Authors: Nicole Burr
The Keepers of LeVara
Copyright © 2013 LeVara Publishing, LLC
Cover Art Copyright © 2012 Nancy Nelson-Brotz
Map Illustration Copyright © 2012 Nancy Nelson-Brotz
All rights reserved.
For my family and friends, who have supported and encouraged all of my endeavors, no matter how insane. And to all the books that kept me up until the wee hours of the morning in greedy anticipation.
There are so many people to thank, egads!
To my husband, my Baelin, who inspired me to finally start what I’ve always wanted to do and who continues to support me through all the long revisions, the joys and obstacles. He tells me to hurry up and get rich so he can retire. I say baby, I’m trying.
For my parents, who always wanted me to think big. And who truly believed in me from the time I brought home smiley stickers on my first elementary school essays. You’ve listened to my hopes and dreams, comforted me through disappointments. I love you more than you know.
To my brothers, one so passionate and the other so patient, you really inspired much of what I wrote. You also remind me to laugh, and that you can never remember too many ridiculous movie quotes. I am always grateful for your support and honesty.
To my new son Benjamin, who reminds me that to smile and play are more precious than anything else, and that the dishes can always wait. There’s a world of fantasy to be discovered! And now I’ve created one for you.
To my aunts and uncles, who gave me honest criticism with love.
For my grandparents, who remind me of all the good things in life, like laughter, hard work and the power of love.
For my friend and artist, Nancy, who gave life to the characters and world of LeVara. Way better than my stick figures.
To my high school English teacher Mr. Stavar, who never let good enough be good enough. Abandon all hope ye who enter here!
And last but not least, to my Higher Power, the Great Spirit, the Mother Who is Called by Many Names. I follow where you lead.
Esra had sensed lately that someone had been watching her, but now she was quite sure of it.
Pushing aside the dense brush with her left arm, she squatted beside the two large, indisputable footprints. Meshok pranced up to the evidence and sniffed it suspiciously for a moment before turning to nuzzle Esra’s neck with her wet nose.
“Who are ye?” Esra whispered aloud to the forest, gently tracing her finger around the fresh edges of the indentations. She cocked her head to one side, a habit she had formed as a small child when she wanted to listen very carefully. There was the soft chatter of Birds, the dry rustling of crisp leaves, and the raspy panting of Meshok, but nothing else. Brushing off her hands, Esra grudgingly made her way back to the trap where two unlucky Rabbits awaited the soup pot.
Carefully unwinding the snare from the first Animal’s leg, she reset the trap with the quick precision her grandfather had taught her, tucking the end just beneath the loose surface of the ground. Wiping a trickle of sweat from her brow, she continued on to the next Rabbit with the same practiced motions. Using her field knife to loosen the snare, she noticed again how dull the blade was getting and vowed that she would sharpen it that night. Finished, Esra slung both Animals over her shoulder and began to wind her way through the Trees towards the farm.
It was apparent from the size of the footprints that the person was a man. She had a feeling for the last few Moons of something being near her at times, especially when she was alone in the forest. But it was as if no matter how alert she forced herself to be, the cause was always out of reach, a shadow fading just as she turned. Esra thought that finding confirmation of her suspicion would cause greater anxiety, but it was in fact a relief. She had begun to think she was losing her mind.
A twig snapped sharply behind her and Esra whipped her head towards the sound. She set the Rabbits down gently and scanned the Trees with slow deliberation, trying to take in every inch of the forest. Nothing. She laughed at herself for being so childishly anxious.
Get ahold of yerself, Esra. About to get into a full blown panic over a Whipbird or a Rabbit.
She turned her head to take a step forward when the smallest glimmer caught the Sun in the corner of her eye. Squinting towards the offending spot, Esra could barely make out what appeared to be the corner of a gold trimmed cloak peeking out from behind a Tree about fifty paces away. Slowly removing the dull field knife from her belt, she argued with herself over her next course of action. Not knowing if the person was armed, it seemed silly to approach them, especially since they must have a specific reason for not wanting to be seen. Yet she had to know who it was, why she was being followed. Meshok seemed extraordinarily unalarmed by the presence of this man and sat licking one of her paws. Maybe it was just a boy from the village, trying to scare her. Or maybe it was a thief.
Before she could make up her mind, the figure stepped out from behind the Tree with the hood of a dark cloak pulled down low over his face. Turning quickly, he sprinted away from Esra at an astonishing speed. Esra blinked her eyes in disbelief and forced her legs to move, stumbling a few steps before steadying herself enough to run towards the intruder. Meshok suddenly took off as well, disappearing just as quickly into the thick mess of Trees.
Esra’s chest felt tight from terror as she leapt over a fallen log and broke into a full run. Reminding herself to breathe, the branches of thinning leaves tore at her face and clothes. Although she was quite fast, her heart sank as she watched their forms growing steadily smaller in the distance. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to really catch the trespasser or not, but her body seemed to be in control of her pursuit. Urging herself forward in a final burst of adrenaline, Esra scanned the forest for any sign of the man, but he was gone just as suddenly as he had appeared.
Slowing down to ease the burning in her throat, Esra leaned against a large Oak, sliding down the rough bark until she was resting in an exhausted heap against its solid form. Panting heavily, she watched as Meshok came trotting up from behind a Tree to lick Esra’s cheek with her rough tongue. The Great Wolf sat with a sigh and stared at her with boredom, as if they had not just been frantically chasing down a strange, large man.
“A lot of help ye are,” Esra sighed, “Ah well, even if ye saw who it was, ye couldn’t tell me anyway.” Allowing herself a few minutes to regain her composure, Esra stretched her trembling legs to try and relieve some of the tension from the unanticipated sprinting. Pulling herself up slowly, she tucked the knife back in her belt and scratched Meshok behind the ears before slowly making her way back to where the Rabbits lay. She wondered if now that the man had been discovered, that he would leave her alone. Her hands shook as she plucked the Rabbits off the ground and walked quickly, wanting to be out of the shade of the forest as soon as possible.
Upon reaching the boundary of the Tree line surrounding the low green fields of the farm, the Great Wolf was suddenly ready for another game. She turned around and playfully dipped the front half of her body, tail swaying.
“Ye want to race again, after all that?” Esra asked incredulously. They stared at each other for a long moment, neither moving, until suddenly Esra bolted out of the edge of the forest at full speed. The Rabbits bounced clumsily on her shoulder as Meshok spun effortlessly to pursue her with long, full strides. Knowing that she could very easily be overtaken, Esra laughed at the Wolf’s generosity as she slammed into the door of the house and burst into the kitchen, claiming her victory.
“My goodness!” Esra’s grandmother shrieked as she dropped her basket of Vegetables. Meshok plucked a Carrot off the floor and swiftly made her way to the hearth rug, her favorite eating spot. Plopping down, she swallowed the prize in a few loud crunches. Esra laughed as she pursued a Turnip that was rolling for freedom towards the back door, her grandmother’s flustered sigh trailing behind her. “Yer lucky I don’t drop dead with fright when ye run through here like a wild banshee.”
“Sorry, grandmother,” Esra apologized, continuing to gather the runaway Vegetables. It was as if they had multiplied upon hitting the floor, and she scooped up handfuls of them into her skirt. Meshok got up with a groan and slinked towards grandmother, rubbing affectionately against her legs in an offering of truce.
“Ah, well. Ye may kill me in the end, but at least ye’ll give some color to my cheeks in the meantime,” she patted her face and winked at Meshok, whose charm she could hardly resist.
“Esra, please get some Water so that I can start noonmeal,” grandmother called over her shoulder as she began to chop one of the Carrots with ferocity. There was always an element of resentment in the movements of her kitchen knife. If Vegetables ever decided to make war on her town, Esra’s grandmother would make short work of it, she was sure.
Esra pulled the bucket out from under the table and slung it over her shoulder. Being careful not to slam the heavy door behind her, she ambled towards the spring that bordered their property in the north, the Great Wolf close at her heels. Just this morning she had taken Meshok for a swim in the cool Water. Esra relished the way the streams would press around her body, creating a cocoon of refreshing fluidity. She imagined it felt similar to flying, the sensation of being weightless and free.
Dipping the bucket under the strong current, she looked up in time to see Meshok snapping her jaw shut on a rather large Huckfly.
“Well, looks like someone’s decided to eat early.”
Esra bent forward towards the spring and caught sight of her reflection in the small pool of Water that gathered at the eastern edge. It always made her think of her mother.
“Do you think I look anything like her, or that perhaps I take after my father?” Esra looked towards her friend who was now stretched out lazily in the Grass next to her. As a child, Esra had spent many long hours at the edge of this very stream, gazing over her face and trying to discern what parts were truly hers alone and which ones were inherited. She could not remember her mother or father, but she had spent countless nights imagining the details of their lives and mannerisms, so that after a while she felt as if she knew their stories almost as well as her own.
“Well, ye know I can’t ask the grandparents again. I stopped asking about my parents around the age of five, when I fully understood such questions would avail me naught.
It is not time yet, Esra,
grandmother would gently chide me. She always seemed to say this not with pity or frustration, but with a look that seemed to be a burden of knowing such things and the conflict of needing to protect a young child. It always disappointed me that they never said more.
“I do appreciate the fact that they did not lie to me, at least. How easy it could have been to concoct a story about a tragic death, a dramatic parting of loves. I would have grown up none the wiser.” Meshok seemed to cock her head as if she were smiling. “Yer right, the thought of either of them devising such a story is absurd. Although they both have a good sense of humor, grandfather even being quite silly at times, nowhere in all of the Kingdom of LeVara are there two more logical folk than my grandparents. I’d always expected them to hand me a guide to life at any moment, the black and white way to put everything in its proper place.”
Esra paused to swat at a particularly bothersome Bee as she thought about her grandparents and their consistency. By the time she was ten, she knew all of the dreary details of her parent’s untimely deaths by heart. Both had loved her very much. When Esra was only a year old, her mother had fallen ill with a slight fever and chest pain which turned very quickly into The Cough. She was bedridden for five days before she died quietly, her husband devotedly at her side. Only a few fortnights later, Esra’s father was thrown from his Horse while out hunting Vernok in the North Woods, the large, elusive Beasts known to feed a family for two seasons. He had died upon impact, before any of the other men could even dismount to help him. Her grandparents were heartbroken over both tragedies, as they were close to their daughter and her new husband, but the presence and energy of Esra pulled them through their grief.