The Black Angel haunted her dreams -- laughing sinisterly as he beckoned her into a shallow grave with a wasted finger. The worst part of the nightmares was that, with each nightmare, she willingly stepped toward her demise. As she woke, Willow could not help but wonder if she were riding toward her death.
She shook herself out of her despair, rubbed her red puffy eyes, and shook Rohan awake. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Rohan mumbled, his hand thrown over his eyes in defiance to the sun.
Devon nodded his head in acknowledgement to Willow’s greeting and absently picked some leaves out of the spikes in his hair as he walked over to tend to the horses.
Rohan waddled over to Caper, his legs throbbing in protest, resigned to let Devon assist Willow this morning.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have given up all those equine lessons.”
Willow laughed softly, “I told you they would come in handy someday.”
“It appears today’s that day,” he said rubbing his inner thighs.
The horses reluctantly left behind the small patch of grass lining the stream. The trail left the forest as it wound down toward the desert, a vast vacuum of blinding sand, blinking angrily in the early morning sun. The three riders stopped for a moment to peer at a rocky ridge of mountains on the horizon, impossibly far away. The endless stretch of sand was daunting, a drastic change from the shaded, peaceful protection of the forest.
“You two ready for another day of adventures? This armor isn’t going to find itself,” Devon said cheerfully.
“I’d be more ready if I had a full stomach,” Rohan sulked.
Willow felt sympathy for her friend. “It’ll be okay, Rohan. Just try not to think about food.”
“Easier said than done. I always think about food,” he said with a frown.
Willow laughed. “Isn’t that always the case? Nothing is as easy as it sounds.”
Rohan shrugged and smiled before driving Caper forward.
An hour later when they reached the first scattering of cactus, Devon asked, “So Willow, are you and Rohan together?”
Willow sensed that he was not prying but genuinely curious. Usually she dismissed questions about their relationship, letting people come to their own conclusions and think what they would. She found that her protests usually fell upon deaf ears anyway. But for some reason she felt the need to clarify with Devon.
“No. Not like that. We’re just friends. He was my first friend at Credo, and his family has become like an extension of my own.” Rohan was not satisfied with her answer -- his lower lip protruded into a slight pout -- and so she added, “I’d be lost without Rohan.”
A smug smile surfaced on Rohan’s lips -- he was clearly appeased.
Devon’s brilliant smile took Willow’s breath away. For the first time, she allowed herself to wonder what it would be like to kiss him.
“So, not together, then.”
All the smugness drained from Rohan’s face.
What was she thinking? The boys had clearly gotten off to a rough start, and Devon was just trying to get under Rohan’s skin in some silly competition between the two of them. But some part of her held on to the hope that this fit young man was asking out of interest. But that was impossible, she reflected. How could a school girl hold his interest?
Wishing to change the subject, Willow asked Devon, “So how exactly did you meet my parents?”
“I left Proditio soon after I graduated from school. Since then I’ve been a nomad, drifting into various towns, working odd jobs, before moving on with the wind. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my life -- I’m still not. But I have the desire to see and do a little of everything while I figure it out.
“I decided to slowly make my way east. I had just started out -- about three or four days into my journey -- cutting my way through a dense forest, when I noticed a man and woman, clearly frightened, duck into a cave. It struck me as odd, but it was really none of my business.”
“How kind of you,” Rohan snapped.
“That is what I decided...at first. But just as I was about to move on, I saw a mass of gruesome figures, dressed all in black, scouring the woods -- hunting. I now understood why the couple was so frightened. These creatures were clearly out for blood. I threw myself down among the bracken and waited, holding my breath, hoping against hope that the couple would be safe. I felt for those two strangers, though I didn’t even know their names.”
“Did the Grim find the cave?” Willow asked on the verge of tears. How scared her parents must have been.
“The Grim seemed to search the woods forever, but they must have decided that your parents had escaped, because they turned tail and rushed back the way they’d come. I continued to lay low until I knew the coast was clear, and then I ran to the cave to let your parents know that they were safe.
“They were terrified at my appearance. You see, they thought I was one of them and that their hideout had been compromised. It took me several hours to convince them otherwise, but eventually I gained their trust.”
“Is that when they told you about the quest?”
“Not right away, no. But they shared other details of their lives: where they came from, who they worked for. Things like that. They had a beautiful picture of you in their cave, and I was immediately drawn to it.”
Willow blushed but did not comment, letting him finish.
“They were initially hesitant, hedging away from my questions with vague answers, but in time they told me all about you, and I came to feel like I knew you intimately.”
Rohan rolled his eyes, but Willow’s mind reeled at the word intimately and her blush deepened. How did this man gain so much power over her heart so quickly?
“I stayed with them that first night, with the intention of continuing east in the morning. When I was ready to head out, I said farewell, wishing them success, and stepped out into the thickets. I had only taken a few steps when I saw one of the Grim lurking in the shadows. His back was to me, so I was sure he hadn’t seen me. I ducked back into the cave. Your parents could no longer hide the truth.
“They told me everything. After hearing it all, I felt I’d found my purpose. I was supposed to help them, and I would.”
“Thank you for keeping them safe as long as you did,” Willow whispered.
“It was my duty, as it’s my duty to protect you. There was no choice to make.”
“Technically, it is my duty. You seem to forget – I am her Guardian, not you,” Rohan said.
“All the same, our interests are tantamount,” Devon said, winking at Willow.
Several hours into their ride, the air grew stifling. Their mouths were dry, and their canteens drained. Sweat poured down their faces, clinging to their clothes, and they slid uncomfortably in their saddles. The glare from the sun made their eyes ache, and then their heads. The horses had slowed substantially, their flanks flecked with foam and sweat and their breathing was labored.
Suddenly Willow remembered her powers, still so new to her. She closed her eyes and imagined a soft cool breeze. From out of the still, thin air, she summoned a refreshing, light wind.
“Did you do that, Willow?” Rohan croaked.
“I think so.”
“Good...it was getting unbearable.”
“Thanks,” Willow said. “I’m still in awe I can do these things.”
The breeze lifted their spirits, but they were still desperate for water.
Willow shielded her eyes, scanning the endless sand, looking for any sign of deliverance. Waves of heat radiated above the hot sand. Finally, Willow’s eyes fell on a dark spot in the distance. Could it be a tree? Or was it just a mirage?
They had been traveling in virtual silence ever since Devon’s account of meeting Willow’s parents, trying to spare their raw throats.
“Do you see that?” Rohan asked with a strained voice.
“You see it, too?” Willow asked. “I thought I was going mental.”
“Yes. What is it?”
“Looks like a cluster of trees to me,” Devon said.
“Trees? But they can’t grow out here, can they?” Rohan asked.
“The map shows an oasis a little more than halfway across the dessert. That must be it.”
“It better be. I feel like I’m dying,” Rohan said.
“I’m sure it is,” Devon said with absolute confidence.
An hour later, they rode under the shade of several palm trees. A natural spring rested in the center of the circle of trees. They barreled into the water. Protected from the sun’s full heat, the cooler temperature was heaven. The horses followed suit, letting the water lap against their fetlocks as they drank.
When the three had drunk all that their stomachs would allow, they filled their canteens. Not wanting to eat anything too salty, they each ate another apple. Even Rohan, whose appetite seemed to have abated in the scorching heat, seemed satisfied with the juicy fruit.
They reluctantly climbed their mounts. Willow did not want to leave, but the sun had peaked and was slowly making its decent. The heat was still blistering, but the thought that they were over halfway across, coupled with the comforting breeze encouraged her.
The sand was now dotted with low lying scrubby bushes and cacti which gave them hope this first ordeal would indeed end.
The scrub grew denser, the air a degree cooler. They pushed the horses further, and at last, they found a trickle of water which they followed to a murky pool. As the horses lapped at the dirty water, they decided to make camp.
Willow started a fire with some dead branches and boiled brown water in a tin cup that Devon brought along before drinking it and devouring the leftover meat -- worse for wear from the heat.
The horses chewed on the foliage of the low lying plants. Willow wished that she had something more to offer them for all their hard work. They needed real sustenance. She vowed that at the first sign of grass they would graze to their hearts’ content.
The boys succumbed to sleep almost instantly, spacing themselves at a distance from the roaring fire and each other. Willow stared at the fire, unable to let go of the thoughts that she had tried to put out of her mind all day.
Her parents weren’t away on another mission. They would never come home. She cried softly to herself, trying not to awake her companions.
“Willow?” Rohan said groggily.
“Hmm?” she sniffed.
She obeyed, scooting herself over to his side. He wrapped his arm around her securely. Even half-asleep, she could count on Rohan to take care of her. She cried into his chest as he rubbed her arm. Eventually he fell asleep again. Wrapped in his protective embrace, matching his breathing with her own, Willow was not far behind.
The temperature plummeted as the night wore on. Violent shivers woke her in the early morning. The bitter cold proved too much for Devon as well. He rummaged through Caper’s saddle bag searching for the blanket. With it in hand, he made his way over to Willow and Rohan.
should scoot closer to the fire. It’s only going to get colder.”
“Okay,” Willow said her mind still weary with sleep.
She jostled Rohan awake and the three move within inches of the fire. Devon spread the blanket over the three of them as they huddled together for warmth. Willow’s final coherent thought stoked the fire, which she hoped would burn until sunrise.
She felt as if she has just closed her eyes, when she awoke in the freezing dawn to the sound of a slithering snake making its way to the shade of a low lying shrub beside her.