Thunk. Thunk. Robert Greene lowered his axe to the ground as he wiped the sweat off his brow. Running his hand through his thick brown hair, he stared at the massive oak he was attempting to fell. Just a few more strokes should do. With a grunt, he raised his axe and swung. His large muscles rippled as the axe struck the tree. After a few more strikes, he was rewarded with the sound of splintering wood.
Quickly, he stepped back and watched the tree slowly tip, its towering form falling to the ground with a resounding crash. A smile formed on his clean-shaven face, for the tree had fallen exactly where he had wanted. He prepared to strip the tree of its branches, but a quick look at the sky showed that dusk would soon be upon him. He shrugged; the tree could wait until tomorrow. He strode over to his wagon full of neatly stacked wood and grabbed a piece of thick leather that was lying in the back. Once satisfied that his axe was safely wrapped, he hopped onto the seat, placing the axe beside him and grabbing the reigns. With a flick, he urged his team of mottled brown horses forward. At first, the heavy wagon groaned in protest at the horses’ pulling, but the team soon got it rolling.
Robert had been a woodcutter ever since he was strong enough to lift an axe, as had his father before him. While his older brothers had moved on and chosen other professions, Robert continued to chop trees, even after his father retired to less strenuous work. It didn’t pay much, for the kingdom of Byrinth was riddled with forests, and as such, wood was plentiful. Robert was used to the small earnings, and tried to remain thankful for what he earned.
But at the same time, there was a spark of discontentment in his heart. At eighteen years old, there was an itch inside Robert. Still living with his parents, he sometimes felt trapped. He was envious of his three older brothers, who had moved away to the newly settled Western Villages a few years back. How he had wanted to join them, but was too young at the time. Now old enough, he simply did not have enough money to travel. So here he stayed, waiting impatiently, longing for the day when he could break free. Then he would go to the Western Villages, and maybe beyond. Who knew what lay in the unexplored west. Though he often wondered if the time would ever come. When he had told his feelings to his mother, she simply smiled and stated,
“God often works in the dark where we can’t see Him. When the time comes, He’ll move the clouds away and show you the plan He has for you.”
So he waited, trying to heed that wisdom.
As he arrived at his father’s cottage, he positioned the wagon by the woodshed where the lumber was stored. The wagon would have to wait until tomorrow to be unloaded. He unhitched the horses, then led them over to the barn and opened the large wooden doors. About to enter inside, he heard the cottage door open. The family dog, Patch (named for the black spot over her left eye), bolted out and ran over to Robert, barking happily. Robert knelt on the ground and tussled the white dog’s ears. Looking up, he noticed his fifteen-year-old sister, Sylia, headed from the cottage to stand beside him.
“Hello, Sis. You look tired,” Robert remarked as he rose up from the ground.
“I should say so! Mother had me working in the gardens all day. Pulling weeds, weeds, and more weeds! My fingers felt like they were going to fall off by the end. And by the end, I was filthy. It took forever to clean that muck off,” she replied, examining her long, golden hair for any traces of dirt that might be left.
“Quite a busy day, it seems. But you survived,” Robert responded with a smirk as they entered the barn.
Sylia rolled her eyes. “Of course I did.” She glanced outside at Robert’s full cart. “Looks like you’ve been busy as well.”
“The trees fell easy today. There’s one more large oak I chopped down, but I didn’t have time to cut it today. I’ll do it tomorrow,” said Robert as he removed the harnesses off the work horses.
“Well, supper is about ready, so you’d better get inside.” Sylia began to head back towards the cottage.
“Great, I’m starved! I’ll just put these horses away and take care of Dusk, then I’ll be right in.”
“Well, hurry up, we won’t wait forever.” Sylia smiled as she left, calling for Patch to follow.
Robert whistled a tune while he led the tired animals to their stalls. He grabbed a bag of feed and walked past the work horses and cows to the last stall, which kept Robert’s jet-black steed. Dusk had been a gift from his oldest brother, Drew, and Robert was delighted to own such a fine horse. While not built to be a work horse, Dusk was unmatched when it came to speed.
“Hello, Dusk. Here’s a bunch of oats for you, your favorite.” Robert often talked to his horse when no one was around. “How would you like a nice ride tomorrow morning before work?” Dusk whinnied back, which made Robert laugh.
“I thought you’d say that.”
After refilling the water trough and washing his face and hands in the water basin outside, Robert headed into the cottage. It was one large room, with the exception of a little room off to the side where Robert’s parents slept. The children’s beds lay near the fireplace on the left. On the right were some cupboards and a counter. The table was situated in the center of the room.
His entire family was already seated, waiting for him. On the table lay a bowl of assorted vegetables, some hot rolls, and a platter of cooked venison. He took a seat beside his bright-eyed, ten-year-old sister, Keely. Directly across from him sat his brother, Pyrel, who was a year younger than him, but much different in stature. While Robert was tall and brawny, Pyrel was shorter and wiry, with jet black hair. Rather than doing the muscular work required of a woodcutter, he preferred working in the fields.
Everyone bowed their heads as Mr. Greene prayed.
“Dear Lord, thank you for the food you have given us today. Thank you for keeping my family safe through today’s work. I pray you protect us and our animals during the night. Help us to keep our eyes on you. In your name, amen.”
Robert took a steaming roll, then passed the platter to Keely. After helping himself to the vegetables and venison, he grabbed his fork and began to dig in.
“Mmhmm, this is good!” stated Keely. For a few minutes, nothing else was said as everyone enjoyed their food.
“I got quite a bit of wood today,” Robert said. “I’ll probably head to the city tomorrow afternoon to sell what I can.”
The Green family lived in a small village on the outskirts of Byrinth’s capital, Yorgoli. It was a coastal city, and as such, it was frequented by traders from all over the world.
“Why don’t you have Pyrel sell it for you?” Mr. Greene suggested. “He needs to go into town anyway to pick up some supplies.”
“That would be nice. That way, I can hopefully finish with the last tree I fell. As long as Pyrel doesn’t mind.”
“It won’t be a problem,” Pyrel responded as he grabbed a second roll. “Besides, I always get a better deal than you do.”
Robert opened his mouth for a retort, then paused and shrugged. It was true. “Yeah, I suppose so. I don’t know how you do it though.”
Pyrel smiled. “It’s all in how you present yourself. You need to make the traders think you’re on their side. And you do that by---”
Robert waved him off. “Give me the lecture another time, maybe. Not while we’re eating.”
Pyrel was one of those people who could befriend just about anyone if he set his mind to it. He often used his talent to quickly gain the confidence of those he interacted with, and usually got better deals than anyone else when buying and selling. His father would say he would make an excellent merchant. Robert thought he could be a very effective spy, though he never told his brother. He never knew what Pyrel might take seriously.
The rest of dinner was eaten in relative silence, as everyone enjoyed the delicious meal. After they finished, the girls began to clear the table. Robert began to rise from his seat, planning to grab a book to read.
“Don’t leave yet,” his mother said. “Unless you want to miss out on the apple pie.”
“Apple pie?” Robert immediately dropped back into his seat. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I hope you like it. I helped Mother make it,” Keely announced proudly.
“Well, I’m sure I will!” Robert glanced over Pyrel’s shoulder at Sylia, who was drying off the dishes. “Sylia didn’t help, did she?”
“No, I didn’t,” Sylia replied abruptly as she narrowed her eyes at him. “But why would that matter?”
“You have talents, but cooking is not one of them,” Robert responded with a smirk. “I feel sorry for whoever your future husband will be. He’ll always have to return to his mother to get good meals.”
Sylia narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to give a retort, but Pyrel spoke up.
“Now, now, you aren’t giving her enough credit,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “It takes talent to burn a salad, doesn’t it, Syl—OUCH!”
Pyrel shot out of his chair, rubbing the back of his neck. Sylia stood behind him, glaring, with her wet towel in hand, ready to whip it out again.
“I put one bowl of salad too close to the candles, and nobody lets me forget it!”
Robert burst out laughing. “Of course not! But neither do you let Pyrel forget about the time he cut that tree down onto the woodshed.”
“Hey, I cut it so that it would go the other way,” said Pyrel, trying to defend himself. “That tree deliberately twisted towards the shed. Besides, that’s nothing compared to your chicken coop repairs.”
“Let’s not bring that up.”
“I don’t remember that,” giggled Keely. She was immensely enjoying the fact that her siblings were teasing each other, while she herself escaped being the brunt of any of it.
“Yeah, well, it’s nothing. Where’s the apple pie?” Robert asked, trying to turn the focus of the conversation to something else.
But Pyrel wouldn’t let it go.
“A few years back, the wire fence surrounding the chicken coop was getting old and needed to be replaced, so Father asked Robert to do it. Robert got up early before the chickens were up and began to take down the fence. The problem was, he forgot to lock up the coop first. Just as he finished taking the last bit of fence down, the chickens came out of their coop and discovered their newfound freedom. Before Robert could do anything, they scattered all over the place. It took us over an hour to round them up, and we never did find them all.”
Keely began laughing so hard she almost dropped the pie she was carrying over to the table. Robert stared at Pyrel, another memory coming to mind.
“How about the time you –”
“Alright, that’s enough now,” said Mr. Greene, who decided to stop it before real trouble started. “Yes, we all have our weak points, but we each have our talents too. Our time would be better spent focusing on those rather than our flaws. But for now, let’s eat this pie that your mother and Keely made.”
Everyone dug in, and quickly agreed that the pie was delicious, which made Keely very happy. The pie was soon devoured, with Patch eagerly licking up any crumbs that made it to the floor. After everyone finished, Pyrel was chosen to clean the dishes. Robert walked over to his bed and grabbed a book, The History of Carcia. Besides his Bible, it was the only book he owned, and the well-worn pages indicated that it was read often.
Grabbing a lantern, Robert stepped outside into the crisp night air to read. He sat on the ground, leaned up against the stone wall of the cottage, and began flipping through the pages, looking for where he last left off.
The door opened and Keely stepped out, a bag of chicken seed in her hand. She spotted Robert and sat down beside him, looking at the book but not yet quite able to read all the words.
“You read that a lot, don’t you?” she asked.
“Yes, I do,” Robert replied, finally finding his spot.
“What’s it about?”
“Well, it tells the story of the continent we live on, Carcia, and how explorers from the east discovered it long ago and began settlements. It’s the history of where we live.”
The bag of chicken seed forgotten, Keely snuggled up against Robert’s side.
“Tell me about it, I like stories!”
Robert chuckled. “Ok, but it may be a bit boring for you.”
“I’m sure it won’t!”
Robert turned to the front of the book, skimming quickly through it as he gathered his thoughts.
“Well, as I said, Carcia was discovered several hundred years ago by explorers,” he began. “The continent was lush and vibrant. It wasn’t long before several settlements were established. As time went on, they quickly grew and two kingdoms were born: the northern kingdom of Rispia and the southern kingdom of Byrinth.”
“Byrinth! That’s where we live,” Keely interrupted.
“That’s correct. Byrinth has the ocean bordering its eastern and southern sides, and a large mountain range to its north. The capitol is Yorgolin. Our little village lays on the outskirts of the city.”
“It has a big castle, doesn’t it?” As usual, when told a story, Keely interrupted with her own questions. Robert decided to answer them rather than ignore them.
“Yes, it does. It’s a massive fortress, located on the coast to deter raiders and pirates. It was made several hundred years ago, but is still strong and almost impenetrable. Throughout its history, many enemies have tried to take it, but none have succeeded. King Tryden Donthyn lives there, along with his daughter and two sons. His wife, Queen Rachel, died a few years ago of an illness.”
“Tell me about Rispia, I don’t know much about that place.”
Robert was surprised at the enthusiasm of Keely, and he was excited to share what he knew.
“Rispia borders our north, on the other side of the mountain range. Only one pass exists through the mountains between the two kingdoms. The mountain range extends around the western side of the country until it hits the northern coast, basically separating Rispia from the rest of the continent. Its eastern coast has many harbors and ports, which they use to ship the resources they mine from the mountains. The upper coast, however, consists of steep cliffs that plummet to the shoreline, making any sort of harbors impossible. Sailors have tried to find the end of those cliffs, but say they stretch out west as far anyone has gone. With the mountains and cliffs bordering three sides, its a very protected kingdom. For someone to invade, they would most likely have to enter from the eastern coast. But the King of Rispia is wise, and has developed a very large and strong navy."
“What about to the west of our kingdoms?” Keely asked. She loved learning about new places. “I’ve heard its a wild land full of monsters.”
Robert chuckled. “Not quite. The wide Snalk river is our western border. For many years, few ventured past it, for there was no need to. The explorers who did told of ancient ruins, but also of fierce beasts. But it is hard to know what was true and what was simply exaggeration on the explorers’ parts. They love to embellish their adventures to make themselves seem braver. "
Anyway, on the other side of the Snalk river lies a large grassland peppered with hills and rivers. It’s a very rich area, and within the last thirty years, the Western Villages were built. It is small kingdom right now, but quickly growing.”
“That is where our older brothers went to live, isn’t it?” Keely asked. She could barely remember her older brothers, and didn’t know much about them.
“Yes,” Robert replied wistfully. “Drew moved out there after finishing his apprenticeship with Doctor Freyn. Ridell and Samuel followed with their families shortly after. I wanted to go to, but was too young.”
“Why did you want to move to the Western Villages? Don’t you like it here?”
“Of course I do,” Robert said. “But I’ve always wanted to go explore and see new places. This book here tells of ancient empires that existed long before this content was discovered. But now there are nothing but ruins, and no one knows how the empires ceased to exist. I’ve longed to visit these ruins, and see what I could learn; maybe even find out what happened to the empires and their peoples. Or maybe find out if the Fire City really exists.”
“Fire City? What’s that?” The name immediately caught Keely’s attention and sparked her imagination.
“The Fire City is the supposed capital of one of the ancient empires. Legends state it is located on the northern coast in the only break of the impassible cliffs. The legends continue to say that a massive active volcano is within range, often sending ash and balls of fire and rock into the city; hence the name Fire City. It is also said that people still live there to this day. However, no explorers in the last few hundred years have every found a break in the northern cliffs, nor a city situated by a volcano. My guess is that the Fire City existed at some point, but now it is simply in ruins.”
“Why don’t you go and find out?” inquired Keely.
Robert gave a slight wistful smile. “I’d love to. That has been my dream for some years, to find that lost city and perhaps even descendants of the old empires. But for now, God has me here, working as a woodcutter. That is something you must remember, Keely. It is good to have ambitions and dreams, but make sure they stay in God’s will. If it is His plan, He will open the doors for you. But in the meantime, you must try to stay patient and do the work He currently has for you.”
It was at that time that Robert spotted the forgotten sack of chicken feed.
“Speaking of work, weren’t you supposed to feed the chickens?”
Holding a hand to her mouth, she gasped. “I completely forgot! I better go feed them right away.”
Snatching the bag, she leaped up and dashed away to the coop.
Chuckling to himself, Robert read for a short while longer, looking for any clues he may have missed about the Fire City. He pulled out a map that was tucked in the back of the book. On it, he had made notes and marks as to possible locations of where the ruins might be located. He studied it for a few moments, then closed the book with a sigh. He would need more books to help narrow down the location. But books were hard to come by, and often expensive. He stood up brushing the dust off his clothes, then grabbed the lantern and headed back inside.
Sylia and Pyrel were playing a game of chess, both in deep concentration. There was no sign of his parents; Robert assumed they must already be in their bedroom. After placing his book on a shelf, he walked over to his siblings to watch.
“Who’s winning?” he asked.
“I am,” came the simultaneous answer from Sylia and Pyrel. They glared at each other, then Sylia turned her gaze back to the board. It was her move, and she was in the process of trapping Pyrel’s queen. She analyzed the board carefully, looking for anything she may have missed. Pyrel drummed his fingers impatiently.
“Oh, Robert, I forgot to mention. Father wanted us to go hunting tomorrow morning if we have time,” Pyrel said. “We could use some more venison.”
“That should work. It shouldn’t take long to get a deer with us working together. Guess I’d better get to bed early then,” Robert replied.
“I’m heading to bed myself as soon as this game finishes, if it ever does. I’m going to turn to an old man before Sylia finishes her turn,” he said accusingly. Sylia merely motioned with her hand for silence.
Robert headed over to his bed and took his bow that lay beside it. Right now it was unstrung, as a bow should be when not in use. He was always careful to take excellent care of his weapons, as he never knew when he’d have to rely on them. Grabbing an arrow from his quiver, he held it up in front of him and peered down the shaft, then did the same for a few others. Satisfied that none were warped, he put them back. As he sat on his bed, Keely came in from outside. She placed her coat on a peg, then sat on the floor in the corner to play with her dolls.
Robert grabbed the nearby poker and stirred the wood around in the fireplace, watching the tongues of flame as he did so. They leaped and danced, licking at the air. Climbing into his bed, he pulled his blanket over him. It was late fall, and the nights were consistently getting colder. His mind bounced around on random thoughts for a few minutes. Finally, Robert’s eyelids began to droop. He was about to drift off to sleep when Pyrel shouted, “Checkmate!”
Sylia promptly shushed him, but made an equal amount of noise.
“Will you two be quiet?” grumbled Robert as he grabbed the pillow off Pyrel’s bed and threw it directly into his face.
Pyrel stuck out his tongue as he threw the pillow back at Robert. However, he hadn’t taken time to aim. The pillow didn’t hit Robert but rather landed directly into the fireplace.
“Pyrel!” scolded Robert as he leaped out of bed and carefully snatched the pillow out of the fire. Smoke billowed up as Robert tried to beat out the flames that engulfed the pillow, but to no avail. The flames simply seemed to increase with the beating.
“I’m sorry!” Pyrel cried, wildly looking about for some way to help.
“Someone get some water!” ordered Robert, still trying to beat out the flames.
Pyrel ran over to the counter to grab the water pitcher, but Sylia reached it first. She raced over to the pillow and emptied the water onto the pillow. With a hiss, a final billow of smoke and steam went up as the flames were extinguished. The whole room was in a smoky haze, making it hard to see or breath. Keely, who sat watching the whole thing, hurried over to the door and opened it wide. The other three used blankets to fan out the smoke while coughing, their eyes stinging from the smoke.
“What’s going on? Where did all this smoke come from? And what is that awful smell?” Mr. Greene asked as he stepped out of his bedroom. He was in his nightgown and looked half asleep.
“Nothing, everything’s fine!” Pyrel responded hastily. “We got it all under control.” He quickly grabbed the pillow and tried to hide it behind his back, inadvertently squeezing it as he did so. A puff of blackened feathers rose into the air and slowly fluttered around.
Mr. Greene stared at Pyrel suspiciously, then at the others by the door. He was beginning to piece together what had happened, but was too tired to bother pressing the matter. “You’d best clean up everything, then head to bed,” he said sternly before heading back into his bedroom.
Quickly, the four of them picked up the best they could, trying to find every stray feather. Once they were satisfied that no trace of the incident was left, they climbed into their beds.
Pyrel stared at his ruined pillow. “What am I going to do now? I can’t sleep with this.”
“First of all, I suggest that you don’t throw flammable objects into fireplaces,” said Sylia tersely. “But for now, you’ll just have to sleep without a pillow.”
Pyrel was about to retort, but Robert decided to intervene. “Come on, you heard Father. Time for bed,” he ordered.
Quietly, the four of them settled into bed, with Pyrel still muttering about his pillow. Robert tried not to chuckle as he thought about what had just occured. For him, this was the most exciting thing in weeks.. He found himself wishing things like this would happen more often; it helped break up the monotony of his life. Little did he know how exciting his life was about to become.