By the time the colonists landed on the alien planet, it was already named Neworld, not original perhaps, but like most monikers, it was born from a collective mind. This colonization had been planned and executed for over fifty-six years. Some of the adolescents that stumbled off the ships had never seen earth. Their first experience with sky happened when they lifted their noses into the vibrant air. The ground was disturbingly silent beneath their feet. Hot wind ruffled the hairs on their arms.
No one would be returning to earth. The ships were designed to be broken down and reassembled as shelters. Within days, they were living in relative comfort tucked into a valley between a green sea and a blue desert.
Standing in the metal portals of their new homes, they gazed across a land shaped by a subtle breath. The trees were yellow-gold as if kissed by the sun; the sea bottomless and filled with fish; the horizon a pale blue line, drawn in child’s chalk. Birds chattered in the ears of those first eager settlers, flapping their wings, saying, "Follow me! Follow me!" It was a land where anything was possible, but everything still steeped in faith of the probable. The earthmen claimed Neworld and slowly built homes while reclaiming their land legs.
Perched atop an outcropping of stone that hung over the valley like a shading hand, a creature watched this new hive with interest. The flimsy bipeds were intent on conquering his world, but he was more amused than concerned.
They were not the first aliens to come, and they would not be the first to leave or die trying to tame this harsh planet. Only the Fetis had stayed, and after a millennium, the creature had made a grudging peace with them.
The Fetis were a fierce, beautiful race with long bronze hair, stiff and crinkly as brush weed. They fought like warriors, but had gentle spirits that grew with the land instead of against it. The creature was only sorry that he could not mate with the Fetis.
The new colonists were easy targets for any number of predators and too dependent on technology. The sun and the sand would take care of that. Within a year, all of their imported machines would be corroded beyond use.
The creature flexed his three pairs of long, iridescent wings, readying them for flight. The sun was down. His night vision was good, but he guessed that the small-eyed bipeds would be disadvantaged after dark.
While the colonists slept in their metal shelters, he swooped down and inspected their camp. The sentries were exhausted from the day building a new world and the creature easily evaded them. He tasted some food left over on the fire. He tested the sharpness of their knives and secreted a fire-weapon into the folds of his feathers. He would examine that later. Silently, he searched among the sleeping bipeds for some sort of literature. He excelled at languages. He would learn their ways, study their laws and scriptures. After all, what better way to judge an enemy than to understand the prayers that he voiced in his darkest hour?
Madalyn tripped, losing Sally in the darkness. Smoke choked her as she pawed the shadows under her bed. Her fingers closed around a long braid and she clasped the doll to her chest.
"It’s okay, Sally," she whispered. "Papa will come for us soon."
Papa did not come. The house was strangely silent except for the windy roar of fire. The door to her attic room was hot to the touch. She backed away to the window, knowing it was her only way out, but fearing the drop to the ground.
She opened her shutters and breathed deeply of the fresh night air. Other fires burned around the village. People stampeded through the streets like animals, unfocused and irrational. The Fetis hunted them, lighting houses with torches and running down villagers with their monstrous mounts.
One of the savages stopped in front of Madalyn’s house, and stared up at her window. She ducked back behind the curtain, but not before she had a clear view of him, a view that would haunt her for years to come. His hair glowed bronze in the firelight, like a halo about his head. Blue paint enlarged his eyes and grin in an exaggerated mask of glee. He was frighteningly beautiful, horrifying and crazed.
After a moment, the Fetis warrior decided that Madalyn’s house was beyond plundering and he moved on.
Madalyn waited several long minutes, until the heat and smoke in her room were unbearable and then she dropped Sally into the bushes below. She balanced on the sill for a moment before leaping after the doll. The bushes broke her fall with dozens of scratchy vines. They tore at her hair and lacerated her bare flesh. Madalyn fought this terrible embrace, choking back gasping sobs. She broke away just as another bronze-haired savage, mounted on a big-horned grazer trampled the bush. Sally was lost under the beating hooves, but Madalyn jumped out of the way and ran into the shadows of the garden. The Fetis rider followed, but his mount tripped over two generations of gravedunes in the yard and he soon turned back for bigger prey.
Madalyn hid among the shadows of her ancestors as her village burned.
Smoke hid the passing of the moon. Madalyn’s legs cramped from crouching, but shock kept her still. She had no thought for rest or water. Only the dark square of her back door mattered, the door where papa would emerge and rescue her. She watched it, blocking out all the sounds and smells of battle.
No one came out of the house.
Fatigue made her giddy and her hiccupping sobs changed to a shrill keening. The Fetis had moved on to the next village, shrieking victory. No one was left to hear her strange cries.
By dawn, the buildings smoldered in ruins, and Madalyn could barely croak out a dry lament. Thirst finally drove her from her hiding place. She crawled out from behind the gravedune and squinted into the rising sun.
A woman, unrecognizable as the neighbor who had often treated her to sweet berry tarts, pawed through the remains of her smoking house. She spared no attention for the lone girl. Unmilked grazers should have been lowing painfully in the fields, but the Fetis had stolen most of those and slaughtered the rest.
Madalyn walked around to the street. Only the front door and its surrounding stonewall stood in place of her family home. The door remained closed, as if daring her to enter into the wasteland of her past life.
Madalyn sat on the front stoop, still hot like hearthstones. She didn’t look for her parents. She was beyond wondering if they lived or died. The blackness of the night had wiped her memories clean. The shrieking savages and screaming victims had calloused her mind. She simply sat, while others in the village wept and tore through the rubble looking against all hope for survivors.
Like a spring bud, Sally’s arm poked up through the trampled bushes beside the steps. Her dress was singed and her face blackened with hoof marks. Madalyn gazed at her favorite friend, but did not reach down to pick her up.
Around noon, someone pushed past her, opened the door and stomped through her house before pushing past her again on his way out. He did not ask after her well-being, but his jostling revived her enough to remember thirst. She stumbled to the well at the back of the house. The water was brackish, covered in a thick film of soot, but otherwise the Fetis had left it untouched. Madalyn drank too much and then gagged. The man had returned with another and they were busy looting her house for the few salvageable pieces. Metal was a luxury on Neworld and even lumpy, melted pots would not be left for waste.
Madalyn crouched behind the well, instinctively sure that these men would not treat her kindly. There, she passed the remainder of the day, focusing her bruised thoughts on the calls of the birds. Surely, the birds would not sing if the Fetis were nearby. This thought comforted her until sundown, when the birds retired and a whole new spectrum of calls emerged in the dying light. The screech of the hibis was not new to Madalyn. The growl of the grouserats was a nightly occurrence, and even the faraway howls of hunting dogs, had been more of a lullaby when she slept in her attic room.
The bare night magnified these sounds. Two grouserats tussled in the bushes beside her and even though Madalyn knew that they were creatures no bigger than her fist, their growls and hisses terrified her. The reaching wings of a hibis threw shadows over her once, twice, again and again, until Madalyn pressed herself closer to the stone well, only to disturb a nesting lizard that hissed at the intrusion. She jumped away. Tears clotted her vision as she ran into the field behind the house. Her footsteps disturbed unseen rodents that scattered angrily, becoming easy prey for the waiting snakes. Madalyn climbed a fence post to escape this drama. She splintered her knee badly, but from this vantage, she could see the tall grass rustling, teaming with nocturnal life.
A Fetis war cry echoed in the distance; it was more than Madalyn could bear. Holding her splintered knee, she wept freely in the way that only children can. They were tears of pure fear, with no room left for grief.
The sky glowed bright in the west though the sun had long since set. The Fetis were torching another village, perhaps even her school in nearby Troya. The scurrying night creatures didn’t seem so terrifying compared to the joyous shrieks of the savages on the horizon. Madalyn hopped down and crouched in the dirt with the skinny fence post a thin protection at her back.
The night screamed around her.
She might have learned to overcome her fear had she stayed alone in the darkness that whole night. Fear, like joy, is unsustainable. Eventually, the crouching would have tired her. The grouserats would have annoyed her. Even her fear of the Fetis would have turned to rage when fatigue set in, but none of that happened. Madalyn had only enough time alone in the darkness to fully embrace her fear when Nathanael McHale, her grandfather’s ward, plucked her out of the dirt as easily as picking daisies.