The streets outside my house are lined with beggars.
They flock here, like the crows in the valleys. I try to give morsels of food to them whenever I can, but we rarely ever have any food to spare. We barely have enough to eat as it is. It's always been this way, for as long as I can remember.
My family's never been well-to-do, but we've never exactly been poor either. We've always been somewhere at the bottom of the middle. The only ones who ever have enough to eat are the Officials. They say that the Officials get to eat heaping plates of natural food, delicious delicacies that we've never even dreamed of. The Officials have more than enough to eat, but they just callously toss the leftovers in the valleys. Sometimes a beggar is brave enough to venture there. Few have ever returned alive. The punishment for stealing is being burned on the stake.
All we have to eat is Synth, manufactured food which tastes like rubber. Sometimes, if you're lucky, it tastes like moldy cheese.
They say that before the Great Hunger, everyone had natural food. They also say that before the Great Hunger, life was happy. We're forbidden to talk about what happened before the Great Hunger, though. It's the orders of the Mayor. But we talk anyways. Never more than a few whispers at a time, though. But sometimes a few whispers is enough to kindle a fire that can't be extinguished. An untameable fire that destroys all in its path.
I've had plenty of experience being hungry. But before It happened, I never knew what it meant to be truly hungry.
My breath formed frosty pictures on the panes of glass. Normally I would have stopped and studied the designs, but I was preoccupied by the procession coming down the street. A gilded carriage, drawn by two white stallions, was heading towards our house. A man stepped out of the carriage, his fine clothes signifying his rank. He had a hooked nose, light brown hair tied back at the nape of his neck, and carried a cane. The beggars shrunk away from him in terror, all except for one young boy. He approached the man cautiously, his voice trembling as he asked, "Please, sir...could you spare a morsel of food?"
The man's eyes glinted darkly. In one quick movement, he struck the poor boy across the temple with his cane. He then pushed the boy roughly aside, and turned to survey our house. With a gasp, I recognized him.
I jumped off of my stool, nearly tripping over myself as I ran over to my mother.
"Mother!" I exclaimed, tugging on her sleeve. "The Mayor! Here! At our house!" I babbled indiscerniblely.
Her eyes widened, but her voice was as calm as ever. "Amaryllis, are you sure?"
I nodded. "I'm positive. What is he doing here? Why are we going to be punished? Is it because Papa was speaking out against the Officials?"
"Amaryllis!" my mother exclaimed. "Don't--"
She would never finish her sentence, because at that moment there was a sharp rap at the door. She glanced at me, silently telling me to keep quiet. Then she walked over to the door. She hesitated for a moment, her normally calm expression turning into fear, though it was gone as quickly as it had come. She took a deep breath, as though was steeling herself to be sentenced to death. And she opened the door.
A gust of cold air blew in, bringing stories of cold and ice, of water freezing over and beggars freezing to death. With it, it also brought the Mayor. I shivered inadvertently. He glanced around the room, an expression of contempt on his face. Then his eyes landed on me. They lingered there for a moment, an icy gaze full of malice and hatred. I found myself paralyzed, held in place by those gray eyes.
He shifted his gaze to my mother, a frosty smile playing on his lips. "Alice. It's been awhile." The way he gazed at her reminded me of a wolf who had caught its prey. "Where is Johann...?"
"At the mines," mother replied coldly. "Like all the other men."
The Mayor's eyes narrowed. "Are you suggesting that I'm not a man?"
My mother raised her chin proudly, silently daring him to do something. I was almost expecting him to slap her. Instead, he broke into raucous laughter.
"You haven't changed at all, Alice," he sneered, sitting down at our table as though it was his house. "Now, why don't we see if that famous tea of yours has changed?" He said it in a questioning manner, but I could tell that it was a demand.
Mother beckoned me to follow her into the kitchen. As soon as I was sure that we were out of the Mayor's listening range, a torrent of questions burst out of me. "Why is he here? What are we going to do about him? Is he going to arrest us? Are we going to be burned?"
Mother motioned for me to be quiet, then gripped my hands tightly. "Amaryllis, you have to listen to what I'm about to say very, very carefully, alright?"
I nodded, my eyes wide.
"I want you to slip out the back door, and find your sister. Once you find her, I want you two to run as far away from here as possible, alright? Run and don't look back. It's too dangerous for you to stay here anymore," my mother whispered, staring intently at me.
I stared at her in shock, my head reeling.
"Amaryllis, you must go! You haven't much time. Your father and I will find you when it's safe." She handed me a small parcel wrapped in her handkerchief. "Take this with you. Now go!" she whispered frantically.
I took one last, long look at my mother. Her red hair feel down her back in a cascade of curls, shot through with a few streaks of gray. Her light green eyes were shining with tears. I could tell that she was barely holding it together for me. Her face was drawn, and she looked tired and defeated. For once, her appearance reflected her age.
"Bye Mom," I whispered softly. Then I tiptoed over to the back door and quietly slipped out. Once outside, I ran and I didn't stop running until I reached the plains. Houses and people passed me in blurs of gray, eventually giving way to seemingly never ending plains of dead grass. The thin soles of my well-worn shoes provided little protection against the dry, scratchy stalks.
I ran towards the jagged black cliffs, which were just visible at the very edge of the plains. None of us knew what lay beyond the cliffs. The select few who had journeyed to the lands beyond had died, or were exiled.
I eventually reached a small pasture nestled below the cliffs. My sister sat with her back to me, watching our cow, Betty, graze. I watched her for awhile, not wanting to trouble her with the news of recent events. As if instinctively, she turned around and she me. Her smile faded as she took in my grave expression and the parcel that I clutched desperately in my hands. "What's wrong, Amaryllis?" she asked, her brow furrowed.
I took a deep breath. "Kayleigh...the mayor, he came to our house..."
There was a long pause. "Oh," Kayleigh said softly. "I see. Mother wants us to leave, doesn't she?"
I nodded solemnly.
"I suppose we'll have to leave Betty behind then...?"
Without waiting for my answer, she walked over to Betty and flung her arms around the cow. For a second I thought I saw tears in her eyes, but she quickly recovered her composure. After awhile, she finally let go of the cow.
"To the cave?" she asked quietly, a tremor in her voice.
"Why not? It's the safest place I can think of," I replied, watching her carefully.
We had discovered the cave a few years ago, while exploring the cliffs. It was barely noticeable, hidden behind a patch of stubborn brier bushes. Only the keenest eyes would be able to spot it. We had never dared to venture out of sight of the plains, so the cave was relatively close to the plains. Nevertheless, the path was steep and rocky, which discouraged predators - or hunters on our trail.
I let Kayleigh lead the way, filled with a foreboding sense of dread. I paid little attention to the path on which I tread, and as a result, tripped and fell several times. My injuries were relatively minor - only a few scrapes and bruises - but by the time we reached the cave, I was in a very bad mood. Kayleigh, sensing my anxiety, squeezed my hand reassuringly. "Everything will turn out fine in the end, Amaryllis. Don't worry," she told me soothingly.
A wave of guilt surged through me. I was the older sister, yet Kayleigh was the one comforting me. It should have been the other way around. I mentally vowed to keep up a brave front, for her sake as well as mine.
That night, we dined on a meager supper of Synth, which Kayleigh had packed with her this morning. She fell asleep soon after. Despite the day's events, she slept soundly, a serene expression on her face.
It wasn't as easy for me to fall asleep. I leaned against the cave wall, keeping watch and trying to fight back my ever-increasing worry. Eventually, I gave up and paced outside the cave. I was careful to keep out of sight, though my caution was unneeded. No person in their right state of mind would be out wandering the plains at this time of night. Nevertheless, I jumped at the smallest of noises, my nerves frazzled.
The stars were beautiful. They reminded me of glittering diamonds sewn onto a fine bolt of silk. The moonlight cast strange shadows across the landscape, giving it an otherworldly appearance. Normally I would have admired the beauty, but that night it felt as though they were mocking my parents' impending fate. It didn't seem right for everything to be so beautiful, when such terrible things had just occurred. I had been denying it all day, but I couldn't get rid of the nagging suspicion about my parents' fate. I knew what happened when the Mayor came to call. After all, those who were punished were left in the middle of the town square, to remind us of the Officials' might. They could take away our lives with one word, and we were helpless against it.
I clenched my hands anxiously, and suddenly felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my right palm. Glancing down, I realized that I was still holding the parcel which my mother had entrusted to me this afternoon. I was tempted to open if, but something kept me from it. Instead, I tucked it into my shoe for safekeeping. I paced around for a bit longer, then eventually retreated back into the cave and sunk into an uneasy sleep. My dreams were far from sweet, and I woke up several times in the middle of the night, my mouth open in a silent scream.
In the morning, I saw the smoke.
The dawn sky was the color of blood, a perfect backdrop for the horrifying events it had just witnessed.
The smoke rose high above the city-state of Cockaigne, fluctuating like the dance of a snake. It had a nearly hypnotizing effect. I would have stared at it for hours, fighting back the dread that had resurfaced, if not for Kayleigh. She squeezed my hand in an attempt to reassure me. "Don't worry, Amaryllis. I'm sure that Mother and Father are still alive. I-it's probably just the smoke from the factories," she said softly, her voice wavering.
"Of course it is," I replied, trying to appear calm though we both knew that it was a lie.
Kayleigh smiled sadly, then headed into the cave. "I'm gonna go...try to find something to eat," I said gently, noticing the expression on her face. She didn't reply. I silently stole away, allowing her to have some time to herself.
I wandered around the cliffs aimlessly for a few hours, occasionally throwing - or rather, attempting to throw - rocks at animals that crossed my paths. My attempts failed miserably, and were half-hearted at best.
I kept walking until I couldn't walk much longer, and even then I walked some more. I finally collapsed, my muscles unable to take any more strain. I was at the edge of the highest cliff. I had never dared to venture this far before. Sitting there, I could see the lands beyond spread out before me, towering mountains and endless forests continuing on to the edge of the horizon. Before, the lands beyond had always seemed dangerous to me. It was wild, rugged, untamed lands, beyond the reach of humans. But now it served as an escape, a path to a new future. One that we could shape for ourselves. I felt as though nature was daring me to leave the safety of the cliffs, challenging me to leave behind all I had ever known and walk headfirst into the unknown.
I felt a surge of reckless daring as an idea began to form in my mind. It was a suicidal plan, but it just might work.
We crouched low in the brush, at the edge of the city, going over the plan yet again in hushed voices. Kayleigh would sneak into the shops and take what meager supplies there were. Meanwhile, I would go after the mother load - the food. The Officials' houses were overflowing with it. It sat there, heaped in large piles, slowly rotting away.The Officials' gorged themselves on it, eating only part of it and callously tossing the rest away. We figured that they could do perfectly fine without some of it.
Kayleigh and I would meet up at the cave in three hour's time. If everything went smoothly, we would be long gone by sunrise. We would find a place in the lands beyond where we could settle down, somewhere safe where we would be far from the Mayor's grasp.
Kayeleigh glanced at me, her amber eyes trusting. She had faith in me, faith that our plan would work. In the end, her trusting nature was her downfall. I smiled at her reassuringly, or at least attempted to, then shifted my gaze back to the city. There was a long, tense silence, broken only by a raven's croak. We waited awhile longer, silent observers hidden by the cloak of night. Eventually, when we were sure that the sentries had fallen into a stupor, we made our move. Kayleigh slipped out of the cover of night, quietly making her way towards the city gates. For a second, I was tempted to call her name, to stop her from heading into danger. Instead, I let her go.
I knew that we were gambling with Death, and the stakes were higher than ever before. One false move, one misstep, could result in our deaths. It was a desperate, foolish plan, that had only a slim chance of succeeding. However, we were desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.
I mentally counted to ten, then followed after Kayleigh, making sure to stay near the shadows. We got past the gates easily. The sentry on guard was half-asleep, and nearly didn't notice us when we silently stole past. There was a nerve-wracking moment when I stepped on a dead leaf, the crunching noise reverberating in the stillness. The sentry was instantly alert, scanning the landscape for trespassers. I was frozen, paralyzed by fear. However, his eyes slid over me, and he didn't notice me. Dismissing the noise as a squirrel, he sank back into a stupor. I was safe.
We had gotten over the first hurdle. But that was only the easy part. The difficult part was soon to come, speeding towards us like the electric trains that delivered supplies to the Officials.
I took a deep breath, steeling myself for what to come. Then I stepped into the lion's den.