I have always been told that one should write about what they know. That statement would confine a lot of authors. What about writing for the shear enjoyment of it, and in the process learning something you hadn't known before. The adage, 'you learn something new every day,' is very true. I did learn while writing this fantasy for middle graders. I learned that there is a way of combining passions to make a point, and to make it in such a way that it is enjoyable and educational.
The Sword of Demelza introduces middle graders to a number of animals. Some of these animals are unheard of by children here in the USA (including this child). Most of the animals in the book are indigenous to Australia. The more important fact is that many of them are endangered. Many species of animal and plant life as well, are gone from the planet forever. They have become extinct for many reasons, some natural. Sadly, man has played his role via encroachment, greed, and negligence.
If a young person reads my book and is inspired to learn more about the animals who roam the pages, then I have accomplished a worthwhile goal. Maybe, just maybe, they will be the generation dedicated to making a change. If they enjoy it while they are learning, well, what more can I ask.
One does not write a novel in solitude. There are people who I bugged, bothered, annoyed and generally aggravated in every way imaginable.
First to Lorri, who actually helped to conceive the plot, and stayed with me when it got a little rough. Lorri, how can I thank you?
Secondly, Karen, who spent countless hours reading the book and then reading it again, and again, and even after she had reached the point where she could recite it by heart, she read it again. Karen, I couldn't have gone on without your unwavering belief in me, or the love you showed for the story.
Third, to my first readers, they put the book through its initial paces and found it worthy. Thank you so much, Marie and Pat.
Finally, to my children, Erik, David and Katie, they listened as I read. They put up with papers all over the floor, and the computer moved to different places, wherever I was comfortable that particular day or moment. They offered wonderful constructive criticism and splendid suggestions when I thought I had hit a brick wall and that my muse had left me forever. And to my husband, I thank you for buying the paper shredder. It came in handy.
Just one more thought, the characters actually bugged me. They were alive in my head, and they wanted out. Not a day went by that I didn't think of a way to put them onto a sheet of paper. They were so much happier there!
Copyright © 2012 Acadia Publications Group LLC
The sun was setting over Sunderland and Acadia Abbey. Devon had fallen asleep on the look out above the manicured grounds. His auburn fur rippled in the summer breeze, and the white star on his forehead gleamed in what remained of the late afternoon sunlight.
He was still young, but he was maturing quickly. Although he was rash at times, he was a strong and clever fox. He loved the monks of the abbey, especially Colum. The old bilby monk had taught him many things about the wild world and soon he would be old enough to leave the abbey and be a part of it. After the tragic death of his mother and father, Colum had taken him in. Devon looked after Colum now that the small mouse-like marsupial was beginning to age. The young fox was dedicated to him and the other monks of the abbey as well. But he often thought of the father and mother he lost. How different life would have been if the tragedy had never happened, if he had never lost them. Still, he was happy here at Acadia. He had all he needed, and life was peaceful. Peaceful, that is, until today.
In the soft rustling of sleep, Devon thought he heard the warning bell of the abbey ring. Startled, he sprung to his feet. The warning bell, he thought. Did I really hear it? Drowsy from his nap, he stumbled as he sprinted toward the tower door. The bell rang again. He stopped to glance over the wall. Cries could be heard rising from the grounds below. Flames shot out from the windows of the scriptorium. The monks of the abbey were running in every direction.
A troop of dragon lizards approached on great hind claws, running up the slope from the billabong toward the abbey. Devon had heard of the lizards but had never seen one. Colum, his adoptive father, once told him about how they traveled alone in the western lands of Sunderland, but these lizards were not loners. They were organized, clad in thick leather armor and carrying flaming torches as they ran across the lawns from the forest. Stunned, he placed his front paws on top of the rampart wall. Leaning over it, he scanned the grounds below, trying to understand what was happening. He gasped as one lizard threw a lit torch through an open window. Across the lawn, near the gardens, two lizards laughed as they tossed a small monk between them. One monk was being dragged across the lawn and down to the banks of the billabong, where he was thrown into the water. Several lizards had broken through the main gate. They are in the abbey. The thought terrified him. Colum, he must reach Colum.
Devon pushed away from the wall and ran. Flames and acrid smoke met him as he opened the tower door. He buried his muzzle in the crook of his arm and took a step inside. Fire was consuming the wooden stairs. He began descending the steps, leaping over the flames, but the steps and railing were burning. He could see that the framework of the staircase was breaking away from the stone wall. It began to shake beneath him, and the center pole holding it in place was burning. He would not be able to descend the steps any farther. He threw himself out toward the center post, grabbing it just as the stairs broke beneath him. Flaming pieces of wood fell to the floor below, and hot embers drifted up around him. He pushed away from the post and dropped the final distance to the floor.
Huge wooden pillars and a series of immense wooden beams supported the high-arched ceiling of the nave. He watched in horror as the blaze grew from the floor toward the roof. The entrance to the scriptorium was down a corridor at the far end of the nave. Devon sprinted toward it. As he turned into the scriptorium's outer hallway, he found himself blocked by a pile of smoking timbers.
"Father!" he screamed as he began to climb over the debris. "Where are you?" There was no reply. A cracking sound came from above. Startled, Devon lost his footing and fell to the stone floor. Over the noise of the crumbling roof, Devon heard an evil, guttural growl. Turning toward the sound, he saw a creature creeping toward him through the smoke and flames. It was a thylacine. Its mouth, full of saber-like teeth, hung open and its wicked yellow eyes drilled into his. From somewhere in his memory, Devon recognized the knifelike canines, heard echoes of its malevolent growl, and felt the same hatred he had felt years before emanating from the evil beast. The wolf-like body was thin and half-striped like that of a tiger, and its thick tail trailed behind it, scraping the stone floor. Frozen with fear, Devon's heart beat as though it would burst from his chest. He shook his head in disbelief as he scrambled on all fours, backing away.
"The Demon," Devon whispered under his breath. Shivers crept up his spine as memories came flooding back. Demon is what his biological father had called the thylacine back on that fateful day.
"Yes, you can call me that. But my name is Flitch!" The thylacine spat out his name like a curse. "I remember you!" he hissed with satisfying surprise. "You are my unfinished business." Flitch took a step closer to Devon. "It's so nice to see you," he said with an evil grin. "You got away once, but it won't happen again."
A loud crack from above warned that a rafter was weakening. Devon ducked into a small alcove as a beam crashed to the floor. It broke into hundreds of sharp shards, sending burning projectiles in all directions. One struck the thylacine in his hind leg, and he let out a scream of pain that echoed throughout the abbey. He limped toward Devon, who scrambled up the pile of smoldering wood to get away from him. The injured thylacine attempted to follow, but he could not climb the debris.
"Another day, Fox!" he snarled. Turning, he staggered away.
Devon climbed over the debris and continued on into the scriptorium. Desks were overturned, and smoking remains of illuminated texts covered the floor like snow.
"Father! Answer me!" Devon frantically peered through the smoke and scanned the ruins of his father's beloved library. He spied a small paw sticking out from under a large desk at the far end of the room. The wall behind the desk had partially fallen in and the stained glass window hung precariously in its frame. The setting sun shone through what remained of the image of the sword and created beams of light that covered the room in shades of blue and green. The center stone on the sword's hilt cast an eerie glow on the top of the desk. Holding his breath Devon crossed the room and braced for the worst. With all his strength, he groaned as he lifted the heavy oak desk. It toppled over, sending ashes flying into the air, where they floated slowly, like phantoms, in the shafts of the setting sunlight. Colum's small body was curled in a ball seeming somehow even smaller in death. Lifting his father, Devon's tears flowed shamelessly. With his father's body resting in his arms he left the abbey through a gap in the wall where the dragons had torn down the stones. Bilby monks ran frantically across the grounds and fields outside the walls, putting out fires, attending to the wounded and gathering the dead. He could see the dragon lizards heading away from the abbey in the distance, their cruel laughter reaching his ears as they disappeared into the forest. It was a vision that Devon would never forget. Once, long ago, Colum had carried Devon to the safety and warmth of Acadia Abbey. He would now carry his father away from the wreckage of the abbey and lay his body down on the banks of the billabong.
As he knelt beside Colum's body, he tried to recall the lessons he had been taught. "See not with just your eyes, Devon, but with your mind and heart as well. You are a part of this wild world, and cannot separate yourself from it."
His thoughts drifted back to their talk earlier in the day.
He was leaning over Colum's shoulder. He had stood there with his paws clasped tightly behind his back watching Colum's quill move smoothly across the parchment. The illuminated texts produced by the mouse-like bilby monks of Acadia Abbey were beautifully drawn and painted with vibrant colors, etched in gold leaf. The texts were a treasure known throughout Sunderland. They not only contained the history of the abbey but hinted at its mysteries as well.
For Devon, the greatest mystery was the image of the sword in the large stained glass window. Devon glanced up; the window dominated the scriptorium and the grounds of the abbey. In the middle of the window an image of a magnificent sword pointed toward the earth. The glass was stained a deep green at the center of the sword's hilt, where the legendary emerald stone of Demelza was depicted. No one at the abbey was certain where the sword was, but Devon knew that many stories of its powers had been told. Tinted rays of light poured down into the scriptorium from the colored glass panes. Colum had yet to tell Devon the significance of the sword, though he had asked about it many times. Why would a sword in a stained glass window dominate a peaceful abbey such as Acadia? What was its importance?
Had Colum become shorter over the years, or maybe I have become taller, Devon thought. He now towered over Colum. He wore a golden muslin vest over dark blue pants. A belt was cinched tightly around his vest at the waist. A small dagger and leather pouch hung from the belt.
"Father, you said you would tell me about the abbey's beginnings." With his eyes still lingering on the sword's image, he rested his chin on his father's shoulder, continuing his quick chatter. "How did the bilbies become monks and build the abbey?"
The small scratching of Colum's quill hesitated briefly, and Devon's eyes were drawn to the parchment. Encouraged by the pause, Devon pressed on. "You promised to tell me about Aldon, the Great Numbat that saved them-how they built the abbey to honor him. And the sword, Father, it was his sword, wasn't it? Aldon's sword would be a better weapon than that old wooden staff you found with me all those years ago."
"Yes, yes, my son!" He laughed. "I did promise to tell you of the sword, didn't I?" Colum placed his quill in the inkwell and shifted the worn brown fabric of his monk's habit. Dropping to the floor from his stool, he stood before Devon. The top of his head came to Devon's waist. "When did you grow so tall?" He laughed, tugging playfully on the tip of Devon's vest. "You are certainly not the small kit I carried from the forest so long ago; along with that old staff, as you call it. You may yet find that ancient staff to be useful, my son. I have a feeling that it may have more meaning, and more power than we know."
Devon bent down and hugged his father, lifting him off the floor. Releasing him from his arms, he set him back down. "Power in a wooden staff?" Devon chuckled. "All I know for sure is that it was a lucky day for me and a terrible one…" A shiver passed through him as he thought of the terrible creature that had killed his father and mother. He recalled the horrifying image of the beast attacking them. He could see its sharp teeth. Its frightening voice shook him to his very core. The memory haunted his dreams. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't happened along."
"It was the will of Aldon that I found you that day," Colum said quietly. He shook his head as he looked up at Devon. "I am as lucky as you, my dear boy. I am lucky to have had you by my side all these years." He took Devon's paw in his. "Alright, my son, if you want to know more about the abbey, I'll tell you." Touching a claw to his forehead in contemplation, he said, "What have we discussed thus far? My memory is not as good as it once was."
Devon barked a laugh. "You bilbies may as well have taken a vow of silence for all that you told me thus far. All I know is what I see; it's a building of stone and wood and it overlooks the waters of Kakadu Billabong." He thought about the lovely red lilies covering the surface of the lake, about how the monks of the abbey spent many hours lost in meditation along its banks. The bilbies, small animals with pointy inquisitive noses and long ears that stood up stiffly on their heads, were quick and lively, and took great pride in their abbey. Not only had they been his family all these years, they were also known by many of the forest inhabitants for their charity and caring nature.
"I love it here. But, still, I have so many questions, questions that you promised to answer for me."
"You're right, my son. But right now I would like to finish my work while the sun still shines on my parchment. Tonight we'll have dinner on the banks of the billabong and we'll talk." Colum hopped back up onto his stool. "I have a few more hours before the sunlight leaves the scriptorium. Then I'll tell you everything." He grinned at Devon, his bright eyes sparkling in the light that shone down through the stained glass window.
"Ok." Devon grinned. Placing one arm gently across Colum's back, he said softly, "One day soon I'll leave the abbey. I'll go out on my own. You know this." Colum looked up at Devon and Devon saw sorrow in Colum's eyes. "I'll visit the Wingcarrabee Swamp. And perhaps I'll make it as far as the Pinnacles Desert. I'll visit all the places you've told me about, and I'll tell everyone I meet about the wonderful monks of Acadia Abbey."
"Yes, yes, you are certainly old enough to set out on your own." Colum looked down at his paws and rubbed them nervously. "I was hoping you might stay one more season."
"We don't have to talk about that now, Father."
Colum hesitated for a moment then waved at Devon, shooing him off.
"Run along now, you young rascal!"
Devon turned and walked toward the doors of the scriptorium. "I'm going up the tower to the parapet walk," he said over his shoulder. "I'll be back for dinner." He listened to Colum laugh as he walked out the immense double doors.
Heading through the nave of the abbey toward the tower, he noticed two monks coming toward him. The parapet walk was high enough above the abbey to serve as a lookout, and the monks took turns watching over the grounds.
"Brother Alfred, Brother Edgar," Devon nodded, acknowledging them, and they nodded in return, smiling up at Devon.
"Taking watch on the parapet this afternoon, Devon?" Alfred asked. "Or will you just be napping up there?" The two monks chuckled to themselves, holding their paws in front of their snouts, trying hard not to laugh out loud.
"You know me too well," Devon replied with a smile and a wave of his paw.
At the top of the tower he opened the door and stepped out onto the walk. He strolled toward the crenellated wall. Leaning over the wall, Devon looked out across the grounds of the abbey. A wide expanse of grass gradually ended at the edge of the waters of the billabong and the hills of Sunderland rose up on the far side of the lake. From his vantage point he could see several monks working in the gardens, while others were engaged in quiet conversation or reading beside the sparkling water. It was peaceful. He moved to the other side of the walkway and settled down. Leaning his back against the stone wall, he closed his eyes to rest for a bit.
Now, Colum rested on the banks of the billabong. Raising his eyes toward the ruined monastery, Devon saw a small group of monks gathering on the lawn. They spoke quietly with one another, a mixture of fear, worry, and sadness etched on their faces.
He continued to gaze at the abbey and the remains of the stained-glass window. The sword's colors were dark now that evening approached. What was the purpose of the sword? The image of a terrible weapon meant only to bring harm and pain had always seemed a strange object for the peace-loving monk's abbey. The sword seemed to shimmer with a life of its own in the evening light. For a moment, he thought he saw the thylacine standing beneath the tip of the sword, but it was just his imagination. He drew in a deep breath, and then dropped his head to look at Colum. He vowed to find out why this happened and who had brought this destruction down upon the abbey. He would have to look deeper, as his father had taught him. The mystery of the sword would remain for now. There were other questions that needed answers. He may never understand why a sword was emblazoned in the stained glass window, but that didn't matter anymore. Colum was gone. The time for stories and mysteries was over. He furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes as anger took hold. There was only time for revenge. He would take up his own weapon, the ancient wooden staff that Colum had found with him so many years ago. Devon knew nothing of its powers, but he would wield it against those who had brought pain and terror to his home. He would hunt down the dragon lizards. He would kill the thylacine. He would make them pay for what they had done this day, for what they had done to his father.
The screech of an owl echoed through the woods beyond the billabong, and a feeling of dread came over Devon. The time had come for him to leave the place he had come to know as home.