★ ★ ★ ★
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
“Hurry up and finish your pancakes, Piper, we have to hit the park early if we’re going to get the good stuff.” My dad said as he slid his last bite of pancake around his plate to sop up the remainder of his syrup and jam.
I ignored him and dumped another pile of hagelslag onto my own pancakes. They were the thin Dutch kind, more like a crepe (so European of me to say so, I know). The pancakes were pretty good but not as good as the thick American kind with gooey blueberries or bananas cooked inside the dough. But the hagelslag … WOW! A box of delicious chocolate sprinkles that masquerade as a breakfast food. Imagine taking a big, chunky chocolate bar, running it across a cheese grater, catching the chocolate shavings in a box, and then putting it on the grocery store’s breakfast food aisle! You get the picture. Sure, they may have invented the microscope, stock market, and orange carrots, but hagelslag? Best. Dutch. Invention. EVER!
“I’ve set out your orange sweater on your bed. Go up and change when you’re done with your pannenkoeken.” Mom said.
Pannenkoeken means pancakes in Dutch. Mom’s trying to learn the language but to me she just sounds like a muppet with laryngitis speaking with marbles in her mouth.
But don’t get the wrong idea, Mom is really good at languages. Dutch would be her fourth. She was born in mainland China and grew up speaking Mandarin and the local Shanghai dialect. And she was nearly fluent in English already by the time she immigrated to the US as a child. She was so excited to tackle Dutch she jumped into classes before we had even unpacked all our moving boxes here in Amsterdam.
My dad, on the other hand, didn’t quite have the knack. He grew up in Ohio speaking only English and never bothered to learn anything else. Although I think he may know a few words in Klingon.
Me? I wouldn’t exactly say I was bilingual, more like trylingual. I try to remember stuff from the Mandarin classes Mom forced on me (reinforced by her yelling at me in Chinese whenever she’s angry with me). But in reality, I pretty much only speak English. I think this makes me a bit of a disappointment to my mom. After all, she always says, language is the key to opening doors and possibilities.
“So exciting! Our first King’s Day! Are you excited Charlie?” Dad asked in a high-pitched voice he reserved for my baby brother. Charlie giggled and smiled. He had no idea what was going on. Sometimes I envied him.
“And you Piper? Are you excited?” He asked me in his regular Dad voice.
I didn’t giggle. But I smiled. Kind of. I mostly chewed my pancakes and nodded. “Super,” I answered, spraying a few chocolate sprinkles.
I cleaned my plate, put on my blaze orange sweater (because even though it’s May, Amsterdam is still cold and dreary), and joined my equally orange family to head out for the festivities.
How would I describe King’s Day? It’s this Dutch holiday that celebrates the birth of the King. Except when there was a Queen in charge it was called “Queen’s Day” and was actually celebrated on someone else’s birthday. Weird.
The Dutch royal family is the House of Oranje (yes, spelled with a “j”, that’s not a typo), which literally means the color orange. So to celebrate everyone dresses in orange, the national color, and goes out on the streets for a street carnival, boat parade along the city’s canals, dancing and singing. Massive party.
But the thing my dad was most excited about, was that on King’s Day the whole city essentially becomes a massive flea market. People dig out all of the stuff they no longer want or need and take it to the street or into the park and sell it for cheap. It combines two things my dad really loves: crap that no one else wants and cheap stuff.
We stepped onto the street and were immediately surrounded by a wave of orange. Everyone and their dog (mind your step!) was outside to celebrate. We were swept away by the orange sea and carried in the direction of Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s biggest park.
The park was hopping with activity. Parades of people came and went, passing by piles of housewares, books, toys, and other stuff on sale. The wares were displayed on picnic blankets, beach towels, or just stacked on the grass. An endless line of unwanted stuff. Well, unwanted by the owners, that is. Excited passersby were exchanging euros for discarded junk, taking home other people’s junk.
Dad’s eyes perked up at the sight of a pile of electronics. He was looking to replace some appliances we had back in Chicago. The voltage is different here than in the US, so we were still short a toaster and a hair dryer and some other stuff. Dad had a list.
Up ahead someone was selling orange balloons and orange hats and orange feather boas. Next to this a band of high schoolers were belting out tunes and asking for money. Surprisingly, the hat on the ground in front of them was filling up, despite their inability to carry a tune. Everyone was too wrapped up in the joy of the occasion to care if they lacked musical talent.
I have to admit, I was rather enjoying myself too. Since moving here mid-winter we hadn’t been out much, but since Spring hit the city had been more lively. And the fact that it was a four-day weekend and I had time away from schoolwork didn’t hurt. It was turning out to be a great day.
So of course this is when everything got really, really messed up.
Dad stooped over a collection of appliances and inspected a toaster while mom chased after Charlie. He had just started walking a few months ago and was excited to run whenever he had the chance. He wasn’t so great at navigating. Or stopping. But he didn’t care.
I started to follow after Mom and Charlie when I saw the lady under a weeping willow that sat off the road alongside a small pond.
Or rather, when she saw me.
The woman sat underneath a set of thick gnarled branches that twisted away from her, their leaves cascading around her like a leafy waterfall. While everything and everyone in the park was bright orange or decorated in other vibrant colors, this woman was grayscale. It was as if she had been drained of all color. Her skin was cloud white and her eyes a pale grey. She wore grey robes with a hood pulled up over her silver white hair, save for one lock that hung down over her face. It was as if someone had turned her color setting all the way down and made her black and white, like in an old movie. And she was staring directly at me.
I thought of looking away and ignoring her, but I couldn’t. Somehow she held me in place with her gaze. She raised a hand and motioned for me to come over. It was super creepy, like the sort of don’t talk to strangers stories they tell us in school to get us prepared for the world. The last thing I wanted to do was go over to her.
The weird thing is, I did just that. I couldn’t help it. Something was compelling me to move.
As I approached I could’ve sworn that strand of hair twisted and slinked back under her hood all on its own, like a snake slithering into its hole.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the grayscale lady said. The air around her was wet and smelled of salt and electricity, like the air before a thunderstorm.
“You have? For me? Why?” I didn’t want to talk to her, but I did. Seriously, a word of advice: if this ever happens to you, run away.
“I have something for you.” She held up a rolled up piece of leather tied up with a red leather strap. It looked ancient. It smelled like it had been stored forever in some place dark and damp. I wanted nothing to do with it. But at the same time I felt like I wanted the scroll more than anything in the world.
“What is it?” I asked. I’m not sure why I did. In my mind I was turning around and running back to my parents. But in real life I was standing there talking to this strange grayscale lady and trying to will my hand from not reaching out to take the scroll.
“A map,” she said flatly, as if it was obvious. The old woman adjusted her hood with long, thin fingers. The pale white skin hung off her bones like melting ice cream.
“A map to what?” I asked, even though I really didn’t want to know. No, that’s not true. I wanted to know more than I’ve ever wanted to know anything else.
Things were getting a bit confusing.
“All the treasures of the Realms of the Nether Lands. This map will guide you to collect them.” She undid the red strap and rolled the leather scroll flat.
It was blank at first but then a map began to appear as if painted by an invisible brush. And outline in ink first, then color washes bled across the surface. It was an aerial view of a large forested park with meandering canals and lazy ponds. Illuminated points of light manifested in several areas on the map and radiated out in glowing circles like beacons on a radar. The painted trees seemed to sway and the inky water rippled as if the map was alive.
It was the most enchanting thing I had ever seen.
“Collect all four treasures and bring them to me and I will reward you with that which you most desire.” The woman’s eyes flashed and she smiled through broken teeth. The air suddenly felt cold and a shiver ran up my spine.
“What I most desire?” I said, truly not knowing what it could be. When I was younger I wanted a pony. A unicorn actually. A purple one. But that was long ago. These days, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted.
And why was I still talking to this woman? Why wasn’t I running away?
“All in good time, my dear.” She gave the map a sharp shake and the map disappeared, leaving only the weathered piece of leather. She rolled this up, secured it with the red strap, and offered the scrolled leather to me.
I saw my hands go out and reach for it as if I was just a spectator in the whole event. It was like someone else was controlling me. But before I could take the scroll the grayscale lady snatched it back and shook her head.
“Not yet. You have to offer me something in return. It is King’s Day after all. Something as precious as this does not come without a cost,” she said.
“But I don’t have any money,” I protested, suddenly wanting the map more than anything on Earth.
“It is not money I seek. Offer me something that only you can give. Something dear to you. Say it and make it so.” The woman’s voice seemed to have dropped an octave or two. It was low and raspy, like sandpaper. Overhead a raven cawed from somewhere in the flowing tree branches.
“But I don’t have anything. All I can offer is—Charlie!” The words spilled out of my mouth by accident at the sudden appearance of my little brother.
Charlie came out of nowhere and slapped my hand, taking me by surprise. And I just yelled at him, the same way I always yelled at him when he stumbled up and slapped me. But only this time …
No! Oh no! No no no no!
I tried to will the words back into my mouth but it was too late.
“So it has been spoken, so it will be done. Your offering is accepted.”
“NO! That’s not fair, that’s not what I meant. Charlie is not for sale!” I pleaded but the grayscale lady ignored me and continued talking.
“Your brother will suffice as payment. Or collateral. Bring me the four treasures and your brother will never know anything of this moment. But if you fail, he will belong to me,” the woman said and waved a boney hand in the air.
A circle of dots appeared on the side of Charlie’s neck. Twelve dots that looked like bright red freckles.
“Twelve months. Four Seasons. Four treasures. You have until the next King’s Day,” she said and all but one of the freckles faded on Charlie’s neck.
Charlie looked shellshocked and on the verge of crying. He turned and raced off in the direction from which he came. He teetered back into the crowds and I heard mom’s relieved voice as she caught up to him.
“Now then, this is yours.” The Grayscale lady offered me the scroll.
The leather was warm and seemed to pulse in my hand. I wanted to give it back and run away, but all I could do was stand there and listen to her words.
Four seasons, four treasures, won by valiant measures.
Alone you cannot prevail, four friends you must avail
‘tis five complete to achieve this feat, a band of five must be
Five together to secure the treasure and return once more to me.
We meet again on next King’s Day, make the exchange or you must pay.
The woman’s words rolled across the grass like distant thunder and the tree branches fell down in front of her like curtains at the end of a play. I almost expected an audience to applaud, but there was nothing but silence. Creepy silence like the whole world had stopped. I looked at the scroll of leather in my hands.
The woman was gone.
I had one year to figure out how to save my baby brother.
Piper’s brother Charlie
The above is a chapter from Lost in the Nether Lands, Book One of the Arcanus Saga series! To keep updated on the publishing of the Arcanus Saga series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and be among the first to be notified when book one is published.
Chris Moeller is an American writer, illustrator and insatiable explorer, whose love of new experiences has led him to travel extensively throughout the world. Though a perpetual nomad, he currently lives in Amsterdam. His upcoming YA fantasy novel, Lost in the Nether Lands, is the first book in his Arcanus Saga series. His previous work includes Chasing Lightning: The Pursuit of Successful Living in America and World Between Worlds. Despite his best efforts, Chris has yet to discover his mutant superpower.