Chapter 1



andon reached to grab the next branch as he climbed higher up the ancient fir. He had climbed trees since he was a boy and knew the Smallwoods by heart. All the rabbit trails and fox dens, right down to the bird nests hidden among the branches of his favorite climbing trees. Uncle Ben told him he was much too old to do idle things like climb trees, but Landon couldn't give it up. He loved the heights. The way the wind blows through the branches, the view, everything. It had been his only escape when his parents had died.

            "Hurry up!" Mark called from below. Mark was Landon's best friend and, in truth, his only at that. It was hard making friends when you only went to town once a month.

            Mark was a ladies' man. He always boasted that he could climb the tallest tree in the Smallwoods and such, but called Landon a deranged lunatic when he actually did it. He swaggered about winking at girls and cracking jokes, rubbing a hand through his reddish-brown hair with a mischievous gleam in his hazel eyes. But now that sly smile had turned into an impatient frown as he watched Landon climb.

            "Almost there!" Landon yelled back and couldn't help but smile. He looked like an ant down there.

            Finally, he hoisted himself onto the top and looked around. The trees seemed to stretch on forever in a sea of green. He could see the small village of Tiltook in the distance and the Singing Mountains that towered over the forest. Something colorful was moving slowly toward Tiltook, but Landon wasn't paying any attention. He had closed his eyes to feel his favorite part: the wind. He loved the wind. He could feel it whip around his dark brown hair and blow back his coat. He imagined he could feel the wind around him, as if it was a part of him. The way it whistled through the trees and meandered between the branches. It almost seemed magical.

            "What do you see?" Mark  shouted eagerly. Landon's foot slipped. He had totally forgotten why he had come up here in the first place, and Mark's reminder had caught him off guard.

            He tried to grab something, anything, but it was too late. The next thing he knew he was falling hundreds of feet towards the lake below. A million things ran through his mind, but the only thing that he managed to register was that if he hit that branch about halfway down it might break his fall. Not by very much, but it was a shot. There was only one problem: the way he was falling, he was going to miss it.

            Closing his eyes, he tried not to think about how hard he would hit the water, but at this height, he had all too much time to think. The wind rushing by his ears couldn't block out the image. He was going to die. 

            Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blew him off course and right into the branch's path. Landon didn't have time to sigh with relief because he landed hard on the limb and did a summersault back into the air, not quite so fast as before. Landon could have laughed if he wasn't still falling.

            All the breath in his body was slammed out of him as he hit water. Sinking quickly, he struggled to find his way up. His whole body hurt from the impact of the landing and his muscles seemed to turn to water. He wasn't getting any closer to the surface, so he did what any person would have done. He panicked. Without thinking, he opened his mouth and water rushed into his already empty lungs. Thrashing didn't seem to help and his eyes stung from the lake water. To Landon's horror, he couldn't tell which way was up or down anymore. Slowly, his efforts died with his strength until he couldn't seem to move. This was it. He was going to drown.

            He thought about Uncle Ben and how sad he would be when he found out his only living relative was dead. Would he be able to manage the farm without him? Ben was able, but still old. Sadness filled Landon until he could hardly bear to try anymore.

            Something on the edge of his consciousness told him he was being dragged, but he dismissed the notion. It didn't matter; he was going to die.


Landon's hearing returned first. He could hear birds chirping and twigs cracking as something moved next to him. Something was pumping down hard on his chest and Landon realized he was still alive. How? One moment he was at the bottom of the lake, desperately struggling for air, and now he must be lying on the forest floor. He could feel his wet clothes clinging to his skin. Something soft brushed down on his lips and his eyes automatically flew open. He couldn't believe what he saw.

            A girl about his age with a curtain of long blonde curls was performing mouth to mouth on him. Her large blue eyes widened when he woke and she quickly pulled back. But before he could get a word out, he felt something emerging inside him. Leaning to one side, he spewed out more lake water than he remembered swallowing. Coughing, he wiped a hand over his mouth and looked around. She was gone.

            Landon wanted to search for her, but he felt like a lead weight. Flopping back down, he gulped for blessed air. She had saved him. Who was she? He had never seen such blonde hair before. Where had she come from? Questions buzzed in his head, but he didn't have any answers.

            Something snapped in the forest and Landon sat up, hoping for his rescuer, but instead he saw Mark running toward him with a relieved grin on his face. "Goodness gracious, Landon! Don't scare me like that! I look away once and, poof! you're gone. I thought you were crow food, man! I came out here looking for your sorry dead body! How did you survive the fall?" He laughed faintly. "By the looks of you, you must have taken a little swim." Trying to collect himself, Landon told him briefly how the girl had dragged him out and revived him. Mark looked doubtful. "How much water did you swallow, man?" One look at Landon's scowl told him not to press it. "What did you see?" he asked. Landon tried to remember what he had seen moving towards Tiltook. Something large and colorful...

            "The circus is in town," He breathed.

            Mark brightened visibly. It wasn't often anything came to Tiltook. People don't come this close to the border unless they had good reason. Landon thought that was ridiculous, the Saldians never crossed over anymore, but people seemed to think it was still the Song War or something.

            "What are we waiting for then? Let's go!" Mark exclaimed as he helped him up. He examined Landon emptying his waterlogged boots and snickered. "But you might want to change first." Landon made his way through the trees with Mark chatting excitedly about his fall and the circus. Landon noticed he was deliberately avoiding his claim about the girl and decided not to bring it up again.

            Uncle Ben's small wooden house sat peacefully next to the stables and pasture. A barn stood a little ways off with animals noisily going about their business. Landon had lived here with his uncle ever since he was seven, but it still made him wonder what life might have been like if his parents were still alive. A burning hatred kindled inside him. It was all the Saldian's fault. They had killed them.

            Uncle Ben was reading when Landon walked in. He peered through his glasses at him and stroked his graying beard like he did when he was thinking. "Went swimming?" he said incredulously. He knew perfectly well that you didn't go swimming in your shirt and boots. "I guess you could say that," Landon answered wryly. He was in no mood to talk about it. The old man must have caught the message because he didn't press him. He just went back to his reading. Landon cast about for a good approach, then decided to cut to the chase. "Can I take Wildfire to town? The circus is here." Ben paused, then sighed and said, "Be back for dinner." Landon hurried and got dressed into dry clothes, then headed back outside to saddle his bay. Mark was waiting for him on the horse he had ridden here next to Wildfire. His reddish-brown coat shined as he pawed in greeting. Landon realized he was just as eager to meet his horse as the horse was for him.

            They mounted and began riding toward town. It was a long ride, but Landon had made this trip his whole life and knew all the shortcuts and the best places to water the horses. By the time they arrived, the sun was just beginning to slide down the sky. Landon rode into quite a crowd.

            Everyone was either pushing toward the show or trying to get away from the mass. People hustled about with groceries bought from the hawkers that cried their wares and children weaved in and out under people's legs. Carts and wagons made little progress with so many people about and horses whinnied impatiently as they maneuvered through the throng, hooves clip clopping on the cobblestone road. The town didn't have many people, but it seemed like everyone was out on the streets today. The houses were close together and the streets were small, making the village even more compact than it already seemed.

            He barely had tied his horse before the girls found him. They came in a pack, giggling and batting their lashes and smoothing their skirts like half-brained idiots. All the girls seemed to think he was some kind of special treat made for womankind. You see, they were all bored of the everyday selection and Landon Bren was the newest toy.

            He caught a little of what they whispered to one another behind their hands. All stuff like, "He's so cute!" and, "look how tall he is!" and that kind of gossip. How can a guy be cute? So what if he was tall? Landon thought he would never understand girls.

            "Hey, Landon," a pretty little girl with dark hair named Lydia breathed. Landon thought she might faint if she tried to breath any harder. Another in a green dress whose name he didn't know said, "Are you here for the circus?" All the others burst out with questions and giggled like maniacs. Before Landon could respond, Mark jumped in, obviously annoyed by the lack of attention they  gave him, "Yeah, we are. So if you will excuse us?" He didn't wait for an answer before dragging Landon away. Some of the girls whined and a few even tried to follow, but Mark brushed them off. "Thanks," Landon murmured. Mark just grunted. He was supposed to be the girl magnet, after all.

            They threaded their way through the crowd and came upon a large, elaborate sign that read KIRK'S INCREDIBLE TRAVELING CIRCUS SHOW all decorated with glitter and bright colors. Landon exhaled in an attempt to calm down, but his insides were bouncing. He had only been to a circus once in his life when his parents were still alive, but he hardly remembered it being so grand. Men ate fire and contortionists twisted their bodies into impossible forms. All sorts of animals did all sorts of things and all the little shows had their own crowd of village people goggling and clapping. As he walked, he couldn't help but gape himself. Never in his life had he seen such wondrous displays.

            Landon heard something that caught his attention; someone was telling the story of the Evers. A storyteller no doubt. He had heard a few different storytellers entertain before, and they were good. They captured the audience with hand gestures and told tales of heroes with such vehemence that it had all the listeners leaning forward to hear what he had to say. It was like they took you back to the Song War with them and you saw the whole thing with your own eyes. It was amazing.

            This storyteller had dark rumpled hair and an impish glint in his eye, and although age lines were etched into his face, he still looked young. He wore a fancy red coat and a cape that would have made him stand out in any crowd. Flourishing his hands, he boomed his story to the crowd. "During the Song War, I was just a young servant lad in the Palace of Songs." People murmured to one another, some in doubt and some in awe. The Song Palace was the place where all types of Stormsingers (Windsingers, Firesingers, Earthsingers, Watersingers, Thundersingers) go to train in their abilities. It was strictly off limits to anyone but Stormsingers or employees unless you had a good reason.

            He ignored the buzz and continued. "And when I was there I served the Evers in their quarters." He paused for affect and stared down the multitude with powerful dark eyes, then went on when he was satisfied with the audience's eagerness. "I remember her, the Watersinger. She had large dark eyes with rich brown hair and a smile that could melt your heart. The man, the Earthsinger, had black hair and brown eyes that seemed to penetrate your deepest thoughts and secrets, but his laugh was rich and pleasant. I don't know their names, of course," Nobody knew the Evers' real names, "but they loved one another dearly, no doubt about it. I'll never forget the way those two looked at each other as long as I live." He smiled to himself and raked his eyes over the people. Was it just Landon or did his eyes linger on him for a moment?

            Somebody in the audience shouted, "Tell us the story!" There was no doubt which story he was talking about.

            The storyteller sighed and pretended to be hesitant, but an amused sparkle in his eye betrayed his zeal. "You want the story of the Evers, eh? Well, all right, so you shall have it. It all started on a dark stormy night when the King's evil advisor became angered with him for his mercy and forgiving nature. He thought he was not fit to be king. He wanted the power all to himself. The adviser plotted against him and organized a secret order behind his back to serve him and help him reach power. While they murdered and performed horrendous deeds for Carlon, they wore black masks to hide their identities. Thus became the name 'Blackmasks'. When Carlon gathered enough strength, he killed the King with a dagger to the heart and crowned himself King of Saldi." Somewhere in the crowd a girl gasped loudly. "He gained money and power while everyone else suffered. People wandered the streets hoping to scrape their next meal out of the garbage.

            "But the Stormsingers protested. The Evers lead a rebellion and took out most of the Blackmask forces. They located their camps and foiled all their plans until they could no longer enforce Carlon's rule. Most went into hiding after King Carlon was dethroned, but he wasn't finished. He terrorized all he could after the Evers disappeared and seven years later went missing himself. There is no doubt he is dead. As for the Evers, they were never found. But they remain forever heroes to us." He nodded with satisfaction when he finished. The people applauded and tossed coins when they realized he was done. Grinning at his own brilliance, the storyteller bowed elaborately, but Landon shivered when his eyes rested on him.....studying him. He was looking at him, and it made Landon feel uneasy.

            Mark, who had been waiting keenly for him, tugged on Landon's sleeve, eager to see the rest of the show. But as Landon turned to follow; he saw her. There in the space between two striped circus tents was the girl who had saved him.

            Her blue eyes scanned the people before she pulled her hood up and turned to run deeper into the circus. Nobody paid her any attention. "I'll see you later," he told Mark and started after her. "What?" Mark protested, looking disappointed. "Where are you—?" Landon wasn't listening. He had to talk to her. He had to know.....what? He just needed to know something.

            He followed her through the tents and watched her every move, hoping to find a clue about who she was. But she just snuck through the alleys and kept in the dark. It seemed she was heading towards the animal cages. What was she up to?

            Tailing became more difficult with his constant urge to cough, but he ignored his headache and remained silent. He had to find something out before she found out he was there. But finally the urge got the best of him and he sneezed. The girl whipped around and gaped at him, her eyes wide as though she had just gotten caught sneaking cookies. Landon didn't know what to do, so he just gaped back.

            "You! What do you want? Go away!" she chirped angrily and spun around. "Wait!" he called as she hurried away. "I told you to go away! I'm busy," she snapped back without turning around.

            He followed.

            "What is your name?" he asked, trotting to catch up. She shot a venomous glare at him, but answered. "Chelsea, if you must know. Now will you please leave me be?"

            "No. I'm Landon." She glanced briefly at him with.....what? Interest? But it vanished so quickly he almost thought he had imagined it.

            She didn't talk after that, and Landon followed her lead.

            He copied her slinking manner as they entered the tents for the performers and workers. A few people passed by leading animals or putting touch ups on their apparel, but what Landon worried about were the guards. They sauntered about searching for suspicious looking people to thump. You see, Guards eventually get bored and decide that anyone who gave them a funny look is a criminal. And these guards were definitely looking for trouble.

            Jumping behind a tent as a contortionist in a rather skimpy outfit strolled by, they veered around to another path and followed it to a large barred cage. A Grizzly Bear sat lazily in the cage and stared at them dully. Landon noticed whip marks on the poor animal's back and the way it just sat there like a sack of potatoes. He almost felt bad for it. Chelsea approached it and took a key out of her pocket. Landon watched in horror as she stuck the key into the lock.

            "What in the world are you doing?" he exclaimed as she twisted it. "Shhh. They'll hear you," she said calmly. Was she crazy? Did she get that if she let the bear out it might maul them both to oblivion? Landon imagined her getting ripped to shreds and decided that if he couldn't stop her, than he had better stay and make sure she didn't get shredded.

            Slowly, she pulled the door open and stood aside for the bear. It blinked, then hesitantly lumbered out and eyed them warily. "Go on, your free now," she coaxed as if the bear knew what she was saying. It looked at them one last time and ran into the forest.

            Chelsea watched the animal go, then turned to Landon. "They were abusing him," she explained. Landon couldn't think of anything to say, so he just nodded. Suddenly, she pulled off her hood and let her blonde curls fall down her back. His breath caught. He hadn't realized how beautiful she was.

            Landon's head suddenly felt heavy as he searched for something to say. "Why did you save me?" he managed to mutter. As soon as it left his mouth he knew it was an incredibly stupid question.

            "Well, I couldn't just leave you to die, could I?" she responded curtly. She seemed to like saving lives. Landon wanted to laugh, but instead he did something much worse. He leaned over and emptied his stomach between them.

            For a moment they both just stared at his lunch.

            "Are you okay?" she asked finally.

            "Fine," he lied, "I'd better go home." But she didn't buy it. "Can you make it by yourself? Where do you live?" She put a hand to his forehead. "Your burning up!" Landon couldn't think straight. He was in a daze. Burning up? He was freezing!

            "My horse knows the way," he muttered, starting towards the village. Her brow furrowed stubbornly and her full red lips compressed. "Oh no you don't. I'll make sure you get home. Show me to your horse and I'll see you don't get lost in the woods." Landon was too tired to argue, so he did as he was told.

            He longed for his mother, remembering when he had once gotten sick and she had nursed him back to health, telling him that everything was going to be okay. He wished she was here now.

            Chelsea helped him unsteadily into his saddle when he became woozy, but he hardly cared. All he could think about beyond his pounding headache was how incredibly beautiful she was.


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