It was after dinner and night had finally fallen over the tree houses, like a vast blanket of darkness. Tomorrow morning, we would leave for the mysterious Aviary, which Dristan had told me very little about. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Neither he, nor myself, had mentioned our argument from earlier today. In fact, we’d hardly spoken much at all since then...
I’d spent the majority of the evening hours in silence, trying to muster up the courage to bring up the sensitive subject of my father.
I was lounging on one of the plush, brown arm chairs, while Dristan sat on the couch and polished his sword. The crackling and popping of the fireplace was the only sound.
I’d changed into a pair of silky smooth, black pajama bottoms, with a matching long sleeved shirt. I’d bathed again, and left my dark hair loose around my shoulders.
I studied Dristan through the silence. He was dressed in soft, grey sleep pants and a crisp, white shirt. Even through the loose fabric, I could easily see the way the muscles in his upper body rippled and shifted with each stroke of the cloth over his blade.
He had been angrily running his hands through his hair all evening, causing it to stick out in a mess of wild tufts atop his head. The stubble across his jaw, chin and upper lip was beginning to grow back.
After a good ten minutes of psyching myself up, I inhaled a lungful of air and readied myself. It was now or never...
His hand paused on the sword and he looked up at me with one raised brow. “Yes?”
I fidgeted with my hands in my lap. “I was wondering...” I started cautiously.
“Of course you were.” He grumbled, going back to cleaning his weapon.
I secretly scowled at the side of his face. “I’ve been thinking... about something I need to do before we leave for the Aviary.”
He continued polishing the blade, but lifted his gaze back to mine. His expression was wary.
“I thought... Maybe we could travel back to my village before we go. I need to see my father, make sure he’s alright. And let him know that I’m okay, too...” I explained calmly. I was careful to withhold even the smallest hint of attitude in my tone. I could not afford to piss him off right now.
He stopped polishing and stared at me.
I waited, holding my breath.
He turned his head back toward his lap before he set his sword down. Then he picked up his armored shoulder pads and began to polish them, instead.
“No? That’s it? Just... No?” I argued.
He nodded at his lap, not meeting my eyes. I ground my teeth, struggling to keep my emotions cool, calm and collected. If I allowed myself to get angry, he would be able to smell it.
“Dristan...” My voice wobbled a bit. “I-I know I’m not always the easiest person to deal with. I’m sorry for that... But I have done everything you’ve asked of me. I have never asked you for any favors. I need you to help me do this. I can’t bear the thought of leaving here without knowing he’s okay.”
He was quiet for a moment. “The risk is too great... And I have already sent word to the Aviary that we will be arriving soon.”
I lifted my chin. “They have waited five years. They can stand to wait another couple of weeks. This is important.”
He lifted his head. “Brenya, I was barely able to get you here unscathed. I cannot risk something happening to you in that forest.”
A tendril of anger slipped out of my calm barrier. I was sure that he’d caught the scent, because his nostrils flared and his eyes hardened.
“I got here just fine, thanks to you. You are perfectly capable of getting me through the forest again.”
“I had a team of soldiers with me!” He snapped. “The beasts of the forest are far less likely to attack a large group of travelers, especially armed ones. If you and I were to walk through those woods, alone, we may as well paint targets on our backs!”
I rolled my eyes. “You are a dragon, Dristan. You are perfectly capable of keeping us safe!”
The muscles beneath the skin of his jaw flexed in irritation. “The answer is no.”
He went back to polishing his armor.
I stared at him. My teeth were locked together with tension and my jaw was beginning to ache. My hands, balled into tight fists in my lap, shook slightly. My fingernails were starting to cut into the sensitive skin of my palms.
I took a steadying breath and did my best to unclench my jaw and loosen my fists. My shoulders slumped slightly as I struggled to calm myself.
Well... I gave it my best shot.
After a rather frosty goodnight to Dristan, I slipped into the bedroom and began ‘packing a bag for tomorrow’ ... In reality, I was packing it for tonight.
The magical house came in quite handy. Before, when I’d needed toiletries and a comb, I’d found them magically appear in the washroom. And now, when I needed supplies to last me a week’s journey, the house obliged me once again.
On my bed, I found a pair of black leather pants, sturdy black boots, a black cloak with a hood, and a dark colored backpack. I grinned down at the display. These clothes would make me virtually invisible against the blanket of night outside.
Beside the clothes, I found a large hunting knife, complete with a belt and built in sheath, as well as a satchel of arrows, and a beautifully carved, wooden bow. I also found a box of matches, a canteen of water, some dried jerky, a bag of almonds, a small block of cheese, a chunk of bread, and a compass.
The best piece of equipment, however, was a long cord of sturdy rope. Perfect for getting from the impressive heights of the tree-houses, to the forest floor far below.
This was working out better than I could’ve hoped for. I grabbed a piece of parchment and quickly scribbled out a note. “Don’t try to follow me. I’ll be back.” I’d leave it on my pillow for Dristan to find in the morning.
I stealthily packed the supplies, along with an extra set of clothes. When I was dressed in the black clothing the house had provided, I sheathed the knife at my hip and pulled the bow over my head. I would have to carry it across my body, like a sash.
I pulled on the backpack and took one last look around the bedroom. “Thank you.” I whispered to the magical home. Of course, it didn’t respond. It was just a house... But I was still grateful to it, nonetheless.
It had been at least an hour since I’d said goodnight to Dristan. He had to be asleep by now...I crept over to the door and cracked it open.
I peered through the opening, squinting through the darkness, and spied Dristan’s sleeping form across the room. He was sprawled across the couch on his back, shirtless, and snoring softly as he usually did when he was in a deep sleep.
I remembered what Dristan had told me the first night we arrived here. He’d told me that there was a guard posted outside our door at night. So, strolling through the front door would not be an option.
Luckily for me, I was an excellent climber.
I pulled the door open a bit wider, cringing all the while, afraid the door might make a sound. But it didn’t. With a sigh of relief, I slipped through the door.
With slow, calculated steps, I tiptoed toward the center of the house where the large oak tree speared up through the floor and disappeared through the gaping hole in the ceiling. My eyes slowly trailed up the base and toward the roof.
It was at least a fifteen foot climb. The sides of the tree were littered with ridges and bumps, good for footing and grip. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was climbable.
At the top of the ceiling, there was just enough space between the tree trunk and edges of the roof for me to squeeze through. I’d never been more grateful for my slim figure in my entire life.
With one foot and one hand at a time, and at the slowest pace manageable, I began to climb the tree. I had to move at an excruciatingly slow rate to ensure that I didn’t make a single sound. Dristan’s keen hearing would surly pick up on the smallest of noises.
After about five minutes of tense silence and slow progress, I finally reached the ceiling. I glance down and across the room at Dristan’s sleeping form. He hadn’t stirred. His chest rose and fell peacefully. I allowed myself a few more moments to gaze at him before I turned back toward the tree.
I pressed my body as closely to the trunk as I could manage and shimmied through the small space between the tree and the ceiling’s edge.
Fresh, chilly night air tickled my face as I popped my head out of the opening. I almost laughed at the relief and victorious feeling that settled over me. But I had to remain silent, so instead, I smirked and mentally high-fived myself.
When I’d squeezed my entire body through the opening, I stepped onto the roof and crouched into a low stance. I glanced around and above me. But there were no guards in sight.
I made it!
Cautiously, I pulled the coil of rope from my backpack and began to wrap it around the tree trunk. When it was secure, I crept along the roof like a jungle cat, taking the rest of the long coil of rope with me.
I was stealth, incarnate. I was one with the night, a ghost amongst shadows.
When I reached the far, back edge of the house, I loosely wrapped the rope around my waist. This way, I’d be able to repel down as safely as possible. I peered over the side of the roof and down to the dark forest floor below. I couldn’t see the bottom.
My head spun a little bit, and I took a step back. If I wasn’t extremely careful about this, I could fall to my death.
I sucked in a few lungfuls of air, squared my shoulders, and then threw the rope over the ledge. It disappeared toward the forest floor, swallowed by the black depths.
I gripped the rope, sent a silent prayer up to the gods, and began the long repel down. When I’d made my way silently passed the outer walls of the house, I sighed with relief.
My feet hit the tree trunk below the house, and I kicked off of it, loosening my grip on the rope so I could fall a small distance. Then I tightened my grip on the rope again and settled my feet against the tree once more. I repeated this process, slowly making my down.
After what seemed like hours, my feet finally touched the forest floor. My shoulders slumped in relief and the tension I’d been holding in my chest deflated.
I did it...
I untied myself from the rope and cut off as long a piece of it as I could. The end that had reached the ground still had a good twenty feet of length left to it, so I still had a good amount of rope to bring with me. I might need it later...
After stuffing it into my pack, I set off into the trees. The first thing I needed to do was find a stream. I headed north, stepping over thick tangles of roots and vines, in search of water. After about thirty minutes, I heard the sweet melody of a trickling brooke through the silent woods.
I headed toward the sound and found a creek. It was about thirty feet wide, and didn’t look too deep. I waded to the center of the stream and found that it didn’t submerge me past my waist. It was the perfect way to throw off my trail.
I couldn’t trust that damned Dragon Lord’s nose. He’d sniff me out as soon as he realized I was gone. But if I traveled by water... He wouldn’t be able to.
As a secondary measure of precaution, I reached down through the cool, clear water and scooped up two fistfuls of mud for the bottom. I spread the muck up and down my arms, over my chest, and all over my face. I coated my clothes and as much skin as I could. This would help keep my scent hidden.
When I was fully saturated in mud, I began slowly wading down the stream, heading north. I had to cover as much ground as possible tonight. There was no telling how much time I had before Dristan realized I was gone. But I also had to stay quiet. Too much noise would attract predators. Who knew what kind of creatures were stalking these woods...
I was taking a big risk, doing this.
A stupid, foolish, reckless risk.
But I had no other option.
I had to see my father.