"Jack! Jack, wake up!"
"What...what's happened...what's going on?" Jack leapt up banging his head on the cupboard above his sleeping pallet. His Defender instincts kicking in, he grabbed for the sword at his waist. Realising it wasn't there he shook his head and blinked his eyes as he peered into the darkness.
"Sshhh..!" A voice whispered, you'll wake the whole place".
"Sophie!" Jack growled under his breath. "What are you doing? I thought we were under attack".
"Don't be stupid, Jack", Sophie sneered. "The Realm hasn't been attacked for over 50 years! Now, get up. We're going for a ride".
Sophie rummaged through a trunk and threw some clothes at Jack, "Go on, get dressed", she ordered.
"Sophie, stop that! You know I can't take you out anymore. I'm a full Defender now, not a trainee. I'll be given punishment duty if anyone finds out".
"No one will find out, Jack. They never did before so why should they now? Besides," Sophie grumped, "I'm not going to spend my last night of freedom sleeping when I could be out having fun. Now, come on."
Jack shook his head, "It's not a good idea, Sophie."
"Hhmm...perhaps I should go and tell the Captain how good you are at giving flying lessons?" Sophie opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. Jack leapt forward and pulled Sophie sharply back into the room. The door banged shut and they both froze in the darkness. For a moment there was silence between them as they listened intently for any signs that they had been discovered. The Keep remained quiet.
"Please, Jack?" Sophie pleaded. "Just this one last time?"
Jack shook his head but sighed, "Ok, ok. I know what it means to you, come on then."
Jack dressed quickly and they crept out into the corridor. Sophie was careful this time to close the door quietly behind them. She didn't have as much to lose as Jack but she still didn't relish being punished if they were caught. The Keep was a bright and lively place during the day. At night it felt completely different. The sconces were lit casting strange shadows on the granite walls and the slightest noise echoed around them. A cough in a nearby room caused them both to jump and they hid behind a long velvet curtain until they were sure it was safe to continue.
Sophie and Jack's previous excursions meant they were adept at negotiating The Keep at night and it wasn't long before they were creeping out of the Postern Gate and into the fields. The thick stone walls rose majestically behind them but they still kept to the shadows wherever possible. Guards were no longer posted on the bulwarks at night but the General sometimes ordered spot checks be undertaken.
"We can't be too long", Jack said. "We both need to get some sleep before the Choosing tomorrow".
"I wish I could get out of it", Sophie muttered back.
"It's your own fault", Jack chided.
"I know, I know. I've heard it all before...'you've known for years that this day was coming. If you'd prepared for a role before now you'd have half an idea what you might be Chosen for'...blah, blah, blah".
Jack smothered a laugh, "I still can't believe my little sister has become the oldest person never to have Chosen or been Chosen".
Sophie's shoulders dropped, "Don't make fun of me, Jack. I get enough of that from everyone else".
"I'm sorry. You know I'm only kidding. I'm proud of you. You've always said what you wanted and you've stuck to it despite the trouble it's got you into. Perhaps," he continued, " if a new King or Queen is Chosen, they'll change the rules and allow girls to become Defenders. Or, maybe, you'll become the first girl in years to be Chosen as a Defender".
"I doubt it", snorted Sophie. "Things never go well for me. I'll probably end up in the Kitchens or on Maintenance. I'll run away if that happens. I will, Jack. I couldn't bear to be that bored for the rest of my life!"
Jack put his arm around Sophie, "I know, Soph. I'm sure it won't come to that though. Come on. Don't think about it now, let's just enjoy tonight."
It wasn't long before Sophie and Jack were clear of The Keep's grounds. Their walk had been a pleasant one. The bright light from the Moonstar made the going easy despite the rugged ground and sometimes deep undergrowth. They talked little on the way to the large clearing they now entered, preferring instead to enjoy quiet companionship. The night was still with only a slight breeze to disturb the long grass around the edge of the clearing .
Sophie settled down cross-legged amongst the wild flowers and grasses whilst Jack walked to the centre of the clearing. He looked up towards the Great North Mountain, put his fingers to his lips and let out a long, shrill whistle. Nothing happened. Jack, walked back towards Sophie and stood, arms folded next to her. They waited. Both watching the skies to the north intently. Sophie remained seated but her constant fidgeting revealed her excitement. It wasn't long before she jumped to her feet, "look, Jack, she's coming already! I thought they usually stayed further from The Keep?"
Jack peered in the direction Sophie was pointing. "They do", he replied. "Traditionally, though, they stay closer in the nights before The Choosing. With everyone from the realm gathered in one place attacks used to be more likely and they needed to be nearby to provide defence." He turned to Sophie, who was jigging about in excitement. "I wish my eyesight was as good as yours. I still can't see anything!"
Sophie giggled, "Perhaps if you had better eyesight you wouldn't have missed that Aardwolf and we wouldn't have gone without dinner."
"Do you have to keep on about that?" snapped Jack. "I was only 12 and it was my first attempt at a moving target."
"I shot my first Aardwolf when I was 11," Sophie boasted.
"Yes, and you nearly got yourself killed by a Boarhound trying to bring it home."
"No I didn't!" retorted Sophie. "I knew it was following me and I...I would've..." Sophie trailed off.
Jack's voice softened, "You would have been killed, Soph. If Gramps hadn't been out looking for you...well, I'd be down one very annoying little sister." He ruffled his sisters hair and she punched him on the arm in return. "Ouch!" Jack winced.
Sophie laughed and soon Jack joined in. The pair were still clowning around when a blast of air hit them and they were thrown to the floor. Within seconds they were pinned to the ground. Jack could feel a silky material holding him down and let out a sigh of relief as he realised it was a gigantic wing, "Atalanta, let us up please?"
The pair felt the weight lift off them and they clambered to their feet.
"Atalanta, was that really necessary?" queried Jack as he brushed himself off. "We were only messing around."
The Drathos stamped on the floor and growled at Jack.
"Ok, Ok", responded Jack. "You don't like us fighting, we know".
Sophie came forward and spoke gently, "Thank you for coming, Atalanta."
The Drathos lowered its head to come face to face with Sophie and gently nuzzled her cheek.
"That's great," protested Jack, stomping away, "I'm your rider, not her. Why doesn't she get told off?"
Atalanta unfurled a great red and black wing, reached out and wrapped it gently around Jack.
"See," said Sophie. "She cares about you too".
"She's got a funny way of showing it."
"You're her Defender, Jack. She's strict with you because you have a job to do."
"Are you telling me you actually know what she's thinking now?"
Jack's sarcasm was not lost on Sophie but she didn't rise to it. "It's not that I know what she's thinking. I just get...well, it's just kind of what I think she's thinking."
"That makes no sense, Soph." Jack sighed, "Anyway, we need to get going or we'll run out of time." Following their training, Atalanta extended her wings as Jack gently ran his hands over them. Strong as leather but soft as silk to the touch, any damage could prove deadly to both Drathos and Defender.
"Can I check her feet?" asked Sophie.
"Do you remember what you're looking for?"
"Of course I do", said Sophie striding forward.
"Go on then. Talk me through it just to be sure."
"Ok." Sophie took a deep breath and lifted one of Atalanta's legs. "Check for any chips or cracks on the claws...all good. Check for any thorns, stones or splits in the foot pad...all fine here."
Sophie moved round to check Atalanta's other legs. Jack relaxed back onto the grass confident in his sister's knowledge and attention to detail. She was a quick learner. When she wanted to be, anyway. "I wonder if there will ever be any new Drathos born?" He pondered aloud.
"I hope so," said Sophie. "There aren't many left now, are there, Jack?"
Jack shook his head, "only about 60. Not even enough for every Defender to fly their own. I'm quite lucky. Other than you, Atalanta won't let anyone else near her."
"What? You mean Drathos actually have to have multiple riders? That's horrible."
Jack chuckled, "you are strange, Soph."
Sophie finished her checks and stomped over to Jack. "What do you mean I'm strange?" she demanded.
"Calm down. I don't mean it in a bad way. You just always seem to see things from an animal's point of view rather than a person's."
"Well there's nothing wrong with that. Animals are far better than people," she retorted.
Jack laughed again, "to be honest, Soph, I don't disagree with you there!"
Atalanta was soon soaring over the forest that marked the southern edge of the village. Kelebek might be the Prime Seat of Marpesia but it was by far one of the smallest communities. It had once been home to thousands of Marpesians but, now, its inhabitants barely numbered in the hundreds. As a central refuge, the frequent attacks by a variety of enemies had kept Kelebek filled to bursting. Years of peace had allowed the people to spread out and build new communities all over the realm. With the Choosing the following day, many of those people had returned and, as Sophie and Jack looked down at the forest's edge, they could just make out the fires that marked temporary encampments spilling out into the plains beyond.
Jack called out over his shoulder, "Should be a good party tomorrow eve!"
"For some," Sophie grumbled.
"Sorry, Soph. I forgot."
"Just don't mention it again. I want to enjoy my last night of freedom."
"You got it. Where to?"
"Let's go towards the border," Sophie replied. "I've never seen Grayling River."
"Er, let's not! It's too far and too dangerous."
"Too dangerous!" Sophie sneered. 'Nothing remotely dangerous has happened in years. Besides a bit of adventure is good for you."
"Even if it isn't too dangerous, it's still too far. We need to be back before the Daystar rises or we'll be spotted for sure."
"Atalanta can get us back in plenty of time. She's the fastest Drathos in the whole of Marpesia."
"That she may be, Soph, but it's not worth the risk. We'll go to the West." Jack leaned to the right to change direction but Atalanta resisted and continued southwards. "You're ganging up on me now. Really? I suppose you think you're fast enough to get us back in time too?'
Atalanta raised her head and put on a spurt of speed that nearly unseated the two riders.
Sophie giggled. "See, Jack. She knows what she's capable of. You're her Defender you should have more faith. Or maybe you're just a scaredy-cat?"
"Just because I'm sensible does not mean I'm a scaredy-cat," protested Jack. "One day the pair of you will learn to do as you're told."
"Huh, depends who's doing the telling. Hey, Atalanta?" Sophie patted Atalanta and the great Drathos roared back in agreement. Sophie threw her head back and laughed.
Jack shook his head in resignation. He secretly hoped it wouldn't be the last time he saw his sister so happy. Doing what she wanted, just this one last time, couldn't do any harm. Could it? "As usual you get your way, Soph. Come on then, Atalanta, to the Grayling River!"
They travelled in silence again. This time it was the noise and buffeting of the wind that prevented conversation. Atalanta was fast. Very fast. It took concentration, strength and skill for the siblings to maintain their seats at this speed. As they flew on, the landscape below became more and more rugged and bare. The light from the Moonstar shone bright and they could clearly see Aardwolves roaming the vast plains. Jack slowed Atalanta and then tapped Sophie on the knee. He pointed down to where a large pack were fighting over fresh prey. Sophie grinned and mimed shooting a bow and arrow. Feigning disappointment she rubbed her belly as if hungry and laughed. Even at slower speeds no sound could be heard but Jack got the point, turned away in a huff and urged Atalanta back to full speed.
Soon they could make out a giant silvery worm cutting its way across the plains in front of them. The Grayling River began as a tiny spring in the peaks of the eastern Ranges but by the time it reached the border it was deep and wide. In times past it was believed the Marpesians had fled from their original homes beyond the river to populate the land they now called home. No one alive now had any memory of those times or knew how they had crossed the rushing torrent that bored its way along the border of the realm. In truth the people of Marpesia had not dared attempt a crossing in hundreds of years. Fear of what lay beyond prevented them and, yet, they now had no knowledge of what they had run from.
Atalanta slowed and dropped lower as they neared the river. Sophie gasped in awe at the sight. The water gleamed in the light from the Moonstar and the spray, leaping up from the surface, sparkled like stardust. It was a stark contrast to the barren lands the little group landed on.
"How can there be so little growing when there's so much water here?" asked Sophie removing her thick gloves and cloak.
"It cuts through solid rock," Jack replied. He bent down, scooped a handful of sand and let the red dust run through his fingers. "The water can't seep out into the earth for miles either way so nothing grows."
"But... I don't understand," said Sophie. "We're not that far from the forest around Kelebek. How can the land change so quickly?"
"Well, there's very little rain out here, but that's about all the Consistorium know. They haven't had a Chosen interested in Earth Sciences and brave enough to come out here in eons. It doesn't effect us anyway, so nobody's all that interested."
"Huh!" Sophie snorted and walked towards the rivers edge. "Not 'brave enough'. How pathetic. Look at it! How can anyone not want to come and spend time out here. It's beautiful."
"I'm sure they'd all agree with you on that. But, Soph, don't be too quick to judge. Remember all the people that call you reckless and stupid? Are they right to judge you?"
"Yes, alright, alright. I know." Sophie sighed and her voice quietened, "I hate it when they talk about me. I know I've had a few mishaps, but..."
Jack grinned, "A few mishaps, Soph? That's putting it mildly."
Sophie turned sharply and glared at Jack. "Yes, a few! But I've always been trying my best. And, I've never picked on anyone. Its just cowardly to single someone out like that. I would never hurt anyone on purpose. Never!"
"Woah!" Jack raised his hands as if defending himself. "Calm down. I was just joking with you."
"Well, it's not funny," Sophie snapped. She stomped back to Atalanta and climbed back on. "Come on. We should go."
"Don't be cross, Soph. Why don't we fly back through the mountains? There's still time."
Sophie's face softened and she uncurled her arms. "That would be nice. Sorry, Jack. I'm just...just...scared, I suppose."
Jack looked up at his sister sitting slumped on Atalanta's back. "Don't be scared, Soph. You'll come good. I know you will." He climbed up next to her and wrapped her in his arms. "It will be fine. I promise," he whispered.
Jack meant to keep that promise no matter what. He just didn't know how.