Chapter One'So... do you set up camp in the clearing or the cave?'
Flint frowns and thinks for a second. 'Clearing. I'd only have one escape if I set up camp in the cave. That could be dangerous... Wait, do I have a sleeping bag?'
Garner nods slowly. He has this habit of randomly testing out decision-making abilities with these sorts of questions.
'Someone SHUT HIM UP!' groaned Troy. But he doesn't mean it. Not much, anyway. Troy is naturally irritable. In that, he's similar to me. However, his anger isn't that scary, even though he is much bigger than most of us.
Someone who IS actually scary is...
'Gwinn! You're here!' Flint looks relieved.
Gwinn ignores the gate and climbs over the fence. Jumping, she lands on all fours, crushing the the grass before standing up, flicking her red hair out of her face.
Gwinn and I are the only girls who've shown up at Flint's house to help make decorations for the old Guard of Autumn's handover party. The other girls think Flint and his friends are stupid. Often, they are. But they're still my friends.
The old Autumn guard, Reed, will choose someone to become the next guard. They will most likely be sixteen or seventeen years of age.
It is summer now. As soon as Autumn starts, the new Guard will receive the title Autumn. They will be head of the Home Guard - the team of guards who have to protect Evergreen Heights. Then when autumn ends and winter begins, they will lose their title and join the Border Guard, protecting our city from the outside.
When you are twenty-two, you leave the Guard and take on a normal job, or retire. For some weird reason, you're not allowed to marry the Guard of another season.
Flint's mother organises every handover, and Flint is forced to help out. He's always real grumpy about it, so we come over to cheer him up, help him and mock him. It's mainly Vincent and Warren doing the mocking.
My cat Kobi is in my lap, mainly because he refuses to be anywhere else. A low, constant purr is coming from him, and his eyes are closed.
Yes, Kobi is spoiled. But if your cat likes you so much they follow you down the road completely of their own accord, then you don't just ignore them. Troy says Kobi could do with a little less attention. Kobi disagrees.
My brother, Asa, has a dog called Rupert, because Asa is a definite dog person. Rupert is a lap dog, which means his job is to sit on comfy surfaces and look friendly. This is virtually all he does. Kobi looks down on him, because he is more intelligent and has a bigger ego.
He is determined not to let Rupert or any of us forget it.
Oh, I forgot: we also have three hens - Helga, Daphne and Anne. They don't like anyone. But they tolerate us when we have food.
I am looping endless red and orange paper hoops to make a chain, but I am interrupted by a familiar voice.
'Mum says come home because we are going to have lunch early. Also, I fed the chickens yesterday and I'm not doing it again!'
Asa is bouncing up and down considerably, causing the other boys to snicker.
I sigh and drop the paper chain. 'Later.'
I pluck Kobi from his spot in my lap and carry him down the street while Asa runs ahead. People stare at Kobi, because he has a beautiful pelt - pale grey with dark spots - and it's not every day you see such a fancy-looking cat being carried around town by a scrawny little girl.
Fortunately, no one asks to pet him and we arrive home pretty quickly. Asa still complains we took forever.
I place Kobi on his favourite table - which was my colouring table about nine years ago - and head into the garden. I grab a scoop and start filling our bucket with seed from the small metal tank by the coop.
When the bucket is about half full, I open the door to the coop and pour the seed across the ground. The chickens eye me suspiciously and I back off, leaving them to enjoy their late breakfast. "It's about time." they seem to mutter in their peculiar clucking tone.
I walk into the kitchen for my own meal.
'Hello to you too, Lexi.' I jump. My mother is frowning at me and leading against the table.
I roll my eyes. 'Sorry. Hi.'
She passes me a breadroll and a slice of cheese. 'Eat quickly. I want to arrive early for once. I'm absolutely sick of the queues. And brush your hair! There's a knot that you didn't get rid of this morning.'
I climb up into the treehouse in the corner of our garden and start eating. Kobi joins me so he can look down on everyone else. Underneath us, Asa charges around the garden for no other reason than he likes to.
The chickens eat their fill and back off. Our father comes outside and says we have to leave, so I grab a brush and head to my room to get rid of the lone knot.
I comb it out fast enough and stare at my reflection in my bedroom mirror. I have pale skin, a heart-shaped face and dark brown hair. My eyes are a deep, vivid blue and I've always thought that they were unusual.
Rupert lies at my feet attempting to fake an inability to walk. He likes to be carried 24/7. Well, more like 20/7. He prefers to spend four hours a day on the bed of whichever human is his favourite. Not sleeping, just lying sideways.
Then my mother yells at me to go. I do.
A few people are leaving their homes already. Not big queue fans, I'm guessing. We join them and begin the long trek to the handover ceremony.
'Mew.' Kobi is at my feet, which is annoying. However, there are no rules against pets at the ceremony. It is typically frowned upon, but I'm fourteen still, and I'm small enough to pass for a younger child. Anyone under thirteen gets away with most things. Asa knows this.
At fourteen, Gwinn still doesn't get in trouble. Everyone knows not to mess with her. A year or two ago she stopped pretending to be innocent and harmless whenever someone caught her doing things she shouldn't. She became permanently scary. I guess it helped that her parents got her a hunting knife.
Right now, Gwinn has just overtaken me in the long line of people she is passing. She's walking along the top of the two-metre brick wall to the left of us. She's not even bothering to balance, just calmly strolling past the gawking crowd, jumping over the gaps in the wall where there is a gate.
No one is really sure why Gwinn puts up with me and the boys. No one wants to ask her.
Each handover ceremony is different depending on the season. For Autumn, the Summer guard stands on the top of a building and drops a feather. Whoever it lands on becomes the new guard.
It's supposedly done with magic. Most people agree that this is probably not true, but there is something eerie about how it always lands on someone. It never flies into the distance, and whenever people grab at it it moves away from them. It never fails. So it may as well be magic.
Gwinn is next to me suddenly. I don't remember her climbing down. But she must've.
We arrive at the flat expanse of perfectly-cut grass that is Evergreen Park. All handover ceremonies are held here. I see Flint decorating the fence surrounding the park with the paper chain I started. Whoever finished it didn't really understand the pattern I was making with the colours, so the last third looks a little random.
We walk to the stage, which is still being set up. About seventy people are already there.
Ten minutes go by. The crowd grows. The boys join me and Gwinn. Kobi gets more nervous and hides between my feet.
Eventually Reed appears and everyone starts cheering. Reed looks grouchy, but he composes himself just before he gets to the front of the stage.
'Hello. Today one of you will become the Guard of Autumn as soon as Summer ends. As of now.' - he gestured to the roof of a building, on which a small figure was wildly waving - 'our current guard, the Summer, is keeping our glorious city safe and sound.'
He pulls out a flag and holds it outwards dramatically. We all freeze.
Then he pulls his hand downwards and everyone's gaze moves to Juniper, better known as the Summer.
She releases a hawk's feather. It drifts to the ground in an unnaturally slow manner, swirling as it goes, and the crowd surges towards it. Kobi startles and starts to back away from the crowd.
'Kobi! Get back here.'
He doesn't. He runs.
'Stupid cat.' I mutter. But I go after him. I'm his owner and he's a pretty good companion, often nicer than my fellow humans are.
I sprint across the grass, my mother yelling at me to stop. I'm not going to.
Kobi runs and runs until we are alone just outside the park. He cowers behind a bush, knowing he's in trouble. I don't feel like lecturing him, so I scoop him up and run back to the ceremony.
My mother is fuming and says that this is why you don't bring pets to the ceremony and that you don't see Asa bringing Rupert and she can't even enjoy the ceremony now because her daughter nearly knocked over about ten people.
And then something lands on my head and I pick it up.
It's a hawk feather.
'Holder of the silver cat!' shouts Reed. 'Come forth!'