Breaking Free Novel - Chapter 1

September 5, 2012
The tip of the girl’s tongue protrudes from her mouth as she concentrates fiercely on the scruffy rabbit. He is more skin and bones than anything else, and his drooping ears are long from constant hunger. The small rabbit doesn’t notice as Isobel moves slowly towards him. Locking him in place with her eyes, she reaches for her slingshot and gently presses a stone into the bulge worn deep by years of practice.
Isobel hasn't eaten in two days. Except for the disgusting oat-and-carrot meal – or mush, as popularly nicknamed among the village kids – that the village is forced to live on. Recent famines have bled the crops dry, leaving few sacks of grains and flour in the storerooms. Some people go without food for days so that their children can have a few pitiful morsels of bread and mush. Luckily, Isobel's village is one of the few that is slightly better off than the rest. Beginning last September, a famine had struck the Southern Lands first, reaching through the land like a hand with deadly claws. People leave behind their homes, their land, and belongings and travel with their families toward the colder, but safer North, which has always been a haven for its inhabitants.
Quietly, Isobel advances, pressing her feet into the crackling dirt. Even though leaves and sticks litter the forest floor, she makes almost no noise. Above the trees, the northern sky is a magnificent blue, and the fist-shaped clouds are tinged blue at the edges. Sunlight glints off redwood peaks, and the morning breeze rustles through the leaves. Except for faintly chirping birds in the distance and scurrying squirrels, the forest is peaceful.
Since Isobel had last hunted in the forest, the deer, foxes, and squirrels seem smaller, as if half-starved. In some places, the earth crackles under her feet as she walks through the woods. It hasn't rained in a long while, either. At that thought, Isobel's thick, dark eyebrows furrow worriedly.
To make matters worse, bands of raiding outlaws have attacked nearby villages, stealing the work of weeks of harvesting. When she had complained from the unappetizing bowl of mush this morning for breakfast, Isobel’s aunt told her that people in the far North have had to flee with empty stomachs, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the rags on their feet. Slowly, what had once been taken for granted had now become a luxury.
Including shoes.
Isobel glances down at her bare feet, dusty and roughened from traversing endless forest floors. She had wandered barefoot wherever she went, ever since she could remember. At least that was one thing the famine hadn’t changed, Isobel thinks with wry humor.
The hunted rabbit leaps on ahead, unaware of the danger. When Isobel judges she is close enough, she slips behind a pine tree and reaches for her sling. She whirls it overhead in smooth, quick movements. It becomes a blur of motion, accompanied by a wonderful thrumming sound, now familiar from months of practice.
The rabbit’s ears prick up. Cocking his head, he tries to discern if the sound is friend or foe. But Isobel leaves him no time to decide. With a loud SNAP she releases the end of the sling and the stone hits the rabbit with astonishing force. Isobel darts out from behind the tree and gathers up the rabbit. Next, she quickly prepares the meat and cooks it over a hastily made fire. As she does so, she remembers how she had watched Auntie numerous times when she was cooking, how she added the odd sprig of rosemary or dash of ginger.
Cocking her head thoughtfully, Isobel reaches into her bag and takes out a box of dried rosemary leaves and a lemon and sprinkles the lemon juice and rosemary onto the food.
The meat sizzles in the flames, and Isobel’s mouth moistens with hunger. Her stomach gives a loud gurgle. She hops impatiently from one foot to the next in anticipation, picking off burnt meat as it crackles over the orange flames. When she judges the food is finally ready, she sets to hungrily with an appetite that shows she hasn’t eaten in days. First, she bites off large chunks of rabbit and chews the pieces carefully. And as her hunger pangs gradually lessen, she takes smaller mouthfuls, taking time to actually taste the meat. After swallowing the last morsel, she stuffs a dry crust into her mouth, finishes off the meal with a handful of fresh berries she had chanced upon earlier, and washes it all down with a gulp of water from her water bag. Finally satisfied, she gives her slightly bulging stomach a tired pat.
When she was younger, she couldn’t bear the thought of catching and skinning her own prey. But then she would remember those cold, hungry nights the village had survived in the worst of the famine days. And she would realize she had no other choice.
After lingering for a few more moments, and scattering dirt and water all over the fire, she sets off on her journey again.
Deeper in the forest, wildlife springs with abundance, compared to the village. The grass is greener and thicker, woodpeckers peck at soft tree bark, and the air tastes of cool moisture. Moss thrives on rocks by cool-running streams and leaves rustle in the warm, piney breeze. Isobel catches her breath in awe as a fierce-eyed hawk glides powerfully through the wind. Slicing the air with its sharp, curved talons, the bird lets out a piercing screech and flaps its bronze wings. Watching it soar through the clear sky, Isobel realizes that the hawk reflects the rugged, wild beauty of the land, containing its dangers and strength. Emitting one last screech, the hawk brushes its brown wings against the pine peaks, then rises high on a draft of wind and flies east until it becomes a dark speck in the sky.
As she leaps quietly over a decaying log, Isobel even spots a flash of white of a deer’s upturned tail as it darts through the woods. Her sling is up in an instant, excited at the thought of fresh deer meat to take home. But the graceful fawn bounds away into the trees, nimble as a shadow.
Pausing next to a small pond, she sighs forlornly, scrutinizing her small figure.
Her reflection in the pond eyes her seriously. Isobel sees a girl with determined features wearing ripped overalls over a white short-sleeved shirt. She stands with her arms crossed, and holds a sling as if she knows how to use it. Deep gold-red, almost nut-brown hair falls down to her shoulders, and scruffy bangs reach down to her thick, dark eyebrows. She’d always thought her hair reflected the colors of autumn; a lighter reddish-blond when the sun bleached it in the summertime, and even a deep gold-wheat-brown in the colder months.
Although her face is impishly pretty with high cheekbones, the odd observer would still be able to see the light spattering of freckles on her nose. But her eyes are a different matter. Large, green eyes tilted upwards to make her face interesting, reflect the deep, calm green of the forest. Sometimes, they sparkle with excitement at a new mischievous plot, other times they are set with determination, sometimes they brim with fury, but most often they glint with barely controlled laughter.
Although she’s smaller and shorter than boys her age, a fact she detests, she has a surprising wiry strength that comes of a lifetime of climbing trees. Some days, the village kids gather in the woods to play, daring one another to climb the highest trees or run the fastest length. For her part, Isobel runs surprisingly fast, often outrunning even the fastest of the village boys.
Soon enough, she finds an oak tree and, having nothing else to do, begins climbing. As trees go, this oak is a huge one, dominating the surrounding trees through sheer height. Layers and layers of leaves sway in the warm wind, letting the sun filter through as Isobel scampers up the tree. She has been climbing for as long as she can remember, ever since she used to live with her parents in Northern Iliria, hidden in a cottage in the mountains. Ever morning when she would wake up, she would see the see the rays of the sun parting the mist like a curtain and illuminating the line of mountains in the distance.
The south is tamer than the north. The mountains are rounder and greener, the trees leafier, but the north is a rugged land, with a savage, wild beauty Isobel grew to love. Tall fir trees clung to the jagged, snowy mountain peaks. It was also colder, Isobel remembers as she heaves herself up, reaching for a left handhold before moving her right foot higher. When she had arrived in the South, she would lay in bed most nights wide awake and count the number of days until she would see her parents again, half-hoping they could go back to the way life was before the raiders came. But she was too young to realize the full force of what had happened.
She would never come back.
Isobel wipes a tear away, and sniffles. She grips her fists, and frustration wells up in her throat. I’m supposed to be tougher than that! I can’t change the past, and crying ain’t gonna make a difference. I ought to know that by now.
Gritting her teeth, she hauls herself up higher up the swaying tree. She scurries up a thick branch and lies down on her belly. To distract herself, she gazes out across the countryside, taking in the rolling green hills that cradle the best apple trees in all of Eirelande. She loves watching the soft green tones of the south, and the people working hard in the fields. Below her, the village lies spread out, with its small thatched roofs, rosy-faced children playing about in the streets. Merchants cry out their wares, and the jingling of harnesses can be heard as horses clip-clop their way through the busy market square, pulling along two-wheeled chariots. Soaring above all stands a church, with a cross above its silver-covered dome. The morning light makes it gleam like a second sun.
Acres of farmland surround the village. Corn fields, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, wheat fields are fed and watered by the hard-working farmers. Trees border the farmland, and even farther away lay the mountains of the north. It would have been beautiful. If Isobel could almost forget it was there.
She looks away sadly, a chill runs down her spine. If somehow her eyes could skip over the large patches of ash-covered land, the dead, dying land, she could almost forget about the famine. The wind blows softly through the trees, rustling the leaves. It sounds like rainwater splashing down an alley.
But all at once, the usually peaceful sound seems sad, almost lonely.
Staring down at the forest of trees and the village beyond, Isobel suddenly remembers a sunny day not too long ago, when she had been walking through the bustling market square with orders to fetch vegetables for Auntie. She had heard something chilling, something that shook her down to the marrow of her bones.
Facing a fruit stand, not far from the dusty street, she had heard a voice in the background that sounded vaguely familiar. The tomato-seller, a beefy woman called Mathilde, was talking earnestly with a rather uninterested-looking old woman. Isobel remembers quite clearly she had a face on her that looked like it had taken a bite of sour plum.
“You wouldn’t believe what I heard the other day, missus Gertie dear!” Mathilde began eagerly, her face red from struggling under the weight of several sacks of eggplants.
“Probably wouldn’t,” she sour-faced lady replied. “I don’t bother with useless gossip!”
“Well I do,” Mathilde informed her. “After all, I might miss something important. But I didn’t, ‘cause I had my ears wide open. Would you like to me to tell you what I heard yesterday, dear lady?” Without waiting for an answer, she took a break to continue but the sour-faced woman interrupted her.
“Ach! No need to call me ‘dear’ an’ ‘lady,’ for goodness sakes! I ain’t some fancy rich lady and I ain’t as young as I used to be. So I got no need for those nicknames. “‘Gertrude’ will suffice.” She bent her gnarled back to pick up something that had fallen on the floor.
“Very well, my dear lady,” Mathilde persisted; ignoring the mumbled groan of complaint aimed in her general direction. “Just listen for a while to what I have to say. The other day, my husband John, the ol’ miller workin’ at Creek Dale, heard that his friend Thomas said his wife saw something in the woods! Dead midnight it was, not a soul stirrin’. With all the animals driven deep into the woods because of the famine, it couldn’t have been a wolf or a bear. And I had to ask myself what on earth that could have been, because I ain’t inclined to believe in airy phantoms and the like. I base my judgments on strong, grounded facts.”
Gertrude nodded approvingly, who was, despite herself, looking sufficiently interested in what the other woman was saying. Mathilde continued.
“And so I asked my husband who asked Thomas who asked his wife. And she swore to him, upon her word, that she was sure it was a raider. No doubt about it, with those terrible wolf-dogs howlin’ after ‘em.”
Isobel suddenly choked with surprise, breaking into a fit of coughing and trying unsuccessfully to stifle her sounds. Mathilde suspiciously eyed the stall behind which she was hiding.
At the mention of the fearful, prowling band of outlaws, the old crone’s eyes grew wide with disbelief. “Raiders? That’s the last thing we need! Imagine the chaos if the villagers found out!” Then, she paused, looked down over her beaked nose at Mathilde and crossed her arms. She said stubbornly. “An’ I don’t believe you!”
“But it’s true, Gertie dear! I asked how on earth could that be possible, since we’ve had no sign o’ them for months now, thinkin’ they’d gone from wherever rock they’d been a livin’ under before they came here. But I’m a clever-thinkin’ girl and so I asked Miss Stacy myself, who showed me the tracks o’ those raiders in clear daylight! And understand this, Gertrude ---“ she lowered her voice and looked around furtively to make sure no one was watching. But Isobel had exceptionally sharp ears, and cocking her head in their direction, she heard Mathilde whisper, “Them folk say they’re back to raidin’ and plunderin’ like the no-goods they are. And you know how those folk at Creek Dale are relied on daily for news. They say even the Falcons know they’re back. Now what do you make o’ that?” Mathilde finished, proud to have shown Gertrude the results of her resourcefulness and keen mind.
Gertrude seemed determined to remain stubborn. Her mouth wrinkled like a raisin as she narrowed her eyes and squinted at the sky. “Well, I wouldn’t be inclined t’believe this talk if it was anyone else but you, who told me, Mathilde. But there ain’t nothing like gossip to start up your fears and doubts, which is why I stay well away from it, eh!” she replied bluntly. “You should know one thing about me by now and that is that I don’t believe anythin’ I hear without solid, concrete proof!” She waved her crooked finger at the towering Mathilde, but this didn’t have any effect on the enormously fat lady. She smiled hugely.
“Oh, proof is what you want? Well, now there’s no trouble in findin’ that! The other day I heard that my cousin Alice, who you well know lives out further west, had been ransacked, and her neighbors as well, of their flour and dried meats, and, well, that got me thinkin’. We might have our stomachs stickin’ to our spines with hunger with this famine, and our bones jostled with earthquakes, but we thoroughly beat back the raiders when they had invaded Eirelande years back. And I don’t think they’d be in too much of a hurry to be coming back here, after the wallopin’ we gave ‘em. And what does that tell you?”
Gertrude eyed Mathilde skeptically. “I figure they must be in dire need of supplies,” she had responded.
Mathilde beamed. “That’s right, Gertie dear. And that must mean that famine has got to them, too. They’ll be wantin’ more and more supplies from us, meaning there’s danger headed our way like a storm over a ship in the ocean. And I ain’t stayin’ around to witness the moment the storm gets here. I am gettin’ out o’ there, along with my children. I need to keep the young ones safe, because you see, we have decided to move back to the North at our old farm. Perhaps you should do the same. The famine hasn’t reached the North yet, nor the raiders. Many are already packing…”
Isobel heard no more. Hastily paying for her vegetables, she ran all the way home and told Auntie all that she had seen. The clever old lady wasn’t in the least surprised; she had heard the rumors too. She had calmly explained to the trembling Isobel that what she had heard may have been mere rumors, or not. And if they hadn’t been, then there wasn’t anything they could other than watch, wait, and listen. But this wasn’t enough for Isobel. Her curious, adventurous nature made her decide she was going to find out as much as she could about these raiders, and do everything she could to keep them at bay. She wasn’t about to let them take over her homeland, the way they had done to all the other unfortunate villages. She had already lost her parents. She wasn’t going to lose her future.
Looking out past the green hills, Isobel realizes she has grown to love her new home as much as she had loved her old one. She loved Auntie, her friends and living in the south among the peaceful green hills. She can’t bear to watch this slip through her fingers, as well.
Roughly brushing a tear away, she hastily clambers down to the ground and heads to the hideout.

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