,/ uzen’ai zieth haze./ Grëb vamûth tôul klëûth,/ aizhektën tôul zlafetën./ Fiedë vûnbouzie mie utie ërd,/ utle’ëk en vëzpriek /zum uzen’ai bethaltaitën.”

Raine knew enough dwarvern by now to understand the words, and she realised the tune was similar to one Nimue used to hum when she came to her when she was upset. The first part stirred memories of being held by her mother on a stormy night, and of sitting by the lake with Nimue. The second part Nimue hadn’t hummed before, but it reminded her of several stories Nimue had told. It struck Raine that there could be a spirit here, so she called out a friendly hello. Nothing, but a momentary pause in the song, then one different verse.
“Little one,/ never give up./ What your heart seeks/ will be soon.” It was in common speech this time. Another pause, then the other song began again. Raine looked up from watching the water; for a second the voice had sounded like the leopardess from her dreams, and all the times it’d murmured ‘soon’ echoed in her mind. She sang the song aloud and wondered what her heart sought.

“Guess what day tomorrow is!” Rose said excitedly as they ate dinner. Raine counted the days silently.
“Your birthday?” she said and Rose nodded, beaming. Tomorrow marked Rose’s thirteenth summer and fourteenth winter.
“How many years?” asked Taigat-Zhëtzen in his rough voice, and Rose answered. “Were you a dwarf, this would be your last year as a child, but you’re human and already becoming a teen. Braid your hair for tomorrow; I’ll have Zadut make a suitable dwarvern gift for you.” So, the hairstyles many dwarves wore bore a second, more traditional purpose other than keeping it neat, although what that was Raine didn’t yet know. After dinner, Raine, Sunny, Salma, and Freya sat talking together as Rose’s hair was braided. Odin and Zac talked to Matthew and Blaze — Piper had left a week ago, and the rest had left two and a half weeks ago.

When the seven returned to their cave-rooms after lunch they found several dwarves waiting in the courtyard. Amedël, Zadut, Taigat-Zhëtzen, Miedle, Jadaiz-Hailëm, Glazalkr, and the Ice Clan bard named Iemley were all there. Zadut handed Rose a small package, and she opened it to find a small gold bead for her hair.
“Put it on one of your braids,” said Zadut. “It’s a tradition to add one of these rings to our braids when we reach particular milestones.”
“You’ve passed from childhood. We wish the years and adventures ahead of you would be fruitful,” Amedël smiled. Rose thanked them, and they spent the rest of the day talking amongst themselves.

There was a particular story that always made Raine think. Salma told it this time. There’s a magic in the world that knows what everyone needs and provides it. Those who know of the magic say it shows itself in the form of a person who gives hope and life, but there is an older telling that declares this magic sang the world into being from inky blackness.. In those older days the magic took the form of spirits and often interacted with other beings, before all the truth of it became a lost myth. Now, this story is not known by many but it is still true nonetheless. Rose added a short explanation to the end so the dwarves could understand more. The Water Spirit had told the seven this message and said the magic had formed her and created everything.
“The hope of life has already come, still without shape yet, and you seven will be the first with this gift of life,” the Water Spirit had said, almost a whole year ago now, Raine remembered.

Sharing Nimue’s stories and messages became easier as the seven gained courage throughout the moons. Shortly before Freya’s thirteenth birthday they were called to tell Gatûkai-Zhëtzen some of the stories. They chose the one Salma told on Rose’s birthday, the rhyme, how they each got their Glitter, and the full story about how to keep a promise safe — among others. They continued telling stories to almost every dwarf they met, and told the Dwarvern king the most since he seemed to greatly enjoy them. Freya’s birthday passed, then Blaze’s thirteenth in the eighth moon and Sunny’s twelfth in the ninth. Raine’s and Salma’s were in summer. It was the beginning of winter, although this was not something they worried about, being underground and well provided for by the hunters and gatherers of various clans.

 

Chapter 10

Raine, Sunny, and Matthew went to see the Hollow Clan sages. One was a vaguely mysterious but friendly man named Bouniek for his black hair. He taught them various things such as how to best light a fire in the rain, and they found him to be very good company. He often told them popular dwarvern fables — some they’d read of in the Buchod Room, others they hadn’t found.

Raine dreamt of the time Nimue taught the seven the rhyme. They had chanted it over and over and over. Then the dream became the one of the leopardess, and the big cat smiled with contained excitement as she declared ‘soon.’
“Come on Raine, it’s Winter Midnight today! Get up!” urged Sunny, and Raine opened her eyes. She’d forgotten it was Midwinter.
“Oh! What do the dwarves do for the Winter Midnight?” she asked as she sat up.
“We don’t know yet, so hurry up!” smiled Rose. Raine got up and ready, and the seven headed off to a breakfast of porridge. On their way back to their quarters, Taigat-Zhëtzen said that there would be a banquet that night, and he explained how it would work.
“This is one of the few nights when the clan dining halls are open to other clans. Everyone makes a mask during the day to wear to the banquet, and some choose to paint their arms with red, orange, and gold,” he said.
“Cool! In the village we come from, we just sit around a fire with our families — sometimes friends too — and tell stories, and then when it’s really late we all go outside and look at the stars,” said Freya.
“Stars! I only ever saw them once,” sighed Taigat-Zhëtzen.
“They’re beautiful, we’ll have to show you one day,” replied Rose.

Taigat-Zhëtzen sent Amedël with mask-making supplies and the paint just after lunch, and she helped the seven make their masks. Raine made a butterfly mask, Rose made a dog mask, Sunny decorated hers with bright colours, Salma made a wolf mask, Freya made an owl mask, Matthew decorated his to look like water, and Blaze’s mask was a fox. Raine, Rose, Sunny, and Blaze painted their arms. Raine, Rose, Salma,and Freya did each other’s hair, sitting in a chain that looped into a circle., and they talked about memories from the Spirit-Pool Village to Amedël. They decided to go to the Ice Clan’s hall, and when the tëlëvai-biezhel sounded through the caverns they all headed off with their masks on.

It was fun to try to guess who was under each mask, and the food was particularly good that night. Everyone told stories to each other as they ate, and some had painted their arms as intricately as the books in the Buchod Room were illuminated. When the banquet ended, they returned to their rooms, exhausted. They passed the tunnel that led to the glowing pool, and Raine asked where it led, pretending she hadn’t been down it already. Amedël responded with a huff, and Salma shook her head.
“We don’t know, nobody would tell us,” Rose said.
“Oh,” replied Raine. She decided the dwarves probably had a rule against following the tunnel where it led, so she didn’t tell her friends she’d been down it. As they passed she could faintly hear the song. Raine wondered what her heart sought. She asked the leopardess in her dream that night, but she only answered that it wouldn’t make sense yet.

The seven told more stories to the Dwarvern king, and were almost always spending their time with friends they’d made. One day, Raine just sat beside the Forgen listening to its song. It was peaceful, and it gave her the space to think over the last while. She missed Nimue, and she missed travelling. That morning, she’d woken feeling empty because the leopardess dream hadn’t been as vivid as it once had been. Every day it faded, and Raine feared she wouldn’t be able to remember it when she woke. Was she going to stop dreaming it? To silence her worry, Raine sang the Forgen song and braided her hair. It was nice in the Caverns but she was getting restless and longed to be above ground again.

A moon had passed since the Winter Midnight it was now the middle of the eleventh moon. The seven were telling more stories to Gatûkai-Zhëtzen. Suddenly Raine remembered something from her early childhood. When Blaze finished the story he’d chosen to tell, Raine asked to tell a story from before she met the others.

“You may,” the king gave permission, curiosity showing in his eyes.
“I only remember bits of it, but the Water Spirit once told me this strange, fantastical story that doesn’t quite make sense. There is a key forged from blood. The man who made it gave all his blood for it, and somehow survived his sacrificing to make the gruesome key. It fitted any and every lock. The man could see each invisible cage people had built around themselves from fear or anger or sadness and set those free who had trapped themselves. He could see each invisible chain binding people to the past or others, and every kind of bad bond that shouldn’t have existed. Then, when everyone was free, he melted the key and mixed it with the clouds in the sky so everyone could truly live as he did. Everyone drank the water that fell when it pooled into lakes and rivers, and they found true hope and life. They could be happy and live free from all the bad things in the world. But to live, they had to drink the blood-water that cleansed all guilt,” Raine said. She curtseyed nervously when she finished.

“That is indeed strange. Gatûkai-Zhëtzen said, rubbing his chin. Raine’s palm tingled, and then there was a note in her hand.
“Oh! I have a message,” Raine gestured for the others to gather around and read it. ‘Well done, you’ve completed your task here. Go to the forest just east of here, and soon you will find answers to many questions. You will need trust’.
“It says we need to go to the forest near here,” announced Raine and the king sighed.
“That is well. I’ve enjoyed having you here, you know. I’ll have preparations made so you can leave tomorrow before noon.”

The dwarves gave the seven packs of food that included oats for porridge, hard cheeses, preserved meat, and ohtceks. The ohtceks were things the seven had only ever heard of, and they were told they were delicious and filling — perfect for travelling long distances and not weighing down one’s pack. They were also given new water skins, since theirs were old, and some blankets. They packed up their things and said goodbye to their friends who wished them well in their travels.
“We’ll come back one day,” Rose promised.
“Please do. We’ll miss you and your stories,” replied Amedël, and Rose nodded.
“We’ll miss you too,” added Sunny. There was one last round of hugs, and then the seven were on their way out of the Caverns to the forest. The blinding white snow made them realise exactly how long they’d spent underground.

 

Chapter 11

A cold wind whistled through the caves, and the sun hid behind a thick blanket of clouds. The seven trudged through the knee-high snow, singing and talking. Night came earlier than they were used to here in the winter, and when it did they thought they’d freeze. Their village only sometimes saw snow, and never as deep as it had fallen here, even after a whole winter. Dwarvern life was so different from theirs too, without the sky and land to tell time time unless one was a hunter or gatherer. They had to cross three half-frozen river to get to the forest, which took them almost two weeks. The first day in the forest was spent gathering food for Moarnil’s Daey, the spring feast. The next day was largely spent building tipi huts, but at midday the seven laid out their food to celebrate.

“The days are getting longer, the sun is getting warmer. Spring has come, winter’s gone; dawn has come, night has passed. Summer’s light, winter’s night, autumn’s hope, spring’s growth. Cycle, circle, rhythm, round. By this we are bound!” they all chanted before beginning the feast — however simple it was. After the sun set as they sat around the camp fire looking at the stars, Raine could almost hear the lion constellation calling to her.

The seven quickly became familiar with the forest around the clearing where they camped as the moon went on. It snowed lightly one night, but soon it all became sludge and filled the rivers with icy snow-melt. Raine slept closer to the fire on especially cold nights, hoping closed eyes would defend her from fear. She almost never remembered dreaming the leopardess dream now, but she knew she still dreamt it because she’d woken in the middle of the night before without it and felt odd. She pulled out the fabric with the embroidered adventure at the lighthouse from the bottom of her pack, and stitched on the next part, which was telling stories in the Dwarvern Caverns. Raine realised she didn’t know what they were meant to be doing. The wind had pushed them over the cliff at the lighthouse, and a dream had said to tell the dwarves Nimue’s stories, but the note had only said to go to the forest. Nothing had explained anything, yet the note had promised answers.

The first flowers began popping out of the soil and the sun began to shine more and hide less. Even with little else but food-gathering or hut repairs to pass the time, the days passed quickly, and it was soon the end of the eleventh moon. The ohtceks had run out a short time ago like the rest of their stocked food. One day when Raine had watched the fire for so long that her eyes stung, she woke in the middle of the night from a nightmare. Salma also awoke, and comforted Raine, and together they made up a lullaby to calm or comfort after a bad or stressful day.
“In the moonlight/ we shall run/ until we sleep/ or see the sun,/ and safe with the stars us keep./ The shadows prance/ in a long wide dance,/ and the wolf howls up to the moon,/ and the dawn is coming soon./ The wind is but a sigh/ and soon the birds will fly./ The snow-melt begins to flow/ but we know where to go.”

But they didn’t know where to go or what to do, and that made Raine anxious.
“Does anyone know what we’re meant to do?” she asked the others.
“No,” answered Matthew.
“What did the note say?” asked Rose.
“Just that we’d completed out task and to go to there,” Raine said. “But now we’ve come here and we still don’t know what to do.” Raine wanted to be travelling. She’d lost her way to ask for guidance too, since she never remembered the leopardess dreams now. She missed Nimue and the dwarves.
“Maybe we could go back to the Dwarvern Caverns?” asked Salma, and Freya shook her head.
“We must be patient and do what the note said. I’m sure we’ll understand soon.”

So they stayed. They often sang and told stories of things that had happened in the Caverns. Matthew made a carving of the beautiful Forgen and gave it to Rose. Raine, Salma, and Freya wove a mat and a basket — although they had no purpose for the basket yet. They’d looked after the most useful plants that grew around them, and they now flourished. When it rained they hid in their huts and told stories and riddles. There was hardly a moment when there wasn’t someone singing, except when they slept, ate, or talked together.They began to speak in lilting, almost sing-song tones.

One day when the sky was particularly clear, just before the sun painted the blue with the warmth of pink, as the stars began to show themselves faintly, the seven watched them appear. ‘There’s one’ Rose would say, or ‘look, another’ from Salma. It was rather rhythmic. As the sun set and twilight set in, the constellations began to shine brighter. When one was found, everyone would say what they thought of it
“Lion: compassion and mystery,” Raine pointed to the familiar shape.
“Bravery,” said Rose.
“King,” smiled Sunny.
“Determination and perseverance,” Salma nodded.
“Strength. But I can’t see it it,” sighed Freya.
“There, just above that tree,” Matthew replied. “I’m the same as Raine; compassion.”
“Caring,” said Blaze, getting up to put more wood on the fire. The pattern continued.

“It’s Matthew’s birthday in a few days. I want to get him some nice wood to carve, so might I take Sunny for company and go looking for some?” Blaze asked. “I already checked that she wants to come.”
“Sure. But what will I tell him??”
“That we went looking for another stream”
“Alright. You’ll be back before tonight, right?” Blaze nodded. He and Sunny were off before the sun rose another hand’s breadth above the horizon. The others spent the day playing hide-and seek and trying to camouflage themselves into the scrub. At sunset Blaze and Sunny returned, carrying an armful of wood and full water-skins. They hid the wood from Matthew, and when Blaze could he cut off the big splinters. On Matthew’s birthday, they showed him the pile, and he thanked them for the gift. It was really nice wood. Everyone could see that, and Matthew spent much of his spare time carving with it.

Raine woke with the feeling of having forgotten a dream. She tried to reach it, but it faded quicker the harder she reached. There’d been a sunrise, a smile, and a… oh, it was gone. She missed the leopardess dreams, and she was sure that was the dream that had just lept out of her reach. Sometimes, — well, it was more often than that, but what other word is there? — Raine wondered why they’d agreed to this, and then she remembered how wonderful it all was, travelling and growing closer to each other. She was restless. She needed something to do, to somehow understand more of the big pictures , to know what they were waiting for. How could these tasks free them from the world, and how had the world trapped them? Raine saw these questions in her friends’ eyes, too, but no-one had any answers so they stayed silent about them. And it had been so long with nothing to do but wait that they began to doubt the questions would ever be answered. Who was the note sender? Would they meet whoever it was? How long must they wait? Questions built up, often in twos or threes, but they remained patient.

It was nearly a year since their adventures started. The moon was nearly empty, and even peaceful Salma was getting restless. They could all feel that something was just out of reach, yet soon they’d be able to seize it and be on the move again. They felt like embers ready for more kindling and another log, ready to burst back into life and sparks high into the air. It wasn’t quite tense or anxious, but an excited and confused mix between them. Yet ordinary things to do like gather food and collect water were still boring and hard work. The seven danced around the fire at night and sang cheerfully, waiting to see what would unfold next, somehow feeling in their hearts that something wonderful would happen.

 

Chapter 12

A half-familiar tune hung in the air when Raine woke. Had she dreamt it, or was Sunny up? She rubbed the sleep away and saw that the sun hadn’t yet risen. There wasn’t any tiredness left in her body, or anyone to talk to, so she got up and wandered through the forest. It wasn’t quite morning, still that grey-blue twilight before sunrise, but there was adequate light for following various hunting trails the seven had made. Then there was a growl, probably from a wolf. She broke into a run, faster, faster, as the creature growled gain. It followed her, a greyish and white blur between the trees, getting closer. Frightened and beginning to panic, Raine pushed herself as fast as her feet could carry her, knowing she couldn’t outrun it. She threw her arms  up into the air and caught a strong branch, and pulled herself into the safety of a tree as she pushed off the trunk. The pawsteps got quieter and the growling stopped. Raine closed her eyes and breathed deeply, her heart pounding like a drum. Another deep breath, then she opened her eyes.

“You’re lost, Raine. Come with me and I will show you the way. Trust me,” said a snow leopardess. The one from her dreams, Raine realised. She’d never expected to meet the leopardess, never thought the dream was anything but something strange, and now she had to make a choice: trust or refuse. She worried what would happen if she decided to trust the leopardess, but also if she didn’t. She made her decision.
“I will trust you,” Raine promised as the first golden ray peaked over the horizon. Raine climbed down and let the leopardess sniff her hand then stoked her back. The leopardess’ marbled grey-and-creamy-white coat was soft and warm.
“Come, your friends will wonder where you are,” it said, turning and running back towards the camp.

They returned just as the others had woken. Why have you brought that here?” Blaze asked when he saw Raine and the leopardess.”You all know of the dream I have every day,” she replied, and they nodded (she hadn’t mentioned that she never remembered the dream any more), “Now it’s real and alive, and I’ve decided to trust her.” She was glad everyone could see the leopardess; she’d worried that it was another dream.
“I’ve told Raine the same words every morning of every day, and now I will say the same to you: You’re lost, Rose, Sunny, Salma, Freya, Matthew, and Blaze. Come with me and I will show you the way. Trust me,” said the leopardess. A soft blanket of pondering covered the clearing.
“I will trust you,” declared Rose.
“I’m coming,” announced Salma.
“Me too!” added Sunny cheerfully. The others promised to follow and trust. They felt a weight lift, they felt freer somehow.

“This is the beginning of being free, and soon your chains will vanish too. You still have one task ahead of you. You’re still lost, but I will guide you. All you questions will have answers,” smiled the leopardess. Then the big cat shimmered before their eyes, and there was a girl who looked to be about thirteen. She had long, wavy, blonde hair, blue eyes, and pointy ears.
“My name is Mel. I write stories, well, Jes does — both. It’s complicated. Jes and I are one person, yet ever so slightly different. She — I — created all of you and everything you see. I’m as much here, the Leopardess-Elf, as I am with my notebook open and pen in hand. I wanted to be a part of this world. I was the messenger, and the one who turned on the lighthouse. Jes has planned it all, and she knows that you’ll need someone to guide and help you, and to trust in.”
“But you’re the same age as us,” said Matthew.
“I know what’s to come,” Mel replied, smiling like she had in the dreams, almost in the same way Matthew usually did. Only Raine could see it held terrible things.

“How are you?” asked Mel as she and Raine gathered nuts, berries, and roots.
“Amazed at everything you told us this morning. It’s a lot to take in,” answered Raine, tossing food into the basket she, Salma, and Freya had made.
“It’s quite confusing, but you’ll understand with time. You’ve read books, so you’ve felt the tumble of being drawn into another world that feels as real as your own, and you know what it’s like to be aware of this world but seeing the other one in the book. As I write, I don’t see words flowing from my pen, I see you and hear you talking, and it’s not so much that I make the story up as I watch and record it.” They’d filled the basket now so, carrying it between them, they returned to the camp. Freya, Matthew, and Blaze were preserving meat over the fire. Rose, Sunny, and Salma were dismantling the huts into scattered piles of branches.

They’d be on the move again tomorrow. They sang around the campfire that night, and Raine suggested they sing the Forgen song. Mel joined in, adding her voice to the seven’s harmonies. The fire reflected a wildness in Mel’s eyes Raine had never seen in the dreams, and just as flames danced upon the logs so a smile danced on her face. When they were tired of singing, Mel told them another complicated thing.
“Jes wants this, your story, to be similar to her Creator’s story who came into his own world — that is, Jes’ world. She wants to tell people of her world about her Creator, the only true Creator of that world,” she explained.
“What’s Jes’ Creator like? Rose asked.
“Unfathomably loving, compassionate, caring, and wise,” replied Mel without spending a second to think.
“What’s her world like?” Freya put another log on the fire.
“Not truly different from this one, but humans have poisoned it with their technology and greedy ways. There is no-one who isn’t perfect.”

“Where are we going tomorrow?” Raine asked as she pulled her blanket overself.
“The Fire Plains-” replied Mel, cut off by Raine’s gasp.
“No! Please, no.”
“Hey, it’ll be alright. Just trust me, ok? I’m here, it’ll be alright.”
“How? What- what if…” she couldn’t bear to finish the question. Memories of the burnt town where her parents lived filled her mind.
“You won’t. No-one will. I’ll be with you all, I’ll keep you safe,” promised Mel, smiling her strange future smile, a flicker of fear running across her face. “Hush now, sleep.” Raine drew a trembling breath and closed her eyes.

Raine got up with the sun, unable to sleep any longer. She and the others, when they woke, packed their things. Mel modified the basket of food to carry on her back. They left the forest, singing as they travelled. Mel gave them each a key as they travelled, walking alongside them and explaining how they worked.
“Raine, you will bring life through hope. I want you to have this key, to remind you to trust, and to set you free when you choose that path. Whisper it aloud and hold the key, and you’ll be free. I cannot force you to trust me, but I will say that you need to,” Mel gave Raine a key with a faint outline of a lion with intricate knots on the other side of the head. She took it and put it in her pocket, smiling in thanks. The gift was strange, but pretty nonetheless.

 

Chapter 13

Freya asked Mel to tell a story, so she did.  She told them that there’s someone made from ink and magic in the world who provides for everyone. It’s someone who gives hope and life, and they sang the world from inky blackness. In those older days this person often took the form of spirits and interacted with others before the truth of it became lost to myth. Now the magic has merged again, and the hope of life is here.
“Now close your eyes and imagine,” said Mel, and a moment later she began to sing. At first it was just notes, then slowly words from some enchanting ancient language came. In her mind’s eye, Raine saw nothing then light, sea and land, creatures and people, and wispy forms of spirits across the lands. Then the song quickened and slowed and one part repeated, and the vision drew towards the group to show them singing as they walked. Bright sparks of a powerful potential danced around them. The song ended, and Raine opened her eyes, watching Mel, who blinked in a very cat-like way. Her eyes seemed to say ‘I’ve guarded you since the very beginning of time’, and after a moment more, Raine looked away.

They walked across the land, further toward the fire plains with each day. They sang when they had nothing to talk about, and Mel occasionally taught them a song from Jes’ world. Every now and then the eight danced around the bright campfire, smiles wide, feeling light. Joy set their hearts ablaze, and the travelling gave routine and rhythm. Mel often ran just a little bit ahead in leopardess form. Memories from each day followed them into the night and even in their dreams they heard pounding footfalls, joy-filed words, laughter like ringing bells, and panting for breath.

Blaze, Matthew, and Mel hunted. Raine went with Sunny to fill their water-skins, and Rose, Salma, and Freya forages. They watched the sunsets and stars appear in the darkening skies, they braided hair, danced, sang, made things, talked, slept, dreamt, woke, ran, walked, laughed. The mountains quickly vanished from sight and every day looked the same. But Raine preferred all that, she’d grown used to travelling day after day. And as the moon waned and grew and time went on, the seven got to know Mel better.

Mel usually got up earlier than the others, and there had been several occasions when Raine had seen her blankly staring into the distance either humming beneath her breath or murmuring inaudible words. It was best not to distract her when she was doing that, they’d found, or she got frustrated. Sometimes Raine noticed she was humming the same tunes Mel did. They played their constellation game, and sometimes made up stories to tell each other. Mel spent a few days at a time in one form or the other, forgetting to switch. When she was in leopardess form, she helped hunt — and ate some food for her leopardess stomach — and she would sleep through lunch. She often curled protectively around one or two of her friends as she slept, remarkably like a house cat.

They celebrated Salma’s fifteenth birthday, the first of their number to have a second birthday on the journey. The journey seemed half travelling and half wintering in the Dwarvern Caverns, but there they’d made friends and grown closer to each other. Raine tried to remember what life had been like in the village, or even further back to before her family had died… no, she wouldn’t think of that. Then she realised what her heart sought: to travel and travel forever with her friends who had become more like family. She hummed the melody she’d heard in that glowing cave with the lake and spirit. But after the Fire Plains — she hated that name — they’d go back to the village, and she wouldn’t be able to keep travelling and having adventures.

The wildflowers had grown and spread through the meadows and grasslands the eight travelled across. Winds that had long ago lost their icy touch flattened the green grass, and the sun yellowed it. Raine asked when they’d return to the village.
“Before Autrin’s Ehv,” Mel replied, smiling her strange smile. A butterfly danced in the air, and Raine held up her finger for it to land on.
“To me, butterflies symbolises hope and freedom,” Mel said.
“Well of course Rain means hope to me, because without it there’s no life.” Raine let the butterfly fly away. The next morning, just for fun, they drew a butterfly on their faces with charcoal from the fire. The moon was nearly full, and the skies were clear, and the days were fair.

Clouds gathered and darkened, and thunder rumbled faintly. The eight worked quickly to build a shelter for themselves, and when the storm hit they were safely hidden beneath a roof of sticks and leaves. They sang the rain song and told stories. Mel told a story from Jes’ world.
“There once was a woman whose family moved country when the crops failed. The father died, leaving two sons who married and died, leaving three widows. The eldest, the mother-in-law, had no reason to stay in that land and she decided to return to her homeland. She told her daughter-in-laws to stay behind, but one refused. She was loyal to the mother-in-law, and said ‘where you go I’ll go. Your people will be my people, and your god will be my god.’ So the pair went back to the mother-in-law’s homeland together.”

It rained all afternoon, and eased off by nightfall. Mel, Matthew, and Blaze hunted, and they cooked stew. In the morning the ground was wet from the rain but it dried as the sun rose higher. The sun was bright and warm, some days a little too warm, and the nights were beautiful. One night, Raine sat up half the night thinking about the Fire Plains. The sunset had been a warm, dusty orange, casting the world into silhouette. She remembered her parents, her two brothers, and her baby sister. Her brothers had always annoyed her, but nevertheless she loved them as sibling must. Her sister had been so little, and sometimes Raine felt responsible for not having been there to save her, but as soon as she thought of any of it she pushed down the memories again. But sooner or later she’d have to face her fears. Her father had been strong and caring, and very hard-working. He’d always been out in the fields or off to a city to sell goods with two other farmer-tradesmen. Her mother, well, she was similar to Nimue. Both often made Raine feel better when she was down, and taught her, and kept her company. And then — Raine shuddered — the volcano had become active again.

“Raine, you need to sleep,” Mel said.
“I’m scared about the Fire Plains, and I was thinking about my family,” replied Raine. “Weren’t you asleep?”
“No…” Mel hummed the tune from the glowing cave as Raine pulled her blanked over herself and lay down. She watched the stars twinkling overhead, and when she fell asleep Mel did too.

The Spirit-Pool Village was near but they didn’t stop by. The moon was full now, and when it set the next morning as the sun sat just beneath the horizon their world cast a shadow on half of it. The moon turned slightly red and shone brighter than it usually did. The sky turned pink, orange, and purple in the west, and was equally beautiful in the west. Still eclipsed, the moon set as the sun rose, casting its golden light over the land, and the eight continued on.

Raine began to embroider the hem of her favourite, rather worn out, dress, the one she’d torn a strip off. She stitched collective memories on it into a tiny story There was Nimue, the endless grass, the heather-blanketed hills, a pile of books they’d read in the Buchod Room, the Ice Clan’s music box, their camp in the forest before meeting Mel, and the partial lunar eclipse. By the time she’d completed that, it was nearly the end of the second moon, and the Fire Plains demanded to be face overmorrow.

 

Chapter 14

They could see the volcano now. The soil, which was half-way between gravel and sand, was almost pale gold. There was little else but rocks and a few tough grasses, yet in a period of apparent dormancy a village had grown up, the same village Raine had lived in before her family died. There were no signs as to where the village had been, since more fires would have occurred and the wind would have covered it in the strange soil. The sun was one handspan above the horizon, making everything look particularly red and fiery.

Raine trembled. The memories kept flowing through her mind, as though a floodgate had been lifted.
“Where do we go?” Freya asked.
“Just keep walking,” answered Mel. Raine stopped, terror visible on her face, tracing her Glitter, facing the ground to hide from where she stood as much as she could. Mel let the others go on ahead, and went back to Raine.
“You’re safe, trust me. I’ll protect you. Come on, we need to keep going, I ‘ll stay with you. It’s alright, everything’s going to be ok,” she said, trying to smile encouragingly, smiling her strange future smile, failing to hide the anxiousness in her own eyes. She was in leopardess form so Raine stroked her soft fur, the motion calming her slightly.

A sound broke through the evening, and bursts of red flew from the volcano. The eight stopped and watched in horror and dread as lava flowed down to the soil, the knowledge of what could happen freezing them all. Then the first flame lit up, and sped towards the group with the wind at its back, the blazing gold light becoming a wildfire, speeding closer faster that any of them knew fire could. They began to run, constantly glancing behind at the ever-closer band of golden-red. The air filled with black clouds of smoke , replacing the deepening blue of evening. The wind changed direction, and the fire started to surround them They kept running, faster now, the fire and breathlessness the only things they were aware of.

There’s no way we can survive this, we can’t escape it!” cried Blaze.
“What do we do?” shouted Salma over the roaring fire, her voice cracking with fear.
“Why is this happening?” whispered Raine.
“It must,” replied Mel, then raising her voice she called, “Everyone, be quiet! Please, you have to trust me or you’ll die! Search your heart and give me the power to stop the fire! There is no other way I can help you, whether physically, mentally, or magically. Set yourself free! I don’t know how else to put it, but just please find it in yourself to trust!”

And the world slowed. Raine could see each flame rise and flicker, each momentary expression on her friends’ faces. Turning her thoughts inwards, Raine felt that she could trust Mel and she wondered what stopped her, then realised she worried if Mel could really save them. It was sort of like crossing over an old rope bridge with bandits coming after you, where the only hope is that the ropes don’t snap. So, still trembling and full of fear, Raine took her key from her pocket and held it close to her chest, whispering ‘I trust you, Mel’.

And the world shifted. Colours danced in the air like fireflies and everything was brighter than before, as if it had all been grey. Chains she never knew she’d been carrying fell to the ground, freeing her. A song started in her heart. Oh, how wonderful it was. The smoke turned to storm clouds and suddenly they were all dancing as raindrops fell and doused the fire. They sang, all merging their voices into one, the song unknown yet they’d known it all their lives.
“Thank you. We’ve finished all the tasks now, you’re all free,” Mel smiled, and this time it didn’t hold terrible things or strange futures.

The eight walked on, south-west now, since none of them could dare to sleep. They sang their lullaby softly until they could continue no more, set up camp, and slept. Raine couldn’t.
“Raine, it had to happen. Everything has a purpose, even when we don’t understand. Thank you for trusting me, I know it was hard,” Mel said. Raine looked at her, a contained anger in her eyes.
“Why did Jes nearly kill us? You said everything was alright, but then the fire came. You lied! And you knew I was terrified of fire but still you led us here where we nearly died!”
“Hush… It was only a way to test your trust. In Jes’ world, those who don’t trust in the Creator will simply perish when they die. In fact, everyone has done wrong so everyone will die, but those who trust in the Creator are given new life after death with a restored relationship with the Creator.”

“Do you have eternal life?” asked Raine, her anger mixing with curiosity  to lessen it now, remembering her world was meant as an imperfect mirror for Jes’ world’s people.
“Yes, I do. My Creator gives me strength to keep going in troubled times and courage to do things like this to tell others about Him. It makes life easier, trusting Him,” Mel smiled.
“Can I trust your Creator?”
“Of course. All you have to do is trust that He loves you and has saved you.” Raine closed her eyes and sat quietly for a moment like she’d seen Mel do, promising to trust with her heart. When she opened her eyes again, Mel nodded.

“Remember when you asked why the phoenix became your reflection your dream, and I said ‘soon you’ll know a new melody and begin to understand more of the magic in this world but until then you should know that everything will become new like a phoenix rising from its ashes’,” the Leopardess-Elf asked, and Raine nodded. “The song now in your heart is that new melody, and with your trust saving you from death you will become new and truly alive to start again. So now I can tell you more about this world’s magic and my Creator.
“How did you become truly alive?”
“I grew up knowing my Creator and believing in Him, but it wasn’t until my first youth camp that I became truly alive, and it’s been a wonderful, long, uphill walk from there — though not without hardships, since the Creator doesn’t promise that.” The pair kept talking through the night, and slept sometime before dawn but well after midnight.

 

Chapter 15

The second moon ended and the Midsummer Feast was held, and a momentous occasion it was, for the eight had nearly died but were now free. Raine said the customary words before they began eating, and when the talking was done they danced. The brightness of the fire reflected in their eyes, and their joy was expressed in their songs, of which many were sung — made up, learnt, or known off by heart. The stars glowed bright and the moon was empty. And Raine did not fear the fire, knowing she was safe with Mel.

They walked through the mountains, and more often than not, Mel was in her leopardess form, since the landscape suited that form well. This part of the coastal mountains was rockier than the part Raine, Rose, Sunny, Salma, Freya, Matthew, and Blaze had walked through a year past. It seemed they were higher up than the last time for mist often sat on the peaks and floated down to where the group was walking in the morning. Nights fell and days dawned, songs were sung and campfires lit. There was a wildness in them all, plain to see, an aliveness from their experiences on the Fire Plains. Even as Sunny walked she danced, picking flowers for Raine and herself to make daisy chains with.

There was a rumble overhead but the sky wasn’t stormy. Then a large boulder with many behind it came tumbling off the cliff the eight were walking beneath. They ran through the thick fog that had settled in the valley, unable to see that the path curved around the mountain. Mel was running behind her friends, urging them to go faster, then suddenly realised the path fell into an abyss.
“Stop!” she called but the others had already fallen over it. Thinking quickly, she lept down where the cliff wasn’t so steep so she faced a large ledge on the other side of the abyss. Gathering herself up, she jumped so she would collide with her friends, knocking them onto the ledge.

They landed in a heap on the stone, winded, bruised, and minorly injured. Untangling herself from arms and legs, Raine stood up and saw a white paw disappear over the edge. She hobbled over and watched in horror as the Leopardess-Elf fell and fell and fell and landed on a heap of rocks at the bottom, her mouth agape.

“Freya, would you come with me to get to Mel?” asked Raine, and Freya nodded, then Raine turned to the others, “Get back up to the top and stay there until we come back.” The other five nodded, and Raine and Freya began making their way down, Raine hobbling as she went, having sprained her ankle when she’d landed. The pile of rocks wasn’t really far down, it was just hard to find a safe way down. A bush clung to some of the stones, standing in their way, so the pair had to ease their way off a slope about half as tall as Raine. And of course, once down they found that they were better off on the other side of the bush which was impossible to reach from their side, so they climbed back up and nearly fell down when Raine stepped on an unstable rock. This is a fairly regular occurrence when climbing, and particularly frustrating with a sprained ankle and a friend to retrieve.

“Oh, Mel!” Raine cried when they got to the bottom. Mel was almost as still as the rocks she lay on, but her chest heaved and her eyes opened, and she was awake.
“Raine? Freya? What are you doing down here?” said Mel, trying to lift herself a little to get into a better position.
“Stay still. There was a rock fall and you pushed us to safety, remember? You didn’t land on the ledge with us, so I though maybe-” Raine and Freya stroked Mel’s marbled coat.
“I didn’t. You seven are safe and alive, that’s all that matters,” Mel replied, and shimmered to change forms. She stood.
“Aren’t you hurt?” asked Freya.
“Just a few cuts and bruises, but I’m ok.” Mel healed Raine’s ankle with a few murmured words, and they got up the steep slope much quicker than before.

The others were also astounded at Mel’s wellbeing when the three returned, but she said nothing of it — only that the fall wasn’t far enough to seriously injure her. Raine was tired of near-death experiences which all seemed to happen close to the Coastal Mountains. Soon they’d be back at the Village,, and then what? Only Mel would know, and she was likely not to tell. Maybe that was alright, maybe it was better to take the world one day at a time than know and act in accordance with the future. As the part of returning to the Spirit-Pool Village drew closer, the moon waned and after vanishing it grew again, and Raine completed the piece of cloth telling the story of their four tasks.

The height of the mountains became less and the eight started following the river to the village. Mel told her friends how her Creator helped a little shepherd boy kill a huge man. The warrior giant and his people had invaded the boy’s land, taunting its people and daring them to fight him. Everyone but the shepherd boy was too afraid. He took his sling and stood before the giant, and the giant laughed, amazed that this young boy dared to stand up against his height and armour. But the shepherd boy knew his Creator would help him now as He helped when lions and bears attacked his flock. He put a pebble in his sling, swung it around, and let the pebble hit the giant’s head. The giant toppled to the ground, dead, and his people fled. The shepherd boy had won, because his Creator was by his side.

The Spirit-Pool Village came into full view, and stopped being a blob on the horizon. They’d returned at last, and yet they wanted to go on, but they’d finished their tasks. In a few weeks’ time it would be Autrin’s Ehv.

 

Chapter 16

Some of the group rushed back to their homes and families, calling out, glad to see them again. Raine slipped through the door of her aunt’s house.
“I’m back,” she said in a quiet monotone voice. Her aunt jumped, a look of fear painted on her face, then hardened to the familiar and rather too harsh look she always bore.
“Haunt someone else. I was rid of you,” Raine’s aunt said.
“No, I never died. I’m very much alive — more than that, actually,” replied Raine, smiling as she though of the last task and the moment when her world had exploded into colour.
“Then what happened?” her aunt demanded. Raine answered in the shortest way possible, wondering how she’d managed before. But Freya had taught her how to be patient.

“Oh how you’ve all grown,’ the Water Spirit Said. “Please, tell me about your adventures.” So of course they did. They took turns to tell parts of the story, telling their own versions, laughing and smiling. It was like sitting around a campfire, and yet not quite, since they’d returned and there were no more adventures to be had.

With nowhere to be travelling to and unaccustomed to normal life, the eight sat by the lake and listened to the Water Spirit’s stories, and some the villagers wondered at Mel, and many feared her because of her shape-shifting ability and general difference to them. But she was fine, always with her smile that hinted at a secret to be revealed at the right time. Raine sighed, thinking of her aunt who hated strange things most of all. She forced Raine to help around the house more than was really needed but, having learnt peace and patience and how to stay joyful in harder times, she did her chores diligently until she was free to talk to Nimue. The only problem was that she was bored and restless, and there seemed no way to fix that, but at least Autrin’s Ehv was in three days.

Raine wandered through the fields surrounding the village, gathering flowers for Aurtin’s Ehv in a basket. She felt indignant that the villagers celebrated the life and death of nature even though they barely took enough notice of the land to really care. Raine and her friends had travelled, had learnt many plants’ names, had learnt to survive without a field to harvest or a sheep from the flock to roast. They’d discovered that singing and dancing wasn’t meant just for celebrations. She drew in a breath and exhaled, and began to sing as she picked flowers. When her basket was full she went back to the village to help build up the bonfire. Her aunt saw her and dragged her away to set up tables. She asked why she was friends with Mel, and Raine answered that she’d dreamt of her and she’d saved her life. Her aunt scoffed, clearly unimpressed by her reasoning. Raine sighed, wishing her parents were alive of that she hadn’t returned to the Spirit-Pool Village. But she couldn’t change the past, only the future.

Musicians began to play as the sunlight turned gold, and everyone gathered in the square. The crown of leaves and flowers was bestowed upon Matthew’s dad, who declared the traditional words, and then everyone ate. Toasts were announced to the summer, coming harvest and winter, life in spring, and to the seven children who’d been thought dead but had returned. After the meal, the songs were started again, many old and well-loved but a few were new as well. Raine was surprised at being toasted to, and she also wished she was still travelling. There were so many people, yet she really only knew a few, and if only there were less she’d be able to pretend she was around a campfire with her friends, where she belonged. At least Mel was still there though. The eight talked together, bored of the topics chosen by adults around them. When everyone had caught up with how each other’s week had gone, they moved somewhere quieter and watched the stars.

They were asked to tell their story, so they did, as the fascinated villagers listened. Some weren’t convinced it had really happened, but the adventures made for a wonderful tale nonetheless. The night drew on, and the bonfire began to shrink. The youngest children had already gone home with their parents, and now more began to head to their beds. The group of friends were getting tired, so they went, promising to meet at the lake early the next day. Raine dreamt of running and singing, of the Forgen, the forest, the first time her world had filled with true colour. She dreamt of stars and voices, and a thousand memories, and meeting Mel. So she was tricked into thinking she was half a year younger, back in the forest before meeting Mel, when the sun cast its rays over the houses and shining water.

Seeing that she hadn’t woken in a hut of branches under dappled sunlight through the leaves, Raine sighed. She went to the lake, where the others were gathering, but she couldn’t see Mel. The Water Spirit was singing a song that sounded like the one in Raine’s heart yet it was unknown at the same time. She joined in, as did the others, even though they didn’t know the words. It filled her with joy, and she knew she would never tire of its wonderful words or tune. She could sing it as they travelled, only they weren’t travelling any more –only why not? Why not keep going on forever without a home made of bricks and thatching to return to? Then Raine knew where she belonged. She might have lived in the Spirit-Pool Village had she not been made alive, but she belonged with Mel, ever on the move, with the one who’d saved their lives and set them free and shown her that her fears were truly nothing.

The Water Spirit stopped singing, and Raine saw that Mel was with them now, carrying a burden that should have been shared by all. She turned and started away from the Spirit Pool and the village.
“Wait! I want to come with you!” called Raine, running after her.
“Who else is coming?” asked Mel, turning to face the seven, beaming, and gave out the packs. They came running, and so did the Water Spirit, never stumbling or looking back, only crying out promises, leaving the Spirit-Pool Village behind.
“We will stay with you forever!”
“We belong with you!”
“We’ll always sing!”
“We’ll always journey with you!”
“We will follow you!”
“For love and light, we stand together, forever strong!” called Mel, and the others repeated it, and the cry seemed to ring across the and. They knew they would never return but there were no regrets, and all knew their place was with Mel.