The sun was shining when it happened. Birds were chirping outside my window in the spring air, and there was the far off sound of children laughing in the tall grass. Crops were plentiful that year, and skies seemed to always be bright. Fish were jumping into our boats, and hunts always seemed successful. All was good that year. Alles gut, my grandmother would have said. Alles gut.
I did not know what language my grandmother would sometimes speak until later in life. I then heard that it was a language called German. In Alethera there is not much of a language barrier. We did not have real wars. Feuds were slightly more common, but no war. War was something Earth had, as was language. I had always liked the way my grandmother spoke of Earth. However, Abode children were constantly told what a ghastly place it was. Abode children should never want to go to Earth. There was violence, hatred, war, language, and everything was far apart. No one would accept Abode children. We were different, we were told, than Earth children. We would be killed if we went to Earth.
My grandmother had always seemed very much alive, however. And as that year drew to a close, we all wondered whether the Abode was really so different from Earth. We had begun a journey that seemed to take forever, and which would end on an only slightly happier note than it began.
A different Rider came to each village to deliver the news. Riders can have many different Mounts. Our Rider had a lesser bakosaar. A bakosaar is a huge, scaly beast with four legs and a long tail. They have a pointed snout and pointed ears, as well as a mouth full of large, sharp teeth. Bakosaars have huge wings, and can fly quite quickly. However, lesser bakosaars have no wings. Both bakosaars and lesser bakosaars vary widely in color, but ours was forest green. His name was Vidar. And his Rider’s name was Rasul.
He delivered his message loudly, to as many villagers as we could gather, and then moved on to the next village.
“The King is dead.”
The King is dead.
The King is dead.
Alles nicht gut. Nothing was good anymore.
James was ready to go. Not just ready, but ready enough to scream, to beat on the window, to punch something. Perhaps even someone. All he did, though, was calmly remain perched on the edge of the fence, waiting for her to come out of her hiding place. He was safely planted on top of a small wooden fence behind an abandoned house. If he were human, one would say he was precariously perched. As a Rider, he was as solid as ever, with two feet on the thin wood, one hand in his pocket and the other fixing his hair.
Layla would soon come out of the empty backyard. It was almost 5:00. She was always home before 5:30. She would walk down the street to her house, where her mother would absentmindedly ask what she wanted for dinner. She would shrug, walk upstairs and start on her homework, periodically becoming distracted by her phone or her computer. Eventually, she would have a quiet dinner with her mother. She would then read or finish her work. She went to bed at 10:00 every night, after brushing her teeth for approximately one minute and thirty seconds. When she woke in the morning, at exactly 6:15, she would take a ten-minute shower, brush her light brown hair, brush her teeth again, and walk to school. James could not follow her into school, but instead patrolled the campus carefully, avoiding being seen by any suspicious employees. After school, Layla rarely had plans. Instead of walking home, she walked to the abandoned house, sitting in the backyard, not ever doing anything in particular. Sometimes she would eat the remainder of her lunch, other times she would read or listen to music.
This order had been in place since the beginning of high school, when Layla could begin leaving home when she pleased. Before then, she remained in her room most of the day. When her father had left, she became introverted, and rejected most opportunities to make friends. James had watched over her since she was seven. Her father had left when she was five, and James’s father had originally been assigned to her. When he passed away, it was James’s responsibility.
Today, however, was different than the others. After Layla would head home, she would get ready to leave again. After her silent dinner, she would put on a dress, perhaps put on some makeup, and walk back to school. There, a dance was planned for tonight. The annual spring dance.
After Layla was safely home, James waited until she had eaten dinner. While she dressed for the dance, he stepped away for a moment, taking a small silver flip phone from his pocket.
“Vera?” He breathed, “I’ll be at the house in a bit. She’s getting ready for the dance. You’re supposed to be watching her, right?” He paused. “Oh, right, Cora, sorry. Well, send her to the school. I’ll walk her there and then head home.”
He flipped the phone shut, looking toward the front door. He could hear Layla’s mother saying goodbye, wishing her a good night. Soon enough Layla emerged, locking the door behind her. Instead of walking through the neighborhood, she began walking toward the trees behind her house, and James grimaced. Though the shortcut was almost harmless, the trees made his job more difficult. He had to become as silent as possible while staying closer than usual in order to see her through the trees, keeping an eye out for threats.
After they arrived at the front of the school, James spotted Cora among the bushes and turned away. He would head back, past Layla’s neighborhood, toward a fairly thick forest. There, a clearing housed a smallish cottage.