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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

Guardians of the Light

 

 

GUARDIANS

OF THE

LIGHT

 

 

By Leslie MacPherson

 

 

BOOK ONE

THE NEBRIL RIVERLAND CHRONICLES

 

 

Copyright 2014 Leslie MacPherson

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. Thank you for your support.

 

 

 

 

 

For my Grandmother,

who always believed in me

I wish we’d had more time….

Table of Contents

Map of the Nebril Riverlands

Part One – Carper’s Village

Part Two – The Journey Begins

About the Author

Connect with Leslie MacPherson

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PART ONE

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CARPER’S VILLAGE

Chapter 1

I had been waiting for this day to come for as long as I could remember. There were times that I had looked forward to it, and other times that had left me dreading its arrival. I had anticipated it, cowered in terror of it and pushed it far to the back of my mind. Yet no matter how I felt about it, I always knew it was coming. And now that it was finally here, I was convinced that I was facing the worst day of my life. Everything was going to change for me, and probably not in a good way. As I waited to hear the sound that would invite me to my fate, I gazed out my little window, and, as I often did, lost myself in the impending sunrise.

The air was still that morning and the grey sky hung heavy over the tops of the mountains. I watched the first rays of light creep up over the craggy peaks, playfully bend around the hills and cheerfully reflect off the dew that covered the valley. As the sunlight reached our small village at the foot of the mountains, it glinted off the roofs of the shabby houses which were arranged in rows that weaved their way in and out of the trees. Near the barns, the farm animals stirred restlessly, turning their heads to face the first light of the new day. Otherwise all was quiet amongst the cluster of buildings that nestled in our valley. Only the soft yellow glow from their windows indicated that there was any life inside.

Suddenly the loud peal of the church bell broke through the silence just as the sun’s rays had broken through the grey dawn. I watched intensely as doors now began to open and people straggled through them into the ever increasing sunlight. The villagers greeted their neighbours enthusiastically and made some chit chat before stepping onto the winding pathways that led to the church. They were dressed impeccably in well ironed clothes reserved for special occasions, and covered themselves in thick wool shawls and fur wraps to defend against the morning chill. Families walked together through the brisk air, marching next to the fences and through the trees, the children playing games along the way. The trails led past more houses, including my own, and I watched as my friends and neighbours marched by, radiating a joy that I wished I could feel.

I envied the children skipping down the pathway, free to do as they pleased for at least a few more years. But like everyone in the village, their time would also come eventually. I stared dismally at the people passing, then looked beyond their heads at the golden stalks of wheat and fields of corn in the distance. My gaze then travelled further, to the craggy mountains which often beckoned me to walk toward them and cross over to the other side. I tried to keep my mind calm by thinking about what strange and exciting things might be waiting over there, all the while dreading the moment that I would have to get up and leave and join the ever increasing crowd heading toward the church. A soft knock on the wooden door confirmed that the time had now come.

“Emerin,” my mother crooned softly as she opened the door. “Come on. We really have to go now, or we’ll be late and how would that look?”

I sighed heavily, and peeled my hand from the window sill that it had been clutching. I turned toward the door and climbed down from my bed carefully so as not to wrinkle my good dress. I looked at my mother standing in the doorway and tried to manage a sheepish smile. She looked me over with meticulous care, taking in every inch of my hair and outfit to make sure that I looked acceptable.

“There now, see, look how beautiful you are,” she gushed as she adjusted the comb which brushed back long strands of my hair. “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it will be alright. The elders do know best and they can best decide what will make you happy.”

“I guess so.” I almost choked on the words. With the weight of heavy doom pressing down upon my shoulders, I pushed myself to move forward and follow my mother out of the bedroom. My legs barely felt light enough to lift, but somehow I managed to drag myself through the living area and out the front door into the crisp air. My mother came up behind me and wrapped a thick wool shawl around my shoulders.

“You’ll need this for the walk over; it’s quite a chilly morning.”

I agreed. This was the summer that had never really arrived, even though it was more than half over. Usually, by this time of year, the heat was heavy as soon as the first sun’s rays were upon us. But now it seemed like every day was just a little colder than the last and no one could understand why it was happening. The elders assured us that weather was just strange from time to time, and there was no need to worry about anything but the bad crop year we were sure to have. However, I felt there was more to it than that, for reasons I could not understand.

As we reached the pathway, I saw my father engaged in small talk with the other village farmers. He was chatting in his loud, easygoing manner, but broke off in mid-sentence when he saw me approach.

“Emerin, darlin’! Well, don’t you look gorgeous!” His glance flew to my mother. “Would you look at our beautiful girl; I’d say the apple don’t fall far from the tree now do it?” He shot her a broad smile and a wink. My mother smiled and blushed. Sometimes they were so embarrassing. He was right though, about me looking like my mother. I had the same small frame, same blue eyes, same chestnut hair falling in waves down my back, even the same tendency to blush.

“Well come along now,” my father drawled as he lit a cigarette. “We sure don’t wanna be late, especially today of all days!”

He turned and walked down the path, expecting us to follow without question. And we did, me reluctantly, my mother enthusiastically. She draped an arm around my shoulder and gently, but firmly, steered me in the direction of the crowd. Not only could I feel my heart pounding, but now I began to hear it thumping in my ears as well.

We joined the sea of villagers who trod the well-worn path, their trudging footsteps echoing in my ears along with my heartbeat. Each time we passed a fork where our pathway met another, more people joined us and the sound magnified in volume, loudly marching me to my tragic destiny. As each new wave of villagers joined us, their attentions would immediately turn to me.

“Oh Emerin, you look beautiful….congratulations honey!”

“My goodness, so grown up now. We were praying for you last night, sweetheart.”

“This must be so exciting for you! I remember my special day, just like it was yesterday.”

Their voices buzzed in my ears from both sides like annoying insects that I wished I could just swat away. I tried to smile, however, and receive the comments with grace, though inside I wanted to yell at them to leave me alone. Didn’t any of them realize how hard this was? As if reading my mind, my father turned to face me with a smile. “Now Emerin, honey, I know that you haven’t exactly been looking forward to this, but you know that it will all turn out for the best. After all,” he shot my mother another glance. “Just lookit how lucky I got.”

My mother grinned as she looked at him. “I’m the lucky one,” she cooed.

Sheesh. Were they trying to make me feel worse? But I forced a smile, bigger than I ever thought I could manage that morning and lifted my head from the dirt path where I’d been staring.

“I know,” I said. “You’re right. It will be fine.” I hoped that sounded convincing enough, and then maybe they’d all leave me alone.

Our mob rounded the last bend in the path which led through tall clusters of sholberry bushes that were beginning to bear fruit. The next few weeks we would be busy picking sholberries, canning sholberries, and baking sholberry pies, as we did every year. Only this year I would have added responsibilities, as well. I stared past the bushes and toward the clearing on the other side as the church came into view. There were already so many people there. I could tell when I was close enough for them to recognize me as, one by one, their faces began to light up.

I had known what to expect, as I’d seen the way the other girls had been treated over the years; however, it still didn’t prepare me for the overwhelming feeling of being descended upon by a rush of excited women. As we approached the church, they ran out to meet me, chattering enthusiastically, admiring my dress, touching my hair. I wanted to burrow into the ground right where I stood on the dusty path.

“Oh Emerin, you look beautiful! I love your hair….some young man is going to get very lucky today!”

“Your dress is amazing. Did you make it yourself?”

“Wow. I can’t believe you’re seventeen already; seems like just yesterday that you were crawling around on the church steps…”

My mother and father beamed with pride and greeted all of my well-wishers with warmth and happiness. It was just as much their day as it was mine, I guess. But I couldn’t shake that nagging feeling in the recesses of my mind that they were happy to be getting rid of me. I had never tried to be a difficult child, but nevertheless, over the years I’d caused my parents quite a lot of grief and embarrassment.

Mrs. Grell, the reverend’s wife had been talking to my mother and was the last to approach me. “Emerin, how are you feeling, love? I know you must be nervous, but it’s exciting too right? I remember the day that I found out I’d be marrying Reverend Grell….well, it was about the most exciting day of my life, it was! I remember it was in the springtime, but oddly enough it was warmer than it is today. Brrrr…I do not know what’s going on with this weather, do you? Anyway, my mama had helped me make the most beautiful fluffy violet dress, with white lace trim and I felt like a princess from a fairy tale, I did…..”

Mrs. Grell loved to talk, and though I tried to be polite and listen, my mind started to wander. It was all I could do to keep eye contact and nod in the right places. I spotted my best friend Jalya on the other side of the church steps, and wanted nothing more than to go and talk to her instead. Jalya saw me too and smiled sympathetically. If anyone understood how horrible this whole thing was, it was Jalya.

“….and though it took us awhile to get to know each other, we’ve been ever so happy,” Mrs. Grell droned on and on. “And sometimes we……oh my goodness, Emerin, people are starting go inside. We’d better go find our seats!”

Though I was reluctant to enter the church, I was relieved to be getting away from Mrs. Grell; no one wanted to be on the receiving end of her chatter. I wondered if Reverend Grell was as happy with their match as she claimed he was. Feeling a little lighter now that there was no longer anyone hovering over me, I bounced over to Jalya. She was standing next to her father, who was chatting up some of the ladies.

“All I’m sayin’ is I don’t think the elders always get it right,” he said, as the ladies exchanged uncomfortable glances. Even though it was first thing in the morning, I could tell he had already had a few drinks. “I’m hopin’ they make a better match for that little girl than they did for me…”

“Papa!” Jalya snapped.

“Oh, now darlin’, I know you don’t like to hear it, but you know I’m right…”

Jalya was no longer listening. She turned from her father with a scowl on her face and saw me coming. Her face softened as she left them and greeted me with a big hug.

“Are you okay?” she asked as she studied my facial expression. “Nope, didn’t think you would be. When I saw you talking to Grell, I thought I’d never seen you look so sad.” She looked around deviously, then put her arm around me and began steering me to the side of the church. “Come on, I’ve got something to tell you.”

“What…now? Jalya we have to go inside.”

“Oh, it will take forever for everyone to get inside. They won’t miss us for a few minutes.”

“Right. No one will miss me. I’m all anyone’s noticing this morning.”

“It will just take a second. Come on…what I’m about to tell you…no one else can hear.”

Jalya sounded so intense, and I couldn’t control my curiosity, so I decided being a few seconds later wouldn’t hurt. One last glance over my shoulder revealed my parents laughing cheerfully with a couple of furniture builders from the other side of the village. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go inside, so why should I be? I nodded toward Jalya and we quickly ducked around the side of the church where we were alone with rows of tombstones. I cringed and tried to look past them and fixate on the cows grazing in the fields beyond. I never liked the village graveyard.

“Ugh, it’s creepy here. So what is it? What’s so important?”

“Okay, I heard something that might make you feel better about your matching day.”

“Hmmm, I doubt it, but go ahead.”

“I heard the elders say that they were matching you with Lenal Hendleman!” Jalya’s voice rose into a squeak when she said the name.

“Lenal!” Lenal Hendleman had always been the best looking boy at our school, and he at least seemed like a nice guy. I felt a little better for an instant, then I remembered who I was talking to. Jalya always thought she knew more than she did. “Jalya, where did you hear this?”

“Well, I was visiting Mama last night, and when I walked by the church, I heard voices, so of course I stopped…”

“Wait, wait, so you were eavesdropping? Oh Jalya, you didn’t get caught did you?”

“You don’t see any bruises or black eyes, do you? Of course I didn’t get caught; I never get caught…you know me.”

“Yes, exactly,” I took a quick peek around the side of the building to see if my parents were still there. They appeared to be done talking and were looking around anxiously, presumably for me. Everyone else was filing into the church and soon there would be no one left outside. “Jalya, everyone’s going in now. We have to go; my parents are looking for me.”

“Okay, okay, let’s go. I just had to tell you.” We nonchalantly wandered back to the front of the church, like we had been there all along.

“I know, but you shouldn’t be sneaking around like that. You’ll get in trouble, not just with your father, but with the church too. They might send you to live with your mother.”

“That might not be so bad. She’s doing pretty well.”

“Don’t say that.”

“But Emerin…”

“Shhh,” I said as we came within sight of my parents. My mother looked angry and tense and my father just shook his head. As they turned and went into the church, I knew what they were thinking.

“Haha, I think they thought you wandered off again,” Jalya chortled, as if reading my mind. “They must be relieved now!”

“Probably,” I agreed. “Relieved and angry with you for leading me astray.” We climbed the church steps and I felt my stomach tighten into knots once more. As we walked through the huge, carved doors, all eyes immediately flew in my direction and stayed there…watching…judging. I fought the urge to turn and run.

“Don’t worry,” Jalya said, and looked across the room to where Lenal Hendleman stood, talking to some other boys we had known in school. He really was handsome, with his piercing blue eyes and muscular arms earned from years of work in the fields. “Wouldn’t be so bad would it?”

“Are you sure you heard right?”

“Pretty sure; well, almost sure. Come on Emerin, he’s gorgeous, you’re gorgeous, you’re about the same age and you’re both from farming families. It would be perfect. He was eligible last year too, but they would never have matched him with Kaird Lemmitt. She’s definitely not pretty enough…”

“Jalya! Don’t be mean; Kaird’s nice.”

“Nice maybe, but not in his league. I’ll bet they were saving him for you.”

“Yeah, either that or they wanted to marry her off to Pindar, because he’s older,” I reasoned. “Look, I guess Lenal would be the best choice out of all of them, but I’m not going to get too excited until I know for sure.”

I watched the antics of the eligible men in the group, punching each other and laughing like a bunch of fools. My glance fell on chubby Bainie, whose breakfast was still clinging to the corners of his mouth. Bainie had been old enough to marry for years, but had yet to be chosen for anyone. God forbid it was him! Suddenly hopeful that Jalya’s hearing was as good as she thought it was, I turned back to my friend.

“Uhhh, so did you hear anything else?”

Chapter 2

Jalya opened her mouth to answer, but before any sound could come out, the deep voice of Reverend Grell boomed across the pews, and silence fell over the crowd.

“Welcome everyone to our very special Sunday service,” he smiled warmly. “Please take your seats; we have a lot to do this morning.”

There was much shuffling as everyone found a place to sit. Jalya and I sat together, as we always did, next to Salare, a girl we knew from school. The reverend waited patiently behind the altar for the crowd to settle. My eyes scanned the room nervously, observing all the single young men. I had known each one of them for most of my life, since we had all been in school together for ten years. During those years I had fancied a few of them and dreamt about marrying one after another.

However, faced now with the reality of being bound to one of them for life, I didn’t think any of them looked good. As I watched the boys squirming uneasily on the pews with mocking smirks on their faces, I doubted that any one of them would ever grow into a good man like my father. I resigned myself to the hope that I would at least get one of the better looking ones like Lenal.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement at the front of the church and turned to see that Reverend Grell had left the altar and was speaking with a man whom I had not noticed when I first came in. Though how I could have missed him was a mystery. Not only had I never seen him before, which was an unusual occurrence in our small community, but the man himself was just so strange looking. He was dark, with black hair and tanned skin, though not the sun kissed kind of tan that came from hours of working in the fields, but rather an even tone that stayed all year long. As his eyes flitted over the crowd, I was sure that they were also dark, rather than the blue-green color that was typical of those in the village. In fact, there had never been anyone in Carper’s Village with brown eyes except for Ashel, Jalya’s younger brother.

When Ashel was born, that one feature was noticed right away: brown eyes! I was too young to remember the event, but I had heard tales of the uproar it created in the community throughout my entire life. Blue eyes, green eyes, either was acceptable, as was any mix of blue-green, but never brown. This meant the blood of an outsider, that Jalya’s mother Hallen had been unfaithful. Special meetings were called and the elders discussed what to do about this abomination for weeks. It was finally decided that she and her son must be removed from the community. Early one morning, before the others rose, members of the church clergy entered Jalya’s house and forcibly removed Hallen and Ashel. She was allowed to grab a few belongings before they were taken by horse and cart to the forest just outside of the village.

It was expected that they would be taken away or killed by someone from the Twelve Clans. The clans were tribes of nomadic woodland people that occasionally wandered close to the village. It was the general opinion of our people that the clanspeople were dirty, sadistic heathens, though I had never seen evidence of that. However, the stories we were told of their atrocities had haunted our dreams since childhood. And Hallen and her baby had been thrown right into their territory.

Even if Hallen managed to keep out of harm’s way, she and Ashel would almost certainly starve to death. They weren’t allowed back into the village for food and no one could take it to them without bringing the same horrible fate upon themselves. But somehow Hallen and her son survived in the rugged landscape. She built a small cabin on the outskirts of town, just far enough into the forest to avoid trouble from the church. This allowed her to be close to Jalya, so she could remain in contact with her as she grew up.

After the banishment of his wife, Jalya’s father became very distant and withdrawn, just barely seeing to her basic needs. By the time she was three years old, Jalya was pretty much raising herself. She spent a great deal of time at my house, where my mother would make sure she was fed and washed. Then eventually she began to wander off to Hallen’s house in the woods. Most everyone in the village knew that she was sneaking off to visit her mother, but they turned a blind eye to it.

As I grew older and had more freedom to explore on my own, I would often accompany Jalya to visit Hallen and Ashel, despite several warnings and finally punishments from my parents. I became quite close to them over the years and wished pitifully at this moment that Ashel was the one with which I was to be united. Even though he was almost two years younger than I was, he would still make a better husband than the flock of unsophisticates that sat inside the church. Unfortunately Ashel would never be given a wife, not in this community anyway.

My thoughts were interrupted by Jalya’s sharp whisper. “Who is that well-groomed fella talking to the reverend?”

“I have no idea,” I responded, turning my glance once again to the mysterious stranger. “I was just wondering that myself. He is dressed up rather nicely, isn’t he?”

“It’s not hard to look good next to the men in this town. I wonder if he’s here looking for a wife….might be a little old, but nice to look at, nonetheless. I’d love to marry a man that would take me away from this place.”

“You just want to marry him because he has brown eyes; that would really piss off your daddy!”

“Emerin!” Jalya laughed at my crude language, something that was distinctly frowned upon at any time, but especially in church. “Yeah, it really would, wouldn’t it!”

At that moment Reverend Grell broke off his conversation with the handsome stranger and returned to the altar, silencing our giggles with his baritone voice.

“Quiet please, everyone…we are ready to begin the ceremony,” he waited for the crowd to settle before continuing. “Today is a very special Sunday. As you all know, when a young lady in our community turns seventeen years of age, she is united with an eligible young man. The elders deliberate extensively over these engagements to find the best match for each of you. This week we turn our attention to Emerin Gareth. Today she, and the rest of our fine congregation, will find out who the elders have chosen to be her husband.”

The reverend gestured dramatically at the crowd with a sweep of his arm. The church pews creaked as everyone turned to look at me once again. I stared at my shoes, hoping no one would notice the redness that I could feel creeping across my cheeks.

“But who will the lucky man be?” he questioned, darting his wild eyes toward each of the young men. “Which one of you will get to spend the rest of your life with this beautiful young woman? A very good question, isn’t it Bainie?”

The reverend’s lively eyes stopped to rest upon Bainie who was wrestling with a container that he held, desperately trying to get to the food inside. When he felt everyone in the church turn toward him, he dropped it onto his lap and smiled sheepishly.

I gripped the sides of the chair as the panic welled up in my throat. What if it was him? I felt tension building in the back of my neck and that familiar dull ache growing behind my left eye that signaled a headache was on its way. I’d been having a lot of those lately and they had been steadily getting worse each time. As the reverend droned on about the virtues and tribulations of marriage, I took several deep, shaky breaths and fought the urge to flee the church. Jalya, apparently noticing my distress, grabbed my hand, wrenching it from its place on the chair, and squeezed it tightly. We both looked up as the reverend paused his speech and gazed playfully into the crowd.

“Well, I won’t keep you all in suspense any longer,” he said. “Emerin will be united with Polin and Germand’s son, Callum Rony!”

With a dramatic flourish, Reverend Grell swept his arm across the altar in the direction of Callum, a man who was two years older than I was. I knew him, as I knew everyone in the village, but not very well. My heart pounded heavily as I looked at him now, carefully studying his features…too tall, a little on the thin side, too many freckles, and his nose…something just was not right about his nose! What were the elders thinking? I swallowed hard as I tried to focus on the positive aspects of this situation. After all, it could have been worse. I looked over at Bainie, who had now successfully opened his container and was cheerfully eating a sandwich, happy that the crowd’s attention was no longer directed at him. It could have been so much worse. This realization did nothing to soothe the growing pain in my head, however, and I winced slightly as the light from the window hit my eyes.

“The two of you will pass the next few weeks getting better acquainted with one another,” the reverend continued. “You will spend much time alone together to ready yourselves to be husband and wife. Callum will be spending more time with his father, as he continues to hone his farming skills. Emerin will spend extra time with her mother learning how to be a good wife and mother and how to best tend house and raise children. You will shrug off the innocence of childhood, and prepare yourselves for the responsibilities of your adult roles. It will be a time of incredible transition, and amazing growth.” He smiled at both of us in turn, a mocking smile I thought. He knew exactly how bad it would be.

“Beginning next week, Emerin and Callum will also take marriage classes together with me, every Sunday after church. Marriage is a sacred union that the church does not take lightly. We must see that you are adequately prepared before the ceremony, which will be held in exactly six weeks’ time, after our Sunday service.”

Farming. Callum was from a farming family too. I assumed that Jalya didn’t think of him when she was assessing who the elders would pick for me. I turned to glare at her, but I couldn’t manage any look that required more energy than sadness. Jalya looked at me and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” It was all I could do not to cry, yet I tried not to show it, as everyone was looking at me yet again.

If Callum had any feelings, positive or negative, about the situation, he wasn’t letting them be known. His face betrayed no hint of emotion, except a small grin at whatever it was that his friends were saying to him. I cast a sideways glance at my parents and found them still smiling. It figured that my father would be happy with me marrying a farmer; he’d have lots to talk to him about, I supposed.

Suddenly everyone in the church seemed to have something to say and the buzzing of a hundred conversations reverberated in my ears. My head throbbed with the sound, as if keeping time with my beating heart. Of course, everyone kept looking from me to Callum and back, judging for a reaction. I did my best not to give them any, hoping that I was not too obviously wincing in pain. Reverend Grell stood at the altar and waited for the madness to settle.

“Alright,” he boomed, silencing the last stray chatter, “now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s on to our next order of business.” He turned and gestured toward the mysterious stranger. “This is David Harris of Nebril City. He will be here for a few days, selling his wares to the good people of our village. He has cookware, building materials, clothing, tobacco…” He stopped to nod at my father, who grinned ecstatically in response. He had been running low. “….and many other essentials that you may be in need of. So don’t be shy, come and see him after the service to see what he can do for you.”

Jalya and I exchanged glances and seemingly came to the realization at the same time. Of course this man, David, was a Nebril; he had the look. Nebril City was a huge settlement that lay far to the other side of our eastern mountains. From what I’d heard, to get there meant traveling through a dense forest with many dangers and crossing the turbulent Nebril River on the other side. Occasionally, one or two Nebril would pass through the village, selling items that we did not make ourselves. It was quite rare, however, as the trip from their city was so long and arduous, they didn’t want to make it too often. But what everyone did notice during their visits is that they all had a look that was quite different than ours. They were taller generally and thinner, with long faces, dark hair, brown eyes and olive skin. This man fit that description precisely.

Reverend Grell began his sermon, but, with all that was going on in my head, I could not pay attention. So rather than listening, I began to consider my options. I figured David must have a cart where he kept all his merchandise. Maybe he would let me hide in it somewhere and I could go with him to Nebril City. He would know how to navigate the forest and all of its dangers. He would certainly know what lay on the other side of those hills.

I wondered what the city was like and tried to imagine myself living there. I’d heard there were places where they served you food and other places where people put on shows. Some people said that the Nebril never die, that they live forever, though my mother always said that was nonsense. Maybe Jalya would want to come with me; she was always talking about getting out of the village. Maybe Ashel, and Hallen too. Wait, that might be too many people to fit in his cart….

A sharp nudge in my ribcage rudely interrupted me from my thoughts. Jalya grinned at me. “Daydreaming about Callum already, eh? Oh, I’m sorry Emerin, that’s not even the least bit funny, is it? And I’m usually right about what I hear. Well, what we need now is a plan….hey, maybe we can stow you away in that Nebril man’s cart!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Jalya and I were so in tune sometimes. Then I realized that everyone was rising from the pews and talking amongst themselves. I had mentally missed the entire sermon, though certainly not because I was thinking about Callum…not in a good way anyway.

Salare wiggled in her chair. “Oooh, I have to go talk to that foreign salesman,” she gushed, “but I’m nervous; he’s so handsome.” She turned to Jalya. “Do I look alright?”

“As pretty as ever,” Jalya said, with just a hint of sarcasm.

“Good. I’ll tell you what he says later if you want.” She turned to go, then turned back. “Oh yeah, and congratulations on what’s-his-name, Emerin.” Then she was off, flying to the front of the room, her skirt swirling out on the floor behind her.

“Uh, thanks,” I mumbled, not sure whether or not she actually meant to be sincere.

Jalya glared after her. “Isn’t her birthday coming up next? She’d better not get Lenal!”

“Come on,” I said, disgusted. “Let’s just get out of here.” I didn’t want to think about matching day any longer, anybody’s matching day. I just wanted to get on with my day and forget about the prospect of becoming Callum’s wife for as long as I could. In the corner of the church, my parents were chatting again. Between my upcoming marriage and the strange visitor from the city, I was sure that they would have a lot to talk about, which meant that I would probably be here forever.

“Let’s go outside and wait for them,” Jalya suggested, looking in the direction of her father. He was talking to Miss Telly who worked at the trading post, and who also happened to be a widow. “Ugh, he’s always looking for a new wife…making sure Reverend Grell sees him talking to her too, so maybe he’ll grant it. Like anyone would want to be with a drunk like him.”

Jalya turned and walked toward the door without waiting to see if I followed. I couldn’t blame her for the resentment she held for her father, and for the whole town for that matter. I pushed my way through the crowd, attempting to make it to the door as well, when I heard someone calling my name.

“Emerin, Emerin, are you listening to me?” It became apparent that it was my mother’s voice, so I pretended I didn’t hear, because I really wanted to be outside and away from all of the prying eyes. Unfortunately, she was just as determined and squeezed between the people that were blocking the aisle so she could reach out and grab my arm. “Emerin! Did you not hear me?”

“Mama?” I feigned surprised. “Oh, no, I didn’t. I’m just meeting Jalya outside. She seems to be upset about something and I think she needs to talk….”

“I’m sure Jalya will be fine. You can talk to her later. Right now I have some people I want you to meet.”

I groaned on the inside, as I followed her back into the crowd, feeling what little good spirits I had about this ordeal finally being over slip away. All that was left was the incessant pain in my head. My mother led me back to my father and another couple.

“Here she is!” my mother exclaimed nervously. “Emerin, I want you to meet Germand and Polin. These are Callum’s parents, honey.”

Again, the urge to run, yet my legs and arms felt frozen. My arm felt about fifty pounds when I lifted it to shake hands, first with Polin, then Germand. Polin was delicate looking and would have been quite pretty, except, well, I saw that Callum had inherited his nose from her. Germand was muscular and gruff, much like my own father, except he seemed more serious. They were warm and polite as they greeted me, and I tried my best to smile through the pain that was now overtaking the left side of my head.

“Nice to meet you,” I croaked.

“Are you okay, my dear?” Polin asked with what seemed to be genuine concern. “Don’t worry, our son really is a nice boy. And good around the farm too. He’ll be a good provider and a good husband. You’ll see.” She turned to my mother. “Everyone is nervous on their matching day.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure he is. I just have a bit of a headache, that’s all.”

Polin and Germand exchanged concerned glances, then looked back at me with identical fake smiles. I knew they were just as disappointed in the match as I was. Their daughter-in-law was going to be weird Emerin with the headaches, Emerin who wandered off toward the mountains in a trance. The whole village knew; I had left class, church and community events with no apparent reason. I’d even wandered off in the middle of the night unannounced. The urge to wander always accompanied these headaches, but as I grew older, I became more able to control it, and I’d been running away less and less.

Some of the elders thought that I had been bewitched, perhaps by a wild wood clansman during one of my visits to Hallen and Ashel. I thought this was ridiculous and so did my parents, but that didn’t relieve the embarrassment and social stigma that came with having me as a daughter. They were probably thrilled that the elders had agreed to marry me off at all.

“Well, Emerin darlin’, sounds like what you need is some fresh air,” said my father, just a little too enthusiastically. “Your mother and I are going to go to Germand and Polin’s house for some tea. We thought that you and Callum could talk on their front porch, y’know, now that it’s warming up and all……get to know each other a little better.”

I turned to my mother. “But Mama, Jalya….”

“Oh, don’t worry about Jalya now. She’ll be fine. You can go visit her this afternoon….if she’s home that is.”

Seeing absolutely no way to get out of this, I kept quiet and decided to just get through it somehow. Who knew, maybe Callum would be nice and we’d get along. It might not be so bad. Germand motioned to Callum who was still across the room, talking amongst the mob that had gathered around David the Nebril. An irritated look crossed his face and he and his strange looking nose fought through the crowd over to where we stood. When he saw me standing there he smiled, but I could tell it was the same kind of forced smile that I’d been decorating my face with all day. His eyes were a really nice colour of deep green. Well, that was something at least.

“Hi, uuh, Emerin,” he stammered.

“Hi, Callum,” I replied, and could think of nothing else to say.

“Well, let’s be off then,” Germand growled. “And Callum, I don’t want to see you talkin’ to that city boy again, y’hear? You don’t need anything he’s sellin’”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Those Nebril, they bring nothing but trouble.” With that he turned and walked out the door of the church. He didn’t have to fight his way through the crowd like everyone else; it just sort of parted for his massive frame. The rest of us were left with nothing to do but follow.

Once out in the sunshine, I could feel that the air was getting warmer and I no longer needed my shawl. My parents walked ahead with Polin and Germand, so I had no choice but to walk behind them next to Callum. Jalya was standing next to the river, talking to a couple of boys that we had gone to school with. She saw me leaving the church with Callum and her initial look of confusion quickly changed into one of disgusted understanding. She knew what was expected and that I had no choice. It was my turn to mouth, “I’m sorry” in her direction, and she waved in response. I turned my head back toward Callum and my future, the throbbing in my head having, fortunately, subsided a little. He was a little too tall, but who knew, maybe I would like him. Maybe he’d even be the man of my dreams.

Chapter 3

Callum was most certainly not the man of my dreams, nor was he someone I wanted to spend any considerable amount of time with, whatsoever. This was apparent from our first tea together on the porch and my feelings for him progressed from mild intolerance to teeth-grinding irritation as the weeks wore on. He was nice enough to me, although a little indifferent at times, but something about him just grated on my nerves. Maybe it was the fact that I was being forced to like him, and apparently even to someday love him. The idea was unimaginable to me. The wedding was approaching fast and the closer it got, the more I refused to accept it and tried to push Callum from my mind. Nevertheless, we were forced to spend more and more time together and every date that was made for us was countered with a ready-made excuse from me.

“But Mama,” I whined, knowing it would be in vain, “I have to finish knitting Gabelle’s shawl. I know her birthday’s not till October, but she really needs it before school starts. It’s getting so cold.”

Gabelle was a little girl who lived in the house next to us. I kind of thought of her as a little sister. And I wasn’t lying; it was cold, still colder every day. She would need the shawl, only I was a fast knitter and would have plenty of time to finish it, with or without the afternoon off.

My mother was unwavering in her certainty that I would meet Callum this afternoon. “Look, Emerin, you cancelled two days ago because of your headache…you can’t cancel again. How would that look? You need to spend some more time getting to know the boy. He’s really a good lad and he seems to like you despite your…well…problems. You’re getting married in two days, Emerin. It’s about time you accepted it.”

“Exactly! This Sunday my life is over…can’t I just enjoy the last few days that I have?”

“Stop being so dramatic; everything will be fine. You will learn to love this boy, the same way I did your father, the same as every other woman in this village has. This is how it works honey, how it always has; you know that.”

“Yes, yes, I know. I’m going,” I knew there was no point in continuing to argue. “But if Gabelle is cold when she’s walking to school, let that be on your conscience.”

My mother smirked. “I’m pretty sure Gabelle has other shawls; she will be fine.”

“But none as nice as mine,” I tossed back as I walked through the door. As it closed behind me and I stared across the fields toward the mountains, I briefly thought of making a run for it, before common sense once again took over. I waved at my father who was baling hay in the fields and turned down the worn dirt path to Callum’s house. I walked slowly, figuring the more time I wasted on my walk, the less time I would have to spend with him. My hopes were dashed though, when I spotted Callum strolling up the pathway to meet me. He smiled when he saw me and I felt guilty for not being as accepting of this as he seemed to be.

“Hey, Emerin,” he called out brightly. “Guess who’s back in town?”

It was a strange comment; I didn’t think that anyone had left town. “What do you mean?” I said, as the gap between us narrowed.

“David…you know, David the Nebril, he got in late last night. Jalya told me this morning that she’d seen him; you know how she likes to wander around at night when she’s not supposed to. Well, anyway, I saw him for myself when I was walking over….seems to have his cart all loaded up again.”

David had been so popular when he was last in town, that he sold almost all of his wares in just a few days. I guess he thought that a profit was to be made here and decided to load up and come back. It was rare enough to have a Nebril pass through our village, let alone to have one decide to come back a second time. Most of the Nebril merchants, not wanting to make such a long, perilous journey, stuck to the farming communities that were closer to their city.

“I guess he must like it here,” I mused. “It’s been so long since anyone’s come through here that everyone’s been desperate for supplies.”

“Yeah, well, I thought maybe we could go over and see him, and y’know, see if he has anything we might need for the house. I know that we’re probably getting enough from our parents, but I thought maybe you’d like something special, something new, maybe.” He lowered his eyes as he said this, rooting his gaze on the pathway where he was grinding his boot into the dirt. “It’s only two days away, after all.”

I didn’t say anything; he was being too nice. Why did I have to be so weird about the whole thing? Why couldn’t I just accept it like everyone else seemed to? He wasn’t so bad; why did I find him so annoying? Why did I want to run away from him at every turn? I fought back the tears that threatened to spring to my eyes and looked out over the wheat stalks as they swayed, golden in the sunlight. When I glanced back toward him, he was studying me intensely, his green eyes darting from side to side, as if trying to take in a picture too large to completely comprehend at once.

“Okay,” I said, trying to hold my voice steady.

Callum turned and we walked along the path in the direction from which he had come. We were quiet for a minute and I used this time to try to get my emotions under control. Maybe my mother was right; maybe everyone was right and I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t help feeling though, that there was something else out there for me, some other fate that didn’t involve marrying Callum, having his babies and being a farmer’s wife. I felt it strongly every time I had a headache, every time I felt that unknown pull from the other side of the mountains. Did other women feel this way before they got married? Was it a feeling that would fade in time as my life became more entwined with Callum’s or would I eternally struggle with sadness and a sense of unfulfillment?

“Emerin?” Callum said uneasily, interrupting my thoughts.

“Yes?”

“Look, I know you’re nervous and I am too, but that’s normal you know.”

“I know….you’re nervous?”

“Yeah, I really am. I mean it’s gonna be really different, right? But Mama and Papa, they said that they felt the same way. In fact, Mama said that she didn’t even like Papa at all when they were first united…she didn’t want to marry him, but over the years he grew on her. Now she really loves him.”

“My parents told me the same thing.”

“Well, there you go, I’m sure they know what they’re talking about. They’re old and old people are supposed to be wise, am I right?”

“Yeah,” I forced a nervous laugh. I wished he would stop being so nice to me; it was making it harder to dislike him.

We rounded the bend in the path, and David and his cart came into view. It was early in the day, but there was already a swarm of people milling about, haggling with David, trying to trade food, animal skins and crudely fashioned tools for dishes, linens and fancy big city merchandise. Jalya was there looking longingly at jewelry she had nothing valuable enough to trade for. Salare buzzed around close to David, so she could get in a few words to him between each sale.

Jalya bounced over as she saw us approach. “Can you believe that he’s actually come back again? Who would’ve thought he’d want to make this trip twice. Emerin, you should come and see the clothes and jewelry he has. Gorgeous.”

I glanced at Callum and opened my mouth, about to tell Jalya that I’d much rather be looking at dishes and linens. Callum spoke first however. “Go ahead, Emerin…I see Lenal over there anyway. I have to talk to him about the harvest. I’ll meet you at the cart in a few minutes.”

“Okay,” I said, grateful for some time to chat with Jalya. “See you soon.”

Callum turned and strode across the field. In the glimmering sunlight, I could see that he was almost as muscular as Lenal was, only his height made him appear thinner. Even his nose wasn’t so bad, I thought to myself.

“So how are things going with you and him?” Jalya asked. “Are you ready for the wedding, or are you still thinking about taking off before Sunday? Because, as you can see, David’s back with his cart!”

“I don’t know what to do,” I answered, and I honestly didn’t. “He seems nice and he treats me pretty well, but I don’t know, I don’t really feel anything for him.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to, not at the start anyway.”

“I know, but….” I trailed off, unable to explain how I felt. My head had begun to hurt….again. I was getting really tired of it. And the urge to walk to the mountain was becoming increasingly difficult to fight.

“Come on,” Jalya wrapped her arm protectively around me. “Let’s go look at all the pretty jewels. That will make you feel better, and maybe if you keep making that sad face, your husband to be will buy you some of them to cheer you up.”

I doubted that Callum had anything to trade that was worth enough for David to relinquish a piece of jewelry, especially when we were supposed to be getting sensible things for the house. I kept that thought to myself, however, and let Jalya believe she was making me happier as we rummaged through the hanging necklaces and boxes full of bracelets and rings. The jewelry was beautiful, and by the time we had pawed through it all, I actually was having a good time. Maybe if I still had time to hang out with Jalya once in a while, being married might not be that bad. Though, once I had a couple of kids, our hanging out time would probably dwindle and I’d be with Callum a lot more than I’d be with Jalya. I tried not to dwell on these thoughts as they threatened to drag me down into sadness once more, so I turned my attention to the clothing instead. Just as I’d gotten to the first display, which was a rack of lovely dresses that were so fancy I couldn’t imagine where I would ever wear them, the church bell began to ring.

“Oh no,” Jalya whined in exasperation. “Why now? Why not when I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing!”

There was good reason for her irritation. The only time the church bell rang, other than on Sunday mornings, was to warn of some kind of danger, like severe weather coming or a rabid animal in the village. But usually it was a sighting of one of the woodland tribes passing nearby and the elders were paranoid that they were going to unleash some sort of attack on us. Of course this never happened and, in my seventeen years, I could not remember it ever having happened, and neither could my parents. All we knew is that there were stories of neighbouring farming villages being raided, with food and women both being stolen. I wasn’t sure how much truth was in these tales, but that didn’t stop the elders from herding us up and sending us into the nearest building for sanctuary until we were given the all clear. Or rather the women and children were penned up and the men got to go out and see what was going on. Being a girl was so boring.

Without pausing to finish up their business, the women and children around us reluctantly began trudging toward the trading post, which was the closest sanctuary point to where David’s cart stood. As usual, Jalya and I hesitated as long as we possibly could, to see if we could see any of the action.

Callum rushed over to us. “C’mon, you two have to get inside,” he stated, in what I could only assume was his manly, protective voice. I wondered vaguely if that was the same tone that he would use with our children. “Go on, get over to the trading post. I’ll come and find you later.” He nudged me in the general direction of where we were to be imprisoned, before heading back toward Lenal.

The door of the trading post opened as soon as we got there, and we were met by the wrinkled face of Mrs. Enos, one of the town elders.

“Well, come on girls, hurry on up now; you don’t wanna git stolen or beat on or eaten alive or anything like that now do ya?” The old woman beat on the front step with her walking stick. “Did you girls see anyone else lingerin’ around out there?”

“No, ma’am,” Jalya said, “I think everyone else has found their way to a sanctuary.”

“I do hope those boys find all the children; sometimes they like to sneak off and play in the woods,” Mrs. Enos croaked, before poking us inside with her stick and closing the door. “You girls have to learn to move faster. If an ole lady like me can beat ya inside, then I dunno what’s wrong witchya!”

Jalya and I ran over to the side window of the trading post, which allowed for the best view of the valley and waited to see if there would be any action, though it was unlikely. We stared through the grime coated glass and watched Callum and Lenal explain to David what was happening. Then the three of them ran off toward the church, which was the meeting place for the men during such emergencies.

“What do you think it is this time?” I asked.

Jalya scoffed. “Probably some outland savage walked too close to the crops again, daring to come on our side of the mountain. Hey, Emerin, maybe if you run back outside, he’ll steal you away. Some of those clansmen are really good looking. I’ve seen them pass from time to time at Mama’s house. No one’s ever tried to steal me though.” She turned to study my face. “What’s the matter? Do you have a headache? You’ve got your headache face on.”

“I’m getting one, yeah.”

“Well, do you want to sit down? I can go see if Miss Telly has some facion bark behind the counter. That’s what my mother takes for her headaches. I’m sure she’d let you have some.”

“It’s fine, Jalya, that stuff doesn’t work for me anyway. It only makes me sleep.” I peered out the window trying to focus my eyes on the top of the mountain in the distance. I’d spent so many years studying those mountains. I knew every curve and crevasse, every rocky outcropping, and something didn’t seem quite right. Something was there that hadn’t been there before.

“Yeah, that’s what Mama says too. It’s funny you know, your headaches, the way you act sometimes is so much like her. I think maybe you should talk to her about it; maybe she can help. Emerin, are you listening…are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said, but I was only half listening, only dimly aware of what was going on around me. I focused all the energy my sore head could offer on the figure on the mountain. It was getting closer.

“What is that?” Jalya inquired, having turned her attention back to the window.

“I don’t know.” My head began to throb, the left side feeling curiously disconnected from the right. Pressure built around my eye and the pain moved down the back of my head and overtook the left side of my neck. I reached my hand up to rub the tension away.

“Is that….a person?” Jalya’s voice rose a little.

“Shhhh,” I said instinctively, and looked around to see if anyone else had heard. The rest of the women were showing off their purchases to each other, secure in the idea that this would again be an uneventful emergency. Nobody seemed to be paying us any attention. “Listen Jalya, don’t let anyone else know about him.”

“About him? What do you mean? Who is it? Emerin, how do you know it’s a him?”

“Or her,” I added quickly, hoping to keep her quiet. “Just….trust me Jalya, no one else should know.”

“Okay,” she said reluctantly, but didn’t take her eyes off the figure moving in the distance. “Looks like a clansman. Which one do you think? A Harachu, or maybe a Natki?”

I shrugged my shoulders, not wanting even the sound of my own voice to break my concentration. The more I watched the shadow wavering across the hilltop, the more at ease I felt. As if it were here just for me, or perhaps even a part of me that had been lost long ago. The pain in my head lessened slightly, yet each throb pulled at me, urging me to walk out the door.

As the figure drew closer, the impulse strengthened and I rested my hands on the cool glass of the window, wishing my fingernails were sharp enough to claw my way through it. Though I was standing perfectly still, I felt myself running, my swift legs carrying me across the field, through the stalks of corn and up into the foothills to where he was waiting for me. Yes, it definitely was the form of a man that I saw moving toward us.

“He’s coming closer, Emerin,” Jalya whispered. “Do you think maybe we should tell somebody now? The men would need to know if there was a threat.”

“No,” I almost shouted. “Jalya, listen to me, he’s no threat. Besides they probably already know that he’s there; that’s why they rang the bell in the first place!”

My head began a renewed aching, that I knew from experience could only be relieved by walking, walking in the direction that I felt compelled to go. I still couldn’t take my eyes from this mysterious, yet somehow familiar figure, and watched him become larger as the distance closed between us. I had to go; I had to get out of here now; it was unbearable. It felt like part of my body, or maybe even my very soul was detaching and moving toward those mountains, trying in vain to drag the rest of me along with it while I resisted in some internal game of tug of war. Why was I resisting? I needed to be there; I just had to find a way out of here. Using every ounce of effort I could muster, I wrenched my strained and weeping eyes from their outside obsession, and turned to face Jalya.

“You know what,” I groaned. “I think that I’m just desperate enough to try the facion bark now; maybe it will work this time. Could you see if Miss Telly has some? I really don’t feel like talking to her myself. And if, when you get back, he’s getting closer still, then we’ll say something, okay?”

“Okay,” Jalya agreed. “I’ll be right back; you just keep an eye on him while I’m gone, alright?”

“I will,” I was relieved, though I knew it would work. Jalya always humoured me when I had a headache. She gave me a sympathetic rub on my shoulder and turned toward the counter where Miss Telly was admiring the new dress that one of the ladies had bought. I waited until she slipped into the crowd then began to edge my way along the wall toward the door. Mrs. Enos was leaning back in the rocking chair behind the counter, resting her eyes, or maybe even actually sleeping. No one else paid me any attention as I nonchalantly shuffled in the direction of freedom. I peeked through the heads of the chattering women and saw that Jalya had just gotten Miss Telly’s attention. I had to move fast.

I slid along the last few feet of the wall, and felt my right hand bump up against the doorknob. I turned toward the door, reached up and slid the bolt across to unlock it, and turned the knob. Fortunately, all the voices ringing out at once obliterated any sound that this may have made. I threw one more glance back at Jalya and saw that she’d broken off her conversation with Miss Telly and was looking back in the direction of the window, where she wouldn’t find me. It was now or never. I yanked on the metal doorknob, slipped out through the smallest crack I could possibly fit through, and shut the door quickly behind me.

Chapter 4

Without even stopping to see if the door had latched, I gathered up my skirt, ran across the veranda, and down the three steps to the ground. In my urgency, I tripped over the tree roots that crisscrossed the lawn. I sprawled out on the grass and fallen leaves, but was on my feet again in an instant and running as fast as they would take me across the field. I passed David’s abandoned cart and turned away from the path to avoid the houses that would contain people watching from their windows.

My eyes scanned the hills to see if the shadow was still there, and found him running down the side of the tallest hill, only to disappear out of sight behind the one that still lay between us. That was good; at least he was still coming. And I would meet him on the other side of the corn field. I just had to get there, then I would be hidden, lost amongst the rows of grain. I was now out of sight of the trading post, and none of the men seemed to be nearby. I was going to make it! The air was cold, but I was exhilarated as my hair whipped out behind me, flying back and forth with each stride, shaking off the last remnants of pain in my head.

My gaze drifted toward the hilltop again, waiting to see him ascend the final peak, but instead I saw something that I was not expecting. There were more men running down the hill, following the same path that my shadow had taken. I stopped, sudden fear overtaking me. Maybe it was a raid; maybe there wasn’t anything unusual about this man and the feelings that had overtaken me were just due to my headache; maybe I was actually in real danger right now.

I looked around to see if any of the village men were heading in my direction, but saw no one. I heard shouts coming from the direction of the church, so I assumed they were still over there. No one to protect me, or no one to admonish me depending on how I looked at it. I was almost at the corn field; it would be faster to get there now than it would be to turn around and run back to the trading post. There I could hide until this was all over. I really didn’t want to go back to the trading post anyway, to face the glares, the anger and, yes, even the looks of pity I would receive. ‘Oh, Emerin did it again.’ I could just hear it. I felt like I would rather face whatever was coming to me out here, even death, than go back there.

I snapped out of my stupor and willed my legs to take those last few steps across the grass and into hiding. The stalks of the plants crunched as I pushed my way in, leaves crumpling and cracking like paper, folding about me and drawing me into their safety. I walked in a few rows until I felt that I was well concealed, then looked back up toward the mountain. There was nothing there; the other men had disappeared behind the hill that was closest to me, but not one of them had yet reached the top of that final hill. I waited and tried to catch my breath which was coming in raspy gasps.

After what seemed an eternity, there was finally movement on the hilltop, but again it was not what I thought I would see. The men had turned back and were climbing the hill, going back the way they had come. There were six of them that I could see, walking two by two; no wait, there were seven; the last two were dragging someone. It was the first man, that shadowy figure I’d been drawn to, they were pulling him back up the hill! My heart twisted and my stomach fell, as I felt the searing pain return to my head. They weren’t coming for us; they were coming for him! And now they were taking him away from me. I couldn’t breathe. I pushed through the stalks, putting row after row behind me, fueled by the irrational thought that I might be able to catch up with them. And not putting any thought into what might happen to me if I did.

I was almost all the way through when I heard the yelling. The men of our village had finally realized that there was something to chase. As I stood at the edge of the corn rows, I could see them coming along the side of the hill. Our men were nothing if not foolishly brave. They ran in a motley group, screaming threats and waving knives, hoes, and other homemade weapons and farming equipment that were unlikely to strike fear into any woodland warrior. Nonetheless, the woodland men were retreating.

My gut wrenched into a twisted knot as I watched them drag him away. He turned and pulled from their grasp once, and then again, before two of the other men came up behind him, so he was surrounded and could no longer escape. He was so far, yet I felt I could see the pain on his face as he struggled in vain to free himself. His pain was mirrored by my own and, as my head throbbed, I couldn’t help but moan and fall to my knees. Choking sobs escaped from my throat as I gave into my physical pain and the anguish of my loss. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I couldn’t stop crying or gasping for air, even though my rational mind was screaming at me to be quiet.

The shouting faded off into the distance as the men climbed part way up the first hill. There was another sound, however, this one quieter, but much closer. I muffled my sobs in the long fabric of my dress and tensed my muscles to get ready to run. The sound of footfalls on dirt and dried out vegetation alerted me to the fact that I was no longer alone. I tried not to breathe, though my chest was still heaving with spasms. The footsteps seemed to be getting closer, and I reasoned that it would be a good time to move deeper, back into the field. I stood slowly, pressing through the pain which increased with every movement. As I took a tentative step to move myself into the next row, my heart started pounding in my ears. The stalks of corn began to waver and finally spun uncontrollably before my eyes, so I could not even tell which direction to go. I took a tentative step and my legs buckled.

A wave of nausea overtook me and again I fell to the ground. I lay there for a moment, my mind screaming at my body to move, but my body feeling so good resting with my face on the cool dirt. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping that the dizziness would pass in a moment, and that no one would find me until then. I heard the footsteps get louder still, crashing through the crops, and wondered who would be finding me. Would it be some exotic woodland clansman who would carry me off to an unknown fate in the woods, or would it be one of the villagers, who would take me back home to face my parents and the rest of the town?

When I opened my eyes, I saw boots rushing toward me. I lifted my head, contemplating the insane idea that I might still escape. I heard someone calling my name, and shouting and then more boots came crashing through the rows. As one of the pairs of boots stopped next to me I dropped my head back to the ground in frustrated surrender. They were leather, covered in mud and what smelled like manure. It could only be a farmer.

“Emerin?” said a voice that sounded like my father. “What happened, darlin’? What’re ya doin’ out here?”

He sat me up. My head was no longer spinning, but I couldn’t focus my eyes and his face wavered in and out of my vision. I felt him brushing my hair from my face, looking me over for any injuries. “Are you okay, darlin’? Did one of those savages hurt you?”

I shook my head and tried to say something, but I could only force out a long string of incomprehensible syllables. I pressed my hands to the sides my head and rocked back and forth, trying in futility to block out the pain.

My father sighed. “It’s a headache isn’t it? You wandered out here on your own when you should’ve gone to a sanctuary. Oh, Emerin.”

“I’m sorry,” I squeaked, as the tears began to flow. I could’ve lied, made up a tale like I sometimes did as a kid, but I knew he’d see through it. And he’d learn the truth anyway, from Miss Telly and the ladies in the sanctuary. Besides, I doubted my ability to put together a good story in the state that I was in.

“Alright,” he said, his tone a mix of fear and exasperation. As some of the other men came up behind him, I could feel his concern for me turn to embarrassment and worry. “We’ll deal with this later, when we get home. Right now, I have to go back out with the other men, and make sure there’s no one else out there. In the meantime, Callum will take you to the trading post so you’ll be safe. But, make no mistake darlin’, we will deal with this later.”

Callum! Was he here too? How would I explain this to him? How would I explain this to everyone? Especially when the whole truth came out that I’d sneaked out of the sanctuary. As my father lifted me to my feet and steadied me for the first wobbly moment, I could see Callum out of the corner of my eye, watching me from behind the other men. Lenal was there too; sheesh, this was embarrassing. But beyond the embarrassment, the urge to go, to pull away from my father and stagger into the hills was still overwhelming, but I couldn’t heed it. I looked in the direction where the invaders had been and saw no one. Everything was still as it had always been, making me wonder if I had imagined the whole event, maybe my body’s way of dealing with unbearable pain.

“Callum!” my father shouted, clearly impatient for someone to take over dealing with me. “Now, son! There’s Natki crawlin’ all over these hills. You need to get her outta here!” Callum hesitated, then reluctantly pushed his way through the men and over to my side, his face curled into an expression of irritation and disbelief. I imagined he was pretty embarrassed too and afraid of what he was getting into. This was the first of potentially many strange and willful transgressions by his future wife. How would that reflect on him?

Callum took my arm, relieving my father to return to the men and his duties. I leaned toward him so I wouldn’t fall, but could not muster the courage to look him in the face. I stared at my shoes.

“Take care of her now; don’t make her walk too fast. She’s not real steady yet.” Then my father turned his back and he and the other men melted into the corn rows and disappeared, the crunching of the stalks the only proof in my mind that they’d ever been there.

“C’mon,” Callum said quietly. I couldn’t tell by his voice whether he was worried or angry. He led me slowly back through the corn, row by row, for what seemed an eternity. Not a word passed between us the whole way through the field, across the meadow and past David’s cart. He kept a firm grip around my waist and I just concentrated on not falling over from the still lingering dizziness. As we approached the trading post, I could see that the door was open and someone was standing there peering out.

“Emerin! Whadya think you’re doing?” The gravelly voice floated across the grass and assaulted my ears. Mrs. Enos. If I could have turned and run at that moment I would have. “Git inside, git inside child……what were ya thinking running off like that? Am I gonna have to sit in front of the door and guard it next time?” She beat on the door with her stick as if to emphasize the point.

Callum stopped and looked me in the eye for the first time since he’d seen me in the corn field. “Wait, what did she mean guard the door?” I watched his face as he processed the information. “So….you were already in the trading post? And you sneaked out? What….why?”

“Callum! Are ya bringin’ that girl in or what?”

“Just a minute, Mrs. Enos…we’ll be there in a minute. Uh, Emerin hurt her foot….she just needs to rest it for a minute.”

“Well, hurry up,” she grumbled and continued to mutter to herself as she waited. But behind her muttering was another sound.

“Emerin? Emerin!” I heard Jalya’s voice call out in excitement. “What happened?” I could see her in the doorway trying to push past Mrs. Enos as gently as possible, so as not to topple the old woman.

Mrs. Enos turned and poked her with her stick and two women came from behind Jalya and pulled her away from the door.

“Go on now, git back in, Jalya! I’m not gonna lose two of ya! What wrong with you young’ uns today?” She started to close the door, but poked her head out at the last second. “Just hurry up and git’er back safe, y’hear me boy?” Then she shut the door. I imagined her shoving her chair against it and sitting down on the other side. My escape probably made her look pretty bad.

“So what’s this all about, Emerin?” Callum showed no signs of moving forward.

“Same thing that it always is, a headache. A really bad one this time.”

“Come on now, headaches don’t make people run away. They don’t make people wander off into danger and do things that they’re not supposed to be doing!”

“But they do, Callum….I…I don’t know how to explain it; it’s a desire; it’s too strong sometimes and I just can’t….” I trailed off, unable to speak through the pain. “I need to sit down.” I began to shuffle toward the steps that led to the door of the trading post. After a moment Callum followed and sat beside me on the wooden planks.

“You can’t what? Control it? Because you’re gonna have to, you know!” he sounded angry. I almost couldn’t blame him; it would have sounded absurd to me if I wasn’t the one living it. And nobody else understood; how could I expect him to?

“I know, I’ll try harder…it’s just that this time it was a really bad one. I’m sorry.” And I really was. I should have fought the urge harder, told Jalya what was happening so she would have stopped me from leaving. I was so tired of letting everyone down.

“You’d better. You know this is embarrassing to me, and to my whole family. I can’t have my wife doing this. We’re getting married on Sunday, Emerin. This needs to stop now.”

I nodded, though I knew that I could not promise him that. Tears welled up in my eyes and all I could think about was getting away from him and lying down. “I’d better get inside. Mrs. Enos will be getting mad.” I stood up carefully, but as quickly as my head would allow. I turned and lifted my leg to take the next step, but I never made it because Callum grabbed my arm and pulled me back down. Hard. My balance still wasn’t the greatest, so I crashed back down, my bottom nearly missing the step, and slammed my head back into the railing.

“You listen to me,” he snarled. “We weren’t done talking yet.”

I stared at Callum in disbelief. If I was hurt in any way from the fall, he certainly didn’t seem to notice or to care. He put his face close to mine and gripped my arm so tightly that it actually distracted me from the pain in my head. “It’s not like I wanted this marriage either, you know. In fact, my parents and I went to Reverend Grell and asked if he could unite you with someone else. I didn’t want to deal with this; they didn’t want to deal with this. But he said no; he said I was a strong man and I could handle you. That you needed someone strong to keep you in line. So this is me being strong. I’m not going to let you act like this, Emerin.” He dug his fingers harder into my arm. I looked down at it and wondered if he could dig them right down into my bones.

“Callum, let go. You’re hurting me.”

Instead of doing what I asked he grabbed my face with his other hand and turned it back toward him. “Look at me when I’m talking to you. If you think I’m hurting you now, just wait until the next time you do this. Maybe now you’ll think twice about it. Am I right?”

I nodded, hoping he’d just let me go. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be inside the trading post. I begin to shiver; I didn’t know if it was from the cold, or fear, or simply from the pain I was in. Callum let go of my jaw and rubbed my cheek. “I’m sorry, Emerin. I don’t want to have to be so tough with you, but you’ll see one day that it’s for your own good.”

The door to the trading post opened abruptly. Mrs. Enos glowered down at us. “C’mon lovebirds, it’s time to git this young lady inside. Don’t worry boy, you’ll have ‘er all to yourself in a couple a days.”

I tried not to shudder when she said that and stood up. Callum had no choice but to relinquish his hold on my arm. It throbbed with the same ferocity as my head. I climbed the stairs carefully, holding tight to the railing to steady myself.

“Bye, Emerin,” Callum stood up smiling, like nothing had happened, like he was the same nice boy that I’d walked to David’s cart with earlier that morning. That seemed like a lifetime ago, though it could not have been more than an hour. “I hope you feel better. Try to get lots of sleep before Sunday.”

Sunday. My death sentence. Did he mention it to make me feel worse? I turned back and croaked a quiet “goodbye” as I went through the door.

Before Mrs. Enos could poke me all the way in, Jalya was there, hugging me as tightly as anyone possibly could. “What were you doing? I was so worried.” She pulled away and studied my face. “You need to lie down.” she said in her best doctor voice. “Come on, Miss Telly has a bench in the back. It’s got cushions on it, so it’ll be comfortable.”

She led me behind the counter and through the door marked ‘private’. I was thankful, since it meant not having to face anyone else right away, though I could feel their eyes on me as I walked across the floor. Miss Telly followed us in and handed me a cup of something that smelled so foul, that it could only have been facion bark tea.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” she said. “It would’ve tasted better if you had drank it when it was hot, but it should still do the trick.”

“Thanks,” I said and tried not to grimace at the smell. Miss Telly smiled at me and left.

“Drink it fast,” Jalya said, “then you won’t taste it as much. Then I’ll give you some water to chase it with.”

I’d drank so much facion bark tea in my life that the horrible taste didn’t faze me anymore, but I was still grateful for the glass of water. When I was a kid, my mother used to have to put in so much honey just so I could swallow the nasty decoction. It was a terrible thing to have to stomach, when it didn’t even usually work.

“You should rest,” Jalya urged. “Come on, lie down.”

I did as I was told, knowing that the tea would be making me sleepy very soon. Jalya covered me with a blanket, and I noticed I was still shivering. She sat in the rickety chair across the small room and looked at me with a half smirk on her face. “Y’know, I was only kidding when I told you to go outside so he could steal you away.”

I chuckled lightly, already feeling the grogginess building in my head. Miss Telly had made a pretty strong brew.

“What were you doing, anyway? Was it from the headache…did you feel like you needed to go?”

I nodded, tears welling up in my eyes once more. “Can we talk about it later?”

“Sure.” She seemed lost in thought for a moment before speaking again. “Maybe someday it would be a good idea to go over that mountain. It seems like there’s something you need there. I mean something other than good looking wild men. Though that would be reason enough…”

I was starting to drift off and Jalya’s words were becoming a muddled blur, when a soft knocking brought me back to consciousness. I opened my eyes in time to see her moving toward the window. There was someone peering through. In my semi-conscious state it appeared to me that it was Ashel, but I figured that I must have been already dreaming. Facion bark could bring on some crazy dreams. It couldn’t be him. Ashel didn’t like to risk coming into town, and it seemed especially unlikely that he would attempt it now when the men were already out hunting for trespassers. But who else would be skulking around outside, tapping at windows instead of using the front door?

In the haze of half sleep, I heard her slide open the window, followed by some quiet murmuring. I could no longer keep my eyes open and allowed myself to slip into the comforting fog of the painkiller. Though I clearly heard one phrase being repeated over and over as I slipped into unconsciousness.

“Jalya, Mama’s dead….She’s dead, Jalya…..Mama’s dead.”

Chapter 5

The morning sun was bright and intense as it peeked over the top of the mountain. There was not a cloud in the sky to stop it from bathing the valley in its comforting yellow rays. It felt nice on my face as I walked along the path, but I knew it would be cool today anyway. Autumn was on its way, but the air was still a little too crisp for this time of year. Many of the trees and plants did not bear fruit and everyone was concerned about the amount of food that would be available for storage to get us through the long winter months.

Food, however, was the last thing on my mind as I rounded the corner and turned down the path that led past the bakery and the blacksmith’s shop. After passing these two businesses, the path abruptly ended and after crossing a patch of tall grass, I would be at the edge of the woods. If I took one step further than that I would officially be somewhere that I wasn’t supposed to be. Since I’d already been so rebellious this week and tomorrow my life would be over anyway, I figured one more infraction couldn’t possibly hurt.

My feet pushed down the tall grass and it rustled along at my sides, gathering around the bottom of my dress. The remaining wildflowers shone beautifully with dew, their little faces straining toward the first light. Usually I would stop to admire them and maybe pick a few, but today the only thing I could think about was getting to Ashel’s house to find out if what I had heard last night was true. “Mama’s dead….Mama’s dead.” His voice still echoed in my ears.

I had left the house before dawn while my parents still slept. The facion bark tea had kept me asleep most of the previous day, and when I awoke later in the evening my head still ached, so my mother gave me another cup. She then tried to force feed me some soup and bread, but I passed out again before I ate much of it.

Since I’d slept most of the previous day and into the night, I woke early, hours before day broke. Fortunately, there was no more pain in my head, but I had nothing to do except wait around for my parents to wake up and lecture me about the events of the previous day. My solution was simply to not be there when they awoke. That’s certainly not how I wanted to spend my last day of freedom. So, I got dressed and slipped out the door, my actions muffled by the sound of my father’s snoring.

First, I went to Jalya’s house and peered in her window, but she was not in her bed. This heightened my fears, as I could only assume she was with Ashel. My first instinct had been to run there straight away, but since it was still so early, I figured they would be sleeping. So I spent at least an hour wandering about the village. It was the first time I had ever taken a night time stroll that wasn’t guided by a headache induced stupor. I used the time to organize my thoughts and try to process everything that had happened yesterday.

I thought about Callum and how he’d turned from a nice guy to an intimidating bully in the matter of an hour. I thought about the man on the hill and why I’d had such a desire to reach him. And did his reluctance to leave the hills indicate that he had the same feeling? I’d never thought about it before, someone with the same problem as I had. I’d grown up thinking that it was some weird and unique thing, something to be ashamed of, not something that might also afflict others, or maybe even something that had a purpose.

These ideas, that I couldn’t comprehend while in the throes of a headache, weren’t all that much clearer to me when I was well rested and feeling good. By the time I reached the edge of the woods and took that first scandalous step inside, there was only one thing that I was sure of: I could not marry Callum tomorrow. I didn’t know how I could fix the situation, but I knew it was not happening.

What could they do if I refused? No one had ever refused a union before. They had contested it, as Callum and his parents had, but in the end, what the elders said was taken as law. Would they banish me from the village like they did Hallen and Ashel? Would my friends and family never be allowed to see me again, even my own mother?

These thoughts haunted me, so I plunged into the forest in an attempt leave them behind. I always felt better out here, in the wild beauty of nature, away from the tidy, rigid order of our village. There were no eyes watching me here, waiting for me to slip up once again. There was no one to disappoint, nothing to feel guilty about. There were only tall, majestic trees and small animals scurrying about trying to collect food for the winter, and, because it was autumn, a blanket of red and yellow leaves covering the ground. They crunched under my feet as I descended the small hill that led to the edge of the Nebril River.

As its name suggests, the Nebril River runs down to our village from Nebril City. It weaves its way through the woodlands, passing by several small communities just like our own. It cuts through the mountains that surround our village and the cliffs and canyons that make up the landscape to the west of us. The elders told us that if you follow it long enough, it will lead you to a great sea, but I knew of no one who had made such a trip. In fact, I had known very few people that had set foot outside of our village borders.

The river was so shallow this late in the year that I could almost hike up my skirt and wade across it. However, in the spring, the thawing snow made it swell to many times its present size and the current was so rough that it could not easily be crossed. When we were kids, I’d spent one summer helping Jalya and Ashel build a bridge, so Jalya could easily travel from their house to the village and back. Otherwise she would have to walk all the way to the bridge by the church which not only made for a longer trip, but also put her at a greater risk of being seen entering the woods.

We had so many good memories down by the river: playing with frogs, trying to catch fish, and searching for treasure that didn’t exist. The happiest times of my childhood had been spent in these woods, where I wasn’t supposed to be. I feared that it was all coming to an end, not only because of my impending marriage, but, because if Hallen had died, there would be nothing to keep Ashel here.

Jalya herself would be getting married in less than a year. Her matching day was just over three months away. Once she was married it would be hard for her to continue to come out to see Ashel. Her father was too drunk most of the time to notice what she was up to, but her future husband probably wouldn’t be. It was the disturbing reality that I think we had all realized for a while, but none of us had actually voiced. As I ran my hand along the crudely fashioned railing of our bridge, I wondered if today would be the last day that I would be crossing it.

I climbed the small rock wall on the other side of the water and pulled myself back up into the trees. As soon as I took the path through this last little grove, Hallen and Ashel’s cabin appeared. It was small and plain, built of roughly hewn logs taken from the surrounding trees. From the outside it didn’t seem like much, but inside it had always been warm and comfortable and inviting. Much like my own home, but without the guilt and oppression that went along with it.

A vegetable garden grew along one side of the house and was surrounded by a fence to keep out the animals. It didn’t always work; I had been present on several occasions to hear Ashel’s cursing after he’d found that a deer or squirrel had ransacked the garden.

I figured that it was quite early yet, and that they probably were still sleeping, so I climbed up on the tiny front porch and decided to sit and wait until I heard movements from inside. However, no sooner had I made myself comfortable than I heard noises coming from around the back of the house. Scraping, a little bit of banging, followed by a long string of cursing. Ashel. He always did have a temper.

I got to my feet, jumped down off the porch and scurried around the side of the building. I’d forgotten about Hallen for a moment and expected to see only one of Ashel’s small perceived annoyances. But I was totally unprepared for what I did see. When I came around the back of the house, I didn’t see him at first. I saw nothing, but then heard a sound like someone crying.

“Ashel?” I said quietly. “Is that you?”

There was a sniffle and then a voice choked out, “Emerin?”

I looked around, trying to find the origin of the voice which seemed to be coming from amidst the trees that were behind the house. I peered in and still didn’t see him, so I moved closer. My breath caught in my throat when I saw it…a huge hole.

“Emerin, I’m here,” Ashel said. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness in the cluster of trees, I realized that he was in the hole, with only the top of his head peeking out, and he was standing next to a shovel.

“Oh no,” I gasped, realizing in horror what this meant. “Your mother…”

“I don’t know what happened. I went out hunting yesterday morning, I wasn’t gone very long, and then when I got back…”

I couldn’t speak, couldn’t yet comprehend what he was telling me.

“I just don’t know what happened, Emerin. She was fine when I left, but when I got back, she was lying on the floor not moving, not breathing. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even get Doctor Emerest; they wouldn’t let me into the village. I don’t understand; she was fine, and I didn’t see or hear anybody….” His voice began to waver and he stopped talking to compose himself.

My voice came back to me at last. “I’m so sorry, Ashel. Is there anything you need me to do? Um, I’ll dig for a while and you rest.”

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, smearing mud across his face. “No, it’s okay. I’m pretty much done. I just need to put her in. I’m not sure if I can do it….just seems so final you know.”

I nodded, not knowing what else to say.

“Jalya’s still sleeping I think. She was pretty upset last night, so I don’t think she slept much.” He threw his shovel out of the hole and then climbed out himself. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and I wondered how hard he must have been digging to keep himself warm in the chilly air. As he walked toward me, he gave me a curious look. “Are you okay? You seemed really out of it when I saw you last.”

“I’m fine…I mean, I am now. It was just a headache.”

“There’s no such thing as ‘just a headache’ with you. I heard about your little escapade yesterday. You must be in a crap load of trouble.”

“Yeah, but I left this morning before they could say anything to me about it.”

Ashel chuckled and he almost seemed like his old self again. “Maybe you ought to not go back.” I loved the fact that he never asked me why I went on these strange journeys, never questioned my motivation; it was like he understood and there was no need to explain.

“Where would I go?”

“You could stay here with me. I’m gonna need some company now.” The pained look washed over his face again, and he seemed like a different person. “Though I guess Jalya will probably move out here shortly after her matching day….depending on who she gets, of course.”

“You think she will?”

“I don’t think she has any love for the village that’s for sure.” He shivered slightly, seeming to notice the cold for the first time since I’d arrived, and reached for the shirt that was draped carelessly over a tree branch. “Damned cold. Varsak must be coming early this year.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not?” he questioned, nonchalantly. “Eventually something’s gotta happen to shake things up a little.”

“I don’t want things shaken up like that, thank you very much.”

Everyone in the village knew of the Varsak. They are a race of giants that live in the northern outlands, a vast and desolate plain. This flat terrain is covered mostly by grass, its monotony broken only by the Nebril River, whose tumultuous northern waters slash the landscape in two. I had never seen a Varsak, nor had anyone that I knew, but we had all heard their description. They are enormous, more than ten feet tall and stocky, with grey-white hair that covers most of their bodies. Clubs, spears, knives and axes are the weapons that they carry with them, but they are unnecessary, because no one can challenge their physical strength.

These giants are gentle and peace loving and generally keep to themselves, except under certain circumstances. They are very protective over what they consider their territory and will declare war on anyone who infringes on it and refuses to leave. In fact, the last war, which had been fought about seventy years earlier, was caused by one of the nomadic clans from the south moving into the north to hunt. The Varsak were able to force them out easily, but many of the woodland communities were devastated in the process. That was the last time that winter had come early.

The Varsak are a nomadic people and patrol their lands throughout the year to make sure that no one is trespassing, as well as to get the nourishment they need. The interesting thing about them is that rather than eating food to sustain themselves, the Varsak live on heat. As they travel, their huge bodies absorb the heat from their environment, causing the air and land around them to become cold. This is why it is cold in the north; this is what causes our yearly winter.

The Varsak journey on a schedule and every year at the end of the summer, they head south and sweep through the part of their land that lays next to the woodlands. Everyone knew that each year they would come at the same time without fail, and we planned our crop planting and harvest to coincide with this schedule. They never came unexpectedly unless there was trouble, thus they had been unfailingly punctual for the last seventy years. The Varsak coming early implied a horror unlike anything that we’d known in our young lives. I really didn’t want to acknowledge that they could be the cause of our cold weather; however, I could honestly think of no other reason.

“Well, the elders don’t think that’s what it is.” I retorted, though I knew that reasoning wouldn’t hold much weight with Ashel.

“How do you know they don’t?”

“They keep going on about how it’s nothing, that strange weather patterns are normal sometimes and it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Well, of course they’re gonna say that. They don’t want the whole damned village to panic and run around waving their rakes and hoes, now do they? They want you all to believe everything’s okay and just go about your business. Just like they do with everything else….never question it, you know?” He looked at me with a smirk. “Honestly Emerin, even though you’re older than me, I’m years ahead of you in brains.”

He winked mischievously and put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. I was so happy to see the sadness lift from his face, that I forgot about my sore arm, until of course he squeezed it.

“Oww, ouch,” I squealed involuntarily and pulled away from his hand.

“What…what’s the matter?”

“Oh, uh, my arm’s just a bit sore. I fell on it yesterday while I was running away from the trading post.”

“Well, you must have fallen awfully hard to make it that sore; I barely put any pressure on it at all. What did you hit it on?”

“I don’t remember, really. Everything about yesterday is kind of a blur.”

“Well, let me see it. Maybe I have a salve or something to put on it. We’ve got about a hundred different potions in there.”

“No, it’s fine Ashel, really.”

“It’s clearly not fine. Let’s go inside and you can take off your coat and I’ll have a look. I promise not to grab it again.” My reluctance must have shown on my face, because instead of turning to go inside, he turned so he could look directly at me. His brown eyes searched my face. “You’re lying to me,” he declared.

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t fall. It was him, wasn’t it?”

I nodded and avoided his gaze. I knew he meant Callum. For some reason it was impossible to lie to Ashel. Somehow he always knew.

“So what, he’s beating on you now?” He spat the words out. I knew that Ashel would be mad. His hatred for the village men coupled with his protectiveness for me was a recipe for the worst kind of anger. I didn’t want him to be angry because there was no point; there was nothing he or anyone else could do about the situation.

“No, he just grabbed me hard, and it was only this one time. It was my fault anyway; I shouldn’t have been wandering…..”

“I never liked the idea of you marrying that crooked nosed twit!” Crooked, that was what was wrong with it. At least I wasn’t the only one who saw it.

Ashel continued with his rant, becoming louder now and wringing his hands together. “He thinks that he’s safe, because the men won’t let me into the village, but I can wait him out. I’ll watch and wait and when he’s working at the edge of the fields, over by the hills where nobody is, that’s when I’ll get him. Yes, yes, his nose is gonna be lookin’ a lot worse after that.”

It was hard not to smile; he was so sweet sometimes. I thought for a moment about which one of them would win the fight, but couldn’t decide. Callum had him in size, but Ashel was much crazier. I figured it could go either way. However, it wouldn’t help anything.

“Don’t bother with him, Ashel. You know you’d only get in trouble. The elders would deem you a violent threat and send the men out here to get you. Then they might send you off to Lock Up. It’s not worth it.”

Lock Up was where the woodland villagers sent their unwanted: violent criminals, petty thieves and those they considered insane or a danger to the community. The compound was a sprawling community of houses built in a clearing in the southeast, in the bend of the Nebril River. I wondered if the derelicts of Nebril City were sent there as well.

“I can’t let him get away with this, Emerin,” he said more softly now, seeming to calm down.

“He won’t. I’m gonna tell my parents.” My voice brightened as the thought came into my head. “My father, he won’t like it either. Maybe they won’t make me marry him; Callum doesn’t want to marry me either. He and his parents contested it already. Maybe if my parents go with me and contest it too, maybe then the elders will change their minds.”

Ashel gave me the kind of sad smile that someone would direct at a naive child. “Your parents aren’t gonna contest it, you know that. They’re just happy that they’ve gotten someone roped into marrying you. They probably think that they’re doing the right thing…you know, they think that it will settle you down and make you normal. They’re not gonna put an end to that because of a few bruises. I hate to say it, but your only way out of this marriage is to leave the village entirely.”

“You really think they would do that, make me go through with it anyway?” The tiny bit of hope in my heart faltered as I realized, even before he said anything else, that he was right.

“I don’t know.” He seemed to relent a little. “Maybe you can talk to them; maybe they will see it your way. But if they don’t, Emerin, please, just promise me that you will come back here. Please just make sure you’re gone before the wedding tomorrow. Please.”

“Okay,” I said. I could not say no to the dread that filled his voice. It might not be so bad living with Ashel. He certainly knew his way around the forest and would be able to provide for us. But I wasn’t sure what a living arrangement like that would mean to him. He had just turned fifteen, and even though he was almost as big as the men in the village, he was not quite a man yet. Though he would be one soon, and I found myself wondering what kind of husband he would make as I watched the emerging sunlight dance across the top of his dark hair. “I just hope that you’re ready for me…apparently I can be quite a handful.”

He laughed and put his arm around me, but much more gently this time. “I think I can handle it. Now let’s go find something for that arm.”

Jalya was awake when we got inside, and she was feeding the fire in the small wood stove. She looked up as we walked through the door and Ashel had been right; she looked exhausted. Nevertheless, she smiled when she saw us and I immediately crossed the room and wrapped my arms around her weary frame. She began to cry and I sat her down on the bench and held her as her body shuddered against mine.

Ashel went to the cupboard across the room and busied himself looking for some magic potion for my arm. Hallen was always making herbal products; she had something for every ailment. Except, of course, for my headaches. Nothing she gave me ever helped them, and as the years went on she seemed to be more and more uncomfortable discussing my symptoms. I used to think that she thought I was some sort of demon like everyone else did. As I thought about it that moment, though, I realized that she probably knew something that she didn’t want to tell me, something that she thought I couldn’t handle. And what had Jalya meant when she told me that I had been acting like her mother?

Jalya’s sobs were beginning to weaken as Ashel came over to the couch with a small earthen container. He pried out the cork lid and inspected the contents. “Ahh…just as I thought, bellusimi jelly, good for bruises and swelling.” He stirred the gooey mass with his finger. “You won’t smell very good, but maybe then certain people will stay the hell away from you.”

I had taken off my coat and began to roll up my sleeve before Jalya seemed to process what was going on. “What happened? Did you hurt yourself or something?” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and studied my arm. “That looks awful, what did you do?”

I looked down at my arm; it really did look terrible. There were big black and purple welts all around my upper arm in the unmistakable shape of fingers. I looked at Jalya’s concerned face and opened my mouth, unsure of what words were going to come out.

Fortunately Ashel spoke up before I got the chance. “She fell, you know, when she went on her grand excursion yesterday. Tripped over her own feet in her haste to get away from Miss Telly and the trading post gossip.”

Jalya smiled at that. “Yeah, it was pretty awful. I wish she’d taken me with her.” If she suspected that Ashel was lying, she didn’t say anything about it. I should have known that he wouldn’t want her to know the truth, wouldn’t want her to have something else to worry about today. She took a deep breath and stood slowly, looking around as though she were still in a dream. “I was about to try to eat something. Do either of you want anything?”

Suddenly I realized just how hungry I was. I had eaten nothing this morning, and not much more than that yesterday. “Yes, please,” I said enthusiastically, as Ashel dabbed the vile smelling goo on my arm.

Jalya grabbed a half-eaten loaf of brown bread from the cupboard. “Ashel, are you eating too?”

“Not right now,” he mumbled. “As soon as I’m done with Emerin, I’ve gotta go back outside and finish up some stuff.” His face was intense as he worked the salve into my skin. I realized what stuff he was talking about and wondered if Jalya understood as well. The sullen look that fell over her face as she turned to find a knife told me that she had.

“Okay, after we’re finished, we’ll come out to help,” she said, but didn’t look up.

Ashel rolled my sleeve down over the emanating smell and replaced the cork in the jar. Wordlessly, he stood up and walked out the door. Jalya sliced off thick hunks of bread and lay them to toast on top of the stove. Hallen had been such a good cook; I wondered how well she had taught Ashel. He knew how to hunt, but could he survive out here on his own? Part of me wondered if my moving out here would be as much of a help to him as it was to me.

“I’m worried about him,” Jalya said, as she returned to the kitchen to find the little black tea kettle. She threw a handful of herbs inside, then filled it with water that they kept in a large clay jug. Then she placed it on the stove next to the bread which was beginning to sizzle and turn brown at the edges.

“Do you think he’ll be alright out here all by himself?”

She shook her head slowly as she flipped over the pieces of bread and spread them generously with lard. “I just don’t know, Emerin.” The lard softened and melted into the toast. It glistened in the light that was now pouring in the window. My stomach growled.

“He asked me to move out here. You know, instead of marrying Callum.”

“Really?” She laughed and shook her head again. “Well, I’m not really surprised.”

“Why’s that?”

“He’s been in a snit ever since your matching day. He loves you, you know. He doesn’t want you marrying someone else.”

“Oh Jalya, not this again.” She was forever trying to convince me that Ashel’s feelings for me were more than just friendship.

“You know it’s true, Emerin.”

“I think he’s just worried about me. He doesn’t think Callum’s a good man.”

“Callum’s not a good man. Look what he did to your arm.” She looked me straight in the eye as I gaped at her. “What? Do you think I’m stupid? You don’t get bruises that look like that from falling down,” she chuckled. “Ashel must think I’m blind or something.”

“I’m sure he just didn’t want you to worry.”

“Well, I’m gonna worry, because I’m your friend. You could do a lot worse than Ashel, you know. He’s a good person, and he really cares about you, and I’m not just saying this cause he’s my brother either. Now I know he’s kinda young, but he won’t be forever.”

“I know….I just don’t know what to do….I’m so confused about everything.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet you are.” Jalya handed me my toast and turned back to pour the tea. I took a bite. It was still a little too hot, but I wolfed it down anyway. She noticed my hunger and gave me a second piece when she brought my tea. “Anyway, I agree with him.”

“What do you mean, that I should live here?”

“Well, that would be great, but if you don’t want to do that….well then, I think you should at least leave; go somewhere else. I don’t think it’s safe for you there; people don’t understand you. Eventually things will get bad for you if you stay.”

“Why do you think that?” I said with alarm. She was beginning to scare me.

“It’s obvious, Emerin. They want you to change, to be a different person. And you can’t. What you need isn’t in that village…it’s out there.” She swept her arm out toward the window in the general direction of the mountains. She paused and thought a moment before speaking again. “I’m not going back.”

“You mean back home, to your father?” I was shocked, though I probably shouldn’t have been.

“That’s not a home,” she said gravely. “It never was…my home is here with my brother.”

“Oh…..of course it is.” I knew she was right. No matter who the elders picked for her to marry, Jalya would never feel at home in the village that shunned her mother and brother.

She smiled. “But you’re still welcome. There’s room enough for all of us!” I knew that she meant it, but I had to laugh when I looked around at the tiny cabin.

“Maybe,” I said around a mouthful of toast. “It just might come to that.”

Chapter 6

The sun was setting behind the mountain to the west, the last of its orange rays dancing across the rocky peak. Dusty clouds lay in wisps, crisscrossing the pink sky. I stared into this brilliant display and wondered how something so beautiful could be in front of me, while something so horrible was waiting behind me.

I turned around on the dirt path to face my house, and stood for a few more moments trying to find the courage to go inside. I saw that the lamp had been lit and a soft glow emanated from the front window that was more ominous than it was inviting. I could see my mother bustling around in the kitchen, preparing supper. I wondered what I would be having for dinner, along with my side helping of guilt.

I had walked home slowly, feeling that every moment that passed during my journey was one less moment of freedom that I had. I just kept reminding myself of my promise to Jalya and Ashel as I helped them finish burying their mother. I would be back. If my parents didn’t make me marry Callum, then I would be free to go back at any time. If they chose to force me, I would go back also, never to return to the village.

The thought of never seeing my parents again tormented me, but not as much as the thought of them forcing me to marry someone who treated me badly. I stood frozen, staring at my home, wondering what their reaction would be when I came through the door. A few more minutes passed while I took deep breaths and gathered up my nerve, and then my father’s face appeared in the window.

‘Too late to turn and run now,’ I thought, as I felt his eyes staring right at me. I swallowed hard and took the last few steps from the pathway to the front door.

It opened before I could even reach for the handle, revealing my father’s stern face. I vowed not to be afraid. I was an adult now, old enough to marry. I shouldn’t have to fear a scolding from my parents.

“Hello Papa,” I stammered.

“Where the hell have you been Emerin, darlin’?” he demanded, without his characteristic quirky smile. I was taken aback for a second, realizing what level of anger it must have taken for my father to curse in front of us.

“Uh, I was with Jalya…her…..”

“Jalya! What were you doing with her this time? Emerin, you knew we needed to have a discussion.”

“I know but….”

“Do you just run off without telling us now? Do you know how worried we were?” my mother interjected.

“I’m sorry, but I had to see her. Her mother just died.”

My mother dropped her mask of anger and finally allowed me to get past the doorway. “Hallen’s dead? What happened?”

“I don’t know. They don’t know how she died. Ashel just found her in the house and…..”

“Don’t tell me you were with that half-breed boy again! Emerin, we’ve told you over and over to stay away from him,” my father boomed, evidently not fazed by my death announcement.

“Niel, please relax for a minute,” My mother’s voice was strained. I got the impression that they’d been fighting before I got home. She turned to face me again. “Is Jalya okay? Is she home now? Maybe she should spend the night here with us.”

“She doesn’t need to do that, Ferine,” my father’s voice floated across the room. “We have enough to take care of with our own daughter right now!”

But Niel, you know how her father is.”

“She’ll be fine. Everyone’s too hard on that poor man. Look at all he’s gone through.”

“But he’s….”

“No, Ferine, no, that’s final.” My father sat down at the table and began shoveling potatoes onto his plate with exaggerated motions. “Let’s just eat and then get this discussion over with. I’ve had enough for one day. You’d think a man could be happy the day before his only daughter’s wedding, but no, not in this family.” He reached across the table and stabbed a piece of meat with his fork. And the guilt had begun.

I crossed the room to the table and pulled out my chair to sit. “It’s okay Mama,” I said. “Jalya’s staying the night at Salare’s house. She thought that we’d be too busy tonight to have her here.” I figured that I should put to rest any notion that they might have that Jalya was still with Ashel. It was best that they thought she was back in the village.

“Salare!” my father snorted. “Don’t seem like that girl would be much of a comfort!”

My mother ignored him. “Well, you tell her tomorrow that she’s still welcome to come by or stay here any time she needs to. Even though you won’t be living here anymore.”

My father took a bite of pork and then waved his knife at me. “You eat up quick now. Right after supper we’re having a long talk about how you need to behave as a wife.” I loaded my plate, wondering if I ate slowly enough that there would be less time to talk. However, after taking a few bites I realized that I needed to get what I had to say off my chest.

“Papa, I’m sorry that I worried you today. And Mama.” I glanced at my mother and smiled. She smiled back, all traces of anger gone. “It’s just I was very upset about something.”

“What about, honey?” my mother asked. My father looked suspicious.

“Well, yesterday after I ran off, and I’m really sorry about that too. Anyway, um, when I got back to the trading post with Callum, he was really angry and mean. He hurt me.”

“What do you mean?”

I rolled up my sleeve carefully. The bruises were still there, as bold and convincing as they had been earlier. “See, he grabbed me hard and wouldn’t let go, and when I told him he was hurting me, he threatened to hurt me worse next time.” I could feel the tears coming and didn’t try to force them back. They could only help my situation now.

My mother leaned closer and inspected my arm. “Oh my, Callum did this? Goodness, why does it smell so bad?” She touched it with one finger, smearing the remaining goo. “What is this…did you put something on it?”

“Jalya did; she had some salve….”

My father’s fist slammed down on the table. “I knew it. You have been out to that damned cabin in the woods! Jalya wouldn’t have this witches’ brew in her home. This is the work of that foul woman. We’ve told you before that you’re not to go out there anymore; it doesn’t matter if she’s dead now. You are not to see that boy…or to leave this village!”

He stopped to take a breath and lowered his voice slightly. “Emerin, it’s become plainly obvious that you will not listen to us on this matter. We cannot seem to control you. Perhaps, however, Callum can.”

My tears were flowing freely now, running down toward the corners of my mouth as I spoke. “But Papa, look at this….this is his idea of controlling me!” I stood up, holding my arm out toward him, hoping desperately that if he saw it more closely he might change his mind.

“Oh now, that’s just a little bruise. You should see the ones my Papa used to give to me. Even Jalya, look at some of the lickins she got. It’ll be gone in a couple of days. What I’m hopin’ is that it made a bigger impression in your mind.”

“What do you mean?” I sobbed. This didn’t sound good; it was like he approved or something.

“Listen darlin’, I’ve been talking with Callum; he’s been having a lot of concerns about you. Just today, in fact, he was here looking for you. He told me that he had to get a little rough with you, but the poor boy felt bad about it. He don’t wanna hurt you, pumpkin, but he’s gotta find a way to scare this behaviour outta you, for your own good. For the good of your family. What happens when you got babies, Emerin? You can’t be wanderin’ off then.”

It was true. What he was saying made sense. I couldn’t be a mother while I was like this. However, that didn’t matter because there was no way that I would ever be a mother to Callum’s babies. I left this thought unsaid though, and decided instead to tackle the disturbing notion that he actually condoned this violent behaviour.

“You actually want him to hurt me?” I choked out. “You think this is okay?” I turned from the dinner table and went to sit in the rocking chair, using its motion to soothe my frazzled nerves. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this.

“Well darlin’, he won’t hurt you if you behave yourself.”

My mother shot a glare toward my father, then came over to kneel next to my chair. “I know this is hard, honey, and I’m not saying that what Callum did was right, but honestly, you have no other choice.”

“We could contest it,” I offered meekly, realizing how futile this was before the words even left my lips. “Callum’s parents contested it already…did you know that? Maybe if we did also, then Reverend Grell and the elders would unite me with someone else. Someone who wouldn’t do this!” I rubbed my sore arm, causing the noxious odor to permeate the air once more.

My mother wrinkled her nose, but looked at me sympathetically. “Oh Emerin, we would if we could, but that just can’t happen.” She looked back over at my father as if to seek his help, but he only stared at his dinner plate. There was something they weren’t telling me.

“Why not?” I asked, though I feared the answer. “Why can’t we contest it? What’s gonna happen if I don’t marry Callum?”

My mother sighed and wrung her dress with her hands, twisting the fabric in different directions. “The elders have decided that if you don’t marry Callum….and if you don’t stop running off and acting strangely, well….” She paused, as if to gather the strength to force out the rest of the words. “The elders are planning to send you to Lock Up.”

Chapter 7

The moon hung above the mountain, its white light blanketing the valley. Shadows drifted across the fields, dancing together through the corn rows and scurrying behind rocks. I stared through them as if peering through a fog, knowing where I was, but unable to completely comprehend the situation. I blinked and shifted my bleary gaze to my feet, which were stepping forward in a slow, methodical rhythm, timed in near perfection with my breathing. I shivered involuntarily as icy pangs drifted across my skin and I felt myself rubbing my arms furiously to chase away the goosebumps. Was I awake? I raised my head and as my vision cleared, I realized why I was so cold. I was outside.

It took me a few seconds to determine whether this was really happening or I was dreaming. I looked up higher, above the corn field, and stared at the enormous familiar silhouette that loomed in front of me. I’d often had dreams where I was walking toward the mountain. I would usually get to the base of the foothills and start climbing, but that’s when my feet would get too heavy to lift or keep sinking into the earth and I would wake up before I could ever reach the top.

I turned back, searching for my house, and found it to be where I expected, bathed in the moonlight, but dark inside. I couldn’t remember leaving; I didn’t even remember falling asleep. Staying awake had been my primary goal.

My mother had brought me some tea; she said it would calm me down after our discussion. Then I told my parents I was tired and went to my room, pretending I was going to sleep. However, I lay awake in my bed, watching the moon rise, and planning to leave as soon as they were sleeping. Then my head started to hurt and that was the last thing I remembered. Had she put something in the tea? Were they that determined to keep me prisoner in the house until the wedding? If that was the case, her efforts had been fruitless, because here I was up and leaving, though I couldn’t recall how I’d left.

I stared at the house for a moment, and tried to decide whether I should go back for more clothing and supplies. A quick assessment of myself found me wearing my nightgown and my moccasins with only a shawl wrapped around me for warmth. I shivered and looked longingly at my house, thinking of my down filled winter coat and my leather fur-lined boots. But I couldn’t risk going back. Who knows what I did while I was leaving. I could have woken them up; they might be looking for me right now, but only finding my empty bed. Any second the light of the lamp could be spilling from the window, the door opening and my wild eyed father stumbling out. No, it was best to get out of here immediately, while I still could. Besides, it would be warm at Jalya and Ashel’s cabin.

However, I wasn’t going in the direction of their house; I was headed east toward the mountain, not south to the river. The pulsing ache in my head told me why; it pulled me toward the hills with its usual intensity. I looked past the corn fields and into their curves with anticipation. Maybe I could go there first, climb over those hills and find what was calling to me. It wouldn’t take too long, and then I would go to Jalya and Ashel’s.

Before I even had the chance to decide on the best course of action, my fears were realized. My parents were awake. Light flooded the house and shadows danced across the window. My breath caught in my throat and I did the only thing that I could do. I turned and ran as swiftly and as quietly as I could toward the corn field. I was fairly close to it now and once inside they wouldn’t be able to see me. They would have to wake up the neighbours and get together a search party. By that time, I’d be on the other side of the corn field and on my way into the hills. Once everyone was together, they would find out that Jalya was missing too. Then they would think we were both at Ashel’s, but none of them would venture across the river at night to find us. They were too afraid of the evils that might be lurking in the woods.

I reached the first row of corn and pretty much dove inside, landing in the dirt on my hands. I turned around before I could regain my balance and fell hard on my butt. It hurt, but I didn’t have time to slow down for the pain. I scrambled to my knees and peered out from between the corn leaves to see if anyone was following. I saw that the back door to my house was open, but no one was there.

Then, suddenly, a silhouette appeared and moved along the edge of the house. As the shape slipped back into the light of the doorway, I saw that it was my mother. She stood at the door for what seemed like forever. Had she seen me? By how far she had walked, it seemed like she would have opened the door while I was still running through the field. Perhaps she was too groggy with sleep to notice me, or perhaps I was concealed well enough by the shadows. I watched her as she stared from the doorway, not moving. What was she doing? Where was my father?

I couldn’t come up with any answers, because the questions had barely formed in my brain before they were interrupted. Loudly interrupted. My heart leapt into my throat as the gong of the church bell shattered the intense silence. Were they ringing it for me? There was no way that anyone else could possibly know that I was missing yet. Unless my father ran out the door before my mother did, while I was still running so I didn’t notice. But there was no way that he would have made it to the church in that short of time.

I got up on my feet, still watching my mother, and rocked back and forth, preparing myself to plow deeper into the vegetation. Then I saw something that baffled me. My father appeared behind my mother in the doorway, as if he’d just woken up to the sound of the bell. I watched their tense interaction. I could hear him barking at her in strained tones, yet couldn’t make out what he was saying. Then he took off into the field, looking around frantically, and then ran off in the direction of the neighbours who were also beginning to exit their homes.

It became apparent that now would be a good time to leave. I didn’t know what the situation was, but if the men were going to be searching the village for whatever reason, I didn’t want them to find me. I stumbled deeper into the field, row upon row, until the leaves were so thick that I could no longer see the houses when I looked back. I stopped and listened, but heard no one coming. I pushed on, trying to remember how long it had taken me to get to the other side when I’d made this same journey two days ago. It was hard to see; the clusters of corn leaves shut out the moonlight, but I forced myself ahead in the same direction. Finally, I could see some light peeking through the stalks in front of me and I slowly crept ahead, wary of anyone who might be on the other side.

I stood very still and listened to the voices that were coming from the village. There was a considerable amount of yelling going on, but I couldn’t decipher much of it. But all the commotion seemed to be coming from behind me. The land ahead was quiet and still, except for the rustling corn leaves around my ears. I was about to break out from between the stalks and bolt full speed for the hills, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Or rather someone…running. The figure was sprinting along the side of the hill swiftly, as if being chased, but no one was following. As it approached, it turned and began heading for the corn field, not far from where I was. Why did someone always find me in the corn field? Even in the dark?

But as the figure got closer, I realized that it wasn’t one of the village men, but rather it had the shape of a woman, a young woman. Since she was alone, I decided not to run just yet. I could probably knock her out and still get away if I had to. She was so close now that I could hear her panting breaths and her feet pounding against the ground. She wasn’t dressed like one of the people from the woodland clans, but really quite similar to myself. At least when I wasn’t wearing my nightgown. What village woman would be out here, in the middle of the night, during an emergency call? My mind came to the proper conclusion just as her face came into view. Of course…it was Jalya.

I stepped out of the corn and into the moonlight, just as she reached me. Her face looked absolutely frantic; what the heck had happened?

“Jalya,” I whispered and moved toward her, reaching out my hands to stop her. She jumped, apparently not recognizing who I was, and turned abruptly, plunging into the corn about ten feet away from me. I could hear the crunching and snapping of corn stalks.

“Jalya!” I allowed myself to say it a little louder. In all likelihood, I would be drowned out by all the shouting that was still coming from the village. “Jalya, it’s me. It’s Emerin.”

The crunching stopped, and I heard nothing more. I knew she was still suspicious and waiting for confirmation. “It’s me, Emerin,” I repeated. “Jalya come out, there’s no one else here but me.”

A few seconds later the snapping began again, and Jalya’s form emerged from the corn leaves. Before going any further, she stood frozen for a moment and peered through the darkness like she was trying to make sure it was my face.

“Jalya, what are you doing out here? What’s wrong?”

Her fear suddenly melted away as she ran over to where I stood, grabbing my arms with her outstretched hands. “Oh, Emerin, I can’t find Ashel.” She stopped for a few seconds to catch her breath. “I fell asleep a couple of hours ago and then when I woke up, he was gone. I waited for a while, then I went and looked around the woods near the house and there was no sign of him.” Her arms were shaking.

“You know, he probably couldn’t sleep and just went for a walk,” I assured her. “I’m sure he’s fine. But we really need to get out of here.” I looked around to see if there were any other figures in the dark, but saw no one. The shouting in the village had died down. If the disturbance was now over, they would probably be looking for me next. “It’s not safe here; my father will be looking for me, and who knows who else.”

Jalya nodded. “Where are you heading?”

“The mountain.”

“That’s what I figured,” she chuckled. “I was going to your house to see if I could find you, but I should have just waited on the mountain. You’d no doubt show up there eventually.”

“Well, we never will show up if we don’t get out of here now.” The voices of the men sounded closer and I wasn’t sure if I heard footsteps.

Jalya turned her face in the general direction of the commotion. “Yeah, probably a good idea.”

“Okay then….ready, set, go!”

We took off like rambunctious little kids, flying over the soft, cool grass, quickly closing the distance between us and the first hill. We trudged up the incline at a fast pace, pushing ourselves as hard as we could to get to the top. If we could get far enough into the hills, I knew the men wouldn’t follow.

As brave as they were within the confines of the village, most were terrified to set foot outside of it. A lifetime of stories about savage woodland tribes, witchcraft, terrible beasts and other horrors of the forest had turned them into a bunch of cowards. I’m not sure why I wasn’t afraid; I had heard all of the same stories, yet somehow I felt comfortable out here, invigorated really. And now that I was ascending the hill, I felt better than I ever had. We were almost at the top.

I’d made it to this hill before and even part of the way up, but someone had always found me before I made it all the way. The pain in my head subsided, and a fuzzy warmth took its place, like someone had poured warm milk over my head which absorbed and washed away my discomfort. The heat spread to the rest of my body as well, and I no longer felt the chill in the air. I couldn’t wait to see what was on the other side.

I reached the top before Jalya. She lagged behind panting hard; probably hadn’t yet recovered from her sprint around the village. When I looked ahead of us, I saw a small valley, and then two more hills beyond. The mountain rose up behind the last hill like a wall breaking from out of the earth. I wished that it was daytime, so I could have seen everything better. Jalya dragged herself up behind me.

“Can I collapse now?” she wheezed.

“We’d better keep going.” I turned around to look back at the village, and realized just how high we had climbed. From here I could see the whole area: houses, fields, barns and men. They were splitting up into groups and heading in different directions. One of the groups was moving straight toward the corn field.

“Look,” I said. “They’re coming this way.”

We ran down the hill and into the valley, which, thankfully, was much easier than going up. The valley was lush and smelled of vegetation and I was sure it would have been beautiful in the sunshine. The moon, however, only provided enough light to prevent us from tripping over anything that jutted out of this unknown landscape. We ran through a small grove of trees and over a field of tall grass which led us to the base of the second hill.

Jalya fell into the soft blanket of grass, her skirt splaying out awkwardly and legs kicking into the air. “Please tell me we’re gonna rest now.”

“We can’t Jalya. I don’t know if they’re following us or not.”

“You don’t think they’d come out this far, do you?”

“I don’t know. Most of the men, I doubt it. But my father, I just don’t know. Let’s just get to the top of this hill so we can see what they’re doing. Then maybe we’ll have time to catch our breath.”

Jalya groaned, slowly crawled to her feet, and smoothed her skirt back down into its proper place. She began a determined march upward once again. I followed and realized that we were going to be much slower climbing this hill. My legs protested and burned with each step. It was almost like my dreams where my legs felt too heavy to lift and I wondered if we really never would reach the top. Somehow we made it, however, and when I saw the earth level out in front of us, I was so exhausted and grateful that I almost forgot to check behind us. Jalya didn’t though, and by the time we reached the top, she had already turned around.

“They’re not coming,” she said confidently, but with a mocking tone to her voice. “What a bunch of wimps. Not that I’m complaining, but wow, what a bunch of wimps!” She looked like she wanted to say more, but she had to stop to take some deep breaths.

When I turned to see what she was talking about, I saw that this hill was higher than the last one and everything in the village was clearly visible from here. No one was coming up behind us. The men had come through the corn field and were just standing around on the grass in front of the hills. Some of them were staring up into the hills thoughtfully, while the others stood around chatting. I wondered what they were thinking. They might not have even realized that we had come this way. I wanted to keep it that way.

“Get down,” I rasped and flattened myself against the ground on my stomach. Jalya did the same.

“I don’t know how much they can see up here. The moon’s pretty bright.”

We waited for a few more minutes, never taking our eyes off the men below, watching for any sign of movement in our direction. But nothing happened. They talked amongst themselves for a while, then slowly dispersed, each going to his respective home. There were other groups near the church, Jalya’s bridge and the northern and eastern edges of town. They too disbanded and the search, if that’s indeed what it was, appeared to be called off.

“We’ll look for her again tomorrow, Niel,” one of the men called out, “when we can see a little better.”

“Ahh, she’ll be back in time for the wedding tomorrow,” another voice followed. “Probably just has last minute jitters. Tell Ferine not to worry.”

The voices got further away and I could no longer make out what they were saying. Slowly each of the figures moved in their own separate direction and eventually all the lights in the little houses were extinguished and peace, once again, fell over the valley. Jalya and I had been frozen to the spot on our bellies, barely daring to breathe while the men still wandered about. Now we both let out a simultaneous sigh, relieved that the immediate danger was over.

Jalya rolled over and sat up. She took what was apparently her first good look at me since we’d ran into each other. “Sheesh, aren’t you cold? Why are you wearing a nightgown? Did they wake up and you had to get out of the house fast or something?”

I thought about it for a moment, wondering what strange series of events had led to my leaving the house. “I’m not really sure what happened at all. I was outside when I woke up.”

“You were sleepwalking?” Jalya sat forward, intrigued. “Have you ever done that before?”

“No, I don’t think so.” I struggled trying to recall my lifetime of wandering events. “Not that I remember anyway. I think my mother may have put something in my tea to knock me out.”

“She drugged you to keep you home?” Jalya gasped. “They must have been getting desperate. I guess that means that you couldn’t convince them to contest the wedding.”

“They wouldn’t even consider it,” I said in a barely audible whisper, my voice catching in my throat.

“Why….what happened?”

I stood up on my shaky legs, determined to keep going despite my lack of physical and emotional strength. “Come on, I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Just where are we going?”

“I’m not sure.” The headache was surging again, every pulsing beat tugging at me. “All I know is I need to keep heading toward that mountain.”

Jalya seemed pleased. “You know, I’d kind of like to see what’s up there myself.”

“Well, let’s go then,” I said. “And I’ll bet by the time we’re done, Ashel will be home.”

A sad look crossed Jalya’s face as we began our descent down the hill. “I hope so. You know when I left to go looking for him, I assumed that he’d sneaked into the village to find you, to see if you were coming to stay with us or marrying Callum or what. I know it was really bugging him last night after you left. He kept pacing the floor and mumbling nasty remarks about Callum, which was actually pretty funny at the time, cause they were so true, you know. But now I’m really worried; I mean when I heard the church bells go off……..I was just so scared. What if it was because of Ashel; what if the men found him?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, they would just chase him off like they usually do.” I thought about that and it actually seemed to be a likely scenario. “He’s probably at home right now, worrying about you.”

“Well, I left him a note, but….I don’t know, Emerin, I feel like something’s really wrong.”

“I’m sure he’s fine….he just went out to clear his head, that’s all,” I said, attempting to soothe her, though I wasn’t sure that I believed myself. He’d been so worked up yesterday, about his mother and Callum and the whole situation. I hoped he hadn’t been angry enough to try something stupid. I thought about Callum and wondered what he was thinking right now. I was sure he would have gotten up when the church bell starting ringing and gone out with the other men. That meant he would know by now that I was missing. Would he be angry or relieved when I didn’t show up at the church tomorrow morning?

“So, anyway, what happened last night?” Jalya prodded.

“Oh, well, apparently the elders are planning to send me to Lock Up if I don’t marry Callum and play the good wife and stop all my nonsense.” I spilled the words out fast, because if I didn’t, I feared I wouldn’t get them out at all.

Jalya looked at me stunned as she pulled stalks of grass from her hair and threw them into the soft breeze. “What? Why would they do that? Lock Up’s for criminals and crazies!”

“Yeah, well, guess which one they think I am.”

She shook her head slowly. “Your parents actually agreed to this?”

“What could they do? I guess the elders have been discussing my situation for a long time. They think I’m some kind of threat to the security of the community. What if I start putting strange ideas into other young women’s heads?”

“That’s ridiculous. So why wouldn’t they just banish you from the community then, like they did my mother?”

“I don’t know. They wouldn’t answer any more of my questions. I’m just as confused about it as you are. All I truly understood was the ultimatum that I was being given, and neither one of the choices was acceptable.”

“Wow.” Jalya still looked astonished. “Am I ever glad I’m not going back to that place.”

“Yeah, me too,” I muttered despondently. I thought about my mother in the doorway, staring out into the night, and I felt heartbroken once again. Did they really care that much about their place in the community to do this to me? Or were they just afraid? They didn’t need to put up with this anymore than I did. Why couldn’t we all just leave the village?

But I knew, sadly, that they never would. If they were going to, they already would have after the elders told them of their plans. I pictured my mother’s shape in the doorway, dark against the amber glow of the lamp, saw her turn and shut the door behind my father as he left. In all likelihood, that would be the last time I would ever see her. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to etch the memory of her form and her face into my mind.

We walked in silence for a while, Jalya worrying about Ashel, and me wondering if I’d made the right decision. I could get to the other side of the mountain, find out what was there, and still be back by morning in time for the wedding. All I would have to do is suppress my urge to wander; I’d been able to do that before. I’d take facion bark when the pain got too bad, and if it knocked me out my mother could help me with the kids. Maybe having children would even change me somehow, and this affliction would get better on its own. Callum would stay that nice guy if I stayed in line, and who knows, maybe I’d grow to love him as my mother had told me so many times.

But could I do it? Could I live the rest of my life squelching down what I really wanted, pretending I was something that I wasn’t? Could I look into the faces of my children day after day, and force a fake smile, hoping that they would believe I was happy and then they would be happy too? And what if I couldn’t fight it? What if one day the desire became too much and I was pulled toward that mountain once again? Would the elders honour their promise and drag me away to Lock Up while my children watched? Would their tear streaked faces haunt my memories for the rest of my lonely life? I shook my head to clear it, and tried to convince myself that I was making the right decision.

Since I had nothing but gloomy thoughts, I focused my attention on the landscape instead. We had passed through a valley which was very similar to the last one and were now heading up again. This hill was not as high as the others, but much steeper, and my legs ached by the time we reached the top. I looked back to make sure that there was still no light or activity in the village, then forward to see how much further we had to go. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this side of the hill did not plunge down into another valley, but instead rolled straight out ahead of us in a vast plain, which led directly into the imposing wall of the mountain.

Jalya’s jaw dropped as she observed what still lay ahead of us. “You’re proposing that we actually climb that thing?”

I was equally intimidated. I looked up to find the top, but I couldn’t quite discern where the crags of the mountain ended and the sky began. I felt dizzy looking at it. “Well, maybe we could find a way around it instead.”

We pushed through the grass and made our way closer to the mountain’s immensity. It stretched out in front of us, its imposing stature becoming the only thing we could see anymore. Moonlight streamed from between the crags of the summit and spilled across the grass upon which we stood, revealing a stunning landscape.

From our valley, all that could be seen of the mountain were its rocky peaks and rings of trees further down, but from here I could see that the base was covered in grass and wildflowers, much like the meadows of our region. It was quite beautiful and if it weren’t for the apparent lack of water in the area, I would have considered stopping here, building a house from the surrounding trees and spending my life looking down on those in the village. However, I imagined that there would be just as many stunning landscapes to come, if I only kept going.

We were almost at the end of the flat land and I began to search for a pathway that could lead us up or around the thing. There didn’t seem to be an official place to walk; I’m not sure why I thought there would be. It’s not like up the mountain was a common place to go, at least not for our people. So I just started climbing up the steep incline in what seemed to be the easiest route, and searched out the areas with the best footing.

Jalya fell into step beside me and eventually took the lead, her apprehension turning to excitement as we got higher. She breezed through grassy passages and hopped from rock to rock, throwing back encouragement to me as we twisted and turned through the uneven land. She skipped across a flat passage, and, when there was nowhere left to go, pulled herself up a small rock ledge. She stopped long enough to make sure that I made it up as well, before rushing ahead to seek out the rest of the route. She disappeared around the side of a large rock, but when I followed around the bend I almost crashed into her as she had stopped quite abruptly.

My heart jumped as I noticed what she was staring at.

Chapter 8

“What is that thing?” Jalya’s voice shook, her previous fiery exuberance sizzling down to a dying ember. I gazed straight ahead, unable to speak. Any fears that I did have about going into the woodlands were always dominated by thoughts of the woodland clans or other evil wanderers that could kill me, curse me or steal me from my home.

What lay in front of us, however, not ten feet up the rocky passage, was nothing like anything I would have imagined. It was a body that appeared to be passed out or sleeping, much like us in shape, but small like a child. It wore no clothing and had no hair, only smooth, unbelievably pale skin. Its incredible whiteness was, in fact, the most disturbing thing about the small figure. It may have been only the moonlight playing tricks on my eyes, but I was certain that this small being was actually glowing.

Jalya looked at me, mystified. “A sun seeker,” she concluded, though she sounded like she didn’t quite believe her own statement.

“Come on, Jalya, there’s no such thing. It’s probably just a really pale kid. Sick maybe.”

“Look at it, Emerin. It’s not pale; it’s glowing.”

I stared at its flawless white skin, more than white; it was almost transparent. It cast a strange green luminosity over the ground on which it lay.

“It must be alive,” I stammered, “to be glowing…..wouldn’t you think?”

“I guess so.” She looked at me. “We should help it.”

“I don’t know. Do you think it’s dangerous?”

“I doubt it. I mean, you’ve heard the stories. Sun seekers are nice and peaceful. That’s how the elders describe them….and the teachers. They’re the guardians of the valley. They want to protect us, not hurt us.”

“Yes, that’s how the story goes, but that’s what it is. A story. The elders and teachers also said that sun seekers aren’t real, just a legend.”

“But look at it. What else could it be?”

She had me there. It certainly fit the description of the mythical creatures in our books. But the sun seekers, or Lumeai as they were officially called, were characters from fairy tales. They lived in little communities on the mountaintops, away from the trees and closer to the sun. They absorbed the sun’s rays for energy and this is what caused their distinctive phosphorescence. They were magical and all powerful when they were atop their mountain, but if they left their home and traveled down into the trees, they would become weak and vulnerable and eventually die. Our valley had been named after them, Valley of the Lumeai, and from their elevated homes, they watched over us, protecting us from harm.

But these were tales that we were told as children, stories that were intended to make us feel more secure, particularly after we’d had an emergency call. I remembered many times, in sanctuary, they would round up the kids, and tell us stories about the sun seekers and how nothing truly bad could be happening while they surrounded us on their mountain tops. However, as we grew older, we understood that these were just the elder’s tall tales. Though the form in front of us told a different story and I felt like a kid again, believing in magical beings. If it was a Lumeai, we did need to help it. It couldn’t survive down here for very long.

“Okay, let’s take a look at it,” I said, and, after a brief hesitation, stepped forward. We inched our way across the flat rock, fearing that any noise we made might startle it, and then what would it do? As we got closer, its radiance became more pronounced and it was obvious that it was not a child, not even a pale, sickly one.

I marveled at its skin. It was so smooth, so perfect, not white at all, but rather a translucent casing for a soft white luminescence. It was completely hairless, and, though its form was white, it was surrounded by a greenish glow. It was so beautiful that I longed to touch it, to rub my hands on the polished orb of its head, to dig my fingers into the supple skin of its arms to see if it felt like mine.

“Let’s roll it over,” I said, my hands outstretched before I could finish the sentence. “So we can see it better, see if it’s okay.”

“Be careful,” Jalya urged.

My fear had left me now, and I had no reservations about reaching out and touching this strange creature. Its skin was soft, yet firm at the same time. Gently, I rolled it over onto its back, so I could look into its face. It had the size and facial features of a young child, yet its expression conveyed a wisdom that would only be known by an elder. It was a strange mix of innocence and insight that captivated me as I stroked its cheek. I stared into its face, wondering if it would wake under my touch.

“Well,” Jalya prompted, “do you think it’s alive?”

“I can’t tell….its skin’s so cold.” I put my hand to its chest. “I don’t feel any heartbeat; do you think it has a heart? No breathing either. I don’t know how these things are supposed to behave.” I shrugged my shoulders and gave Jalya a perplexed look. “What do you think? Should we take it back up the mountain?”

“We don’t even know if that’s where it came from.”

“Well, if it is a sun seeker, it must have come from the top of the mountain, right? We can’t just leave it here to die.”

Jalya’s face was tense. She thought for a moment before stepping forward. “Okay….but this here is an exalted spiritual being. We have to stop calling it an ‘it’.”

“What do you want to call it then? I don’t know what it is.”

“There has to be a way to tell if it’s a boy or girl. Check out its parts.”

I looked down. “It doesn’t have any parts!” My eyes scanned every inch of the glowing creature. Its skin was perfect; it had long, slender fingers and toes, yet no fingernails or toenails. No nipples or bellybutton either. And absolutely nothing to give any indication of its gender.

Jalya moved closer and studied the small body. “Hmmm, strange.” She felt its unusual skin, equally entranced. “Well, I’m going with boy. It has no nipples; how’s it gonna feed its babies?”

“They live on sunlight, Jalya,” I reasoned. “If they even have babies, they probably don’t need to feed them.” I lifted the head and shoulders to assess how heavy our cargo would be. “Seems pretty light. We could take turns carrying it…I mean him.”

I turned to observe the tiny, perfect face. Huge eyelids covered what I assumed were extremely large eyes, yet there were no eyebrows and no eyelashes that I could see. It had a small bump for a nose, yet oddly, no nostrils, only small indentations where nostrils should have been. Slightly beneath, there was an opening, which seemed to serve as a mouth, but no color in its lips. I shook the body gently.

“Hello,” I said softly. “Can you hear me?” The creature emitted no sound, but turned its head from side to side, revealing tiny ears. The shock of its movement almost caused me to drop it from my arms. It was alive.

“Okay, let’s get you home,” I crooned gently and picked it up as if it were a sleeping child, resting its head on my shoulder and supporting its bottom with my arms. If I ignored the strangely cold flesh, I could almost pretend I was carrying around one of my little cousins.

“Lead the way, Jalya. I’m gonna need you to scout out ahead and warn me of any dangers before I step on them.”

“Got it,” Jalya chirped. She was already far ahead, scurrying across the rocks. If I didn’t think that we could make it to the top before, I sure figured that we didn’t have a chance now. Every step up would be that much more difficult with the extra weight, which I estimated at between thirty and forty pounds. But for all the inconvenience of carrying such a burden, there was an unexpected benefit.

The moment that I picked up the sun seeker, possibly the very moment its head lay down on my shoulder, the pain that had been throbbing behind my left eye suddenly disappeared. The tension that had been leaving knots in my neck and shoulders loosened and my muscles relaxed, making me feel carefree and happy. My energy increased substantially, and I was able to keep up with Jalya easily despite my heavy load. And even though its body was cool, I felt an incredible warm comfort wash over me as I basked in its green aura, a feeling that intensified the further we went up the mountain. Maybe the little critter really was magical.

We walked for what seemed like hours, through grass, across rocks, around tiny shrubs and eventually stumbled upon a well-worn path. It twisted and curved through the trees and brush, but it looked like it might eventually lead to the summit. We took turns carrying the sun seeker, which wasn’t a burden to either of us, since holding him close seemed to make us feel lighter. In fact, climbing was somehow harder when I was carrying nothing at all. And my headache never returned. Better than facion bark. I wished that I could take him home with me.

Home. I didn’t even know where that was anymore. I came to the decision on that long walk up that I couldn’t go to live with Jalya and Ashel. While the men were typically afraid of the woodlands and generally didn’t set foot on the other side of the river, I could not be sure that they wouldn’t. Or if they didn’t want to go themselves they could send someone else out looking for me; David the Nebril, for example. Now that I knew that they wanted me in Lock Up, who knew how badly they would want to get me there. I still didn’t understand it, but I feared that they wouldn’t just let me go quietly. And if that were the case, I would be endangering Jalya and Ashel by being there, not to mention myself. No, it was for the best if I put as much distance between me and the village as possible. I just wasn’t sure how Jalya would take it; she wouldn’t want to see me go off on my own, and neither would Ashel. I wondered if maybe they would want to go with me.

My racing brain shut off when the sun seeker began to whimper next to my ear. He moaned and tossed his head back and forth, before nuzzling his face into my neck. He didn’t wake up, however, so we just kept walking. And that’s when I noticed it. Ahead of us was a faint green glow that appeared to stretch across the sky. Were there more of them up there?

“I think that we must be getting close,” Jalya said, staring awestruck at the brilliance. “Good thing too. I’m exhausted!”

“Oh, here,” I said and transferred the sun seeker to her grateful arms. “Your turn. He’ll help get you to the top.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” she gushed, cuddling the little body against her own. It seemed strange how comfortable we were with this small creature, who was completely foreign to us. He babbled something incoherently as he settled his head on Jalya’s shoulder. She smiled and continued the upward trek, a little lighter and more energetic than before.

We rounded a bend in the pathway and I saw that the end was near. The path widened into a rocky gulch with loose stones that rolled under our feet, making walking trickier. But I was motivated by the glow that I saw before me. It stretched out across the heavens, lighting up the pathway and bathing us in its warmth. It pulled me forward in an almost hypnotic way. When I looked over at Jalya to see if it was having the same effect on her, I noticed that she was no longer beside me. She and the sun seeker were far ahead, very close to the top, the green brilliance draping her body so that I could barely see her form.

I tried to pick up the pace to catch up, but I could not go any faster. In fact, it was nearly impossible to go on at all. I considered sitting down for another rest, but I feared letting Jalya out of my sight. Who knew what would happen when she walked into that green radiance with the unconscious creature in her arms. I plodded along, wheezing, making the monumental effort to pull each leg forward. Every step ached and my chest hurt, but I had to keep going. I could no longer even see Jalya.

When I finally stopped climbing and stepped onto the flat ground of the summit, my legs gave out and I fell against a large rock. Breathing heavily, I looked around me and into the eyes of dozens of sun seekers: large, brilliant, violet eyes that widened perceptively when they saw me. Jalya was standing amongst them, watching them tend to the injured one that she had brought to them. But each of them stopped what they were doing when they saw me, and turned to stare with what looked like astonishment. There were audible gasps and an excited murmur rippled through the group.

One of the glowing beings walked toward me, almost floating on its spindly legs. “Oh, my,” it said in a raspy whisper, a smile covering its porcelain face. “Look at her….look at her!” Its voice raised in excitement, as it turned around and addressed the others. “Do you see it? We’ve found one.” It laughed as the others approached, romping toward me in giddy jubilation. “I don’t believe it. We’ve finally found another!”

Chapter 9

I lay on a bed of soft moss, the stars swirling above me as I tried to rest and recover from my long climb. I was vaguely aware of Jalya lying next to me, but I didn’t have the energy to roll over and check on her. My mind swam with ideas and endless possibilities of what these creatures were and what was causing their obsessive interest in me.

The sun seekers fussed over me, bringing me water, covering me with blankets, offering me berries that they scrounged from the bushes that were scattered about the area. Sometimes just one would sit by my side, brushing my hair back and stroking my face, then another would come over to chat with the first, then a few more, and eventually there would be a crowd of them bustling around me. They squeezed together, babbling excitedly, their perfect little faces pointed toward me in rapt fascination.

Eventually one of them would shoo the others away, but, after a while, the crowd would gather again, and I stared back at them with curiosity, wondering if they were ever going to tell me anything. Any questions that I tried to ask were met with only soothing sounds and rhythmic shushing, much like a mother doting on her infant. I drifted in and out of sleep, oddly at ease in my new surroundings, feeling as though I was safe and cared for. Jalya must have felt the same way, because, when I finally did look over at her, she was sound asleep on the moss.

I looked in the other direction and noticed that a few feet away lay the sun seeker that we had carried up. Five others sat around him, with their hands pressed to his body; one touched his head, two on either side of his chest and one on each leg. They sat like this for a while, then another five came and took over. None of them took their eyes off of me for very long though, and kept turning to gaze at me in wonderment whenever there was a break in their duties. It reminded me of my matching day, when everyone turned to look at me so as not to miss any reaction. Only that had been embarrassing and uncomfortable, but now, I felt amazingly serene under the scrutiny of these creatures.

The green glow enveloped me in warmth and its light pressure against my skin made me feel as though nothing could harm me in its presence, just like the fairy tales said. I closed my eyes and dreamt that I was floating on a green cloud, looking down over Carper’s Village at my family and friends, and they, in turn, gazed up at me in awe. They couldn’t touch me, couldn’t hurt me; no one could hurt me on my warm, green cloud…

“Emerin!” Jalya’s whisper was loud and I could feel her breath on my ear. “Emerin, you have to wake up!”

I opened my eyes, expecting that I would find myself at Ashel’s house or in my own bedroom with Jalya having crawled through the window to sneak me off before my wedding. But my vision was once again encompassed by the comforting glow, only now the sun seekers weren’t clustered around me. They sat on the other side of their settlement in a tight circle, eyes closed, arms outstretched, slender fingers grasping at the air.

I noticed now that some had smooth bald heads like the one that we rescued and some had strange strands hanging from their heads, something like hair yet thicker. The strands dangled in curls against their shoulders and glowed with the same intensity as the rest of their bodies. Their bodies, in fact, seemed to glow more brightly during this ceremony and the entire area radiated in a sphere of light. A low humming sound emanated from their circle and the surrounding atmosphere seemed to vibrate along with it. I felt slightly uneasy for the first time since our arrival on the mountain.

They seemed to be finished whatever they were doing with the sun seeker we had brought up with us. He lay on his bed of moss, having rolled onto his side, facing away from me. I wondered if they had left him because he was doing better, or because he was dead. I widened my eyes to see if I could notice any movement, and when that didn’t help, I tried to lift my head.

“No, no, don’t get up,” Jalya commanded again in a whisper. “I don’t want them to think I woke you up. They told me not to; you needed your rest, they said. But they really want to talk to you about something. And I’m pretty sure it’s almost morning. We really should get going when the sun comes up.”

“How long have I been asleep?” I asked. My head was still groggy and my eyes unfocused; it could still be a dream.

“I don’t know really, but I’ve been awake for a while, probably an hour at least and you’ve been sleeping the whole time. I just want you to be up when they’re done….whatever it is they’re doing.”

I looked over at the circle of sun seekers. There were at least forty of them. The hum, though barely audible, rang through my body and seemed to shake my bones.

“Do you feel that?” I asked.

“Feel what?”

“I don’t know, it’s kind of like a….vibration I guess.”

“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t feel anything. This green glow is nice though; feels all warm and fuzzy.”

“Yeah, it does,” I said, feeling more anxious with the knowledge that Jalya wasn’t perceiving the discomfort. “But there’s another feeling….don’t you feel anything vibrating, rattling, ugh…I don’t know how to describe it.”

Jalya shook her head and gave me a concerned look. “Is it your headache? Is that why you feel weird, do you think?”

“Oh no, no, it’s nothing like that at all. And my headache’s gone, completely; it has been since we first picked up the sun seeker.” My glance flitted back to the little body. “Oh Jalya, is he…..okay?”

“I think so. One of them said he just needed to rest awhile now; same thing they said about you…seems to be their answer for everything.”

“What did they do to him?”

“One of them said they were transferring energy to his body or something like that. They were very reluctant to answer my questions. They wanted to wait until you woke up, but they wouldn’t let me wake you up! Talk about frustrating. They did, however, tell me that the ones with the curly stuff on their heads are females and the bald ones are males, so I was right when I guessed he was a boy. Oh, and they do mate, though I’m not really sure how. I mean there’s just nothing going on down there that I can see, but they insist that….”

“Oh Jalya, you didn’t actually ask them about that did you? I hope you didn’t offend them or anything.”

Jalya shrugged her shoulders. “They didn’t seem offended. And I was bored waiting for you to wake up.”

No sooner had Jalya uttered these words, than the vibration suddenly stopped. I felt a strange euphoria sweep through my body, like I’d just been released from the grip of some terrible pain, yet there had been no pain. I looked over at the circle in time to see the sun seekers beginning to rise. One of the bald ones turned to look at me. He was the tallest of the bunch with piercing deep purple eyes that felt like they cut through me to my soul. But I wasn’t afraid. As soon as the vibration stopped, all feelings of uneasiness went away with it. I only felt comfort now, safe in the haven of these unusual beings.

The tall creature moved toward me with fluid steps that seemed to disturb nothing in their path. Long slender fingers reached for my face as he stretched his arms out in my direction.

“Oh my dear, you’re awake. Are you feeling better? I was worried; you seemed so tired. That’s quite a climb you just had.” He stroked my cheek softly.

While ordinarily a stranger touching my face would make me want to wriggle away, his touch was completely comforting and I felt like a helpless, love starved puppy wanting more. I sat up and stared into his eyes. Jalya climbed quickly over the bed of moss to get closer to him; his effect was hypnotic. He brushed her hair from her eyes and she smiled.

“My name is Lovis,” he said and sat down amongst the rocks that were strewn about us. “I am the oldest of our group, therefore, the leader.”

The others began to move toward us now as well, seating themselves on the surrounding rocks and grassy knolls. They all had huge grins and stared into me with their large violet eyes. Lovis turned to one of the others that had yet to join us and addressed him with a smile. “Blon, see if you can find some of that heart fruit that grows a little way down the mountain. I’m sure our guests are hungry.” Blon nodded, then turned and walked to the edge of the clearing. I watched him disappear into the shadows of the trees before turning my attention back to Lovis.

“My name is Emerin,” I said, but before I could say more I was interrupted by Jalya.

“I told them already,” she said, “and I told them how we ended up here too.” I turned toward her smiling face and wondered what else she had told them. She really must have been bored. I imagined her gabbing the entire time that I slept, telling them everything about our lives. Not that it really mattered anyway, what these strange mountain top creatures thought of us. I only feared that they would somehow send us home, or hold us here against our will until someone from the village came to get us. Maybe they had already informed them of our whereabouts while we slept. Maybe someone was already on their way.

Of course that was ridiculous. The men would never even go into the hills, much less risk climbing the mountain. I turned my attention back to Lovis. “When I got here, one of you said that I was ‘one of them’ or something like that. What does that mean?”

Lovis looked at me quizzically. “Well, just that you’re a bei clu. Many of my friends up here have only seen one or two in their lives.” He stated this matter of factly, as though I would know what he meant.

I looked at Jalya. She looked deeply concerned, but only shrugged in response. “What do you mean?” I asked. “What’s a bei clu?”

The sun seekers looked around at each other, murmuring in wonderment. Whatever it was, it must have been pretty fascinating.

“You mean that you don’t know?” Lovis seemed shocked at first, then he sighed as his expression turned to one of understanding. “That’s right. You are from the village. They like to hide the truth there.”

“What is the truth?” Despite the calming effect of the sun seekers, I was becoming more anxious by the minute.

“Hmmm,” Lovis thought for a moment as though trying to find the simplest way to explain a complex concept to an ignorant child. “Tell me my dears, what happens to your soul when you die?”

“Oh, you go to hell,’‘ Jalya piped in. I gave her a withering look. “Or I guess that’s just me, or so I’m told anyway. Could be heaven also, if you’re good.” She smiled at me. “My friend Emerin, she’ll go to heaven.”

I rolled my eyes. They must have thought we were insane. They would probably be happy to back the elders’ decision and we’d both be sent to Lock Up.

“Yes, yes,” Lovis said, “that is what they tell you down there, isn’t it? That’s how they keep you good. Because if you’re not, your soul will go to hell, and it’s a pretty bad place right? Your people behave themselves because they fear going to hell.”

“Lock Up too,” Jalya smirked. “They also fear going to Lock Up.”

The sun seekers looked at each other and burst into uproarious laughter. Their soft voices tinkled through the air, as if they were bouncing back and forth off different sections of our green cloud. It was an uplifting sound and it almost made me forget that it was us they were laughing at.

“Yes, dear, they do fear that also,” Lovis chuckled. “However, do you think, if there were no Lock Up to be sent to, that they would still act a certain way even if they didn’t necessarily believe it was right? Do you think they would still do what was expected of them due to fear?”

I nodded as I thought of my parents. Is that why they were going along with the elders, because of fear for their souls? I had thought that maybe they feared possible banishment; however, maybe being ostracized from the community meant condemnation to hell. I meditated on this possibility for a moment until Lovis spoke again.

“This is what they do in these small communities, to keep people in line, to make it easier for a group of people to live together harmoniously. They tell you stories, lies really, to make you conform to a set of rules. Those who do not conform…” He turned to face me with a smile. “Well, you probably know how that ends up, don’t you my dear?”

His eyes bored into me once again, and for the first time in my life I felt understood. I could not leave his gaze, even when Blon returned with the heart fruit.

“Ah, here we are!” Lovis chirped enthusiastically, taking the large red morsel into his hands. The heart fruit was aptly named, not only for its colour, but also for its heart-like shape, as though it had been pulled from the chest of a giant. They were the only fruit that I knew of that grew wild in these hills. Sometimes Ashel would pick a couple for us during his hunting trips. They were quite a treat, but it was hard work breaking through the tough outer shell. We would spend close to an hour with a hammer and knife, just to get at the sweet fruit inside.

Lovis, however, did not have the same difficulty. He pressed his fingers into the hard casing, and it immediately yielded to his touch. He then ripped it into two equal halves as easily as if he were snapping a small twig.

“Wow,” Jalya gushed, as he placed the delicacy in front of us. If we were impressed, the feeling was quickly overtaken by our incredible hunger. Hours of mountain climbing had fired our appetites, and we each grabbed our half and quickly began devouring the gooey innards. In contrast to the hard outer shell, the inside of the heart fruit was soft enough to scoop out using only fingers as a tool. It reminded me of the pudding that the ladies of the village would make on special occasions, like planting season or harvesting time, when the community would all eat together. In no time the fruit was gone, and I was left running my fingers along the inside of the shell for stray globs and slurping the coating from the four large seeds.

“Blon, I think our friends would like another,” Lovis said. Blon turned and walked across the settlement and again plunged into the abyss.

“Is it true that you guys don’t eat?” Jalya asked between licks of her seed. Amazingly there was something she hadn’t asked them while I was asleep.

“We obtain our nourishment from the sun,” Lovis answered.

“You mean like plants?”

“Oh, but my dear, we are plants.”

Jalya and I stared at him dumbfounded.

“I see you’re confused,” he laughed. “We are nourished by the sun, rain and the earth where we put our roots.” He held up one of his feet and I noticed the long pointy toes, perfect for digging into the soil. “We are plants, only we are mobile. We evolved into a human like form for ease of communication and comfort.”

“Comfort?” Jalya wrinkled her nose.

“Yes. Do you not feel more comfortable talking to a human like form?”

“I suppose.”

I was growing impatient. The sound of birds chirping was beginning to echo through the air and I knew this meant that the sun would be rising soon. “So….what is the truth?” I asked again.

“The truth is that there is no heaven; there is no hell; there is only the bei.” Lovis searched my face for a hint of understanding. I shook my head and he sighed. “No, I don’t suppose that you would know what that is either. They really know how to keep you sheltered down there.”

“The bei is like a great spirit, right?” Jalya asked. “It’s where our souls come from.” I stared at her in awe; where had she learned this?

“Yes, that is right, only our souls do not just come from it, but rather, they are part of it. You see, the bei is the spirit which blankets our physical world; it is not only around us, but it is inside of us as well.” Lovis opened his arms and swept them through the air dramatically, to more effectively indicate the spirit which apparently enveloped and permeated us. He reminded me of Reverend Grell giving a sermon.

“When a child is born, a piece of the bei floods his body. It stays inside of him throughout his life, connecting him to all other life on this land. His bei gives him love, sadness, empathy, instinct, intuition, everything he needs to keep him in tune with his surroundings. Then at the end of his life, it leaves him and rejoins the great sea of bei, and his body rejoins the earth.”

I looked over at Jalya. She was nodding as if somehow this all meant something to her. I was still confused and looked to Lovis for clarification. “What does this have to do with me? What’s so different about me?”

Chapter 10

“You, my dear, are a bei clu. That is very special.” Lovis beamed at me. The other sun seekers nodded in fervent affirmation. I looked at him skeptically; I did not feel very special.

“Trust me…it’s a good thing.” He looked at me sympathetically. “Though it probably doesn’t always feel good to you, does it? Tell me, do you suffer with pain in your head…on the left side?” His fingers stroked the corresponding side of my head and my skin tingled under his touch.

I nodded and looked again at Jalya. “Did you…”

“I didn’t say anything about that.” She looked as confused as I felt.

I turned back to stare into the enormous purple eyes. “How do you know about that? What does this all mean?” I could barely get the words out. Lovis had said it was a good thing, yet I feared whatever atrocity I was about to find out about myself.

“Ah yes, let’s see…well, sometimes there are disturbances in the bei,” Lovis continued. “This can be caused by severe weather, flares from the sun, that kind of thing; doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it throws the bei off balance momentarily. Now, the bei is the dominant presence in our world, and as such, it is very strong, therefore it doesn’t take long for it to come back into balance. For this brief moment, however, this disbalance has enormous repercussions.” He shifted his position on the rocks and studied my face as if looking for confirmation that I was ready for the truth.

“You see, when a child is born at this moment of imbalance, there are effects on his or her bei. Sometimes, a child will receive more than his fair share, which sounds like a positive thing, but the body cannot handle this overload. Such children tend to be weak, sickly and have mental and emotional problems. Yet they also have powers that are beyond the ordinary: powers of perception, intuition, telepathy and a connection to the land and their fellow souls that others lack. Sometimes the opposite happens, which is particularly tragic. Some children are born receiving no bei at all, or such a minute amount that the body cannot survive. These children are what you would call stillborn, never having a chance of life at all. Because you see, my dears, without bei, there is no life. Your body is just a shell; we are all only bei.”

Lovis stopped for a moment and stared across the valley. I could see the blue haze of twilight forming behind his head and wished he would hurry up with his explanation. As fascinating as it was, I knew Jalya was impatient to begin searching for Ashel, and I had to admit that I was a little worried as well. However, when I glanced at Jalya now, she didn’t seem anxious to go any longer, but rather appeared to be riveted by the story we were hearing.

“Are you saying that Emerin has something wrong with her bei?” she queried. “She doesn’t seem weak or sick, and she’s definitely not dead, so what does this have to do with her?”

“Ah now, patience, young one; there is more to this story.” Lovis lay his hand upon her head and raked his long fingers through her hair. “This is a particularly interesting occurrence, one that is extremely uncommon, yet it does happen on occasion. If, during one of these pivotal moments, two babies are born simultaneously, then a portion of the bei that was meant only for one, will be split and shared between the both of them. A child with a cut bei like this is called a bei clu.”

I stared off into the beginning hues of dawn. Orange light peeked through misty clouds just above the landscape and fought for dominance of the sky with the ever brightening blue that lay above it. I tried to digest what Lovis was telling me, to put together the scattered pieces of information in my brain. Could this be true or were these just insane mountain top dwellers who were having a bit of fun with us? However, Lovis had known about my headaches somehow. I opened my mouth to ask a question and many more came spilling out along with it.

“Are you telling me that I only have half a soul? Who has the other half? If those children who only had a small amount of bei died, then how is it that I am living? How could you tell that I was one of these…bei clu? And what does this have to do with my headaches?”

Blon returned at this moment, trudging up the mountain side with his bounty, orange light glowing behind his back. He must not have wanted to make the trip again, because this time he had brought three heart fruits with him. He set them in front of us, broke one of them open and handed each of us our piece, then took a seat near Lovis on the rocks. He curled up into a little ball, with his arms wrapped around his legs and stared at me.

“Thank you,” I said and smiled at him. Jalya nodded her thanks, as her mouth was already full of sticky fruit. I scooped much more slowly this time, my hunger having been replaced by burning curiosity.

“Well, well, so many questions indeed,” Lovis purred, “and I will get to them all. Let’s see, where to begin? Oh yes, half a soul…why yes, my dear that is what I’m telling you. You have half the amount of bei that is generally housed in the body of a human. Half is the minimum amount that a body needs to survive. However, although you continue to live, there are side effects that are quite noticeable and well…disturbing. There are headaches; a bei clu will always have headaches. You see, the half bei will mostly stay on one side of the body. The other side, which we refer to as ‘the empty side’, will ache; it is aching for the other half, the missing half. Tell me dear Emerin, do these headaches cause yearnings in you? Do you feel the need to go somewhere, to walk in a particular direction? Do you long to be in another place, yet you know not where?”

I was speechless and tossed a look over at Jalya again; she must have said something. She answered my confused glance with an equally confused shrug of her shoulders. The sun seekers shuffled about on the rocks, adjusting themselves for what apparently would be a much longer explanation. Since I could not find my voice with which to answer Lovis, I only nodded and scooped another mouthful of ecstasy from the heart fruit’s shell.

“Your bei is desperately trying to find its other half. Once you do, these feelings will stop; the pain will stop and the longing. Together, you and he will become a mighty power. However, we do not know where this person is, only that he is also desperately trying to find you.”

“But how do you know it’s a ‘he’?”

“It always is…two matching bei clu, or ‘bei clu va’ as they are called, are always the opposite sex. When the bei splits, it appears that it separates into male and female energy. Even we are unsure of why or how it works, but we know that it does. Your bei clu va is a man who is exactly the same age as you.”

My chest tightened that instant and I feared for a minute that my heart would stop. Suddenly everything began to make sense. I finished chewing the soft fruit and swallowed hard as I was unsure that it would pass through all that tension and make it to my stomach. When I sat forward to address Lovis, I noticed I was shaking.

“Two days ago I had a headache,” I began. My voice trembled, the words catching on the tightness of my throat. “There was this man on the hills just down there.” I turned my head to indicate the direction in which we had come, the hills which now looked so small.

“I needed to get to him; the feeling….I just don’t know how to describe it….it was unbearable. So I ran, I ran toward him, and the headache got better….but, but I just couldn’t get there in time. Some other men took him away; he didn’t want to go, but they dragged him off away from me….then my father found me….” I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t go on any longer. My words had been overtaken by great, racking sobs that I could not control. I could still feel the pain, the physical horror of him being ripped away from me, when he had been so close.

“They were Natki.” Jalya’s voice broke as she shifted over on the moss and put her arm around me. “The ones that were on the hills. The men of our village chased them off.”

The sun seekers fell silent and looked at each other with their wide, penetrating eyes. “She’s already found him,” said one of the females in a hushed voice. The others then began to babble amongst themselves and a bubble of excitement grew over the crowd.

Lovis looked at me gravely, his features serious for the first time since we’d come. “Do you know where he went my dear? Or who he was?”

I shook my head, still unable to speak, unable to control the gasping sobs that erupted from my body. I now knew that I wasn’t crazy. I knew why I had these problems, why I had felt this way my entire life. And most of all I knew how to fix it, yet I couldn’t because he was gone. Would I ever be able to find him again?

“Do the Natki have any bei clu among them, Lovis?” asked a female sitting nearby. “Besides Mejalen?”

“Not to my knowledge,” he answered, “but we have not seen them all Darlus. Usually only their leaders and great warriors come to see us on our mountain. Emerin’s bei clu va would be barely a grown man now, not yet high enough in their ranks to be sent to us.”

Darlus shook her head, sending her long, spiralling tendrils swaying across her back. “Yes, but if they had one, would they not suspect it, then bring him to see us for confirmation?”

“The Natki travel in small tribes, which are scattered across the woodlands. Perhaps they went to another mountain for confirmation and the information has not yet reached us.” Lovis turned back to face us. “You see, dears, all these mountains about us? Each one of them has a small colony of Lumeai living on its peak. Except, of course, for the ones in the far north; there is only so much cold that we can tolerate.” He smiled brightly. “We do get a lot of visitors here, though, as ours is a relatively low mountain.”

I was finally able to stifle my weeping, and wiped my tear streaked cheeks with my shawl. This last bit of information was intriguing. “You mean that you know more people like me? And what do you mean by confirmation?”

“Do you remember, Emerin, when you asked me how we recognized you as a bei clu?” I nodded and Lovis smiled, his serious expression now replaced by one of friendliness. “You see, we, the Lumeai of the mountains, have a very special responsibility. We are the keepers of the bei. We feel it. We understand it. We protect it from harm. This is important, because if any harm were to come to the bei, it would have devastating effects on our world and all life within it. When you awoke and saw us in the circle, we were communicating with the bei, feeling its energy, wading through it for imperfections and deterioration. We can see it; it appears to us in colors. We see it in the air around us and we see it in all living creatures…yourself included. When we look at you, we see the colors of your bei shimmering inside of your body’s shell….but in your case we only see half, your right half. Your left side, well, it’s empty.”

I looked down at my body, comparing my left to my right, not noticing any difference. I lifted my left arm for inspection and it looked the same as always, but this knowledge gave me a creepy feeling nonetheless. How could I be half empty?

Lovis apparently noticed my concern and reached out his long fingers to rub my left arm. “Don’t worry, my dear, the bei that you do have compensates by sending some of its energy to the other side. It’s enough to keep you fully functional, but just not dominant enough for us to perceive. Your body will not fail you anytime soon.” He chuckled at my dismay. “The woodland clans know all about the bei and the signs of a bei clu. If they suspect that there is one in their midst, they will bring that individual to the Lumeai for confirmation. We are the only ones who will know for sure, as no one else can see the bei.”

“What about me?” Jalya chimed in. “Can you see my bei? How does it look?”

“Yes, I can see it and you, my dear, are completely normal.”

“Oh.” She looked so disappointed that I almost laughed. It was almost as if she was now jealous of the affliction that had haunted me my whole life.

Our discussion was interrupted by a soft moan from the other bed of moss. The sun seekers diverted their attention from me for the moment, to observe that their sleeping friend was stirring. He rolled over to face us and fluttered his eyelids as though fighting to open them.

“No, no…..no,” he murmured, softly at first then with increasing intensity. He raised his hands and clawed at the air like he was fending off an invisible enemy, but did not wake up.

“I’ll go see to him,” Darlus said and rose from her place in the rocks.

“Oh my, I do hope that he’s okay,” Lovis said. “We are so vulnerable when we are away from our blessed mountain top. We sent him down in the early morning and he should have returned long before sunset. Whatever happened to him down there kept him away from the sun for too long. By the time we realized that he had not returned…..well, it was just too late for any of us to go after him. We must conserve our energy after dark.”

“Why did he leave?” Jalya asked.

“Sharl was sent on a very important mission. We had information that needed to be sent, but we’ll get to that later.” Lovis dismissed the topic with a swoop of his fingers. The light that emanated from them trailed across the twilight sky. “Right now, we need to fill you in on your fellow bei clu. Let’s see….there are two in Norad, in the southern woodlands. They are much older than you, so old in fact, I’m not sure if they still live. Then there is Claradon. Yes, yes, her’s is a sad story indeed. She’s almost sixty now and has never found her bei clu va. We know he still lives as she still has the head pain and longings, yet she has wandered the riverland colonies for more than forty years without any indication of him. All of the Lumeai communities know her. She has travelled from mountain top to mountain top to seek our aid in finding him, yet last we heard she was still wandering. She was here just last year.”

“The poor dear, such terrible head pain she gets too,” Blon said sadly. “She enjoys coming to see us, as she has no pain while on the mountaintop. It is good for her to get some reprieve from it.”

As I listened to this story, I wondered fearfully if this was my future. To spend my life aimlessly wandering the land, seeking someone I could never find, being consumed by my own pain. I shook my head, unable to accept this possibility. Besides I had seen my bei clu va, or at least that’s what the sun seekers seemed to believe. He had been almost close enough to touch. Maybe now that I wasn’t oppressed by the rules of the village, I would be able to find him again.

“Yes, Blon,” Lovis said, “her’s has been a tragic life. However, dear Emerin, that is an unusual circumstance, so do not fear. Most bei clu do find their bei clu va and usually fairly easily. When both of you are drawn to each other with such ferocious intensity, it would be very hard to keep you apart indeed.”

“You mentioned another,” I questioned. “Or Darlus did….a Natki.”

“Ah yes, Mejalen, almost forty he would be…I think.” Lovis scratched his chin in thought.

“Thirty-five I believe.” Darlus’s soft voice tinkled across the air from where she sat with the sleeping sun seeker. Only when I looked over now, I saw that he was no longer sleeping, but sitting up listening to the conversation, his huge lavender eyes fixated on me, the same as all the others. Darlus rested her hands on his back, apparently giving him more energy.

“Yes, yes, your memory is better than mine in these matters, Darlus.” He looked at us with a smirk. “We Lumeai are blessed with wonderful memories that serve us well during our long lives. Nevertheless, age still wears it down. Darlus is much younger than I.”

“Let’s see, let’s see now,” Lovis continued, “Mejalen found his bei clu va, oh, about sixteen, seventeen years ago, when they couldn’t have been much older than the two of you. Must have been that long ago. How old is their boy, Darlus?”

“Should be fifteen by now.”

“Fifteen…my, my, how the years have flown by! This is another sad story. Mejalen could not be with his bei clu va, at least not with any permanence. She was married to another man, but they were together on and off over the years, enough to….oh my….Sharl are you alright, love?”

“I think I’ll be okay, Lovis,” a voice said from behind me. I turned and saw that Darlus was leading the weakened sun seeker over to the group. He looked much better, in fact, almost as good as the others, and his glow was much brighter now than it had been on the path. Whatever they had done to help him, it seemed to have worked. However, he still leaned a bit on Darlus for support as they walked gingerly across the rocks.

“Come, come, sit by me. We were just sharing a story,” Lovis said and smoothed out the mess of stones next to him, while Blon arranged the area with moss. “As you can see, our new friend Emerin is a very special lady.”

“Yes,” Sharl agreed. “When I first awoke and saw her, I thought I was still dreaming…or delirious.” He approached Jalya and me and lay a hand on each of our heads. “I believe I owe you my life. I give you my most heartfelt thanks.” I felt a rush of energy through my body. It was a nice feeling, as warm and fuzzy on the inside as the green glow was on the outside. For a moment I was breathless, as the intensity coursed through my veins.

Sharl stumbled a bit and grabbed onto Darlus again. “Easy, Sharl,” she admonished. “You cannot waste any of that energy now. You need everything you’ve got to last you until the sun rises.” She glanced into the orange and violet streaked horizon. “And that should be very soon now.”

Lovis addressed Sharl again. “I want to hear all about what happened down there, love. But first, you must tell me, were you able to reach Hallen and the boy?”

I perked up at the mention of this name and I felt Jalya’s body stiffen next to me. “Hallen, he was going to see Hallen?” Jalya squeaked. “What did you want with her?”

Lovis looked at her curiously. “Do you know her, my dear?”

“Yes, of course. She’s my mother.”

The crowd turned toward Jalya, their violet eyes finally leaving my direction. They stared at her and began to murmur quietly amongst themselves.

“Oh my, well this is an interesting turn of events,” Lovis said, beaming at her. “Jalya, that is right; that was the little girl’s name. Oh, my memory is not what is was…not what it was at all.” Lovis stopped to ponder again, this time rubbing the side of his cheek. He turned to face the rest of the sun seekers with an enormous grin. “So many special guests on our mountain this morning.” The rest of the sun seekers nodded in agreement, as their exuberant chatter grew louder.

Jalya squirmed on the moss. “What do you mean ‘that was her name’? Tell me why you sent him to see my mother?” She pointed at Sharl accusingly, obviously forgetting the closeness we felt with him on the mountain trail.

“Oh dear, yes, well you see…..Hallen is Mejalen’s bei clu va.” Lovis watched Jalya closely, waiting for her reaction. There was none; Jalya sat frozen to the spot, undoubtedly trying to piece together what this meant. Lovis stroked her hair and looked at her with sad eyes.

“You did not know, did you my dear? Your mother is also a bei clu.”

Chapter 11

The sky lit up in a gorgeous lavender hue. The shade was strikingly similar to that of the Lumeai’s eyes, as all forty some pairs stared at us, awaiting our reaction. The light of the stars receded and the birds sang in anticipation of the impending sunrise. The green glow of the mountain top became more subtle as the sun crept ever closer to the horizon. Soon it would burst over the edge of the land, rise above the hill tops and spread its warmth across the valley. I could see lights glowing in the windows of the houses in Carper’s Village. The people were awake; they were preparing themselves for a wedding.

A rush of guilt very nearly flooded my body, but was held in check by the fascination that I felt over everything I had heard this morning. How could I be expected to marry Callum now that I had been enlightened to my situation? Regardless, my chest still ached at the thought of my parents rising this morning to find that I had not returned. I could see the pain in my mother’s eyes as she put on her best dress, holding out hope that when she got to the church she would find me there. I could see my father trying to be strong, telling her that everything would be alright. I would show up at the last minute because I really was a good girl, though he probably would not believe it himself. I didn’t want to hurt them; it tore at my heart. Why was it that in order to spare them pain, I would have to spend a lifetime being tortured by my own? It did not seem fair.

I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind and instead began to process this new information about Hallen. If she were a bei clu, then suddenly everything Jalya had said about the similarities between me and her mother made complete sense. The boy they talked of, they must have meant Ashel…was his father this….Mejalen? Of course he was; it was so obvious to me now. If Mejalen was Hallen’s bei clu va, there was no way that she could have kept herself from him once she found him. I felt such sadness for her and wondered if she had felt the same way about marrying Jalya’s father as I felt about marrying Callum. And even though she was married with a young child, she still could not keep herself from her bei clu va. This knowledge strengthened my resolve that I’d made the right decision not to marry Callum today.

I turned away from the lights of the village as I felt Jalya shift on the moss next to me. When I looked over, I saw that she had her head in her hands. I moved to put my arm around her, but before I could even reach out Lovis was already there, stroking her arms with his pale hands.

“Oh my dear,” he crooned. “It will be alright. She will be fine. This is not a bad thing.”

Jalya shook her head, then lifted it to look into his huge purple eyes. There were tears rolling down her cheeks, which Lovis dabbed with his fingers. The beads of water wobbled on his fingers for only a second before his skin absorbed them like a sponge. “Do you not believe me, love? I assure you that this is the truth. I saw her myself. She was here on this mountain many years ago, sitting right where you are now.”

“I believe you,” Jalya sniffed. “I knew there was something different about her; this…..this makes sense. But….I don’t think you know this….she died two days ago.”

An audible gasp rippled through the crowd and their large eyes seemed to grow bigger. They looked at each other helplessly. Darlus left Sharl’s side and sat next to Jalya. “Oh my goodness, dear, I am so sorry,” she said. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. My brother found her just lying on the ground. He had been hunting and when he got back…..well, he didn’t know what happened….didn’t see anything.”

“Your brother, oh my!” Lovis exclaimed. “Where is he my dear? Can you bring him to us?”

Jalya began to cry again. “I would, but I don’t know where he is.”

“He left the house last night,” I explained. “We don’t know where he went.”

This information seemed to concern Lovis quite a bit. His serious look was back and his features were drawn together tightly as he quietly stared down in the direction of the village. The whole group was, in fact, deathly quiet as though they had just received the most devastating news. I didn’t know if they were reacting to Hallen’s death or Ashel’s disappearance. I only knew that their silence implied something monumental, something that was very wrong.

The quiet was disrupted by the scraping sound of rock rubbing against rock, and I looked over Lovis’ head to see Sharl squirming uncomfortably. Darlus noticed at the same time and left Jalya to return to his side. “Oh dear, what happened? Are you alright?”

“I just remembered something,” he said, barely above a whisper. He held his head in his hands and rocked back and forth, shaking uncontrollably. “I couldn’t remember much before…about what happened to me. I’m still not sure what was a dream and what was real….but, oh my, I believe that I saw the wu bei last night.”

The group broke their silence with renewed murmurings of excitement. They glanced eagerly at each other then back at Sharl, bobbing in place like frisky children.

“Oh yes, my dear, you must tell us what happened to you.” Lovis sat back down in his original spot on the rocks and looked at Sharl with concern. “Whatever held you up for so long?”

Jalya sat forward, all signs of crying having stopped. “Wait, wait, wait a minute. What’s a wu bei? Is he talking about Ashel?”

“Ashel, why yes, Ashel, that’s his name. Oh my, my memory again.” Lovis shook his head and chuckled. “Yes dear, your brother is a wu bei; that is the child of two bei clu va.”

“So that means that Mejalen is Ashel’s father,” I stated. “Does he know?”

“Why I don’t know, my dear. I don’t know what he knows.”

“He doesn’t,” Jalya assured us. “He doesn’t know who his father is. When he asked our mother about it, she told him that he was dead, but he didn’t believe her.”

“Well, if he was dead, Hallen would have known,” said Lovis. “When a bei clu dies, his or her half soul is freed from the body and seeks out the bei clu va. The bei clu va is then finally furnished with a complete soul. If Mejalen still lives, he is aware of her death. His soul is now complete, yet his heart is broken.”

Jalya turned to Sharl. “So, where did you see my brother? Do you know where he went?”

Sharl looked up at her, his big eyes seeming to tremble in his face. “I don’t know where he went, but I saw him in a cart, last night in the forest. He was with a….Nebril.” He almost choked on the word. “Oh…oh my, I could see his….darkness.” He spit out the last word violently and then clasped his arms around his legs, once more forming his body into a shivering white ball.

“A Nebril…out this far?” Darlus squeaked. “That’s very unusual.”

“Th-the Nebril, he was driving a cart with horses….he was sooo dark. The wu bei was inside. I could see him through the window in the back.”

“David?” I looked at Jalya for confirmation, though I didn’t need it. How many other Nebril would be driving a cart through here? I turned to Lovis. “He was in our village selling merchandise. This was his second visit. He seemed to be a very nice man.”

“Nice….nice. They can be nice, but they are dark. There is much darkness inside of them,” Sharl continued cryptically, then his eyes widened again. “And there were others with him….Orlogs I believe….one of them stopped me, would not let me pass. I could not get to Hallen and the wu bei. They have only darkness, no color, only dark….twisted broken bodies that don’t work, but strong, evil minds. It would not let me pass. It held me still with its mind until I was so weak from lack of sun, I could not climb back up the mountain.”

“What’s an Orlog?” I questioned. I was beginning to feel like a toddler, being exposed to the outside world for the first time. Lovis had been right about how well we were sheltered in our village.

“We don’t know really,” Lovis answered, “but we have been hearing strange reports of these creatures from travellers who visit us, strange creatures with gnarled, twisted limbs, unable to move much at all. They seem to be in a great deal of pain or anguish, because they are often wailing or crying and causing a general disruption. We don’t know where they came from or what their purpose here is. However, our visitors tell us that they can probe minds; they can find you through your thoughts, and paralyze you with theirs. Thus they don’t need physical strength to catch you, and when they do get hold of you, they drain you of your energy. A large enough Orlog can kill a small enough victim, or so we’ve heard. This practice seems to dull their pain, to give them the energy to move on to their next victim. They are very dangerous, but we’ve only heard reports of them being found near Nebril City, never this far out. Oh my, this is bad news. Tell me Sharl, did they hurt you?”

“Oh no, they did not hurt me,” Sharl replied, having calmed down somewhat. “At first there was just one and all it did was hold me there; I could not move at all. Oh, it was so dark, as if there was no colour left inside. It touched me with its grotesque limbs, maybe trying to drain me, but it couldn’t. Yet it kept me there all day, frozen, just staring at me, unable to hurt me.”

“Oh dear, what could it have wanted with you then?”

“I don’t know. But when the Nebril came with the cart…” He stopped and shuddered momentarily at the sound of the name. “….he told it that it could let me go now. It was time to leave. That everything had been taken care of, whatever that meant. Then the Orlog dragged its hideous, mangled body up onto the side of the cart, and, as they rode away, I saw there was another one…another Orlog on the other side of the cart.” His face twisted up into an expression of disgust. “You should have seen the thing. It could barely even move, its joints were so stiff…..it cried out with every step, and there was this sound…a horrible clicking, grinding sound…” He pursed his lips together hard and resumed his violent shaking. Darlus wrapped her arms around his curled up body and rocked with him.

Lovis thought for a moment. “Did you say that the Orlogs were dark as well?”

“Yes, yes,” Sharl squirmed, narrowing his eyes as though trying to keep out an unpleasant vision. “So very dark, even darker than the Nebril, no colour at all…….Lovis, what kind of demon has no colour?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“What is this darkness that he keeps babbling about?” Jalya asked, as she wiggled impatiently on the moss.

“Oh my, yes, well this is quite a story,” Lovis’s eyes grew wide. I sighed. It looked like we were going to be here for a while longer. “Yes, quite a story indeed! I’m sure you’ve seen a few Nebril in your lifetimes, my dears. Tell me, have you ever heard it said that they do not die, that they live forever?”

“Well, we’ve heard people say it,” I answered. “But I always thought it was just stories.” I thought about it now. Up until last night we had thought the sun seekers weren’t real, as well. I wondered what other strange tales we would be hearing this morning.

“A story maybe, but a true one at that. Remember how I told you that the Lumeai watch over the bei, that we can see when it’s unbalanced or tainted in any way? Well, these disbalances of the bei have been happening more and more over the last several years. Not only that, but we have been seeing strange colourings in it….streaks of blackness mixed in with the colours. When we look at the Nebril we can see it; there is a high amount of blackness in their bei, where there should be none at all. This is not a good thing. Darkness is never good; it is toxic to our souls. Too much blackness in the bei and babies will be born impure, contaminated, unable to connect to each other, unable to connect to their land, evil, unfeeling, uncaring enough to destroy the world that they live in. This blackness….it must be stopped.”

“Can’t you stop it? I thought you were responsible for the bei.”

“Ah yes, but we can only see the bei and feel it. We know when something is wrong. But we are helpless to do anything about it ourselves. We can only alert others to the situation. So this is what we did. Months ago, we had some Natki visitors, as we do from time to time; they like to check in with us and see if there are any problems. We told them of our findings and concerns, so we asked them to check around the riverlands and see if anything was amiss. Well, months passed, and then they returned to us, just two days ago in fact. The Natki that you saw were probably among them.”

My chest ached at the remembrance of the man on the hill running toward me, me running toward him. I was almost there, if he’d made it to the top of the hill closest to me, I may have been able to see his face. If only I could have seen what he looked like, then I’d at least know what I was looking for. I folded my arms across my chest in an attempt to dull the gnawing pain.

“The news that they brought with them was disturbing to say the least,” Lovis continued. “Like you, we had thought the stories of the immortal Nebril were just silly rumours, tales that travelling merchants tell to amuse their customers. The people of the woodlands don’t generally visit the city and the Nebril mostly keep to themselves. However, the warriors that we sent validated these stories. Some of them were able to sit in on a few of their weekly church meetings. Every week one of the leaders will call a volunteer from the pews to come to the front to receive the gift of everlasting life. Apparently there are always many who are eager to volunteer, but they only pick one each week. First this person drinks an unknown substance from a chalice. Then the Nebril elders place their hands upon a large crystal and instruct the volunteer to do the same. The crystal emits an enormous flash of light and it’s over. We do not know how it works, but the Natki say that the eyes of a person change during the ceremony. No matter what color they were before, they change to the deepest of brown, almost black, soon after touching the crystal.”

Lovis looked from me to Jalya and back again as if to be sure we were taking it all in. I nodded to give him some reassurance. “The Natki say that these ceremonies are held every Saturday evening, which would correspond with the strange behaviour of the bei that we have observed early Sunday mornings. That’s what we were checking for when you awoke.”

“I noticed something when you were doing that,” I said. “There was this weird vibration. I don’t know how to describe it, but it felt…uncomfortable. But Jalya didn’t feel it, only I did.”

“Yes, that discomfort was the disbalance and the bei trying to reorient itself. You always have access to the bei; it is a part of you after all, but your sense of it is limited. Our ceremony created a portal through which you could sense it. Your bei vibrates along with the rest. Jalya’s does not, because she has too much inside of her, so it doesn’t move as well. Think of a bottle half filled with water; there is much more room for it to slosh about than if it were completely full.”

Lovis smiled at me as I digested the horrifying thought of sloshing bei. “We’ll have to invite you to a ceremony when the bei is in balance. It would be a much more comfortable experience. However, I fear that you do not have much more time to visit with us today.”

“We have to find my brother,” Jalya said gravely.

“Yes, yes, you do, but I fear that he may be quite far from here by now.”

“It doesn’t matter; I can’t leave him. Who knows where they’re taking him or what will happen to him. Emerin and I….we’re not going back there anyway.” She turned her head in the direction of Carper’s Village. There were lights on in most of the houses now and even a few people wandering outside, waiting around for the church bells to start ringing.

“I’m supposed to be getting married today,” I said sadly, to no one in particular.

Lovis nodded, seeming to understand without me having to say any more. “It is a wise decision to leave. For yourself and for everyone. You are much too important to live all your days in that village.”

“What do you mean much too important?”

“Oh my dear, the bei clu are very important to all life here. While we Lumeai watch over the bei, the bei clu maintain it. Mend it when there are problems, as there are now. But the bei clu cannot do anything on his or her own; they must find their other, their bei clu va. Two bei clu va or a wu bei alone have the power to fix the bei, pull the darkness from it and make right the spiritual world.”

“So this kind of thing has happened before?” I asked.

Lovis nodded slowly. “There has been darkness before, long ago, before you were born, before your grandparents were born. I, however, am extremely old and remember these events. No one knows how the black gets into the bei, but it has happened before. Unfortunately, this time, there are not many bei clu left to take care of the problem.”

Lovis looked sadly out over the hills. The rest of the sun seekers stared at me with expectant eyes and I got the feeling that I was about to be asked to do a monumental task. I just hoped that it wasn’t something more horrifying than marrying Callum.

Chapter 12

Lovis stroked his chin thoughtfully. “There used to be many more like you, Emerin. Back in the days when all people lived in the wild, in tribes like the Twelve Clans and other such woodland peoples. When a bei clu was born, he was recognized and revered for what he was, and when he came of age he was allowed, encouraged in fact, to go out and seek his bei clu va. Because of this, most bei clu va inevitably found each other and had children, producing many wu bei. Their presence kept the bei safe, but certain circumstances have led to the near extinction of the bei clu and wu bei.”

He stopped for a moment and stared out at the first rays of sun shimmering off of the rocky mountaintops. I dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand and fidgeted on the bed of moss. “What kinds of circumstances?” I asked, when the silence became too much to bear.

“Oh, well, community isolation, for one. I’m sure you see now, my dear, how isolated and uninformed your community is. Well, the other farming villages are much the same; they keep you from each other, hold you bound there with guilt from your families and from your Gods. War is another reason. Many bei clu and wu bei were killed in the last great war; some just went missing and were presumed dead. Oh, and the disappearance of Lamorian rock; that created even more difficulties.”

I opened my mouth to ask a question, but Lovis cut me off before I could utter a word. “Yes, my dear, I know you don’t know what Lamorian rock is; I will explain now. You see, two bei clu va together are very powerful, as is a wu bei, however, they cannot affect changes on the bei unaided, specifically where the blackness is concerned. Although they are able to absorb the blackness into their own bei, ridding the world of it, they are unable to release it. It then stays inside of them, warping their minds and corrupting their souls, and, if they take in enough of it, it kills them. Then of course, when they die and their bei is released back into the Great Bei, the blackness returns again, so the whole act was pointless really.

“However, many hundreds of years ago, a very lucky wu bei stumbled upon some Lamorian rock. I assume that neither of you have heard the story of Sweltz?”

Jalya and I exchanged glances and shook our heads.

“Ahh, I thought not,” said Lovis. “You see, according to our legends, Sweltz was a wu bei from the clan Wallhamay. During Sweltz’s time there was much evil and corruption, much disturbance of the bei and much blackness as there is now. The wu bei and bei clu knew it was certain suicide to absorb too much of the bei, so they would absorb just as much as their bodies could take and still remain alive. Then, of course, they would go mad and be capable of all manner of evils, so they would have to be imprisoned, either voluntarily or forcibly. As their tortured lives naturally came to an end, other wu bei and bei clu would come and take the blackness from them and carry it throughout their own lives. The people of the time called them the Guardians of the Light, because they kept the darkness away….kept everyone else safe. It was quite the sacrifice that these men and women made, some of them no older than the two of you.”

Lovis looked at us for a moment with sadness clouding his purple eyes. Then he brightened momentarily. “That’s how Lock Up got started; I’ll bet you didn’t know that.”

I wanted to shake my head or give some sort of reaction to his question, but I was too overwhelmed by what this might mean for me…and for Ashel. Did he want us to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good as these others had done in the past? To live out the rest of our lives imprisoned as raving, evil lunatics? Before tonight, I couldn’t have imagined a future worse than the one I was facing with Callum, but yet here it was being laid out in front of me.

“Yes, yes, quite a sacrifice,” Lovis continued. “That was until the wu bei Sweltz found the solution. Sweltz was aimlessly wandering through the forest, his soul heavy with black bei, preparing for his journey to Lock Up, when he tripped over something in his path. He stumbled straight into a massive rock wall and banged his head quite hard, hard enough that he became momentarily too dizzy to walk. He lay down next to the rock to collect himself, when he realized that something unusual was happening. The weight of the blackness was leaving him; he could feel it being pulled from his very soul.”

“He stayed there for quite a while as his body returned to normal, and he observed what happened to the rock. Apparently it turned from its original red-brown color to a deeper shade of almost black. Then the black eventually gave way to a vibrant hue of colors which swirled about within the rock before being released from its surface back out into the atmosphere.”

I glanced at Jalya briefly and wondered how much of this she was believing. Magic swirling rainbow rocks? If the sun seekers hadn’t so accurately described my situation earlier in our conversation, I would have been laughing in disbelief by now. Jalya did not look at all skeptical. She stared, mesmerized, into Lovis’ eyes, obviously anticipating the rest of the story, like it was a bedtime fairy tale. I sighed and turned back toward the huge purple eyes, determined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Unbelievable, yes, my dear,” Lovis said, apparently reading the doubt on my face. “You’re not the only one to think so. In fact, when Sweltz returned home, no one believed his story. They thought that he was just raving mad from the blackness. So they tied him up and took him by wagon to Lock Up. But when they got there, the guards realized that he was different than the other affected wu bei. They saw that his eyes were not black, he did not have the same intense evil gaze of the others, he was calm and lucid. They had no choice really but to eventually accept his story of the Lamorian Rock, so they sent some of the Wallhamay warriors out to collect a sample. Well…..I must say they were in for a surprise! The warriors chiseled chunks from the rock and returned to Lock Up with them. One by one the ailing Guardians touched the rocks and one by one the blackness left their souls. The black bei reverted to its previously colourful state and was returned to the world harmless. A great miracle!”

Lovis closed his eyes, took a deep breath and held his arms out dramatically. I recognized his Reverend Grell tone when he began to speak again. “Year after year, century after century, portions of the Lamorian rock were passed down through the generations. Even during periods of complete balance of the bei, the wu bei and bei clu still carried small pieces of the rock with them in case it again became necessary to use it. The original rock became smaller and smaller as more and more wu bei were born.”

“Is that why it eventually disappeared?” Jalya asked.

“No, in fact there was still quite a large portion left, even after everyone claimed a piece. However, the Twelve Clans became nervous for its safety. They had yet to discover any more of the rock other than the original piece, and they knew that it might eventually become necessary for the safety of the world. So they decided to bring it to Malhadron Mountain, the highest mountain in the Nebril Riverlands, to be guarded by the Lumeai that reside there. It’s our largest and most populated village,” Lovis smiled.

“Unfortunately, the clansmen that they sent to retrieve it never arrived at Malhadron Mountain. Others were sent to check on it and found it removed from its original place, but the rock and the clansmen were never seen again. Now the only remaining Lamorian rock are small pieces that have been collected from bei clu and wu bei that have passed away during the years, whose friends and relatives have been kind and knowledgeable enough to bring them to Malhadron Mountain for safe keeping.”

Magic swirling rainbow rocks on top of the tallest mountain. My head spun. “How many pieces are left?”

“I believe four at last count.” Lovis was quiet for a moment and studied his fingers as they tapped against the white shiny orbs of his knees. When he turned his head toward us again, his serious expression was replaced with one of suppressed mirth. “How do you girls feel about mountain climbing? Because if you liked your journey to our village, then you’ll love Malhadron Mountain.”

Jalya looked at him incredulously. “You want us to go up there?”

“Well, yes, my dear. Emerin will need that Lamorian rock when she gets to Nebril City. Your brother too if you can find him. You need to find Ashel and Emerin’s bei clu va. As far as we know, you are the only ones remaining that have the ability to restore the bei.”

“Restore the bei?” I stared at him in disbelief. “I have no idea how to do that, even if I do find my bei clu va.”

“The Lumeai at Malhadron Mountain will instruct you in everything you need to know. You will be fully prepared when you reach Nebril City. If the origin of the blackness is there, as we suspect, that is where you will need to fight it.”

Jalya looked at me and I could read the excitement in her face. I didn’t have to ask if she wanted to go. She likely would have gone even without me. With her adventurous spirit, she would probably be more successful than me also. Though I had spent most of my life with this intense desire to leave the village, the feeling was only a subconscious one. My conscious rational mind told me on a daily basis that to actually go would be rash and dangerous and that my longings were silly. Pretty much everyone around me told me the same thing, so it was a fairly easy idea to accept. But now, faced with leaving everyone and everything I’d ever known to march into an unknown woodland filled with wild clansmen and Orlogs terrified me.

As if to add to my fears, Darlus addressed us grimly. “You must be very careful though, my dears. The Natki that were here a few days ago, we sent them to look for Hallen and the wu bei Ashel, and well, they never returned to us. They were supposed to bring them to us, but it seems they never reached them. This is why we sent Sharl to find out what happened.” She looked at Sharl in sympathy, as he writhed on the rocks. “We don’t like to leave our mountain. As you can see, it’s dangerous for us down there.”

“It’s dangerous for everyone now, so it seems,” Lovis said, “but the Nebril must be stopped. They are taking everything that is good in our world and clouding it with blackness. And there are so many of them, so very many. They keep reproducing you know, but never dying. Where do they all go? Where can they all go?”

Sharl looked at him with a furrowed brow. “The chill in the air seems to tell us something, Lovis.”

“Ah yes, the Varsak are coming. The Nebril are pushing too far into the north. This terrible coldness is a bad sign indeed.” Lovis shook his head sadly.

The Varsak were coming. So Ashel had been right after all. I still didn’t want to believe it.

“Something must be done. A Nebril can only be killed by burning, beheading or the literal cutting in half of the body, something that cannot be recovered from. The Varsak will figure this out very quickly and the slaughter will be brutal. If that many are killed at once, the black bei will overload the atmosphere. It will block out the sun’s rays and we will not survive it. Or very few of us at any rate. And definitely not the Lumeai.”

Darkness seemed to cloud his features at that moment, though as I looked around, the other Lumeai appeared to be growing dimmer as well. I assumed it was in response to the rising sun. The green glow had diminished to a barely perceptible phenomenon, rendering the village with a much less supernatural feeling than it had exuded upon our arrival. The sun seekers began to look less like magical beings and more like bald, naked children, whose green hue allowed them to blend into the surrounding bushes. Maybe it had all been a dream and I was about to wake up in time to go to my wedding.

I looked down upon my village, the place where I had grown up, the only home I had ever known. The valley was awash in soft yellow as the tip of the sun peeked over the mountain. The sun seekers would have been barely noticeable now, if they had stayed still. However, as the warm rays draped across their faces, they turned toward the sun and swayed in mesmerized bliss. I was envious of their expression of happiness and wished I could stay on this mountain forever, in the safe embrace of the green light.

However, I could not. I had two choices: one undesirable, one terrifying. I thought of Callum and a life of safety amongst family and friends, and yet incredible unfulfillment. Or I could follow my desire, the yearning that I had been experiencing my entire life. I thought of the man on the hill and the possibility of seeing him again, unhindered by the constraints of my village, my parents, and Callum. But what had happened to him that day, after they dragged him away? Darlus had said that some of the Natki had disappeared. What if we couldn’t find each other? What if he…

“Lovis, if my bei clu va were to die, you say that I would know it, right?” I asked tentatively. “That I would feel it somehow?”

“Oooh yes, yes, you would definitely feel it my dear. It would come like a rush, as the other half of your soul flooded your body. It’s an incredibly overwhelming feeling, or so I am told.”

“So, you’re saying if that were to happen, I would be normal, like everyone else?” It was a prospect that I couldn’t even imagine.

“Not only normal,” Lovis said with a smile, “but extraordinary; you would become a very powerful being.” He stopped momentarily, as if to add emphasis with his pause. “Yes, my darling, a very powerful being indeed. You see the bei that lives inside a bei clu must compensate for the fact that there is so little of it. Over the years it works hard and becomes stronger, more resilient. So once the two halves rejoin, either in one body, or by the physical closeness of two bei clu va, they are extremely powerful. It’s quite an amazing thing to behold.”

Jalya pondered on this for a moment. “So, if we found him and……killed him…..then Emerin would have her whole soul. Then she would be all powerful and be able to take on the Nebril and all the blackness herself.” She smiled mischievously, as if swapping a life for almighty power meant nothing. It was just another thing we’d do in between breakfast and mending our stockings. I glared at her, but, as usual, she didn’t notice.

“Yes…..yes,” Jalya continued, malevolently, “that would be much more efficient than having to drag some guy around, I mean, unless he was good looking of course, then it might be worthwhile….or a good hunter, that might be helpful too…..hmm….but on the other hand, Emerin having all this amazing power, now that would be fantastic!”

I shook my head and stared at her incredulously. She made me sound like one of the superheroes that we read about in our children’s books, a superhero with a crazy, sadistic sidekick that never knew when to stop talking.

Lovis didn’t seem fazed by Jalya’s murderous plot; he only smiled at her gently and petted her hair. “Oh, but my dear, one simply cannot kill their bei clu va; it is physically possible, yet not emotionally. There is too much attachment, too much feeling for the one that holds the other half of your soul. You would be much more likely to fall in love with him, than to kill him.”

“Does that often happen, that they fall in love?” I asked.

“I have never seen it not.”

“Oh,” I said softly and thought about that for a moment. All of my life I had known that my inevitable marriage would not be one of love, or at the very least it would not start out that way. However, I had always dreamed of a life with someone whom I was drawn to, someone I was with because I wanted to be with him, someone who I could not keep myself away from because of the love in our hearts, someone who I lived for and would die for. Instead I was told that I would have to force love into my heart for someone who the church elders deemed to be a good match. So, as the years passed, I learned to stuff down my instinctual yearnings and accept practicality. However, now, with this knowledge, all of my romantic childhood notions flooded back to me in an instant. Maybe that kind of love was within my reach after all.

As if to answer my thoughts, or perhaps just to mock them, the church bell started ringing at that very moment. It was loud, even at our high elevation, and the crisp chimes resonated off the rocks and brought all movement in the Lumeai village to a standstill. I swallowed the lump in my throat as I watched forty some round glowing heads turn toward the sound. My fate, my horrible destiny, from which I hid on this mountaintop, was finally happening, and I couldn’t help but think of the disappointment I would be causing this morning.

If I ran down the side of the mountain now, could I still make it on time? Huffing and puffing and sweating and still in my nightgown, but maybe only a few minutes late. My parents would see me and be angry at my antics as usual, but they would be relieved because at least I would be there. I squirmed in my seat as I wrestled with the decision that I had only a split second to make. Could I leave it all behind? Yet could I actually stay?

I turned and looked down at Carper’s Village with an aching heart. I watched as people emerged from their houses into the soft sun’s rays—men, women, and children walking along the pathways, condensation curling out from their mouths as they breathed into the cold morning air. How many times had I done this myself, Sunday after Sunday responding to that bell, the noise that insisted that I drag myself to a church that would ultimately plan out my life for me? I wondered if the sun seekers watched us every week, as they did now, quietly observing as we diligently answered its incessant reverberations. I looked at Jalya and saw that she too was watching the townsfolk, our families and friends, as they joyously strolled toward an event that would never happen.

Everyone was so small that I shouldn’t have been able to see them, but, for some reason, perhaps due to the green luminescence, my vision was exceptionally clear. I was sure that I could make out Josal the baker, and Pedrie the blacksmith, and Marrack and Sheem, my father’s farmhand apprentices. Marrack was so attractive that Jalya had run to my house every day after breakfast last summer just for the chance to talk to him before they set out for the fields. I took one last look at him now in his Sunday suit and wondered who the elders had lined up to marry him. Maybe it would be one of the girls from school that I now saw coming through the sholberry bushes in a boisterous group. They laughed amongst themselves in a carefree manner while trying not to drag their beautiful Sunday dresses through the squashed berries that littered the pathway. I saw Salare, who was uncharacteristically alone, sitting quietly on the church steps, looking sadly at her shoes. Could I really leave them all?

And then I saw Callum, standing next to the church, trapped in conversation with Mrs. Grell. Even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was wearing his smug, look-what-a-nice-guy-I-am expression, flashing a big smile under his crooked nose. My sadness evaporated into irritation, and I found myself wishing my arm was long enough to slap the look off his face. How could I even think about going back to that? I had almost worked myself up into enough aggravation to feel better about my decision, when I saw them.

My parents appeared in a painful instant and walked quickly out of the sholberry bushes and straight up to Reverend Grell. I knew what they must be saying and after a moment of intense gesturing, Reverend Grell looked around the church yard as if he had magical vision and that somehow he would find me when my parents could not. My chest ached as I looked at my mother and imagined the panic on her face. She was holding something close to her face, a handkerchief perhaps. Had she been crying? Of course she had. How could I leave her? It was too much for me to bear and I looked away and lost myself in the lines of my hands—my right one with the soul, and my left one, empty. How could I stay?

I took a deep, shuddering breath and lifted my head to face the Lumeai. All forty some pairs of sad violet eyes had left the scene in Carper’s Village and were staring at me with anticipation. I smiled at them as bravely as I could and hoped my voice wouldn’t tremble when I spoke.

“So…” I said slowly, choosing my words carefully lest one of them cause me to explode into tears. “…just how do we get to this Malhadron Mountain that you speak of?”

Chapter 13

Our trip down the mountain was surprisingly more difficult than our ascent had been. The sun’s increasingly bright light made it much easier to see our surroundings, and walking down should have been much easier than walking up. Nonetheless, in our tired and shaken state and minus the spiritual help of Sharl, Jalya and I hobbled down on trembling legs, too overwhelmed by the night’s events to even speak to each other.

In the light of day, the scenery from the mountain top was beautiful. Clusters of heartfruit trees, heavy with the weight of their sweet bounty, twisted into the curves of the mountain and I could see that they became more dense in the valley to the east. The lush foliage stretched for as far as I could see and left me wondering what lay beyond. The valley in front of us was covered in mist, yet I knew a carpet of long grass lay below. Yet as pretty as it was, it was hard to enjoy, as I had to focus all of my attention to not slipping on the smattering of flat rocks that covered the pathway.

As we slid and wobbled down into a canopy of trees, I tried to process all of the information that we had received that morning. I still wasn’t sure that this wasn’t a dream and I was about to be woken by my mother any second. Maybe she had slipped me something in my tea to keep me sleeping until morning and it had caused strange and vivid dreams. Or even worse maybe my headache hadn’t really gone away last night and my parents had found me outside trying to run away again. Then they dragged me back to the house and drugged me up with facion bark and I had hallucinated the rest of the night’s events. It wouldn’t be the first time that facion bark had had such an effect. I really hoped that wasn’t the case though, because I would really be in for it when I woke up. Then I would have to endure my wedding all groggy from a facion tea hangover, though that would probably be for the best anyway, as I had no real desire to remember the wretched event.

I looked around at the giant heartfruits swinging between their long, forked leaves and figured that this seemed far more clear than any facion bark induced dream and decided to assume for the moment that I was grounded in reality. I glanced up from my feet and watched Jalya as she stared at the ground, trying to negotiate her own safe descent. Maybe she was having the same thoughts, but I was much too tired to start a conversation about it. Instead I concentrated on what lay ahead, and the plan that had been meticulously arranged for us by the Lumeai before we left their village.

We were to go to Sandoff’s Village, about seven leagues to the east of us, which would take us most of the day to walk. There we would be able to find food and shelter for the night and a driver to take us through the woodlands by horse and cart the following morning. The sun seekers unanimously agreed that it would be safer for us that way. At this point I wasn’t so sure that two horses, a driver, and a few planks of lumber would be enough to protect us from monsters that could control minds, but what choice did we have but to trust in their wisdom? The driver would take us through the woodlands to the bend in the Nebril River, where we would turn north. Unfortunately, that was also the location of Lock Up, which I wasn’t too excited about, but we would only be passing by.

We would then head north through the grasslands to the Beyjerones Caves. The Beyjerones are a race of large flying creatures with a look that is sort of a combination of a human and a bat. Rumour had it that they were extremely intelligent and dedicated much of their time to scientific studies in their caves. We had seen them from time to time in the village, as occasionally someone from Nebril City would hire one of them to send messages out to the surrounding communities. Lovis wanted to get one of them to come to the mountain and fly us out, but we had no way of contacting them from such a distance.

If we actually made it to the Beyjerones Caves alive, one of them would then fly us to the top of Malhadron Mountain, a little further to the north, where we could obtain some of the infamous Lamorian rock. Then the Beyjerones would apparently fly us around and around until we could find Ashel or my bei clu va.

We were also to warn them of the approach of the Varsak. Maybe they would be able to find them and reason with them before they reached Nebril City. My head was spinning. It was a project too overwhelming for two country girls, whose previous accomplishments had been learning to sew without stabbing any fingers and baking a sholberry pie without burning the crust. As I contemplated the enormity of the situation before us, my foot slipped on a loose rock and I had to grab a low hanging branch to keep myself upright. I was beginning to doubt that we would even make it to the bottom of the mountain alive.

To ease my terror, I let my thoughts wander back to the man on the hill and wondered how I would go about finding him. My best guess was to wait until I got another headache and then let my intuition lead me in whatever direction I felt compelled to go. As scared as I was about this whole adventure, it felt amazing to know that at least I could do that. There would be no one to hold me back the next time. I couldn’t wait to see his face, to know what he felt like. Oh god, what if he was ugly……no impossible…

“Emerin, are you even listening to me?” Jalya’s voice was sharp with irritation.

“Oh, sorry….what did you say?”

“I was asking where you thought David the Nebril was taking Ashel.”

“I have no idea.”

“Do you think that they’ll kill him?”

“I don’t know. I hope not.”

“I guess they must know that he’s a threat to them,” she said solemnly.

I nodded sympathetically. Poor Jalya. First she lost her mother, then she had to face the possibility of losing her brother as well. She really had nobody else. I peered through the leaves of the heartfruit trees, and could just barely see the edge of Carper’s Village as the side of the mountain began to cut it from our view. Well, at least the people who were most important to her weren’t the ones she was leaving behind.

“I’m sure he’ll be okay, Jalya.” I tried to sound convincing, although I hadn’t convinced myself of it. I was a bit irritated by the conversation, as she was giving me something else to worry about. Ashel had just always been there, a permanent fixture in my childhood. I’d never really given any thought to how I would feel if he weren’t around. The thought gave me a hollow feeling inside, the ache of something missing.

“Yes, he’ll be fine,” I repeated. “Ashel’s very smart and resourceful and he knows how to take care of himself in the woods. We’ll find him before anything bad happens.” I forced a tense smile.

She looked at me sadly, her pale green eyes meeting mine for the first time since we left Carper’s Village. “You’re right….he’ll be fine.” She nodded her head in defiance, as if she were the one who would shape the future. “Everything will be fine….it has to be. So, we’d better hurry up. We have to gather our things and get to Sandoff’s Village before dark.”

Fortunately, the scattered mess of flat stones that we had been walking on was finally giving way to packed earth covered in patches of grass and smatterings of low shrubbery. We descended out of the heartfruit trees and back out into the open air. I could no longer see our village around the great bend of the mountain and I was glad of it. I wanted to try to put it all behind me as quickly as I could.

With our new found footing, we bounded down the bottom half of the mountain at twice the speed, and eventually found ourselves next to the enormous rock where we had found Sharl. That instant seemed like a lifetime ago. Jalya and I paused at that spot for a few minutes to catch our breath, before resuming our walk down to the base of the mountain. Huge boulders erupted from the landscape and we twisted and turned around them until we found our way back to the top of the foothills, staring into the valley.

The valley was as beautiful in the sunshine as I’d assumed it would be. The grass swayed in the soft breeze, the blades moving together as one entity. It rippled across the land like a sheet floating in the wind, its gentle green waves only interrupted by bright patches of wildflowers which were scattered throughout. The sunlight streamed intensely from a cloudless sky, but it still wasn’t enough to take the chill out of the air. The wind cut right though me and I once again became very aware of my terribly thin nightgown. The positive side of this was that it made me want to move faster, as we navigated the hills that ran along the outskirts of Carper’s Village.

I could see the cornfield and a few of the village buildings from the corner of my eye as we came over the taller of the two hills and down the other side. We could then walk along behind the lower hill and it would keep us out of sight of the village. I could hear shouting coming from somewhere on the other side of the hill, but couldn’t make out the words. The chances were very high that the men were searching for me by now, and they would no doubt think to look up into the hills to see if any Natki might be there who were responsible for my kidnapping. If only that were true…if only I could find any Natki at all.

I realized as we walked through the long valley between these two hills that this is where I’d seen the man….my bei clu va….just two days ago. He had run over the tallest hill and down into this valley, where the others had caught him. I had waited, watching for those agonizing minutes, hoping to see his figure rise over the lower hill, but it never did. Just as I didn’t….as I never would again. We would follow this valley to the end of the hill, where a short walk through the woods would lead us to Jalya’s bridge and then to Hallen’s cabin. We would be seeing all of these things for probably the very last time today.

My chest ached, partly with that realization and partly in remembrance of my experience with the man. I wrapped my arms around my ribcage to ease the pain, and did the only thing I could do. I kept walking, concentrating on the sound of the grass brushing against the bottom of my nightgown, so I wouldn’t hear the growing commotion in the village.

By the time we reached the cabin, the sun was high above the mountain, streaming through the leaves of the trees and landing in mottled splotches on the wooden walls. The spots of light danced in front of us as we carefully approached, wary of who might be waiting there for us. We quietly skirted the cabin’s clearing, hiding in the trees until we were sure that we were indeed alone. This would be one of the first places that my father would think to look for me.

“Come on, let’s go,” Jalya said. “Nobody’s here.”

I hesitated. “Maybe we should wait a little longer.”

“We don’t have time to wait, Emerin. We have a long way to travel today. Besides, the longer we wait, the greater the chances are that one of the village men will work up the courage to cross the bridge into the evil woods to look for you. If we’re going to go, we have to do it now!”

I sighed. She was right, I knew she was. If I was too scared to do this, how could I possibly complete the rest of the journey? Reluctantly, I stood up and we crept toward the front door. Jalya opened it and we listened, but there were no sounds other than birds singing, leaves rustling and old tree trunks groaning in the breeze.

Jalya cackled triumphantly. “See, I told you nobody would be here. Bunch of wimps…love to shout at each other in the village, but too scared to set foot in the woods.”

“Okay, okay,” I said impatiently. “Let’s just get what we need and get out of here while we still can.”

“Agreed,” Jalya said and began rummaging through the drawers. I busied myself looking for something to wear that was warmer than my nightgown.

Hallen’s cabin was quite small and well organized, so everything was easy to find. We packed extra dresses, warm shawls, canteens to fill with water and strips of dried meat that Ashel always kept prepared for times when food was scarce. We figured we were just about done and congratulated ourselves on how well we crammed so many things into our small shoulder bags. We then decided to make sure that we knew where we were going and had just started studying Ashel’s map of the woodlands when I heard a faint noise outside.

“Shhhh!” I commanded, interrupting Jalya’s rant about how many different paths there were and how all the landmarks looked the same. “Do you hear something out there?”

Jalya cut herself off in mid-sentence and listened carefully. “Someone’s coming I think. We’d better get out of here. Grab your bag.”

In a blind panic I picked up my bag, and, though my feet felt heavy and frozen to the spot, I somehow managed to follow Jalya out the door. At the last minute, Jalya turned around almost knocking me over in her hurry to get back inside the cabin. She emerged back through the doorway almost before I had the chance to wonder what she was doing and I saw she was holding two hunting knives.

“Here take one,” she said. “We might need to defend ourselves. Now go…keep going Emerin! Get to the bushes over there.” She shoved me forward and again I forced one heavy, reluctant foot in front of the other. My eyes scanned the periphery of the forest, darting back and forth wildly, and then finally settled on a large section of yolder bushes at the northern entrance to the woods. I remembered when we were kids and we’d chase rabbits away from the garden and they’d always hide in those bushes and wait until we left to try again. It struck me as funny, as I descended into the leaves and tried to avoid scratching an eyeball on the gnarled branches, that now I knew how the rabbits felt. Nervous laughter took over my body and I gripped my sides to keep them from shaking and rustling the bushes.

“What…..what the hell is wrong with you?” Jalya looked at me with irritation mixed with a bit of concern. Perhaps she thought that I’d finally lost my mind. “Emerin, what are you doing? Shhh…someone’s coming!” We held our breath as a figure slowly emerged from the trees.

Chapter 14

I looked up quickly, terror and curiosity quelling my laughter. A small figure approached from the southern pathway, purple skirts dancing from side to side with every sway of her hips. It was Salare in her very favourite Sunday dress. I wondered if they had sent her to find me, thinking that maybe I wouldn’t see her as a threat. As she walked out into the clearing, I noticed she was wiping her nose with a handkerchief and only then did I hear the sniffling. What could she be so upset about and why did it drive her out here?

“What is she doing out here?” Jalya rasped. “Is she crying?”

“Shhh.”

“Well, it’s only Salare. What’s she going to do?”

“It might be a trap, Jalya. Some of the men could be right behind her just waiting for me to come out.”

“But Emerin, she could tell us what happened in the village last night. It could be important for us to know. She might know something about Ashel!” Her voice was rising to a pitch that I was sure Salare would be able to hear. And she had a point. The more knowledge we had about last night’s events, the better. I just didn’t want to get caught and have our plans ruined in the process. If they found me now, I was likely destined for Lock Up by tomorrow morning.

I stared down the pathway from where Salare had emerged, straining my eyes through the sunlight to focus on any figures that might be lurking there. The forest was still, and I could hear no other footsteps or crumbling that would indicate someone climbing the rock wall on the other side. I only heard Salare’s sobbing as she reached the cabin and began peeking in the windows. She was clearly looking for one of us. We waited for her to circle around to the other side of the cabin before daring to speak again.

“Okay.” Jalya’s tone was stern. “Maybe you should stay here then. When she’s not looking, I’ll sneak out of here over to the path over there and pretend I’m just coming out of the woods. I’ll tell her you’re not here….I don’t know where you are…..then maybe I can pump her for some information. If I hear anyone else coming then I go back into hiding.”

“But if she sees you come back here, she might tell them where we are.”

“No, Emerin. Do you really think that if she hears someone coming, that she’s gonna stick around to talk to them or to watch what I’m doing? She doesn’t want to get into trouble, and she really would be if she’s found out here.”

I only nodded in response, because Salare emerged from behind the cabin just as Jalya finished her sentence. She stopped and looked around, surveying the clearing. When she saw no signs of human activity, she turned to try the door, finding it slightly ajar. In our haste to get away, we hadn’t made sure to shut it properly. She pushed it gently, then after a short pause, poked her head cautiously inside.

“Jalya?” she squeaked, barely audibly and then with a little more force. “Jalya?” She pushed the door a little further and slowly inched her way inside. “Jalya, are you here? Ashel?” She took another tentative step forward and her body disappeared from view.

“Go Jalya, now!” I urged, realizing this might be the only time for her to emerge from the bushes unnoticed. She jumped up and dashed along behind the row of yolder bushes toward the path that led from their cabin into the southern woods. Ashel often took that route when he went hunting, so the earth was well worn. I kept my eyes glued to the door, hoping Salare would not come out in time to see where Jalya had come from. I couldn’t take the chance of her knowing my hiding spot, just in case she wasn’t alone. Luckily, Salare took so long poking around the cabin that Jalya managed to get to the path, take it to the clearing and had almost reached the front porch before she came back out the door.

“Salare! What are you doing here?” Jalya feigned surprise. “What’s going on? You could get into a lot of trouble if anyone knew you were here, you know.” I smiled at the thinly veiled threat. Jalya certainly wanted to make sure that Salare felt insecure about her adventure.

Salare sobbed and sat down heavily on the porch step. “Oh Jalya, I don’t care…I just don’t care anymore….I hate it here and I want to leave.”

“Why….what happened?”

“David….you know, from Nebril City?” she said. Jalya nodded and her face grew hard at the mention of his name. I leaned forward, as I could barely make out what they were saying from my spot in the bushes.

“Well,” she continued. “Maybe you noticed that since he’s been here this time, we’ve become quite good friends.” Jalya nodded again, though I knew she hadn’t really noticed. Neither one of us paid much attention to Salare’s love interests. Besides we’d had quite a few other things to think about.

“So, he left…last night.” Her voice wavered, and she began dabbing at her eyes again. “He told me that he would take me with him when he left. That he would take me back to Nebril City and marry me, so I could have a better life. He told me all kinds of great stories about the place. It sounded so wonderful compared to here. I mean, did you know…..”

“You actually believed that crap?” Jalya interrupted. She never did have any patience with Salare. “I mean, you knew the guy for what, two days and you thought he would take you away with him, like some prince in a fairy tale?”

I was getting nervous. Jalya was getting off topic. We needed to find out what happened last night and then get out of here as soon as possible. And now Jalya was counseling Salare on her love life? Didn’t she know that once she started talking about it that she’d never stop? I’d unfortunately been on the receiving end of Salare’s long winded romantic stories many times before. It was never a brief discussion.

“Oh, but he was so handsome, don’t you think Jalya? And I’d met him before, don’t forget….the first time he came to the village. We talked then, too. And being swept off to a faraway land…it’s so exciting! Don’t you have a romantic side at all Jalya?”

“Not after watching this town operate for the past seventeen years. Romance just doesn’t seem to be a priority in this place.”

“See, that’s exactly what I mean,” Salare said sadly. “I can either run off with someone that I want to be with, or I can stay and next Sunday find out what twit the church elders want me to be with.”

I had forgotten that her birthday was coming up this week. I wondered who they would pick for her. As much as Salare irritated me at times, at that very moment I felt sorry for her. I knew exactly how she was feeling.

“But Salare, you don’t know that it will be a bad choice. I mean, Lenal Hendleman is still free, right?” Jalya smiled, doing her best to be reassuring. I hoped she would be steering the topic back to last night’s events very soon.

“Ugh, I won’t get Lenal. My sister is convinced that they’re saving him for you, Jalya. If they give you a desirable husband, then maybe you’ll decide to stay in the village. But they’re not worried about me running, so they’ll probably stick me with Bainie, or maybe even Callum if Emerin doesn’t come back.”

“What do you mean, ‘if Emerin doesn’t come back’?” Jalya asked in mock surprise. I certainly had to admire her acting ability. She arranged her features into an expression of great shock. “Did something happen to Emerin? Is she with Ashel, because I can’t find him anywhere…I’m getting worried.”

Salare stopped crying and stared at her. “You mean you don’t know about any of this? I was afraid that you might not know. That’s one of the reasons that I came out here, I mean other than to see if you were okay after what happened with your mother and to get away from all the crazy commotion that’s been going on….”

“Any of what Salare? I haven’t been back to the village in two days. I heard the church bells ringing last night.” She raised her voice an octave to indicate panic. “You have to tell me what the hell happened!”

“Well, I woke up because of the bells.” Salare settled into her best gossip voice, seeming to have suddenly forgotten all about her lost love. “Then they wouldn’t let me go outside because I’m a girl, of course, so I had to listen to all the yelling and little snippets of conversation that I could hear from the window. I could hear someone yelling, ‘Emerin, Emerin.’ I’m pretty sure now that it must have been Ashel. I guess he went crazy or something, because when my father got back he told my mother that he kept talking to Emerin, but she wasn’t even there.”

“He was talking to Emerin? What was he doing in the village?”

“Well, apparently he said that he followed Emerin there. I don’t know really what happened; no one does. All I know is that the men said he was raving like a lunatic about Emerin, but she was nowhere to be found. Emerin’s mother said that she’d woken up right before the bells started ringing and Emerin was gone. No one has seen her since.”

“Well, how do you know he didn’t see her then?” Jalya said, presumably to add to the confusion in Salare’s mind. Both she and I knew that I had not seen Ashel last night. If what Salare said was true, what was it that he’d been raving about? Dreaming, sleepwalking perhaps? Maybe someone had drugged him also. After all that I’d seen and heard last night, it seemed like anything was possible.

“I don’t know that he didn’t see her; all I know is that by the time the men got there, she wasn’t around.” She stopped to take a deep shaky breath. “Then the men couldn’t figure out what to do with Ashel. I mean, they thought he was crazy, right? And now that your mother’s gone…..who knows what he would do.”

Jalya glared at her. “Ashel is not crazy!”

“Oh, I’m sure he’s not Jalya; I’m sure it was a misunderstanding. The point is that the elders thought he was crazy and a possible threat to us, and then David….”

She stopped and swallowed hard, evidently fighting back tears again. “…..David offered to take him to Lock Up so they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. Then, without him in the picture, you would be more likely to stay in the village also. Let me tell you Jalya, your father was all over that idea. He held Ashel down himself while the others tied him up, cackling the whole time!”

“Shut up about my father would you! Just tell me what happened to Ashel.”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry Jalya. Anyway, the men tied him up and put him in David’s cart and tied him to the cart just to make sure he didn’t get away. And then he left….David drove away with Ashel in the cart.”

She collapsed into tears once more. “I didn’t even find out that he was gone until I heard my father say so after I went back to bed. I was supposed to be sleeping, but I listened at the door. Then I cried all night; didn’t sleep at all. He’s gone now….and I’ll never be happy again.” She sobbed against Jalya’s shoulder. From where I was quietly observing, I was sure that I could see Jalya rolling her eyes. It seemed that Sharl had been right about Ashel’s fate.

But what was Ashel doing in the village in the first place? Had he been looking for me or……I didn’t even want to think about it. Maybe I had been there, maybe I did see him that night….I couldn’t be sure what I did before I woke up. Maybe I hadn’t even been asleep; maybe I was drugged or even put under some kind of spell. Maybe it was some kind of plan to get rid of Ashel, now that Hallen was gone and everyone was in on it…even my parents. Suppose, in some kind of unconscious daze, I’d gone out to the cabin and lured Ashel back to the village where the men were waiting for him. His capture could be all my fault. I shook my head, not wanting to contemplate such a horrible thought. The sound of irritation in Jalya’s voice as she tried to soothe Salare, brought me back to the present moment.

“Honestly, Salare, if David was willing to just run off without you like that, he probably isn’t worth wasting your time crying over. I mean, it’s better that you find out what a jerk he is now, than after you move to the city with him. What if he abandoned you there, where you don’t know the area and you don’t know anybody that can help you out. It’s better this way, trust me.”

“I guess maybe you’re right,” sniffled Salare. “I just liked him so much you know.”

“I know, I know, but I think you should go back to the village and wait and see who the elders pick for you. They might make a good choice, you know. You should think more positively about it.” Jalya paused, searching for something else to say. “And I really think that you should go home now. Somebody’s bound to be looking for you, and I gotta say if they find you out here, they’ll think you’re rebellious. And rebellion doesn’t look good on a future bride. If they think you’re a problem, they won’t want to waste a good man on you!” Jalya stood up as if to encourage Salare to do the same. I had to hand it to her; she could really lay it on thick.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, Jalya,” she said, standing up. “I suppose I’ll have to play the good girl this week, that is if they haven’t already made their decision. I swear if they unite me with fat Bainie, I’ll kill myself. Or I’ll run away on my own; I’m not kidding!”

Jalya laughed. “I’m sure you’re not. I think that’s probably why they haven’t united him with anyone yet…the elders are afraid that whatever poor girl they pick will just run away, then they’ll pick another and she’ll run away too, and then another and another until there’s no girls left in the village anymore!”

“Then there will be no new babies and eventually the place will become a ghost town. Bainie alone will be responsible for the extinction of Carper’s Village,” Salare said and they both had a good laugh at poor Bainie’s expense. As much as I was happy that Jalya was finally having a bonding moment with Salare, I was eager for her to cut it short. I gritted my teeth together to keep myself from yelling at her.

But no sooner had these thoughts crossed my mind, then Jalya abruptly stopped laughing and peered into the forest in the direction from which Salare had come.

“Shhh….someone’s coming,” she said.

A panicked look crossed Salare’s face and before any of us could hear anything else, she had taken off running and jumped into the bushes on the other side of the clearing. Jalya turned and quickly took the hunting path back toward the row of yolder bushes, being careful to return to our hiding place the exact same way she had left in case Salare was watching where she went. I doubted she was looking in our direction at all, however, as the voices that Jalya had noticed a few moments earlier were coming from the opposite direction, and they were getting closer. They must have been coming from the bridge; the men from the village had come looking for me at last. Jalya ran up to me and plopped herself down in the bushes once again.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t about to stick around to find out.”

“See, I told you we should’ve left earlier, but you had to stay and joke around with Salare!”

“Shush, Emerin….here they come!”

Two men emerged from the trees on the other side of the clearing, and strolled by the bushes where Salare was hiding, apparently not noticing her. It was hard to make out their faces, but by the drunken drawl, I could tell that Jalya’s father was one of them. Jalya stifled a gasp next to me and I imagined she was agreeing with me now that we shouldn’t have stuck around.

“So y’know that Reverend Grell say he wanna find me a new wife, but he don’t do it, y’know,” he slurred. “Everyone I suggest he turns down…a man needs someone to keep his bed warm, y’know?”

“Yeah, yeah, Silan, I know, I know,” said the other man, who sounded like Towa, the blacksmith. “Come on, let’s forget about women for a while and concentrate on finding the girls. You think they’re in there?”

He strolled over to the open door and peeked inside. On closer inspection, it was definitely Towa. We’d always liked him as kids. He used to let us come into the smithy and play with his tools, while he joked around with us. There were a lot of people in the village I was actually going to miss.

“Jalya! Jalya!” Her father screamed at the top of his lungs, as he stumbled around the compound. Beside me, Jalya was shaking her head. She had been so embarrassed by his antics while she was growing up.

“I don’t think they’re here, Silan,” Towa said, as he emerged from the interior of the cabin. “There’s no one inside.”

“So thar hidin’ are they?” Silan looked up and screamed into the sky. “You hidin’ from me lil’ girl? You gonna git it when you git home!”

“Silan, calm down; there’s no one here to hear you. Let’s just go home. You could use a nap I think.”

Silan prowled around the outside of the cabin, muttering to himself, stopping only when he noticed Hallen’s grave. He stared at the little wooden plaque that Ashel had carved the day before. He had etched butterflies into it—Hallen had loved butterflies—as well as her name and the words ‘We’ll miss you Mama’ in the midst of the picture. It had taken him the whole afternoon to do it and it was actually quite beautiful. Then he had brought it out and staked it into the ground, where it still stood, mesmerizing Silan. Its presence seemed to sober him up somewhat.

“Uh, Towa, lissen, you head on back,” he said slightly more coherently and much calmer. “I’m gonna jus stay here a bit an wait. Maybe she’ll come back.”

“No, uh, I’m not leaving you out here by yourself. No telling what you’ll get yourself into while you’re in this state.”

“Come on now, I’m feelin’ much better now, can’t you see? The fresh air’s helpin’ I think.”

“I don’t think so, Silan. Come on now let’s……whoa, what was that?”

I wrenched my gaze from them and looked up just in time to see Salare dart out from behind the bushes and take off down the path back toward the village. Her impatience would be her downfall. Towa ran after her and overtook her in an instant. It was terribly hard to run in such a long, bulky skirt.

Silan turned toward her and squinted to see who it was. “Dammit, Salare,” he said, finally recognizing her. “Whaddya think yur doin’ out here, little girl?”

“I…I,” Salare stammered, eyes darting wildly. “See, someone grabbed me during all the commotion at the village…”

“Yeah, yeah, tell it to your father,” Silan snorted. “Maybe he’ll believe ya.” He turned toward Towa and smiled. “Well, now you got somethin’ to do, don’t ya, Towa. Escort this young lady home. I’ll be stayin’ right here.” As if to emphasize his statement, he plopped down on the freshly packed earth of Hallen’s grave.

“Fine, have it your way, Silan,” Towa sighed, evidently realizing the futility of arguing any further. “But if you’re not back in a couple of hours, I’m coming back for ya. And I’ll be bringing Niel with me…the both of us should be able to drag you home. Or maybe carry you if you’re passed out by then.”

He turned to Salare and gave her a huge smile. “Well then, sweetheart, let’s be going. And maybe for part of the way home, you can tell me the real reason that you’re out here. And then the rest of the way, you’ll have the pleasure of hearing me lecture you on why it was such a bad idea.” He took her arm and led her back onto the pathway and into the trees until they disappeared. Jalya and I watched quietly as they left. Silan watched chortling to himself.

Jalya and I looked at each other, not daring to say a word. I knew that she was thinking the same thing that I was. Just how long would her father be staying and was he drunk enough to not notice if we quietly slipped off into the woods behind us. We had a long journey to make today, and the sun was already high in the sky.

Silan got to his feet for a moment and stumbled about. Then he bent down and grabbed a couple of rocks which he hurled carelessly at the house. The sound of shattering glass told us that one of them had found a window. I felt Jalya tense up next to me and I put my hand on her arm to try to calm her somewhat. It was the biggest movement that I dared to risk making.

“There ya go!” Silan yelled. “Thought you’d have it better out here, eh? Dammit, Hallen, went and got yourself killed that’s all!” He stumbled around the cabin chuckling, grabbing more rocks and tossing them randomly. Some made contact with the cabin; some flew into the trees. “Didya have fun with yur savage?”

He grabbed the porch railing, which had been loose for years and ripped the boards free, falling on his back in the process. He struggled to his feet, walked to the other side of the cabin and smashed the other windows with the wooden planks. I could hear his heavy panting as he staggered around the back of the cabin and appeared at the other side, collapsing in a heap on Hallen’s grave. Jalya was shaking now, her arm quivering under my hand. I was so glad that Ashel wasn’t here to see this. I doubted that Silan would still be alive if he was.

Silan pushed himself up from his belly and crawled over to Ashel’s carving. He held it in his hands for a few moments, just staring at it. His shoulders began to shake and I realized he was crying and muttering to himself. I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying, but once or twice I thought I heard “why didn’t you love me?” eke out from between the sobs. He fell back down on the ground again and lay in the dirt, cradling the carving to his chest.

I looked over at Jalya and saw that she too had tears streaming down her face. I felt her arm pulling away from my hand and her body tensing as if she were about to stand. I grabbed her arm firmly and shook my head. “You can’t, Jalya; you can’t,” I whispered. “If you talked to him, he probably wouldn’t even remember anyway.”

I knew how she must be feeling. I mean, even I felt sorry for him at the moment. If only I could just go to him and tell him that it wasn’t Hallen’s fault and it really had nothing to do with him, that there were forces at work beyond anyone’s control, then maybe he could feel better. But I knew it was too dangerous, and I knew that he was far too inebriated to understand the story I would have to relay to him in order to explain. It had been hard enough to wrap my own head around and I had been sober when I heard it.

Silan’s eyes were now closed and his sobs died down to sharp, shuddering intakes of air. I realized that he had probably passed out and this might be our chance to leave. I put my arm around Jalya as we waited a few more minutes to make sure he was really out. Her body shook uncontrollably under my touch. I realized then that leaving might not be as easy for Jalya as I had previously thought. Even after how badly he’d treated her, she still probably worried about leaving him all alone. I hoped that my father would look in on him every now and then.

“Come on,” I said and stood up only partially to keep my body still mostly concealed by the bushes. “I think it’s safe to go now.” Jalya stayed in the same position and just stared at her father.

“Let’s go,” I repeated, just a little more firmly. “He’ll be fine. You heard what Towa said. He’ll be back for him later. Right now he just needs to sleep it off.”

I held out my hand and she reluctantly took it, standing slowly so as to minimize the noise. She glanced back briefly toward Silan, then followed me along the back of the yolder bushes to the hunting path once again. I gave a quick glance down the path to make sure that no one was there and then tugged Jalya in the direction away from the cabin and toward our adventure. By this time there were tears rolling down my face as well, blurring my vision as I stared ahead into the unknown. On trembling, reluctant legs, we pushed forward into the woodlands and didn’t look back.

PART TWO

~

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Chapter 15

We walked those first long hours mostly in silence, holding hands like we did when we were little girls. My stomach rolled over and over as I walked, churning around a hollow ache that wouldn’t leave. We could barely even eat, and only nibbled at tiny strips of dried meat when we stopped repeatedly to check the map. The directions were simple enough; we had to follow the Nebril River east to Sandoff’s Village. There was no real way to get lost as long as we kept the river in sight, but nonetheless we stopped often to make sure we were on the right track. Every twist in the path gave us a reason to worry, as we left familiar surroundings for the first time in our lives.

And the noises, they were everywhere. Birds singing, animals rustling in the bushes, and the rush of the Nebril River assaulted my ears from all sides. The river grew wider and more turbulent the further we went and its immensity scared me. We couldn’t have crossed it now no matter how much we wanted to. And, to my irritation, I couldn’t shake the horrible feeling that somebody was following us. I checked over my shoulder every couple of minutes to ease my paranoia.

“Damn, do my legs ever hurt!” Jalya said suddenly. We had been quiet for so long, that the sharpness of her voice startled me.

“Jalya, you curse too much. You’re starting to sound like Ashel.”

“What do I care. Who’s gonna say anything about it now….nobody out here cares!” She threw her head back and laughed. “Damn….hell…crap, crap, crap!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “It feels good, Emerin; you should try it!”

I shook my head. “You’re unbelievable,” I muttered.

“What was that? What are you calling me now?” she said with a chuckle.

“Jalya, you curse too damn much! You are going to hell!” We were both laughing now, ridding our bodies of some of the nervous tension that had been building in them during the past day.

“Arggh, I wish I knew how much further we have to go,” I said. “My legs really hurt, too.” And they really did. I certainly wasn’t used to climbing mountains, even small ones. I wondered if I’d still be able to walk by the time we reached Sandoff’s Village. And we couldn’t stop either; we were under strict instructions from the Lumeai to make sure that we got there by the end of the day, preferably before dark. Lovis warned us repeatedly not to trust anyone we met out here, to hide and avoid anybody that we came across until we reached our destination. I ran my fingers along the length of my belt until they stopped on the handle of my knife. It gave me a little comfort to know that it was there.

“Are these knives sharp?” I asked.

“They should be. Ashel was using them pretty recently.” She pulled her knife out of the sheath and stopped to test it on a tree. I watched as she peeled the bark from a branch effortlessly. “Seems sharp enough to me,” she said and blew the slivers of wood from the blade before replacing it in its leather casing. “Try yours.”

I slowly pulled the blade free and tested it in the same manner. The bark yielded easily to the knife’s edge and I felt at least a little relief. “Do you think these will be enough to protect us out here?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer.

“I guess that depends on what we have to protect ourselves against.” Jalya looked grim and began walking again. “Do you think that someone’s found my father yet?”

“Oh, I’m sure they have. It’s been hours since we left. Towa wouldn’t just leave him there.”

“I guess you’re right.” Jalya’s sad look suddenly turned into a smirk. “I wonder how much trouble Salare’s in.”

I laughed. “Probably a bundle. She’ll probably be locked in her room until her wedding day.”

“Yeah, they probably will make her marry Bainie for this.”

“Poor Salare. I know how she feels, you know, waiting to find out. It’s awful.”

“I imagine it is. I’m glad I don’t ever have to go through it.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to hide the sadness in my voice. It would be three more months until Jalya turned seventeen and had her matching day. In three months we wouldn’t be back; in all likelihood we would never be back. What would I be doing in three months? Would we still be searching for magic rocks and an elusive bei clu va? Or would the whole ordeal be over? And then what? Where would we go after that? We certainly couldn’t go back home. I couldn’t imagine what our lives would be like after this was over, where we would stay, what we would do. Part of me found the prospect of not knowing exciting, but most of me found it utterly terrifying.

We walked in silence again for a long while, watching the path unfurl in front of us. We twisted away from the river and back toward it again, but we never were out of earshot of its furiously rushing water. I wondered if the fishing was good here. We might have to test it out; our stash of meat wouldn’t last forever. Who knew just how long we’d be travelling.

I wondered where everyone thought we were now. They would certainly never guess what we were involved in. I thought about my parents and what they would be doing now, but I couldn’t think about it for long, as it hurt too much. I wondered about Callum, whether or not he was relieved that I was gone. He must have been. How long would it be before they made him another match? And Ashel, where the hell was Ashel? Was he even still alive?

I looked at Jalya’s face as she trudged along the pathway and concluded that she was probably thinking the same thing. At least I knew that my family was safe, even if I might never see them again. Why did this have to be so hard? We were doing a good thing, a brave thing, but it felt like we were being punished. My neck began to stiffen up and I braced myself in anticipation of another headache. Just what I needed.

Morning turned into afternoon; afternoon turned into evening, and still no sign of Sandoff’s Village. We stopped three more times to eat by the river’s edge, looking down into the water to try and spot some fish. By our last break, I was actually starting to feel hungry from all the walking and managed to down a large strip of deer meat. The sun was low in the sky and its orange beams danced across the surface of the river. The nervous feeling began to bubble up in my stomach again, as I contemplated the possibility that we wouldn’t make it there before dark.

“My head is really starting to hurt,” I informed Jalya.

“I was going to ask. It seemed like you had a headache.”

“Yeah, great timing, isn’t it?”

“Do you want some facion bark tea?” Jalya asked, untying her bag. “I could make you some.”

I smiled, happy that she’d remembered to bring the dreaded remedy. Even though it didn’t work well, at least it knocked me out so I could get some sleep. But now wasn’t the time to sleep.

“No,” I said. “You’d have to make a fire and boil water, which would take too long and then someone might notice us. Besides, if I drink any of that stuff, you’ll have to carry me the rest of the way. I can tough it out until we get there.” I rubbed the back of my neck hard to release some of the tension.

“Okay, you’re probably right. We’d better keep going then.”

I stood up and followed Jalya back onto the path. The next hour or so was brutal, my head pounding with every step. But then we came around a huge bend in the path and it suddenly started to feel better. Yet that odd pulling feeling was back and as the pain started to pull from my head, it felt like it was pulling a part of me with it. Luckily it was pulling me in the same direction that we were going. I no longer felt the tiredness in my legs and picked up my pace, not even noticing if Jalya was keeping up with me.

“Emerin, wait,” she called. “Slow down! Why are you running away from me?”

I looked down at my feet and sure enough, I was running. It seemed dangerous to do so in the growing darkness, on an unknown path speckled with rocks and tree roots, but I didn’t care. I was exhilarated. I turned around to face Jalya and skipped backwards with no regard for what I might be running into.

“He’s here Jalya; I feel it!” I panted. “It’s pulling me here. I can find him again…he’s this way!”

“Are you sure?” Jalya sprinted down the path to catch up.

“Yes!” I jumped up and down with renewed energy. “He’s this way, I know it, I know it, I know…”

At that moment, my heel caught on a rock and I sprawled backwards, landing on my backside. I laughed hysterically as Jalya finally reached me and helped me to my feet.

“Be careful, Emerin. You don’t want to kill yourself before you find him, do you?”

I stood up, brushed myself off and prepared to walk forward this time. And then I heard it. I looked at Jalya, who was frozen to the spot because she heard it too. Music. Very lively music. And shouting, the happy kind. Did that mean that we were close? There were definitely people up ahead.

“Do you think that’s the village?” Jalya asked.

“It must be,” I said, the words tumbling out of me breathlessly. It seemed that stopping made my head begin to hurt again, so I started moving forward to find relief. Every step I took seemed to make me feel better, the pain released its grip on my head and a warmth covered my body. I opened up my wool shawl so I could feel the breeze pass over me.

“He’s here. He’s here! Oh, Jalya, do you think he’s in the village?”

“I sure hope so. It would be great to cross one task off of our list.”

We quickened our pace and the music grew louder. Cheerful voices hooted and screamed and sang along. It sounded like quite the festival. We had festivals at harvest time, but never anything quite so loud and exuberant. I wondered what Sandoff’s Village would be like, what it would look like, what the people would be like. But mostly I wondered if I would find the man from the hill, my bei clu va. My stomach flitted about in anticipation and I had to hold myself back to keep from running again.

The path was straight for a long time, and I walked almost blindly down it, partly because of my excitement, partly because of the setting sun. So I didn’t even notice the sharp curve that turned quite suddenly to the right. I kept walking the way I was being pulled and crashed through the underbrush down the little hill to the edge of the river.

“Emerin!” I barely heard Jalya’s scream over the bubbling rapids. Even the crunching of her feet as she barrelled down after me was only faintly perceptible. “Emerin! What are you doing? Why did you come down here?”

“I don’t know.” I fell to my knees at the river’s edge and tried to resist the urge to plunge in. “I want to go this way.”

Jalya looked at me like I was a stupid child. “Well, we can’t go that way, Emerin. You see there’s this huge body of water in the way.”

“Well, I can see that, Jalya!” I screamed at her, desperation clawing at my throat. I scanned the shoreline on the other side of the river and saw nothing but trees. My head throbbed and I wanted to cry. “He’s over there…..on the other side.” Cut off again. Another barrier. It wasn’t fair.

“Are you sure? Come on, I’m sure the path turns back around again.” Jalya peered up the river and I heard her take in a sharp breath.

“Look, look,” she said excitedly. “Emerin, stop looking over there and look this way.” I ignored her, and instead tried in vain to distinguish some movement from amongst the darkening trees across the river.

“Emerin, look!” She squatted next to me, grabbed my head and turned it to the right, exacerbating the ever increasing pain. Furious, I slapped her hands away, but not before I noticed what she was yelling about. We were on a little outcropping of land next to a large bay. On the other side of the bay, the shoreline jutted out again and was covered in lights. Music reverberated across the water and I could see silhouettes of people walking across the rocks near the shore. The village. I wanted to be more excited about it, but that wasn’t the way I wanted to go.

Jalya rose to her feet and grabbed my arm. “Come on, come on, let’s go.” She tugged at me impatiently. I sat motionless like a heavy rock, barely moved by her nudges. “Let’s go. We’re almost there and it’s almost dark.” She was right. The sun had almost disappeared behind the lights of the village, its last few rays fluttering through the tree branches. Yet I could not move.

“I can’t Jalya,” I whimpered. “That’s not the right way.”

Jalya let out a heavy sigh. “Oh Emerin, don’t do this now. We can’t get over there and you know it. If he were over there, would he not have come to the shore by now looking for you? But nobody’s there. Maybe he’s in the village.”

“No, no, the village is that way and I need to go this way!” I gestured wildly with my hands. This could not be happening again. How could she not understand?

“Okay look, if we go to the village maybe they know a way to get across,” Jalya said sympathetically. “There’s nothing we can do here and you know it. Let’s just go now….please.”

Reluctantly, I let her help me to my feet and lead me back through the bushes. We went around them this time, rather than through them as I had on the way down. It was only now that I realized that I’d scratched up my legs pretty badly on the thorny stalks. But I barely even noticed my legs for the growing ache in my chest. Tears now fell freely from my cheeks and I clung tightly to Jalya for support. I could barely move forward in this inappropriate direction. An internal force tugged me to the left and I fought the urge to pull away from Jalya and run back down to the water’s edge. Maybe I should go for it again. And then this time I wouldn’t stop; I would just keep going into the water. Even if I died I would at least have the chance of relieving this all-encompassing desire.

But that was a ridiculous idea. I knew that much even in my delirious state. I just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we reached the village. They would know how to get over there; they had to. There didn’t seem to be a bridge nearby, but maybe they had a boat. I could beg someone to take me across. Hope filled my exhausted body and gave me enough energy to keep going. Step by step, we conquered the rocky path in the fading light. As the last of the sun’s rays disappeared from our view, we staggered around the final bend and found ourselves overlooking the village.

The people of Sandoff’s Village were farmers, as we were; we had always been told this while we were growing up. Therefore, I had always assumed that their village would be much like ours, and in truth, it did look somewhat the same. As we came out of the cover of trees and emerged into the large clearing, my bleary eyes tried to take in everything at once. There were vast fields of crops, and little wooden houses arranged in rows along pathways, much like Carper’s Village, but this is where the similarity ended. There were poles scattered along the pathways at intervals with flames encased at the top of them, which lit up the whole area. The light flooded between the homes and across the fields and came to rest at the three walls of forest that surrounded the community. Back home, sunset had always meant darkness, so we mostly stayed inside during the evening hours. I marvelled at this incredible light which spilled over our toes as we stepped from the shadow of the trees.

The villagers took advantage of this unnatural light and moved about the village, talking loudly to each person that they passed. The main action seemed to be happening in the very center of the cluster of houses, and it was from here that the music pumped, its reverberations too loud for my ears, even at this distance. A huge congregation of people thronged in this town center, singing and moving their bodies to the rhythm.

“Are they…..dancing?” Jalya asked. We had heard of this before, but had never seen it. No one in Carper’s Village ever danced. We sang church songs at our festivals, sometimes even loudly with jubilation, but dancing…never. Dancing was something that little kids did, when caught up in the gaiety of the singing, but never anyone even approaching adulthood. Yet these strange people in front of us, most of them adults, were dancing with fervor. Men and women touching hands, pressing their bodies together, laughing raucously. I had to shake my head to make sure I was seeing this properly.

“Is that dancing?” I mumbled. “My goodness…”

“Reverend Grell would be appalled,” Jalya laughed.

It was true. There was no way I could even imagine this kind of behaviour happening back home. How could a village so close to us be so different? I was actually getting a little afraid to approach, afraid of what other strange things we might be subjected to. Yet there was nothing else that we could do.

“Come on, Emerin. Let’s just get this over with.” Jalya grabbed my arm and gently urged me in the direction of the festivities. I reluctantly followed the pressure of her fingers and we descended the small hill in front of us, following the pathway that led toward the village.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a piercing sound shattered the air, like a high pitched whistle. I looked around to find the origin of the sound, but I barely had the chance to turn my head before someone grabbed me from behind.

Chapter 16

I let out a scream as two strong arms closed around mine, binding them to my sides. I kicked my feet behind me in a panic, trying in futility to hurt my attacker. My head thrashed from side to side, looking for a way out of the situation. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Jalya had been similarly imprisoned.

“Okay, relax now, love,” a deep voice growled in my ears. He spoke Yalish as we did, the common tongue of the riverlands, but with an unusual accent. It reminded me of the lilting speech of David the Nebril, and my blood ran cold.

“Stop fighting,” he commanded. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Only now did I realize that all of the crazed activity in the village had come abruptly to a halt. There was no more music and the silence was broken only by hushed murmurings from the other side of the houses where the crowd was assembled. I relaxed, simply because struggling didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere against the strength of my captor. Besides such straining really hurt my head. I glanced at Jalya and saw that she was anything but relaxed. She writhed and kicked and strained her hands toward her belt and the knife that was hidden beneath her shawl. The burly man that held her had clamped a hand over her mouth, and I could hear her trying to scream from beneath it.

“Jalya, calm down,” I said. “This isn’t helping.”

She looked at me and seemed to come to her senses. The man released his grip on her mouth. “We ain’t gonna hurt you, love,” he said in that same strange accent. “We just wanna know who you are.”

My captor slowly released me from his grasp and directed me to sit on a large log that ran alongside the pathway. I sat carefully amongst its gnarled bumps, grateful, at least, for the chance to get off my feet.

“Now keep your hands on your lap where I can see ‘em and there will be no problem.” His unwavering glance penetrated me, and I twisted my fingers together on my lap like an obedient schoolchild. This whole time I’d been so afraid and focused on who or what might do us harm, that I’d failed to even consider that someone else might see us as a threat. I tried to imagine what would happen if two unknown, wayward girls had straggled into our village.

Finally calm, Jalya was allowed to come sit beside me. I felt like we were little girls again, sitting together while waiting to get a lecture on why we shouldn’t be wandering out in the forest. The two men stared at us for a moment, as if sizing up the danger that we presented. They were huge: tall and stoutly built with heavily muscled arms and barrel chests. One had hair that was cropped short, almost to the point of not being there at all. The other had pulled his long, shaggy locks back into a ponytail at the base of his neck.

“You girls alone?” Ponytail asked.

“Yes,” I nodded. Jalya opened her mouth, but I glared at her before she could start talking. Now was not the time for one of her chattering episodes.

“Got any weapons?”

“No,” Jalya said. I stiffened next to her. Had they been able to feel the knives tucked away beneath our clothes? It didn’t seem so, because the two men didn’t say any more about it. On the other side of Jalya’s head I could see the movement of people peeking around the sides of the buildings. They babbled to each other in interest. This was the second time that we’d caused such a ruckus in a strange village this past day.

“So what are two young girls doing out here all by yourselves?” asked Shaved Head.

“We’ve been banished from our village….” Jalya began the story that the Lumeai had constructed for us that morning. “….for refusing marriage. So we are going to stay with my uncle. He lives in Warshar’s Village, up near the Beyjerones caves. We’re looking for someone to drive us up there. We have coins of amure to give to whomever does the task.”

Amure was the general currency of the riverlands. Most farming villages didn’t use it, preferring to trade whatever commodities they manufactured instead. However, coins of amure were still prized as they could buy anything that a person wanted, particularly in Nebril City, where they were used exclusively. Lovis had made sure that we had a heavy sack of them to take with us. He said no one would refuse to help us if we offered them coins. We were about to find out if he spoke the truth.

“Coins of amure, eh? Let me see ‘em.”

Jalya reached under her shawl and found the small purse containing her half of the prized currency. I held the other half next to my body. We felt it was safer that way; if something happened to one of us, at least the other would still have some left to use. She grabbed a few coins and held them out for the large men to inspect.

Ponytail leaned toward her to get a closer look. “Looks pretty genuine,” he said. “Give ‘em here so I can see better.” He extended his arm out toward Jalya.

“I don’t think so,” she said, closing her hand around the coins. “Unless you’re offering to transport us, you don’t need to get any closer to them.” She looked him straight in the eye in an astounding display of bravery. The man glared at her for a few seconds, then burst out laughing.

“You’re a tough one, ain’t ya?” he chuckled. “Well, come on then; let’s find you a driver. I doubt you’ll have a hard time when you’re carrying that loot. Are you from Carper’s Village?”

“Yes,” I said, relief flooding my body.

“Where did a couple of farm girls get coins of amure?”

“My grandmother,” Jalya said. “She’s been hiding them under her bed for years, you know, collecting them from merchants when they’d come into town. So when I had to leave, she gave them to me, because she thought that I’d need them.”

I was impressed; Jalya could really come up with a good story under pressure. I was grateful that she was there, as I doubted that I would be able to think that quickly in my agonized state. I rubbed the left side of my head hard. The pressure felt good, like I was pushing back against the part of me that was trying to get away. The water was still to my left. I still longed to run to it.

Some of the village men had gathered nearby, I assumed to be of help in case we were a bigger threat than what we appeared. Ponytail motioned for one of them to come over.

“Shale,” he said. “These girls are looking for a driver to take them through the woodlands. Why don’t you take ‘em into town and introduce ‘em to Wagna. He might be looking for a little amure, and a reason to go on another adventure.”

I looked up and watched one of the men step forward and move toward us. He was large, as they all seemed to be, but not as large as the men who had grabbed us. He reached us in a few easy strides and when the light fell across his face, I could see that he was young and quite handsome.

“Come along ladies,” he said, cheerfully extending his hand to Jalya. “Come and join the festivities.”

Jalya took his hand with a small smile; for once she almost looked shy. I realized, at that moment, that I would be hearing about how attractive Shale was for the rest of our journey. Right now, however, I couldn’t have cared about any other man, except for the one that I was sure was waiting for me on the other side of the river.

I forced myself to stand and follow Jalya and Shale, still holding onto the hope that I would find some way to cross that river. As I trudged along, I wasn’t even sure if Jalya was aware if I was following or not, as she didn’t once take her eyes off of our guide. The crowd closed in around us as we reached the pathway, chattering excitedly. I was only dimly aware of what they were saying.

“My goodness, you girls must be tired.”

“And hungry. I’ll go in the house and rustle them up some stew.”

“Oh my goodness, look at how tiny and pretty they are….like little dolls.”

“Does Carper’s Village still have arranged marriages? They’re so old fashioned there!”

“Baro, why don’t you go see if Wagna’s hiding in his house, because he sure ain’t out here.”

“No, absolutely not. I’m not dealing with that old crank….you go.”

“Come, come sit down you pretty things. You must join in on the fun!”

We were ushered into the town center and sat with Shale and some others at a table right next to the dancing. There were several men and women sitting across the square, playing drums and stringed instruments that I vaguely remembered hearing about at some point in my life, but definitely had never seen. The music pulsed and my head throbbed in time. I guessed that I had turned my body in another direction, because the pain was now pulling backwards on my head and I kept turning around to see if I could find the river through the trees behind us. I could no longer hear it over the constant din of the party, and was illogically afraid that somehow it was no longer there. If only I could get away, go for a walk through those trees, so I could reassure myself.

“What’s wrong with your friend?” Shale’s voice rose above the noise. “She seems nervous.” Jalya turned and looked at me as if she finally remembered that I was still there. “Oh, she just…..”

I interrupted her before she could answer for me. “I really want to see what’s on the other side of the river. Is there a boat or something that I could take over there?”

“What would you want to go over there for?” said the woman who sat next to me. “There ain’t nothing over there but trees!”

I scrambled for an excuse, but my mind was too muddled to function. Luckily, Jalya was there to rescue me. “When we were walking up here, Emerin was saying how pretty the lights were in the village and she thought that they’d look amazing from the other side of the river, you know, reflecting off the water and all. She had been talking about finding a boat to go across, right, Emerin?’

I nodded stupidly. They must have thought I was crazy and Jalya was only my friend because she felt sorry for me. I picked at the thick stew that one of the women had set in front of me and waited to see what they had to say. I looked from one face to another, still holding out hope.

“Nah,” said another man at the table. “No one can cross the river here; current’s way too rough. You try to paddle across that, it would carry you all the way back to Carper’s Village before you could reach the other side.” He scratched his long whiskers thoughtfully. “That is, if you didn’t topple in or your boat didn’t smash to bits first. Even if we had a boat in the village, there’s not a soul here that would take you across, no matter how many coins you’re hiding under that shawl.”

I hid my disappointment in a spoonful of saucy meat, trying not to let the tears flow. I had to get there…I had to. Jalya looked at me with concern, for what seemed like two seconds, and then turned back to her conversation with Shale. I rubbed at my neck in futility, as if anything but crossing that river could relieve the pain.

Seeing no point in pursuing the topic, I tried instead to stay focused on the conversation around me. The villagers were very interested in what our village was like, how our marriages were arranged and what prompted us to leave. The women were very sympathetic, their big eyes staring at us intensely from their round faces. They reminded me a bit of the Lumeai, only much larger and more gregarious. The men were very attentive, making sure we had enough to eat and drink and that we were warm enough. Jalya seemed to be enjoying herself immensely and I probably would have been having fun too, if it weren’t for the pain and the nagging desire to explore what lay behind me.

As the evening wore on, the festivities got louder and the people sang along joyously to the music. They had brought us each giant mugs of what they called ale. I sipped at mine slowly, not really savouring the taste, but Jalya downed hers enthusiastically and requested a second cup. It did seem to dull the pain slightly, but not the all-consuming desire to get to the river. To distract myself, I watched the dancers, who had only gotten more wild and uninhibited with the passage of time. Skirts swirled up high and the men lifted the women above their heads exposing legs and personal garments. Bodies were pressed together rubbing against each other and twirling together across the platform. It all seemed a little wrong to me somehow, but at the same time, oddly liberating. No one in Carper’s Village ever seemed to have this much fun.

At some point Jalya got up and left the table. Between all the commotion around me and my unrelenting river distraction, I hadn’t noticed her leave. Panic welled up in my throat, as I scanned the crowd for a glimpse of her, and found her on the platform dancing with Shale. She wasn’t hard to notice, being the only slender body in a tall and stocky crowd. Not to mention the worst dancer. She stumbled about clumsily, while Shale held her up, pressing his muscular body against her. I wasn’t sure if I was revolted or jealous, but at least it was entertaining. Everyone slowly lost interest in me as they drank more and more ale, which turned them into loud, clumsy children, more interested in singing and dancing than serious conversation.

Since I no longer had to concern myself with answering a multitude of questions, I internally debated what my next move would be. Should I go make sure that Jalya was okay with the effects of the ale and the public groping, or should I use the lack of attention I was now blessed with to take a trip to the riverside? I never got to answer my own question, however, because at that moment a bulging figure strode over and straddled the bench next to me.

“I’m Relco,” the hulking body said. I turned and saw a man of about Shale’s age, but not quite as handsome, casting a long shadow over me.

“I’m Emerin,” I said, hoping he would just go away, but I had the feeling that he came with a purpose.

“So…,” he continued in his slow, laid back drawl, “…I went to look for Wagna at his house, but he ain’t there. Don’t know where he’s at; he’s kind of a strange old man, prone to wandering off at all sorts of odd hours. I don’t know when he’ll be home, but I can check back later if you like.”

“Yes, I’d appreciate that. Thank you.” I turned my face away from his, hoping that now he’d just leave me alone. I didn’t mean to be ungrateful, but I really just wanted some time to collect myself and deal with the intensity of my situation.

Relco didn’t take the hint. “So…would you like some more ale?”

I looked down at my half-finished mug and shook my head. Did he really think I was ready for more? “No thank you,” I said, trying my best to smile politely.

“Well, maybe you’d like to dance then?” he pressed.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I stammered. “I don’t really know how.”

He chuckled. “That doesn’t seem to be stopping your friend.” I looked at Jalya with concerned embarrassment, as she writhed and rubbed against Shale, laughing boisterously. If only the elders could see her now. I turned back to Relco and saw that he was smiling at me, a wide toothy smile that lit up his whole face.

“C’mon now,” he urged. “I’ll teach you.”

There didn’t seem to be any getting out of this and the ale had dulled my headache to a tolerable level, so I stood up and let Relco lead me to the vibrating wooden platform. At least I could check on Jalya while I was there. I stepped up onto the platform and felt the floor shaking under my feet. Joyous revellers swirled past me and closed in around me as Relco made a pathway through the wall of bodies.

As the crowd parted I could see patches of grassy field between their bouncing heads, and beyond that field there seemed to be nothing. It stretched out into an inky blackness devoid of anything but stars, a vast nothingness that could only mean…..water. The river was that way. I felt an incredible pull in that direction to confirm my suspicions and immediately forgot all about Jalya. I gathered up my strength and tugged on Relco’s arm. He stopped and leaned toward me to hear what I had to say.

“I think before I do any dancing, I’d better use the outhouse,” I screamed over the music. “Is there one nearby?”

“There sure is,” he yelled in my ear. “Just around the other side of the doctor’s building over there.” He indicated the general direction with his head and I took note of the building behind him on the other side of the platform. “I’ll take you there if you want.”

“Oh no, I can find it. You stay and have fun.”

Relco looked around and his gaze settled on a trio of buxom women standing nearby. “Okay, well, I’ll be here when you get back,” he said without looking at me.

“Sure,” I said, and took off toward the outhouse. It was a relief to be headed in the right direction again. I jumped down off the platform, and made my way around the side of the doctor’s building, before turning around to see if anyone was watching me. Jalya was slumped against Shale, and Relco was already dancing with one of the women he had seemed so interested in. At least he wouldn’t be missing me for a while anyway.

Once behind the cover of the building and out of sight of the dancers, I took off at a run. I could feel the breeze coming off the water, its cool fingers combing through my hair. I opened my shawl and let it caress the rest of my body as I ran toward my destiny. I raced through the long grass, and saw no one. I bounded over the rocks at the riverside, with no one there to stop me. No one noticed as my skirts dipped into the first waves of the river and I disappeared into its blackness. No one was here, no one would stop me this time…..I was going to make it…I was going to make it…..

Then suddenly there was nothing beneath my feet, and I was enveloped by water. It surrounded me on all sides, embracing my limbs and my torso, roaring in my ears and crashing over my head. It pressed against my skin in soothing ripples, reminding me that now everything would be okay. I was on my way. I would be there soon. The residual pain in my head slipped away and was carried off by the waves.

My head bobbed above the surface for a few seconds and I could see the water swirling around me, as the dancers had been only moments before. The trees on the other side bounced around before my eyes, and I peered into the darkness to see if he was there…if he was waiting for me. But I didn’t have enough time to see anything before my head plunged back into the soothing comfort of the rushing water. I floated along without struggling, knowing somehow that I would get to the other side; somehow I would be safe.

I took a breath and, as the water rushed into my lungs, I no longer felt so confident. The growing ache inside of me as its coldness spread through my chest shocked me back to the reality of my situation. I was drowning. The other side of the river was still very far away and I had no clue how far I had come from the shore. I moved my arms, trying to grasp at something, anything, but my hands could only claw frantically at the water. I thrashed my head from side to side looking for some help anywhere, but I could see nothing but blackness and the village lights reflecting off the water. I couldn’t scream, couldn’t even get my head back up to the surface. Panicking, I struggled for another breath, but instead of precious air, I was met with more water. My lungs ached, felt ready to explode. What had I been thinking?

I thought of my parents; their worst fears of my disappearance would be realized. I closed my eyes and tried to picture their faces in my mind, but I could only see the silhouette of my mother closing the door as I ran off into the shadows. Had that only been the night before? My limbs relaxed as more water rushed into my lungs, and I gulped it down my throat. This was it…this was the end; at least my bei clu va would be whole now. He would be whole and I would be nothing. I opened my eyes. All I could see was darkness.

The chill of the water against my skin was painfully obvious now and I floated backwards into it, riding along with the current. Maybe I would float all the way home and they would never realize that I’d left at all. The iciness ripped into my shoulder blades and sliced around my arms.

And then, in an instant, it was gone….I felt my back resting against something concrete, something much less cold. My hands groped behind me in a last desperate motion and clasped onto what felt like fabric. I wanted to turn around and grasp it and pull myself out of this swirling tomb, but I could not move. There was nothing left in me; I finally had a chance at survival and it was too late. I couldn’t even save myself.

But just as I let go, gave into the blackness and resigned myself to death, the warmness surrounded me. The fabric embraced me around my ribcage and I felt myself being pulled from the water. The blackness cleared and I could see the lights of Sandoff’s Village emerging in the distance. I struggled for air, but still could not breathe, and panic set in again. Why couldn’t I breathe?

Suddenly water rushed into my nose and throat and I quickly became aware that I was vomiting all over myself. Again I struggled for a breath and finally felt a little air penetrate my chest, enough to make me cough and sputter and again heave a vast quantity of water onto my dress.

“C’mon now, stop fighting me,” said a distant voice that I wasn’t sure I really heard. “I’m trying to help you.” I looked down and realized that what was wrapped around me was a pair of arms. Had I been fighting? I sure hadn’t noticed. And who was behind me, dragging me up onto the rocks?

“Alright, you gotta lie on your side here, head down now…c’mon, we want to make sure you get all the water out.” The voice was definitely a man.

I complied and lay down on the rocks, coughing violently, unable to think about anything except gasping as much air into me as possible. I rested my head on the rocks shivering uncontrollably, trying to focus my eyes. Was I awake or asleep, alive or dead, breathing or motionless…I just couldn’t tell anymore.

The gruff voice brought me back to a semi reality. “Goodness gracious honey, what were you doing out there? You weren’t trying to kill yourself, were you?” It seemed to my dulled senses that I shook my head in response. That meant that I was alive, I reasoned.

“We gotta get you outta these wet clothes; you’re gonna catch your death of cold. Let me go to my horse and fetch a blanket.” I heard the man’s steps fade off into the distance as he climbed over the rocks. His horse? Who was this man? It seemed to me that I wasn’t in Sandoff’s Village anymore. Maybe the current really had brought me home. The man seemed to have an accent unlike anyone in my village, but in my state I couldn’t be completely sure. No, I could still hear the music; it was further away now, but still there.

The coughing fit had subsided and I lifted my head slightly to observe my surroundings. Yes, I was definitely awake and alive, but that was really all I knew. I saw the lights in Sandoff’s Village in the distance, bouncing off the water. Did I make it across? Who was the man? I no longer felt the pulling, no longer felt the desire to run, to go anywhere other than here. Could this man be him? Could he be….? I let my head drop down back onto the rocks in exhaustion. I couldn’t even think, so I just rested and concentrated on breathing while I waited for my rescuer to come back.

Before long I heard the footsteps returning, softly at first then increasingly louder, crunching over stones and scraping against rocks. Then he was beside me again, laying his hands on my side, presumably to see if I was still breathing.

“You okay, honey?” he asked gently. “Can you sit up do you think? We have to get your wet clothes off so you don’t get too cold.”

I nodded briefly and slowly lifted my head again. The village lights swam before my eyes and I blinked repeatedly to make sure my vision wasn’t failing me. The stranger gathered me in his arms to help me sit up and I turned to look at him not knowing what to expect, wondering if I would be looking into the face of my bei clu va.

Chapter 17

I peered through the darkness hopefully, as I watched the man brush the hair back out of his face. My heart sank in disappointment when I saw the lines that creased his forehead and crinkled in the corners of his eyes. He was an old man, at least sixty, if not seventy years of age. As my eyes focused, I could see that the long hair that stuck out from his head in a multitude of crazy directions was indeed gray.

I looked from side to side and observed my surroundings with a clearer head. We were on an outcropping of rocks and when I looked across the water, I could see the lights of Sandoff’s Village. It almost looked like……..yes, we were sitting right where Jalya and I had been when we first noticed the village, just a few short hours earlier. I looked down at my drenched clothing and burst into tears.

“Oh, hey now, none of that,” the old man said. “You’ve had a scare, but you’re alright now. Okay, I’m gonna turn my back now, y’hear, and you need to take off your wet clothes and put on that there blanket. But you better hurry cuz I’m only turning around for a minute. That’s all you need.”

I stared at him, startled by his brusqueness, but decided I should take him seriously. It probably wasn’t a good idea to be sitting around in my wet clothes. I could already feel the wind cutting through them and I couldn’t control my shaking. I wiped my tears and watched his back as I stripped off layer after layer of wet material. He was tall, but wiry and probably strong enough to hurt me if I made any wrong moves. I grabbed the blanket from where it lay on the rocks. It was huge and I was able to wind it around my body several times, making quite a warm cocoon.

“You finished yet, honey?”

I finally felt strong enough to speak. “Yes,” I said, forcing the word through my chattering teeth. I wondered what he was planning to do with me. “I need to get back to Sandoff’s Village. I’m meeting a friend there.”

“Meeting a friend, eh?” He chuckled as he turned to face me again. “Were y’all planning to do some swimming together? Or did you just take a wrong turn in the dark?”

“Something like that.”

“Alright then, let’s get to my horse, and we’ll have you back in a jiffy.” He picked up my clothes and wrung out the excess water on the rocks. “Ooooeee, what a night. It’s not too often that I get to rescue drowning girls. Let’s go, honey.” He took me by the elbow and led me up the rocks. I felt a bit dizzy and he needed to steady me a few times as I walked to the horse.

“Now this beautiful girl here is Shilly.” He stretched his hand out to touch the mare’s face as we approached. She stamped her feet in response and nuzzled him with her nose. “Now Shilly, I know you don’t like sharing me with other women, but this one’s only along for the ride for a couple of minutes. I think you can handle the extra weight, a strong girl like you.”

Shilly snorted an abrupt answer, but stood completely still while her owner helped me climb onto her back. I combed my fingers through her dark mane, while the old man hoisted himself up behind me. He slapped the reins and the horse turned around and trotted onto the path. I hoped I wasn’t hurting her as I dug my fingers into her neck, but I was a little nervous. I’d only been on a horse once before, when a travelling merchant had come to our village and offered all of us kids a ride. I had only been six at the time and really didn’t remember what it felt like. Horses in Carper’s Village were for pulling ploughs and maybe the occasional wagon trip, but not for riding.

As we rode back into the village, the now familiar pull returned to my body. It dragged my eyes forcefully toward the water in which I’d nearly drowned moments ago. Though I knew it meant certain death, I still had to fight the compulsion to jump down off the horse, run back to the rocky shore and lose myself in the swirling current. My head began to hurt again and throbbed each time one of Shilly’s hooves hit the packed earth beneath us. Luckily the distance was travelled quickly on horseback and in no time we reached the clearing of the village.

As we rode down the hill toward the rows of cabins, I noticed Shaved Head sitting on a huge boulder in the middle of the field, apparently still at his post. There was a body passed out in the grass next to him, who I assumed was Ponytail. They would be in a fine state if anyone tried to attack their village now. He waved at the old man as we trotted past. I wondered if he recognized me, and what everyone would think when they saw me wrapped in a blanket with my hair dripping down my back.

I needn’t have worried, because, by the time we reached the dirt pathway, the village was mostly empty. The party seemed to be over and I saw the band packing up on the other side of the wooden platform as we rode past. There were several people laying in various places on the ground, apparently overcome by too much ale. I scrutinized them to see if any of them were Jalya, but she was nowhere to be seen. A few people were still staggering back to their homes, but for the most part the pathways were quiet except for a few men that were snuffing out the flames in the lanterns. They nodded to the old man as we passed.

“I need to find my friend,” I said. “I don’t know where she is.”

“Maybe she went home.”

“No, you don’t understand, she’s not from here. Neither of us is. She has no home to go to.”

The old man sighed. “Well, we ain’t going knocking on everyone’s doors at this time of the night. I’m sure someone has taken her in for the night. She know anybody here?”

“Last I saw, she was with a man named Shale.” I pressed my hand to the side of my head to relieve the pressure. All I wanted to do was go to sleep; I imagined how good it would feel to lay my head down on Shilly’s soft mane.

“Aww, Shale will take good care of her. And he’s probably far too drunk by now to take advantage of her.”

“Take advantage of her?” I hoped that didn’t mean what I thought it did.

“You know, when a guy’s alone with a girl and he feels an urge and she’s too drunk to put up a fight……aw, never mind; she’ll be okay.”

Shilly came around a bend where the pathway circled behind a large bush and stopped in front of the cabin at the very end. The old man slid down off the horse with the agility of someone much younger, then helped me to the ground.

“Well, looks like you’ll be staying with me tonight then,” he said matter-of-factly. “And you can tell me what you and your friend are really up to here.”

He smiled as I uncomfortably avoided his gaze. It sure seemed like he was sober enough to take advantage of someone. I suddenly felt quite under dressed wrapped in only a blanket and crossed my arms in front of my chest, trying to think of some way out of the situation.

The old man chuckled at my obvious discomfort. “Don’t worry honey; I won’t hurt you. My name’s Wagna.”

Wagna! I felt a little relief at the sound of the name and decided, that for the sake of our mission, I had to trust him. Besides, I might just freeze to death outside tonight with my wet hair. “I need to get my bag, with my things in it. It’s somewhere near the dancing platform over there.” I gestured vaguely with my arm, squinting my eyes to quell the increasing pain.

“You okay?” Wagna furrowed his eyebrows in concern. “You didn’t hurt yourself out in that water, did you? Crash into a rock or something?”

“No, at least I don’t think so. I just have a headache.” I shot a look back in the direction of the dance floor, pretending like I was searching for my bag, but really trying to get a glimpse of the river. It felt like if I didn’t keep looking at it, that it might just disappear. I strained my eyes out into the blackness, hoping that somehow my vision could extend to the other side. No such luck. I turned back to face Wagna.

He studied my face with intense curiosity. “C’mon honey,” he smiled, “let’s get you inside, then I’ll go find your bag. Started a fire earlier, so it should be warm by now.” He put his hand on my back and ushered me toward the wooden door. “Why don’t you tell me your name?” he said as he pushed it open. “Seeing as I’m not in the habit of bringing strangers into my house.”

“Emerin,” I said, wondering if I ought to have lied. I couldn’t be sure if tales of our escapades would eventually get back to Carper’s Village.

“Emerin, interesting,” Wagna mused. “Used to have a schoolteacher named Miss Emerin. Horrible woman. I’m sure you’re much nicer than she was. Here now, sit down. I think I’ve got some facion bark here; take it sometimes for my old, aching joints. Let me set some to brew on the stove before I leave.”

“Yes, please.” I nodded gratefully, as I took in my surroundings. Wagna had led me to a small cot where I now sat. There was a wood stove in the corner, a table with one chair and a wooden wardrobe on the opposite wall. That was about it. I reasoned that Wagna must live alone.

I watched as he poured water into a kettle and placed it on the stove. Then he rustled through several canisters, apparently looking for his facion bark. He grumbled more audibly with every container that he opened which didn’t yield the appropriate herb. My eyes gravitated toward the door repeatedly and I fought the urge to run back through it. Tears of frustration sprang to my eyes and I swallowed hard in an attempt to hold them in. Why was I subject to this torture? Was this how my life would always be? A drive to get somewhere that I just couldn’t, a drive so strong that I was willing to put my life in peril over and over again to satisfy it. Leaving home only seemed to have increased its intensity. What if I couldn’t handle what was to come?

“Aha!” Wagna shouted triumphantly as he pulled a container from under his table. “I knew it was here somewhere. It’ll just be a few minutes now.”

I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and forced a smile. Wagna looked at me sadly as he pulled out the vile tasting leaves and dropped them in the kettle. He replaced the lid and pulled his chair over to the cot.

“Look at me,” he commanded. I glanced at him momentarily before my eyes flitted back to the door. He put his hands on my face and turned it toward him and I began to have the sinking feeling that I was wrong to trust him. Maybe he was really brewing some drug to knock me out so he could have his way with me. But I almost didn’t even care anymore, as long as I would be away from this reality, away from the pain and the nagging compulsion to drown myself. I stiffened slightly, waiting for him to try to kiss me or rip off my blanket or something, but he only stared into my eyes for a moment before dropping his hands.

“Hmmm, interesting,” he said. “You’re a bei clu ain’t ya?’

If I’d had a hard time keeping my eyes from the door before, I certainly didn’t now. My gaze snapped back to Wagna’s face in an instant, and I quickly debated whether or not I should tell the truth. The Lumeai had told us not to tell anyone who I was or what we were doing. The villagers wouldn’t understand. They would think we were crazy or troublemakers. We would end up in Lock Up before we could even reach the Beyjerones.

I looked Wagna straight in the eye. “What’s a bei clu?” I asked.

He shook his finger at me. “So you either really don’t know, which is a possibility of course, or you’re trying to hide it from me. Though I doubt that you don’t know, judging by the look on your face when I mentioned it. It’s really not necessary to keep it from me you know. I’m in a position to help you here. I can take you wherever you need to go. I’ve helped many others like you over the years.”

I stared into his eyes, trying to judge their sincerity. There seemed to be pain in them now, but I still wasn’t sure I could trust him. “What makes you think I’m a bei clu?”

“Oh dear girl, it’s written all over your face.” He smiled at me before continuing. “There’s a certain look about a bei clu that is not with their bei clu va, a sort of quiet desperation, a need that can’t be fulfilled, an itch that can’t be scratched you might say. You haven’t been able to turn your head away from that water since I found you and I’m pretty sure I know why you threw yourself in there in the first place. I saw it in the first second that I looked at you. Then when you told me about the headache, well that pretty much confirmed it.” He looked down at his hands briefly. I noticed that they were now twisted together so tightly that his knuckles were white.

“You see, Emerin, the youngest of my brothers is a bei clu. I haven’t seen him in almost forty years, no idea where he is, whether he’s alive or dead. I watched him grow up like that, saw his pain, his longing. I wanted to help, yet there was nothing I could do. Then one day he just up and disappeared; never heard from him again.” He turned to look at me with a sad smile. “I suppose kind of the way you did.”

I nodded my head slowly; there wasn’t really a need to say anything. I looked into Wagna’s eyes and knew that I could trust him. He was the first person that truly seemed to understand me and I suddenly felt a powerful connection to him as a result.

“Your parents know where you are, honey?”

“No. I couldn’t tell them. Everyone in Carper’s Village thought I was just crazy.”

“Ah, Carper’s Village. Should’ve known that’s where you were from.” He sat back in his chair and his tone lightened. “Tell me, Miss Emerin, had they found a husband for you yet?”

My nerves grated on the memory of Callum and I wondered if I visibly twitched. “Actually, I was supposed to get married this morning, but I couldn’t do it. He was a real twit.”

Wagna threw his head back with a loud guffaw and stood up out of his seat. “I’ll bet he was! I’ve met quite a few of those Carper’s Village fellas and I don’t think that I’ve come across one that wasn’t. Not that they’re any better here, mind you.”

He crossed the room and reached his hand out to the door. “Well, you just rest here a minute, while I go find your things. And by the time I get back your tea should be ready. I’m going to put Shilly on guard duty though, so don’t even think about making another run for that water. She’s a real kicker that one. When I get back, I’ll show you the hoof prints she’s left in me!” He chuckled as he went through the door.

I lay back on the cot and tucked the blanket tighter about my shoulders, relishing my first moment alone to relax and think since this whole ordeal began. My thoughts immediately went back to my parents. Were they getting any sleep tonight? I doubted it. But at least they were safe. I didn’t even want to think about what might be happening to Ashel right now. What did the Nebril want with him? The only reason for David to take him would be if he knew what he was and that he would be a threat to the Nebril. If that was the case what would they do to him?

Fear gripped my chest like a claw threatening to rip me to pieces. I rolled onto my side and curled into a ball to relieve the growing discomfort. The window in the front of the wood stove was alive with dancing orange flames and I lost myself in the glow. I loved Ashel, maybe not in the way that Jalya thought he loved me, but in some way nonetheless. He’d been a part of my life for so long, how could I not? And what kind of trouble had Jalya gotten herself into now? Somehow I knew she’d go crazy once the strict rule of our tiny town was lifted from her. I sighed and closed my eyes, praying that they would both be safe tonight.

Chapter 18

When I opened my eyes, the sun’s rays were pouring in the small window at the back of the cabin and draping themselves rudely across my face. I squinted and sat up quickly, forgetting for a moment where I was. Wagna’s cabin….but Wagna wasn’t there. I looked around and saw several cups on the table and canisters strewn about.

I vaguely remembered Wagna waking me up the night before and gently sitting me up to drink the facion bark tea. Then he got me up a couple of other times to drink what he called druin tea, something that would absorb any water that might still be remaining in my body from the incident last night. It tasted really awful, worse than the facion bark, if possible, and now, because of its effects, I really, really needed the outhouse. I looked around and to my relief found my bag as well as Jalya’s on the floor in the corner opposite to the wood stove.

I wrapped the blanket tightly around me and tried to stand, but my body quickly reminded me just how far I’d walked the day before. I crashed back down onto the cot, a prisoner of my stiff joints and aching muscles. Taking a deep breath, I tried again, but more slowly this time and successfully dragged myself across the room, one tiny, painful step at a time. I fell down next to my bag and rummaged through, making sure that everything was still in there.

The coins of amure! They’d been tied to the belt I wore under my shawl, next to my dress. In all the confusion last night, I’d forgotten to check if I still had them. My eyes scanned the small cabin frantically, but my dress and shawl were nowhere to be seen.

In a panic, I grabbed one of the dresses from my bag and put it on as fast as my sore limbs would allow. I shuffled over to the door and opened it to be met by a cold, biting wind. I looked around and saw no one near the cabin, though I could hear people talking and moving about just beyond the trees. As I scanned the land in front of me, I saw my dress and shawl hanging from a nearby tree branch. Relieved, I walked over to them, yet found no sign of my knife or the coins. No sign of Wagna either. That thief! I wondered how many other people he’d brought back to his secluded cabin to gain their trust and then rob them.

I disentangled my clothing from the tree, and, after making sure they were dry, brought them back to the cabin. I would repack, then take both bags and go find Jalya. Then I figured we’d have to find someone else who could drive us, and hope that the coins that Jalya had were enough to get us by…..if she still had hers.

I sulked as I stuffed my dress into my bag; one night out and we’d already managed to screw things up as much as we possibly could. I rubbed my head in an attempt to wipe away the left over facion bark grogginess and ran my hands through my tangled hair. Well, at least the headache was gone. Maybe today I’d be able to think more clearly.

After getting all of our things in order, I went around to the back of the cabin to relieve myself in the bushes. Just as I was finishing up, I heard voices coming from the pathway. I peeked around the side of the cabin, hoping to find someone that could help us with our journey. It was Wagna sauntering down the path with Jalya, who was looking pale and exhausted. Relief flooded through me and I felt a strange mixture of joy and anger. All the emotions that I’d been feeling for the last few days came bubbling to the surface and I could no longer hold them back. I bounded around the side of the building in giant strides, the stiffness in my legs finally easing up.

I don’t think they even saw me coming before I attacked, with Wagna being the first victim. “Where the hell are my coins?! And my knife?” I threw the questions at him accusingly.

“Well…” he started to answer, but could not fit his words in before I kept ranting.

“And you,” I rasped, turning to Jalya. “Where the hell have you been? You think it’s smart to get drunk and run off with strange men? You want to end up like your father, is that it?” Jalya’s face turned even whiter if possible and she turned away from me, kind of staggered over to the side of the cabin and collapsed on a fallen tree trunk, head in her hands.

“I think your friend there is going to understand your headaches a bit better from now on. Looks like she has a doozy,” Wagna chortled.

I stared at him dumbfounded. “You didn’t answer my question. Where’s my bag of coins? I want it back now.”

Wagna’s face fell. “Oh, I got your amure alright,” he said as he strode toward the cabin’s door. He turned and pointed a finger at me before going inside. “You’re acting mighty ungrateful there, Miss Emerin.”

I looked over at Jalya, who was still cradling her sore head, then around at the trees. I guess I had been a little harsh. Especially considering the incredibly dumb escapade that I’d pulled off the night before. I was considering going over to apologize, when Wagna emerged from the house.

“Well, here ya go,” he said, as he dropped my bag of coins and my knife at my feet. “Just like you left them, only a tad less wet, I’d imagine. I put them in my cabinet for safe keeping. Even spread out the coins on the shelf so they’d dry. Wouldn’t want them to get all moldy in the bag.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled, embarrassed by my assumptions. I picked up the bag and knife and tucked them safely back under my belt, promising myself that from now on, I would not be so careless.

“Yeah, well, next time you’re about to fire off on someone, you might want to give it a moment’s thought first. I had to wash your dress last night. You didn’t notice any puke left on it when you grabbed it from the tree, did you? No, I’m sure you didn’t look…too angry I suppose. Well, I found your coins and knife and thought better of leaving them out here with all the drunken idiots…..no offense Jalya…….anyway, I’m ready to go whenever you girls are. Just gotta feed the horses first.” He walked toward Shilly, who stood next to another horse at the side of the cabin.

“I’m sorry, Wagna,” I said, as I followed him through the grass. “I guess I’m just a little overloaded emotionally…I just kind of snapped.”

He turned and smiled at me while he fussed over the horses. “Forget it. We all have our moments. You probably more than others.”

“What do you mean you’re ready to go when we are?”

“Your friend there told me that you’re looking for a ride. I have a wagon. It all works out.”

“You’re willing to take us?” I said, relief flowing through my chest.

“Wherever you need to go. There’s no place that’s too far or too wild for Wagna. I’m just itching for an excuse to get away from here for a while.”

“What else did Jalya tell you?”

“Not much really, something about going to Warshar’s Village, but that was about it. Didn’t seem to be in a very talkative mood……too busy holding her head and moaning.”

I smiled. “Just wait till she’s feeling better.”

Wagna looked over at Jalya, who still sat on the log. She’d finally lifted her head from her hands and was squinting into the sun dappled bushes. I felt bad for her.

“Her Dad a drunk?” he asked.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Well, I know what that’s like. Poor thing. When I’m done here, I’ll make her some of that nasty tea. That’ll help. You can tell her that when you go over to apologize.”

“Oh, she’s fine,” I assured him. “I needed to say something to her about it….we have to be serious about what we’re doing here. I need to be able to trust her not to do something stupid.”

“You mean as stupid as wandering into a rushing river, hoping to just float across? Cuz in my books that wins the prize for empty-headed act of the night.” Wagna looked at me with a combination of pity and amusement. “Now, I’ll bet the worst thing that a person could say to Jalya is to compare her to her father. And looking at her this morning, I’m pretty sure that she’s learned her lesson.”

“She should have known better.”

“Some lessons have to be learned the hard way, Emmy.”

Emmy? I wasn’t sure how I liked my new nickname, but decided to let it go. Wagna finished up with the horses and turned to go into the cabin and I made my way over to where Jalya sat. I felt empty inside and exhausted outside, like someone had tied me to a horse and dragged me twenty leagues. But no matter how bad I felt, Jalya looked worse.

I sat down on the log next to her. “How are you feeling?” I asked stupidly.

“Like hell,” she croaked.

“Well, Wagna’s going to make you some facion bark tea. It’ll help with the headache.”

“Okay, good.” She rubbed her head with both hands. “Don’t think I’ve ever had one this bad. Can’t even move my head. Now I know how you’ve been feeling.”

I smiled at her. “I’m sorry, Jalya, you know, about what I just said.”

“It’s fine, Emerin. I know what I did.” She looked down at her feet. “But I’m not going to turn out like him.”

“I know you’re not. It’s just that I was scared last night when I couldn’t find you. We have to be more careful from now on. You’re not the only one who did a dumb thing last night.”

Jalya turned her head slowly to look at me and forced a smile. “I know. Wagna told me.” She stared at me for a moment and then asked the one tiny question that summed it all up. “Why?”

“I don’t know, Jalya; I really don’t. The feeling, the pull to go where I need to go, it’s just so overwhelming. Lately, when it happens, I can’t even think about anything else; can’t even think straight at all. It’s like I can’t control what I’m doing, even if it’s dangerous. Nothing else matters. It scares me, you know.”

“Yeah, it scares me too.”

“That’s why I need you, Jalya. I need you to be sober and alert in case I try to do anything else stupid.”

“I know, Emerin. I’m sorry…I wish I’d understood how bad it was. I mean, I should have understood; I’ve known you forever. I just…..I don’t know what happened, but I know if I’d been there I could have stopped you…I mean what if……” She paused and I could see tears in her eyes. “I’m just grateful that Wagna was there.”

“Yeah, me too.”

We sat in silence for a moment, listening to the birds singing. I could still hear the rushing of the river somewhere to the left of me, but I no longer felt the compulsion to run to it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Hearing it reminded me of my ordeal last night, and made me feel a little queasy.

I was suddenly hit by the overwhelming desire to go home. I just wanted to go home and sleep in my bed and have my mother hold me. I wanted to eat at the table with my parents and play card games in the evening by the fire. Even marrying Callum didn’t sound so bad now, boring and oppressive sure, but at least safe and secure. But I couldn’t go back to that, even if I’d wanted to; it was too late; we’d gone too far. If we went back, we might both be sent to Lock Up. This was it; this was our life now. My heart raced and my chest ached.

“Jalya, do you miss home?” I asked.

“I do….I actually do. I didn’t think I would, but I do. I even miss my father, believe it or not. But I really miss Ashel; I’m so worried, Emerin.” She grabbed my hand and twisted her fingers between mine, squeezing them tightly.

“He’ll be okay, Jalya. I’m sure of it. We’ll find him soon.” I took a deep breath and asked the question that had been on my mind since I sat down. “So, what happened last night…with Shale, I mean. You stayed with him all night?”

“Yes, I did, but that’s really all I know….I don’t remember much.” She looked off into the woods as if trying to will back memories of the previous evening, and then sighed. “Nothing happened, at least I’m pretty sure. I mean I was at his parents’ house and when I woke up, my dress was still on. Shale was sleeping on the floor next to the bed that I was in. But….he woke up a few minutes after I did and got into bed with me and started kissing me. Then touching me everywhere and trying to unbutton my dress. I tried pushing him off of me but I couldn’t…” She stopped abruptly, tears running down her face.

“So, what happened?” I urged. I felt insensitive rushing her, but I really wanted to know. “Did he stop….eventually?”

“Yes, he did.” She smiled through her tears. “If I’d had a clearer head, I would have thought to reach for my knife or at least call for help, but instead I used the form of self-defense that comes easiest to one who’s severely hung over…….I threw up on him.”

I laughed. “Oh Jalya, you didn’t….well, I bet that was a turn off.”

“It certainly seemed to be,” she chuckled softly. “When he went out to the water pump to clean himself up, that’s when I kind of just sneaked out. Then Wagna found me sitting on a bench, groaning in pain, and brought me back here.”

“Yep, she certainly was a sad sight.” Wagna’s gruff voice floated up from behind us. He carried a large mug of tea, which he handed to Jalya. She thanked him profusely and winced dramatically after the first sip. “Pretty awful stuff, ain’t it? But it’ll help the pain for sure.” He turned to me. “What about you, Emmy; you still have a headache? You need any more of the vile weed?”

“Absolutely not,” I chirped, happy to be able to say so. “Jalya can enjoy it all by herself this morning.”

“Well, looks like I’d better pack some for the journey, what with the two of you along. I’ll make us some breakfast for the road too. You gals make sure you got all your stuff together. We’ll be leaving soon.”

Jalya moaned. “Uuggh! I don’t know what sounds worse, the thought of riding on a bumpy road, or the thought of breakfast.” She took another sip of her tea and tried to swallow it without making a face. “Honestly, Emerin, I don’t think that I’ve ever felt this horrible.”

“Well, I hope you remember that the next time we encounter a good looking guy.”

“He was really attractive, wasn’t he?” She smiled genuinely this time.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Emerin this stuff is making me really sleepy.”

I looked over and saw that she’d finished her tea and the lids of her eyes were drooping. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s get you to the wagon before you pass out.” I stood up and helped her to her feet. “Are you feeling better though?”

“Woooeee, I’m feeling pretty good now! This stuff is great…should’ve just had this instead of that crap I drank last night.” Jalya chuckled heartily then staggered on the uneven ground. I held her tightly by the arm and led her to the wagon where Wagna was waiting.

“Experiencing a whole different kind of inebriation now, eh honey?” He laughed as he helped me load Jalya into the wagon. It was large with an open front and a back covered in brown canvas that looked like Wagna had just sewn a bunch of grain sacks together. He led her behind the seats and under the covering, where he lay her down on a stack of blankets and animal skins that he’d fashioned into somewhat of a bed.

“Goodnight,” Jalya said, as she snuggled into the bedding. I watched as she adjusted her shawl and turned herself into a comfortable position, noting with relief that her knife and satchel of coins were still in place. We were both going to have to be more careful from now on.

Wagna stared at her thoughtfully. “I sure hope she doesn’t throw up in my wagon,” he snorted.

“Me too,” I said. I hopped down off the wagon and landed with an ungraceful thud on the ground. I would have to get used to the height of the thing. “I’m going inside to get our bags.”

He nodded silently as he finished hitching up the horses. As I walked back to the cabin, I listened intently to the rush of the river in the distance, yet I still felt nothing. If my bei clu va had been there last night, I was certain that he was gone now. I wondered if he had passed the night in the same state that I had. Or maybe I was just wrong about my feelings; maybe I had imagined it all; maybe I really was crazy. My memories from last night were all blurred together in a giant swirling mess, and I didn’t trust myself to know what was real and what wasn’t. All I knew was that now I felt fine, good even, so I didn’t want to worry about anything. I made sure that our things were securely packed in our bags and left the cabin, closing the door tightly behind me.

As I walked back, I could hear whispering and feel eyes staring at me from through the bushes, but I tried my best not to look in their direction. I certainly did not want to provoke a conversation that would delay us further. I wondered why none of them came over though, just hid behind the bushes like a bunch of scared children.

When I got back to the wagon, Wagna was already sitting in the driver’s chair, staring off into the bushes, or rather glaring into them from beneath the brim of his hat. I smiled, realizing why the villagers didn’t want to come over. I wouldn’t have felt welcome if I saw him looking at me like that either. When he saw me, however, his face relaxed, and he forced a grin.

“Well come on up,” he said, with obvious tension in his voice. He took the bags and placed them in the back with Jalya, then offered me his hand to help me up. I settled myself into the seat next to him, watching the bushes uneasily.

“They sure are curious,” I mused.

“If by curious, you mean stupid, then yeah, I’d say so. Let’s get outta here before one of them gets curious enough to come over here. We don’t have time to waste feeding the gossip mill.”

“Agreed,” I said, anxious to get on our way. Wagna slapped the reigns gently, urging the horses into motion. They turned in a small circle to face the path and then walked gracefully out from behind the bushes. As we emerged, we saw about twenty people standing around on the other side, watching us pass. Wagna nodded to them in semi-politeness as we rolled past, along the pathway that would take us out of Sandoff’s Village.

“Now you’ve met Shilly already,” he said in a much more lighthearted voice. “And this lovely lady here is Vella.” He held out his hand to indicate the horse to Shilly’s right, who trotted cheerfully in front of me. In all the emotional confusion of the morning, I’d barely even noticed Shilly, much less the other horse. Her white fur was dappled with muted grey splotches that spread across her back like she’d been sprayed with something. She stood in stark contrast to Shilly’s rich chestnut body and nearly black mane.

“Shilly’s spirited, but Vella’s the sweet one,” Wagna continued. Shilly whinnied in response. “Well now you know it’s true, sweetheart. You can be a little hard to handle.” He turned toward me. “You’ll come to see it for yourself soon enough…totally different personalities. Just like you and your friend back there.”

I looked back at Jalya to see if she was still sleeping. If she reacted to facion bark anything like I did, she’d be out for quite a while.

Wagna poked me in the arm with something, and I turned back to see a slice of bread being thrust toward my face. It was smeared thickly with a strange white substance.

“Thanks,” I said and stared at it, trying to figure out what I was about to eat.

“It’s goat cheese. Sandoff’s Village specialty…..one of the only good things about this place.”

I bit into the bread. It was good and I gobbled it down, suddenly realizing just how hungry I was.

“Now I was just joking last night about Shilly kicking me. She’d never hurt me, but she’s done a lot of damage to other people that have gotten in her way, let me tell you. Now there was this one guy in Hatchel’s Village, he tried to steal some food from my wagon….well he’s got no more teeth to chew his food with, thanks to Shilly.” He laughed as he continued with his story. “And one time, in Nebril City, there were four guys; she broke them up pretty badly; one still uses a cane I think, and the others, oh, you should’ve seen what she did to the others……”

As Wagna regaled me with tales of Shilly, I watched the tall grass of the meadow fly by. I waved at Shaved Head and Ponytail, who were both at their posts now, one on either side of the clearing. I looked back at the village and saw people straggling about, seemingly preparing for a day’s work. I wondered what the other villages would be like, if everywhere would seem so foreign and everyone would seem so different. How strange and exotic would my bei clu va seem to me? But then again different could be good, even exciting. And sometimes different worked well together, like Jalya and me, and apparently like Vella and Shilly.

For two animals with such contrasting looks and personalities, they certainly made a very good team, trotting together harmoniously, pulling the wagon with perfect fluidity, as if they were one. They pulled us under the canopy of trees and back into the forest, where we turned left onto the rocky pathway that would lead us even further from our home. I took a deep breath and tried to keep my fear in check as we rocked and jostled our way into the unknown.

Chapter 19

I woke up, as usual, to the sound of the Nebril River rushing along next to us, sliding by the rocks in gurgling waves. We had been travelling for five days now, following the path that ran next to the river. This path would apparently take us to Lock Up and the bridge, where we could finally cross this mighty body of water. While the rapids had slowed from the violent rushing that we had seen at Sandoff’s Village, the current was still strong and there was no way for us to get to the other side. While I certainly wasn’t thrilled about passing by Lock Up, I also felt a vague sense of curiosity about the place. If the elders had been considering sending me there, how many other innocent, misunderstood people did it hold behind its walls? How many bei clu?

The last few days had been fairly uneventful, for which I was quite thankful, as Jalya and I really needed a chance to rest. We spent our time in the wagon getting to know Wagna, as well as trying to sort out the mystery and adventure that lay before us. We rode through the daylight hours passing tree after tree and bush after bush that looked exactly the same, over the same bumpy path, next to the omnipresent river. Not that I was bored or anything, but I was just wondering when anything about the landscape would change.

As the sun started to set, Wagna would look for an appropriate place to camp for the night. This usually ended up being right along the river bank, where we could build a fire without risking igniting the dense trees. When we got past the worst of the rapids, Wagna taught us to fish. Occasionally we were successful and cooked a grand feast over the fire. When we weren’t, we dug into Wagna’s stash of dried meats.

Jalya and I slept in the back of Wagna’s wagon under the covered canopy, while Wagna bedded down on the seats at the front or sometimes on the rocky shore. So, when I woke up on the morning of the sixth day and straggled out into the grey dawn, I didn’t think it unusual that Wagna was curled up in blankets on the rocks next to the wagon. He slept on his side and I knew he was clutching his sword in his hand. “No one gets past Wagna,” he had said to us. I smiled at our protector as I stepped over his body on my way down to the river to fill my canister with water.

It was a beautiful morning. The previous day had been dark and gloomy, with a thick covering of grey clouds pressing down from overhead, threatening rain. Wagna had spent the day making jokes about how cramped it would be in the back of the wagon if he had to sleep between me and Jalya in order to stay dry. We were happy to see the cloud cover pass in the early evening and the night bright with stars.

Now the stars had been reduced to the faintest of glimmers, encompassed once more by the brightness of the sun. Patches of purple sky fluttered between the tree branches, and I noticed that most of the leaves had to fallen to the ground. Winter would be coming early, and the morning air was cold enough to see my breath. I pulled my shawl tight around me to ward off the chill.

I stood at the shore and watched the water lap up against the toes of my boots. I raised my head to look across the swirling waves and over to the other side. As usual there was nothing there but dense trees, standing motionless in defense of the land, hiding anything else that might be there.

I sat on a flat rock, watching to see if I could spot any changes in the landscape, a small sign that there was anything over there except trees. Was he standing amongst them somewhere, looking back across for me? My lack of headache told me that we were most likely getting further apart now, a situation that could not be remedied until we got to Lock Up and the bridge.

I sighed in frustration and bent down to fill the canister, but, before I could touch it to the water, I was startled by a loud snapping noise to my right. I swirled around, expecting, hoping, to see Wagna or Jalya thinking that they were funny for sneaking up on me. However, I wasn’t prepared for what I did see standing there.

Something, an animal or monster, I wasn’t sure because I had never seen anything like it, emerged from the trees next to the shoreline. It was sort of mottled brown in color, with some lighter patches coming through, or maybe it was just really dirty, I couldn’t tell. It had rags hanging from its body that looked like they may have been clothes at one time, but now they were just mud smeared strands of fabric that blended into the brown smudges of its body. Its face was contorted into uneven features that spun around the front of its head randomly, culminating into a long snout. It hobbled forward into the emerging sunlight on four stunted legs, each step garnering a muffled grunt from its fleshy lips.

I couldn’t move for a moment and just stared as it closed in on the water. It bent down its head in agonizing slowness, straining against bones that seemed to not work properly, until finally its neck popped with a crack that sent chills down my spine. The creature yelped in pain and stopped and panted for a second before snaking out its tongue to lap up the water. It grunted with discomfort and strained to swallow.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I was probably in danger. Though I hadn’t seen one before, I was pretty sure this was an Orlog. I forced my feet back, one step at a time and slowly moved away from the creature and toward the cover of trees that lay behind me. I knew I would have no problem getting away from it, judging by the way it moved. There was no way that it could catch me, but, if what the Lumeai said was true, it wouldn’t have to.

Could it paralyze me by looking at me, or would it even have to look? What if it already knew I was there and could stop me in my tracks without even having to turn its head in my direction? I gritted my teeth as I inched my way backwards, feeling for the safety of the trees, wondering which step would be my last.

I managed to get under the canopy of leaves just as the creature raised its head from the water, and, with the disgusting scraping of bone against bone, it slowly turned to face me. In a panic, I backed up a little more to ensure that I was within the darkness of the trees, and tripped over something on the ground behind me. But, at the last second, before I could hit the ground, something, or rather someone, caught me. I almost let out an involuntary scream, but was stopped by a hand clamping tightly over my mouth.

“Shhh,” said the voice behind me. It was definitely a man. His arms twisted around me, holding me close to his chest. I could feel his breath on my ear as he pulled me down into the underbrush. “Don’t move; don’t make any noise; it will hear you,” he said. He had a very thick accent, even more so than the people of Sandoff’s Village.

“Listen to me carefully,” he said in a barely audible whisper. “You must close your eyes and clear your mind….make it blank; think of nothing. If it senses your thoughts, it will get inside your head. You mustn’t let it. Keep your eyes closed; it can see what you see.”

I was terrified and unsure if I should trust this stranger, yet I could see no other course of action, so I did as I was told. I closed my eyes and leaned back against him, willing all thoughts from my head. I concentrated on my heartbeat, one thump at a time. It wasn’t hard to concentrate on; it was beating so loudly and wildly. I could feel the blood pumping, swishing through my ears with each beat. I saw only the greyness of the back of my eyelids and forced my attention into that, melting all other images out of my mind.

And that’s when I felt it….a feeling unlike anything that I’d ever experienced before. Something was inside of my head, poking around on the outside of the greyness with which I’d filled it. I struggled to remain calm, to keep the thoughts out, to let only the nothingness remain. I felt the man stiffen behind me and tried not to think about how it might be affecting him. I could not afford to let any thoughts loose now, I did not want to draw that thing anywhere near me. I would not even look up to see where it was from between the leaves. I didn’t want to take the chance that if I opened my eyes, it would see what I was seeing and know where I was…..twenty feet away and looking right at it.

Nausea welled up inside of me as it continued to push into my mind, probing around the corners of the void that I had created. I could hear soft growls coming from the creature as it labored with each breath. It sounded like it was right by my ear, though I didn’t think that it had actually gotten any closer. Against my will, my body started to shake. I didn’t know how much longer I could endure this. It seemed like it would be so much easier just to give up and let it in, let it do to me whatever it wanted. I felt cold, icy all over, and my body quaked uncontrollably against the stranger.

And then the unbearableness began to pass. The foul intrusion pulled back, away from the grey of my mind, and the queasiness gradually lessened. Still I kept my focus on my heartbeat, even when I felt the tension pass from the man’s body, and even when I heard the creature’s bones grind as it turned and shuffled away. Click, grind, drag…click, grind, drag…how many steps until it would be gone?

A long moment passed during which I was too afraid to think, too afraid to open my eyes. The sounds of the creature got fainter and fainter. The man relaxed his grip on me and leaned to the side, poking his face from amongst the leafy plants in which we hid.

“It’s good now,” he said. “You can relax. It’s too far away from us now to be any threat.” He released me from his grip and gently sat me forward.

I peeked from between the leaves. I could faintly see the creepy thing limping away through the trees on the other side of the rocks. I still couldn’t stop shaking. I wrapped my arms around my knees and rocked back and forth in a vain effort to calm myself.

“Are you all right?” asked the stranger.

“I think….I think that I’m fine now,” I said, even though I wasn’t quite sure of it. I turned to look at him, curious to see what kind of a man would be lurking in the forest in the middle of nowhere. He was bare chested despite the cold, with a deep brown beard and hair that was tied back in a long braid. His skin was tanned with markings etched on him on various locations of his body. He wore trousers made of what looked like animal skins and held a bow and a quiver full of arrows clenched tightly to his side. He looked to be a little older than me….nineteen, maybe twenty.

I swallowed hard and tried my best to get the shaking under control. “What was that thing?” I asked.

“That thing is an Orlog,” the man said, running his fingers through his beard. “Never seen one out this far before…very strange indeed.”

I looked around nervously, expecting another one to jump out at me at any moment. I wondered if we were safe to go. I was getting scared thinking about Wagna and Jalya back at the wagon.

“Why didn’t you shoot it with one of those?” I asked and pointed to indicate the arrows at his side.

“Well, you can’t kill them, at least not with arrows….or knives….or swords….even giant clubs swung at its skull. Believe me, we’ve tried all manner of weapons. As frail and brittle as those things seem, they’re bloody indestructible!”

He stood slowly and peered around cautiously, careful not to make too much noise with his motions. I got to my feet as well and strained to see past the rocks to the wagon where my sleeping friends lay. I could only make out the covered top.

“Yeah, looks like he’s gone. Best be careful though; he won’t be moving outta the area very quickly, as you could see.” He turned to face me. “You sure you’re okay? The mind bend can be a little disturbing….especially if it’s your first time.”

“I’m okay,” I said. My shaking had pretty much subsided. “What do you mean the mind bend?”

“It’s when those freakish things get inside your head….well, that’s what we’ve been calling it anyway. The Beyjerones say that they bend your thoughts around theirs, so that when they twist them together, well, it’s like they become one with you….well, mentally anyway. They can feel where you are, and it gives them the ability to paralyze you as well.”

“So they can take your energy.”

“Ah yes….so you do know a little about them. Most people don’t yet, at least not those from the villages that are this far out.”

“What makes you think I’m from the villages?”

The man chuckled. “Oh, just a feeling,” he said. “Come on, I think we’re safe to go now.” He began to move slowly toward the rocky clearing. “My name’s Oches, from the Harachu clan.”

“I’m Emerin,” I said, but barely got out the words before I heard footsteps, and heavy breathing, and, I thought, even sobbing. Before I could process what might have happened, Jalya’s head peeked up over the rocks.

“Emerin?” she called softly. She peeked into the bushes, undoubtedly seeing us, but not quite sure if it was me. “Emerin!” she said, her voice a little louder and tinged with panic.

“Shhh, Jalya, it’s okay. I’m here. I’m okay,” I said as quietly as I could while still being sure that she could hear me. “Come down off the rocks, down to the trees.”

She looked around nervously and climbed to the edge of the rock and slid over the other side, babbling hysterically. “Oh, Emerin, something’s wrong with Wagna…he won’t wake up….his eyes are open, but he’s just staring straight ahead. I thought he was dead, but he’s still breathing….you can’t possibly breathe when you’re dead, can you?” She clambered down the side of the rock face and got to the edge of the trees, just as Oches and I emerged from them.

“Who is he?” she squeaked. She stopped dead in her tracks and backed up against the rocks, staring at Oches.

“I’m Oches, from the….,” he began, but Jalya let him go no further.

“You stay away from us,” she snarled, her eyes wide. “Emerin, come here; get away from him!”

“Jalya you don’t understand….”

“I understand now, I do.” She pulled her knife out from underneath her shawl, brandishing it with an awkwardness that almost made me laugh. “He did this,” she said, pointing the knife at Oches. “What did you do to him, eh? Get away from her now!” Her voice was becoming increasingly loud, and it was making me nervous.

“Jalya, he didn’t do anything to Wagna. Please put the knife down and be quiet. There was an Orlog here before. Oches saved my life.”

Oches just smiled at Jalya. “Don’t you worry, ma’am. I don’t want to hurt you. But I think we should go see about your friend. Maybe I can help him.”

Jalya moved over to my side and grabbed my hand, but didn’t put away the knife. “Okay,” she said. “He’s next to the wagon. But I’m warning you, you touch either one of us, and I’m cutting you open.”

Oches just shrugged at her, and turned and climbed over the rocks that separated us from the wagon. I felt more comfortable sticking close to him, so I pulled Jalya up the craggy steps as quickly as she would allow. She clutched her knife so tightly that her knuckles were white. By the time we came around the other side of the wagon, I could hear the horses whinnying their disapproval from where they were tied at the edge of the forest. Vella danced anxiously and Shilly glared at Oches as he knelt next to Wagna.

My stomach dropped when I saw him. He lay completely still, his skin a pasty grey-white. His eyes were wide open, as wide as they could be, and his mouth gaped, the whole expression conveying a look of surprise or terror….or both. I gripped Jalya’s hand tightly as we watched Oches examine him. He pulled back the blanket to reveal, as I’d expected, Wagna clutching his sword. But when he tried to remove it from his grasp, he found that he couldn’t. His fingers were fused to the weapon, like it was an extension of his body. Oches pried his fingers back one by one, so he could finally release it. He lifted Wagna’s arm to find it as stiff as his fingers, staying wherever he moved it. He bent down over his face and reached out his fingers, touching his skin around the hairline. I leaned forward to see better and noticed several small red welts around the perimeter of Wagna’s face. He hadn’t looked like this when I had left the wagon earlier. What had happened here while I was at the river?

Oches sighed and turned toward us. “Looks like the Orlog got him,” he said. “He’ll most likely be fine, eventually. If he’s strong enough, he’ll bounce back in time. An old fella like this though, it’ll take him awhile to recuperate.”

“Did it…” Jalya paused for a moment and shuddered. “…..drain him?”

“Looks that way.”

Jalya looked horrified. “How could I have possibly slept through that?”

“Well they can be pretty quiet if they try….where were you, inside the wagon?”

“Yes, in the back.”

Oches stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Yep, it most likely knew that you were there. It would have sensed your thoughts, or dreams rather. Kind of hard to keep your mind clear when you’re sleeping.” He nodded at me and smiled, then turned back to face Jalya. “It knew that you were in there, but it couldn’t climb in and get at you. They aren’t exactly known for their agility.”

Jalya turned to look at me. “Did you see it?”

“Yeah, it was pretty hideous….but what I don’t understand is, why did the horses not make a fuss before this? I mean they had to have seen the thing near Wagna, right?”

“It’s been my experience that they can paralyze animals too. They’ve done it to our horses more than once. They don’t seem to drain them through, only humans, for reasons that likely only they know…”

Oches stopped abruptly and looked off into the trees across from us. My eyes followed where he was staring and I gripped Jalya’s hand tightly, fearing that the Orlog was back. I looked to the wagon which was only about six feet from where I stood. We could probably make it there before it had a chance to get into our heads.

I was just about to turn and drag Jalya toward the wagon, when I noticed what Oches was staring at. It wasn’t an Orlog at all. The leaves shifted and three bearded, bare chested men pushed themselves out into the clearing. They were dressed similarly to Oches, holding the same sort of weapons and with the same long braids down their backs. Two of them had brown hair and looked maybe a little older than Oches, and one was much older, closer in age to Wagna.

“Boban!” The tension drained from Oches’ face and his features lit up. He said something to the oldest man in a language that we didn’t understand. The old man responded, then walked over with a big smile and embraced him roughly. Oches turned to look at us and he and the old man seemed to discuss us at length. I heard our names mentioned several times. I scowled and kept a tight hold on Jalya’s hand in case we had to run for it. I didn’t know where we would go, however, since no place in these woods seemed any safer than here.

After a long moment, Oches finally turned and addressed us. “Emerin, Jalya, this is my father, Isrelda. And these are my brothers, Reyla and Kahj.” The three men nodded at us and I stammered out a quiet “hello” as I tried to determine what my next move should be. The old man must have seen the fear on our faces, because he smiled and walked toward us, arms outstretched.

“Don’t worry,” he said and grasped our clutching hands. “No one here will hurt you.” I strained to make out his words through his thick accent. It didn’t seem as though he spoke our language very often. I stared at the markings on his arms, drawings really, of symbols and faces and animals. I wondered why he had put them there and what they all meant.

“We need help,” Jalya blurted out. I looked at her horrified. What made her think that we could trust these men? “Our driver was hurt by an Orlog and we have to get to Warshar’s Village. My uncle lives there…he’s expecting us.” She let go of my hand and reached and grasped the bag from under her shawl. “We have coins of amure, see. Enough to pay you all well, if you help us get there.”

One of the men stepped forward, eyeing the coins in Jalya’s trembling hand. “Put the amure away,” he snorted. “We have no use for it. We will help you, but it’s not the Nebril coin that we’re after.”

“So what are you after?” Jalya’s eyes narrowed as she closed her fist tightly around our prized possession.

He opened his mouth to answer, but was abruptly interrupted by the loud voice of the old man.

“In the name of the Great Bei………is that Wagna Freeds?” he shouted. He had made his way over to the side of the wagon and stared down at Wagna’s stiff body. He looked back at us in horror. “He dead?”

“No,” I said. “You know Wagna?”

“Everybody know Wagna!” he chortled. “He been everywhere that old man; you remember, Oches…”

Oches barely had a chance to shake his head, before the air was shattered by a mournful howling. The hair stood up on my neck and my arms and this time it wasn’t due to the cold. I looked at my companions and saw that everyone now stood motionless, listening for the next thing that would break the silence. Then it came again, carried on the cool breeze…howling, followed by some pitiful yelping.

“We need to go…now,” Oches said. “Reyla, help me put him in the wagon.”

The man who had spoken to us before stepped forward and the two of them hoisted Wagna up into the wagon. I looked around nervously, afraid of what might appear from any direction. Jalya picked up my hand again and curled her fingers firmly around mine. Time seemed to stand still as they maneuvered Wagna’s body into the covered back.

“Come along ladies, let’s go, let’s go.” Isrelda motioned us toward the wagon and offered his hand to help us up. Then he and Kahj went to get the horses. I had never been so glad to be under those raggedly sewn covers. I sat next to Wagna and stared at his panic stricken face. When I was a child and made a funny face, my mother would tease me and say that my face would freeze like that. Wagna’s rigid expression turned that silly childhood joke into a horror that I wasn’t sure I could endure. Nor could I endure thinking of my mother. My heart ached.

As if sensing my sorrow, Jalya put her arm around my shoulders. I leaned my head against her and tried to hold in the tears as I listened to the horses being hitched to the wagon. As we turned and rolled back out toward the path, I listened to Shilly and Vella clomp noisily over the expanse of rock. And very dimly, between each strike of their hooves, I became aware of another nauseating sound in the background…click, grind, drag….click, grind, drag…

Chapter 20

“Why are we stopping again?” demanded Jalya, glaring at the old man in the front of the wagon.

“Oches think he spot a deer; deer meat good.” Isrelda climbed in the back and hovered over Wagna, staring into his face. “He look better, you think?”

I stared at Wagna, his crazy hair matted against the side of his head, the lines on his face seeming deeper somehow, like he’d aged ten years since yesterday. But his expression had softened, his mouth no longer gaped and his eyes were closed. His skin was still a little pale, but the grey undertones had vanished. He seemed to now be in a nice peaceful sleep. I nodded my head and pushed the hair from his eyes. “How long do you think he’ll sleep?”

“Hard to say; could be a few hours…could be days. Different for everyone, y’know.”

Jalya grumbled as she squirmed uncomfortably in the corner of the wagon. “Oches spotted a deer. Oches spotted a rabbit. Oches spotted a squirrel. Oches spots a lot of things, but never catches anything. We already have plenty of meat,” she whined. “Why do we need more? What we need to do is to keep going.”

Isrelda looked at Jalya as though she were a petulant child. “We need to get what we can now. Those things, the Orlogs, there might be more of them where we heading. We maybe not able to leave the wagon soon.” He smiled warmly and patted her arm. “Maybe you need some sleep, huh? My kids, they get grumpy when they tired too.”

“I’m not grumpy,” she snapped. “I’m just concerned that’s all.”

“It’ll be alright, Jalya.” I understood her distress. We had already stopped several times that day because the men thought there was game nearby. Then we had to stop to rest the horses, because they would be walking most of the night. My impatience was getting the better of me also, but I struggled to hold it together, because I knew Isrelda was right. He knew these woods a lot better than we did. I lay my hand on Jalya’s arm and turned toward him. “It sounds like you know something about the Orlogs. Have you met up with them before?”

Isrelda’s eyes looked sad. “Oh yes, many times. They drove our clan away. Where we from, north of the river…we cannot hunt there no more…they everywhere in those woods, very dangerous, especially for the little ones. So many lost to us.” He looked down at his hands, his gnarled knuckles white with tension. “The others went south. We were separated from them by the Orlogs. Don’t know where they are now. My other sons and daughters, don’t know if they live or die…”

A sudden loud crunching diverted our attention and all three of our heads snapped toward the front of the wagon so we could peer out into the increasing darkness. Reyla bounded into the wagon, followed by Oches and then Kahj, his stocky frame blocking the remaining light from entering our shelter.

“So did you get it?” Jalya raised her eyebrows mockingly, but the men ignored her.

“We need to go now,” Oches said. “We could hear them out there…from every direction. We’ll have to make do with what we have.”

The old man shrugged. “We be okay.”

“Can’t stop now though,” Kahj said. “Best to ride straight through the night, take turns sleeping and at the reins….at least until we get out of these trees.”

“Agreed,” Reyla said. “How about you take the first turn up front?”

“Not me, brother. I’m exhausted. If you remember I was up most of last night on watch for us.”

I looked around at the four burly men and I felt bad for them. How long had they been out there, surrounded by Orlogs, with no form of shelter whatsoever? I was terrified just sitting in the relative safety of the wagon. If I’d been out there, exposed like that, I knew I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at all.

Reyla sighed. “Maybe I sleep more, but we all know who runs faster in the hunt. I need my energy.”

“What do you mean runs faster?”

“What do you think I mean, heavyweight?”

Isrelda threw his hands in the air. “No fighting now…we don’t have time for this.” He turned to me. “These boys, they cannot agree on anything.” He stood up and moved toward the front of the wagon. “This is how it be. Oches you ride in front with me. Reyla and Kahj stay back here and get a few hours of sleep. Then we switch. Emerin you look out the back of the wagon, through the flap, watch from behind, see if anything follow us. Then later you wake up Jalya and switch. It all be good.” He smiled at everyone, as the rest of us scowled at each other.

“Alright now,” said Reyla. “You heard Boban. Time to get going.”

Oches and Isrelda moved to the front, as Reyla and Kahj settled down to sleep. I took one last look at Wagna to ensure that he was still breathing, before moving to the back of the wagon. There was a small split in the covers through which I could see where we had been. I didn’t know what use this would be when it got really dark though. The wagon began moving once again and I felt a sense of relief that at least we would be making some headway this time.

“Go to sleep, Jalya.” I looked to where she sat in the corner, head leaning back on the wood railing where it attached to the canvas covering.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Just try….come on, we can’t afford to be sleep deprived now.”

“Okay, okay.” Through the dimness, I was sure that I saw her roll her eyes, but she snuggled down into the blankets anyway. I looked back through the covers for a moment and saw nothing unusual in the light of the setting sun, then when I turned back, she was already asleep. So was Kahj, but Reyla lay with his eyes open, staring straight ahead. I studied his hardened face and wondered if he was the oldest of the brothers.

“You should be looking out the back, not at me,” he smirked. “I mean, I know I’m good looking and all, but you’ve got a job to do.”

I quickly averted my eyes. “I wasn’t looking at you.”

“Oh, I can tell when someone’s looking at me. You’re wondering if you can trust us.”

“I don’t trust anybody.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Reyla shift and prop himself up on his elbow. His dark braid spilled over his shoulder. “Why’d you ask us to come with you then?”

“First of all, Jalya asked you, not me, and really what else could we do? We needed the help now that Wagna is….the way he is. We’re still not very good with the horses and then there’s those things out there.” I turned back and looked him straight in the eye. “I trust you more than I trust the Orlogs; that’s all I really need to know right now.”

“Good point, I guess.”

I turned to look through the back flap once again, but saw nothing except the increasing darkness. I swallowed hard and asked Reyla the question I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer to. “So, what about you? You said you didn’t want the coins of amure, so why did you come? What do you want from us?”

“Well, what would any man want from a beautiful young woman?” he said. I snapped my head back around thinking I was right not to trust him, but then I saw that he was smiling.

“Why her wagon, of course,” he continued, chuckling to himself. “It’s a lot safer in here than it is out there, wouldn’t you agree?

He paused briefly and I nodded. When he began to speak again, his tone was much more grim.

“And a wagon is a much faster way to travel. We need to get back to the Beyjerones caves. That’s near Warshar’s Village, where you’re going.”

I stiffened up, but tried not to show any reaction. “Why do you need to go there?”

Reyla sighed and sat for a long while before continuing, as though he was trying to decide whether or not he trusted me. I had almost given up on a response, and contented myself with peering into the darkness that was closing in behind the wagon, when he finally spoke again.

“I need to find a way to break into Lock Up…the Beyjerones are pretty smart and they have a great army; I thought that maybe they could help. You see, my wife’s in there. I need to get her back….she’s not crazy; she’s not a criminal….she did nothing wrong.”

“I’m sure she didn’t,” I said, trying not to show how stunned I was by his statement.

He looked at me as though he were surprised. “You believe me?”

“Not everyone who goes to Lock Up is crazy or a criminal. Sometimes….” I thought of my parents and a heavy ache filled my chest. “Sometimes there’s just a misunderstanding.”

“Misunderstanding!” Reyla’s voice raised up, then he looked around at our sleeping companions and brought it back down to a whisper. “Nah, they knew exactly what they were doing. Those people in the city they don’t care about us, in fact, they’re happy to find any reason to put us away.”

He twisted his fingers together and took a deep breath before continuing. “You see, my wife and I….we had a little girl, almost a year old. I was out hunting, and she liked to take walks with our daughter. This was before any of us had even seen one of those things….if I’d known that there was any danger, I never would have….”

He broke off in midsentence and didn’t say anything else for a few seconds. I tried to look at his face, but it was now too dark to clearly see his expression. I sat quietly and waited for him to continue, though I really didn’t like where the story was going.

When he finally spoke again, his voice was barely a whisper. "She couldn't move; it had her paralyzed; she couldn't do anything to stop it. All she could do was watch while that thing sucked the life right out of our little girl. Then it moved on to her. When I found them later that day, well, Shrieva was much the same as Wagna is now, but Nenia-- that was our daughter's name, Nenia--I couldn't wake her up. She was too little, not strong enough to handle it." He stopped abruptly again, and there was only wind and horses hooves to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“Oh Reyla, I’m so sorry,” I croaked. “I don’t know what to say.”

“There’s nothing to say. There was nothing to be done either, nothing but push through the horrible pain. I’ve never felt such a loss. I couldn’t eat for days, couldn’t hunt….but Shrieva, she was inconsolable. When she finally woke up the next day, she wouldn’t believe it. Then when she was strong enough to walk, she looked everywhere for Nenia; accused me of hiding her or sending her away. She was angry for so long. Then when she finally accepted it, she cried for days; wouldn’t let me help her; wouldn’t even let me near her. I told her that we were still young; we could have another….we would have many more children to come, but it didn’t help of course….nothing I said or did helped.

“Then one day she stopped crying, got up and started living again, and I thought she’d be okay, you know. But she kept talking about the Nebril; somehow she got it into her head that it was their fault, that they had sent the Orlogs. Now, none of us like the Nebril; they keep growing, pushing out in every direction, taking over our lands…but you can’t blame them for everything, you know. But she insisted that they were the cause of it; if it weren’t for the Nebril, Nenia would still be with us.”

“What made her think that?”

“I don’t know. Nobody knows,” he sighed. “It was probably just her way of handling the grief. She needed someone to blame, I suppose. But it really didn’t make a difference. I was just happy that she was coming around. And things were okay; we were trying to have another baby. She seemed okay…until the day we left to go south.

“You see, our clan travels south in the winter. The animals go where it’s warmer and we follow. We need to hunt; we need to eat. We had to leave earlier than usual, as it’s getting cold so soon, but we didn’t mind because the Orlogs were becoming such a problem….Nenia wasn’t their only victim. So we were happy to be getting away. But the day we left, we were travelling on a road through the meadow, because that’s the safest place, when we passed a caravan of Nebril. Not just any Nebril either, but soldiers on horseback, hundreds of them. I don’t know where they were going, the city I suppose, but it doesn’t matter. All I remember was Shrieva…she went into a rage, ran up to the horses….she was gone before I could stop her. She was yelling, screaming, beating on the horses, trying to pull the men off. I ran up to take her away, but she wouldn’t stop. She didn’t stop until they knocked her out. Then they picked her up and took her with them.”

Reyla’s breath came in quick gasps and his voice shook as he continued. “Just threw her on the back of a horse and took her. I tried to stop them but they beat me until I blacked out. When I woke up they were gone. The others said that the men told them they were taking her to Lock Up, and that there would be more of us going if we gave them any more trouble.

“I travelled with the clan until we got just past Lock Up and then I couldn’t go any further, not without her. So, I turned around and went back while the others were sleeping, so no one could stop me….my father and brothers, they came after me. That’s how we got separated from the rest of the clan. They were trying to convince me to come back to the others when the Orlogs got in the way. We had to climb a tree to get away from them. Then they prowled around for so long, just waiting for us to come down. Well, by the time we were able to get away, the rest of the clan had moved on…thought we were dead I guess, I don’t know.”

I sat there stunned, just trying to process everything that he’d told me. If I hadn’t seen and heard so many incredible things over the past couple of weeks, I may not have believed him. I never knew things were so bad outside of our little village.

“I’m sure the Beyjerones will be able to help,” I said. “There has to be some way to get her out.”

“I sure hope so, cause the way I feel right now…..I just can’t go on like this,” he said, as he lay back down and shifted about to get more comfortable. “If no one can help me, I’ll be going in alone…even if I don’t come back out again.”

As I let his chilling words sink in, I turned back to my little window and watched the changing landscape. Instead of dense trees, we were finally moving into some sort of grassland. The blades of grass stood tall against the pathway, coming halfway up the side of the wagon. I looked across the field and in the barely perceptible light of the crescent moon, I could make out their swaying. They moved like giant ripples across the land, reminding me of the wheat fields back home. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned back to Reyla to distract myself from the painful thought, but found him to finally be asleep. Now I was alone with my thoughts, surrounded by the light snoring of strangers.

At the front of the wagon, Isrelda and Oches seemed to be having a heated debate in their own language, so I couldn’t even entertain myself with their conversation. My stomach growled, hunger gnawing at it incessantly, but I knew I couldn’t eat any more. We had to make the food last until we reached the Beyjerones caves. I twisted my neck to look up at the stars, but the tiny slit that I looked through would not let me see the sky. I sighed and resigned myself to the fact that this night would pass very slowly.

I spent the next few hours thinking about things far more than I would have liked. Wondering about my mother, my father and Ashel…what were they doing now? Was Ashel even still alive? Would we still be alive tomorrow? The next day? The day after that? It was all too much to take in and I had to steady my breathing, concentrating on counting my breaths so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. How normal everything had been just a short week ago, when marrying Callum was the worst thing that I could imagine in life. Now I was hiding in a wagon with men that I didn’t know, expecting that at any time, a strange mutant creature would waddle forth and suck out my very essence. I felt bad feeling so sorry for myself after listening to everything that Reyla had been through, but I couldn’t help it. When the tears came, I no longer tried to hold them back and let them roll freely down my cheeks, knowing that in the inky blackness, no one would see.

Every now and then, either Oches or Isrelda would come back to check in with me, to make sure that I was okay and I hadn’t seen anything unusual. And I hadn’t seen anything or heard anything and neither had they. It gave me hope that maybe we’d left all the Orlogs behind, although Reyla’s story had convinced me differently.

At some point, just before I thought I would go mad from my racing thoughts, coupled with the sheer physical horror of trying to keep my eyes forced open, Oches came to the back and told me it was time to switch. He woke Reyla and Kahj and the two of them went to relieve Isrelda. I left my post at the window, and moved to the corner of the wagon, where Jalya had curled herself in a tight little ball, like a frightened caterpillar.

“Time to wake up, Jalya,” I said softly.

She yawned and stretched out to her full length. “Are we there yet?’

“No, no, not yet. Oches says we’re almost to Lock Up though.”

“Sheesh, it’s cold,” she shuddered, pulling the blanket snugly around her shoulders. She moved to the spot where I’d just left, and I wondered if she would spend hours tormented by her own thoughts also. “How am I supposed to see anything out there?”

“Well, if you look really hard, you might see some grass.” I fell into the pile of blankets enthusiastically and wrapped one of them tightly around my body like a cocoon. Sleep was going to feel so good. Isrelda took a long look at Wagna, before laying down next to me.

“How is he?” I asked.

“Bout the same.”

“How much longer until we get to the bridge?”

“Oh, I think we be there by morning, first light maybe.”

“Oh, good,” I said, but felt an underlying sense of dread. I felt like when we got there, someone from Lock Up would see me and recognize that I belonged there. Maybe word had gotten out that I’d run away and they were waiting there, watching in case I came by that way. It seemed oddly self-important to entertain such notions, but there was so much that I didn’t know about my situation that any scenario seemed possible.

“Try to sleep now,” Isrelda urged as he closed his eyes.

I yawned and curled into a ball for extra warmth. The wagon rocked on, and lulled me to sleep. For the first time tonight I felt happy, as I succumbed to the delicious feeling and let my heavy eyelids fall. As my consciousness waned, however, I felt a barely perceptible feeling of unease….a tension in my neck, a familiar pressure building on my left side.

Chapter 21

I awoke with a start to the sounds of painful howling, a sound familiar enough to send shivers down my spine. Still drowsy and confused, I looked around at my companions to make sure they were all safe. The sky was the hazy blue-grey of twilight, and I was thankful to be able to see everyone’s faces once again.

Wagna still slept with deep rhythmic breaths. Isrelda had propped himself up on one elbow and looked around with groggy eyes, clearly having been woken up by the sound as well. Jalya still sat at the back, peering intensely through the opening. Oches sat next to her and in my daze I wondered briefly why he wasn’t sleeping. My head hurt pretty badly, but my fear of the chilling sound overshadowed my discomfort for the moment.

“Is something out there?” I asked, trying not to let my voice rise into a panic.

“Nothing that I can see,” she said.

“Jalya!” Reyla called from the front.

“Nothing here!” she shouted back.

Oches crawled to the front and the three men looked about and talked amongst themselves quietly. It was only then that I noticed that we weren’t moving. The wagon lay motionless on a pathway that snaked through a large grassy field. Fog hung from the sky, reaching all the way down to touch the blades of grass, and leaving beads of dew to sparkle on their tips.

I leaned forward so that I could see what lay before us through the front of the wagon. There were no more trees to peer through and the sky stretched out endlessly before me. I turned my head to look back and forth to both ends of the panorama, and my head ached more and more with each motion. The pain, however, made me even more determined to see through the fog. Was he out there somewhere, but I just couldn’t see him? I strained my eyes painfully in every direction, but saw nothing but grass and mist. Oches annoyingly blocked my view for a moment, as he returned from the front to sit with us again.

“Doesn’t seem to be anything out there,” he said, “but it’s probably best that we get on our way now. The horses have rested for long enough.”

The horses started up just then and I briefly closed my eyes against the pain induced by the jostling cart. When I opened them, I was startled by what I saw. Up ahead, through the mist was the outline of a large object….a building, it looked like. The sight of it made my head lurch and I suddenly became very aware of the pulling sensation that had been growing on my left side since I awoke. He was here somewhere, nearby, but where?

“What is that up there?” I croaked, trying to hold myself down on the floor of the wagon.

Oches turned to look where I was pointing. “That’s Lock Up,” he said. “Big, isn’t it?”

I nodded carefully. It wasn’t just big; there was really no word to describe the enormity of what lay ahead of us. The building sprawled across the field, nearly taking up the full range of view that I had through the front of the wagon. I crawled up to the opening and peered out to get a better look. I could see the river up ahead, turning back in our direction to meet up with the building and run alongside of it. And then I saw the bridge to the other side. Was he still over there…on that side?

“Get back in there, Emerin,” Kahj said from his seat behind Vella. “You’re going to fall out.”

‘Jump out is more like it,’ I thought, since that was all I could think about doing at the moment. I backed up a little, but still stayed close enough to see the monstrosity that covered the land ahead. In all my life I had never seen anything that big, except for a mountain. And that’s what it looked like: a wooden mountain that had sprung up out of this vast plain. And all I wanted to do was run toward it; thankfully that’s what we were doing right now.

Each trot of the horses’ hooves down the path caused pain to reverberate through my head, but exhilarated me at the same time. I couldn’t have run there faster if I’d wanted to. The incredible pull beckoned me and I would finally be able to answer its call. And with the bridge up ahead, there was nowhere that I could not go. I closed my eyes and let the cold breeze wash over my glowing skin. This time would be different…this time I would find him.

Through the excitement of my thoughts, I could hear another noise, one that I paid barely any attention to. A low moaning sound grew from behind me, and though it didn’t interest me in my current state, I could hear the others responding to it dramatically.

“Wagna,” Jalya said. Her words seemed as though they were muffled through a pillow. Another moan came in response. Was Wagna awake? I wanted to go and check on him, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the bridge…soon we’d be there…soon I would find him. I could hear Jalya, Oches and Isrelda talking behind me, and then increasingly, Wagna’s voice began to participate.

“Isrelda, how are you old friend?” I heard him say through my stupor.

“Very well,” Isrelda answered. “Don’t try to move too fast Wagna, your body is weak.”

I heard some shuffling around and then the sound of a body slumping back to the wagon floor.

“Damn, what the hell happened?” Wagna said, his speech slurred.

I wanted to turn around, to see what was happening. I knew that I should go talk to Wagna, and see how he was feeling, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bridge, and the enormous building that now loomed before us. As the mist cleared from before it, I could see its wooden walls, pillars of huge trees creating sections that came together in a motley collection of rooms. It was almost like it hadn’t all been built at once, but had pieces added to it over the years, perhaps to house a growing community of criminals and misfits. My breath caught in my throat. How close had I come to being behind those walls myself?

“Emerin!” Jalya’s voice rang in my ears, disturbing my thoughts. I knew it wouldn’t be long before my disinterest was noticed. I wrenched my eyes away and forced myself to turn toward her. I saw that Wagna was sleeping once again, or at least his eyes were closed.

“Is he okay?” I asked, nodding toward Wagna’s still body.

“Oh, he be fine,” Isrelda said. “He just need to rest is all. Body weak. Be a while before he up and using his sword again.” He chuckled as he looked at his friend. “Never thought I’d see him so helpless. He gonna hate this when he wake up.”

I forced my eyes to stare at Isrelda, to pay attention to what he was saying, but it only partly sunk in. It was physically painful to look in their direction; it took everything I had to keep my neck from snapping back around.

Jalya scrutinized me intensely. “Why don’t you come and sit back here with us, Emerin?” she said. Her eyes and her tone indicated that she could clearly see through my forced interest.

“No, I’m fine here, Jalya,” I said, trying to keep my tone even. “I want to see this building. It’s so weird and huge.”

“Well, I want to see it too,” she insisted. “How about you come back here and keep watch for a few minutes so that I can look at it.”

I saw what she was trying to do, and it was brilliant. I’d look suspicious or at least like a horrible friend if I said no to her seemingly simple request. Meanwhile she would keep me safe in the back, where I couldn’t make a run for it. I gritted my teeth and rocked on my heels, trying to think of a way to get out of the situation, but I could not. My head hurt too much to think. I had almost given up and resigned myself to a painful crawl to the back of the wagon, when Oches chimed in.

“Go ahead up, Jalya,” he said. “You can both look. I’ll keep watch back here. I’ve seen that ugly thing enough times already.” She looked at him, clearly trying to mask her irritation. He smiled at her. “Go on, it’s fine.”

Jalya turned back toward me, letting the mask of friendliness drop and the glare shine through. I didn’t care though, because I could now give in to my craving and turn around once again. The relief was amazing. Jalya sat beside me and grabbed onto my wrist, hard.

“It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?” she said in a low tone.

“Much like the last time.”

“You going to be alright, or you think you’ll run for it?”

“It seems alright for now, since we’re going the right way. But I don’t know Jalya. I can never really be sure.”

Jalya sat quietly for a moment, seemingly absorbed in her thoughts. “Maybe we should tell them,” she mused.

I snapped my head around toward her, hard enough to cause renewed throbbing. “What, about me?” I whispered, trying to keep my voice lower than the trotting of the horses and the wind. “Are you crazy? We don’t know if we can trust them.”

“Well, you told Wagna.”

“That was different. He guessed…and…well, he’s different. I knew I could trust him. It was a gut feeling.”

“Well, I have a feeling that I can trust Oches.”

“What? You barely even know Oches.” I cradled my head in my hands, hoping that what I was suspecting wasn’t the truth. “You don’t have some kind of thing for him now too, do you?”

“Well…I don’t know…” she said with a half-smile.

“Sheesh.” I turned and looked back toward the ever growing immensity of Lock Up. I couldn’t have this conversation now. Why did she have to fall for every moderately attractive guy within her line of vision?

“Wow, can you believe the size of that thing?” Jalya said, elevating her voice to a more regular volume.

“They like to put just about everybody in there now; they gotta make it big,” Kahj said. I looked to Reyla with sympathy. He stared straight ahead at the pathway, hands gripping the reins.

We were almost there and my excitement grew. I grasped the wooden slats that ran under me, twisting my fingers around them so tightly that I thought they might snap. Jalya’s hand never left my wrist, and I wondered if I would have a bruise there later, but I didn’t care. Each second brought me closer, each trot of the horse’s hooves, each gust of wind, each throb of my head, each wrenching jerk of my soul. I smiled like an idiot into the wind, happy that Reyla and Kahj had their backs to me, so as not to witness my foolish expression.

The howling had subsided for now, and the mood in the wagon seemed to have lightened somewhat. I could hear Isrelda and Oches joking around about something in the back, and even though they were speaking Yalish, I was too absorbed in my own thoughts to understand what they were saying. I was vaguely aware of Wagna’s voice again, and by the time we reached the bridge, which lay right before the doors of Lock Up, he was actively participating in the conversation.

The doors into Lock Up were as massive as expected for a place of that size. Heavy bolts slid across the front and two guards stood at the entrance, swords drawn, watching us suspiciously.

“They’re not going to stop us are they?” Jalya asked.

“Nah,” Kahj said. “They just want to look threatening. They want to make sure nobody tries anything funny.”

“Like busting in there and killing everybody,” Reyla added bitterly.

Kahj looked back at us and smiled. “It’s alright though, once they see us turn onto the bridge, they’ll back off. Well, as long as none of us does anything suspicious….or violent.” He gave Reyla a long, hard look.

“Not me, brother,” Reyla said coolly, pulling the reins to urge Shilly and Vella to the left.

Just before we turned, something made me lean forward to look up to the towering top of the building. The roof melted away into the heavy fog, but just before it disappeared there was a row of windows, through which I could see faces peering down. There were people watching us from up there! I scanned their barely perceptible faces, finding myself strangely drawn to them, feeling the urge to climb up the side of the building to get a closer look. Were they prisoners?

I barely had a chance to wonder, when I noticed some strange movement in one of the windows. One of the faces was pressed disparagingly against the glass and hands were pressed up next to the face. The hands were banging…banging and clawing against the window in desperation. I felt my stomach drop; what was happening to the people in there? Was this person begging for help to any passersby? Panic welled up inside of me and I fought the urge to jump out of the wagon and run to the rescue. I rocked back and forth to calm myself down. I couldn’t let this bother me; I had too many other things to worry about.

At that moment the horses turned onto the bridge, announcing the change with a sharp clomping of hooves on wood. We turned away from the giant building and began to move over the churning mass of water, and it was then that I knew why it bothered me so much. My head started to throb again and the pulling shifted, urging me to go back in the direction from which we had just come. It was him…my bei clu va…he was at the window….he was inside!

In one quick motion, I wrenched my wrist away from Jalya’s faltering grip and barrelled over top of Isrelda in my urgency to get to the back. I pushed a confused Oches out of the way and peeked out from the back flap of the covers, but I could no longer see the windows clearly. The fog curled around the front of the building blocking the faces from my view.

“Emerin, are you okay?” Jalya’s voice was panicked. I’m sure she already knew the answer to her question.

I ignored her and stumbled back to the front of the wagon. I barely noticed that Wagna was now sitting up, propped against the side of his wagon by a stack of blankets.

“Emmy,” he said. “What is it?”

But I wasn’t about to answer any of them, lest they have time to stop me.

“Wagna, she’s feeling it again, the headache,” Jalya said, placing her body in front of mine. “I think she wants to go back…..”

Jalya didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence, because I knocked her down in my frenzy to get out, hard enough that Reyla had to catch her before she fell off the wagon. I turned and jumped off the side from behind Kahj, before the big man even had a chance to know what was going on. I hurled myself from the wagon’s considerable height, landing with a hard thud, and rolling onto the wooden planks beneath me.

Blood oozed from the palms of my hands as hundreds of splinters tore into my flesh, but I barely noticed the pain. I smeared them on my dress as I staggered to my feet and began to run clumsily across the bridge, back toward Lock Up. I saw the guards look up and draw their swords again but I kept moving toward them, giving no thought as to what I would say or do when I got there.

The mist cleared from the windows, but I could no longer see the face that I had been drawn to. Where did he go? Was he coming down to find me? Or did they take him away for causing a ruckus at the window? Fear took hold of me at that moment. I still felt pulled in that direction, but to what….where was he now? I slowed my pace a little, paralyzed by confusion. Maybe I could tell them I was a bei clu; maybe they would think that I was crazy and take me inside. I watched the guards as they began to move toward us. Yes, that was it, that’s what I would do.

My second of indecision was all it took for Oches to overtake me. I heard his steps thumping on the wood behind me, felt him grab my wrist.

“No!” I shouted, and tried to wrench my arm away, but he held tight. “Let me go!”

“Emerin, what are you doing?” His voice sounded as shocked as it was angry.

“I have to go; I need to get someone.” I knew that my explanation sounded stupid, but what could I say? I yanked my arm in futility, knowing logically that he was stronger than I was. Then Kahj ran up from behind, and I knew that there was no point in fighting. He wrapped his thick arms around my waist.

“Come on, Emerin,” he said. “We have to get back to the wagon. It’s not safe out here.”

“You take her back, Kahj. I’ll stay here and deal with them.” Oches turned to face the rapidly approaching guards. Suddenly I felt ashamed and worried about what might happen to him, and to the rest of us, because of my actions. I still felt compelled to go back, however, and gave one last yearning glance to the windows up in the mist before turning away.

Reluctantly, I let Kahj lead me back to the wagon. He helped me climb aboard and once inside I felt everyone’s eyes on me. I couldn’t even look at them.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled and slumped against the side of the wagon in exhaustion. My chest ached as though it would burst, as though something was being torn from me. Not again….I couldn’t bear to go through this again. I felt tears spilling from my cheeks and I tucked my face into my shawl, pulling it tightly around me so I wouldn’t have to look at anyone. But the feeling persisted. My head throbbed and tugged at me to the point where I could barely sit still. I felt Jalya sit next to me and try to put her arm around me, but I pushed her away. I lifted my head and craned it around the side; the urge to jump out was still so strong.

“Emerin!” Wagna said sternly. “Don’t even think about it.”

I backed up momentarily, wanting to listen to him, knowing that he was right. Yet I found myself leaning forward again, unable to control my actions. I gathered my strength and prepared to stand, but Reyla got in my way. He put his arm around my waist and pushed me gently into the back of the wagon. I opened my mouth to scream, thinking maybe if the guards heard me, they’d think I was insane and come to get me. Reyla, however, anticipated my plan and clamped his hand firmly over my mouth. He pushed me down to the floor of the wagon and pinned me down with his arms. I struggled, but could not move against his much larger frame.

“Be quiet,” he scolded, his breath hot on my face. “You don’t want them to take you in there.”

I just looked at him; his brown eyes darted back and forth. I took a long shuddering breath and stopped struggling.

“Trust me, you don’t want that,” he repeated, as though reading my thoughts. “Don’t you think I’ve thought of that too? Don’t you think I’ve thought of going in to get her and slitting as many throats as I could on our way out, but I can’t. There’s too many guards; it’s too well protected. What are you gonna do when you get in there, huh? Nothing, that’s what. You’ll be a prisoner too.” He looked into my eyes sadly and sighed. “It’s hard, I know, but you can do a lot more out here than you can in there.”

I looked at Wagna and wondered how much he could have told them during my brief escapade outside of the wagon. He smiled at me and shook his head. I felt so embarrassed…I knew it was dangerous; why couldn’t I control myself? I had put everyone in danger now and Wagna was so weak. He looked so old slumped against the blankets. As I watched him, he lifted his arm and put a finger to his lips, signalling us all to be quiet. I could hear footsteps on the bridge and knew the guards were getting close to the wagon.

“Good morning,” Oches called out.

“What’s your business here?” one of the guards called out. Apparently they weren’t very friendly.

“We’re just on our way home, trying to find the rest of our clan. Those strange creatures that have appeared around here have been making things hard for us.”

“Who’s the girl? Why was she running away?”

“Oh, that was my wife. We had a fight. She’ll be okay…she’s with child; you know how emotional women can get.”

The guard chuckled, but went on with his interrogation. “She didn’t look like a wife of yours, savage. She looked like a village girl. You steal her or something?” His voice became threatening. “Maybe you stole that wagon too, eh?”

“No, no, that wagon belongs to her father. She is a village girl, but we married. Love works in strange ways sometimes.”

I could sense that Oches’ excuses weren’t going to cut it and he would probably be running out of them soon. Apparently Wagna felt the same way, and with a long groan he lifted himself into a stooped stance, steadying his trembling body against the side of the wagon.

“What are you doing?” Isrelda whispered, sitting up straight. “Sit down.”

“He’s going to need some help out there,” Wagna said, “and I’m probably the best one to do it. Unless of course you all want to spend some time checking out the inside of that big building back there.”

Isrelda sighed and sat back, a look of concern covering his face. “Just be careful out there, old man.” Wagna nodded and shuffled slowly to the front, then peered around the edge of the covering.

“Is there a problem here, gentlemen?” His gruff voice boomed along the side of the wagon.

“Oh,” said the guard, apparently taken by surprise. “Is that you, Wagna Freeds?”

“Yes, of course it’s me. How are you, Frieske? Still harassing innocent people, I see.”

“No sir, just checking on suspicious behavior, that’s all. Didn’t know it was your wagon. This savage and the others inside, they’re friends of yours?”

“Be careful who you call a savage. This here is my son-in-law.”

I looked over at Isrelda and Kahj who were chuckling to themselves. Even Reyla was smiling, though he still held me tightly.

The guard laughed as well. “He is, is he? So that girl is your daughter?”

“She sure is,” Wagna said, so convincingly that I was impressed. “She’s a bit of a hot head, you know. Anger issues….but what can I do; she’s still my little girl. I’m hoping this fella here can keep her in line.”

My heart ached with the reminder of what my father had said to me about Callum. I grew even more embarrassed just thinking about how many people it took to keep me in line, how hard it was to keep me out of trouble, how much trouble I caused for everyone else. I wanted to say that I wouldn’t do it again, that I’d try harder, that I’d behave myself from here on in, but I couldn’t…I knew better than that. I remembered saying these things over and over again to my parents while growing up, but I never could change, no matter how hard I tried, so I didn’t expect that I could now.

I turned my attention back to what was going on outside. The guards were laughing at something that Wagna had said. It seemed we were really lucky to have him with us, lucky that he woke up when he did.

“Alright, Wagna,” said the guard, “you’re free to go. Good luck with your family troubles.”

“Thank you, sir. Have a nice day, gentlemen,” Wagna called, as their footsteps fell on the wooden bridge once again, fading into the distance. “Oches, get the hell in here!” He turned back toward us and rolled his eyes. “That guy Frieske, what a twit.” He barely spit out the words before he fell against the side of the canopy and slid to the floor.

Oches climbed back into the wagon to be met by an unconscious Wagna. He and Kahj carried him back inside and Jalya pulled some blankets over him. Reyla still held me down and I didn’t resist. I knew it was necessary, as I still felt the urge to escape.

“Damn old man, knew that was too much for him,” Isrelda said.

“Good thing he was here,” Oches said. “Not sure I could have held them off much longer.” He turned to Isrelda. “You ready, Boban? Seems to be our turn up front.”

Isrelda pitched himself forward and crawled toward the horses. “Happy to be getting out of here,” he said and then nodded at his other two sons. “You boys keep an eye on Emerin. She a sneaky one.” He pointed a crooked finger at me and smiled before climbing into his seat.

Reyla sat back, finally releasing me from the pressure of his arms, and took his hand off my mouth. “You be good now, you hear?” His tone was stern, but when I looked at him he was grinning. He would have been a good father.

“You sit right next to her, brother, and I’ll stretch myself out right here.” Kahj smiled and spread his bulk across the width of the wagon. “She won’t get by me again.”

I watched them arrange themselves into a blockade against me and I felt ashamed yet again for the trouble I had caused. I looked at Jalya across the wagon and felt even more horrible about what I had done to her.

“I’m so sorry, Jalya,” I said, and the tears started to flow again. “I’m just not myself right now.”

She crawled across the wagon and put her arms around me. “I know,” she said. “Don’t worry yourself about it.” This time I let her comfort me and cried against her as the wagon started to roll again. I heard the horses hooves hit the dirt on the other side of the bridge and felt a little relieved that we were moving further away and the feeling would soon start to pass. But right now, all I could do was sit here and take it and let everyone else take care of me. I snuggled down into Jalya’s shawl and listened as she entertained Reyla and Kahj with tales of our adventure so far.

Chapter 22

It was four days travel from Lock Up to the Beyjerones Caves and all of it through the same flat grassland. This was better, however, as it seemed the Orlogs did not like this type of terrain; probably not enough places to hide. We hadn’t seen or heard any evidence of them since the howling at Lock Up. So we now felt safe enough to stop the wagon for longer periods during the day. We still travelled at night, however, and slept in shifts, just in case.

I spent the first day huddled in a ball in the corner of the wagon, gripping my head in an attempt to control the pain. At some point the wagon stopped and Jalya brewed me some facion bark tea to put me out of my misery for the night. The second day was also spent huddled in a ball in the corner of the wagon, but this time due to sheer exhaustion and depression and just plain old not wanting to face anyone. By the third day, however, I was ready to rejoin life and basked in the social circle of my companions.

By the time I made my way to the front of the wagon and looked out at our surroundings, the Beyjerones Caves were already in view. Huge rocky cliffs jutted out of the grass and stretched into the sky. And beyond that was the infamous Malhadron Mountain, its peak covered in snow. If I’d been impressed by the size of Lock Up, I was absolutely flabbergasted by the sheer enormity of the mountain. It was a good thing that we’d be flying to the top, because I couldn’t have imagined walking it.

Wagna was getting stronger every day and by the morning of the fourth day, he was able to climb down from the wagon and take a walk to the river with me and go fishing. It was a good thing too, as I still was no expert at the task, and he had to guide me through it once again. Reyla and Kahj were also fishing a little downriver, as were Jalya and Oches, though it looked like they were playing around more than anything else. Isrelda served as our lookout, perched on top of the wagon, where he could see anything coming for miles. Though it was still chilly, it was a beautiful clear day and the sun beat down on our heads as we sat by the glistening water. For the first time in a long time, life actually felt good.

“Wagna,” I said, getting ready to ask the question that had been burning in my mind for several days. “What did it feel like when the Orlog drained you?”

Wagna shuddered. “Not good I can tell you that.”

“I’m sure it didn’t. But what did it feel like?”

“Well, I was asleep when it first came up to me. I was having this dream that my wagon was making this clicking and grinding sound, and then I woke up and there was this thing standing over me….ugliest thing you ever saw. So my first inclination, of course, was to move away from it, but I couldn’t move….my limbs wouldn’t do what I told them to….nothing would do what I told it to.” He stopped and swallowed hard.

“I could feel it there, in my head, you know. It was the creepiest thing.” He cast his line back into the water and stared at the grassy shore on the other side of the river for a moment, before continuing.

“Then it reached out with its…I don’t know what….its hands, I guess they were. A long and painful process it seemed to be for it; woulda had plenty of time to get away had I been able to move. It attached its fingers around the sides of my face, they just kind of suctioned there and then things got a whole lot worse.

“It….I don’t know how to describe it…..it kind of pulled something from me. I could feel something being sucked from me, pulled from the fiber of my being, like it was detaching from each and every tiny section of my body, very nauseating experience. I think I would have thrown up if I could have moved at all. Then I just felt everything tighten up: my muscles, my bones even, stiff like a board.” He held his arms out straight as if to demonstrate, like I could ever forget what he looked like at that moment. It would be etched in my mind forever, deliberately tucked away, only to resurface during nightmares and long lonely nights.

“And that’s when I blacked out; that’s all I can remember. The next thing I recall is waking up in the wagon, because of that damned howling.” Wagna turned and looked at me gravely. “Emmy, trust me, you never want one of those things to get a hold on you. Promise me you’ll do whatever is in your power to keep yourself safe out here. I know you’ve got an army of protectors around you now, but you’re wily….you always find a way to get into trouble.”

“I know,” I said, staring at my boot. “I promise you I’ll do whatever’s in my power, but it doesn’t seem like I have much power over anything these days. It’s like I have no control sometimes, you know.”

“I know,” he sighed. “Believe me, I know. My brother….he tried, I saw how hard he tried….but he couldn’t control it…there was nothing he could do.” He stared out over the serene water.

“You’ll find him someday, Wagna.”

He nodded sadly, not seeming to believe me. I wasn’t sure I believed it either, but what else could I say? I watched Jalya and Oches far down the river. They had stopped running around and now sat together on a rock. It seemed to me that they were getting too far away from the group, but I got the feeling that they wanted to be alone. A hard thing to do in a small wagon full of seven people.

“What’s going on with them?” I asked.

Wagna followed my gaze along the water. “Don’t ask me; she’s your friend. Doesn’t she talk to you about these things?”

“I don’t think she wants to this time. She’s afraid I’ll lecture her. She falls in love about eighty-five times a year.”

“Well, they’ve been doing a lot of talking and looking at each other; that’s all I know. I try to stay out of these things…better for my sanity.” Suddenly Wagna’s face lit up. “Look at that, Emmy; I got one. Come on help me pull it in. Still feeling a little weak.”

I reached over and together we tugged the line, revealing a good sized fish. It flopped on the rock as Wagna pulled the hook from its mouth. I felt bad for it, as it lay there struggling for life, but I was so hungry that I couldn’t help but be excited.

Wagna stood up slowly and called out to the others. “Hey, boys and girl, lunch time!” He held up the fish with glee and turned to Isrelda “Who’s the old man now?” he laughed. I smiled, happy to see him getting back to his old self. Isrelda rubbed his hands together in anticipation and began untying the bundles of long grass we had drying on the roof, so we could start a fire.

We had a wonderful meal by the water and then had to be on our way. It saddened me to leave, as it was such a pretty spot, but we were determined to get to the Beyjerones’ caves by the end of the day. According to the Lumeai, the Beyjerones were incredibly strong and had a formidable army, so we would be completely safe in their caves. I hoped that was the truth, because all I could think about was being able to get a full night’s sleep that night.

The day’s journey seemed endless, with nothing to see but grass and the caves up ahead getting ever so slightly bigger with each hour that passed. By the time we passed the outskirts of Warshar’s Village at the foot of the caves and started climbing around the first of the rocks, the sun was beginning to set. The path became narrow and bumpy, twisting tightly around each rocky outcropping. The three brothers got out and walked next to the wagon to give the horses some relief during their climb. I felt sorry for Shilly and Vella, but consoled myself with the fact that they’d be getting a good rest when we got there.

Jalya and I hovered by the opening at the front of the wagon, finally able to take in some interesting scenery. The brown rocks jutted out in all kinds of interesting formations, their contours sculpting the pathway ahead. They reached into the sky like protective walls, their smooth folds only occasionally interrupted by small plants and patches of brush. Looking way up, I could see little pathways running between the rocks, separating them into sections, almost like walled streets. It was there, Wagna told us, that the Beyjerones lived.

By the time we emerged from the walls that surrounded us, the pathway had become so small that our wagon barely fit through. We squeezed out into a clearing covered in short scrubby grass. The last rays of sun were almost blocked off by the rocks that towered over us on the left side. The flat land extended for a while to the right then appeared to drop off into nothing. Craning my head around the side of the wagon allowed me to see the Nebril River far down at the bottom. It gave me a nervous feeling. If the horses were to pull us too far in that direction, there would be nothing stopping us from plummeting to the bottom, and finding our death in the water. I’d just managed to escape that last week; I did not want to give it a second try.

I decided not to look that way anymore and focus instead on what was looming in front of me. Malhadron Mountain, its glistening peak ablaze with the red light of the setting sun, was an incredible sight to behold. It dominated the sky in front of us, cutting off any view of the other side. As early as tomorrow, I could be on top of that thing…I couldn’t believe it. Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed that I would ever be seeing a place like this. All that time I had spent staring with awe at the mountain next to our village and here was something that completely put our little mountain to shame. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

I was snapped out of my daze by Oches and Reyla having an argument next to the wagon about which way to go. I looked to the left, the direction in which they were wildly gesturing, and realized that there were two pathways that led back into the rock. Oches seemed to believe that the closest one led up to the caves, but Reyla insisted that we should take the one a little further down. Isrelda brought the horses to a stop so he could join the debate.

“Both pathways lead up there,” Wagna said. “I told Isrelda, but those stubborn boys out there don’t seem to believe it.” He sighed and leaned his head back against the side of the wagon. “We’re losing light. I’d really prefer to get there before dark.”

The argument outside of the wagon escalated. Though they were speaking in their own language, I could hear the heated tones. Then finally, Reyla turned and stomped off in the direction of the caves.

Wagna rolled his eyes. “Where’s that fool going now?” He crawled to the front. “Isrelda, what the hell is he doing?”

“He don’t believe you, Wagna,” Isrelda laughed. “He say the first pathway blocked off by rocks. Oches say the second pathway blocked. He going to check it out. Don’t want to have to back the horses and wagon all the way out.”

We watched Reyla stride quickly across the clearing toward the second path and disappear inside. We waited and waited, but he did not come back out.

“Reyla!” Kahj bellowed, but heard no response. “Arrgh. He’d better not be in trouble. I’ll go check on him.”

He began to walk across the grass, but before he got very far, Reyla came running back out. The look of terror on his face was perceptible even from our little opening in the wagon.

“Go, go!” he cried, waving his arms. “Get in the wagon. Go…” And then he stopped yelling, stopped running, just stopped in mid-stride. The momentum kept him going long enough to topple over and slide on the grass, and then he just lay there on the ground in a curious running position. Then I heard what he was running from…. click, drag, grind…..click, drag, grind….my stomach lurched.

“Kahj!” Oches yelled, but the big man kept running in the direction of his brother. “Kahj, you can’t…it’s too late.”

But Kahj continued on, almost reaching Reyla before suffering the same fate. He fell to the ground in a sickening thud just as the disgusting thing emerged from the darkness of the pathway. Oches stood next to the wagon, rocking back and forth, clearly torn as to whether or not he should help his brothers.

“Oches!” Jalya screamed. “Get up here! Get in the wagon!”

But Oches still stood mesmerized, staring at Reyla and Kahj lying in the grass with the Orlog closing in on them….click, drag, grind….click, drag, grind….the sound echoed off the rocks and rang in my ears. The creature slowly hobbled over to where the two men lay. Wagna let loose a string of curse words next to my ear that would have made Reverend Grell blush. Then I noticed more movement from the pathway, along with more of that sickening noise. There was another one! It pulled itself from the blackness with the same laboured gait as its companion.

“Oches!” Jalya screamed again.

“Oches!” Isrelda said sternly, then yelled something that I could not understand. He leaned out of the wagon, grabbed his son’s arm and tried to pull him up.

At that moment Oches snapped out of his stupor and turned to climb up next to Isrelda. However, it seemed that all of the shouting had captured the attention of the second Orlog and Oches had barely gotten aboard before collapsing motionless in the seat. He lay across Isrelda with his boots hanging over the side, and one hand falling on Shilly’s rump. I thought the sudden movement might startle the horses into a run, but when I looked up I saw that they were staring in the direction of the Orlogs, heads unnaturally still. My blood ran cold; there was nothing we could do now except hope that their wizened bodies couldn’t climb up into the wagon.

But Oches! His feet dangled down well over the side of the wagon. Even if the Orlog couldn’t climb up, surely it could reach his feet. Jalya seemed to realize this fact at the same time as I did and rushed forward. She leaned over the bench to tug at his lifeless body. Isrelda could no longer pull him up, as he also sat paralyzed in the front seat, head turned toward Oches. I was about to move forward to help Jalya, when a strange and decidedly unpleasant feeling overtook me. It was feeling that I remembered all too well….one that had haunted my memories since the last time I’d experienced it. Only at the last minute, when I felt the poking around inside my head, digging into the edges of my thoughts, only then did it occur to me what I was supposed to be doing….clearing my mind.

But it was too late; it was already inside, twisting around in the confines of my head, numbing my mind with a strange tingling sensation. The sensation spread downward causing my body to stiffen slightly, and then I noticed I couldn’t lift my arms. I stood on my knees, unable to move a muscle, no longer even able to scan the area with my eyes. I could only look straight ahead at Jalya who appeared to be similarly afflicted. She arched strangely over the backrest of the bench, fingers embedded in the leather of Oches’ vest. I tried to speak, and though I could push the air out to do so, I couldn’t move my mouth or my tongue or get my vocal chords to make a sound. Waves of panic washed over me again and again, and being unable to move made me panic even more.

The worst part now was that I could no longer see the Orlogs; I could only hear them. They snorted and grunted in pain and seemed to mumble at each other. It sounded as though one was coming closer. I could hear its footfalls thumping and dragging across the grass. I tried in vain to clear my mind, to banish all the thoughts that resided there, but found that I couldn’t possibly do it. The creature’s thoughts were twisted around my own, like the fingers of tightly clasped hands. It squeezed, yet did not cause a physical pain, only an uncomfortable pressure. I heard it coming closer still, the clicking of its joints assaulting my ears; the unquenchable desire to wince was overwhelming.

And then, after a few long and agonizing minutes, it was there, bumping up against the wagon with its grotesque head. I could see it now in my periphery, its uneven eyes wandering over our stiff bodies, its tongue slathering over its fat protruding lips. Its breath came in short gasps and it sat down on its haunches for a moment and leaned its lumpy head against the front wheel.

I stared at it as best as I could from my less than optimal position. What the hell was it? It looked like nothing I’d ever seen before, yet somehow, it also seemed strangely familiar. Its breathing slowed and became more regular, though it seemed to sob slightly and I wondered if it was crying. It rubbed its clubbed hands against its drooping eyelids and sniffled. What was it that was causing it so much pain?

Eventually, the creature seemed to recover some energy and stood up once again. Then it grabbed onto the side of the wagon with its gnarled limbs and, with one painful, grinding motion, stood up on its hind legs. It howled pitifully and clenched its teeth, its breath coming from between them in slobbering huffs. I could barely breathe as I waited to see what it would do next. All it had to do was hoist its back legs up and it would be in the wagon. Even though every movement seemed so painful for it, I couldn’t eliminate the possibility that climbing aboard was still within its ability.

It did not, however, make any motion to do so. Instead it reached out with one feeble arm and touched Oches’ boot. It pressed its fingers into the leather, then clawed against it in what appeared to be anger. It shuffled its body over a little and propped itself against the wagon, then lifted both arms to grab at the boot. It seemed to be trying to pull them off, but it was futile. Its twisted hands could not get a grip. It banged its head against the boots in such sad frustration that I almost felt sorry for it. Why would such a deformed creature exist? What was its purpose? From the little I’d seen of the Orlogs, their entire lives seemed to be spent in misery. What was the point?

It dropped back down to the ground again, howling and sobbing. “Damned boots,” it cried. “Damned boots!”

If I had been able to move at that moment, I think that I would have jumped out of my skin. It talked! How could it talk? That meant it was some kind of intelligent creature like the Lumeai or the Beyjerones. But those clans had existed for thousands of years. Why then had no one ever seen an Orlog before?

Suddenly a shrill noise pierced the air, and it was torture to not be able to look out and see what it was. So I swallowed and breathed hard, the two motions that I could still carry out, and waited to see what would happen. There was much commotion coming from the left, much of which involved the screaming of the Orlog. The other one, who still lay in the grass next to the wagon, perked up and looked in that direction. It then made a vain attempt to stand quickly, but fell back down and floundered in the grass.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something swoop in from the left and land next to the creature. From what I had heard and seen, I knew it had to be a Beyjerone. It was enormous, with the size and build of a large man, but the wings, hair and ears of a bat. Its wings fanned out so wide across, that I thought they might envelope and crush the wagon. But it showed no interest in us. It grabbed at the Orlog with its clawed feet in an attempt to gather it into its muscled limbs. The Orlog, for all of its lack of mobility, put up a pretty good struggle, and attempted to roll under the wagon to get away. But before its stiff body could undertake the motion, the manbat slapped it violently with one outstretched wing, sending it flying across the clearing with an anguished scream.

It strode over to the creature’s limp body, its broad shoulders swaying back and forth with each powerful step. It bent over for a minute and then flew away with the Orlog in its arms. Another Beyjerone flew in behind it, carrying the other Orlog.

And then there was relief; I could move again. We all slumped forward, not realizing for a second that we could now use our muscles. I fell on my hands and clenched my teeth against the incredible surge of nausea that overtook me. I was able to sit up just in time to see the Beyjerones glide over the edge of the clearing and drop the Orlogs into the river below. I heard their shrieking fade as they fell.

My companions were breathing hard around me, as they too recovered from the effects of the mind bend. Jalya staggered in her half standing position and looked like she might fall over, so I leaned forward to help her. However, the motion made me dizzy and I just sort of fell forward and she collapsed on top of me, knocking us both to the wagon’s floor.

“Oh crap….are you okay?” she gasped, flailing about in her struggle to get off me.

“I think so,” I moaned. I looked around to make sure everyone else was alright as well. Wagna was still leaning against the side of the wagon, with his head bent back against the canvas covering. He breathed deeply, his eyes focused on the roof and beads of sweat streaming down the sides of his face, despite the cold. Isrelda leaned against the backrest of the bench in a similar state. I realized that I also felt hot and sweaty and threw my shawl off before trying to move again. I looked up and noticed Oches attempting to crawl over the back of the bench, so he could help Jalya to her feet. I turned to see that Reyla and Kahj were still lying motionless in the field.

“Everybody okay here?” Oches asked as he gently sat Jalya down next to me.

We all nodded or grunted some affirmation toward him, but we barely had a chance to respond before he leapt from the side of the wagon and ran in the direction of his brothers. I sat up and watched him, concerned that he might get dizzy and fall, but he managed to make it there still on his feet.

Slowly the fogginess in my head started to clear and I turned to look at Jalya. “Wow, that was really bad,” I said. “I really didn’t think it would feel that bad.”

Wagna laughed softly. “I’ll bet you girls thought I was exaggerating or just being a silly old man.” He pointed a trembling finger at us. “We’re just lucky that thing didn’t get a hold of us. Then you’d know a bad feeling.”

Just then, the beating of wings through the air signalled the Beyjerones’ return. One landed in front of our wagon and the other glided over to the three men on the grass. The one closest to us swaggered over, muscles bulging on his stocky legs. As he folded his wings, I noticed some kind of marking on the right one; it almost looked as if it had been burned there. His steel gray eyes scanned the wagon, stopping on each one of us in turn. He looked so menacing that I began to think that the Lumeai had been remiss in sending us here.

Wagna crawled to the front of the wagon to greet the giant bat. “Good evening,” he said “We are on our way to see General Sanjarus. We have urgent business with him.”

The bat eyed him suspiciously. “How do you know the General?”

“I’ve known him for many years. We met when we were much younger. He’s helped me out before. My name’s Wagna Freeds.”

“I’ve heard the name,” the bat mused, “but I’ve never seen you before.”

“Well, of course you haven’t. The last time I was here you were probably a child…not even born yet, perhaps.”

“Torchuk,” Isrelda said as he stood up from his seat.

“Isrelda,” the bat said, with an expression that barely changed. “I didn’t recognize you. What are you doing here…in a wagon no less?”

“It’s a long story and one I would prefer to tell everyone here at once if you don’t mind. We need the General’s help. You see we have a bei clu with us.”

The bat thought about it for an instant. At close range his expressions seemed curiously human. “Only one? There’s not much point going for the Lamorian rock with only one bei clu. You need a pair.”

“Well, we know that,” Wagna said impatiently. “We know where her bei clu va is, but we need your help to get to him.”

Just as he finished his sentence, the other Beyjerone flew over with Reyla cradled in his arms. He hovered over the wagon and Jalya and I scrambled out of the way when we saw that he meant to lower him inside. He arched his enormous wings over the wagon, allowing himself to land softly on the front bench. He then reached over and placed Reyla’s body inside. He bore the same marking on his wing as Torchuk, plus two others. He was a little smaller, though just as well muscled, and he had a much kinder look to him.

He turned briefly and addressed his comrade. “Torchuk, go get the other man. I’ll deal with the humans.” He turned back toward us with a smile.

“Hello, Isrelda. I see your sons have been giving you some trouble.”

“No more than usual,” Isrelda said, as his eyes scanned Reyla’s stiff body. “The Orlogs now up here too, I see.”

“Yes, we’ve had a few. I have to say, it must be a hard climb for them.” He turned to face Wagna. “Good to see you, Wagna. Haven’t seen the two of you together in quite some time.”

“Well, desperate times call for desperate measures,” Wagna grinned as he looked at Isrelda. “How have you been Vandalaharis?”

“Very well. Are you here to see my father?”

“Absolutely,” said Wagna. “But that one over there has been giving us a hard time.”

“Oh, Torchuk’s new to our army. Doesn’t know who’s a threat and who isn’t. Though the way things are going these days, we have to be suspicious of everyone.” Vandalaharis jumped out of the way as Torchuk returned and placed Kahj in the wagon. Oches ran up quickly behind him.

Isrelda turned toward us as he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Too much weight in here now,” he mused. “Wagna you feel strong enough to take the reins? I get out and walk with Oches. The girls too.”

“I think I can handle it,” Wagna said, and heaved his body over the backrest and into the front seat. As I climbed down from the wagon, I stared at Reyla and Kahj and the stiff expressions of terror on their faces, and another wave of nausea washed over me. I took a few deep breaths and looked the other way, clutching the side of the wagon to keep myself upright as I followed Jalya to the ground.

Vandalaharis stared at the sun as the fiery red orb began to dip down behind the horizon. “Well, we’d better go if we want to get you to the caves before dark. I’ll lead you there and Torchuk will go ahead and announce your arrival.”

Wagna slapped the reins so the horses would follow Vandalaharis, as he led us over to the first pathway. He glanced briefly over his shoulder at the two men in the back of the wagon.

“Sheesh,” he said. “I sure hope I didn’t look as bad as all that.” He then turned his attention to the manbat walking ahead of us. “Tell me, Vandalaharis, both paths lead to the caves, do they not? It’s been such a long time that I don’t remember.”

“Aaah, they did at one time, but there was a rock slide last winter which blocked off the far pathway there. We can’t use it until we finish clearing out the rocks.”

Oches smiled smugly. “Wait till I tell Reyla,” he said.

We plunged into the darkness of the path and I was thankful that night hadn’t fallen yet. As it was, we could barely make out Vandalaharis’ outline as he walked ahead of us. I folded my trembling hand around Jalya’s and realized I still wasn’t completely over the ordeal we had just been through. I pushed forward, however, on my wobbly legs, taking advantage of the growing darkness to hide my tears.

Chapter 23

I woke up with a start, for a moment forgetting where I was. In front of me was rock, to both sides was rock, behind my head was rock, above me was rock. I sat straight up on the blankets that softened the discomfort of the rock floor beneath me. The caves…we had spent the night inside the Beyjerones’ caves.

“Did you sleep well?” Jalya’s voice floated over from the other side of the rock room. She was sitting up in her little makeshift bed, brushing her hair, her face illuminated by tiny streams of light that stabbed through little holes which were bored into the ceiling.

I reached behind me and rubbed my back. “As well as can be expected in a rock room.”

“Well, it had to at least be better than the wagon.”

“Yes, sleeping in a rock room is better than sleeping in a cramped wagon with five snoring men.”

She laughed. “Yeah, it was kind of uncomfortable….and awkward.” She looked dreamily across the room.

I rolled my eyes. “But you miss sleeping next to Oches, I know, Jalya.”

“It’s different this time, Emerin.” Her facial expression was so serious that I almost gave her the benefit of the doubt.

“If you say so.”

“I do say so. Would it kill you to be happy for me for once?”

“For once? Jalya I was happy for you with Garen; I was happy for you with Lenal; I was even happy about Kendulan.” I stopped and counted off Jalya’s various crushes in my head.

“I wasn’t very happy about Shale, but that was kind of different. Let me ask you this….when this is all over are you going to stay with him? Is he still going to want to be with you? He’s going to want to go back to his clan, and you’re going to go…….well, I don’t know where you’re going to go. Hell, I don’t even know where I’m going to go.” I sighed and put my head in my hands. “I’m sorry, Jalya, I’m just worried. Worried and scared and getting tired of this whole thing.”

“I know.”

“The truth is that I’m kind of jealous. I mean you’ve met this really good looking, nice man and you’re all carefree and having fun, but for me it’s so serious, you know. I have all this pressure on me, and all these really terrifying things to do….and all I really want to do is go back to Lock Up and find him.” I turned to look at her. “You’re lucky you can just have a normal relationship with a normal man.”

She looked at me sadly. “I know. Don’t think I’m not worried though. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this is all over either. And you do know that I’m jealous of you, right? You get all this attention; you always did…me, I’m just best friend of the bei clu.”

“It’s not fun getting attention for being the weirdo.”

A loud knock came from the other side of the door, abruptly ending our discussion. Oches’ voice boomed from the other side. “You girls awake?”

Jalya’s face lit up as she jumped up to open the door. I tried really hard to feel happy and plastered a big smile across my face when Oches came into view. “Good morning,” I beamed.

Jalya glared at me, but Oches just smiled. “Good morning, Emerin….Jalya.” He looked at her with the same ravenous desire with which I had looked at my dinner last night. “Wagna wanted me to come and get you. The Beyjerones have cooked breakfast for us.”

“Mmm, I hope it’s as good at last night’s dinner,” I said and stood up quickly. The thought of more hot, delicious food made me feel much better and I followed Jalya and Oches happily down the tiny hall. I hung back a little, figuring that I’d give them some alone time, which also gave me a chance to check out our surroundings in the light.

We navigated a crazy maze of narrow tunnels that twisted their way through the brown rock, cutting it into sections, dividing it into rooms, dwellings and whatever else they needed. The pathway was covered with some kind of clear layered rock, which let the light filter down and it sparkled and danced before us as we walked.

We had slept in a small enclave of rooms that they saved for guests. Their own dwellings were further into the elaborate labyrinth, safely nestled in the interior of the cliffs. It was an interesting place to visit, but I didn’t think that I could ever permanently stay in such a tightly enclosed place. I must have been too tired to notice the night before, but now just walking through its walled pathways was enough to make me feel like I couldn’t breathe. The air seemed stale and my chest felt tight and I inhaled deeply to assure myself that I still could. I felt an enormous relief when we finally rounded the last bend and stepped out into the brightness of the dining hall.

We had eaten in this room last night by lamplight, so I had only been able to see the immediate rocky surroundings. Everything outside of our small sphere of light had disappeared into inky blackness. I looked around now, grateful to finally be able to take in the view.

The dining hall, like everything else, was also a rock room, but it had huge windows carved out of its circular outer wall. These windows faced east, thereby allowing the morning sunlight to stream in, lighting up the ever present brown walls and bouncing happily off the brown rock tables. The breeze was cool, but nice, and I went straight over to the windows to fill my lungs with fresh air.

The view was astonishing and actually startled me for a moment. Somehow I expected to see more brown walls outside the window, but when I poked my head out I saw nothing but a sheer, dramatic drop into nowhere. Well, it seemed like nowhere, but when I watched for a few minutes I could make out the form of the Nebril River twisting underneath the mist. It passed right by the cliffs before bending sharply around Malhadron Mountain, the unbelievable giant that covered the sky to my left. I wondered what was on the other side.

Past the river, there were fields that stretched as far as I could see. I wondered where it led, what interesting lands lay past those fields, or if the grass just stretched on forever. I stared at the horizon, unable to wrench my eyes away, even when I heard the Beyjerones filling the dining area.

“What’s so darned interesting out there?” Wagna’s gruff voice abruptly intruded on my thoughts and I forced my attention back toward the large rock room.

“Nothing really, just a pretty view.”

“Sure is. Do you think you can drag yourself away for long enough to eat? There’s someone over here that I’d like you to meet.”

I nodded and followed him back to the centre of the room. The Beyjerones were gathering at the long tables, chatting amongst themselves happily. Several of them threw sidelong glances in my direction and I was pretty sure that word was getting around about who, or rather, what I was. They crowded together on long wooden benches folding their wings about themselves so they could sit close together. I took a seat at the table with Wagna and saw that the rest of my traveling companions were already there, with the exception of Reyla.

By the time the Beyjerones had rescued us the previous evening, the Orlog had already finished draining the energy from Reyla. It had then moved on to Kahj, but it had only just begun to drain him before Vandalaharis had interrupted. I moved over on the bench to sit next to him, upset with myself that I had been so focused on my own issues that I hadn’t even thought about how they were doing.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Kahj looked at me and, though he was smiling, I could see how exhausted he was. “Ah, I’m fine, just a little tired.” He touched the red welts that dotted the edges of his face. “Just a little love bite, that’s all. Slept it off for the most part. Reyla got it a lot worse.”

“Is he awake?”

“Yeah, he’s awake. The doctor here is keeping watch over him now. He wants him to stay in bed for the rest of today at least. He doesn’t like that very much. Doesn’t want to miss out on anything, you know.”

“Yeah.” I looked up and noticed that we were being joined by two Beyjerones. One sat next to me, the bench creaking under his weight. He was big and burly and had the same markings on his wing as Vandalaharis had, plus a few more. The other sat across the table, next to Wagna. This one had much more delicate features, so I assumed it was a female. I studied her face carefully. If it weren’t for the brown fuzz that surrounded her face and the pointy ears which sat atop her head, she would’ve looked almost human.

“Ahh, good, good,” Wagna beamed and stretched his hand across the table to bring attention to the larger bat. “This, my friends, is General Sanjarus, commander of the Beyjerone army.”

He then turned toward the female next to him. “And this beautiful creature is Professor Madalhandra. She is doing research on the Orlogs, trying to unravel the mystery of their origins.” He gestured dramatically in our direction. “General, Professor, I believe you already know Isrelda, Oches and Kahj, and these lovely ladies are Jalya and Emerin.” He looked towards General Sanjarus. “Emerin’s the one I was telling you about earlier.”

“Ah yes,” said Sanjarus, turning to look at me. “So you are the bei clu. Wagna tells me that you need assistance to get to the top of Malhadron Mountain.” His voice was rich and deep and reverberated in my chest.

“Yes,” I said, feeling dumb. I wanted to say more, but I felt awkward in the presence of this incredible creature. I dug my fingers into the fabric of my skirt and watched as a female Beyjerone came up to the table and put a steaming plate in front of each of us. There was meat with gravy, vegetables, and some kind of porridge. Their gorgeous smells mingled together and wafted into my eager nostrils. It was all I could do to keep myself from rudely shoveling it all into my mouth the second it was placed on the table.

Wagna spoke up for me. “So we’d like to get her to the Lumeai as soon as possible, to get the Lamorian rock. Then we have to find a way to free her bei clu va.”

“Hmm,” the General mused. “Breaking into Lock Up is no easy task. There are hundreds of guards, for one thing, all armed with swords. That in itself isn’t too much of a problem; my soldiers are strong and well trained and as great in number. However, the Nebril have an army base less than a league away which houses thousands of soldiers. It only takes one guard to climb the tower and light a beacon fire and all those men will come on horseback. If we don’t find the bei clu va before they get there….well, my army just isn’t large enough to withstand that kind of onslaught.”

“Any way to sneak in do you think, and bring him out?”

“Well, like I said, the place is very heavily guarded, but I guess it’s possible that it could have its weak spots.” Sanjarus took a bite of food and paused to chew, while scratching his chin thoughtfully. “But even if we could find a way, we wouldn’t know who he was, not unless we took Emerin with us that is. And a young bei clu, in the presence of her bei clu va for the first time….well, it’s not exactly a subtle occasion. She wouldn’t be able to control her actions, and keep her mind on the mission. It wouldn’t work Wagna.”

“Hmmm, perhaps you’re right about that.”

I felt my cheeks burning. I hated that they were talking about me as though I were a problem child or something, a reckless, inept brute with no control over herself. Unfortunately it was the truth though, so I could really say nothing in my defense. I recalled my behaviour on the bridge with embarrassment. Not a subtle occasion at all.

“But,” he said as he cut his meat, “I’ll think on it awhile. There may be a possibility that I haven’t considered. And in the meantime, I’ll send a couple of my brightest soldiers down there to fly around a bit and see what they can find out.”

“Won’t they be seen?”

“Oh, it’ll be dark; less guards on duty then. Ours is a very stealthy breed Wagna.” He let out a loud guffaw and shoved the meat into his mouth.

“So, is Emerin going to fly to the top of the mountain?” Jalya asked, finally wrenching her attention from Oches.

“Why yes,” the General boomed, “this very evening, in fact. I have instructed Vandalaharis to see to her needs. Would you like to go too, Miss Jalya?”

“Absolutely!”

“Well then, I will assign Torchuk to you. You will both fly out this evening, right after sunset. You’d best get some sleep today if you can, for you may not get much tonight.”

I nodded in agreement. “Thank you very much, sir.” I said, trying to keep my voice above a mumble.

“You’re very welcome indeed.”

“Excuse me, but is it safe for them to be going up there alone?” Oches piped up.

“But they won’t be alone. Vandalaharis and Torchuk will stay with them the whole time and fly them back down when they’re done.” Sanjarus’ eyes narrowed. “Unless you doubt the effectiveness of my soldier’s protection.”

Oches stared into the manbat’s hardened blue-grey eyes and shook his head. General Sanjarus was indeed an intimidating figure. And after what we saw Vandalaharis and Torchuk do to the Orlogs, I felt completely safe going anywhere with them.

“Well good, that’s settled then. Now, I wonder if all of you would be interested in hearing about the Professor’s research.” The General smiled, revealing a wide set of incredibly sharp looking teeth. “We have found something very interesting.”

“Yes, please, we like to hear of it,” Isrelda said and leaned forward on the table.

“What have you found, Professor?” Wagna asked.

“Please, please, call me Madal,” the Professor said as she wiped her mouth and sat up straight on the bench. “Yes, we’ve found something that will make my research a whole lot easier….or two things rather. Our soldiers were out patrolling the area this morning, just as the sun was rising, and they found two deceased Orlogs in the valley between here and Malhadron Mountain.”

“Deceased?” Isrelda spat out the word. “You mean…..dead?”

“Precisely.”

Kahj leaned over the table, pressing his massive arm against my shoulder. “Are you sure about that? We’ve never seen a dead one before, though we’ve tried our hardest to kill one. We were beginning to think that they were immortal like the Nebril,” he chuckled.

“Oh, I’m quite positive that they’re dead,” Madal said. “They are in my laboratory right now. No heartbeat, no vital signs at all. And quite frankly, starting to smell a little bad, well, worse than usual.”

Wagna rubbed the stubble on his cheek. “Well, maybe they just die eventually on their own….you know, of old age.”

“But if they do grow old, how come we never see any young ones, or babies?” Oches said.

“Good question,” said the Professor. “We will be trying to find out all these things, by studying the specimens that we now have. I have a team working on it presently. We’re running a whole series of tests, and doing a dissection to see what they look like on the inside.”

“Not pretty, I’ll bet,” Wagna laughed.

“Couldn’t be any worse than the outside,” she grinned.

“I have a question, Professor,” Jalya chirped.

“Yes?”

“When Vandalaharis and Torchuk came out and found the Orlogs last night, they had us in some kind of mind grip. We couldn’t move at all. Yet they weren’t affected by it; they were able to keep moving and take them away. Do you know why that is?”

Madal dabbed her mouth with her napkin and smiled. “Our species is extremely intelligent, Jalya. We have exceptionally strong minds. When one of us is in the presence of an Orlog, we can feel it in our head attempting to do what they do, but it cannot bend our thoughts. That’s how it paralyzes you; it bends your thoughts around its own, rendering your own mind unable to control your body. They are quite powerful in mind, if not in body.”

General Sanjarus laughed heartily. “Yet they are no match for the Beyjerones….powerful in mind and body!” He thumped his fist down on the table as if to illustrate that fact, before standing up to leave. “Well, I do believe that it’s time to get some sleep.”

I looked around the room and noticed that the crowd was thinning out. The Beyjerones were nocturnal creatures, who generally slept during the light of day. I remembered that when they brought messages to Carper’s Village, they would always come after sundown, claiming that they could see better in the darkness, and could not fly well in the sunlight.

Professor Madalhandra stood as well. “Yes, a good day’s sleep and then back to work at sundown.” She nodded toward us. “It was nice meeting you all. And Emerin, good luck in your quest tonight.”

“Thank you,” I said and watched her turn from the table, her enormous wings flapping out slightly as she swung around.

We said our goodbyes as she and the General left the dining hall, joining the throng of Beyjerones entering the main hallway back to their rooms. After a few moments we were the only ones left in the room, except for the kitchen workers who were busy clearing the plates from the tables.

“Well, I think I am going back to bed,” Kahj said. “I’m still pretty worn out.”

“I believe it,” Wagna said, stretching his arms above his head. “I’m still exhausted from my own Orlog encounter and that was days ago! I think I’m ready for a nap also.”

“Well, you go back to bed, old man,” Isrelda chuckled. “Maybe I go see how my son is doing. Anyone else care to join me?”

Oches pushed back his empty plate and stood up. “I’ll come with you, Boban. You want to come, Jalya?” He smiled down at Jalya, who eagerly nodded. “What about you, Emerin?”

Before I could even think about it, I shook my head. “No, I think I’ll just go back to bed as well. I’m still pretty tired.”

Actually I didn’t feel tired at all, but for some reason I had an overwhelming desire to be alone. Perhaps it was from so many days of cramped wagon travel. I followed Wagna and Kahj back into the tunnels, and said goodbye when they turned off to go down the tunnel that lead to their rooms. But instead of walking the next few feet to my room, I waited until they were out of sight, then turned around and headed back to the dining hall.

By this time the great room was empty; all of the Beyjerones had gone back to their dwellings deep in the rock. The newly risen sun spewed its light through the massive windows, where it then spilled across the rock tables and blanketed the room in something at least resembling warmth. I crossed the floor to stand in my original spot by the window, where I closed my eyes and let the sun envelop me in its comforting glow. I opened my eyes to lean out the window and look down the steep rock wall once again. The mist had cleared and I could easily see the blue strip of river winding around the base of the cliff below, the sun glinting off of its surface. I took a deep breath and stared across the eternal fields that stretched before me, then focused my attention on the mountain.

In the darkness of the evening, I would be on the top of that thing, visiting the Lumeai that lived there. It struck me as funny that, less than two weeks ago, I didn’t even know that sun seekers existed. Only two weeks ago, my life had been relatively normal, safe and boring. Two weeks ago, I’d been planning my wedding, never imagining for a moment the incredible journey that awaited me. I thought of my parents and wondered, sadly, if they thought I was alive or dead. And my bei clu va?

I turned my head and stared in the other direction, craning my neck around the jutting rock wall, hoping that somehow I could see all the way back to Lock Up. After a moment of seeing nothing but grass, I gave up and decided to go back to my room. Tonight, I would be at the top of Malhadron Mountain, the tallest thing in the riverlands. If there was anything to see, I would most certainly see it from there.

Chapter 24

If I had thought that the tunnels from our room to the dining hall were narrow, I had no words to describe what we were walking through now. We had just finished a hearty meal in the dining hall and were now following Vandalaharis and Torchuk through the constricting pathway toward the northern most tip of the Beyjerones’ caves. It was from there that we would be taking off. The tunnel seemed to get darker and smaller the further we went, and by the time we got to the end the two manbats almost had to walk sideways to push their wide shoulders through. I followed closely, counting my breaths, and trying not to have a panic attack. I wondered how they could live in such cramped conditions and still be sane.

When we finally emerged from what felt like a tiny crack in the wall into a much larger hallway, I almost cried with relief. The area was surprisingly well lit, though the ceiling was completely closed in with dark rock. We turned to the right and I noticed that immediately ahead of us on our left, were two huge windows next to a massive door. The windows were covered in the same transparent rock that was on the ceilings of the tunnels.

“That is Professor Madalhandra’s laboratory,” Torchuk said, pointing toward the windows. “I’d sure like to go in and have a closer look at those things.” He stopped and peered through the window at the dead Orlogs.

“She doesn’t let anyone in there if she’s not around,” Vandalaharis said. “Especially now….she doesn’t want anyone messing with her specimens.”

I stood next to Torchuk and looked through the window at the two grotesque things laid out on two large rock tables. The layered rock of the window distorted the room somewhat, but I recognized the general deformity of the creatures.

They lay on their stomachs, legs stretched to the front and back of their bodies so they seemed exceptionally long, though probably not any longer than a tall human. Their bulbous heads rested on their front legs in a way that was similar to how the farm dogs back home had slept. I could only see the face of the one that was closest to us; its body partially blocked my view of the other.

But the sight of one was enough to induce uncomfortable memories. Its mouth gaped, and its tongue flopped to one side. I could almost hear wails of pain escaping from its swollen lips. Its cloudy eyes were only half open, but I was sure they were staring right at me, threatening to break into my mind, twist into my thoughts and freeze my muscles. A feeling of revulsion shuddered through me, but yet I could not seem to look away.

“Ugh, Emerin, how can you even look at those things?” Jalya said. “Just knowing that they’re there makes me feel sick.”

I pulled my eyes away from the dark image and looked at Jalya cringing against the wall on the other side of the hallway. Her pale skin stood out in contrast to the deep brown of the rock. She would not even lift her head, for fear of catching a glimpse through the window. She flitted her eyes over my face briefly. “I don’t even want to think about them…or last night.”

Vandalaharis looked at her softly. “Alright, I think that we’ve spent enough time here,” he said. “We need to get going.”

“I agree,” I said, deliberately not turning back toward the window. I really had no desire to get lost in that thing’s eyes again.

We moved forward around a bend in the hall and I realized that the light that filled the area emanated from a huge doorway at the end. I couldn’t stop smiling as we approached it….light, freedom and open air….after a full day of confinement in rock. We walked through the opening and out onto a grassy clearing, just as the last of the sun’s rays kissed the snowy peak of Malhadron mountain in a glorious display of shimmering red. I felt warm inside despite the cold; I was privileged to bear witness to such beauty.

“Are you scared?” Jalya asked, slipping her hand into mine.

“Oh yeah,” I said, still lost in the sunset.

“Did you get any sleep at all today?”

“A little.”

Jalya eyed me suspiciously. “You weren’t asleep when I got back to the room.”

“I’m pretty sure I was. I don’t remember you coming in.” That was a lie. I actually had been awake, but didn’t feel like spending hours discussing Oches, so I pretended to be asleep.

“Uh huh.”

“Seriously Jalya, I was asleep.” I looked at her skeptical face. “What about you, did you sleep for long?”

“A little, I think. Not much though, I was a little nervous about the flight. By the time I fell asleep, Vandalaharis was banging on the door.”

“Yeah, he woke me up too.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Vandalaharis and Torchuk each putting on some sort of vest. It slid over their heads and tied around their bodies, under their wings. They spent a few moments adjusting each other’s vests and making sure that they were fitted snugly.

“These will make it secure for you to ride,” Vandalaharis said, and he folded himself down onto all fours to demonstrate. “See, there’s a seat and handles for you to hold.” I looked over the whole contraption, hoping to reassure myself of our safety.

“I don’t feel any more secure, do you?” Jalya whispered.

“No, but it can’t be that bad. They seem to know what they’re doing.” I gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “It’ll be okay.”

“Climb aboard, Emerin,” Vandalaharis urged. “It’s a little scary at first, but it’s fun once you get used to it. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”

“Okay.” I let go of Jalya’s hand and walked over to Vandalaharis. Being so close to his massive wings scared me a little, but I did my best to appear brave. I reached up to the handles that lay between his wings and dragged myself clumsily into the seat. It was pretty comfortable, though still terrifying. I plastered a smile on my face and looked back at my friend. “Go on, Jalya….it’s not that bad.”

I tried not to laugh as Jalya flung herself onto Torcher’s back, skirts flailing. I had to remind myself that I had probably looked just as silly, but Jalya had just been too nervous to laugh at me. She pulled herself awkwardly into the seat and pushed her hair from her eyes. “No, not bad at all,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Alright, hold on.” Vandalaharis crouched down and I held my breath as he pounced into the sky. My stomach fell down to my feet as I felt the ground float out from under us and I focused my eyes on my hands for fear of looking anywhere else. I assumed that Jalya and Torchuk were also in the air by now, but I couldn’t make myself look. I felt us getting higher with each flap of the mighty wings, and I leaned forward lest the increasing breeze might blow me off.

“How are you doing?” Vandalaharis asked. “Are you alright?”

“I think so.”

“We’re almost as high as we’re going to get now. Look across, Emerin, over the mountain…do you see it?”

“See what?”

“The lights over there, on the other side of the mountain.”

“I don’t think I can look. I swear if I look up, I’m gonna fall off.”

“You won’t fall off, Emerin,” Vandalaharis snickered. “And even if you did, I would catch you before you went anywhere.”

“Mmm, I hope so,” I said, pulling my eyes away from my white knuckles. I slowly brought them upwards, tracing a straight line from the vest handles toward the back of Vandalaharis’ fuzzy head and between the tips of his ears. All I saw was the grey twilight hugging the curve of the mountain. What was he looking at?

And then I saw it. With one last powerful flap of his wings, Vandalaharis brought us above the edge of the mountain and I noticed the horizon was speckled with thousands upon thousands of dancing lights. They sprawled out vast and wide on both sides, and now, with nothing to block my vision, they encompassed all I could see in front of us.

“Wow, what is that?” I asked, almost forgetting my fear for a moment.

“That….is Nebril City.”

I was taken aback for a second. When I saw the lights, I honestly expected that it was some sort of strange phenomenon that I hadn’t heard of before. I’d seen so many new and unusual things as of late, that I didn’t think there could possibly be a simple, believable explanation for what I was seeing. Nebril City! I knew it was big, but I couldn’t even take it all in at once.

“It sure is big.”

“It’s preposterously enormous,” Vandalaharis exclaimed, “and growing all the time. We’re just waiting for the day that its outskirts reaches our caves. We wouldn’t want to go looking for a new home, but none of us wants to live across the river from that monstrosity!”

Now that my fear was washing away, I eagerly looked in all directions, and took in all that I could in the quickly dwindling light. I saw nothing straight ahead but that huge expanse of city lights, getting brighter with the increasing darkness of its surroundings. To the left, I saw the grasslands morph into a wooded area, much like the one we’d travelled through in the first week of our journey. I wondered how many clans lived in there, how many Orlogs, how many clanspeople tormented and driven away by Orlogs.

I looked to the right, and saw Jalya riding Torchuk a short distance away. I wanted to wave at her to let her know that I was okay, but I could not imagine letting go of the handle, even with just one hand. Beyond Jalya, I expected to see the Nebril River, but it was blocked by the mountain which we were now curving around. I could, however, see it snaking off into the distance toward the brightly lit city. I wondered how many people lived there, and how their lives were different than my own.

“Vandalaharis?” I said, lifting my voice above the wind.

“Yes?”

“What do you know about the Nebril people?”

“A little. We fly them out sometimes, on errands, though I really prefer not to.”

“Why is that?”

“I really don’t like being in the city, so dirty and noisy. And the people there, well, I find them a little, I don’t know the right word….creepy I guess.”

“Creepy?” His choice of words alarmed me a little. “Why do you think they’re creepy?”

“I don’t know…well, the kids are fine, and the young ones. But by the time they get to a certain age most of them have gone through the ceremony.” He paused and thought for a second. “Have you heard about this before?”

“Well the Lumeai told us that they have some kind of ceremony with a crystal, and after that they live forever.”

“Yeah, well that’s pretty much the gist of it. We don’t know too much about it and how it happens; they have pretty tight security there. Many of the clans, fed up with the city expanding onto their territories, have suggested mounting an attack, and destroying the crystal. It’s too heavily guarded, however. We’re also concerned that destroying it might have repercussions on the Great Bei, since the ceremonies themselves seem to be having a negative effect. Our scientists are hoping to find out more about it. All I know is that after they go through the ceremony, they don’t seem the same anymore. They’re not like you or your Harachu friends, or any of the other human clans for that matter. They’re still nice and polite for the most part, but they seem unnatural, soulless; I don’t know, maybe it just seems that way because of their black eyes.”

“Do you know where the crystal came from?”

“No idea,” Vandalaharis said. “It is rumoured, however, that there is a tree in the far north whose sap is said to give everlasting life. We never gave the idea much credibility before, but now….who knows? I’m sure Madalhandra would love to study it….that is, if we knew where to find it. But no one knows much about those barren lands, only the Varsak. Perhaps we should rendezvous with them when they come down this way.”

“Are the Varsak coming early…..like some others have been saying?”

“I think, given the weather, it’s a distinct possibility. And Nebril City’s been spreading out in every direction at a pretty rapid pace as of late. If they’re heading too far into northern territory…..well, the Varsak wouldn’t be too happy about that.”

“Are they bad, the Varsak?” I stopped to think of the best way to phrase my question. “What I mean is, should we be afraid?”

“Oh, they can be reasoned with. We just have to find them before they reach Nebril City. General Sanjarus has been talking about sending some of our troops up there to intercept them.”

“Have you ever seen one before?”

“Never….going up there would certainly be an interesting assignment.” Vandalaharis veered to the right and began a slow arc around the side of the mountain. “The Lumeai village is much more dense at the front of the summit. That’s where their buildings and congregation areas are. So it’s better if we land in the back; creates less of a disturbance that way. They’re quite delicate creatures. One flap of my wings could send about twenty of them flying.” He laughed out loud. “I found that out on my first flight up here.”

“Oh, you didn’t,” I chuckled, “blow them away?”

“Oh yes, thirty feet at least. I don’t think they were too pleased. But no one was hurt, so I don’t see why they were so….” He paused as we came around the back of the mountain. “Emerin,” he said with a slightly alarmed voice, “do you see a green glow at all?”

“A green glow?” I thought back to my trip to the other Lumeai village, and remembered how it had been enveloped in soft, comforting green. I didn’t see that here, and this being the bigger village, I probably should have. “I don’t see anything. Are we close enough to see it?”

“We should be; I can usually see it by the time I’m this close.” As we turned toward the summit, I saw that Torchuk and Jalya, who had been on our right all along, had now turned and were heading toward where the village would be. Vandalaharis turned to follow them and we approached the snowy peak of the mountain top. As we closed in, I began to make out a subtle green glow.

“Look Vandalaharis, there it is!” I shouted. “It’s green!”

“Yes, I see it now,” he said. “But…..well, it’s barely there. I mean it should be brighter than this.” He shook his head slightly. “I don’t know, Emerin, something doesn’t seem right.”

I gripped the handles tightly and swallowed the lump in my throat. Just as I was starting to feel better about this whole flying thing, he throws this at me. I closed my eyes and tried to steady my breathing. It would be alright; when I opened my eyes, the sky before me would be a brilliant, luminous green.

“Torchuk’s going in,” Vandalaharis announced. “If he completes his landing, then everything’s probably okay.”

I opened my eyes at the sound of his voice and saw, to my disappointment that the glow remained the same. At this point, even I realized that it should have been brighter. And as we reached the craggy snow covered surface, I noticed that Torchuk didn’t seem to be stopping. He kept going past the clearing where I assumed we’d be landing and surged ahead, straight past the cluster of tiny houses in the distance. There was something moving down there it seemed, and it wasn’t the sun seekers. It was darkness, patterns of black squirming against the white snow.

“What’s he doing?” I screamed. “Why isn’t he landing?”

“I don’t know; I don’t know; just relax. Let’s get a little closer so we can see.” Vandalaharis straightened his wings and we glided down over the small field and approached the village. “What is that?” he said. “What’s moving down there?”

We were almost at the houses, rows upon rows of empty, roofless houses, when I finally realized just what was moving down there. As we got closer, the squirming specks of black became hundreds of black bodies lining the pathways between the houses. I couldn’t see the Lumeai, but it knew that they must have been there somewhere, hiding behind the darkness. The green glow burst from between the black bodies, highlighting the twisted, grotesque features of these now familiar creatures. They looked up at us as we flew overhead, facing us with their mangled snouts and fat, droopy lips. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see. But, try as I might, I could not block out the familiar howls of pain.

Chapter 25

“What the…” Vandalaharis was unable to finish his thought as he swerved back up into the air and away from the village. “Are those what I think they are?”

“The whole place is covered with Orlogs!” I confirmed, while still shaking my head in disbelief. “Where are the Lumeai? I can’t even see them.”

“I knew something was wrong; the glow was just too dim.” Vandalaharis leveled his flight and followed Torchuk in an arc around the perimeter of the mountaintop village. “How could all of those Orlogs have gotten up here?”

“I don’t know…I mean they can barely even walk.”

Torchuk slowed down, allowing us to catch up. “Should we go down?” he asked Vandalaharis as we flew in next to him.

“It would be no use, Torchuk. There’s too many of them for us to handle. We’ll have to call in the troops. Just keep circling the summit. I’ll head back to the south side and give the signal.”

“Yes sir.” Torchuk veered away from us as we turned in the direction of the Beyjerones caves. Just as they left I caught a glimpse of Jalya’s terrified face. I was sure that she was now wishing that she’d stayed back at the caves with Oches.

“I just have to get a little bit closer,” Vandalaharis said, “just to make sure that they can hear me.”

“What’s happening?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from trembling. “What are you going to do?”

“You’ll see,” he said. I felt his sides expand drastically, pushing against my legs. He pulled his wings back, and as he drew them down again, he let out an ear splitting, bellowing cry. He held it until all the air had been pushed from his lungs and then took a deep breath and let out another long shriek. It crackled through the sky, bouncing off the clouds and echoing through the Beyjerones’ caves below.

Vandalaharis stopped to catch his breath. “They’ll be here soon,” he said.

I stared at the caves, listening to the last remnants of his cry resonate through the rock walls. Certainly they must have heard that. Vandalaharis flew back and forth in a pacing motion, waiting to see if his signal would be answered.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within thirty seconds I could see Beyjerone soldiers amassing on the northern clearing where we had taken off not so long ago. They arranged themselves in perfectly formed lines, then stood still, as though waiting for instruction. One of them took off and flew up closer to where we were, and Vandalaharis hurled some shrieking sounds toward him. It seemed to be a kind of communication, because the other bat answered with the same sort of multi-toned cry. He then turned his back on us, and I could see by his markings that it was General Sanjarus. He faced his army and directed another sharp cry toward them.

“Are they coming?” I asked.

“Just watch and see,” said Vandalaharis.

He had barely uttered the sentence before the first line took off into the air in near perfect synchronicity. Then the next line moved forward and took off in response to another call by the General. They flew in perfect formation, coming toward us like a wall of impenetrable black. When the third row took off, Vandalaharis turned around and we flew back to reunite with Torchuk and Jalya.

“I guess we can’t go down and help out,” Torchuk said. He looked forlornly into the village, apparently feeling deprived of his opportunity to thrash some Orlogs. I looked at Jalya and she smiled at me, the expression of fear having completely evaporated from her face.

“No, we can’t land down there with the girls,” Vandalaharis said. “They’d be in too much danger. Besides we need to scout out the area and see if there’s any more Orlogs or anything else suspicious lurking about.”

“Right….which way should I go?”

“You go west as far as the woodlands, then circle back across the front of the caves. I’ll head east, check out the river and the fields beyond. I’ll meet you again at the south side of the mountain and we can report back to each other.”

“Yes, sir,” Torchuk said and took off to the west toward the dark line of trees in the distance.

Just as Vandalaharis was about to turn away from the mountain, the troops arrived. One by one, each formidable line dropped down into the Lumeai village. Hundreds of mutant Orlog heads looked skyward as the huge brown beasts descended upon them. Then the wailing ensued as hundreds of gnarled bodies writhed in panic.

The Beyjerone soldiers landed in the midst of that sea of black, blocking off most of the remaining green glow. Powerful wings stretched out and I winced as Orlogs were slapped and battered against one other. The air was filled with the raw sound of bone grinding upon bone and I was relieved that we were flying away from it. As we moved down toward the river, I looked back and saw the first of the soldiers lifting an Orlog body from the mountain top. He flew past us as we dropped, carrying it off into the distance.

“How far will he take it?” I asked.

“Oh a several miles across those fields is probably enough,” said Vandalaharis. “They couldn’t possibly walk back that distance without someone to drain of energy. And no one lives out here, except possibly a few rodents.” He stopped and thought for a second. “However, I didn’t think they could make it across the fields to get to the mountain in the first place. If they had some kind of help to get there…..well, then they could be back. It wouldn’t matter how far out we take them.”

“And there’s no way at all to kill them?”

“None that has been discovered.”

“Cut off their heads? Hack up their body parts? Burn them down to ashes?”

“You certainly have a vicious streak, Emerin,” Vandalaharis laughed. “But no, it’s all been tried at some point or other. Their skin is impenetrable even by the sharpest blade, and they just won’t burn; fire will blaze over their bodies without any effect. This is why finding those dead ones was so bizarre. Hopefully the Professor can find something out from her studies. My father, the General, was playing with the idea of gathering them all up and imprisoning them somewhere. That’s the only way we can think to control the problem.”

We dropped down to the base of the mountain and I had to literally hold in a scream as my stomach leapt up into my throat. Vandalaharis raced along the inky black river water, so close to the edge of the mountain I was terrified that we would crash into it.

“Let me know if you see anything, Emerin,” he said. “Any Orlogs or strange creatures….in fact anything that moves or looks unusual at all.”

“Okay,” I said and studied the landscape, though it was so dark I was sure that something could have been moving right in front of my face and I wouldn’t have seen it. The side of the mountain raced by quickly, and I became increasingly cold as the nighttime air glided over my body. I chanced taking one hand off the handle for long enough to pull the hood of my long robe over my head. I pulled it low over my eyes, hoping that would increase its chances of staying there.

We followed the river until well past the mountain then turned east to fly out over the fields. We went so far out that I wondered if I actually would get to see what was on the other side of them. But if there was something else there, we didn’t go far enough to see it. The only thing we saw other than grass was the other soldier coming back after dumping the Orlog out in the field.

“What’s out there Vandalaharis?” I asked as we turned around to go back to the mountain. “If you keep going east….is there anything past these fields?”

“Well, the fields go on for quite some time,” he said. “But eventually the forest starts again, so I’m told. I haven’t been that far east yet. I’ve even heard rumours that a great sea lies beyond the forest, but those are just stories from elders that may or may not be true.”

As we flew back toward the mountain, we passed many more soldiers bringing squirming, howling bodies down from the summit. Then a familiar shrieking sound pierced the air.

“Somebody’s found something,” Vandalaharis said. I looked up to see Torchuk and Jalya circling around the south side of the mountain to meet us, but saw nothing else unusual, nothing that should warrant a shriek. When Torchuk saw us coming he flew around the side of the mountain to meet us.

“We found two more dead ones,” he said. “On the western side of the mountain.”

“You’re kidding,” Vandalaharis said.

“Well, I couldn’t be sure, but they sure seemed dead. Anyway, Ruskolus and Elmchuk are taking them back to the caves. Madal will be thrilled.”

“Well, good, now maybe we can find out some answers.”

“Absolutely. Where to now, boss?”

“Well, I’m going to circle the mountain to the north, then head toward the city, then I’ll turn and come back toward the northern side of the mountain. You go south and do a circle around the caves; make sure nothing’s there. There’s lots of places for them to hide in that rock. Then come around and meet me on the northeast face of the mountain.”

“Will do,” Torchuk said and turned around in a large arc to head south.

“Well, Emerin, it looks like you’re going to get a closer look at those city lights.” Vandalaharis swooped around the side of the mountain so quickly that I couldn’t hold myself upright. I gripped the handles and leaned to the left, falling a little closer to the grassy edge than I would have liked. He then turned so that we were once again flying over a massive field of grass that stretched out into blackness, and beyond that blackness…the lights of Nebril City.

“Doesn’t seem to be anything out here,” he said. “There’s no logical place for them to have even come from. How could a bunch of hobbled creatures walk this far, with no apparent victim around from which to get their energy? And even if I assume that they could make it here, how in the world could they climb that mountain?”

“I don’t know.” I was baffled by it as much as he was. “Do you think something could have flown them up there?”

“I couldn’t imagine it. We are the only flying creatures large enough to transport something of their size. And there’s no way one of us would have done that. Not to mention, it would take many Beyjerones to fly all of those Orlogs to the top of the mountain. If that many had left for long enough to do something like this, well, someone would have noticed, wouldn’t you think?”

“I guess that’s true,” I mused. It certainly didn’t make a lot of sense. I stared at the flickering lights as they grew closer. The city stretched out in front of me, filling my vision until the only thing I could see was lights. If it were daytime, I was sure that I would be able to see houses and pathways, and wondered what that would look like in a place of this size. I thought about my own village and how I could walk across the whole thing in less than twenty minutes. I knew everyone that lived there. There would be no way to know more than a small portion of the people that dwelt in this place.

“Well, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary this way,” Vandalaharis said. “Best to go back and check in with Torchuk.” He leaned his body to the left and we turned in a large circle to face the mountain once again. The green glow was getting stronger, as more Orlog bodies were removed from the village. It danced through the sky, showcasing the struggle that was going on below. One by one, Beyjerones soldiers lifted themselves from the Lumeai village, each carrying a badly beaten Orlog body.

“What could they possibly want with the Lumeai, anyway?” I asked. “One of the Lumeai at the last village I visited said that they couldn’t take energy from them. So why would they be up there?”

“They can’t take energy from them….but can they paralyze them?”

“Yes, yes, he was paralyzed, but he said that it couldn’t drain him.”

“Hmmm, maybe these Orlogs didn’t know that. All they knew was that there was a village on a mountain with possible victims, when there’s not much else out here. Except for our caves, of course, but they probably know by now that they can’t get anywhere with us.”

“Maybe,” I said.

As I watched the action going on ahead of us, I noticed that one of the Beyjerones was flying in our direction. When I saw that he had a rider, I knew that it must have been Torchuk. He let out a soft call and swerved around behind Vandalaharis and came up beside us.

“The soldiers have recovered the Lumeai,” he said. “They had them corralled in one of their congregation areas….all unable to move of course, until we started beating Orlogs.” He paused and shook his head. “They say that the remaining Lamorian rock is gone. It had been taken while they were paralyzed.”

“Damn,” Vandalaharis said. “That was the reason they were up there. To paralyze them, rendering them unable to defend the rock. Everyone knows that they’d never give it up willingly. They had it hidden away…the Orlogs must have searched their thoughts to find out the location. Unbelievable.”

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The Lamorian Rock….gone? Didn’t we have enough to do in this damned quest? It wasn’t fair. I wanted to punch something, but the only thing that I was in contact with was Vandalaharis, so I held myself back.

“General Sanjarus wants us to bring the girls back to the caves,” Torchuk continued. “He doesn’t think that it’s safe to land with them until we’ve secured the area.”

“Alright, well, I guess it’s back home we go. Are you ready, Emerin?” But I wasn’t listening to Vandalaharis; my eyes were fixated on some movement on the side of the mountain. It looked like something was there, rolling in the thick grass.

“Vandalaharis, look!” I said. “Is that one of them there on the side of the mountain?”

Vandalaharis slowed his motions and concentrated on peering ahead. “I don’t think that’s an Orlog,” he said. “I may be wrong, but I think it’s a human.”

“A human?” I stared hard at the wiggling object in the grass, but my night vision just couldn’t compare to the Beyjerones’.

“Yeah, that’s a human alright,” said Torchuk. “What would one lone human be doing out here amongst a tribe of Orlogs?”

“Better go in and have a closer look. Perhaps he has something to do with it.”

As we approached the mountain, I could see that they were right. It most definitely was not an Orlog, but a man. His motions had settled down somewhat, and he now lay fairly still, cocooned in a little nest of grass. Vandalaharis landed next to him and looked into his face, prodding him gently to see if he would wake up. When it seemed unlikely that he would, he gathered him up in his arms.

“Best to take him back to the caves for questioning,” he said. “And possibly some medical attention. He’s alive, but he doesn’t look so good.”

I leaned forward, stretching to peer over Vandalaharis’ shoulder. I still couldn’t make out his facial features, but he appeared to be a young man, perhaps similar in age to me. I wasn’t sure whether he looked as bad as Vandalaharis had said; it was too dark to tell. However, he didn’t even stir when we took off in flight, but hung there limp, unaware that he was in the air, cradled next to the body of a manbat.

We were almost at the landing area of the caves when I looked over at Jalya. She stared at the young man with concern, never taking her eyes off of him, even as we landed. In fact, she was sliding off of Torchuk’s back before his feet even touched the soft grass.

“Jalya, what are you doing?” Torchuk roared at her. “Wait till I’m at least on the ground before you get off!”

But Jalya didn’t seem to care about his comment, or even hear what he said. She fell on her knees next to the man, just as Vandalaharis laid him on the ground.

“Oh no,” she cried. “Oh no…”

“What Jalya, what?” I said as I climbed down from Vandalaharis. I made my way over as quickly as I could, but it felt weird and disorienting to walk after such a long time in flight.

“Jalya, get away from him,” Vandalaharis said. “He could be dangerous.” He attempted to pull her up, but she batted his hands away. She grabbed the young man by the shoulders and shook him gently, as tears began to spill over her cheeks.

I sat on the ground next to her, finally understanding her anguish. Vandalaharis again tried to intervene, but I looked at him and shook my head. He looked confused as he hesitated, as though trying to determine whether he should listen to me or insist on protecting us. When I saw Torchuk swagger up behind him with an angry look on his face, I figured I’d better explain.

I looked down at the boy with the matted hair and the dirty, black streaked face. “This is Jalya’s brother,” I said. “This is the wu bei.”

Chapter 26

“So this is the famous Ashel, only known wu bei, potential saviour of the world, and brother to the tremendous Jalya.”

I spun around to see Wagna’s smiling face in the doorway of the Beyjerones’ doctor’s quarters. He cocked his head.

“Kind of thought he’d be better looking,” he smirked.

I couldn’t help but smile. “Don’t let Jalya hear you say that. She absolutely adores her brother.”

“It seems that Miss Jalya has many handsome men in her life now. I just saw her cozying up to Oches in the dining hall.”

“Yes, I told her to go get some breakfast, while I watched over Ashel. She wouldn’t leave unless I promised to stay.”

Wagna walked over to the bed. I happily noted that his shuffling had almost progressed back to his regular gait. “Well, he don’t look too good.”

Ashel did look terrible, I had to admit. His skin had a greyish cast and it stretched tightly over his cheekbones and around his jawline. Black circles ringed his eyes and black streaks covered his cheeks at the hairline. His breathing was laboured and often got caught in the middle. Every now and then he would twitch terribly, starting with his hands, moving up his arms to his face, and not ending until his head thrashed about for a while.

“The Beyjerone doctors think that he took in some black bei from somewhere,” I explained. “Apparently this is how a wu bei looks when they’re holding on to some black bei that they can’t release. They say that he must have taken in a lot for it to have affected him so badly. I just don’t understand…I don’t think he knows how to collect it from the atmosphere, unless he learned something during his travels.”

“Sheesh,” Wagna said. “Is there anything that they can do for him?”

“Well, they can’t actually get rid of it without the Lamorian rock, which is impossible now of course. So they’re treating him with a combination of potent herbs. They say that will suppress the symptoms enough that he can function, though it will still affect him badly.”

“Damn…..poor kid.”

“I know. Jalya’s really worried about him.” I looked down at his gaunt face. “And so am I.”

“Well, he’s in good hands now,” Wagna said, as he rubbed my shoulder. “Nobody knows as much about herbs and the human body as the Beyjerones. In fact nobody knows as much about anything as the Beyjerones. They’ll take good care of him.”

“I hope so.”

“Speaking of Beyjerone smarts, apparently the Professor is done running tests on those Orlogs of hers. Seems she has some interesting news that she wants to share with us at sundown, after everyone wakes up.”

“Good news, I hope.”

“Maybe she’s discovered how they died and then we’ll have an idea of how to kill them.”

“Yeah.” I thought back to the Orlog that had paralyzed us in the clearing and felt bad. It had been in so much pain; it seemed like it was only trying to do what it took to end its suffering. “Perhaps death would be a relief to them.”

“Death would be a relief to me right now,” a voice called from across the room. I looked up to see Reyla had woken up and was sitting up in his bed on the other side of the doctor’s quarters. “I’m going crazy lying in this damned bed! Doctor, I need to get out now, really; you said I could go for a walk today, come on!”

The doctor glared at him. “Yes, good sir, I will send you on a walk to get some breakfast as soon as I find someone to escort you.”

“I can take him, Doc,” said Wagna. “I was thinking of heading back that way before they close the kitchen for the day.”

The doctor smiled and shook his head. “With all due respect, Mr. Wagna, sir, I don’t think that you’re strong enough yet for that job. I’m not even sure if I like you walking around unescorted.”

Wagna turned back toward me and rolled his eyes. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m completely fine now. Don’t I seem like my old self to you, Emmy?”

“Pretty much, but it couldn’t hurt to take it easy for a while, you know, just in case.”

“Sure, sure, I guess I’ll be playing the old man for a little longer.”

“You’re lucky,” I said. “I wish I could sit around and relax for a while. As soon as the Beyjerone army deems it safe, I have to fly back up to the top of that mountain. And Ashel too, if he’s up to it.”

“Don’t seem to be much point, now that there’s no rock up there for you.”

I scratched my head. “That’s what I thought too, but apparently the Lumeai up there want to talk to us.”

“Probably want to check you out for themselves,” Wagna laughed. “To see if you’re really what Sanjarus said you were.”

“Probably.” I grinned thinking about my last trip to a mountaintop. “You should have seen the stir I caused at the last Lumeai village that I visited.”

Reyla swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Yeah, they’re a pretty excitable bunch. We brought a bei clu up to them a few years back, and you should’ve seen their reaction. Crowded around him like a bunch of kids; couldn’t stop staring at him. It was pretty funny.”

I looked at him incredulously. “You brought a bei clu….”

“Don’t get too excited, Emerin. He’d only be about twelve now.” He smiled at me. “As if I wouldn’t have told you if I knew your bei clu va.” He slid himself off the bed and stood up on shaky feet.

“Reyla, maybe you shouldn’t…” Wagna started.

“Nonsense, I’m fine,” he said and walked slowly over to us. “Little bit weak, but I’m sure I’ll stay upright. He leaned on the wall next to me and inspected Ashel. “Whoa, he looks a lot worse by the light of day. Hope all those herbs they’re pumping into him start working soon.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said sadly, then looked up as I heard feet shuffling at the doorway.

“Is he still okay?” Jalya said as she peeked into the room.

“He’s fine, Jalya,” I said. “What are you doing back here already? Did you just gulp down your food and rush back?”

“I tried to tell her he’d be fine,” said Oches as he followed her through the door. “She wouldn’t listen of course…insisted on coming back here right away.” He turned to look at Reyla, who was slouched against the wall. “Should you be out of bed, brother?”

“No, he shouldn’t be,” the doctor scolded and crossed the room to intimidate Reyla with his large wings. “But since your brother is here, Mr. Reyla, he may escort you to the dining hall if you wish.”

“I do wish,” Reyla boomed. “Absolutely! Get me out of here Oches; these rock walls are closing in on me!”

“Alright, let’s go, but we’re going slowly, Reyla. No showing off, now. If you push too hard and fall down, I’m not picking you up.” Oches turned and looked at the scowling doctor with a smile. “Just kidding.”

“Well, let’s go then.” Reyla peeled his body from the wall and shuffled toward Oches. “You coming, Wagna?”

“Sure am!” Wagna kissed me on the head as he walked by. “I’ll be back to check in on you girls later.” I watched him give Jalya a similar kiss and walk out the door with Oches and Reyla.

Jalya stood in the doorway and stared sadly at Ashel. I watched her for a moment, not able to believe the series of events that had led us here, how different we were from the naive little farm girls who had left our village just a few short weeks ago. How different our lives would have been had we stayed.

“Are you okay?” I finally said.

“I think so…I just wish he’d wake up.”

“Well, at least we found him, Jalya; at least he’s alive. We can be thankful for that.”

“Yes, I am, very much so.” She crossed the room and dragged the chair over from the next bed so she could sit beside me.

“Are you coming with us when we go to the Lumeai village?”

Jalya smiled. “Just try and stop me.”

Ashel’s hand started to tremble again, and Jalya grabbed it, curling her fingers around his blackened knuckles. There was nothing we could do to stop it, so we just sat there and watched him shake, hoping the herbs would start helping soon. Whatever we had been through in the past few weeks seemed pale in comparison to Ashel’s adventure. I prayed that he would wake up soon and tell us all about it. I put my arms around Jalya and sighed, contemplating the uncertain future that we would all face together.

 

 

END OF BOOK ONE

 

 

If you enjoyed ‘Guardians of the Light’, please take a moment to leave me a review at your favourite ebook retailer.

 

Thank you,

 

Leslie MacPherson

About the Author

 

Growing up in a sleepy rural town, Leslie MacPherson always enjoyed dreaming of faraway lands and exciting adventures. In her younger years, she satisfied her wanderlust by taking several road trips across North America. Now, fully settled into family life, she is content to live out her adventures through the characters in her stories.

 

When not reading, writing or doing ridiculous amounts of housework, Leslie can often be found working in her vegetable garden. She also enjoys hiking, camping, fishing and anything that gets her outdoors – even shovelling snow.

 

Leslie lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and three feisty daughters.

 

 

Visit her at http://www.lesliemacpherson.com

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Guardians of the Light

Seventeen year old Emerin Gareth has always known that there is something unusual about her. Constantly plagued by headaches that compel her to wander away from home and into the surrounding mountains, Emerin is always a source of concern to her parents and her future husband. She knows that she will never be able to live the life that's expected of her in her small farming community. But a chance meeting, with a strange creature in need of help, changes Emerin’s life forever, leading her to question everything she’s ever known. She finally understands just how very different she is and how different the world is from the sheltered life she has always known. On the other side of the Riverlands lies Nebril City, a sprawling metropolis that is taking over the lands that surround it. But this growing city has a dark secret which threatens the security of everyone around it, and only a select few are able to right the wrongs that have been committed. And, at the height of the summer, the weather keeps mysteriously getting colder. Now Emerin and her best friend Jalya, two naïve farm girls, must leave home for the first time and embark on an epic journey over dangerous terrain. The world outside of their village is full of fantastic creatures, diverse communities, unexpected friends and unimaginable horrors--horrors which they have the power to stop, if only they can follow through with the quest that they have been given. They must restore balance to the spirit world of their land in order to save the physical world in which they live. To complete their mission, Jalya must find her missing brother and Emerin must find a part of herself that she never knew existed.

  • Author: Leslie MacPherson
  • Published: 2015-10-03 17:50:14
  • Words: 92547
Guardians of the Light Guardians of the Light