Friday, October 26, 2012

Just for Halloween . . .

Hello everyone, and a happy Samhain season to you all!
     As some of you might know, my favorite time of the year is fall and my favorite holiday is Halloween.  Of course, if you've read any of my books, you might have come to that conclusion already ;).  I'm taking a small break from all of my Otherworld Trilogy posts and instead I decided, in honor of Halloween/Samhain, I'd post two chapters from the second book in my Oescienne series.  I thought it would be fun to share a Halloween-themed story and since I don't really have any short stories I've written specifically for this wonderful, Otherworldly holiday, I decided a few chapters from The Beginning might fit the bill.
     Before you read, however, I'd like to give a little information about the history of Halloween (don't worry, this is the basic version; what I've learned from my time spent studying the Celts).  Samhain traditionally takes place on November 1st or 2nd and celebrates the start of the Dark half of the year (we can also call it the Celtic New Year).  The Morrigan (Celtic goddess of war and battle and often depicted as a raven) and Donn (Celtic god of the afterlife whose animal symbol is a bull) are celebrated during this festival.
     The Celts believed in an otherworld separate from our own and they also believed that on Samhain, the veil between the worlds grew thin and the spirits of this otherworld could easily pass into ours.  That is why we carve pumpkins (the Welsh used to carve turnips).  The jack o' lanterns are meant to frighten away the evil spirits.
     So, as you go trick or treating or head out for a Halloween party next week, be aware that the spirits of the otherworld might very well be roaming the night with you . . .
     Now for an excerpt to help get you into the Halloween spirit!  Enjoy!
- J.E. Johnson
p.s. These chapters are my favorites from The Beginning ;)

From The Legend of Oescienne - The Beginning
- Chapter Ten -
The Fall Festival

     “Hey Jahrra!  Are you ready to go?” Scede shouted from outside the Castle Guard Ruin.
     He didn’t have to worry, however, for Jahrra had been up for hours, dressed and waiting for her friends to come and get her.  She was beside herself with glee.  It was Sobledthe Eve and in just a few hours’ time she would be in Lensterans among the hustle and bustle of the season.
     “Jahrra!  What are you doing?!” Gieaun bellowed.  “If you keep stalling we’ll miss the street plays!”
     Jahrra smiled to herself.  Typical, they’re late and I’m the one holding them up.  She jumped up from her bed, hastily braided her long blond hair, and ran to the front door.  She waved out at her friends, Gieaun on Aimhe, Scede on Bhun, and Rhudedth and Pahrdh on their own horses.
     She turned to Hroombra, still beaming, “Are you sure you don’t want to come for awhile?”
     She’d hoped Hroombra would explain some of the symbols the festival participants would be displaying in the ceremony, but he had declined to join them.  The old dragon looked up over his specially made spectacles, a sight that always made Jahrra grin, and smiled at her.  “No young Jahrra, I’m afraid I’ll only delay you.  You would miss the scavenger hunt and that would be criminal.”
     His mouth curled at the edges and his eyes twinkled.  “Besides,” he added, “it would be no fun with me hanging around.  You go and enjoy the festival.”
     “Alright, but are you sure you still want me to go?” Jahrra teased.  She’d been running off to dangerous places so often of late that she felt guilty when Hroombra told her she could go to the festival with her friends without supervision.  If only you knew where I’ve been without your permission, she thought ruefully.  Jahrra dashed these thoughts from her mind; no level of guilt was going to keep her from the Sobledthe festival this evening.
     “Oh yes, I’m sure,” he said.  “Remember, this isn’t just a vacation.  I expect you to learn something, so be sure to pay attention.  I’m going to test you when you get back.”
     Hroombra’s eyes had wandered back down to his manuscripts as he spoke, and Jahrra’s smile suddenly vanished.  She stared blankly at him, but just as she was about to protest, his eyes shot up and gleamed at her.  “I’m only teasing,” he insisted.  “Now go.  Your friends are waiting.”
     Jahrra’s face broke out into a wide smile and with no further delay she shot out the door.
     “Finally!” Scede said in a mock-exaggerated tone.
     “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jahrra breathed, “what took you so long to get here?”
     “Gieaun slept in,” Scede sniffed.
     “I did not!  You couldn’t find part of your costume!”
     Before the two could start arguing, Jahrra cut in, “Don’t worry, we have plenty of time, it’s not even noon yet!  If we ride like we mean it, we’ll get there just before sunset.”
     “As long as we get there early enough to register for the advanced scavenger hunt,” Pahrdh said, his face taking on a worried look.
     Jahrra had badgered all of them into agreeing with her about partaking in the later challenge.  Although Scede and Pahrdh had liked the idea, they were afraid the judges wouldn’t let them enter.
     “You have to be seventeen!” Scede told her.  “I’m barely sixteen.”
     “What if I sign us up?” Pahrdh suggested.  He’d been seventeen for a few months already.  “And besides, Scede looks seventeen.  If Scede and I sign us up and you girls keep your masks on, we should be able to pull it off.”
     Jahrra had grinned from ear to ear.  Gieaun, naturally, groaned and rolled her eyes.  “Oh come on!  Let’s just do the children’s scavenger hunt!  Jahrra, I don’t know why you always have to pick the hardest challenge presented to you!”
Rhudedth had agreed with Gieaun, but she wasn’t nearly as vocal about it.  She hadn’t seen the point, for it was three against two.  They were going to compete against the adults in the after dark scavenger hunt whether she liked it or not, and there was nothing that either she or the huffing and glaring Gieaun could do about it.  Sometimes, Jahrra thought, it was good that Rhudedth had a brother, and not a sister.
     Phrym greeted his master impatiently as she eventually made it to his stable.  He was already saddled and ready to go, the black raven costume secured safely in his saddlebags.  As Jahrra climbed into the saddle, Gieaun tried one last time to change everyone’s minds.  “You know,” she said, “if we hurried we could still make it in time for the other scavenger hunt.”
     Scede rolled his eyes.  “Gieaun! Give it a rest.  After everything we’ve been through with Jahrra you can’t possibly be afraid of a little scavenger hunt after dark!”
     Gieaun scowled at her brother.  Rhudedth gave her a sympathetic glance but refrained from backing her up.  She wouldn’t dare admit it aloud, but after having some time to think about it, the idea of traipsing around the festive town after dark sounded quite thrilling.  Gieaun huffed her irritation and resigned herself to pouting.
     “Let’s get moving or we’ll never make it in time for either scavenger hunt,” Scede said irritably, kicking Bhun into a quick trot.
     The five friends headed due south across the fields, all in a flurry of excitement and anticipation.  As they moved through the autumn countryside, Jahrra took note of the fields littered with yellow cubes of hay and ripening stalks of corn.  Small clusters of trees appeared along the road and disappeared as they passed, but the long shadows they cast stayed with them along the way.
     A few hours after leaving the Great Sloping Hill behind, they spotted the broad, shimmering ribbon of the Oorn River in the distance.  Noticing that their destination was within sight, Jahrra and her friends brought their horses into a quick canter and were soon crossing the traffic bridge that carried the road into town.  The hollow thumping sound of the horses’ hooves fell into rhythm with the slow churning of the sluggish river and the distant humming of the city of Lensterans.  Jahrra tried to remember everything she’d seen and heard since her last trip here with Gieaun and Scede as they drew closer to the center of the great village.
     Lensterans was a larger place than Aldehren and sat in the very middle of a dramatic landscape.  To the east the Elornn Range towered above the Oorn Plain and curled around the flat land like a giant, sleeping dragon.  To the north the trees of the Wreing Florenn loomed like a dark army of unkempt soldiers creeping up the Sloping Hill in the late afternoon light.
     Most of the houses they passed on the outskirts of town where small and roughly square or shaped like large beehives painted white.  The nearer they got to the heart of the small city, the more crowded the structures became, like hunched, curious onlookers standing around a scene of interest.  Crude wind chimes made of wood, bone and bits of metal hung from the crooked porches of many a house, clattering and clinking eerily as they announced an invisible breeze.  Every now and then they spotted a snoozing dog on the stoop of one of these simple cottages, and more often than not he would open one eye and lazily watch the passersby.
     The next dwelling they passed was decorated with an assortment of festive oddities.  There was a scarecrow in the front yard and an old, rotten wheelbarrow laboring under the weight of a massive jack-o’-lantern, grinning menacingly at Jahrra and her friends.  The scene was made complete with a garland of colorful native corn strung all along the house’s eaves.  Jahrra smiled at the sight, her skin tingling delightfully.
     The five travelers eventually drew closer to the middle of town, and Jahrra found herself admiring the details surrounding them.  Harvest decor spilled off of porches and hung from street corners, strapped securely to fences and lamp posts lining the roads.  Clusters of dried corn stalks, complete with ears of colorful kernels, were gathered in bunches all throughout the town.  Pumpkins, squashes and turnips of every size and color could be found everywhere, either carved in the traditional custom and filled with a lit candle to ward off evil spirits, or piled high and teetering in unstable wagons to be hauled off to some unknown destination.
     Cartloads of apples, cherries, apricots, lemons, oranges, and a plethora of berries were being taxied from one end of the settlement to another in order to make the many treats and beverages that would be consumed on this wondrous holiday.  The smell of sweet spices and cooking meats mingled with the aroma of crackling oak wood, and for the first time that day, Jahrra realized just how hungry she was.
Children and adults alike were roaming the streets cheerfully, some already in costume, adding their own unique spark to the thriving atmosphere.  Gieaun gave a delighted cry when she saw a troupe of actors performing on a street corner and they all paused to watch for awhile.  The children they were performing for cheered enthusiastically as they each gave a flamboyant bow.  Best be happy now before the darkness begins, Jahrra thought with a tenuous smile, thinking of the Deepening Twilight and Denaeh’s terrifying stories.
The actors moved on and so did the five companions.  Despite the crowded streets, the horses were able to push their way forward quite easily.  They knew the town center couldn’t be far, for the bustle and activity was increasing as costumed people gently shoved their way forward.  Luckily, Jahrra and her friends had the advantage of being much higher off the ground than most and they were able to spot the fountain marking the center of town, its stone basin now bone dry and filled with wood.
     “They drain it and remove the tiers for the festival’s bonfire,” Scede explained to Rhudedth and Pahrdh, both of whom had never been to Lensterans for Sobledthe.
Once they arrived at the stables, Jahrra, Gieaun, Scede, Pahrdh and Rhudedth set their horses up for the night and quickly got into their costumes.
     “What time is it?” Rhudedth asked.
     “We have about fifteen minutes before the first call for the final scavenger hunt.  We’d better hurry,” Pahrdh answered breathlessly, the mounting excitement of the evening ringing in his voice.
     Once properly clad, the five friends hurriedly made their way to the middle of town.  The commotion of the disguised crowd had begun to thicken along with the approaching twilight, and Jahrra could see many groups of older people in bizarre and ornate costumes gathering around the empty fountain.
     The friends promptly pulled their masks on, both out of a respect for tradition and out of fear of being considered too young to enter the upcoming challenge.  “Scede, only you and Pahrdh take off your masks when you register us for the hunt,” Jahrra whispered through her raven mask.
     “Alright,” Pahrdh answered from behind a bear’s grimacing face.  “But it wouldn’t hurt if the rest of you stood up as tall as you can.  Uh, Jahrra, I think you’ll be fine just standing as you are.”
     The town elders were gathered at the foot of the fountain, jotting down names on a very long piece of parchment.  Wow! Jahrra thought as she squinted through the eyeholes of her mask while scanning the large crowd gathered around, there are that many people signed up?  The prize must be a really good one!
     To Jahrra’s great relief, the boys had no trouble registering for the event, and only a few minutes later the elders were calling the attention of the crowd.  Jahrra peered through her raven mask to get a better look at the three judges.  They were wearing long robes in the sacred colors of Sobledthe; scarlet, white and black.
When the crowd finally quieted down, the Nesnan man standing in the middle, the one dressed in black, raised his arms over the crowd and uttered a blessing in a strange dialect.  Jahrra could have sworn it sounded like kruelt, but she couldn’t tell for certain and Hroombra had assured her that no one else in Oescienne spoke it.
     All the people bowed their heads, and Jahrra mimicked them, nudging Gieaun and Rhudedth to follow suit.  When he was finished, the elder looked up and addressed everyone in the common language.  “Good evening, good Sobledthe, and welcome to Lensterans!”
The crowd cheered, and Jahrra and her friends joined in with everyone else.
     “The rules to this scavenger hunt are simple: you’ll be given the first clue, and after that you must decipher the riddles on your own.  The locations of each of the five clues will lie along the paths that run throughout the city and up to two miles within the outlying fields.
     “The clues will not be deliberately hidden in any way; it is up to the group or individual to decide which path he must take.  There is no time limit, but once the final prize is found, the fireworks will be set off and the bonfire and celebration will begin shortly afterwards.  All competitors are encouraged to return to town once the signal is given.  Now, go out and compete fairly!”
     The first set of fireworks was lit and the signal to begin the scavenger hunt exploded as a thousand glittery stars burst into the approaching night.  A great bustling and murmuring began as the many throngs of people tore open the envelopes containing the first clue.  Scede and Pahrdh did the same and all five friends began to read furiously in the fading light:

My belly paRts the sand as I move,
My back Reflects the sky.
In summeRtime I leave a gRoove,
In winteR, I am satisfied.

     The five companions read the riddle several times, juggling the words over and over again in their minds.  Jahrra could hear Gieaun and Pahrdh whispering the words incoherently under their breath, and all around her the murmur of low voices ensued.
     “The River!” Gieaun hissed frantically after a few minutes of reflection.  “It has to be!”  She looked up at her friends, the horse-head mask hiding the expression on her face.
     “I think you’re right,” Pahrdh added, pulling down his own bear’s mask.  “Quick, back down the main road, the same way we came into town!”
     “Belly parts the sand,” he was muttering as they walked quickly together back towards the river, “the river bottom running along the earth.  In winter the rains fill the river, and in the summer the river runs very low, leaving a groove.  It has to be it!”
The five of them moved quickly down the cobblestone road until they reached the traffic bridge fifteen minutes later, all breathing heavily and clutching their sides.
     “Alright,” said Scede, panting from the combination of brisk walking and jogging, “I don’t think the next clue would be on the traffic bridge, but maybe on the foot bridge?”
     “I think you’re right Scede,” Rhudedth added, tugging on his arm, “look.”
     She was pointing down near the edge of the river, about a couple hundred yards away.  They could see the flickering light of a torch in the distance.  It stood still for a few moments before it began moving east up the riverbank.
     “Quickly!” hissed Jahrra as she jumped past her friends, almost getting snagged on Rhudedth’s golden butterfly wings.  She didn’t even wait for them as she started running down the small dirt road that intersected the main street.
     The fields were sunken below the town’s main avenues and the small dirt road they now traveled down ran parallel to the river’s natural levee to their left.  Jahrra knew that as long as they stayed on this road they’d eventually intersect the path leading up to the foot bridge.
     About half of the fields had already been harvested and the twilight shadows cast by the baled hay and bundled corn added an unnerving effect to the spooky feel of this Sobledthe Eve.  Jahrra tried hard to block out the images of evil spirits and goblins her imagination couldn’t help but conjure up, and her stomach lurched when she recalled what Denaeh had once told them about the spirits of the dark.  Jahrra shook these dreadful thoughts from her mind and soon felt the cool fall air pulsing through her lungs as she jogged.  Before too long, the group reached the trail that climbed the levee up to the footbridge.  Jahrra grinned, her thoughts of evil spirits gone for the moment.
     “Alright,” she gasped as her friends caught up, “the footbridge must be this way.”
     They all climbed the steep levee to find that a narrow wooden bridge did indeed span the river ahead.  It allowed only two to pass together and had a railing to keep pedestrians from falling off.  In the center of the bridge there appeared to be some sort of plaque or sign attached to the railing.  Jahrra quickly slid over to it, threw back her mask, and began to read in the flickering torchlight that Pahrdh provided:

StrAight As the hAckles on A dog we stAnd, fluid yet rigid,
AlwAys clothed, And never bAre.
We Are AlwAys moving, except when frigid,
Yet we go nowhere.

     “What’s with all the out-of-place capital letters?” Rhudedth asked in frustration as she rubbed her glittered face.
     “I’m sure it has a purpose,” claimed Scede as he removed his mask to get some fresh air.
     “Alright, let’s focus,” Jahrra snapped, trying to remain patient.  “What’s straight but at the same time capable of bending or moving?”
     “Nothing,” snorted Gieaun, crossing her arms in an annoyed fashion.
     “It has to be something Gieaun.  They wouldn’t give us a clue that doesn’t have an answer!” Jahrra retorted, her voice rising unintentionally.
     “Well, you’re the one who insisted on taking part in this stupid scavenger hunt!  You wanted a challenge!  Why don’t we leave you here and you can figure it out on your own?”
     Before Jahrra could give her rebuke, Pahrdh cut in, “Hey, calm down, we can do this!  It can’t be that hard.  Let’s start with the main parts of the clue.”  He read it aloud once more and then glanced up, looking truly perplexed.  “So it seems to be a little bit of a contradiction, but riddles are supposed to be that way, right?”
     “Why don’t we just start listing off things that are straight, and then go from there?” Rhudedth squeaked, trying to keep her wings from getting bent by her pressing friends.  “At least that’s a start.  But we’d better get off this bridge.  We could be giving this clue’s location away to other people.”
     Jahrra quickly took out the small piece of charcoal she’d brought along and jotted the riddle down on the back of the paper with the first clue.  The group then moved back down onto the main road and huddled around the parchment, reading the riddle again and again.  After naming off a variety of objects that were straight (fence posts, roads, arrows), they moved onto another part of the clue.
     “What can move but at the same time goes nowhere?” Jahrra asked, trying hard to keep the frustration out of her tone.
     “Corn stalks are straight, but they can move in the wind, and scarecrows can move in the wind as well,” Gieaun said, looking out into the dark fields for inspiration.
     “Maybe the next clue is attached to one of the scarecrows in the fields?” Rhudedth offered weakly.
     “Yeah!  And scarecrows are always clothed, that has to be it!” Gieaun added excitedly.
     “Wait a minute,” Jahrra said, holding up a black raven’s wing.  “Always moving, except when frigid.  When is it frigid?” she asked, addressing the entire group.
     “When it’s cold, windy or at night,” the red boar that was Scede rattled off absentmindedly.  “Also during the winter time.”
     “Huh,” Jahrra said in a pensive manner.  “So whatever the answer to the riddle is, it doesn’t move when it’s cold.  So that would mean,” she continued slowly, “if scarecrow were the correct answer, then the scarecrows couldn’t move when it was cold out.  But wouldn’t they move when it’s windy?”  Jahrra paused, screwing her eyebrows together, and then said abruptly, “I don’t think it’s scarecrows.”
     Gieaun crossed her arms in a huff again, but Pahrdh understood what Jahrra was trying to say.  “So we have something that’s straight and bending, never naked, moving and holding still, and only moving when it’s warm out?”
     Pahrdh’s confusion was translated through his tone of voice.  Rhudedth released a pathetic sigh.  Scede kicked at the ground and Gieaun stood absolutely still, staring down the dark road as if the answer would manifest out of the darkness.  The friends had been standing motionless for over half an hour and the moon was beginning to show its face over the horizon.  A few groups of people had come and gone, and the five of them were growing more and more agitated as each minute passed.
     “What could it be?!” Jahrra hissed in dire aggravation.  She was very close to shredding the paper to bits.
     She looked up at the rising moon in the east for comfort and let her eyes wander to the shadowy crop of woods to the northeast.  The trees were very dark now, and their blackened, ragged edges stood out like wicked, serrated teeth.  Jahrra then looked down the main road in the opposite direction, spotting the old maple tree that grew a few hundred yards away, its few remaining red leaves looking like dark drops of blood against the washed out ultramarine of late twilight.
     Suddenly, Jahrra shot her head back towards the forest.  She nearly jumped when the magic-tinged bead in her wood charm armlet flared minutely, tingling her skin for only a moment.  That’s all it took to make the answer click.  “Pines!” she shouted louder than she had intended to.
     Her four friends flinched and then turned to glare at her.
     “What?” snapped Scede.
     “Evergreens!” Jahrra rejoiced, the weak torchlight dancing in her smiling eyes.  “They are always clothed: they don’t lose their leaves in the fall!  They don’t grow during the winter months, and they are always moving, growing, but always standing still.  And the wind makes them fluid!”
     The group looked down at the paper one last time and Pahrdh said, “Hey, I think that’s it.  C’mon, those woods up ahead are the only group of pines within a two mile radius of the city.  The next clue has to be there somewhere!”
     They hurried along the path, the looming grove growing taller as the group drew closer.  Jahrra placed a hand over her bracelet as she jogged, understanding now why the elves insisted it would aid her.  The tingling sensation was gone, but she could still feel the Apple bead’s warmth.  She smiled and picked up her pace as her small band of friends dashed down the road.
     Every now and again a bat or an owl would fly by, clicking after insects or making a solemn cry, sending a chill through everyone as they moved closer to their destination.  The two torches that the boys carried fluttered in the crisp night air as they ran, and after a half mile or so, they finally reached the edge of the trees.  A small path, the white sand barely visible beneath the dark shadows of the forest, broke from the road and twined around the trunks of the conifers.
     “I bet we have to go in there,” breathed Rhudedth ruefully.
     “It can’t be that far in,” Scede offered, taking a deep, weary breath.
     The children entered the woods, single file, Pahrdh in the lead with one torch and Scede taking up the rear with the other.  After several yards into the copse, the path ended in a tiny clearing where there stood yet another post and plaque.
     “This is it!  Quick, write down the clue Jahrra, I don’t want to stand in here much longer,” Gieaun said, shivering a little in the shadows of the trees.  The flickering torchlight jerked and danced from side to side, casting living shadows that made the trees seem alive.
     Jahrra quickly jotted down the clue and the group headed back out to the main road, once again gathering around the parchment.  This time Jahrra read it aloud:

The Various colors of fall adorn my lot,
across the Vast fields I roam.
Vermin prey upon me, though I hear them not,
both from aboVe and below the loam.

     “This one’s as hard as the last one, but we need to figure it out fast,” Jahrra finished, pursing her lips under her mask.  The darkness was making it difficult to read and the sounds of the night’s denizens made it hard to concentrate.
     “Let me see it for a moment, Jahrra.”
     Jahrra handed the parchment over to Gieaun, grateful to let someone else have a shot at it.  Gieaun pushed back her mask and rubbed her eyes.  “It sounds like something that changes color in the fall, the maple trees perhaps?”  She sounded tired, like she didn’t want to have to think anymore.
     “I think it’s talking about something that lives in a field.  Maybe some sort of crop that is grown there.  But why mention that it can’t hear?  Everyone knows plants can’t hear,” Rhudedth said in a flustered tone.
     “It’s the native corn!” Scede said suddenly.  “The cornfields, the ones east of town, the kernels turn to orange and red in the fall, just before harvest!  The farmers usually harvest them last, waiting for them to change color!  And they have ears, but they cannot hear, like the riddle says!”
     “Good job Scede!” said Pahrdh, relieved to be moving once again.
     The group ran the remaining five hundred yards to where the field of the native corn stood.  The road was now following the edge of the small forest; the river had long since headed northeast.  Jahrra didn’t like being so near to the wood at night, but she desperately wanted to win this contest, if not for the prize money for the glory.  Not to mention, it would give her another one-up on Eydeth and Ellysian.
     After spending several minutes searching around the immediate area of the cornfield, the children grew restless once more.  “The previous clues weren’t difficult to find, where’s this one?” Scede complained.  “They don’t expect us to traipse through the cornfields all night, do they?”
     “Read the clue again, maybe we missed something,” Jahrra said, a little more irritably than she meant.
     Gieaun cast her friend a frustrated glance before reading the clue aloud once more.  While the group stood there wracking their brains for some idea of where the riddle might be, a rustling noise in the field adjacent to the woods caught their attention.  Scede and Pahrdh wheeled around, torches held high, trying to see into the cornfields to judge what had made the noise.
     “Probably a possum or a fox,” whispered Rhudedth nervously.
     “We’re on the main path, so the clue must be around here somewhere,” Jahrra said, her focus returning to the paper that Gieaun clutched in her hands.
     “The first riddle led us to the river, the second to the forest, but the path runs around the cornfields.  We already checked the entire perimeter, so the clue has to be somewhere within the fields.  Maybe we should see if any of the stalks are pushed aside; maybe someone ahead of us found the clue already.”
     Just as Gieaun was tucking the paper away, a crashing noise, louder than the one they’d heard before, sounded from the dark tree line.  The five companions froze and stood staring at the spot where the commotion had come from.  Scede and Pahrdh held their torches up once again.  Before they could get a chance to see what had caused the ruckus, someone shouted, “NOW!”
     Several people in costume came crashing out of the shadows and ambushed them.
     “What the . . . ,” Scede started to say before being choked off by a hard shove.  Within seconds Jahrra, Gieaun, Scede, Pahrdh and Rhudedth were surrounded by six intruders.  Two of them wrenched the torches from Scede and Pahrdh’s hands and snuffed them out.
     “Hey!” Gieaun yelled as one of the attackers grabbed her arms, trying to subdue her.
     A scuffle ensued when someone else threw their arms around Pahrdh, pulling him roughly and noisily to the ground while another dark figure landed a blow to the side of Scede’s head, causing him to collapse with a winded grunt.  Someone massive and strong managed to seize one of Jahrra’s arms, but she reacted quickly, remembering one of Yaraa’s maneuvers, and twisted away, running head long into the sinister trees.  As Jahrra disappeared into the darkness, she heard more muffled yells as one of the ambushers restrained Rhudedth.
     After a few minutes of agile running between the low pine branches, Jahrra no longer heard the sounds of pursuit.  She ducked quickly behind a huge tree and stood very still for a while, secretly appreciating the many years of defense lessons she’d taken with the elves of Dhonoara.  She was also especially grateful that her costume was black.  She listened for a moment and heard nothing, only the stifled sounds of people being gagged and tied.  She’d lost her mask somewhere (perhaps it was back with the group) but right now that was the least of her worries.  Who were those people? she thought.  But she knew she didn’t have to ask herself that question.  It was Eydeth and his thugs; she’d picked his voice out from the others immediately.
     Gradually, Jahrra crept back towards the edge of the trees as quietly as she could.  It was no wonder they hadn’t seen anyone.  Despite the fact that the now risen moon was bright enough to bathe the fields in silvery light, the forest was well overgrown and provided many dark places to hide.  As she moved closer, Jahrra strained her ears to hear the attackers talking.
     “Did you catch her?” demanded an annoyed Eydeth.  He was wearing a mask, the head of a lion, but Jahrra knew his voice anywhere.
     “No,” answered what looked like an exhausted eagle, “she was too fast for me.”
     “Great!  The whole point was to teach the Nesnan a lesson, and you let her get away!”
     Jahrra looked around and saw that all of her friends had been tied up and gagged, but other than looking very angry and slightly frightened, they weren’t harmed.
     “Can’t we do something to her friends to teach her a lesson?” a dark gray wolf with a gruff, muffled voice asked.  Jahrra recognized it as Criyd’s.  “It’ll teach them not to cross us again, won’t it?”
     “I guess we could untie them and throw them into the river.  Or better yet, just throw them in as they are,” Eydeth said, having the nerve to sound disappointed.
     Jahrra seethed with anger.  Why did Eydeth have to target them anyway?  And why was he even here when he should be at some fancy party in Kiniahn Kroi?  To torment us, of course, Jahrra thought irritably.  She took a deep breath to calm her temper.  She knew she had to do something, and something fast.  She couldn’t let Eydeth and his ruffians throw her friends into the river.
     Suddenly, Jahrra’s armlet flared up again.  She nearly gasped as she clutched it with her other hand, and before she could figure out what was going on, a strange scene passed in front of her eyes: a scene of someone dressed in a dark costume running deeper into the woods as others followed.  The vision faded and the sensation passed, leaving Jahrra slightly dazed and confused.  She blinked several times and looked back towards her friends, realizing that Pahrdh was about to receive a cruel kick from someone in an ugly goblin suit.
     Without giving it any further thought, Jahrra jumped out from behind the trees and shouted in the direction of the group, “Hey! Leave them alone, it’s me you want.  Let’s see if you can catch me you over-stuffed, un-bathed swine!”
     She had a good dozen yards on them, so she began running back through the woods without even pausing to check if they’d seen her.  After a few moments she heard voices calling out behind her.
     “Don’t let her get away!  Catch her!  Criyd, you go to the left, Broeghen, you to the right!”
     And once again, without even trying, Jahrra found herself the object of yet another one of Eydeth’s manhunts.

- Chapter Eleven -
Fright and Flight on a Sobledthe Night

     Jahrra heard the crashing of underbrush and knew she’d distracted enough of Eydeth’s gang to give her friends a fighting chance.  She ran for another few minutes until she came upon a small clearing in the woods.  The exertion had put her slightly out of breath, but she knew she’d gained some distance on them for now.  She leaned over, hands on her knees, sucking in great gulps of air while quietly blessing the strange bracelet for helping her out once again.
     She decided to wait until they caught up a little before going any deeper into the dark forest.  She eventually straightened up and decided to look for a place to hide until her attackers arrived.  Before Jahrra could make any progress, however, someone much bigger than any of Eydeth’s friends grabbed her firmly.  A strong hand closed tightly around her mouth while another arm clamped itself forcefully around her waist.  Whoever this was, he or she was very strong.  Before Jahrra could think of anything else, she began to panic.  She kicked and tried to claw at the arms holding onto her, but to no avail.  She was sure that those chasing her were still far behind, but could she have been wrong?  Could Eydeth have set this trap for her?
     The man, or creature, that held her was trying to drag her back into the woods away from the clearing and out of the only moonlight that was pouring down from the broken canopy above.  Jahrra felt hot tears welling up in her eyes.  She couldn’t tell if they were a result of fear, anger or from the strong smell of creosote, smoke and sulfur that enveloped the stranger restraining her.  She could hear his raspy breathing, but he didn’t attempt to loosen his grip or tell her to stop moving.  Jahrra feared the worst.  I’m going to die! she thought frantically.  Her captor had successfully dragged her to the other end of the clearing and was about to disappear into the trees when the group that had been chasing her burst through the undergrowth on the other end of the tiny meadow.
     “She must’ve come this way!  Look at the path she made as she tore through here!”
     It was Eydeth.  He had his mask off and was pointing a great lion’s paw towards where they had just broken through.  She had never been so glad to see the horrid boy in her life.  Jahrra took advantage of this one moment of opportunity.  She quickly opened her mouth and bit down as hard as she could on the hand that covered it.  The man bellowed in pain and ripped his hand away.
     Jahrra screamed, “HELP!  HELP ME!”  She had managed to get somewhat free in the confusion, but the stranger still grasped her around the waist as she struggled with all her might, trying to run to Eydeth and his friends.
     “Eydeth!!  There is a strange person here, please!”
She broke free with one of her recently acquired defense moves and ran as fast as her wobbly legs would carry her.  Eydeth and three of his friends stared in shock as she hobbled towards them, only to look at the stranger when he shook off his injuries and started after her.  Jahrra reached the boys and glanced desperately into their eyes, but they were distracted by something just over her shoulder.  When she finally saw the composition of their faces, Jahrra’s blood ran cold.  Eydeth and his friends looked paler than death, something that was more than a result of the white moonlight.  They had a terror in their eyes she’d never seen before in anyone.
     Jahrra’s heart began to race, and she could feel her arms and legs tingling, only this time it wasn’t because of her magical armlet.  She couldn’t bring herself to glance over her shoulder, and she couldn’t coax her dry, swollen throat to speak.  She just looked helplessly at the boys as they continued to stare like graveyard statues at the man Jahrra could feel approaching.  As soon as the boys got over their shock, however, they turned and ran as fast as they could.
     Jahrra felt helpless, frozen, petrified, and she began to shake.  She now realized that it hadn’t been a trap; that this person had nothing to do with Eydeth.  She tried her deep breathing technique again, but breathing couldn’t help her now, nothing could help her.  Stop it! her inner voice screamed, you’ve survived many years of hard training just for this kind of situation, pull yourself together!  Jahrra reached out her trembling arm and placed her hand against a tree for support.  Suddenly, she stopped shaking and felt a flicker of ease rush over her quaking body, her armlet tingling once again.  I can handle this, she thought as the calming magic spread through her body, I know what to do.
As the sound of the boys’ crashing back through the dark woods faded away, Jahrra slowly began to turn around.  She knew she didn’t want to see what was there, but something made her turn, a voice, this time not her own, calling from somewhere beyond reach, telling her she must see . . .
     She looked directly into the middle of the meadow, and there she saw him, the man who’d tried to abduct her.  The stranger was fumbling for what looked like a long cloth that had covered his face.  He wasn’t nearly as close as Jahrra had thought he would be, and was now falling back further and further away from her.  He managed to pull the scarf over his face before Jahrra could get a good look at it, and his eyes were shrouded in the shadows cast by the silvery moonlight.  He was wearing a heavy, hooded type of jacket or coat, and his pants and boots looked rather ordinary if not a bit threadbare in the dim moonlight.  If Jahrra were to place him, she would assume he was a common thief who’d just been trying to rob her.  But why did Eydeth and his thugs look at him as if he were a demon?
     Jahrra didn’t stand around long enough to ponder the question.  She took advantage of the stranger’s scrabbling and began to run again, to run back to the path that led out of these dangerous woods and to her friends.  She didn’t even care if she stumbled upon Eydeth and his group.  She figured they had been scared witless and wouldn’t be coherent enough to try and capture her again.  She slowly regained her nerves as she made her way through the dark, hoping that the stranger had kept on going in the opposite direction.
     Why did he back off after I got away? she wondered as she pushed past the prickly branches, moving further and further away from the meadow.  I was standing still long enough for him to grab me again, so why didn’t he?  Maybe it had something to do with the wooden beads laced around her wrist.  Perhaps their magic had helped her after all.  Or maybe it was because Eydeth and his friends had seen the stranger’s face.  Yes, that must’ve been it, Jahrra told herself with a chill.  I must thank Eydeth someday, she thought with sour humor, he unknowingly saved me.
     Scede and Pahrdh were untying Gieaun and Rhudedth when Jahrra finally emerged from the woods.
     “Jahrra!!!” squeaked Rhudedth, still sitting in the dirt, her brother trying to cut her hands free.  “What on Ethoes happened in there?!  Why did you go running off?  Why did Eydeth and his friends come charging out of the woods like they’d seen a ghost!?”
The girl was almost in hysterics, and her brother was trying to calm her down.  Jahrra looked around at her friends.  Gieaun and Rhudedth had been crying, Pahrdh appeared to be pretty shaken up, and Scede looked dazed and more worried than Jahrra had ever seen him.
     “I’m alright, but what about you guys?”  Jahrra was still winded from the tight grasp the stranger had had on her, but she was more concerned about her friends at the moment.
     “All we know,” Scede began quietly, holding his hand gently against the side of his head, “Is that you yelled at Eydeth to chase you and then he and three of his friends took off after you, leaving two behind to guard us until they returned.  We waited probably a half an hour or more before Eydeth and his goons came tearing out of the trees, making the most noise possible, and screeching, yes screeching, at his friends to “run and run fast”.”
     Scede exhaled unsteadily, looking whiter than ever.  “They listened to him without blinking and they all took off running towards town, leaving us all tied up here.”  He took a deep, shuddering breath and whispered, “I thought you had died.”
     “Jahrra,” it was Gieaun that spoke this time, in an eerily calm voice, “what happened in there?”
     Jahrra hesitated for a moment.  Of course they would want to know what really happened, but she wasn’t about to tell them, at least not now.  Scede and Gieaun would panic and say this was just like all the other times she talked them into doing something dangerous.  Pahrdh and Rhudedth might not ever associate with her again if they knew she was prone to being attacked by strangers.  They would also insist that she tell Hroombra, which was something she couldn’t bring herself to do.  He would worry too much, and she was alive after all, so why bother frightening everyone?
     She darted her eyes over to Scede, noting the white tusks protruding from his mask, and blurted, “It was a boar!  A great big boar that came crashing through the underbrush!”
     Jahrra’s four friends looked as if they’d been broadsided by a bear.  She swallowed the anxious lump in her throat and continued, “I ran until I came to a break in the trees, and while I caught my breath, Eydeth and his friends caught up to me.  Just as they stepped into the clearing, this wild pig came flying out of nowhere!  I jumped up the closest tree and watched as it chased after Eydeth and his friends.”
     Jahrra ended her speech with a very dramatic breath.  Everyone gazed at her quizzically, but they were too tired, their nerves too jumbled to wonder if she was telling the truth.
     “Weren’t you afraid the boar would come after you once it stopped chasing Eydeth?” Rhudedth asked timidly.
     “Sure, but I was also worried it would get you guys.”  Jahrra smiled, pleased with her own quick thinking.
     “I think we should go back into town, who knows what else is in that wood,” Pahrdh said, eyeing the dark edge of the trees suspiciously.
     Everyone, not surprisingly, agreed with him.  They dusted themselves off and examined any injuries they might have received, Gieaun affectionately cleaning off the cut on her brother’s temple as he squirmed in annoyance.
     “Too bad we couldn’t finish the scavenger hunt,” Jahrra mourned as they plodded back along the deserted road.  It was easier to dwell on her disappointment than to think about the fear she had felt in the woods.  Everyone gave her a scathing look, so she didn’t press the matter.
     “Oh, here Jahrra,” Scede said, handing her the raven mask once they’d put some distance between the woods and themselves.  “It fell off when one of the boys tried to grab you.  You should put it on, it’s still Sobledthe Eve, and there’s still a lot to do when we get back into town.”
     “Maybe we should tell someone, you know, about what happened?” Rhudedth suggested carefully.  “Not the boar part, but how Eydeth and his friends attacked us?”
     “No,” Jahrra said automatically.  For one reason or another, she didn’t want anyone to know about the incident, and she really didn’t see the point.  Telling people about Eydeth’s attacks hadn’t helped her before, why would it help now?  “Besides,” she continued after noticing Rhudedth’s crestfallen expression, “I have a feeling they’re long gone.”
     More importantly, Jahrra didn’t want anyone to know about the stranger who’d tried to capture her.  If Eydeth’s name was brought up, he may be questioned and he might say something about the man who had frightened them.  Jahrra wanted to keep on believing that the stranger wasn’t dangerous, and investigating the matter further could prove that he was.  She shivered at the thought of someone actually wanting to kidnap her, and then suddenly remembered the look she’d seen on Eydeth’s face once he spotted her would-be captor.
     Jahrra squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to believe that the look of fear on her classmate’s face was just a reaction to seeing someone who could actually harm him.  It wasn’t because this dark stranger was evil or particularly dangerous; it was because, no matter how much Eydeth told everyone how tough he was, he really was a big coward.  Yes, Jahrra reassured herself, that man was just a hermit or a drifter and we startled him.  And no one got hurt, so why bother telling anyone at all?  What good would that do?
She relayed her thoughts to her friends and they all agreed to keep what happened tonight secret.  They all accepted the incident as just another one of Eydeth’s foiled attempts to terrorize Jahrra.  They were just grateful the boar showed up in the nick of time to save their friend.
     “You’re right, telling on them is a bit childish, and it won’t do any good,” Gieaun fumed after they’d made their decision.  “But now I really want to get him back for this.  Throw us in the river?  I’d like to throw him in the river!”
     “I know, Gieaun,” Jahrra sighed with a slight smile, “but just think!  We’ve had a real life Sobledthe adventure!”
     “I hate to take the thrill away from your enjoyment of our narrow escape with death Jahrra, but can we walk a little faster please?” Rhudedth breathed as a raccoon emerged from the fields and onto the path in front of them.  “I can’t wait to get back into town!”
     “I agree,” Pahrdh added nervously as he lengthened his stride.  “Besides, I don’t want to give Eydeth and his friends another chance to attack us.”
     Just as the children were coming up to the embankment of the main road that led into town, the sky suddenly lit with a flurry of burning red, gold and violet sparks.
     “Ohhh!” Jahrra groaned in disappointment.  “That’s the end of the hunt!  Someone’s figured out all the riddles.”
     “Finally!  Civilization!” cried Scede happily, ignoring Jahrra’s obvious chagrin.
     The five of them stepped a little lighter as they traveled past the ghostly white houses on the edge of town, every last one of them now guarded by small armies of glowing jack-o’-lanterns.  Jahrra squealed and then laughed nervously when a black cat hissed and went darting into the shadows.  Immediately after she recovered, however, a group of young children jumped out from behind a shrub and caused everyone to leap out of their skins.  The children laughed gleefully, proud of themselves for scaring Jahrra and her friends and then tripped off to find another unsuspecting victim.
     “I don’t know if I can take any more surprises tonight!” Gieaun said in exasperation.
     Scede, Rhudedth, Jahrra and Pahrdh nodded their agreement.  They were all ready to grab some hot cider and enjoy the rest of the evening, without Eydeth, without wild boars and without strangers lurking in dark corners.
     “I wonder what the prize was,” Gieaun speculated.
Jahrra wondered too, trying not to feel too disappointed about it.  It was our first try, she told herself, and besides, she thought with a shiver, there was no way we could’ve prepared for what happened.
     As the blazing town square came into full view, the five friends noticed that someone was about to announce the winning team: four adults dressed in elaborate, tropical bird costumes.
     “Congratulations to the winners,” the man in the black robes boomed. “They have won ten gold pieces each!”
     The crowd began to murmur wildly and Jahrra noted the disgruntled looks on the faces of the other people she could only assume had come to the last clue just behind the winners.
     “And,” continued the elder joyfully, bringing the crowd back to silence, “for an extra five silvers each, what is this year’s celebrated animal?  The answer is in the riddles . . .”
     The man and his two comrades appeared mischievous with glee as the four bird heads lifted to reveal the faces of four Nesnan men, their expressions stony and rigid as they concentrated on the papers they held.  After only a few minutes and a banter of harsh whispering, the four of them stood facing the three men in the ceremonial gowns.
     “Do you have an answer?” the man dressed in red asked anxiously.
     “This year’s honorary animal is . . .” one of the Nesnan men paused for dramatic effect, “the Raven!”
     “Correct!” the elders shouted, and just as the crowd began to cheer, one final firecracker shot up and exploded into a blackish purple rain of embers, outlining the figure of a giant raven.
     “How about that Jahrra, you’re the honorary animal!” Scede said, elbowing his friend in the ribs.
     “That’s why some letters were capitalized!  Look,” Pahrdh interjected, pulling out the paper they’d written the clues on, “we had R, A and V.  The other two clues would have had all of their E’s and N’s capitalized.  I bet you anything!”
     “How clever!” Rhudedth commented.  But they didn’t have much time to ponder the intricacies of the clues, for the sounds of their voices were soon drowned out by cheering, laughter and music.
Jahrra smiled as she watched the start of the celebration unfold before her eyes.  After the fiery raven floated back down to earth, the bonfire ignited in one large plume of violet flame, slowly dying down into a tower of dancing orange and scarlet.  The musicians began playing pipes and flutes and drums, and fifty dancers, all dressed in matching raven costumes much more ornate than Jahrra’s, began chanting and prancing around the fire.  The people were all invited to join in the celebration, and before long, the hallowed rituals of the festival began.
     Jahrra, Gieaun, Scede, Pahrdh and Rhudedth all watched in awe as corn, wheat and a variety of squashes were brought to the fire and thrown in.  Dried meat and leather goods were also sacrificed, along with old shoes and clothes and even a few pieces of jewelry.  Over the next several minutes, a multitude of objects were added to the fire, all of which symbolized an ending to the old year and the beginning of a new one.
     Jahrra watched as the figures acted out the sacred vow, the fragile connection between life and death displayed for all to see.  She remembered the words of Hroombra and Denaeh as the music and the chanting voices drifted through the enchanted air: “Anything that distracts the people of Ethoes from the sacred Goddess and the importance of protecting and honoring her is fed to the flames on this holy night.  Everything old and worn out is thrown into the fire to show the acceptance of a New Beginning.  For the Dark Half of the year starts on this day, and both life and death are to be revered and respected during this festival.  Life is celebrated in the food that has been harvested for all to live on during the cold months, while death is acknowledged as these living things die to feed the people and creatures of the world.  The celebration of Sobledthe ensures that this respect and sacred cycle is instilled in all, a respect for life and a respect for Ethoes herself.  No one person ever leaves the Fall Festival not knowing how important it is to honor the one that gave life.”
     The bonfire burned brightly for several hours through the night, casting strange shadows of costumed dancers and revelers against the buildings of the town, making it look as though the streets were alight with demons and spirits.  As the festive night wore on and as the leaping and wild flames became tame and cowering coals, so too did the many costumed celebrants.  The hours of dancing, singing and merriment had exhausted everyone present, including Jahrra and her four friends.  As Echnia the dawn goddess slowly awoke, the tired people of Lensterans began solemnly trudging out of town.
     “Come on,” Pahrdh whispered quietly.  “Everyone is heading towards the harvested fields to get ready for sunrise.”
Jahrra watched with a glazed expression as the throngs of people slowly drained out of the middle of town.  Gieaun pulled on her arm as Scede and Pahrdh led them all west towards the stables where their horses were sleeping.  Along the way, they could see that small, individual fires had been kindled amid the now barren fields, their brilliant orange glare looking like puddles of molten rock against the black.  Several families were camped out around these fires and were now settling in until the dawn arrived.  At first light, they would all rise and greet the sun, Haelionn, and give thanks for his nurturing of the earth and for giving them what light he could during the darkest part of the year.
     The friends strolled by the last few vendors on the edge of town and each bought some hot apple cider, a roasted chicken leg and a caramel apple as they passed.  While she trudged along sipping her spiced cider, Jahrra looked up into the sky.  The moon was still above the western horizon, but its light didn’t drown out the stars as much as it had before.  Jahrra paused for just a moment and looked to the east.  The hills were lined with a thin thread of turquoise, rising and falling as it outlined the hilltops.  The dawn will be here soon, Jahrra thought, the winter’s dawn.
     Jahrra followed her companions tiredly over to an open patch of broken earth and helped them spread a few blankets to sit on.  The boys got a fire going and the girls set out the extra food they’d brought with them.  Jahrra closed her eyes and breathed in the aroma of the early morning as the small crackling fire warmed her face.  Winter was just around the corner and in a few months’ time she would be sixteen years old, almost an adult.  She both dreaded and anticipated the fast approaching future.  She would be finished with school in just over a year, and she would probably be going on to study in the great city of Lidien afterwards.  At least that is what Master Hroombra will want, she thought regretfully as she watched a falling star.  The old dragon had mentioned it on occasion before, his golden eyes lighting up as he described the great city and all that one could learn there.
     Jahrra sighed.  She didn’t want to leave Oescienne.  It saddened her to think of leaving Hroombra; Hroombra who couldn’t even make it to the Fall Festival.  How would he survive without her and what would she do without him to help guide her?  He had been her solid ground when her whole world had been ripped from beneath her.  He had taken her in, helped her get over the grief of losing two parents, and he had taught her just about everything she now knew.  Jahrra shook her head and brought her eyes back to earth.  Thinking about such things brought back old memories that made her sad.  I will think about what is to come some other time, she said to herself, but not now.
     Later that morning she would head back home as the natives of Lensterans continued their festival.  She longed to see her Korli guardian, to tell him about the many celebrations and traditions she’d witnessed, but she knew she had to be careful not to mention what had happened in the woods.  Jahrra grimaced as she once again recalled the stranger’s tight grip on her.  Her rib cage hurt and she was sure she’d find several bruises in the next few days.  She would just have to tell everyone she’d fallen off of Phrym or tripped over her costume onto the hard cobblestone streets of Lensterans.  She couldn’t tell anyone about what really happened.
     When the sun’s golden fingers finally reached up over the eastern hills, all of the people around, Nesnan, Resai and everyone in-between, sang a sad song of hope and finality as they made their slow, solemn march back to the dying bonfire in the town square.    The young women carried the last flowers of the year and tossed them upon the remaining embers, their bright lights quickly winking out.  As the flowers burned and hissed, purple, red and green smoke rose into the air.  Everyone bowed their heads in reverence, for the Dark Half of the year had officially begun.


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