“Are all the legends true?” I ask Alexander, “I mean I had always thought that faeries were just bedtime stories and were sweet not like….that.” I say pointing to the area we just left.
“No, most of the stories you hear are not true.” He corrects. “As they have been passed on there have been changes and embellishments made. There are good and evil creatures in the world. We just have to look for the right ones and we will be safe.”
“What about minotaur?” Cole asks, “I’ve always wanted to meet one.”
“The only kinds of minotaur I have ever known are not creatures that we want to meet.” Alexander tells him, “You never want to run into one. It would not be a fun fight.”
“What about mermaids?” Katarina asks adding in a scratchy voice, “‘We will steal your husbands and drink your children’s blood!’” We all laugh. It feels good to laugh at such a silly thing. The story is not as funny. It starts with a man who meets a mermaid. She is the most beautiful creature the man has ever seen. He wonders why she is not out at sea and realizes that she lies stuck in a pool drawn in by the tide from a storm. He thinks that she needs help and decides to do whatever he can. He wades in to the pool where she is trapped. She stops swimming and stares at him falling madly in love.
He tells her of his plan to return her to the sea, but she refuses saying she could never leave the man unless he promised to wait for her to become human then marry her when she returned. Helplessly hypnotized by her voice and beauty he agreed and sets her free. He waited years and finally could wait no more. He marries a woman from his fishing village and has a son not a year later. By the time the child is walking the mermaid reappears. She steps out of the waves on two legs calling to the man as he walks along the shore with his son. He sees her and begs for her forgiveness telling her that he has married and that he no longer feels the way she does.
The mermaid is heartbroken. She tells him of how she sold her soul in order to become human and that because he no longer loved her only blood could return her soul and allow her back to the sea. The man offered his own and the mermaid wanted to take it but could not. She still loved the man so she cursed him to roam the seas, changing the man into the first of the sea serpents. She turned to the child and scooping him into her arms drank the child’s blood until it ran dry and losing her legs and going back to the sea. The wife of the man only catches a glimpse of her as she runs to her child’s body. The story ends with the wife wailing over the loss of her son and husband.
It was a story told to keep children close to their parents and to remind them that promises are meant to be kept. Remembering the story brought back memories of the King. His smile as he told me the story. Remembering that brought back memories of the smell of his burned flesh and the look on his face after I laid him down beneath a sky full of dragons. I stop thinking of those things as quickly as I can.
“Not the mermaids I met.” Alexander answered with a short laugh. “They may steal your husband but they would probably cry if you told them to drink a child’s blood. They are quite sensitive you know.”
“What else is real?” Cain asks. He had been quiet since the attack from the faeries.
“Well, I know that the King got your spear from the Centaurs.” Alexander tells him. “They were warring with the Narasimha and spears are the best weapon for them.”
“Why were they fighting?” I ask curiously. “And what are Narasimha?”
“No one has ever told me.” He tells me shrugging his shoulders. “The Narasimha, the cat people, walk like men but are covered in fur and have tails. They roam the forest in the trees and attack with poisonous claws.” It really was not the answer I wanted but he didn’t know everything either. I wondered how long he had lived out in the forest. What his life was like and why he had chosen to leave the Sea Traders. Could they really be that dangerous? I think and almost ask aloud. He tells us of the other legends that are true and the false things that we have heard about each.
“The dwarves are the ones that steal your gold. You should never make a deal with one. They are cunning, tricky little things and might stab you in the back. At least that is what you have always been told. Dwarves are more civilized than that.” He says as we walk on taking things slower as to watch for any other dangers that may head our way. I think of what the dwarves would look like with their beards, piercings, and heavily armor weighted with gems and gold. “They do love sapphires though, any gems for that matter.” Alexander tells me pointing to the one in the middle of my torso. “They would never cut off your fingers to get it. They would offer to trade you or maybe try to sell you something for it.”
“Where did the stories of bad dwarves come from then?” I ask hoping that they are just imagination or tales.
“Many a story has confused dwarves with goblins.” He says seeing Cain shiver and shake his head. “They will attack you. Never give them that chance. If you ever see one kill it. Because it will kill you.” I think on it and then keep walking trying to pull more answers out of him. Talking keeps my mind off of the pain I feel.
“Have you ever seen a wolf?” I ask him. That stops him dead in his tracks. I frown confused but Cole turns to me shakes his head. I can see that Alexander is upset by the question. He ignores the questions and keeps walking. We walk a while in silence then Cain tells us we can rest for a moment as he looks over the map. I sit beside Alexander and try to get back to the stories.
“I am sorry I asked about the—” I say letting him interrupt me.
“It is not something you talk about in the woods.” He tells me.
“Even if they are extinct.” Cole adds. “Still bad luck.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say not knowing. “May I still ask more questions?” I ask, doubting I can.
“Of course.” He says, “What else did you want to know about?”
“The pale horse.” I say remembering the tales my brother had told me when I was a girl.
“That is a very specific story.” He tells me. The pale horse was a story that men told each other when they came home from their adventures or when there were many people gathered around a fire. The story never starts the same but always ends the same way. Men searching for gold or treasures get lost on their way back home. Trapped in the mountains or caught in a snow storm and every time are saved by the pale horse led to water or back to the path that will lead them home.
“The one I saw was no regular horse.” He tells me. “It was much more than that. It had a horn on its head that shown brighter than the alabaster of my sword or your bow. And it was not pale…..it was more of a glowing snow white.” The look on his face tells me that the horse must have been a truly beautiful thing to see.
“It led me to the city.” He tells me looking back and taking my hand to help me down from a protruding rock. “I had been traveling with my mother and we had gotten separated taking a short cut through the woods. I had been lost for most of the day and I was beginning to believe that I would never escape the forest. But out of nowhere I saw it. It had the most beautiful mane of silky white hair and a horn sharper than anything that I had ever seen on its forehead.” He looks back to me and sees me totally entranced by his story so he continues.
“I walked over and right as I was about to touch it, it turned and trotted away. It looked back at me and I realized I needed to follow it. When I did it led me to a pool of water where I drank and then it led me on. When we reached the edge of the forest I found my mother there waiting for me. I ran to her and told her about the horse. She told me that it was a miracle and that I was very lucky to have found it. Especially after—,” he stops pained by a memory.
“If it is too hard to talk about you do not have to.” I tell him patting his arm. He nods and then smiles. I wish I knew what had happened. I would have to think harder about it while we traveled. Eventually the path in the forest gets narrower. Seeing that it will not allow two of us to walk side by side we walk in a line. I look to my right and see that the path has been molded out of the side of a steep hill and do my best to be careful. Katarina and Cole walk talking to each other in the front and I walk a little ways behind them staying ahead of Alexander and away from Cain who brings up the rear.
“May we take a break?” Katarina asks looking back.
“We should put some more land between us and those faeries.” Cain replies.
“I was not asking you.” She replies icily. “I was asking Hope.” I look back at her stunned and realize that all eyes are on me and most think that I have taken charge and lead them to the dragons.
“Hope does not have the map.” Cain argues.
“Then give it to her.” Katarina replies.
“Everyone—“ I try to interrupt.
“The King asked me to protect her. And as General I am doing what I think is best.”
“I think that Hope knows what is best.” Katarina argues.
“Um, I—,” I stop interrupting suddenly hearing something that immediately reminds me of home. “Do you hear that?” I ask. I push past Katarina and Cain and nearly run down the path and around the bend and come to a field. In the field I see the most interesting thing. There are brightly colored tents set up with people walking around and what looks to be a celebration happening in the center of the field.
They are the strangest people I had ever seen. They wear strange brightly colored clothes and others wear animal skins. There are some wearing strange paints on their faces and others have tattoos on their arms. As we walk through the camp we see them dancing and playing music. They play their instruments and dance together bending their bodies in painfully strange ways. Around the dancers some of the men spit fire from torches and women dance spinning it all around them.
I had never seen peoples like them before and I find myself mesmerized by it all. They have horse drawn carriages that carry strange animals within. As we walk closer the people notice us and smile. They bring us to a woman who beckons us into her tent. She has curly raven colored hair and wears pieces of skirts and dresses all a rainbow of colors. She wears rings and bracelets, necklaces and earrings, and belts all made of gold. As she walks barefoot around her tent the gold chimes and sings.
“Greetings! My name is Sonya.” she says to us sweetly. “You look like you could use a good meal and a place for the night.” She offers with a smile that I return. I suddenly want to stay here. It is so inviting and everyone looks so happy to be here. I turn and look at the others hoping that they feel the same as I do. Everyone, except Cole, nods in agreement.
“No, I think we will keep moving.” He answers. I look at him annoyed by his irrational behavior.
“Cole, do not be rude.” I snap shooting him a look. “We would love to stay.” I answer the woman. She smiles and leads us into the camp. She leaves at a table where a banquet has been prepared and we start to eat the food shoveling it in as fast as our hands can grab it.
“We cannot stay here.” Cole complains looking at each of us as we continue to eat trying to ignore him. “Katarina, you must feel that?”
“Feel what?” she replies looking at him “Cole, be calm. I think that Sonya is quite nice.”
“Yes.” Cain agrees, “We should stay here. I think that we will be safe here.”
“Have you not been the one telling us that we are never safe until we stop the dragons?” Cole questions. Cain shrugs in response and Cole groans and turns to Alexander. He agrees with me and as we eat we feel more at home. I feel like I have nothing else to fear and that we are safe. The dragons will not find us here. After we finish we leave the table to explore the camp. I find children playing with what they call a monkey. Alexander calls me over and I learn the men breathe fire from torches by spitting firewater from their lips. We watch them astounded. I notice that Cole is watching Sonya very carefully ignoring everything around him. He keeps making faces as she walks into an open tent and sits on the floor with a transparent fog filled ball.
I watch Sonya intrigued by the way her hands move around the ball. I also watch the way she moves her lips the slight twitch in them making me frown. Suddenly, Cole gasps his body rigid as she focuses her eyes on him. I don’t understand why he is acting so strangely. Everything is fine. We are finally safe and they have everything we need. He looks back at Katarina, oblivious to it all as she plays with a monkey and strides over to Sonya’s tent. He means to apologize for his rudeness. I think. When I see him draw his sword I get Katarina’s attention quickly. What is he doing? I ask myself. I look over to Katarina and see she is as worried as I. Sonya looks up at him as he reaches the tent and moves her fingers more furiously over the ball. The look on her face when he reaches her is confusion and terror. I see him raise his sword and send it crashing into the ball. As the ball shatters a wave like wind blows through the grass.
“No!” Sonya screams jumping to her feet. She sends him flying out of the tent with a wave of her hand. I feel worried about Cole and want to help him but I feel sick. I look around and see that there is something strange going on in the field. Everyone is shaking their heads like they are coming out of the dark. My trust in Sonya disappears. I feel like myself again. There is a tension in the air and she grows furious with her lack of control. I turn to see my friends shake their heads trying to clear them and then I notice Katarina’s face. It is red and filled with rage. Her grey eyes turn almost entirely white and she stomps towards the woman standing in her way.
“How dare you!” She shouts looking directly into the Sonya’s eyes. “You have no right!”
“Right has nothing to do with it.” Sonya sneers using a strange accent. “It is about power.”
“You want to see power?” Katarina asks raising her brows rebelliously. “Then here is some for you.” I had never felt the electrical charge that Katarina created surrounding her body before. It was like the air had become heavy with it. It was a strange sensation like all the warm air in the field had been taken away and replaced with cold. I look up and see the reason why. Katarina had no intention of shooting lightning from her fingertips as she had always done. A massive dark cloud now looms ominously over the field. A manifestation of her rage. The field grows eerily quiet for a split second and then she adjusts her weight slightly from one leg to the other and the field is set ablaze with light.
The lightning bolt that she called down from the sky falls on Sonya with such force it wipes all the grass from the spot where she stands leaving her kneeling on a mound of smoking dirt. As she raises her hand to use magic of her own, smoke whirling away from her as she does, Katarina rises into the air and strikes her again. This time the blast knocks some of the dazed people onto the ground and sets a carriage aflame. When I look back at Sonya she is lying crumpled on the ground.
“Hmph.” Katarina grunts as she lands back on the ground. I see her wobble and Cole scoops her up and carries her back to us. I stand stunned by the sight around me and hardly able to speak. The amount of magic Katarina had just used I had never seen her practice with. I had never seen her use real elements before. Looking at her now makes me realize how glad I am that she is with me on this journey. She looks tired and almost a moment later falls asleep in Cole’s arms. I make sure that they are taken care of and turn back to the people around me.
They all seem confused by the scene in front of them. I tell them that they are free to leave and should make their way to the village that we passed. Some ask about Avion. I tell them that we are at war with the dragons again. That they should be careful making their way to Divinity. They slowly begin to gather their belongings, grumbling amongst themselves, and part ways. When I stop one of the men packing his carriage I learn the truth about Sonya. She is what he calls a Gypsy. The ball that Cole had destroyed was the way she channeled her magic to control people. She stole away their will to do anything but serve her. They became her slaves and would have to if not for him.
“You must have a strong will to resist her magic.” The man tells me.
“I believe one of us does.” I reply looking back at Cole. It is strange thinking back on the moment that I had first seen her. The memory is almost as foggy now as the glass ball had been. Her dark hair curly in the warm breeze. She had worn the jewelry she stole from the people she enslaved. When I ask the man what the ball was he said that our wielder would be able to tell me. So I decide to ask Katrina to tell me everything she knows. I ask the man which way we should go to get to the dragons’ mountain and he shakes his head disapprovingly and then tells me to follow the path wishing me safe travels.
As we travel we take our time stopping often to let Cole and Katarina catch up because she is still unconscious. I think hard about Sonya and ask Alexander about gypsies. He shakes his head having never seen them before.
“There are still things in the forest that I know nothing about.” He admits. “It is a large place and in it there are always places for monsters and other creatures to hide. We have to be careful.”
“I thought that you knew about everything in the forest.” Cain sneers. I frown looking back at him.
“I never said that.” Alexander snaps irritated by his tone. “The forest is simply safer than the open fields where the dragons can see us from the clouds!”
“Could you guys please get along?” I ask. “I have grown weary of you constantly being at each other’s throats. We have to work together to get this done. And do not think for a moment that I will not leave the both of you and take Katarina and Cole with me.”
“You know what this is about.” Cain says looking at both of us as he storms off.
“Is it because Katarina asked me to lead?” I ask Alexander. He sighs and moves closer to me and looks down into my eyes. I feel the strange tingling sensation as he places his hands gently on my waist. It reminds me of the feeling that I got when he kissed me. I want him to kiss me again. I know that it is not what we are, what I am, supposed to want and I keep him from getting too close placing my hands on his chest plate. He smiles and follows after Cain.
“That is what it is about.” He tells me not even looking over his shoulder.
By nightfall we set up camp in an abandoned outpost. It used to be much bigger. Once there were guards, men stationed here to watch for dragons. They kept watch for dragons headed to Avion and then lit a flame that could be seen from the city allowing the people to get to safety and the guards to get into position. The walls are made of solid stone cut to fit together and the platform around the top floor is made of the strongest metals bonded together to hold the many men that stayed at the outpost.
Now after over a decade of non-use the outpost was in need of repair. The top floor was still mostly covered by the slate roof but the eastern wall was crumbling. The forest was trying to reclaim it. There were trees all around and they provide a great amount of cover to hide us from the dragons. We set camp on the top floor which is clear enough for us and Cole gathers wood to make a fire. I drop all my things on the floor exhausted and starved. I check my pack for any food. It is nearly empty and my water is almost gone too.
“I am going back to the spring for more water.” I announce remembering the spring outside the outpost. “And to see if I can find anything for us to put over that fire.”
“I will go with you.” Alexander offers.
“I can do it.” I say confident in my ability to catch food with my bow. I had never hunted before and thought that this would be a great time to get some practice in for moving through the forest unnoticed by dragons. Also I needed some time to think about everything that I needed to do. I feel smothered like at any moment I may shatter if I do not find a moment to be alone. I never had this problem when I was living in the castle. I always had time to think and gather my thoughts when I was alone in my room. I could always think through or out of any problem I had. The attendants never bothered me much and they always knew when I needed my time to think.
“I can show you where to hunt and then help you carry back whatever you can take down.” He argues. I stop walking and cross my arms looking him in the eye raising an eyebrow waiting for him to change his mind.
“You are not going to let me go alone are you?” I ask him already knowing the answer.
“No.” He says with a smile. I frown, shake my head and turn walking down the stairs and into the forest not even turning to see if he’s walking behind me.