It is Sneak Peak Sunday again.
In case you missed it, the prologue from last week is here
Without waffling on, here is Chapter One of the first DISSENT book. Enjoy!
Daybreak in Port Harmony
Ellie loved riding the orgo. She had often dreamt about it since being a small child. Now that her father wasn’t around to voice his opinions, she finally could. Twenty years had been a long time to wait.
With ice-cold air biting at her nose, Ellie raced through Port Harmony’s maze of frozen streets. She sat comfortably in the saddle of her employer’s orgo. Winter was ending, but that didn’t make it particularly warm. Ellie couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t feel like she lived in a bubble formed from pure ice. The snow had stopped falling, but the breeze tugged on her knotty mass of once yellowish hair. It was still thick with muck from her work. Ellie’s heart pounded with the thrill as she continued to build momentum on the back of Sage. Stone, dome-shaped buildings surrounded them. The intricate designs etched into the surface of each structure, had blended into a grey blur.
Kicking down hard, Ellie urged the animal she commanded to give more. Her huge smile revealed the shallow dimples usually hidden within her pale cheeks. She was convinced that it was impossible for anyone to reach the speeds that she could on Sage. For a few minutes, Ellie felt like a champion in a world far removed from her reality. A reality where she was an apprentice orgo-keeper, on her way to the market, wearing loose brown overalls that stunk of dung.
‘That’s it boy,’ Ellie said, as loud as she could. ‘Faster. C’mon Sage…faster.’
Sage stretched forward when Ellie thrashed her legs. She couldn’t believe how fast he picked up speed; the excitement wanted to burst from inside her. Despite hearing ice and slush crunching between his fearsome toes, she had faith in Sage’s experience. He could cope well with the difficult terrain. The reins burned into Ellie’s fingers when Sage extended his neck, charging toward a bend in the street. He knew where he was heading. They had made plenty of trips to the market together.
Within seconds, Ellie noted a strong smell of cooked fish and the noise of market chatter growing louder. They were close, and Ellie pulled back on Sage’s reins, slowing him to a canter. Taking a deep breath, she dusted down her overalls one last time and tied back her hair.
‘Okay boy…you know what to do. It’s round there…give me everything you’ve got!’
Clumps of dirt flew from Sage’s claws as they sped forward, but Ellie felt her saddle jolt. Something was wrong. A clasp had worked loose and Ellie screamed; she hadn’t fastened it properly before leaving. Wondering how she had been so careless, Ellie tried to slow Sage down.
‘Whoa boy…whoa,’ she cried. But her commands came too late, and wouldn’t make a difference.
As they swung around the corner at the entry to the street-market, the saddle slipped further. Ellie was tossed from the back of Sage onto the cobbled street behind. A dull, hollow grunt was forced from inside her, as her entire body thumped against the solid ground. Dazed, Ellie lay still. Sage turned back to examine her and nudged his snout into Ellie’s side to provoke a response.
‘I’m okay…’ Ellie grumbled as she sat upright. ‘I think.’
She could not believe how ridiculous she felt, or how stupid she looked. Glancing down into the market, Ellie’s face tingled with shame. Everyone was staring at her. Everyone. The busy market appeared to have frozen in time; with every single person gawking in her direction.
The street was the same as any other in Port Harmony. Low level, plump dwellings lined either side of the road up the incline. Large openings in the front walls of each of the buildings served as entrances. Yet, where some of those cavities contained doors, others were covered with simple sheets of fabric. The carved gritty surfaces of each building acted as decoration, with designs specific to the families living there. Ellie admired the patterns every time she wandered Port Harmony’s streets. She thought they were all stunning, in their own individual ways.
Staggering to her feet, Ellie clutched Sage’s reins and started to lead him into the market. The freedom she had embraced moments before, had been replaced with humiliation. After what felt like hours—but was probably more like a few seconds—people in the market began to move again. Suddenly, it was as though they hadn’t seen anything. Nobody even seemed to register Ellie’s accidental dismount. Everyone was carrying on with their own business.
Hobbling toward a wooden post, close to the stall she needed, Ellie tethered Sage. ‘Be back soon,’ she said, petting her steed and sinking her fingers into his light tan wool. ‘Don’t be goin’ anywhere!’ Which she knew he wouldn’t; he looked exhausted.
Sage’s snout nuzzled into her armpit; it tickled. Releasing an echoing snort, he was showing Ellie that he was happy. Ellie giggled, and rubbed Sage behind his head, in the way he appeared to like. Moments like this one were why she had grown so fond of the orgo.
Finally, she stroked down her orgo’s neck. ‘Okay boy, work to do. We need to get back before Cedric wonders where we are.’
Ellie lifted her head to shake off her embarrassment, then trudged amongst the stalls laid out at the front of all the houses. The market was frantic, with dozens of cluttered counters lining each side of the dirty street. People were bumping into one another, desperate for a bargain. It was possible to buy almost anything at the market. Assorted items were strewn across every table, or even hanging from timber posts between. The aroma from squid, shrimps and various fish, blended into something tempting. Ellie’s mouth watered with the fragrance.
Gazing around as she manoeuvred her way through the crowds, Ellie avoided eye contact with anyone. Discreetly positioned next to some of the stalls, wardens patrolled. They were watching for anyone to make a mistake. The wardens called it keeping Port Harmony safe, but to Ellie, they looked like they were hunting. Armed with lances and standing bolt upright in their grey and white uniforms, the wardens seemed to be waiting for something. In any case, situated as they were, they could monitor the whole market with ease.
When she caught a whiff of ground orchid leaves, it didn’t take Ellie long to find the stall she wanted. ‘Hey,’ she called out, uncertain of the response she may get. Ellie approached a tall man with scruffy dark hair, but a well-kept beard. It was Evan, and Ellie was always eager to see him, although she tried not to show her enthusiasm too much.
Evan was a few years older than her, and always appeared distinguished for a market trader. He wore a thick, pale grey tunic and cloak. This was unlike most people in Port Harmony, who generally dressed in brown. A scarf made from animal fur was hung around his neck for warmth. Evan peered around from behind a slanted metal table as Ellie drew near. He gave the impression he was anxious. Beautiful, but anxious all the same.
‘Riding with no saddle…’ Evan responded, once Ellie arrived at his stall. ‘That’s new! Bareback orgo riding…it’s the future. Ask anyone…other than those who can ride I reckon.’
Ellie had to listen carefully to hear Evan over the noise of the market, but then wished she hadn’t. She had hoped he hadn’t seen her when she had been thrown from Sage. It wasn’t her most elegant moment. Of anyone in the world, Evan was the last person she wanted to witness her mistake. Choosing to ignore him, Ellie glanced around at a nearby group of children. They were playing a game known as land the pebble. A group of opportunistic puffins flapped around nearby them.
‘You shouldn’t be here Ellie,’ Evan went on. ‘Not after last time.’
‘Bosses orgo are hungry, precious.’ Ellie softened her voice, resting her hands on the table. ‘Where else can I go?’
‘Anywhere but here I reckon.’
Evan’s stall was well known as the only place in Port Harmony to get decent orgo food. But Ellie knew that he would be worried her presence may cause trouble. It had the last time she had visited. Now she thought about it, her behaviour then hadn’t been that attractive either.
‘Like where? Besides…you like me coming here.’ Ellie said, offering a smile. Evan’s stall was cold, and she snatched her hands away before her fingertips went numb.
Evan grinned and turned away. Ellie was sure he was trying to hide it.
‘Do I?’ he said, chuckling. ‘After last time, I thought you might have kept your head down. There’s enough trouble in The Union…without people fighting amongst themselves here.’
Ellie raised her voice a little. ‘Who’s fighting Evan? Can’t a girl look around the market anymore?’
‘Well…don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
‘Warn me?’ Ellie turned, noticing someone familiar browsing around one of the other stalls. Although she was a bit shorter that Ellie, the girl always seemed a similar age—early twenties at most. Feint freckles decorated her fair skin, and her coppery hair commanded attention. It was Evan’s sister, Haylee. Ellie’s muscles all tensed at once.
Evan kept his head down, fidgeting with metal buckets of animal food on his stall. ‘Wherever my sister goes…’
Haylee staggered toward a blacksmith’s table on the street corner. Her thick black tunic was tied at the waist with a grey belt, and a smoke coloured cloak hung from her shoulders. It ran all the way down to her boots. Appearing to take little notice of her surroundings, Haylee knew that she only needed to walk through the market to get what she wanted. She nodded with gratitude, as the man in front of her scurried over, and placed a drink on the table. Most people in Port Harmony respected Haylee. In some way, her quiet charisma was domineering. She didn’t say much, but when she did, everyone listened.
‘I need to tell you something,’ Ellie said, deciding to have some fun. She was determined to win Evan’s affection.
He moved closer to the counter where Ellie was, then grumbled as she grabbed his hand, tugging him towards her. ‘You’re asking for trouble.’
Ellie refused to release Evan, and stared toward Haylee, waiting for a reaction. On the contrary, Haylee seemed oblivious, and completely unaware of Ellie’s presence. Much the same as anyone else in town, Ellie idolised Haylee; regardless of the fact that she felt intimidated by her. Sometimes, when Ellie finished her chores at Cedric’s, she would wander down to the wharf. There, she was able to watch Haylee and her friends racing their orgo. She had heard many stories about ‘The Dispute’ too; a dangerous sport held in Eklips territory. Haylee and her friends were all renowned warriors, who fought battles on whomphorn—amongst other animals—to earn their living. Well, so Ellie had heard. She had only ever dreamt about attending The Dispute one day; it sounded exciting. Ellie often imagined what it would be like to be a warrior like Haylee. For whatever reason, it had placed Haylee’s gang in high regard. Well, around Port Harmony it had.
Evan yanked his hand away. ‘Enough!’ he said, in a sharper tone. ‘What do you need? Quickly.’
Smiling, Ellie was sure that Evan felt the same way as she did. He would never admit it though, because of the potential consequences. Ellie was an outsider as far as Haylee and her friends were concerned, and Evan was her brother. It didn’t matter if he liked her—it mattered if Haylee did.
‘You know what I want,’ she answered. ‘Orgo feed.’
Evan’s eyes widened and he took a step backwards. ‘You need to go Ellie…Now!’
Ellie swung round, alarmed by the sudden change in Evan. A pod of three white orgo were skidding to a halt. Although why they were referred to as white orgo, Ellie had never been sure. Their snowy coats were prominently dappled in black splodges.
The riders of the animals dismounted; binding their reins to wooden posts. Ellie wasn’t certain, but it looked like they were in a rush. Their orgo snorted aloud, before dunking their heads into troughs of feed placed around one of the stalls. As the group entered the market, Ellie’s heart hammered inside her chest. A man and two women, all dressed like Haylee, were walking toward her. She knew them all too well from the last time she had visited Evan. Concealing the anxiety that consumed her was hard.
Realising she needed to look somewhere else, Ellie glanced back at Evan. Preoccupied, he continued to reorganise his counter. Ellie shivered as one of the women stopped beside her. It was Morrigan, and she always looked the more youthful of the group. She was definitely a couple of years younger than Ellie was. Hair flowed over her shoulders like shadows, and she had dewy skin. Morrigan’s cheek was also inked with the silhouette of an orchid moth, although Ellie had no idea what it meant. None of Haylee’s other friends had any similar markings.
Ellie often thought that she detected an inexplicable suffering in Morrigan’s eyes; a sort of hidden torment. Yet, despite her demeanour, and the beautiful fragrance that floated around her, there was something about Morrigan that also felt threatening. For a second, Ellie regretted not listening to Evan and her arms began to prickle.
‘Thought we told you not to come here?’ Morrigan said. She was staring toward nothing of any interest to anyone else.
Ellie didn’t answer, but flinched when she spotted the oldest of the gang. This one placed her bruised hands on the stall next to Evan’s, where gugubat patties sizzled over flames. Ditto didn’t say very much, but was somehow scary because of that.
Tucking her snarled brown hair behind her ears, Ditto grinned strangely at Evan. ‘Hi.’
Evan seemed unsure how to reply.
‘Well lady?’ said Tik, the last of the group. This one was not far from Evan’s age. He decided to position himself even closer to Ellie, scratching his stubbly chin and making an effort to look menacing. ‘My friend asked you a question.’
To look at, Tik was by far the vainest member of the group. His large build and short-shaven head made Ellie cringe. Not to mention that he had arms that wanted to burst from beneath his tunic. Also, he was the only member of their group who didn’t wear their unique animal skin cape. People suggested that it was because Tik didn’t believe the garment showed off his physique. They were probably right, but he must have been cold in a solitary tunic.
A balkutar clung to Tik’s shoulder. Ellie had only seen one a couple of times before. They were small, fluffy, ape-like animals and pale grey in colour. She assumed this particular one was Tik’s pet. Standing tall, it was maybe a foot long in total. Its bizarrely long arms stretched the length of its body and legs combined. In contrast, much shorter limbs led to its huge feet that looked more like hands. Each one held three identical small toes, and a larger one twice the size of the others. In the wild, balkutar lived in the hillside pine trees, and their feet were designed to help them grip branches. With its tiny ears twitching, Tik’s pet glared at Ellie through enormous bulging eyes. It looked as though it was waiting for her to speak.
‘Doesn’t look like she says much,’ said Tik. Ellie assumed he was talking to the odd little animal bouncing against the top of his arm. ‘Does it Toze?’
Ellie knew Tik wanted her to hear, but she chose to ignore him. The easy option was to apologise for returning to the stall, when they had clearly told her not to. She remembered her last trip, when she was caught flirting with Evan. Ellie hadn’t realised that Ditto had similar feelings towards him. Having made a lucky escape that time, she had often thought that it would be wisest to find other ways to get feed for Cedric’s orgo. But then, she liked Evan, and was desperate to get acquainted with Haylee’s group. They intrigued her.
Ditto turned toward Ellie and scowled. She looked furious that Ellie had come back, but at the same time, like she was trying to manage her temper. Evan was much more of a peacemaker, and Ditto must have known that. Likewise, the wardens wouldn’t tolerate any disruption.
‘Okay,’ said Morrigan, still refusing to look at Ellie. ‘Let me try this another way…You need to leave!’
Ellie stood firm, and swallowed her panic. ‘A barrel of orgo feed please Evan.’ Her voice felt a little shaky and she was certain someone had put a large pebble in her throat. Maybe more than one.
As Evan went to fetch the barrel for Ellie, Ditto interrupted. ‘No!’
‘My barrel please Evan,’ Ellie said, trying again.
Ditto stared at Ellie.
‘Not today Dit…not today.’ Tik patted his friend’s shoulder as she became jittery.
Ditto’s screechy voice was able to pierce eardrums. ‘Leave!’
Ellie gulped. ‘What’s your problem precious? I’m here for Cedric.’
‘You’re here for Evan, and Ditto doesn’t like it,’ said Morrigan. ‘This has nothing to do with your new boss.’
‘Can we all calm down?’ Evan interrupted. ‘I will get her barrel, and she can leave.’ He turned to face Ditto. ‘Agreed?’
Ditto’s deep breaths were easy to see. Ellie assumed it was to impress Evan with her composure. Normally, Ellie didn’t like conflict, and most of the time, chose to resolve it. On this occasion, she was finding a strange enjoyment in provoking Ditto. So, she chose to push her luck a little further. After all, annoying Ditto wasn’t hard, and Ellie was becoming good at it.
‘You know what,’ Ellie said. ‘Before I go back to work, I’m going for a drink. Will you join me Evan? We could have—’
Ditto flew toward Ellie like a predator. She seized her prey by the hair, and dragged her to the orgo that her friends had tethered moments before. Scanning the street, Ellie waited for the wardens to help her. Not one of them reacted.
That’s it. Next Sunday will be a small snippet of Chapter Two.
Please feel free to let me know your thoughts as always!