Chapters:

Chapter One

Chapter One

        Delicate chords from a piano accompanied by the long, graceful notes of a violin melted together into new sounds that seemed to come from a whole new fantastical instrument entirely. The violin was being played by twelve-year-old Aida while Rita, who was fourteen, sped her fingers across the ivory keys.

        Gathered around them to listen was the rest of their family who owned the main gem mine, which made them considerably wealthy since gemstones were the currency in Fairora. Little Ella was being lulled to sleep next to her cousin, Bridget. Both girls were the age of four. They were leaning on the plush sofa near the warm embers from the fireplace that were casting a soft orange glow throughout the entire room.

        The song came to a close and the family began to applause. “Hold on,” Aunt Mallory said softly. The clapping stopped. “I think you two finally put our baby Samantha to sleep. Let’s not wake her.”

        Uncle Warren peeked at the girl curled up next to his daughter. “It looks like Ella here fell asleep, too.”

“No.” Ella sat up and stretched her arms towards the ceiling. “I’m awake! I was just blinking.”

“That must have been some blink, then!”

        Ella put her hands down and swung her legs back and forth over the edge of the sofa. “Yes, it was. I never thought that I would open my eyes!”

She felt a tug on her hair ribbon. “Isn’t that called sleeping?”

        Ella turned around. “Barden, you don’t make the rules. Only the king and queen can. If you were king, then it could be called sleeping.”

Bridget said, “That doesn’t matter! Can Rita and Aida play again?”

        “Of course. Only for my little sister.” Rita briefly stood up and walked away from the bench at her piano to playfully tap Bridget’s nose. “How about a livelier one this time?” Then she sat back down and tapped the first melodic keys.

        Four notes in, the tune was interrupted by a sudden manic scream from outside. “What was that?” Aida asked.

        “I don’t know.” Warren rose off the sofa and pulled back the curtain covering the front bay window. He sucked in a sharp breath before uttering, “We should hide.”

A concerned look fell upon Rita’s face. “Why, father?”

        Just then, there was a pounding on the door so heavy that it nearly shook from its hinges. Every object and piece of furniture jumped, including the Colemans themselves. Samantha had woken up and began to scream. On the sofa, Bridget and Ella were trembling next to each other with their arms locked in a tight grasp, as were Hadden and Tarrence, Aida’s twin brothers, on the floor below them.

        The second pound came and the crystal vase with lilac flowers that sat on the piano slid nearly to the edge. The lock on the door and the hinges began to buckle. Joining Ella and Bridget was Mabel, who was only one year older. She wrapped her arms around their necks and whimpered along with them. Ella’s breathing became synonymous with the rapid beating of her heart. Worry and fear replaced the playfulness and carefree peace that the Colemans had no less than a minute ago.

        At the third pound, the door was thrown open with such a momentum that the handle had made a deep dent in the plaster wall. The vibrations knocked the vase off the piano and it met with the floor in a sharp crash that seemed to set off all fury. Ella found herself being scooped up in the protective arms of her Uncle Warren. Yet, she didn’t know what she was being protected from until she turned her head to the sound of the deep and unfamiliar voices that were manically screaming curses and demands at least fifty at a time.

        When the door was opened, it released a floodgate of countless of oafish men. They each wore armor made of tough, dark leather and had a dagger along with either a sword or a club. Their shadowy complexion glistened with sweat that dripped through their dark and matted hair and beards and down their heavy and overbearing bodies that were about the size of two of Ella’s uncles combined. Before long, they had discovered the family and occupied all the ways out. Half of the men were dispersed throughout the room and were taking all the relics that were valuable. Ella focused her attention on one man who started to collect the silver candelabras from the mantel and put them in a large satchel before taking the mirror hanging behind. All of which, Ella was told, used to belong to her parents. The man stepped on the lilacs soaking in a puddle of water and crystal shards on the floor by the piano on his way to looting another part of the room. The lilacs were most likely ruined already, anyway.

“Who are these people, Uncle Warren?” Ella cried.

        “These people are from Carean Isle,” Warren answered. “And they are very bad people. I don’t know what they want to do with us, but I will make sure that no one will hurt you.”

        A heavy shadow loomed in behind Ella, its sour stench nearly suffocating her. She buried her head into Warren’s shoulder, knowing full well that it was someone from Carean Isle. “Give me the girl,” said the shadow.

“I won’t let you hurt her!” Warren shouted.

        “Oh, don’t worry. You two will not be separated for long, nor will your precious family. That I will promise,” the man sneered. Suddenly Ella felt something drip on her hand. She peeked at what was going on and saw that the Carean Islander was holding a dagger up to Warren’s temple and was gradually making a cut down the side of his face. It was a drop of his blood that was on her hand. “The longer it takes for you to give me the child, the longer the cut I’ll make until it ends up deep in your throat.”

Ella panicked. “Uncle Warren, it’s okay. I don’t want him to kill you!”

        “I see she agrees. Two against one. Now you have an even more of an incentive to let her go. You wouldn’t want her to live her life without you, would you?”

        She felt Warren’s grip on her loosen just slightly, though it was enough for the man to grab her and carry her away. As he carried her towards the front door, Ella noticed that there weren’t many of her family members in the house, anymore. She assumed that they were outside and that was where she was going. Though just before passing over the threshold, she glimpsed another man holding his club over the piano and swinging it down with an ear-splitting sound of splitting wood and broken notes. Rita adored that piano.

        Outside, Ella could see more chaos just like the kind she was in at the other houses in the distance. The neighbors in the yellow house next door, however, showed no signs of being home, the building standing in silent contrast to the Colemans’. Just a few steps away from the porch in front of the man gripping Ella were two horse drawn carriages. Both carriages were made of plain wood and covered with a small window on each side and doors that opened in the back. She recognized them as the kind that was used to transport prisoners.

“I have the last child,” the man told another.

        “Good. The children go in the one on the left, their parents on the right. They are all going to Ivan as well as people from four other families. She looks like an obedient little child. A quiet one, for sure. There’s a few here that I know that Ivan will have a ball punishing them for their wild behaviors, though it is necessary for them to be a good one like her.”

        Ella was carried to the left carriage and was thrown in with the doors being slammed shut behind her. The first thing she noticed was Hadden and Tarrence, the twins, and Bridget hitting and kicking the wall while shouting, “I want out, I want out!”

        “It’s no use,” Aida said, who was sitting next to Barden in the back while holding the infant Samantha. “Carean Isle is ruthless when it comes to us Fairorians.”

        Ella asked weakly, “Do any of you know what’s going on? Uncle Warren said he was going to protect me and that no one was going to hurt me.”

Barden said, “No one knows what is going on, but I’ll protect you, too.”

        “How is a ten-year-old going to protect against those Carean Isle people?” Aida asked rhetorically. “And besides, I think Ella has enough guts to protect herself.”

        Mabel, who was sitting by herself in a corner, said, “Aida, why are you still making jokes when we’re in trouble? You haven’t even noticed that Rita isn’t here.”

“Oh, you’re right. Where is Rita?” Aida’s tone had suddenly turned panicked.

Bridget stopped punching the wall. “My sister’s not here!?”

        “I just realized, I haven’t seen her at all since those men stormed in. It was almost like she disappeared.”

“Rita’s gone?” Bridget’s eyes grew wide and teary.

        “No, I’m sure she’s fine. Maybe she was hiding. You know her, she’s always most likely one to listen to our parents out of all of us.”

Ella crawled her way to the back of the carriage in between Barden and Aida. “I’m scared.”

        Scared looks took over all the children’s faces, with Samantha being the exception. She merely curiously looked around and remained blissfully unaware of what was really happening, though her eyes were still glassy and her face still red from crying moments earlier. Before long, Bridget, Mabel, and the twins crowded in the back with them.

        “Here, Ella, take my hand,” Aida said as she tightly grabbed Ella’s small hand. “Let’s all hold hands.” Barden held her other one. “Maybe we can feel safer now.”

        Though Ella knew that it didn’t actually make them any safer than they were before, it did make her feel it. Her cousins were with her, like they always have been. Well, excluding Rita. Ella tried to not think about all the possible things that could happen that were making her eyes sting with tears that were starting to roll down her cheek. Instead, she asked, “Aida, could you tell us a story?”

“Sure. Once upon a time, there was a pretty girl named Cinderella…”

“Just like me!” Ella interjected.

        Aida smiled. “Yes, just like Ella Cinderella! Her mother was dead, so her father married another woman. However, he died later on, leaving Cinderella all alone with her stepmother and two stepsisters, who all turned out to be ugly and evil…”

        An ear-piercing shrill from a bell snapped Ella from her sleep, abruptly ending her dreams, as it did every morning for the past five years. Sometimes she was grateful for it when they featured a Carean Islander’s fuming gaze. Those all were nightmares to her. The dream that she had just woken up from started out as a good dream since she was in Fairora and happy, the kind that she hated waking up from. Yet, this time it turned into one about The Raid that had happened when she was four years old, when men from Carean Isle invaded Fairora and captured many people, including her own family, to work as slaves for their lazy citizens. Though she was used to having nightmares about The Raid, just like how she was used to being woken up by a bell. Not that she liked it, but she had spent most of her life living this way.

        Ella threw off her thin blanket, not that it provided much warmth, and pushed herself up from the hard, wooden floor. After blinking several times, the small room came into clarity. Gray light broke through in between the grime on the windows and shone onto the bodies of the other girls forced into servitude that crowded the room with her as they all stretched and prepared to complete another day’s routine for Ivan, their master. Well, except for one girl.

        “Bridget, wake up,” Ella mumbled while gently shaking her cousin awake. Bridget groaned and turned over. “I’m sure that you won’t like sleeping on that floor for too much longer.”

        Samantha came over and pried open her eyes with her tiny fingers. “If you don’t get up, the meanie will punish you.”

        Ella scolded, “Hush, Samantha. If someone hears you, you will be punished. You’ve been here for five years. You should know better.”

“But Bridget’s awake.” Indeed, Bridget began to stir and stretch her arms.

        Now that she had awoken her cousin, Ella continued with the rest of her daily routine. After she stretched and rubbed out the aches on her body from lying on the floor all night, she put on her simple pair of shoes that she had set neatly on top of the dress she kept folded that was reserved for when Ivan wanted her to look presentable. In the process of tying them on, her big toe found a new hole in the sole. Oh well, it could match the two in her dingy work-dress that she was currently wearing.

        With her fingers, Ella tried to brush out any tangles in her strawberry-blonde hair. Its waves made it especially prone to tangling. She winced as her hand caught on a large knot and nearly ripped it out from her scalp. When she felt that she had done a decent enough job, she untied her frayed ribbon from her wrist- where it was at night to keep from losing it- and used it to tie her hair back.

        Ella noticed that Samantha was struggling to tie up her hair. “Samantha, let me help you.” Then she took the little girl’s ribbon and pulled it back with a bow. “There, now let’s go eat our bread so that we can go to the orchard.”

        By the door was a small piece of bread for each girl, though it had become quite stale since Ivan always had it set it out the previous night right before going to bed. There was also a cup and a bucket of water that they all shared. Sometimes, Ella would be one of the last girls to get to it and there would be none left. Today, however, there was still plenty.

        She gulped back her share of the bread and took a drink of water. After filling the cup back up for Samantha, she called out, “Mabel, have you had water, yet?”

“No, not yet.”

        “Okay, then I’ll bring you some.” About two years before, Mabel fell off a ladder while picking apples and broke her leg. Since Ivan did not allow her to be seen by a doctor, her leg had never healed completely and now she walked with a slight limp that made her move slower sometimes. Often, this made her the last to get water if no one else brought her any.

Mabel took the cup and gulped down the water that Ella handed her. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

        The bell rang again. It was now time to join the other children and the men in the orchard while the women prepared a breakfast and the house for Ivan and his family. Every day the chores started out this way. “Come on, Mabel. You can work with me, today.”

        All the men and the children between the ages of four and sixteen walked in one bleary mass to the rows of apple trees. Those who were able to climb a ladder picked the apples and handed them down to those who could not so that they could put them in a basket. The men would then collect all the filled baskets and pour the apples into barrels to be loaded onto carriages headed for the market or set aside to make cider.

        The sun was still low in the sky when they left the small wing at the back of Ivan’s house that was reserved for slaves. When they reached the orchard on the property, the men first brought the ladders from the shed and set them up. Mabel then took a basket while Ella chose a tree. After climbing the ladder, Ella picked the ripe, red apples and handed them down to Mabel. It became a very repetitive and boring task after a while.

        To break the silence, Ella said, “I wonder what we would be doing right now if we were in Fairora.”

“I would be sleeping,” said Bridget, who was picking apples from the next tree over.

Mabel sighed. “You and sleep.”

“What? I love to sleep.”

        “I would buy a million dresses!” exclaimed Mabel. “Do you really think that our family used to be rich gem mine owners?”

        Ella said, “Of course. Our family would never lie to us. Anyway, if I were in Fairora, I would be exploring every corner of the town. It sounds so amazing!”

Carlyle, another slave who came over to collect the filled basket, said, “Spell amazing.”

“A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.”

        “Ah! You did amazingly well.” Carlyle Albright belonged to a different family, though his was left behind in Fairora. He often talked about his son and daughter, whom he missed very much. The son was about Ella and Bridget’s age while the daughter was a bit older. He and the other adults quizzed the children on reading, writing, spelling, and basic math in hopes that they would eventually return back to Fairora and would require a use for their education.

        Finally, when there were no more ripe apples left on the tree, Ella climbed down the ladder and joined the other finished children next to the barrels. Hadden and Tarrence, Mabel and Aida’s twelve-year-old twin brothers, were among them. They both grabbed an apple and held them out to Ella and Mabel.

“What do you want us to do with those?” Ella asked.

“Take one. It’s a whole lot better than the nearly rotten garbage that Ivan gives us,” said Hadden.

Mabel said, “But they’re not ours. They belong to him and it’s not right to steal.”

        He laughed. “You’re almost too uptight to be our sister! He beats us up all the time, so he deserves it. It’s not like Ivan will notice just a few missing apples.”

“You do know Ivan, right? It’s foolish to risk anything here. But if you want to, go right ahead.”

        From beneath one of the trees, Samantha was running over while crying with a clenched fist. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?” asked her father, Ella’s Uncle Lynford.

“My mouth is falling apart!” She opened up her fist and revealed a tooth.

        “Don’t worry. Your mouth is not falling apart. You just lost a baby tooth, but a big-girl tooth will soon grow in its place.” Lynford kissed his daughter on the forehead and she ran off. “Good thing she stopped crying before Ivan gets here,” Ella heard him remark. Though Samantha often got upset, it was never for long. She had a sunny disposition that was personified by her honey-colored hair and eyes, the former shared with Barden and Bridget and the latter with the every Coleman child except for Ella, who was the only one with dark blue eyes and a shade of red hair. All the cousins also had freckled faces, some from heredities and some from working in Carean Isle.

        The sun was starting to get higher in the sky and Ella saw that the curtains in Ivan’s daughter’s bedroom were being opened. She sighed. “Bridget, it’s time!” she called out. It was their turn to help dress her before her family went down to the dining room for breakfast.

        “Aunt Anice?” Ella asked in the kitchen of Ivan’s home. She had finished dressing his daughter in her morning dress; however she knew that she would have to help her again later on because she mentioned that she was going to a party.

        “Oh!” Aunt Anice, Barden’s mother, spun around and dropped what seemed to be an envelope on the floor, but she quickly stuck it in her apron before Ella could get a good look at it. “You scared me. I don’t think that Barden ever scared me like that. But anyway, we have the breakfast all prepared here on the trays. We are out of oranges.”

        The kitchen was a flurry of aprons and things constantly cooking since Ivan required nothing but the most extravagant meals daily. After helping his daughter, Ella and Bridget had to serve the breakfast. They each took a silver tray full and brought them out to the lace-covered dining room table, where they artfully arranged the goodies.

        As Bridget went back into the kitchen, Ella asked, “Bridget is going to get the pitcher. Do you need anything else?”

“Yeah,” Ivan said. “We need oranges.”

        “We’re out of oranges,” Bridget sheepishly said as she was coming back in with a crystal pitcher of ice-cold water flavored with slices of lemon.

        “What? How can we be out of oranges?” Ella knew why they were out. Ivan simply never sent anyone out to the market to buy any. But she knew better than to argue with him.

        “Since oranges are my favorite fruit and we are out, then they should be punished. Shouldn’t they, father?” asked his daughter, Anya.

        Ivan snatched the pitcher out of Bridget’s hands and threw it across the table, sending thousands of crystal shards crashing throughout the room and knocking over two jars of jam. “You, the blonde one, will clean this mess up. The other one will go out to the market and buy enough oranges to last a week when I say so. I would give you a more harsh punishment, but I don’t want to ruin anything in my nice house.” He towered over the two girls, who ran. As he chased them out of the house, he shouted after them, “You know what your next chore is! Go do it!”

        By the back veranda, Barden was waiting for her near a stack of empty buckets. Ella’s next task was to go with him to get water from the well. “What happened this time?” he asked.

        “There were no oranges and he got mad. He’s sending me to the market later today.” Ella grabbed two buckets and followed Barden to the well, which she always liked because it was far away from the house and she could say anything she wanted. Barden always listened to her and she looked up to him as a brother, which was unique to only them. He was fifteen—practically an adult to her, so of course he was wise…most of the time.

        “It’s just that it’s not fair,” Ella complained. “He never sent anyone for the oranges, so it’s his fault, not ours. Why does he have to blame us for everything?” She began to crank the handle once they reached the well.

        “Whoa, Ella, slow down! But you’re right. It is not fair. He blames us because Carean Isle hates Fairora.”

“Do you ever think we’ll go back there?”

        “Hate to say it, but I highly doubt it. It’s been five years, so someone would have mentioned something a long time ago if we were.” He and Ella had filled the first bucket and began to lower the second one.

        “But we can still dream. You’re lucky because you were ten when The Raid happened, so you still remember it.”

        Barden paused and said, “It looks like we have a little visitor,” gesturing to Samantha who appeared nearby, still clenching her tiny tooth in her fist.

        She ran over and said, “Barden, I lost a tooth! But I already showed you, Ella, so you don’t need to see it.”

“That’s interesting, Samantha. Why aren’t you working?”

“Because I’m hiding. Can I follow you back to the house?”

Barden replied back, “Sure. But if Ivan is there, you need to go back to where you were.”

“Okay.” Samantha shrugged her shoulders.

        When all four buckets were filled, the three of them walked slowly and carefully back to the house to trade in the full ones for empty ones. Ella’s arms began to ache and the handles were starting to dig into her palms. When she could get a view of the veranda, she saw that Ivan was standing on it and looking in their direction. “Samantha, Ivan can see us,” she told the youngest cousin. “You need to go.”

        However, making a quick comment to Samantha distracted her momentarily. A rock had managed to find its way under Ella’s feet, causing her to trip and dump out all the water out of the two buckets that she was carrying. In a matter of seconds, Ivan appeared right in front of her.

“What happened?” he growled.

“I-I tripped on a rock.”

        “That water is not only for me and my family, but you and your special little family.” He pushed Ella down onto the muddy ground. “Now, so that water doesn’t go to waste, drink up all that you spilled.”

        Ella took her hands and scooped up some of the watery mud. Her stomach began to turn at the thought of just tasting it. But she knew that the quicker she was, the sooner it could all be over with. She took a deep breath and gulped it down, leaving a disgustingly bitter taste in her mouth. Already, her insides were trying to throw it back up, however she scooped up more and fought against her stomach to drink it down until there was no more liquid mud left.

        Finally, Ivan said, “Alright. That is enough for me.” Then he threw a punch at Barden’s face. “That’s for allowing it to happen.” Ella soon saw a streak of blood drip out of his nose.

        He crouched down to Samantha’s level. “You are not even working! What are you holding?” Ivan pried open her hand and picked up the tooth. “Ah, a baby tooth! Put this back in your mouth where it belongs.” He shoved the tooth though her lips and clamped her jaw shut. “Now swallow it.” Ella saw her make a large gulp. “I think I’m done here. You three can all tend to your wretched afflictions out here before you enter my house again.” He looked at Ella. “My daughter is ready to change into another dress.”

        For her own dignity, Ella waited until Ivan turned around and walked a distance away before trying to hack up the mud out of her stomach by tightening her mouth shut against the nausea until it was safe. In the meantime, Barden had found a rag and soaked it in water to wipe off the blood that was trailing from his nose.

        Finally, Ivan was out of her sight and Ella allowed herself to cough up the sludge. On the way down, it tasted bitter. On the way up, it was an absolutely horrible mix of it and acid. She hoped that she would never have to drink muddy water again.

        “There you go, get it all out,” Barden said after the second time she heaved. One hand was holding the rag against his nose and the other was on her back.

Samantha complained, “That man made me swallow my tooth! But I feel fine.”

        “Then go back to what you were supposed to be doing.” Barden gently rubbed her back as Ella coughed up a third time.

“Okay.” She heard Samantha run off.

After the fourth and final time, Ella said, “Alright, I think that’s all.”

        “And what a coincidence, my nose has stopped bleeding!” Barden found another rag and soaked that one in water, as well, and handed it to Ella. With it, she wiped off her hands and face. “You should take a sip of water to get the taste out. Then I can fill the remaining buckets while you help Anya again.”

        Ella used her now-clean hands to bring water to her lips, which did help get some of the disgusting taste out of her mouth. “Thanks, Barden.”

“Anytime.” He threw his arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the forehead.

        “Barden, Ella.” Ella looked up and saw Uncle Warren holding the same envelope that Aunt Anice had dropped.

Ella asked, “What is it, Uncle Warren?”

        He came closer and his voice became hushed. “The messenger came with a letter from Rita, last night.” Ella perked up. About a year after The Raid, a secret messaging system was developed to keep the Carean Isle slaves in contact with their relatives in Fairora. She always loved it when Rita sent a letter because it meant that she could learn just a little more about the magical place that she could barely remember.

“What did it say?” asked Barden.

        “Listen, I know that I can trust you two with a secret. Don’t tell anyone else this, not even the other slaves. But Rita and I have been working for a while and we came up with a plan. If all goes well, our family will no longer be here.”

        Ella shrugged Barden’s arm off her shoulders and stepped forward. “What do you mean?” There was a combination of curiosity and excitement in her tone.

“Tonight, we are escaping and going back to Fairora.”