As we exit the woods we enter a clearing. Before us lies a small town. We see that the dragons had just come for the city and the town suffers no damage and shows no sign of fear. The town is small and set across a small bridge that changes the pathway from dirt to stone leading into the town. We see the people going about their business as usual unconcerned by the dragons’ attack that had come to my city.
“It seems like they have no knowledge of the dragons attack.” I say aloud. Looking at each of my traveling companions, stunned by how their faces show no surprise by the statement I made.
“The city has never been overtly involved with the wellness of the settlements.” Cain states matter-of-factly, looking over at me as we walk to the town. He turns back and stops me by placing a hand on mine. “We should not linger here. We must gather as many provisions as we can and then leave the town without drawing too much attention.”
“We need to find something to hide her in,” Alexander adds, “a cloak perhaps?”
“That should do it. I will try to find a way to purchase one then return.” Cain agrees, “Wait here and stay out of sight.”
“Here, maybe you can sell this and get some coin.” I say digging my crown out of my quiver and handing it to him. He nods and motions for us to stay away from the road.
I frown. I feel he is treating me like a child, but I realize he is only treating me like a princess. Hiding me from the very people that should see that everyone from Avion isn’t dead. While we wait I start to think of what we will need to buy while in the town. I stand the only one in armor. The others will need to change out of the clothes they have been wearing since the festival. We are all covered in dirt and soot from the battle. Cole’s white tunic was ripped and brown from our escape through the tunnels. His jerkin is just as it had been before and glitters in the sunlight that sneaks in between the leaves. Katarina’s dress is utterly ruined. Her hair has fallen out of its pins. Alexander fairs just a poorly but he had worn a good pair of trousers and they had held together well during the battle. His tunic, however, is scorched and ripped in places. We all need packs for the journey and some food to last us until we can find another town. I need more arrows as well.
Just as I’m finishing Cain returns with a cloak. It is black and drops past my feet. He helps me tie it on over my armor and then lifts the hood up to cover my hair and head.
“Promise to keep the hood on for me?” he requests. I look over to Katarina and she smiles at me. I try and smile back but the only thing I manage is a wince.
“How much coin do we have altogether?” I ask.
“Enough to get the provisions we need from the merchants in town and then some left over in case we stop in any other villages on the way. I am sorry we had to sell your crown.” Cain replies. I shrug unconcerned with the crown. I try not to think about the fact that he is not thinking of when we return home. I do. I realize that it saddens me. I wrap the cloak tighter around my body and then lead the others into the village over the bridge.
The town is far nicer than the Third ring was. It is not as clean and beautiful as the First ring but I see children playing carelessly in the streets and market place. There are clothes lines but they are all much higher above the ground and they have clean clothes on them. I watch the people as they go about their day oblivious to us. They must see a lot of passersby. I think. As we walk Alexander goes booth by booth buying things for the journey and keeping a close eye on me. Katarina leads me to a booth to get her a new set of clothes.
“Okay,” she starts looking at a pile of clothes, “which do you think?”
“I say that you buy the one that can provide the most protection from the dragons.” I say.
“You are no fun anymore.” She quietly pouts.
“Fine, what do you think of this one?” I say picking up a dark green tunic that looks like it has a hood. “Although you may need something to go underneath it so you are covered.”
“I was hoping you would pick that one!” She smiles at me. She takes it from me and grabs a few other things and walks behind the curtain. When she comes back out she spins for me I see she is wearing the green top and has added a shredded black leather skirt and belt full of pouches on top of black trousers. She wears knee high black boots as well and still wears her jewelry. She has pinned her hair into her messy bun again.
“Well?” she asks, “What do you think?”
“It suits you.” I say with a smile.
“I know!” she says, “Now where are the boys?” When we find Cole he has traded in his ripped trousers for a pair that is dark brown leather and has found an armorer that sold him pads for his knees and elbow and armor. He also had found a gauntlet for his right arm. I think it makes him seem lopsided and feel I should say so. I realize that it is the side that he uses to ram dragons with. Cain has also traded in his tunic and trousers for new ones and for silver armor and a cloak to match mine. He hands one to Katarina. She makes a face but takes it anyways. She also gets a similar armor for her arm from Cole. It matches the color of her leggings and looks more like leather than metal. Leather is good because the metals can be conduits for the lightning that she creates.
I search for Alexander for a moment and then see him come out from behind the curtain. He wears armor that matches mine. He is, like I, dressed completely in black down to his boots. As he walks over I get a closer look I see the inlayed gold design of griffins that face each other that cover the top half of his chest plate. I stare as I see him strap on a quiver full of arrows and long bow. He also has an alabaster blade strapped to his left hip. I had not noticed it was similar to my bow and daggers before. He looks up and catches me watching through his dark brown curls. And smiles.
“Are we ready?” Cain asks redirecting my attention.
“Yes.” Cole says as he adjusts the chainmail underneath his jerkin. I had missed it before but I also had not noticed he had his long sword strapped to his back. His face had lost that carefree look I was so used to. I knew it was from losing his father. The only person he had loved his entire life. I wanted to tell him how sorry I am. To hug him right then but I could only stand watching.
“Good,” Cain says as he adjusts his gold spear on his back, “we need to leave. People are starting to look our way. I think that we have spent too much time here as it is.”
“Should we not get some food?” Alexander asks.
“I think we should eat from what we have packed.” Cain answers.
“I don’t.” Alexander argues. “It is early and we should try and eat while we can. We cannot know how long this trip will be and we need provisions for the way back.” And there it is. One of us was confident about coming home from this. Was that all it took? I look from Alexander to the others in our group and see that he had ignited a glimmer of something in them. Yet I know that something is going to happen on this journey and I will never be coming home.
“Fine.” Cain finally gives in, “We eat then leave. But that is all.”
“How grand!” Katarina says sarcastically, “Thank you for allowing us to eat!”
“Katarina.” Cole reprimands her by making a face.
“What?” she says looking back at him innocently, “I was thanking the harsh General for allowing us to have a meal.”
“Now is no time for jokes.” He reminds her. She rolls her eyes and walks quickly towards the tavern across the road. As we walk I realize that I too am hungry. I have not eaten in more than two days. We enter and see that, even in the dimly lit room, it’s going to be a quite the journey. The room is filled with all sorts of people from all over Sidus sitting over their meals eyeing us carefully as we sit at an empty table in the back corner. Katarina sits close to me and in the room her eyes glow brighter than ever before.
“Katarina,” I whisper, “your eyes. They are glowing—“
“I know!” She excitedly whispers back realizing that she is the only wielder in the room.
“Try not to look at anyone.” Cain commands.
“Look General,” She speaks coldly, “you may think that you can control me in Avion. But out here,” she waves her fingers around, “I control me. Understand?” They stare at each other for a moment until Cole and Alexander return with a platter of food. My stomach growls loudly and Cole laughs. Everything tastes so good and the drink they serve is the best I have ever tasted. It warms my insides and calms me. Cole and Katarina obviously feel the same because they sit filled with giddiness and giggle like small children. Alexander and Cain had stayed away from it and drank the water instead.
“What is this?” I asked them raising my cup to them.
“They call it firewater.” Cain says.
“And you should drink very little.” Alexander adds pulling my cup from my hand and replacing it with a cup of water. I frown looking to Cole and Katarina who do the same but look sad doing so. We stay a while longer waiting off the effects of the drink and finishing the food. Suddenly a man stumbles into the room. We can all feel that there is something off about him. I notice that he carries a bottle in with him.
“Is that what firewater does to you?” I ask. The answer I get is a slow nod from all of them. The man stumbles around the room crashing into tables until his eyes fall on me. He squints and then his mouth falls open with awe.
“Well, hello there—“he says pausing to burp, hiccup, and then take another drink, “—beautiful!”
I turn quickly away hoping that he was talking to one of the serving girls that had walked past our table. But as I hear him approach I know that I am wrong. He comes over and slams his bottle down on our table which makes me jump. Reflexively Cain, Alexander, and Cole rise from their seats and start to move into positions to remove him.
“You should leave before there is trouble.” Cain warns the man. In response the man turns, laughs and belches in Cain’s face. Then he turns back to me and says, “You are far too pretty to be from around here. Where ya from?”
I slowly reach for my hood to cover my face more. It was the wrong move because it causes him to rip it off. When he sees my face he begins to laugh louder than before. I jump to my feet and back away pulling my hood back on as Alexander fills the space between the man and me. I notice his hand is on his blade. The man stumbles a little more and mumbles something about me being a ‘filthy mud hair’.
“Well, it looks like we got ourselves a princess in our little tavern.” Another man says as he pushes the drunken man into a pillar knocking him unconscious. “What is the mighty King Marius’ daughter doing all the way out here?” He snarls looking me over. He is the scariest man in the tavern. He has one eye and few teeth. His hair is grey and falling out and he is missing chunks out of his ears. But what has me worried the most is not his face but the muscular build he has underneath the tatters he wears as clothes, and the nasty jagged long sword he now holds in his hand.
“We do not want trouble.” Cain announces trying to calm the tavern’s diners, many of whom had joined the man to stare at me.
“Ya hear that boys!” the man asks without taking his eyes off of me, “They want no trouble! I bet that the princess here would make a big ransom! Grab her!” This sends the tavern into a roar of laughter. The serving girls and the tavern’s owner disappear and with that they all close in on us. Alexander handles the leader whose drawn sword needs the most attention. Cain whips his spear out and takes on a handful to my right. Cole follows his lead and smashes the chair he had been sitting in into the face of one that gets past him. Katarina moves to my side and tries to pull me out of the tavern but our way gets blocked by more of the townsfolk.
“Damn them all.” She says under her breath. She pushes me behind her and starts to float off of the floor summoning a wind that slams two of them into the far wall. The others stare at their fallen comrades and then the smart ones turn and run. The others left fall convulsing to the ground as lightning snakes out of her hands and nips at their bodies. I back slowly away and am grabbed from behind by a stranger that slipped through my protectors.
“Come on sweetness,” he coos, “just one kiss?” I respond with a head butt to his face and when he drops me a kick to the stomach. As he falls I grab the water pitcher closest to me and shatter it over his head. When I turn to look for the nearest escape I see that everyone is engaged and that there are a few still left coming for me. Cain was right. I think. One heads for me and leap over a table feet first and slam right into him knocking the wind from his body. As he falls I slam his head into the ground knocking him unconscious. I look up to see the next one coming for me from my left. He throws a punch that I easily block and counter breaking his arm and knock him unconscious by slamming his face on the table next to me.
“This is glorious!” I hear Katarina shout over all the commotion. And part of me agrees. I feel the tension releasing from my body as I fight in the tavern. Everyone is fighting. The entire tavern has erupted into mayhem. The serving girls have returned and are pulling out each other’s hair as the other attendants have begun fighting with each other along with the people that they are supposed to be serving.
“We need to get out of here!” Cain shouts back waving away the fog Katarina has magically filled the tavern with to disorient the people. He heads towards the door kicking one man out of the window to air out the place.
“As you wish.” She calls back. She spins through the air throwing lightning. Her shimmering eyes in the tavern make her look like a terrifying spirit. As she slows she lands next to Cole and flashes him a smile grabbing his arm and launches back into the air towards the door. “Cover the door.” She says.
He nods complying. I feel someone wrap their arms around me from behind and realize that I have been paying little attention to my own situation. I raise my legs up and push off the table throwing myself and my attacker onto the floor. I throw all my weight into it and knock the air out of his body. When his arms relax I roll off of him and race for the door. But he catches a hold of my cloak. I try to snatch it away but his grip is strong.
“Let go!” I scream as I stomp on his hand. He releases me and I scramble over people headed for the door again. Just as I reach out for Cole’s hand I feel something wrap around my body. I look down and see a chain beginning to tighten around me. When I look back at Cole I feel it yank me into the bar hiding me from view in the cloud of smoke. I hit the ground and roll through the dirt and firewater that covers the floor. I stop at the foot of a man with long brown hair wearing something similar to the people from my dream. He reaches down and rips my hood back, causing me to grind my teeth, as he takes out some of my hair with it.
“You are not of this land.” He says with an accent I have never heard before.
“Please,” I begin as he lifts me to my feet. “I can give you whatever you wish. Let me go!”
“You are of the sea.”
“No, you must have me confused with someone else!” I try to convince him.
“You are.” He states pushing me to the back of the tavern and through a hidden door, “The navigator will tell you of your lineage.”
“You have to let me go!” I scream as he drags me outside and into the sunlight. I pull back on the chain until it goes taut. He looks back at me and then takes a step back as Alexander drops between us and slices the chain in two. It quickly falls to the ground and I waste no time getting an arrow and my bow raised and ready.
“Run Hope!” Alexander says, his gaze never leaving the man. But I hesitate. I have to know where I come from especially if what the man says is true. He pulls an axe out from behind his back and raises it to fight.
“This girl is not of this land you may not keep her here any longer.” He says to Alexander. The ice in his words chilling me to the bone. “But I see that you are not of this land either. What is your clan boy?” He asks lowering his axe slightly. I step around Alexander to get a better look at the man. I always thought that we looked out of place, our dark brown hair and green eyes unlike the others. And now that I looked at the man we all looked very similar. He had the same dark hair and pale skin. What I had never seen before were his tattoos. They are light blue and swirled in pretty designs all around his bare arms. He wears leather armor and had quite a few piercings. He was less terrifying in the daylight.
“We are not, but we cannot leave until we stop the dragons.” Alexander explains as he adjusts his grip on his sword. The man stares at us for quite some time.
“Fine. I will leave you to your mission.” The man complies after a moment of silence. He stands a little straighter and puts his axe away. He strokes his beard as he thinks then says, “If you finish this task and wish to return to your true home find me on the cliffs.”
Alexander nods then takes my arm and leads me around the side of the tavern. I can still hear the fighting in the tavern. He puts away his sword when we can see the others in the tree line. I look up at him and he shakes his head. I think he means to keep the man and his conversation a secret from the others.
“Katarina you were supposed to stay with her!” Cain yells. I frown unhappy he is yelling at her because of me.
“I saw her head for the door! I was covering you so that you would not get stabbed in the back!” she says quickly, then as she sees me and Alexander adds, “Look, there they are.”
Cain spins around and strides towards us brushing Alexander away and checking me for wounds. “Are you alright?” he asks. “This is your fault. We never should have gone into the tavern.” He sneers at Alexander.
“Yes.” I say quickly pulling my hood back up. Cain stares at my face for a second too long so I look away. He lets out a deep breath and ushers me into the woods. Alexander makes a face and shakes his head at me when I start to tell the others what happened. I was right. I think. He means to keep it a secret. We travel the rest of the day only making a few resting stops to catch our breath and then move on. Cain has a map he bought from the village that tells us the direction and helps us plan for the next few days.
“We need to follow the path as quickly as we can.” Cain tells us. “We have no more time to waste.”
“And we have nothing else to do.” Katarina adds sarcastically. “So you have been in the forest before Alexander.” Katarina turns to him, “What are some of the real dangers that we may face in here?” She asks. He looks at me and then Cain who shakes his head. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Well, it looks like we will find out.” Cole says squeezing her hand. We decide to head back into the forest making our way on the path north towards the mountain ranges. It will take a few weeks’ travel at the speed that we are going and that is with minimal breaks. But we know as long as we stay on the path we will be fine.
I decide to walk ahead a little ways by myself seeing that there is really no walking with Cain because he is angry about the fight in the tavern. And I cannot walk with Alexander because I want to ask so many questions about where we are from and about how long he had known. Why had he kept the truth from me? I ask myself. I do not understand. We have been friends for a long time. Does that mean nothing?
I look around me trying to get a bearing for the time to see if we have been traveling long enough to take a break. I stop by a statue. When I look up at it I find myself looking at a creature that I do not recognize. There looked to be a woman underneath the huge wings of a bird that at my first glance seemed to be attached to her back. Then I realize that the wings belong to the woman. Her face sad and the graying of the stone that she’s made of looks ancient. She reaches for the skies with one hand and the other resting on her heart. Her gown hides her legs and her toes point down as if she is trying to fly off the ground which seems to be eating away, swallowing her stand slowly as the years pass. As I round the other side to get a better look I almost walk directly into Alexander. I stop and stare into his green eyes and then take a step back.
“Forgive me your highness.” He apologizes. Memories of the time that we had run into each other before rush back to me.
“What is she?” I ask trying to escape the memory. An odd feeling is attached to the formalness he uses now.
“A goddess.” He answers resting a hand on her wing rubbing the stone feather.
“Why is she reaching for the sky?” I ask confused by her posture.
“Have you ever heard the Legend of the Fallen Star?” He asks me.
“No.” I reply intrigued.
“Once there was a beautiful star.” He begins, “She had loved her sisters and never once thought about doing anything other than shining brightly in the sky. But one day as she floated in the sky she looked down upon the land beneath her. She had always been a curious star and always asked about things that she saw.
‘Sisters!’ she exclaimed, ‘I see the most beautiful thing!’
‘What now?’ they asked her tired of her constant fascination with the land below. When she told them of the object that had caught her attention they became appalled.” He says looking at me to see if I was still listening. I was so he continues, “She had seen a small child playing outside. The little girl had enthralled the star and brought warmth to her heart. After seeing her now she longed for one of her own. When she asked her sisters where she could find one, they told her that they were born. When she told them that she wanted to have a child they laughed at her and told her not to be foolish. They told her that the only way to have a child was to fall. They never would have told her if they had known what she would do. The star fell from the sky. When she landed she found that she was happy here.
So she traveled the land and eventually found love and had a child that was everything that she had ever wanted. He was beautiful. More beautiful than anything that she had ever seen and she loved him with all her heart. He had skin softer than flower petals and eyes that shined like any stars’ would. And the star loved him and over time forgot that she had a life before her child.
But her sisters had not forgotten her. They found her. When they saw the child that she had created they were disgusted. The next night they rained fire down from the heavens. The star tried to run carrying her child as her lover was burned by the fire in their home. But she could not escape them. Her sisters fell blocking her path and ripped her child from her arms and killing it in front of her.”
“Why did she not fight?” I interrupt with my question.
“Because over time the star had lost her power. She had forgotten her life and with it her power had faded away. But when her child was murdered that changed. She remembered what she was and her despair returned her power back with such force that it surprised the star’s sisters. She glowed again and violently destroyed them in her fury. What she did not know is that what she had done had set the world out of balance. The seas raged against the land and the clouds rained down thunder and lightning, so the Elder stars gathered together and took her power to calm the land beneath them. They decided that she was no longer one of them and barred her entrance to the sky. They cursed her to roam the land with wings that could never bring her back.”
I had not realized the effect that the story would have on me until I see the look on Alexander’s face as he turns to look at me. It seems regretful. And as he reaches back and wipes the tear from my eye I realize why. Hearing the story and about how the star had everything she loved taken from her had brought back the pain I was feeling. I swallow the lump I feel in my throat and look him in the eye. I know I have to keep moving and not let this sadness cripple me. I wipe my face quickly, not stopping to look back. I refuse to speak and stop looking at the statues as we pass them.