“We can stop here.” Cain informs us.
“Good. I could not have gone any farther if I wanted.” Katarina tells him.
“Set up camp here and then we can start again in the morning.” He says. We have stopped in a little clearing that looks like a safe place with enough tree cover to keep the dragons from seeing us. As I look for a place to settle down for the night I walk towards the stream to clean up. I feel strange seeing my reflection in the water like this. Normally I am much cleaner and my hair has been combed out.
I pull the string out of my hair. I take off my cloak and set it down with my pack and wash all the dirt and sweat and firewater off of my face and out of my hair. Then when I finish I take out my dagger. I had never cut my hair before because I never had a say in it. I reaches past my waist now. I pull the dagger up and swiftly cut my hair. I tried to make it as even as possible and then look back into the water. I jump when I see two different reflections.
“You were down here a long time,” Cain says holding his hands up defensively, “I was worried.”
“Sorry,” I say realizing that I keep pulling blades out on him, “You really should make more noise though.” He takes in the scene before him and slowly squats next to me picking up some of my hair and dropping it back on the ground. He watches me closely while I attempt to put braids in my hair like the woman from my dreams. I get most of it the way I want it pulling it out of my face and then give up on the rest.
“I like it.” He says. I frown and gather my things saying nothing because I know that this is a conversation that I need to have after we defeat the dragons. Whatever his intentions I do not feel that way for him. I wish that I could explain that I don’t belong here. That I am lost. That I don’t know who I am. I wish that I could tell him of the man outside the tavern.
“We should go back.” He says interrupting my thoughts. He stands and holds his hand out for me. But I ignore it. I slowly stand and walk back to the camp where the others wait for us. When I enter the camp I see that everyone has claimed a spot but me so I take the empty space next to the fire in between two rocks and begin to set up my tent. When I turn to roll my sleeping pad underneath the space I see Alexander is untying it for me.
“Needed a new look?” He asks nodding at my hair. I am so close to the fire that it has dried and feels much better.
“Yes, this just feels more like…..me.” I say. He smiles and hands me the sleeping pad. Then turns to look at the camp and shakes his head. He pushes his hair out of his eyes and moves closer to me taking me into his arms and then lets me go. I stand there unsure of what to say or do and watch him walk away. I let out a deep breath then open my tent and throw the pad on the floor and sit down wrapping my arms around my knees pulling them in. I fail attempting to hold myself together and feel hot tears stream down my cheeks.
Weak! I think to myself. Stop crying and grow up! You are not a little girl anymore! You need to pull yourself together. Take charge like the King would want you to. I stare at my hands. I go over every detail carefully of the last few nights. Then I remember that I need to ask Alexander about what Lorina had told him. And about the Sea Traders.
I get up and peek out of my tent. Everyone has laid down for the night except for Alexander. Perfect, I think, now is my chance. I get up and walk quietly over to him. He turns and sees me then leans against the rock behind him crossing his arms and looks at me through his hair.
“Trouble sleeping?” he asks, “Or is the ground is too hard for a delicate princess.”
“No, I have questions for you.” I snap. Why was he acting like this? Was it because I did not embrace him? Or was it because I came back to camp followed by Cain.
“Wonderful, I have some for you too.” He replies.
“What did Lorina tell you before the festival?” I ask.
“That you could not keep seeing me and that I should realize there was no future with, you, her daughter.” He answers, and then asks, “I—Is it true that Cain plans to marry you?”
“I know not what he plans.” I answer.
“I—I have seen the way he looks at you. Do—do you love him?”
“No!” I nearly shout realizing that the conversation is going poorly. I take a deep breath and cross my arms trying to calm myself.
’I—I apologize.” Alexander whispers, “I am still not good at this.”
“I must know what you know about the Sea Traders.” I say trying to move the conversation forward and away from the awkwardness.
“I—I cannot tell you everything that you need to know.” He admits looking away from me. “I do not have all the answers you seek.”
“Can you tell me anything?” I ask. “That man knew that we came from clans and that we do not belong in Avion.”
“Hope, you misunderstand. It is not safe. Traders are barbarians…..savages. Yes, they ride griffins and trade with the cities. But they do not trust city dwellers. The only reason that you live is because he wanted to return us to them. It is forbidden to leave. He would have killed you if he thought you had abandoned them. ”
“Is that why I was never allowed to see them?”
“I do not know. But you must trust that I will take you to the clans if we defeat the dragons.” He answers shaking his head. I look into his eyes and see that I will not get many more answers tonight.
“Thank you.” I say as I turn to go back to my tent. He grabs my arm and pulls me back towards him. I am so surprised that I do not realize what is happening until I feel his lips crush against mine. My better judgment tells me to push away from him and run back to my tent. But curiosity gains the upper hand. I wrap my arms around his neck and grab a fistful of his hair. It is softer than I imagined like his lips. He stops abruptly and pulls away taking a deep breath. I feel myself breathe heavily as well. He smiles and kisses me quickly once, twice, and finally before he does it again I push him gently away. I hate myself for it as soon as I see his face.
“They told me you could not feel that way about….me.” He says searching my face for the answer to the unspoken question that he asks.
“I am sorry, I—I am sorry” I whisper then turn and run back to my tent, hating myself for not being strong enough to just tell him the truth. I feel scared. Scared that if I love him, or anyone else for that matter, I will lose them. And I cannot take more of that hurt. I reach my tent and lay down on the pad staring at the cloth above me and still my body. I place my hands over my stomach and wait for the black wall of sleep to overwhelm me and not a second later it does.
I dream. Only this time the nightmare I normally dream where I scream failing to save the people on the ship does not come. Instead I dream of the goddess. I dream she stands on the cliffs wings pulled back and arms outstretched. She looks back at me and smiles. It nearly breaks my heart when I see her face. It is a face filled with despair. Yet there is something strangely familiar about her. The winds whip through her hair and I see it. The braids. They are the same ones that the woman on the ship always has in my dreams. Her smile is so sad and as I run towards her she falls off of the cliff and towards the sea.
I reach the edge and peer over it expecting to see the waters stained with her blood but that is not so. The cliff is a nesting wall for griffins. They are wild and graceful as they soar around the rocks and snatch up the fish to feed their young. I kneel down to get a better look and to find the woman but I cannot see her. Something comes up behind me and I turn. It is the man from the tavern. He stands so close and before I know what is happened he pushes me off the cliff. I plummet towards the water screaming. Right before I hit I jolt awake.
I sit upright all the way and try and shake the nightmare from my head. The man was as I had seen him but things were slightly different in my dream. His eyes shimmered and his face blank. Almost like he was not himself, I try to convince myself. Knowing that I could not asleep more if I wanted, I climb out of my tent. Cain is standing watch now across the camp watching the sun rise. I walk across the camp towards him noting that the fire should be tended to if we want to cook anything.
“Have you heard that the sunrise tells you what kind of day you will have?” He asks me not looking away from the sky.
“No.” I admit quietly.
“The different colors tell the possibilities.” He tells me.
“There is only one color in the sky.” I say.
“Pink.” He says, “It means that there will be adventure today. Or possibly a new love.”
“I do not know about that.” I say keeping my eyes straight ahead in order to ignore what might be coming.
“The King told me I could ask you at the festival banquet.” He confesses.
“Cain you do not—“ I start.
“Yes,” he interrupts me, “I do. I have to tell you how I feel for you. Before we die or before someone else does.”
“I cannot feel that way about anyone.” I confess to him. And you are late. I am being more honest than I wanted. The look on his face tells me that he understands. But when he reaches for my hand I pull away. I will be stronger this time.
“I can wait. I can be patient for you.” He tells me as he brushes my hair away from my face. I look at the understanding face he makes and walk quickly over to Katarina’s tent and wake her up.
She groans and asks groggily, “Are we being attacked by dragons?”
“No, it is time to get up.”
“Can I please have a few more moments?” She asks.
“No, time to get food and go.” I answer.
“Fire breather.” She grumbles from under her arm. I step out and see that the others are up and Alexander is walking in from the woods carrying a pair of rabbits he has caught. He seems happy enough.
“Breakfast is served!” He announces and bows as he drops the corpses next to the fire. I make a face and then turn away as he starts to cut them open and remove their skin. I decide not to look until they are cooked and ready to be eaten because I feel sick. I slowly and meticulously take down my tent and pack everything checking my quiver and bow making sure that everything is in order. Needing something more to do I decide to talk to Cole about the night we had to leave his father.
“Cole,” I say getting his attention from rolling his sleeping pad messily, “may we speak for a moment?”
“Yes, what do you need?” He answers pausing for a moment before continuing.
“I am so sorry.” I say praying that starting with my apology will help that I have no other words or thoughts on what else to say.
“For?” he says.
“Leaving your father I—“
“I understand.” He interrupts me. “I could never be angry with you. I am only sad that he was so selfish. He always said that he wanted to go down in a blaze of glory. It sounds like he finally got what he wanted.”
“He told me to tell you he was sorry.” I tell him remembering what I was told. “I know that he never intended to leave you the way he did. I think that he wanted to keep you safe and to help you get out of the city.”
“It sounds like you knew him better than I did.” He says with a smile.
“Well, he loved you. He never would have stayed if he had known there was another way.”
“Silly princess,” He says wrapping his arm around my shoulders and giving me a squeeze, “you always know how to see the truth in things.” I wince when his squeeze rubs against the cut on my arm. I should have cleaned it yesterday. He lets me go and goes back to his work his face wearing the smile I have always seen him with. I make my way to Katarina who has finished with her packing and is sitting by the fire reaching for the food. She smiles when she sees me coming and hands me a piece of rabbit that smells as good as it tastes.
“Could you help me?” I ask her.
“Of course…” she says eyeing me carefully as I lead her away from the others that have joined at the fire pit. When I show her the cut after removing the bandage she gasps.
“You should have told me about this.” She says sharply, “You cannot walk around wounded and not say anything. I cannot use my magic to hear thoughts here. The dragons may hear me.”
“They can do that?” I ask surprised. I had never heard this before and it made Katarina frown unhappily.
“Yes, we had wanted to go back and search for survivors but Cole told me that I should listen to the city with my mind first. But when I did….it was as if they could hear me. They told me that they would find me.” She stops and shudders. “I can catch things when I am not really trying. The way I did when you were planning on leaving us. But when I focus I only hear them now. It is like they have cut me off and are trying to use me to find us.”
“You have to be careful.” I tell her. “We will never make it to the mountains if they do.”
“I know.” She says nodding. “Now let me see your arm.”
“Ouch!” I say as she roughly turns my arm to get a good look at the cuts. She starts to focus on them and I feel a prickling coming from her grip and then everything feels very nice. I look down at my arm again and see that there are only a few thin pink lines where the cuts used to be.
“There,” Katarina says triumphantly, “all better.”
“Thank you.” I say as we walk back over to the fire and each take our share to eat. I choose to sit next to Katarina away from Cain and Alexander. Before long I feel like we should get moving. But everyone is yet to be ready so instead I look at the map. The map shows us that the way we are headed will lead to a break in the forest where we will have to cross the Jade River to keep heading west to get to the mountains. We break camp and start out north again. I am glad as we walk the sun is not on us because we would need to stop more. I stop to catch my breath and take a drink of water. I sit and rest for a moment until Katarina reaches me and then stand and push forward. Suddenly I notice that we are headed down a hill and have to walk carefully.
The fallen leaves make the underbrush dangerous and tricky. I have to make sure that my cloak is not caught in the brush. I also begin to notice that the farther down we go the more rocks we see. Soon I am moving slowly trying to avoid logs and rocks, skipping the ones covered in moss. When I reach the bottom I realize that I am in a little clearing next to a stream. As I stand on the bed of rocks and pebbles I turn to see where the others are. I notice strange carvings that have been made in the dried mud. I have never seen them before. As the others join me I point them out. Alexander kneels to get a closer look and then jumps up and draws his sword.
“We need to leave here now.” He says barely loud enough to hear.
“Why?” Cain asks noting how Alexander stands positioning himself between the small clearing, pushing me back towards the trees.
“These are land claims.” He says barely explaining. I take in the expression on Katarina’s face and know that it means something.
“Cole we need to go.” She says taking his hand and running back to the forests’ edge. “Magical creatures use these to draw men to their land.” She explains to Cain who is finally following. “When they do they eat them.” I see the look on Alexander’s face and know he knows the creature that uses these kinds of cravings.
“What makes those kinds of carvings?” I ask noting how each tree I touch has one on it. I had not noticed it before. When I made my way down the hill they were on the opposite side of the trees. I had only seen them after I looked back.
“Faeries.” Alexander answers squinting into the forest and up at the trees as if he is searching for something, “They kill humans and eat their flesh to stay immortal.”
“It is blood magics.” Katarina adds. Cole curses under his breath.
I feel my heart start to pound as I hear something strange. It almost sounds like a child whispering. No one else hears it through their stomping on the leaves. When I hear it again I spin around to face the noise and trip over a root, I hadn’t noticed. I slide and roll all the way to the bottom of the hill crashing through bushes and leaves getting dirt caught in my hair and mouth. I hear Katarina screaming my name and they all trample down the hill after me. When I finally stop everything hurts. I spit out the dirt and leaves that have gotten in my mouth and start to get onto my hands and knees. As I look up I see something standing in front of me.
I am face to face with a child. He has the most adorable face and stands just a foot away gazing at me with an odd look on his face. He has the lightest, almost, purple skin and stands with his hands hidden behind his back. I slowly begin to back away, motioning to the others not to move from the edge of the forest and stay crouched in order to keep the child calm and not frighten him. When I take my first couple steps he cocks his head to the side and flits closer. Surprised by the action I take another step and see him flex his wings.
They remind me of the dragonfliers we had at the city. I remember how Katarina and I would try our hardest to catch them and finally when we caught one, we would pet it and then set it free again. The wings are clear and have strange swirls in them. The dragonfliers’ bodies is a shiny black and its wings shimmer as it flies. But this creature is different. Even though the dragonfliers and the creature before me both have the four swirled wings I know what to expect from the dragonfliers. I do not know what to expect from the purple child in front of me even though he looks innocent and sweet.
I know it is backing me into the middle of the stream and away from the others so I try to move into a better position. When I glance to the left the quickest way around him I see that we are no longer alone. Another one has joined him. She is colored a faded pink. Her curls fall past her waist and she wears the same leaves in her hair that cover hers and the boy’s nakedness. When I look at her she smiles slightly and curls her hair behind her sharply pointed ear.
I bring my hand back to my waist and leave the other one out in a defensive pose. I feel around for my dagger and slowly draw it. When the faeries see what I do they glance at each other and smile. Then I see their wickedly sharp teeth. They are pointed and they have rows and rows of them. Perfect for shredding flesh. I think. I decide that since they have showed me their weapons I will pull out mine. I straighten up a little more and pull out my other dagger. When they see this, their eyes turn black and they start closing in on me. When I crouch and stand defensively, their eyes turn to slits and they stare menacingly at me.
It all happens very slowly. The boy jumps at me and I bring my dagger quickly across his neck. This sends the girl into a fit of rage unlike anything that I have ever seen. She flits around his body picking at the lifeless limbs and as I run back to my friends at the tree line she opens her mouth and unleashes the most blood curdling scream. It forces me to cover my ears and sends tremors like wind through the leaves on the trees around me. Once she’s stopped the body lying beneath her crumbles to a pile of dust.
At first nothing happens, but then I hear a buzzing like the sound of a thousand honey bees. My eyes search the trees around us and when I look back at the girl she’s smiling at me. I put my daggers away and pull out my bow slipping three arrows into the string. Alexander stands by my side pulling out a bow and places a single arrow onto the shaft holding his sword ready. I see Cole and Cain forming a defensive line behind us and hear Katarina’s lightning crackle in the middle. And suddenly everything just seems to go quiet again. I look back to the faerie and see she’s hovering next to the tree line on the other side of the stream watching us carefully. I look past her and I see them. They have stopped flying and have walked or climbed on the trees to the edge of their home warily eyeing us from there.
They are all different shades and colors. If I did not know better I would believe them harmless. Beautiful. I catch myself thinking of the Star and her view on the child she had seen. I remember that what she had was pure and that the creatures before me may look like children but, are far more sinister. They have us surrounded and are talking to each other making chirping noises until the pink faerie screams gaining their attention quickly and points at me. It silences the rest of them and after a moment of thought they all gnash their teeth and growl.
“They look very angry.” Katarina uselessly informs us.
“This is my fault.” I say admitting guilt and pausing to look at my friends. As soon as I take my eyes off the faeries three of them spread their transparent wings and launch into the air towards me opening their mouths wide. I let my arrows fly each of them meeting dropping them to ground. The others see what I did to the three that tried to attack me and start shrieking. Then the buzzing starts again. This time we see where it comes from.
“Their wings!” Cole shouts over the noise. He raises his sword over his head as they all throw themselves at us. They cannot move very quickly so they are easily taken down. By the time they realize that we are far more dangerous it is too late. The little pink one that called them all is soon one of the last left. The rest begin to scamper back into the forest. Katarina has a couple bite marks she heals with magic and then moves over to Cain who has a nasty cut over his head where one of them hit him with a rock.
I look over to find Alexander running quickly to each of the dust mounds gathering our arrows and checking for the stray ones he shot.
“You have to teach me to shoot that way.” He tells me handing the arrows back to me. “It was incredible the way you shot them down.”
“Thank you. I practiced a lot with my bow.” I admit to him smiling as I take in the compliment. Cole comes over and tells us that we should leave before they come back and I agree dreading having to do that again. On the way up the rocks back into the forest I decide that a new lesson is in order.