Moonrose

Chapter 18: Rosamar

With more and more of the forest burned to ash, my worry threatens to spiral. The attacks on this world keep coming faster and stronger, and I can't help but worry that even Caspian and Darin and myself won't be enough to stop it.

The faeries are learning to fight, but they're even more out of their element than I am. I think we all know they won't stand much of a chance against a true army right now, if it comes to that. And every time I think of that, my stomach churns a bit more.

Aunt wouldn't have given me a task I couldn't fulfill, but maybe even she would falter in this. As far as I know, this is the first infiltration of evil in this place in all of its history. Granted, Tanssi Kuun is a bit younger than Narnia, but still.

"Will you be training with the faeries this morning?"

I turn to face Darin, happy for the distraction from my gloomy and decidedly unhelpful thoughts.

"I think that's best. You and I can continue my individual training after midday meal, if we have the energy."

Darin nods and helps me to my feet. After Caspian left for Narnia, we all sat and watched the moonrise from our sleeping places; Darin and I perched on the watch rock. I'm grateful for his steadying hand on my back, even though I usually would balk at any such gesture.

"I cannot promise all will be well, but I promise I'll give you and this world my best so all will be as close to well as possible."

"Thank you." I punctuate this with a quick peck on his cheek, another gesture completely unlike me, even though I've given this to him before.

He nods once, his face betraying his surprise.

We trade companionable smiles before we focus ourselves on training and teaching.

The first half of the day goes by as monotonously as expected, perhaps even more so. Darin teaches wonderfully, especially considering how many he has to teach, but he does ask me to drill half of the faeries while he adds to the other half's repertoire. I almost balk, until I see the exhaustion he's fighting so hard to hide. Swallowing my insecurity and doubt, I do as he asks without a single word of question. He's doing so much; if this lightens the load on him, so be it.

After a rough start, I adapt to becoming the instructor rather than the pupil and before long I'm drilling my group rather smoothly. I'd feel proud of myself, if I had the mental energy to devote to that.

"Do you think we'll be ready in time?" one of the faeries I've yet to name whispers to me when I'm correcting one of her lunges.

"We'll be as ready as we can be, and beyond that we can do nothing but pray." I try to convey confidence, but from my lessons in seeing, I only half succeed. I think my fear of failure taints my attempts at gifting bravery.

When Darin comes over to switch groups with me, I smile for his benefit. He returns the gesture, though I can tell he's as worried as I. It lifts my spirits enough to allow me the same determination I had with the first group.

A few more faeries ask me if I think the training will be enough, and I tell each and every one that it'll have to be. I can't tell them for sure that it will be, not in good conscience.

Every single one of us is relieved beyond belief when the time for midday meal comes around. No one even bothers to mention exhaustion, and we say very little to each other. I try to help prepare the meal, but the faeries doing so shoo me away with instructions to rest and thank Darin for his help. I do so by holding his hand for a few minutes rather than with words. Words can become cheap with too much use.

Something warm stirs in me when he doesn't let go. He doesn't meet my eyes, but I feel his gaze shifting toward me. We only let go because we need our hands to eat. I pretend not to notice Mesaba's smirk.

"How long do you believe we have to train?" Bashar, my guide, whispers to me when we've finished and everyone's starting to wash dishes.

"Long enough. We've made good progress."

I don't know if that's entirely true, but it'll have to do. I don't have it in me to dance around the truth anymore.

My guide seems to get this, as do all the faeries. No one, save Darin, approach me and my somber face until it's time to start training again.

"You and I will train now. They will drill and review today's work."

I nod and start off toward the training area Caspian and I first began in. Darin pushes me until my knees give out from under me and I sink unceremoniously to the ground.

"I'm sorry, I can't…I can't…" I wheeze out labored breaths, my arms shaking just from holding my upper body off the ground.

"I know you're ready to drop Rose, but listen to me. This is not your breaking point, understand?"

I can only blink at the ground as Darin's warm hand rests comfortingly on my quaking shoulder.

"If you can find the will to push through this, you will find the strength you don't even know you possess."

I'd stare at him incredulously, if I could lift my head enough.

"Get up, Rose."

My arms tremble a bit more in response.

"Rose. Get up." Darin's voice shifts from loving encouragement to hard and commanding.

"I can't…" I whisper, more to the leaves under my palms than the man above me ordering me to stand.

"You can, and that is the only reason I ask this of you." His voice softens once more. "Trust me."

My chest heaves in a great breath as I prepare for what I know I have to do.

"Rose. Get. Up."

I grit my teeth and push against the ground with every ounce of strength left in my body. My arms respond by giving out and letting my face fall to the ground.

A warm hand returns to my shoulder.

"We both know you can't do it just for you. Think of the faeries, Rose. Think of your aunt. What would she have you do?"

She'd have me get up, I know she would. But I can't.

No. I can.

All in one breathtaking moment, a long dormant defiance bubbles to the surface. I won't accept this failure.

With a will I wasn't sure I had left in me, I force my arms to steady enough to push me up from the ground. Inch by inch, I pick myself up until I'm on my knees upright, staring down at my shaking hands and commanding them to grasp the hilt of my sword. I can't stop now; it's not even my choice. I swore to protect this world, didn't I?

Didn't I?

With that and a grunt of pain, I crawl to my feet, ignoring the weakness in my knees and straightening my legs until I'm standing tall and defiant in front of my teacher.

Darin smiles like he's never been more proud of anyone, and I find enough strength in my legs to bend down and pick up the sword I dropped when I got to my feet.

My fingers squeeze the hilt like it's a lifeline and the metal thing rattles in my hand, but I don't drop it. Before I even realize it, I've lifted it to a sparring position.

"Your stance, Rose," Darin reminds me in a whisper.

I slide my feet to their positions and adjust my weight until Darin nods.

When he makes the first lunge, I almost drop my sword again. He stops to give me a moment to gather my strength, but I shake my head and swing my sword at him. He bats it away easily, so I try again. After two more attacks, I know I can't do anything but defend myself now. And somehow, by some miracle of Aslan, I do.

Darin lunges and parries and dances around me like an enemy would, yet I manage to keep his blade at bay the entire time. We spar for what could be hours to my body, and still I refuse to give up. I took the time to get up; I can't accept defeat now.

But my strength is fast waning again, and in no more than two moves, Darin knocks my sword from my grasp. A strangled cry of desperation erupts from my hitherto silent throat. I stop thinking and only act. In a last attempt to salvage this, I dive for my sword, narrowly missing Darin's flashing blade in the process. I thank Caspian's dancing style for putting more power behind my movements; I only have to leap for the sword once and then my fingers close around the hilt.

Darin's sword rushes at me, and I roll to the side, heart pounding when the metal blade plunges into the ground inches from my side.

I don't think, I just do. And right now, that means I roll back toward the blade in the grass next to me and swing my own sword at it with all my might. Imagine my surprise when Darin's sword flies to the side and out of his hands.

I'm up from the ground quicker than I thought possible with my sword right against his throat.

He puts his hands up in surrender with a smile that's brighter than the faeries' lights.

"Well done."

"Did I just…?"

At Darin's nod, my sword thumps to the ground from my spent fingers. A moment later I'm on my knees and crying with joy.

"You see? You can never know your own strength until you need it desperately."

The return of his hand to my shoulder brings a fresh round of happy tears, though I'm not entirely sure why.

A watery glance up at the sky shows me that the moon's about to set. Somehow, some way, I've made it through an entire day of training and nothing else.

I kneel and weep silently for a few minutes more before rising and walking back to the clearing with my head held a little higher than it was when I set out this morning. I think I found a bit of the protector my aunt saw when she chose me so long ago.

"She is proud," Mesaba murmurs to me as I stride past. I need only nod and smile; my heart will tell her the rest.

"We all are," Darin whispers when we're a little ways off.

"I couldn't have done that without you," I say honestly. "Truly, thank you."

He looks away to the side, his neck turning a curious shade of pink. I grin and move to plant another of my now not so uncharacteristic kisses on his cheek. And naturally, fate chooses this moment to embarrass me horribly.

As I move to his cheek, Darin moves his head to look back at me, and instead of connecting with his cheek, I find that my lips connect with his mouth.

I jerk my head backwards, hand over my mouth in horror. What have I done? Ruined a wonderful friendship, no doubt. On complete accident to boot!

"I-I'm so sorry, really, it was an accident, I didn't mean to-"

A sudden pressure on my mouth hushes me in mid sentence, and it takes me an extra moment to understand that Darin's the one silencing me. With his lips. The ones I so accidentally kissed.

It only lasts a moment or two, but when he pulls away I know that both our faces are red. No matter; it probably looks better on his skin than pink.

It takes real restraint to keep from smacking my own head.

Darin suddenly seems to find the trees beyond fascinating, and I'm busy admiring the ground under my toes. This is how Bashar finds us, undoubtedly red in the face and staring at the scenery to avoid looking at each other. One moment and I know she knows. Of course.

"Dinner is ready," she says quietly, kindly refraining from asking what's wrong.

I keep my head pointed down and follow the faerie back to the main gathering. Darin follows, but neither he nor I say a single word to each other. I'm not sure about him, but I'm too embarrassed to say a single thing. What exactly just happened? I don't think I even want to stop to ponder it.

Dinner progresses in relative quiet, though I happily chat with some of the faeries. They miss dancing, just as I do. But we're all so tired that we can barely sit up straight, let alone dance. I promise them we can do so in the morning when we wake. Instead, we sing, even though our voices are far from their best. But it's something.

After our song, even though it's still early in the evening, it's clear we could all use the extra sleep. So that's what we do. Darin and I don't say anything, not even a goodnight. I'm still too embarrassed, and I can only guess that he is too. Maybe it'll all be better in the morning.

I'm not so foolish that I expect this, but it's still a nice hope to go to sleep with.

Of course, when morning comes and I kick myself for forgetting all about the watch, things feel even worse than before. I shoot upright, only to see a familiar figure hunched and sitting on the rock we all take watches from.

I pad over as quietly as I can, pray for a bit of courage, and touch his shoulder to let him know I'm here.

He spins around, promptly turns about five consecutive shades of scarlet, and looks down at his feet.

From what I can guess, he's worried I'll ask about last night, but I've decided to let that lie for now.

"Did you stay up all night?"

"You were more exhausted than I."

A reprimand grows on my tongue, but I bite it back. It won't help things right now.

"Next time, could you please wake me halfway through the night? I feel bad if I don't take the watch at all."

"There was no need."

I don't indulge in the sigh that I want to.

"Need or not, for my sake?"

He nods, once, short and brusque and cold and completely unlike him. It makes me want to talk about last night just to get it out of the way, but I know now's not the time.

"You should probably get some sleep now," I say after a few moments.

"I'm alright."

"Darin, you have to train a few hundred faeries. Go."

For a few moments, it looks like he's just going to sit there and ignore me, but he finally gets up, though without giving me a second glance. Is he angry? Or simply embarrassed like me?

As I sit and keep watch for the remaining hours until midmorning, I can't help but wonder what's to be done about this. This isn't the time for a spat, not now when Tanssi Kuun needs all of us at our best. I don't want something so petty as a simple mistake get in the way of a friendship or my duties. I can let it go if he can. I'd be content to pretend it never even happened, for heaven's sake!

"What troubles you?"

I almost let out a yell when Bashar's voice comes out of nowhere right next to my ear.

"Bashar! You frightened me!"

"Shh, lest you wake everyone."

I frown a bit, but all in good humor. A smile hesitantly makes its way onto my face when I feel one of her ribbons wind around my shoulders.

"You promised we could dance in the morning?"

"I did."

Without any more words, I let Bashar, my guide still, pull me to my feet and start me on a dance so light and airy that I feel weightless almost instantly.

We brush over the ground so quickly and quietly that I almost forget there's even a ground at all. This, this is what I've missed since the turmoil began – these sweet and simple moments where nothing else exists but a dance and the stars to guide it. This is what Tanssi Kuun is made for.

Bashar tosses ribbons to me two at a time and I toss them back just as quickly, until they make a glowing web between us. For these precious moments, I can forget that we're all preparing for a battle we're not very sure we can win, forget that Darin and I will have to go our separate ways now, forget that nothing is as good as it could be, as it should be.

"Sometimes," Bashar whispers as we dance, "it is good to forget."

In reply, I leap especially far and start spinning the moment I land. It feels as though if I keep spinning, I can spin away all of Tanssi Kuun's troubles, and perhaps my own too.

Bashar and I dance and dance and dance, until the moon is high in the sky and it's clearly approaching noon. By now, the faeries have slowly begun to wake up. I pretend not to notice Darin fixing those who are awake the morning meal. And when he glances over at me, I act as though I never even notice. It's just easier that way.

That day, we train as we have been, but Darin doesn't speak to me, nor I to him, when it's just the two of us. He corrects me when needed, and we spar until I fall to the ground in exhaustion again. This time, he doesn't push me to get up.

I try anyway, and get to my feet after several minutes of struggling. Darin doesn't look at me very much. I shouldn't have gotten so used to the easy teasing between us; I knew I shouldn't have. I don't have the time to miss that now, I really don't.

That day ends the same as it began, with silence between the two of us and sympathetic looks from the faeries. The next day is no better, and I find myself looking forward to Caspian's arrival.

The thought alone makes me want to smack my head into the nearest tree. I've never needed anyone before, and I certainly don't need anyone now! I've asked Darin and Caspian here to help Tanssi Kuun, but in any other scenario I would have no need of either of them.

What irks me the most is that no, I don't need them, but somehow I want them: their company, their smiles, whatever it is!

All I need to do is forget about friendship, and put all of my focus into the faeries. It's what I should have been doing all along, anyway.


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