As my senses came flooding back to me, I coughed and gasped at the fresh air that filled my lungs. Slowly, my eyes cleared to reveal the dark woods around me, my arms tied in front of me with black bounds digging into my skin. My dress was dirty and wrinkled, now uncomfortable and sticky from the layers of sweat. With no senses, it was hard to tell how long I had been gone. My lifetime of combat training to this point hadn't even come close to preparing me for this moment.
"Darling, don't fight me." The woman said maniacally, though I couldn't see her around me anywhere. Her voice came as a whisper in my ear.
"Come out and face me, you bitch!" I yelled to the sky, rage filling my body.
At once, she was in front of me, a dark smile on her face. Despite myself, I screamed.
My fingernails raked down her cheek as I tried to think of any way to get away from this woman. I had drawn blood, but it did not look anything like blood I had ever seen before. The black goo was sticky and smelled wrong. She hissed, throwing herself forward to straddle my torso, pinning me to the damp ground. By this point, I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins and my skin rumbled as if it had a mind of its own, my wolf screaming to break loose.
"Are you a virgin, Alaray? Still sweet and innocent and pure? Because maybe it's time for you to become a real woman, like your sister." She whispered in my ear, making my stomach churn at the way she said the words. "Maybe you should let that little boy of yours give you something good to scream about before I take you away and drain all goodness from your life."
I spat, aiming between her eyes as I flailed, rolling and attempting to kick enough to push her off me. I screamed again, trying to be as loud as possible.
Maybe it was pointless, maybe no one even knew where to look for me.
A flicker of doubt danced across my face, making the woman cackle again at my agony.
"You're not ready. You need more time to understand. You're still weak, child." She said coldly, reaching out to untie my hands roughly. "Soon, you'll understand that you have no choice."
"Alaray?!" I heard in the distance, a familiar voice yelled. The woman's face jerked in the direction of the voice, her body contorted almost animalistically, giving me just enough time to land a strong kick to her chest and throwing her off of me.
"I'm here!" I yelled back, fighting to get up as the woman cackled again before disappearing from my sight.
"I'll be back for you... we will be together... it's written in the stars..." the woman's voice whispered, sending chills down my spine.
"Merith, I'm over here!" I called again, searching the tree line until I saw him appear, fire climbing up his arms.
"Alaray, what were you thinking?" He scolded, grabbing my forearm to help me up the heat still on his hands.
"I wasn't." I said bitterly, rubbing my wrists where the bindings dug into my skin. "Who was that woman?" I asked softly, studying him as he helped me to my feet.
As we returned to the castle, Paeris stood waiting for me by the door, all color drained from his face. I sighed at the sight of him, knowing that running off after danger - again - was not a good call.
"Ray." He said my name with relief, pulling me into his arms. "Please don't do that again."
"I can't make any promises."
He smiled at me then, a disappointed yet knowing look on his face. He waved me inside to a seat inside the main door, looking me over tenderly as a woman in a white dress glided over, looking at me coldly.
"This is Meara." He said softly, peeking up at her for a moment before returning his gaze to me. "The Queen." He said pointedly.
I nodded at her, noting her look of irritation that had not left her face. What a great way to meet the Queen of the Elves.
"I'm Ray." I supplied, lifting my eyebrow at her.
"Yes. I know. You're also careless." She said smartly, looking down at Paeris as his strong fingers looked over my now swollen feet. "Take Alaray somewhere away from the party and make sure she is unharmed, please, Paeris. I will send someone up if needed." She said then, fixing her blonde hair and straightening her dress as if she had sitting around waiting while I was gone. I could tell this woman was not used to being bothered and she was even less of a fan of the attention being taken away from her.
"Yes, Your Highness." He said softly, reaching out his hand to help me up as Meara went back to the party, clearly more concerned with appearances than my wellbeing. I did not like her.
Paeris lead me to the hall connected to my room, sitting me down in a plush chair before resuming the search for injuries over my feet and ankles.
"Paeris, I'm fine." I insisted, flexing my toes as he tickled the bottom of my foot on accident with his fingertips. He didn't seem to notice. Instead, he continued the hunt, frowning at the small red marks on my wrists from the bindings and the bruises on my upper arms from where Lorelei had held me. I twisted my arms in front of his face to show that they were also fine. Sore, but not anything I couldn't handle.
"Paer-" I started, though I was cut short as he lifted the edge of my skirt and checked my knees. "Okay, this is crazy, one. Two, I have had broken bones, a little bruising is nothing. And three, if you hike my skirt up any higher, you're going to expose me." I arched my eyebrow slightly, almost daring him to ignore me.
"Ray, I'm not kidding. You scared the shit out of me."
"And I'm not kidding. I'm fine. I also wasn't kidding earlier about not wearing underwear. So unless you want to see the whole package, I suggest you stop tugging at my skirt." I smirked, putting my hand on his cheek fondly.
He sighed, but offered me a smile slowly.
"I think you could stand for a more thorough inspection."
I laughed, pushing him back away from me before darting to my bedroom door playfully.
I had a lot to process - but right now, I just wanted to focus on anything but what I had been through.
Paeris chased me, pulling me into a sweet kiss, the taste of mint exploding on my tongue and a small groan sliding past my lips.