1 The Evergreens
Everyone rises so early in Mirren and Luna Evergreen is no exception. She is now rummaging towards the barn, ready to rake the hay from the past harvest. Luna Evergreen is prim and proper ever since she set foot in this world, rumor it is that as a babe she cried so gentle it made the cows of the barn fall asleep. Evergreens are earnest and popular farmers of Mirren, that is until Luna's father has tried his luck mountains and seas away and beyond the Division, onto the lands of the Powerful Ones. Her father hasn't returned ever since and she knew deep inside her heart he has abandoned them.
With their mother dead from tears of their father's disappearance, Luna and her younger brother, the little runt Cal Evergreen has become slaves at the vicinity of their own home. Their aunt, Fonsi and her husband, Hodge the Gulper, has taken "care" of them through the ways of living at the dank mansion, lying on little to no lowm, while letting the real heirs live on a small, foul shack just before the tall crops.
Luna, on her beige dress knitted with elaborate ruffles on its ends, carefully tied her hair on a bun. She gripped the rake tight and continued to the byre with her flaccid boots. Cal is already on his jumpers and straw hat when she entered, stabbing hays with his rake and throwing them into a wagon.
"You're here." Luna whispered.
"Yes. Why do you look so surprised?" Cal said, sniffing the foreboding drip from his nose.
Cal is robust for a ten-year old, with years of working as a farmer; his body has taken a stretch. Firm muscles already grew into his small, unready stature. With his unkempt russet brown hair, he looked like a broccoli with an overgrown stem. Luna, on the other hand, is high and slender of fifteen. Her lips are thin and eyes those of a surprised deer, blue and deep. Her face frizzled with freckles and jaw strong and right.
She joined her brother with a smile.
"We need to rush or Aunt Fonsi will be furious." Luna nipped on her lips as she grabbed a bundle of golden hay.
Cal talked briskly without looking at her. "Let her be furious. Let her grow angrier and older then she will die."
Luna halted. "Cal, stop! She is our aunt!'
"So what? She doesn't even have the right to be the same blood as ours. She's filthy and disgusting. Along with her husband, that Gulper. They don't really care about us. They are only waiting for us to reach our graves with this endless work so they can dive in our inheritance." Cal said bitterly.
"Watch your mouth, Cal. Let's just work. Our patrons are sure waiting."
And so they worked. The first rays of sunlight are already licking the clouds when they had finished loading all the hays into their carriage. They are ready for delivery.
Cal wiped the grime off his forehead with his musty gloves and stared at his sister that is already mounting the seat of the carriage and reaching for the reins.
"Cal, you coming?" Luna asked.
The young boy glared at the mansion that is theirs on paper but not tangibly. A mansion of four stories, with tattered roof like of a baby's toothless mouth, its crimson walls stained with green veins and forgotten memories. No matter how rickety the mansion is, it's better than the bent shack that seemed like it's being swallowed by the earth. He will secure it someday, when he is of age, then he will drive his aunt and uncle into the wilderness, he knows it…and then watched his sister who is now staring at him.
The brawn and lovely twin horses whinnied and moved on their restraints.
"I know what you are thinking, Cal. But not today. Soon." Luna said with tranquility.
Cal hates Luna, she can convince him so rapidly. He hates it. The boy heaved a deep breath, caressed one of their horses, Bleach, and climbed beside his sister.
"Now we work." Cal finally said.
Luna smiled. "And now we work." She whipped the reins. "Hiya!" And the horses, Bleach and Dim, sped out of the farm.
The way towards the town is one proof that the siblings are ardently living at the actual edge of the Ends of the Earth at the cover of the Arid Lands. The road seemed like an endless desert, on both sides are countless harvest stretching towards the endless oblivion. Ravens crow while perched on scarecrows. Roadkills are flocked by flies. A stark horizon. Even though the Arid Lands of the Ends of the Earth are not wholly entangled at the Hundred Year Nuclear War, its effects are jarring and evident: the skies are still acidic for three hundred years after the Nuclear War. Some parts of Mirren are implantable due to its poisonous earth and the nuclear effects have shortened lives of the people of Mirren. Mirren's population has never surpassed a hundred mark.
Luna has always wondered what it's like beyond Mirren, past the other regions of Arid Lands: the Golden Leech and Shrimp, onto the cold and dead Frigid Sea and over the Division Wall and into the land of the Powerful Ones, the Marvel Continent. She can't comprehend how much the Hundred Year Nuclear War had affected the continents away from the Ends of the Earth, that are completely part of the web of the Nuclear War. She has never seen a Powerful One and she doesn't yearn for a chance. Her father vanished because he entered the Marvel Continent, their lands…surely they did something to him. Being a Normal One is good...better rather.
Just after the long-standing and biggest bridge of Mirren engulfed by giant roots, below a river, is the town. If it can be called a town. The town of Mirren is composed of three pubs, eight supply shops, a bakery, two blacksmith workshops, a diner and the town hall, all forming a U-shape.
Already people are bustling at the small business district. Sneaky Green, the baker, is throwing the steel doors of the bakery and punching dough as seen from the display glass. Merchants and their horses are already hollering for customers on their elaborate riding shops. Early birds are already spending for their needs on the supply shop.
Luna pulled the reins tightly when they reached the back of the Clandestine Pub, the most popular out of the three pubs. Cal jumped down and quenched the thirsts of Bleach and Dim. Luna descended too and walked towards the backdoor of the pub. She knocked softly. Beside the door are the stables, eight horses are neighing, craving for hay.
"Old Turk!" Luna called.
Two more knocks and out of the backdoor is the old owner of the Clandestine Pub. Dirty apron on his waist and a bottle of wine on his hand, Old Turk is of eighty-four years and is considered the oldest of Mirren. Old Turk is a big drinker but he's always kind even when drunk as he is sober but tongue sharp like a new dagger. The long sugary beard has stressed his calm green eyes.
He burped. "Evergreens. Here for the hay?"
"Morning, Cal!" He called. Cal waved. Old Turk gradually advanced towards the stables and opened it. "Broke your fasts?"
Suddenly, Luna felt a punch on her gut. She learned easing the hunger on her belly everytime that it turns on the defensive mechanism by its own. That is unless someone will mention any word that refers to eating and the hunger will pinch her again. She shrugged slowly at Old Turk.
The smelly old pub owner considered her as he runs his tongue inside his cheeks. "Your loathsome Aunt again?" He said as he came inside, the horses on frenzy, Luna followed him.
"It's not that – it escaped our minds." She tried to reason.
"Madness. If your father is here, he won't let any of this happen. Excuse my ramblings, Old Turk I am." He breeched the small room for hays and looked at Luna.
"You, Evergreens are sure famous, in good and bad. Before, you are famous for being finest farmers, deliverer of good hay and egg and milk. That, your father had been blinded by marvelies and the chance of sight of the Powerful Ones. If he hadn't been any greedy about wealth then you all should be complete and good as bacon."
You don't know anything, Luna suddenly thought. My father isn't like that, he just wants a better future for us. But came out of her mouth are the words: "Nothing matters anymore. He is long dead. And my brother and I will wait until we're age and acquire our legacy."
Old Turk tsked. "Do you really think your aunt and uncle will let that happen? They'll slaughter you on your sleeps before you are both of age. Sorry for my crudeness. Just concern. Now, where's the hay?"
Luna bowed and went back to the carriage. Old Turk shook his head and observed how emaciated and grubby both children are. They are exhausted, alright. After Luna and Cal had carried stacks of hays into the room, Old Turk handed them ten lowms and asked them to have something for their growling stomachs inside the pub, but Luna refused.
"We have to run. We can't afford to arrive after our aunt has risen. There, we'll take our breakfast."
The stinky drinker bellowed. "Blast your aunt! Get inside and have some bread and cheese!"
"But – we can't." Luna started to protest but Cal stirred away from the horses and talked.
"I'm sure a bit won't hurt. I'm starving, Luna." Cal said, filling his head with his straw hat.
Old Turk licked the ends of his lips and glared at Cal and onto Luna. "See? Come on, inside, inside!"
Luna heaved a sigh and finally agreed. But before they can even enter the backdoor, a racket steeled their nerves. The shouts grew louder and then Old Turk's son, Langley, emerged clutching a spiked mace. Langley is like his old father, crass but kind. He's wearing a tank top above his strong chest and an apron on it. He is squeezing a lit tobacco on his mouth.
"Run, you thief! Run! I don't want to see your face again!" He belched.
Luna stepped away and there she realized that a figure before Langley is crawling. Langley lifted his mace.
"What is this ruckus?" Old Turk asked. The horses whinnied in startle.
"This daft has the nerve to order lamb and he can't pay a lowm for it!" Langley explained.
The fool that Langley calls is a golden figure. Yellow hair, pale skin, coated on a sun-coloured coat, tie and trousers, the young man is lanky, legs long and aura different from others.
A blood is trickling down his forehead. Luna gasped. Langley is about to hit him but Old Turk intervened and ribbed his son.
"Stop this! It's early in the morning. You don't want bad luck during openings, son."
"He is the bad luck. He's the first customer. Are you drinking again, pops?"
Old Turk laughed. "Always am." Then he scowled at the young pilferer. "You, outlaw. You are not from here, aren't you?"
The young man took a moment. Luna went to Cal and rested her arms on his shoulders. He looked up, brushed the blonde hair on his face and smiled. An impish, large smile. He has perfect, aligned, white teeth, good looking even with blood and filth on his face.
Langley's eyes swelled. "What is that smile? Let me smack your teeth in!"
"Enough, son. This man sure knows how to smile even with the shadow of trouble in front of him. I like you. What's your name?"
The young man finally stood up, with his long legs, it's not surprising that he will be so tall. He gradually wiped the soot off the pads of his knees and shoulders and parted his lips.
"I am Hogan."
"And where are you from, Hogan?" Old Turk asked.
He smiled again. "Classified!"
The look on Old Turk and Langley's face is priceless. Luna and Cal shared glances. What's wrong with this stranger? Luna thought.
Old Turk giggled, swigged from his wine bottle and talked. "I understand a man has to keep a secret. Alright. Go on and don't show your face at Clandestine again or I'll put your head at the entrance door. Go! Consider the lamb a welcome gift of your arrival here in Mirren."
Langley opened his mouth to complain but Old Turk had already struck his son's gut.
"Father…" He uttered. "This man…the lamb's price is not a joke…"
"Get in, son." Langley went inside, scratching his head. Old Turk jumped, turned to the siblings and called. "Almost forgot. Hey, Evergreens! Get in here!"
Luna cleared her throat. "It's alright, Old Turk. We can't pay for anything. Your son will sure drive us out with his mace."
"What nonsense! You are guests, not patrons. Come here or I'll get my lowm back!"
That made the siblings hurried up towards the backdoor, passing Hogan. Luna can't help but glimpse of this odd stranger.
"My lady." He suddenly said.
Luna froze, her feet shuffled. What's up with him? Hogan smiled, spun on his heels and walked away. He blended with the thick foliage and disappeared. A grip on her wrists made Luna jump, it's Cal pulling her inside and onto the tables.
While Cal gobbled down on the cheese and bread that Old Turk served them, Luna chewed softly and with courtesy, she won't even let her mouth display an opening everytime she munch on the puffy fresh bread. The bread is good, hot and salty. It dissolves like burning foam on her tongue everytime she takes a portion, releasing the delicious smoke it has been storing. The cheese is too sweet but just right. After all, she hasn't had this good breakfast since their mother died. All they got is soup or the leftover of what aunt Fonsi had ordered her bony maids to cook.
Luna finished her meal in one round while Cal asked for two more. She tried to warn him but he won't budge. As she was washing down the food stuck on her throat, she looked around at the Clandestine Pub, even as a popular pub, it's still considered underground. Out of all the three pubs, Clandestine has a bitter, dreadful history. Murders and brutal fights had occurred in this place. And Luna can sense death lingering in the air. It's small, tight and chilly. The ceiling is low with three fans spinning wildly. The windows are barred with metal as Old Turk can't replace glass each night as when patrons fight, the losing opponent always come flying out of the window by the end. There's not much feature in Clandestine, there's no trace of a single decoration in the place, just plain old saloon, popular because of its history.
Three men are drinking at one corner of the pub. Langley's wife, Florence, a plump, mousy woman is cleaning up a table of lamb bones, surely the table of the stranger who didn't pay. Who is he anyway? With Mirren so far away, it's very occasional to have outsiders. Everyone knows each other in Mirren. No one in their right mind will venture at the one of the "ends" of the Ends of the Earth, unless he's a criminal hiding from the evasive forces of the Norm Continents or from the strict government of the Marvel Continent. Luna shrugged, pushing the thought away. No Powerful One will cross the Division Wall. No one. Powerful Ones are sophisticated, living the rich and comfortable life, why would they go on a bleak, poor place? Only Normal Ones from the Norm Continents can cross boundaries, though illegally and secretive. No Powerful One had reached the Norm Continents, right? Right?
Luna jumped when she caught sight of the clock hanging above the counter. She quickly pulled Cal out of his seat, sending a slice of bread skipping out of his mouth. She bowed to Old Turk, Langley and Florence, thanked them deeply and came out with the backdoor. She only heard Old Turk laughing and cursing their aunt and uncle.
Their next stop is the stables of Sneaky Green's bakery. They didn't really talk with Sneaky Green because as his name Green is sneaky, he tricks girls so he can touch them and he is as green as the eucalyptus he mixes on his dough. In addition, they had tried to evade the smell of bread so they won't go hungry again.
Their last stop at the town is the stables of Fang, the brawn, black man that runs one of the blacksmith shops. Fang's greasy, with iron-like body and a bearded face. His beard black as the workshop he's in. Cal sneezed at the smell of oil, melting steel and sweat when they arrived.
Fang is smashing down a sword on an anvil with a massive hammer when they found him. He stopped, looked at them with his beady eyes. It stayed like that. Fang didn't move for seconds which made the siblings confused. That's when they realized that Fang is looking behind them.
"What's wrong, Fang?" Cal asked, glaring at his back just like his sister.
Fang spoke with his hollow voice. "Someone's on your trail." He dropped the hammer and the sword on a worktable, wiped his grease-coated hands and walked near them. "I can always lend a sword."
"We will be alright, Fang. Thank you." At that moment, Luna can't understand what he is saying because she hasn't seen anyone behind them when they were circling the town. And now, as she turns around, she only sees Bleach and Dim uneasy on their hooves, and the hunger on Cal's eye when the giant man had mentioned "swords".
Cal moved in front of Luna. "You'll do that, Fang? I've always wanted a sword so I can practice to be a warrior. I'll use my aunt and uncle as dummies. Lend us, please!"
"Cal!" Luna shouted.
Fang smiled and with his teeth it's seemed that he's also drinking oil. "Of course, it comes with a lowm."
Cal frowned and moved behind Luna. Fang's laughter shook the wood workshop.
"No, seriously. Watch your backs. Someone has its eyes on you."
What? What is he talking about? No one will target two puny and poor siblings, right? We were just delivering hays. Who would follow us? Luna answered with her mind. Then it clicked. That strange man, what is his name again? He's following us! But why?
The notion stayed on her mind when they are on their way back to the farm. Cal is picking his nose when he realized how slow Luna's navigation with the carriage is.
He called to his sister, wiping the filth from his nose on her sleeve unknowingly. "Hey, Bleach and Dim will die on how slow you steer."
Luna shook her head, blinked a couple of times and looked at her brother. "I'm sorry. Hiya!' The horses cried in excitement and raced on the empty roads of the empty Mirren of the empty Arid Lands.
Flashes of gold ran inside Luna's head. That man. He's following us. Is he a thief? A murderer? Or worst, a raper? Has he taken interest on us when he saw us? After all, he seemed a little loose on the head. Plus he unusually called me a lady! Luna almost screamed at the thought. He's sure behind them now. Now that Fang had mentioned it, she started to feel it. Then finally she glanced back. But there's nothing. Just the old road behind them. Surely, if he's following them he will be right there. He can't conceal himself under the dirt or on the vast open field on their sides.
And then the horses whinnied vigorously. Luna felt a jolt and is almost yanked out of the carriage when it suddenly stopped. Cal screamed.
She turned and on their way is the golden man, lying face down on the dirt, swollen, beaten to a pulp, blood oozing from his sunny hair. Is he dead? How did he turn up in here?
Cal went down the carriage and ran to man. Luna looked around, gathered her strength and did the same.