Forest of Light
Story caught a branch in mid-air as it tried to slap her across the face. Glaring at it and pushing her bangs out of her eyes, she rubbed the other side of her cheek where a traitorous tree had given her a lashing. “What did I ever do to you?” she said, shooting the newest tree a glare.
Racell glanced back at her and paused, a smile lighting his face. “They’re trying to keep you from our destination … for your own good. They don’t think Kestrel would approve,” he said, tilting his head and listening. Above them, the bright light of a rising sun permeated the large space between the trees with beams of sunlight.
“Kessie? Is she who you’re taking me to see?” she said, her voice rising with hope.
Shaking his head, Racell smiled sadly. “No, I don’t think you’ll see her for some time … She’s traveling the Seven Forests, making a claim to her heritage.” He turned once more toward the trail and began walking again. Story watched him resentfully as he gracefully wove his way through the Forest of Light without a single branch or root troubling his hike. The spark in her heart died, and pain gnawed at her chest for a few moments as she continued following him.
“So why do the trees care?” she said after finally catching her breath.
“Kestrel is their queen, and as big sisters are, she is protective of you. She’s met Sandeen before, and the two did not relish each other’s company. My sister may seem to lack emotion, but Kestrel is deeply connected to The Green, and Sandeen always gets a bit jealous,” he said with a chuckle.
Story sighed, wishing she’d just been able to play with Jess that morning, not follow Racell on the trek to Sandeen’s without even Ninian or Faulks knowing. It was all so hard. Story hated lying to them, but Racell had continued his mission to take Story to see parts of Tressla the other two wouldn’t dare take her.
“You wanted to know who you are. So I’m taking you to someone who will tell you.”
“You know, why couldn’t you just tell me without making me walk a million miles?” she complained stubbornly.
“Because, Sandeen understands it better than I do, and if Faulks or Ninian find out, I’m blameless,” he said, casting a disarming smile her way.
Story giggled. Racell had always been the most fun of the adults in her life and had appeared occasionally throughout the years to attend her lessons or spirit her away on a secret trip. Usually she was excited about them, but today, for some reason, she just couldn’t find her usual bubble of happiness. She’d just turned eleven and still, she was no closer to understanding how to fully grasp her magic. She could open a door, sure, but lately … If you admit you’re hearing voices it’ll be real, she told herself, the strange flicker and words that had zoomed through her mind recently giving her a chill.
“Are you cold, Story?” Racell asked. He’d paused to offer a swig of water, which she sullenly accepted. Handing it back to him, she shook her whole body as if to rid herself of her uncustomary dark thoughts.
“No, I’m just … in a bad mood, I guess,” she finally said with shrug.
Racell eyed her keenly, his golden eyes narrowing. “Is something bothering you?”
She opened her mouth to speak, to tell him about the strange moment when a voice had sounded in her head that hadn’t been her own, but she stopped, and instead swallowed up her secrets like she always did. Shaking her head, she pushed back sweaty strands of hair and met his gaze with her own golden one, jerking her head to the trail. “I’m fine.”
Racell nodded and began walking again.
The sky had risen in the sky by the time they made it to the lake. Greedily, Story grabbed for the drink Racell offered to her, not minding the droplets that escaped to cool her hot skin. Looking out on the water, she was transfixed by how familiar it was, like she was back in the Real World only a few minutes from her house. Lake Sandeen also existed in her own world, in the town she lived in with her mother. The lake might have been the same one, but here the waters were flat, devoid of the natural ripple any normal lake would make.
Looking expectantly at Racell, he nodded at her. “Do you have to do a summons spell?” she asked.
Shaking his head, he looked out on the water. “She already knows I’m here, she’s just waiting.”
“Because she thinks its fun,” he grumbled. Stepping ankle deep into the lake, he yelled into the air, “Sister!” His voice boomed across the water, creating the ripples that had been missing before on the surface.
Moments went by and silence permeated the day, the breeze slipped away on another jaunt and the trees grew quiet in their sway and rustle. “Maybe she didn’t he—“
She was cut off by Racell’s hand, motioning her to silence. The lake stirred, slowly at first and then more quickly, a tidal of water swirling, making even Racell back up out of the water as it crashed toward him, only just stopping before reaching him and splashing a single drop on him. “She’s showing off,” he said, nodding toward the large wave that was traveling toward them like small tsunami.
Story’s eyes widened and she scrambled back. “Shouldn’t we get out of the way?”
But Racell shook his head, his eyes narrowed. “Just wait a moment, she’ll be here.”
The water had turned pitch, and it roiled toward the bank they stood on coming to rest at the tips of Story’s shoes and then stopping, receding, until it was a few feet away. From out of the quieting water whirled a woman, rising from it as if she was a part of the lake herself. Her black hair, although miraculously dry, streamed around her in waves. Fathomless dark eyes rested first on Racell and then on Story, a flicker of recognition and a softness glinted for only a moment before she turned away to address Racell.
“Brother, for what do I owe this most unpleasant encounter,” she said in a voice that rang like music and fell flat when it dropped.
“This … is Story,” he said, dropping his hand and gesturing to her. “The Wolves gather ranks and Brink has increased his search for his ‘muse …’ Tell me for certain, is it Story he seeks?”
Story’s head jerked toward Racell, her eyes widening. “Me?” she croaked.
Sandeen turned her bottomless gaze to Story. Her gaunt features remained impassive, but her dark eyes glittered with more secrets than Story herself even kept. “I know her by glance, by presence, by sound … But you should not have brought her here.” She waved her hand at them and turned back toward the water.
“I have brought her here because I believe she should know the world she may one day fight for. She should meet its gods, see the lands, know it inside and out.”
“Fight?” Story whispered.
“Sandeen!” Racell boomed to her retreating figure. “Story wants to know who she is. Tell her!”
“And why have you not told her?” She stopped, turning to glance at them once more.
Story watched Racell as all fury seemed to leave his body. “Because I am not certain myself,” he said quietly. “I have only guessed something of it, something to do with The Dreamer … a descendent?”
Sandeen turned and started walking once more, lifting a hand in a half wave. “She is Story Sparks, a girl who lives in two worlds. But you already knew that.”
The water was to Sandeen’s thighs, and Story, who had been watching the exchange quietly, could no longer hold back her emotions, releasing the anger that went rushing through her in a loud grunt of frustration. “Come back!” she screeched. “Please tell me! Why do I live in two worlds? Why did Kessie have to go? Why is Brink looking for me? Why!” she demanded. “And … who is The Dreamer?” she asked more quietly.
Sandeen had paused at Story’s outburst, her hair so dark around her she appeared a silhouette in a bright world, the water lapping gently at her legs. Slowly, she cast a glance back at them over her shoulder, at Story, meeting her beseeching gaze with one full of knowledge. “You are … the first, actually. The First Dreamer.” And then she disappeared beneath the water, leaving Story staring at her with more questions than she’d had before.
After moments of all-pervading silence, so loud the quiet drowned out the water and the creatures of the trees, Story looked to Racell. His golden gaze was fixed on her, a dawning realization etched into his still features. “Racell, what does that mean?” she whispered, longing to be back at the Gardenia or in her Real World home.
Her voice seemed to break Racell’s shock and his own words were heavy with compassion when he offered her his arm, one she gratefully snuggled beneath. “I’m not entirely sure, Story. Perhaps they were right and we should have waited to find out.”
“No, I’m glad I know! I just don’t know what it is.”
“The First Dreamer was someone who lived at the very beginning, Story, but that’s all I know for sure. Come, let’s get you home to Faulks. And I’ll tell you a story on the way.”
Nodding, Story let him take the lead and started the trek back home. Her mind whirled with Sandeen’s words, and she grasped onto them, because in the back of her mind she’d felt the flicker and the mocking voice of a child say, Told you so.
Closing her eyes and blocking out the presence of the voice, she breathed a deep breath. “What’s the story?” she asked, pouring all her attention into the walking and Racell’s deep baritone, anything to block out the voice that had only a week before told her the same words Sandeen had uttered only a few moments before.