~ THE MOTHER ~
My body felt as though it was floating and my stomach churned at the unusual sensation, making my eyes flutter open and blink with uncertainty at my surroundings.
Dressed in my nightgowns, I was walking and yet I wasn't.
My feet were deciding on their own that forward was the direction to go and, not having a clue of where I was or what was happening, I didn't protest in the slightest. I doubted I could if I tried, my muscles feeling as uncontrollable as the weather and the ground feeling as solid as a cloud beneath my bare feet—sometimes feeling like there was nothing there at all.
Grabbing onto my arms, I gave each of my fleshy biceps a pinch to confirm that the rest of my body was still there. Still, even after I felt the stinging pain from my nails, I wasn't sure.
"Hello?" My voice, scratchy with sleep and confusion, echoed off invisible walls made me jump in fright. Twisting my head in every direction, all I could perceive was the color white, blinding and surrounding me. It was as bright and irritating as the sun but it did not hurt my eyes. It was then I realized that I didn't have a shadow and I wasn't blinking either. No matter how long I kept my eyes wide open, they did not burn or become dry in the slightest. The involuntary response that I'd been programmed with since birth suddenly was completely gone like it'd never existed. "Am I dead?" The question was meant to be reserved for my thoughts only but, like my feet, I was finding more and more that my actions were no longer my own.
Looking for an immediate answer, I slapped my hand over my chest and pressed against it. I breathed—yes, breathed—out in relief when I felt my heart's slow beating under my palm, the rhythm a promise of hope.
My whole body froze like ice. Even my feet finally stopped, whose heels I forced down into the ground with most of my body weight.
Slowly, I turned around and held my breath, scared that if I made one wrong noise that it would somehow disturb or ruin what I thought I heard behind me. Once my body was facing the source of the voice, I didn't need to question or place my hand over my heart to know it was there because of the painful lurch it gave when I saw her.
"Momma," I breathed out, feeling my eyes burn with new tears as I stared at the angel before me, so beautiful and clad all in white like the room around us.
The woman, my mother, smiled at me with sad and almost regretful eyes. Her loose, ankle-length white dress reminded me of the nightgown she wore before she got sick, except this one lacked the stains or the stitches that didn't quite match the fabric where fixed tears along the bottom used to be. To see her in it, her face flushed with health and her distinct and almost light-as-snow hair shining in thick waves down her back and over her shoulders, made me choke on the air itself.
"My baby," she said softly, her eyes beginning to fill with tears. They swept over me, looking as if she couldn't believe I was truly standing there before her. "My poor, poor child." She outstretched her arms to me and immediately I ran to them, wrapping my own around her thin waist. I squeezed her with all the strength I'd mustered in those six lonely, dark years of being without her and the utter fear that I'd never get this opportunity again.
I wailed loudly and shamelessly, equivalent to that of a screeching toddler, into the area where her shoulder met her neck. But in that moment meager things such as acting my age didn't matter anymore. Nothing did for as long as I had her in my reach. "Momma..." My voice broke as I called her by the name I'd stopped using after I started school and my mother shushed me lovingly, her warm hand rubbing my back up and down in small circles, just like she had done when I was little. The gesture made my throat close up and my lips wobbled as I held back more tears, my face and eyes scorching with a fire unlike anything I'd ever felt before. "Momma." Her hair smelled the same too and I dug my nose farther into it, burying myself in it, memorizing everything I loved about it.
"I've missed you so, so much," she whispered to me, her gentleness making me let out another pitiful, choked sob. Her voice was as smooth and lovely as I'd remembered, so distinct that my memories were never able to reproduce it perfectly. "So much." My mother pulled back slightly so she could look at my face. With nimble fingers, she tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear and stared at me with those blue eyes so much like my own with a type of adoration that only a parent can possess.
"Me too," I replied, looking at her—really looking at her.
I noticed that she looked younger, maybe by around ten years or so. Gone were the crows feet around her eyes and the smile lines beside her upturned nose that was almost an exact replica of my own. I never thought I'd be disappointed by the loss of their presence, but they were what I'd grown used to seeing on my mother's face and therefore, in some way, I had grown to cherish them just as much.
Suddenly my mother froze and her face hardened, smile dropping into a dazed look and as if there wasn’t a soul behind her eyes anymore at all. Her grip on my shoulders tightened and I winced when her nails broke through my skin, letting out a soft hiss of pain.
"Mom?" I questioned, searching her beautiful face for an answer as to her peculiar behavior. Trying to pull my arms away from her, I held back a shout of agony when she only dug her nails into me further and anchored me in place.
"Do not trust the king," she bit out in a harsh whisper, her nostrils flaring and her gaze flashing to my mark. The moment her eyes landed on it, I could feel each individual puncture begin to burn and pulse to an excruciating amount. The woman in front of me stared at my mark with such loathing and anger that I couldn't recognize her as my own mother anymore.
I cried out and stretched my chin as for away from my mark as I could, my body's instinctive way of trying to get as far away from the pain as possible. "What?" I said, my pained and frightened voice sounded muffled to my ears. I shook my head and forced my eyelids together, trying to suppress the agony I felt along my neck and in my head. But they only got worse with each second and my knees began buckling beneath me, threatening to give out any moment if I wasn't careful.
Pulling me closer by the shoulders with a vice grip, my mother screeched frantically, "Do not trust the king! Do not trust any of them! They are lying to you!" With each word her nails dug themselves further and further into my skin, drawing blood and making me cry harder. Although she was right in front of me, her voice resounded as if she was talking through a glass jar located in a place far, far away.
With one last harsh tug, she pulled me even closer to where I could feel her uneven breathing against my nose. I held my own as I watched her face, her eyes wide and crazed. "Do not trust the king!"
And then I fell through the invisible ground and screamed.
* * *
My mother's voice bounced off the interior of my skull as I shot up in my bed, the book I’d been reading about Mages falling from my chest and onto my lap, flipping open to a section about their patron god, Mirro. Drenched with my own sweat and tears, my chest heaving as I gasped to fill my lungs with the cool air, I reached up and wiped away the streams leaking involuntarily from my tired eyes and all the way down my neck.
I had barely touched my face, my fingertips grazing my cheekbones, when I let out a sound close to a shout as a sudden loud 'bang!' reverberated throughout the room, allowing the worst scenarios to enter my head, all of which included me dying. My head snapped to the left to see that the bay window I'd grown to love so much was wide open. Its glass panes repeatedly smashed against the stone exterior of the palace with each harsh gust of wind, surprising me that they weren't at least cracked from how violent the blows were.
A pile of freshly fallen snow was growing by the second on the window seat and atop its pillows, having been blown in by the groaning, unforgiving air. Clumps of flakes had already begun melting on the floor into puddles big enough for birds to wash themselves in.
Hurriedly, I ripped the bedcovers off my clammy body, the book as thick as three fingers thudding somewhere into the floor, and shivered when the cold air met my skin, especially my still very irritated mark, whose pain thankfully was beginning to diminish.
Still shaken by that night's nightmarish events, my whole body felt unbalanced and unstable, nearly causing my weak knees to crumple to the ground when I put my whole weight on them. I held onto the bedpost, watching helplessly as a partially large burst of window blew more snow through the window, until my knees stopped wobbling to where I could at least walk without falling. The bottom of my feet protested as I forced them to move across the freezing wooden floors, my toes curling in discomfort.
Once I was in front of the window, my eyes finally looked up from the ground and widened in horror when I saw the full moon blaring down at me, reminding me of the significance of that night. The muscles in my face slackened as dread filled my abdomen. Suddenly, I could taste the overly spiced tea Ingrid had given me to calm my stomach and nerves.
It was as if my ears were suddenly now awake. In the distance, past the loud clamors of the window panes hitting the wall, I could make out the distinct sound of wolves—no, Lycans—howling their monthly tune.
A shudder racked through my body, this time not from the cold. Despite me growing up my entire life in a village that bordered the Cursedlands, hearing their howls that particular night was different. This time I was in the Cursed Kingdom. This time the beasts weren't just near me. They surrounded me completely. I could hear their cries more clearly than ever before, some high pitched while others rich and low, coming from every direction imaginable. It was absolutely haunting, breathtaking, and eerie all at the same time, leaving behind a sensation I understood a person could only experience once in their lifetime.
My eyes drifted from the moon down to the woods below, the small hairs on the back of my neck standing upright. Every pine tree was covered in a magnificent layer of white but that wasn't what had caught my attention. Beneath the all of that was a noticeable pair of two glowing gold dots, each appearing as big as the tip of a sharp needle due to distance. I startled and felt my body go stiff as I watched the unblinking eyes, whose owner was entirely unseeable because of the dark shadows of the trees. Although I knew it was too far away to truly tell, something inside of me told me without question that it was staring right back at me.
Coming to kneel on the small mound of snow on the window seat, I reached my arms outside the window, refused to look downward, and grabbed the banging window panes with shaking fingers. Slowly, still keeping an eye on the Lycan, I brought them towards me and nimbly latched them shut, welcoming the sudden silence that filled the atmosphere. My heart was beating against my ribs so hard that I wondered if the organ possibly had enough strength to bruise them.
I sat on the seat on top of the snow, watching the Lycan while he did the same to me. It was only a few minutes later when its eyes flickered, like it had finally blinked, and then seemed to subtly move to the side before disappearing into shadows altogether.
Its sudden departure to me by surprise more than its appearance had. A part of me had entertained the thought of it never leaving and me confronting the beast under the rising sun.
Holding my breath, I stared at the trees for a period too long to be considered sane before I realized it was never coming back. Rubbing my heavy eyes to make sure they were seeing everything correctly, I leaned forward to try to get a better look and only stopped when my breath caused the glass to fog. Nothing.
Releasing a shaky breath, I gave one last look skywards before placing my feet back on the unforgiving ground and trudging back to my bed. I slowly sat down on its edge, the springs in the mattress softly squeaking from the added weight. To my dismay, the sheets had grown extremely cold in my absence and I gave another quiver as I lied back until I was facing the ceiling, the hot skin of my revealed back flushed against it. As I placed my legs underneath the freezing covers one by one, my fervent pulse continued its obnoxious drumming against my temple.
I timed my breathing, forcefully dragging each breath out and putting a pause between them, until both it and my heartbeat slowed down to what I presumed was a healthy rate. Placing a hand in the center of my chest, I felt my calming heart thump against it. A promise of hope, I reminded my anxious thoughts as I licked my chapped lips, as long as it keeps beating.
Lying my head as low as I could on my pillows, I reached down and grabbed the covers to lift them up and over my head until I was cocooned within them. The action took me back to my childhood and how I used to do the same on my bed made of straw. It felt so long ago and, amongst all of my other battling emotions, nostalgia and the longing for a chance to redo the past entered my bloodstream.
I sighed and stared blankly at the white sheet above me, trying to forget the nightmares of both my reality and my dream, while I listened earnestly to every sound I could to distract myself: my breathing, my heartbeat, the sheets rustling when I moved my foot, the clock ticking in the corner, the wind, and the howling Lycans.
But still, past all of the noise, my mother's warning in my head rang the loudest—"Do not trust the king!"
Feeling restless and anxious with a familiar heaviness settling in my stomach, I turned over onto my side as a futile attempt to find some form of comfort and paused when I felt an unmistakable sting. I shifted over into my original position on my back and lifted my arms while angling my head to get a look at where the pain was coming from, letting the sense of pure shock and fear wash over me and quicken my heartbeat and breathing yet again. Scrambling to sit up, I kicked off the covers and let the moonlight seeping through the windows help confirm what I was seeing.
There, as clear as day, were five red crescent moon shaped indents on each of my shoulders and in the exact same places where my mother's hands had latched onto me in my dream.
It was just a dream… wasn’t it?
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