Chapter 1: Enslaved
Screams rent the air, tearing jagged scars across the vast blue sky. They died off, then repeated again: a strange agonizing song. A song heard often by the inhabitants of that place, if not always.
Max knew he was supposed to ignore it–let it channel through him as meaningless sounds, no more different than the songbird perched in that old oak tree at the border of the fields. But these screams were different than the day before, or the day before that. These screams hurt him. They writhed inside him like a nest of vipers, hissing and tearing open every past wound and scar they could find. It was all he could do not to race to the whipping post, slug the Punisher, and rescue the young, silver-eyed girl with cascading ebony hair.
A ringing smack that spun the world around in dizzying circles jerked Max out of his worried thoughts. Before him loomed the Task Master, his indifferent beady eyes glowering down at him.
“Your hands are idle,” he snapped with a contemptuous sneer. “Get moving or you’ll be the next guest to the whipping post!”
Max dipped his head and obediently hustled towards the Grand House, gripping his heavy sack of freshly chopped firewood a bit tighter. Another scream decimated the air and Max gritted his teeth, struggling to ignore the clawing pain in his heart and focus on his tasks.
The sun had nearly kissed the horizon goodnight by the time the Task Master allowed Max to return to his quarters. The small, one-roomed hut was thankfully close to the Grand House, so Max had little distance to walk. Running a sore and calloused hand through his messy black hair, Max opened the door and let himself in.
The delighted voice of a young girl sang through the air, and Max followed it to a group of slaves huddled next to a dim little lamp. There were four in all–a boy and girl, both around Max’s age, an older woman with gray-streaked hair, and the little girl who had called out to him. The one who had been screaming.
“Max, you’re back!” she cried again. Her joyous gaze changed to that of sternness. “You’re really late.”
Max sighed and offered a tired smile. “Sorry, Lucy. The Task Master kept me late. Probably thanks to you. I was really worried, you know!”
Lucy lowered her eyes. “Sorry.” She looked up suddenly, leaning forward to better see Max in the poorly lit cabin. “Were you chopping wood again? Your hands look red.”
The old woman let out an exasperated groan. “Hold still, child! How am I supposed to dress your wounds when you keep moving around?”
As Max made his way over to the ragtag little group, he saw that the woman was spreading a handmade balm on the numerous gashes that lacerated his little sister’s back like a nest of writhing crimson snakes. Shudders rippled through the spriggan’s body every time the old woman’s gentle probing fingers spread the ointment.
“Sorry, Hannah,” the little girl mumbled apologetically. “I’ll sit still.”
“Good!” The woman dabbed her back some more, paying special attention to an especially deep cut, then gave a nod of satisfaction. “I’m no dryad, but that should do.”
Lucy craned her neck to inspect the kind woman’s handiwork, then gingerly slipped her tattered brown shirt back on. Max observed that its stitching seemed ready to fall apart. “Thanks, Hannah!”
“Of course. Now don’t go sneaking out again!” Hannah scolded. “I’m going to run out of poultice at this rate.”
“Is that why you got whipped?” Max questioned sharply. “You snuck out at night again?”
The dark-haired girl shrugged. “Yeah, and they caught me.” Her silver eyes flared with a foolish bravery. “But I don’t care! The moon looks so pretty. It’s stupid that they don’t let us go out at night.”
Hannah flashed the girl a warning look. “Hush, little one. If you’re heard talking like that, you’ll get worse than the whipping post–believe me.”
Despite the threat, Lucy crossed her arms and began to pout. “But I like watching the moon.”
A sigh resounded from the other boy who glanced at her in obvious disdain. “Typical spriggan response. No wonder nobody likes your kind.”
Max rounded on the fiery-haired boy, his dark brown eyes glittering dangerously. “What was that?”
The boy glanced at him in disinterest, jade green eyes nonchalant. “Calm down, spriggan. I’m simply stating the truth: spriggans are dark little creatures who think only for themselves.”
A snarl rose in Max’s throat. He tensed himself to spring at his antagonist, but a girl with oak-brown skin and honey-gold eyes hastily intercepted him.
“Don’t let him get to you, Max. George is just trying to reel you into a fight.”
Max paused, then reluctantly stepped back. He continued, however, to glower angrily at the boy called George.
George offered a smug grin and leaned his head against a hand as he met Max’s hostile gaze. “Gotta watch that temper, you know. Ha. And that’s coming from a phoenix. I thought my kind were the only ones with high tempers.” He shrugged. “Guess I was wrong.”
Max glared at him, then caught the honey-eyed girl’s gaze and turned pointedly away.
The girl breathed a quiet sigh of relief, then tentatively offered up a pathetic facsimile of oatmeal. “Would you like some dinner? The rest of us ate already.”
“Sure.” Max accepted the food. “Thanks, Mary.”
As he ate, the spriggan surveyed the other slaves, taking in their gaunt faces and threadbare rags that clung to their limbs.
We’re not looking too bad this year. Good thing, too, since Winter is nearly here. Last year was terrible.
Suddenly, Max frowned as he realized something. “Hey, where’s Harry?”
All eyes darkened or fell to the ground.
It was Hannah who finally answered. “The Master sold him.”
Max didn’t bother to ask why. There didn’t need to be a reason why. Humans made their own reasons. The slave wasn’t working hard enough. The slave was using too loud. The slave just wasn’t the preferred breed.
George stretched back and exhaled loudly. “Ah, well. He was just a shy little sylph anyway–no big loss. His wings kept getting in the way of everything. Maybe they’ll buy another slave, and this one’ll be a phoenix like me.”
Mary laid a hand gently on Max’s shoulder, drawing him away from the phoenix’s careless words. He realized he’d been clenching his fists, making their copper color turn white.
George noticed as well. “Hey, don’t get me wrong, spriggan. Harry wasn’t all that bad. He was born in April, after all.”
Mary gave a puzzled frown. “Huh? Oh, wait. That’s right–both G and H names are in the same month.”
George grinned. “See? All’s good.”
Max ignored him and finished his tasteless oatmeal, anger boiling in the pit of his stomach along with the food. Licking clean the bottom of the bowl, he set it to the side along with the other bowls and returned to the loose circle of slaves. Hannah had begun unrolling their sleeping mats, and she set them out on the cold, concrete floor.
“Let’s get some sleep–the Master’s brother is visiting tomorrow, according to one of the naiad maids, and I’m sure we’ll be working double, if not triple, what we usually do.”
Lucy put on a pouty face, scrunching up her nose and sticking out her bottom lip. “I don’t want to sleep. I want to watch the moon.”
Max crawled over to his mat and patted the one beside it. “C’mon, Lucy. You know it’s against the rules to go out at night.”
“But it’s going to be a full moon tonight and–“
“No buts,” Max interrupted his sister’s protests. “You’re going to stay right here.”
Lucy folded her arms. “I wanna watch the moon.”
The young spriggan remained resolute. “You don’t have to come with me.”
“Lucy, you can’t go outside. Do you want to get whipped again? They’ve already caught you sneaking out six times! How long do you think they’ll put up with you?”
“I want to watch the moon.”
“No! What happens if they decide to sell you? We got split up from Mom. Do you want to get taken from me as well?”
“I want to watch the moon.”
Max threw up his hands in exasperation. “I give up. Anyone else want to try?”
George turned onto his side so that he faced away from the others. “Nope. I don’t like dealing with spriggans.”
Mary settled down onto her mat and faced Lucy. “We can’t watch the moon tonight, but maybe someday we’ll be able to watch it–like in the Olden Days.” The dryad’s eyes brightened up with an idea. “Why don’t we have Hannah tell us a story about the Olden Days?”
Lucy’s demeanor instantly changed from stubborn to excited. “Yes! Hannah, tell us about the Elder!”
Max ran a hand through his hair wearily. That story again? Well. At least she’s not thinking about the moon anymore.
“Alright,” Hannah relented.
Lucy squealed with delight and instantly flopped down on the mat next to Max. She rolled onto her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows so she could better hear the story.
“Once,” the old spriggan began,”some time ago before I was even born, humans and magic-wielding people called the Elder lived side by side. My mother used to tell me all about them.” The old woman closed her eyes, reminiscing. “The sylphs of the air. The dryads of the plants. The naiads of the water, the wisps of the light, and the spriggans of the dark.”
“Don’t forget the phoenix,” George added from where he was pretending to sleep.
Hannah nodded. “Yes, and the phoenix of the fire, too. There were also beasts of magic: dragons, pegasi, and beautiful, majestic griffins.”
Lucy’s eyes lit up. “What did the griffins look like?”
“You know! I’ve told you twenty times, haven’t I?”
“Yeah, but still…”
Hannah laughed. “Alright, I’ll tell you again.
“The griffins were mighty beasts with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Their fur was the color of pure gold which reflected the sunlight, even on a cloudy day. They were brave creatures and would fight to the death for those they loved.”
“They were the bestest animals ever!” Lucy exclaimed exuberantly.
Hannah smiled, eyes twinkling with amusement. “Yes, they were quite magnificent, weren’t they?”
“And then humans figured out how to stifle magic, provoked a war with the Elder, killed off all the Elder animals, and enslaved us all,” George spoke up, still turned away. “Great story. Just simply amazing. I’m going to sleep so well tonight.”
Max glared daggers at his back. “It’s your fault for bringing up that part.”
Hannah laid down on her mat. “Either way, the story is done. Let’s get to sleep now. You too, Lucy.”
“Okay.” The little girl settled onto her side, resigning herself to sleep.
Max emulated his sister’s example and closed his tired eyes. The light filtering through his lids dwindled to nothingness as someone turned out the lamp. A loud, crushing silence ensued, just as it did every night. And, as always, Max focused on the calm rhythmic breaths of Lucy and let sleep wash over him.