My name is Jim Woods, and this is the story of how my life changed forever the day my sister came back from archery practice.
I walked back home, dry leaves on the forest floor crushing under my feet the same way today was crushing everything I had.
I should’ve seen it coming. I hated myself for being naïve, for hoping I’d stay special. But of course, my 10 year-old sister was more prodigious than me in the field of archery; the one and only skill I prided myself on. I thought I was prepared for this, but my feeling threatened by her achievement screamed otherwise. If I'd really seen it coming, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt intimidated. If I'd really seen it coming, perhaps I wouldn't have complained about it to my one best friend and irritated him. His words still rang in my ears:
"Stop being so jealous. Your sister being better at archery is not the end of the world."
But it was, wasn't it? I was no longer special, I no longer had a reason to make people love me, not even my parents. Who would want to love somebody who's average, especially when you already have a daughter who's perfect in everything?
But what he'd said next was completely unexpected.
“Jim, why are you so clingy? You've been doing this ever since we were children: you come to me when you feel insecure, to make you feel better. I want to do that but you need to understand that this is not healthy!"
As if these words weren't enough to shatter me, he went on:
"Jim, I am absolutely tired of this. I've always been there for you, I've always stood up for you, but I can't do it anymore. I've always told you to believe in yourself, yet when have you ever listened to me!"
Had he known, back then? Had he known all his words had cut so close to the bone? Had Chris known that when he'd walked away, my heart had broken into a million pieces? My stupid worries had cost me the loss of a precious source of love and support.
But were they really stupid? I didn't think so.
And because I'd felt so shaken after losing him, I'd messed up at my part time job at the blacksmith's. My short-tempered boss's insults were like dozens of tiny arrows stabbing me in the heart, hurting twice as much as they usually did. And just my luck, he was already having a bad day, and so my scolding had ended with him hollering: "You're fired you good-for-nothin', useless boy! Fired I say!"
Getting fired hadn't done half the damage his words had, though.
And here I was, walking home like the absolute failure I was.
If only I'd seen it coming...
I angrily kicked some rocks out of the way, resulting in pain shooting though my toes. Light from the evening sun filtered through the forest canopy, hurting my eyes. My shoulders felt sore from the heavy bag I was carrying. Even the surrounding trees towering over me felt menacing.
I noticed the trunks of the trees around me were getting thinner, which meant home was getting closer. My heart felt heavy. Whatever was I going to tell my parents? Things already looked bad when yesterday, after selling the harvest, my dad returned home from the market holding only one bag of coins instead of the usual two. How in the name of the four moons will I let them know that I, their 17 year-old son, have lost my job?
I balled my fists. Could this day get any worse? Fate was probably laughing at my expense. This day seemed too cruel to be true.
I hung my head and trudged on, so absorbed in thought that I barely noticed an uncharacteristically sharp, chilly gust of wind tug at my hair. It was only when I saw a brief flash of silver in the corner of my eye did I catch a glimpse of a dark figure with a silver eye flitting through the trees.
I was about to turn back and follow it when blew a gust of wind so strong it almost sent me tumbling back in the forest. I shivered in my flimsy tunic, but not just from the cold.
I raised a hand to fix my hair and almost had a heart attack when I felt ice touch my hand and not my rough curls.
It was the middle of summer in the Forest Kingdom. Hot, humid, summer. Even the harshest winter we experienced here was not cold enough to have snow. Where did this ice come from, and how?
As if sensing my fear, the grass around my feet withered. The sunlight was diminishing rapidly, and the occasional chirping of crickets completely stopped. The entire woods seemed to be holding its breath.
Instincts kicked in, and I ran towards the clearing up ahead where my house was. My heart thundered against my chest as I picked up speed. The bag on my back seemed to get even heavier. The green shoots on the ground frantically grew in response to my panic, wrapping themselves around my long legs, trying to pull me back. The dirt grew slippery and cold.
Another chilly blast of wind attacked me, and my tunic and leather waistcoat offered no protection against it. I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to stay warm as I grew closer and closer to the clearing.
It had grown so dark that my eyes failed to see the humongous log in front of me. I was sent flying and landed face first into the mud with a loud SQUELCH.
I wasted no time in getting back up and racing home. Fear had completely possessed my body: I wasn't even paying attention to my tired legs screaming in pain, or my stubbed toe throbbing under my soaked boots, or the icy air stabbing at my lungs.
I'm almost there. It's going to be all right. I'm almost home.
Finally, the forest opened up to a huge clearing, and my house was in sight. But what met my eyes jerked my thundering heart to a halt. I collapsed on the ground, my body howling in pain, paralyzed in fear, as I gazed helplessly upon the gigantic and magnificent tree that was my home.
Or rather, what was left of it.
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