GRADUALLY, Lily became aware that she was being watched.
Shielding her eyes against the low, winter sun, she swept her gaze over the gnarled, bare trees that stood gray and silent around her.
But still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere, a huge pair of eyes had turned upon her.
When Lily had first glimpsed the forest a couple of days before, it had looked forbidding—a silent, dark mass at the base of the mountains; the leafless, twisting branches clustered so thickly together that the light barely penetrated.
But as she took her first steps on the soft leaf mold beneath the trees, she had begun to hear it—the rustling in the undergrowth, the flap of wings overhead, the occasional birdcall, so harsh in the still air that she would jump and turn, and catch only a glimpse of black feathers. The earth shifted beneath her feet and yielded up things that moved and writhed and scuttled. Even the trees themselves, within their thick, cold bark, were alive. She had always known that; she had seen a few trees in the orchards of the city, but these were nothing like those ordered rows. Those trees were tamed; these looked as if they could reach for her.
Something moved in a nearby tree, and Lily jumped, letting the mushrooms she had been gathering fall to the ground. She looked closer.
Two dark, round, shining eyes peered back at her from the ancient bark. She caught her breath.
Then, there was a faint ruffle of feathers. Lily breathed out. The eyes belonged to a large, gray owl, which sat, brooding, on a branch, just next to the trunk, its mottled plumage making it almost invisible against the mossy bark.
The owl regarded her with a penetrating stare, and Lily returned it, unblinking. She tried to imagine what it would make of her. Would it see this dark-skinned human girl, wrapped in a mud-streaked apron, as a curiosity or a threat? Was she a guest here, or an intruder? The rational part of her nature laughed at the notion that the tree itself had been watching her. But at the same time, the owl was no less fascinating.
After all, she had seen streams of pure, liquid anger, and watched a captured voice float through the air. She had known things that seemed supernatural. But in all her fourteen years of life, she had never been so close to a wild animal.
A moment later the bird ruffled its wings and swooped down and away, breaking the stillness. As it did so, the breeze began to stir, and Lily shivered, wishing she had not left her cloak at the camp. Now was not the time for nature watching. Wearily, Lily gathered up the small pile of mushrooms again, and, feeling the ache of the cold in her steps, she made her way back through the forest.
* * *
As she walked, Lily began to smell the smoke from the campfire. Now she could make out a dark shape against the brightness—the silhouette of a boy, the firelight darkening his blond hair. He sat hunched against the cold, his legs drawn up to his chin, Lily’s cloak tight around his shoulders. Unlike Lily, who was wrapped up in many layers of dress, petticoats, and apron, the boy wore only a shirt and breeches, which looked as if they had once been of fine quality, back when they were clean and new. Every now and then, he poked the fire with a long stick. He did not look up as Lily approached, or when she sat beside him. His gray eyes stared into the flames, his expression grim.
Lily spread out her apron on the ground, showing the pile of mushrooms. She hoped she had brought enough. The mushrooms were not appetizing, but they had both been eating them for three days and they had not been poisoned yet.
“I brought some food,” she said cautiously. The boy didn’t reply. Instead, he pulled his stick out of the fire and, without looking at her, he speared a mushroom and held it over the flames.
Sighing Lily did the same. She was not especially talkative herself, but the forest magnified their endless silence. Every tiny rustle or distant call of an unknown animal seemed huge and terrible.
And still, Mark would not meet her eyes.
It had not been so bad, at first, back in the mountains. But then, the first couple of days were a blur in her mind. She remembered being ushered through the tunnels beneath the city, saw the door being opened for her, and the light streaming through, and then …
It wasn’t seeing Agora from the outside that had shocked her, even though it was an amazing sight. Without the city buildings to hide them, the stark gray mass of the city walls had loomed over her. She had spent her whole life believing that Agora’s walls were the limit of the world, and for the first few minutes, she found herself touching the stone, unable to accept where she was. But even so, she had prepared herself for that. She had made the decision to leave the city.
No, it was when she turned away from the walls to look outward, that her senses deserted her. The mind-numbing grandeur of the mountains rose up on all sides, shielding Agora in a deep, wide valley. Lily had seen the most incredible sights of Agora, from the Directory of Receipts to the Astrologer’s Tower, but beside the rugged peaks, silhouetted against the dawn, they were nothing at all. By the time she heard Mark shouting, screaming to be let back into the city—she could barely speak. She thought that she had mumbled something about it being “beautiful.”
At first, they had tried to find the river Ora, walking around the city until they reached the place where it flowed out through a vast, rusty grille set into the base of the city walls. Mark had insisted that they stop, to see if there was any way of lifting it, of getting back into the city that had been their world. But although huge, ancient chains plunged into holes in the walls, they couldn’t move the grate. Even so, they camped there the first night, huddling together for warmth, just in case anyone appeared to tell them that it was all a mistake and to welcome them home. No one did.
The next morning, they had turned their backs on Agora, and Lily, steeling herself, had told Mark everything.
After that, Mark had stopped talking. But at least in the mountains, it had been a passive quietness—almost as though he was elsewhere. It had been as though the shock of this new world had left him without anything to say.
But over the last couple of days, as they had entered the forest, that had all changed. He was still tight-lipped, but now one look at his face told her that he had plenty to say. And once he started, she knew that she wouldn’t like what she heard.
* * *
The last of the evening light faded away. As they ate, the world around them shrank until it extended only as far as the circle of light cast by the campfire. Lily glanced up again at her companion and, tentatively, she reached out a hand to him.
“Mark…” she began.
He snatched his hand away and turned, hunching his shoulders. He had grown early, and could sometimes be taken for older than his fourteen years, but sitting like this, he seemed so like a child.
On previous evenings, this had been how it had ended. Lily had scanned the clearing for lurking creatures, and then settled down by the fire and tried to sleep. Neither of them had slept well. Not that Mark told her, but she could tell from the dark circles forming under his eyes. It was as though the tension of the days, the oppressive atmosphere between them, was seeping into their nights. The next day they would take turns searching. Lily said that they were looking for food, but both of them knew the real reason. They were looking for any signs of another human being.
But tonight, perhaps because her nerves were frayed from lack of sleep, Lily jumped up and stalked around the fire, until she was facing Mark again. She knelt down in front of him, forcing him to look at her.
“Mark, we have to talk…”
“Go on, then,” Mark replied, staring back at her, his eyes cold in the firelight. Lily, taken aback, lost her resolve and sat back on the ground to gather her thoughts. She knew what she wanted to talk about, and also knew that if one thing were guaranteed to make Mark worse, it would be that.
“We need to keep moving,” she ventured after a moment’s thought. “We should try to find the river again. If anyone lives out here, they must live by the river, there’s no other freshwater—”
“Seen anyone yet?” Mark cut across her fiercely, “or is this another guess?”
“There must be someone else,” Lily said soothingly. “The Director said that others had left the city before…”
Lily stopped herself too late. She had not meant to mention the Director again.
“Pity he didn’t tell us what happened to them,” Mark said, and then added, in a strained voice. “Sorry, pity he didn’t tell you.”
For the hundredth time, Lily wished that she had not told Mark about the agreement she had made with the Director of Receipts, the ruler of Agora. It had seemed so simple—the chance to leave the city, to escape those dreadful streets, where everything and everyone was for sale. The chance, moreover, to find out the truth behind the dark secrets that had plagued their lives, plots that had already led to the death of a friend. The possibility, somewhere in this strange world, of finding her own vanished parents. It had been a once in a lifetime offer, and the price had seemed so tiny—that Mark would accompany her. At the time, Lily had been sure that he would leap at the chance. How could he complain, when he had lost everything? When Lily had last seen him, he had been rotting in a prison cell, dying from fever, and being watched over by a man he hated for selling him when he was younger—his father.
If his fever had only lasted one more day, Lily would have been his savior. If he hadn’t had a chance to meet his father, to talk, and to forgive him.
“I’ve told you,” Lily said, as gently as she could, “I didn’t know he was going to offer a way out, Mark. I never thought he’d give you the chance to escape from jail…”
“Don’t pretend you did it for me,” Mark growled. “You talk to the ruler of Agora, and he drones on about some ancient secrets, and suddenly nothing else matters—”
“This is something bigger than us, Mark,” Lily said intensely. “Didn’t you always want to be important? The Director said they’ve been waiting for us ever since the city was founded. Hundreds of years, Mark, long before the Golden Age began…”
“He said it might be us,” Mark replied. “It’s possible that we’re these legendary judges that they’ve been waiting for. You said that they’d been wrong before.”
“But what if they’re right, Mark?” Lily interrupted, with sudden passion. “Think about it. The Director said that we would make a real difference. That we’d change Agora forever! Wouldn’t that be worth it?” She sat forward, letting the firelight shine full on her face. “We could change it for the better, Mark. We could make it a place where children don’t get sold by their parents, where secret societies don’t kill our friends without a second thought, where people don’t have to sell their own emotions to survive!” Lily was getting heated now. “You were thrown into prison without even being allowed to speak at your own trial, Mark, thanks to Mr. Snutworth. My friends spend all their time running an almshouse, a charity, that’s always on the verge of collapsing, and why? Because people don’t care. Agora is our home, Mark, and it’s sick. It’s broken. And the Director told me that we, the two of us, can make it better! All we had to do was leave the city.”
Mark stared at her. Then, suddenly, he gave a hollow laugh.
“And you believed him?” he said with scorn. “He spins some story about ancient prophecies and documents from the foundation of Agora, and you do whatever he says?” Mark leaned forward. “I was an astrologer for over a year, Lily. I built my life on making up stories like that. And let me tell you something—prophecies are worthless. They’re all just big words and guesses. I thought you didn’t fall for that sort of thing.”
It was Lily’s turn to be silent, then. She so wanted to tell Mark that she believed every word the Director said. It had certainly felt real when she had been standing in his presence, with the weight of history pressing down upon her. At that moment, it had been so easy to accept that she and Mark were the legendary judges that the great Midnight Charter had predicted—the “Protagonist” and “Antagonist” who would, without realizing it, shape the future of Agora. But now, they had spent days in this bleak and empty landscape, and they had found nothing. No sign to tell them where to go, no guide to explain what they should do to fulfill their destiny. And when she thought back to what the Director had said—really thought, away from the awesome grandeur of the Directory—she realized that he had told her nothing. Given her no guidance, no idea of what they needed to do.
And yet …
“Why would the Director bother to trick us?” Lily said reflectively. “Why would the most powerful man in the city need to banish us?”
“Us!” Mark said, his anger flaring. “There isn’t any us about it. He wanted to get rid of you, Lily. You were popular. The whole city was talking about your Almshouse, about how it was a new way of life. You were already making a difference, don’t you see? Do you think the Director wanted that?” Mark shook his head in exasperation. “Did he even show you the bit in his precious Midnight Charter which mentions us?” Mark stared into the fire. “Think like him for a moment, Lily. He couldn’t stop you openly. Not after one of his receivers tried to kill us.”
“He didn’t organize that,” Lily said, defending the Director, but Mark’s look silenced her.
“Doesn’t matter,” Mark continued. “You threatened his power, Lily. So when you go to see him, he dangles this ‘great quest’ in front of you, and off you go. Problem solved.” Mark’s eyes filled with bitterness. “Only the stars know why he wanted you to take me too. Then again, if he and Snutworth really were working together, maybe I had to be silenced too.”
“No,” Lily said hastily, trying to ignore the awful feeling in the pit of her stomach that what Mark was saying made sense. “No, you’re wrong. There has to be more to it than that.” She looked at Mark, her calm evaporating under his relentless stare. “You’ll see, we just need to keep going for another day or two.”
“Where?” Mark leaped up. “Where are we going, Lily? Are you still expecting there to be a welcoming party for us, the Great Judges?” He flung his half-eaten mushroom to the ground. “I certainly hope they bring food.” Before Lily could respond, he threw his head back and shouted into the night sky. “Hey! We’re over here! The Protagonist and the Antagonist! Did we miss the party? Anyone out there? Hello? HELLO!”
Lily struggled to her feet, her head whirling.
“Mark, don’t do that!” she shouted. “There might be wild animals—”
“Why are we here, Lily?” Mark ignored her, shouting louder than ever. “Who do you think is out here in this forest?”
“We’ll find someone.”
“Who? Who are you expecting to find?”
“Someone … anyone … The Director said…”
“What did the Director say? What are we looking for?”
“He said my parents are here!”
It was out of her mouth before she could stop it.
There was dead silence. Mark stared back at her across the campfire. The anger that had been there a moment ago was gone; now his eyes showed only pained shock. Lily tried to say something, to tell him with all her heart that this was not the only reason, that she really meant what she had said about making Agora a better place. But it was Mark who spoke first.
“So,” he said dully, “that’s it.”
“Mark…” Lily began, but he would not let her continue.
“You don’t really care about any of this,” he interrupted, his voice growing in power. “You’re pretending it’s all about these high ideals of yours, but really you just want to find your parents. You tore me away from my father because that was the price of finding your own.”
“I rescued you, Mark, remember?” Lily said, the words coming out harsher than she had intended. “Yes, I want to find my parents. I didn’t tell you because I thought you’d react like this, but I also wanted to get you out of that prison cell…”
“But you didn’t ask me!” Mark shouted with rage. Lily felt herself take a step back. For the first time, she noticed that Mark was taller than her. “You didn’t even try to get a message to me! Did you think I wouldn’t have understood? I spent two years thinking my father was dead, thinking the last thing he did was to sell me. I had twelve hours back with him in that cell. I was just getting to know him again—”
“You wanted to stay in prison?” Lily snapped, the last of her patience ebbing away. “Locked up for crimes you didn’t commit, dying from fever and nearly going mad? What would it have been like after a week, a month, a year? In the end, you’d have had to face the fact that your father was your jailer, keeping you locked up in a stinking cell. I set you free.”
“Free?” Mark replied. He turned his head away, his voice quiet again. “I’m not free, Lily. I used to be locked up. Now I’m locked out. Cut off from the only home I’ve ever known.”
And in one, painful moment, Lily understood why he was so angry. Despite everything that had happened to him there, despite its flaws and corruption, Mark loved Agora in a way that Lily never had. In hopeless sympathy, she reached out a hand to him.
Mark turned his head back, and Lily pulled her hand away, shaken. She had never seen a look like that, not even on the faces of the worst debtors that had come to the Almshouse. His eyes seemed hollow, as though he had lost something that could never be regained.
He moved to the edge of the circle of light cast by the campfire, his face half in darkness.
“Where are you going?” Lily asked. There was no response. “We have to stick together, Mark,” she pleaded. “We’re all we’ve got.”
“Mark, where are you going?”
“Home,” he said, his voice steady, almost detached. “I’m sorry, Lily. I’m going home.”
And he walked out of the light.
A few seconds later, Lily heard him break into a run, his feet crunching on the dead leaves.
It was only a minute before Lily overcame her surprise and shock. Only one short minute before she began to call after him, her voice rising thin and desperate in the night air.
But by then, Mark’s own sounds were gone, swallowed by the silence of the forest.
Text copyright © 2011 by David Whitley