“Asa! Sky patrol!”
Asa’s heart jumped. She leapt to her feet and glanced up the muddy slope at her younger brother, Rollo, who waved madly and pointed at the sky.
“I’m coming!” she yelled, pocketing in her damp skirt the colored stones she had been collecting. She sped away from the mud, up the slope, and onto the grass. A gull swooped overhead, and the heavy salt smell of the sea stuck to her clothes. Breathless, she grabbed Rollo’s hand and kept running.
“Up there!” he said, and now Asa could see it on the horizon. A black shape against the pale morning sky: one of Emperor Flood’s fleet of balloons. They patrolled the skies, looking for traitors, searching out supporters of the deposed royal family. Especially the two remaining children of the royal family: Asa and Rollo. They hurried up the hill, the grass scratchy under their bare feet.
“It’s coming too fast,” Asa said. “We’ll never make it back to Two Hills Keep.”
“The cave, then,” Rollo said.The cave
. How she hated it. It smelled like fish and seaweed, and reminded her of the night Emperor Flood’s evil magic had swollen the sea, sinking her parents’ kingdom, the Star Lands. That awful night, she and Rollo had hidden in the cave for hours. When they emerged, their parents–King Sigurd and the Star Queen–were dead, along with their baby sister, Una.
The cave had once been their favorite place to play, high up in a cliff overlooking the Great Sea, hidden under the branches of a huge sea willow. Now the water lapped at its entrance, and the branches of the sea willow soaked their drooping tips at high tide. Asa didn’t want to go back to the cave. But the black shape loomed closer. She could hear the hiss of the balloon approaching.
“All right,” she said, squeezing Rollo’s hand. “The cave.”
They changed direction, scrambling across the slope and down, and the sea willow came into view, its long silvery branches catching the early-morning light.
“Hurry,” she said, pushing Rollo ahead. He scurried farther down the slope, over rocks and loose ground. Asa’s blood pounded. She risked a look back.
The black half-moon of the balloon’s top was rising behind the slope. She slid on the loose ground, caught herself on a rock. A hot pain. The jagged edge of the rock had split open her palm. She clutched it with her other hand and blood oozed between her fingers. Nursing the injury against her chest, she found her way to the cave.
“Asa, you’re bleeding,” Rollo said as she landed next to him.
She tore a strip off the bottom of her skirt and wrapped her palm in it. Wincing, she tied the knot with her teeth. But this was no time for tears or complaining.
“Hush, now,” she said, catching her breath. “Quiet and still.”
For a few long moments, all she could hear was their ragged breathing, the pull of the sea, the distant cries of gulls. But then, the familiar hiss as the balloon filled with hot air.Sssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
The sound of giant, evil lungs drawing sickly breath. Asa and Rollo pressed themselves against the back wall of the cave. Asa’s heartbeat was loud in her ears.Sssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
It was coming closer. She drew up her feet so her knees were right against her chest. Rollo pressed his face into her side and his fair hair fell forward. She slid her arm around him, her eyes wide and watching the entrance. A black shape descended behind the twisted branches of the sea willow. It was the bottom edge of the spy-seat: the square basket that hung from the balloon. She knew that Flood’s spies would be sitting in the spy-seat, with their compasses and brass telescopes and gleaming knives. The balloon only had to descend another two feet and the spies would be staring straight into the cave. She pushed herself against the cave wall, but couldn’t shrink back any farther. Her heart thundered in her ears. “Please, please,” she whispered, over and over, silently. Rollo pressed himself against her harder, his hot little hand clutching her injured palm. Sweat made the wound sting.
The basket lifted again and disappeared from sight.Sssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Up it went. Asa breathed. Rollo lifted his head. She put her finger to her lips to remind him to stay quiet a little longer.
Then the hissing began once more. The balloon was withdrawing, taking off over the sunken kingdom, searching elsewhere for traitors and royalists.
Rollo smiled. “It’s gone.”
“Let’s get home,” Asa said, standing on shaky legs.
“I wasn’t really afraid,” Rollo said with a grin.
“Yes, you were.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
They emerged into the pale morning light and Asa led the way home.
Asa and Rollo lived with their aunt Katla at Two Hills Keep. Although the Keep looked like a tiny cottage built of mud and grass, it was actually far larger and concealed an underground maze of secret rooms. The King and Queen had it built when Asa was born, just in case their children were ever in danger and needed to hide. It came into view above the rise. Wildflowers grew over the grassy walls and a drooping tree disguised it almost entirely. In the year since Emperor Flood had killed their family and taken over the land, he had never managed to find them here.
"Who’s that?” Rollo said, pointing across the field.
Asa noticed it at the same time: an old man with his left arm pinned to his chest paced near the front entrance of the Keep.
“I don’t know,” she said warily, slowing her pace.
Rollo pulled up. “What if he’s a spy?”
Asa didn’t know what to do. She had never seen the strange man before, but he looked like he was waiting for them.
At that moment, Katla emerged and spotted them.
She beckoned anxiously. “Come quickly, children,” she called. “You have a special visitor.”
The children hurried over as the old man turned to watch them. Asa didn’t like his steely eyes, his hooked nose, or the cruel set of his mouth. Something about him made her skin prickle. A cool gust of morning air shivered over her. The wound on her hand had begun to throb lightly.
“Asa, Rollo,” Katla said stiffly, “I want you to meet Egil Cripplehand.” Katla glanced at him nervously, then back to the children. “He has news of your sister.”
“Una?” Rollo said, puzzled.
The stranger fixed him with a stony gaze. “She’s alive,” he said. “Your sister is alive.”From the Trade Paperback edition.