Sep 03
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Igniting Writing ‘Explore’ Contest 2019, Submission by Katie from Igniting Writing

The ‘Explore’ themed teen creative writing contest, led by Igniting Writing, Lake Erie Ink, Fighting Words and Young Writers Project, is now up to 14 entries! Our fourteenth submission was sent in by Katie, one of our regular group members at Igniting Writing sessions, and her piece is titled ‘First Encounters’. It’s a fascinating read, with some brilliant characterisation and a prologue-like feel that potentially lays the groundwork for the story to be extended with further chapters - or maybe that’s just wishful thinking, hoping to see more of this world and these characters! Either way, have a read of Katie’s submission below:

Dia’s heartbeat echoed through the memories haunting her every breath, echoed through the deafening silence of her shattered world. She had failed. The final task she’d been given, she had let it slip from her grasp. Protecting the stone had kept the memories from coming back. But now she couldn’t stop them. The wailing of the baby among the smoke, her cousin’s harsh whisper and soft hands, her final task.

“Look after the stone when I’m gone.” She’d failed her cousin. Sobs took over her body as she remembered. The smoke. The heat. Barny’s endless wailing ceasing for good. Her cousin’s face before she ran back into the blaze. All they left behind was a title she was burdened to carry, but could never deserve. Crown heir… the words churned mockingly in her head. They left her with the weight of her mistakes hanging around her neck, the stone that had kept her emotions tied down. She never thought that would change. The silence. The weight. The grief. She learned to deal with it. She never thought that would change. She never thought she would want it too. The sobs wracked her frozen body as she remembered.

The disguise. Pretending to be a poor child on the streets of the mainland. Seeing the port city for the first time. She thought it was a place of suffering, as she first snuck out of her chambers in the castle. The smoke in the air was choking, the air cold and damp. And there were so many people on the streets. She could see the occasional smile though. The smile of those appreciating love, from someone who knew how precious it could be. Dia relished in the quiet joy of not wearing the crown that wasn’t hers. Her cousins were first in line. And then it had fallen to her. And she hated that.

Her momentary peace was shattered by the tiny hand reaching from behind her to grab the stone hanging from her neck. Sick horror engulfed her at the lightness without it. She gave chase. Chasing the urchin who had robbed her of the only thing that mattered any more. She caught up to the child, lunging for her stone, where it skidded across the ground. Both dove for it, until a cool voice above them spoke.

“And what would you young ladies be fighting over?” Dia grabbed the stone, holding it behind her back, as the guard who had stopped them grabbed the girl. She was younger than Dia had thought. No wonder she was so slow. She was struck by a pang of pity for the child, who, not even five, was put in a position where she had to steal from other children in the streets. She looked to the child, big eyes begging her to help, and was struck with memories of Barny. His hopeful laugh. His cheeky smile. His tiny, empty grave.

The guard pressed his arm into the child’s throat as Dia’s own closed up. “Why don’t you show me what you’ve got there, kid?”

Dia looked back at the child, then to the guard, and grew her fist from behind her back. She held it before her. The guard held the girl by the arm, holding out his other hand for the stone.

“Its mine.”

“Really? ‘Cos it looked to me like something you may have stolen from our foreign guests. Something rather special you’ve got there. Wouldn’t you let me see?”

Dia held her shaking fist up to the guard. Not breaking eye contact with the guard, she held the stone higher, and did the only thing she could think of doing in the given situation. She swallowed it.

The guard yelled something, dropping the girl and lunging for Dia, striking her across the face. A salty metallic taste oozed into her mouth. Blood.

Dia stumbled back, the girl running to her, and that was the last time she saw light.

Two tiny arms wrapping around her bought Dia back to reality. This cold, dark reality, the dampness in the walls that seeps into bones and chills souls. The child was trembling, whether from cold or emotion, Dia couldn’t tell. It had been so long since Dia had let herself feel anything, she couldn’t tell. Hesitantly, Dia returned the embrace. She held the girl, soothing her until her head rocked onto her shoulder and her breathing steadied, and continued to hold her, keeping her warm as she slept. Until Dia had stopped crying too.

Tap. Tap tap. The rattle of stones made Dia snap her eyes open. Not that this enabled her to see anything. A stone skidded to a halt beside her foot. Dia wrapped the girl in her threadbare cloak, setting her on the floor behind her, and picked up the stone. The tapping continued.

Suddenly, a sharp beam of light sliced through the cell. Dia’s eyes clamped shut. Working her way up to opening then, she began to make out a silhouette of a person in the gap. As more details took shape in her head, Dia saw that the person was a boy, around her age, thirteen or fourteen, and let herself relax slightly. Not that she trusted him, but at least he wasn’t a guard. Or her mother. At this point, she didn’t know which would be worse.

She stared at the boy. The boy stared back at her. She wondered if he was as bad as the men her mother said had lit the fire. As bad as all the men her mother had told her about. The ones she had left in the slums of her kingdom. Looked down upon by women. Her mother had said they all deserved it. Dia had never cared enough to wonder.

But she wondered now. She wasn’t sure why. She remembered, when she was in the city, seeing the families, the mothers and fathers working in tandem, the children playing together on the streets. Although they were in worse situations, she saw them laughing, loving, living, and that made her wonder if they were all as bad as her mother had said. If they could love. If the men living in her kingdom were suffering as those people were. If her mother was right.

Then the boy spoke. “What happened to you?”

“The city guards don’t look too kindly upon children on the streets.”

The boy frowned. He retracted his head from the gap he had made, and tossed something down to them. His impish face appeared again.

“lt’s bread. You can have it.” Not yet trusting his unexpected kindness, Dia approached cautiously. She was unwrapping the bread when she heard he boy let out a sickened gasp. She looked back to him. He was staring at the girl.

“Is that – a kid?” he breathed, horror lacing his tone. Dia nodded mutely, padding softly back over to her new ward. She was realising she probably should have probably thanked him when he spoke again.

“Let me help you escape.” Looking back at him, seeing the emotion in his eyes, Dia could only nod.

Every so often, the boy would come with food, blankets, and additions to their plan. And the occasional stupid joke. He asked her for a name. She said Dia. Her full name was tied to too much pain. He said a similar thing, and asked to be called Mer. As the girl didn’t seem to have a name, so they dubbed her Tien, after a flower that grew in the forest between Dia’s kingdom Favrivina, and another kingdom, Pugnator. The two kingdoms had been warring ever since Dia’s mother claimed the throne. But the forest between them remained untouched. Unclaimed. Safe.

Through the hours spent planning and waiting, Dia and Tien were waiting for the taps that would signal their freedom. Finally, the signal sounded, and the two prisoners stood back as the gap in the wall was broken open wide, and Mer was standing in the corridor on the other side, urging them to run. And so they ran.

Along the passage Mer had used to find the back of the dungeons, through the musty tunnels, until they at last found sunlight. They were free.

The three of them wandered through the city, avoiding guards, eating food Mer bought them, and taking in the world. They saw the factories, the farms, the workers slogging through the day to earn their meagre wages to take home. They saw children playing in the streets, laughing freely in a joy that they learned to savour. They watched the birds fly out to sea, giving them crumbs of food when they flew near.

Dia didn’t know how to get away. If Mer saw her going back to the castle, proclaiming herself the heir to Favrinia, he would think she had been ploying him. And she truly appreciated what he had done. These thoughts came about at the end of the blissful day. But it had to end.

As it turns out, she need not have worried. A heavy hand grasped her arm, dragging her almost off the ground. Squirming around, she saw that the guards held her companions too. And then they were back at the castle, to be bought before the king.

They were told to wait for the king to emerge from a meeting. Dia was scared, for more reasons than one. She knew her mother was in that meeting. She knew the king was cruel. She was scared for Mer and Tien.

That last one surprised her. She almost wished she didn’t care. Look what happened the last time she did that.

Finally, the king emerged. She had never seen him, but a chilling wave of fear tried to drown her as he looked upon Mer. Upon Tien. Upon her. Something like recognition lit his gaze as he looked down at her. Dia looked away.

Another voice, so familiar it hurt, reached Dia’s ears. “Your Majesty, I – well. Acidia. Where have you been?” Dia made herself look up at her mother’s voice. Met her gaze.

“What happened to your face?” Dia didn’t mistake the question for concern.

Dia reached up and gingerly grazed her fingers across the long scab running from her temple to nose. “What have you been doing? And why are you with him?”

The way she spat the final word sent a stab of fear through her. “Mother, he –”

Mer interrupted. “I was simply here for the show, your empressness. It’s always fun to see how you Fabrivians can embarrass themselves.” He smirked at Dia scornfully. “It was cute to see her try not to.”

The empress stepped up to Mer, the wrath of her kingdom directed at this child hardly older than Dia herself. And Dia began to understand. As Mer stared her mother down, Dia felt genuine fear for her… friend? She didn’t know if they were friends. But she knew she didn’t want him to be hurt. She stepped forward. “Mother –”

“What’s going on here?” a figure, tall, broad, and utterly petrifying marched into the hallway, stopping before Mer. Dia knew who he was. Her confirmed suspicions silenced her. As the king of Pugnator halted before his son, Dia bought into the ruse Mer was selling. And glared at him.

“It appears our heirs have encountered, your highness,” Dia’s mother sneered. “And I believe little Prince Merulan has made a grave mistake. He insulted my heir and I demand retribution.”

The king’s cold gaze swept over Dia, with her hungry eyes, scraggly hair and peasants disguise. “And am I meant to blame him?”

The empress ignored the taunt, and looked down at her heir. “Take this moment, and know, daughter, that this is all the Pugnatorians are. Never let them get to you. Come.” Taking Dia the arm, harshly enough to know she was in trouble, Dia looked back at Mer before leaving. To find his gaze filled with the same sorrow as her own.
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