I’m often inspired when visiting natural phenomenon, such as the Grand Canyon, the ocean, snow-capped Rockies, even mosquito-ridden, heavy-aired, emerald-green bayous deep in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin.
About fifteen years ago while in Branson, Missouri at Silver Dollar City amusement park, I found myself 300 feet below the surface of the earth immersed in total blackness on a tour of Marvel Cave’s Cathedral Room, the largest cave entrance room in the United States. We proceeded to 500 feet below ground, experiencing intricate, weaving passages leading us to places like a shoe-shaped room and the narrow banks of an underground river running to no one knows where. After an hour of guided exploration, we rode the mining trolley back up to the surface. I was locked in a creativity trance. An entire story flashed before my eyes before I glimpsed sunlight again.
The following is a tiny window to the world born that day. Ironically, this scene from chapter two occurs in a tree house – not a child’s tree house, but an actual dwelling – the furthest possible from the depths of Marvel Cave. All I can say is, there’s a reason for everything. Meet Alastrina, my leading lady.
Underneath clusters of needles and pinecones swaying in the top boughs of her tree house, Alastrina and her two best friends, Aine and Arlette, laid on their backs, their manes a twirl of exact raven black. Gazing at a myriad of stars winking through wisps of feathery clouds, she inhaled the heady, sweet scent of lilac mingling with the pine. She loved this spot, this time of night, these two girls.
Not having any siblings of her own, Alastrina relished in the closeness she shared with Aine and Arlette. Like sisters since childhood, they looked as if cut from the same fabric. Each about the same height, their eyes glistened the color of the Egairram Bay in the summer, their skin a flawless hazelnut. They were as inseparable as triplets, but change colored the horizon like the first light of dawn.
“I can’t believe it is still a month away,” Aine sighed, squeezing the hands of her friends. “It seems like the day will never arrive.”
Arlette returned the squeeze. “But there is so much to do before then. Why, my dress is hardly even pinned together. And yours only half finished.”
“I don’t care,” Aine pouted. “It can all burn as far as I’m concerned. Tomorrow would be better than four weeks.”
Alastrina rolled her eyes. “If your wedding was tomorrow, girl, you would have no where to live. Kanet has not completed your tree house yet.”
“What more do we need than a lookout platform? One square of living space is all we’d require… for now at least.” Her voice held a bride-to-be’s anticipation.
Arlette stifled a giggle. “I’m sure the rest of the villagers would appreciate you having more than that. Have some decency, Aine.”
“And let’s not forget what it means to Kanet for him to make your first home,” Alastrina reminded in a practical tone. “He is so excited to show it to you.”
Aine sighed again, frustration backing her pleas. “I know. But he’s been so consumed with this project I’ve hardly seen him for weeks. And he won’t give me just a little hint which tree it’s in. He’s incurable.”
“Have some patience, Aine. You’re already an old maid. You might as well wait one more month,” Alastrina teased, drinking in the light of the full moon peering over a cloudy silhouette.
“Indeed. You’ll be seeing more of him than you care to soon enough,” Arlette warned, elbowing Aine in the ribs.
“Arlette, for the love of Ianoda,” Alastrina scolded, throwing her own elbow. “Watch your mouth.”
She rolled on to her stomach and peered over the edge of the platform. Three other tree houses shared the clearing, a main route to and from many of the other Aron dwellings. Murdoc and his three children lived just to the left, Macklin and his large family lived just to the right, and Aine’s family lived across the way. An occasional hoot of an owl punctuated the otherwise silent night, the dim glow of safety lamps hooked to every tree the moon’s only accompaniment.
Arlette and Aine continued whispering silly comments in each other’s ears. Alastrina smiled, but tried not to listen. Not that she felt ill or irritated about Aine’s upcoming wedding, on the contrary, but splicing every detail about it never interested her. So she let them carry on while she concentrated on her beloved forest.
She knew the precise moment a foreign sound invaded her musings. Shivers prickled down her spine and her hand flew out toward the other girls. “Shhhh!”
Aine and Arlette hushed and twisted over to line their noses along the edge. “What?” Aine whispered.
Alastrina waved her hand in Aine’s face then fixed a keen gaze on the clearing. Set like a stage with pine curtains and a full moon spotlight, the area below lie empty and still, not even a passing firefly. But then she heard it, the sound of metal, like a canteen, clanking up against something else, perhaps a sword or knife. She also heard footsteps, though muted against the forest carpet of brown needles.
The girls held their breath.
It had been a while since any rogue Lero soldiers had made trouble, but they learned long ago to practice caution when anything seemed amiss. Raids didn’t happen often, but when they did, the consequences proved legendary. The most devastating occurred almost twenty years ago, when the girls had been wee lasses. An entire Lero battalion invaded the village, killing, among dozens of others, both Alastrina’s parents and her older brother as well as Kanet’s mother. Nine years ago, a small band of Lero soldiers slaughtered Murdoc’s wife and another couple, leaving behind eleven children between the two families. Six years later, an entire family of Arons perished while they slept, no one finding out about it for days.
Time ceased as the trio waited for the intruder to come into the light of the lanterns.