“That is quite the opposite of what you’ve led the Valley to believe.” Alexandros snapped, his voice rising above the indignant cries of Glaciem and Bick.
“That would be because if the Valley understood the true dangers of the Forest and what potentially dwells there, no one would have dared to venture through the Mountains to the Village UnNamed or even to the outer edges of the Valley.”
“You lied? You promised us safety in the Valley and you were lying about it the whole time?” Alexandros raised his voice. “Do you have any idea what some of your people endured in order to get here in the first place?”
“The Southern Waters were being overrun with savages! The Mountains house barbarians who eat their own children! Even your own people are being forced to flock to the Valley. Where else would you have had them go? This is the safest place for them to be!” The Seventh raised his voice to match Alexandros.
“And what did you plan to do when the Shadow decided to start eating away at the Valley? What were you going to do then?” Alexandros snarled, his hands balling into fists.
“She was supposed to protect us when that happened!” The Seventh Hominem shouted, pointing at Glaciem, who backed away, eyes wide.
Silence filled the room.
“She was supposed to protect us.” The Seventh Hominem repeated quietly, his shoulders and head dropping. “We had no idea when the Shadow would return, we only knew he was still alive, hiding somewhere, waiting. There were signs all over the Valley. We knew Glaciem was our safest chance for survival, for the survival of the Valley. Please believe when I say we had no other option, Alexandros.”
The Seventh turned to Bick. “Your father wanted so much more than to simply rule the Village. He dreamed of finding a way to put a permanent end to the Shadow. He was so intent on protecting all of us he was willing to do so at whatever cost. To him, removing the coffin from the Forest and into the Village seemed to be the most logical option. Destroying it would allow her to bind herself to the Valley. He was desperate to ensure she would stay with us forever.”
Bick’s face was hard as he stared at the Seventh. A tear escaped his eye, but he did not brush it away.
“Your father did not exile you because he did not love you. I believe the Shadow finally saw an opportunity to use him and manipulated his mind against you. Your father was a noble man. He never meant for any of this to happen.” The Seventh Hominem set his hands on Bick’s shoulders. “He wanted to protect you against anything that could hurt you. He loved you and your mother above all else.”
Bick turned to Narratus. “You were wrong after all, old man.”
“Yes,” Narratus said, nodding his assent. “And it was wrong of me to not trust our First. Please forgive me, Bick.”
“As far as what happened to your mother,” The Fourth said gently, joining in, “we can only assume the same. The Shadow knew they had the power to harm Glaciem. Your mother’s heart had already been overwhelmed and broken by the death of her husband. Perhaps Umbra seized the opportunity to manifest himself physically by using her as a vessel.”
“You make it all sound so logical.” Bick said through his clenched jaw.
“Perhaps this is not the right time, but why is the Shadow so determined to find her?” Alexandros asked as he glanced at Glaciem, who had retreated to the farthest corner of the room.
“Because I’m the last of my kind.” Glaciem answered quietly. “Or at least, it’s believed that I’m the last of my kind. I suppose if we’ve all been taught Umbra was dead and gone, who’s to say the Children of the Forest are all dead?”
Narratus smiled slightly, “Who is to say indeed?”
“Narratus, who has been controlling the Forest?” Glaciem asked.
“What do you mean?”
“If the Shadow is alive and if the Forest is hostile to mortals, then is it possible the Forest Itself is being controlled by Umbra?”
Narratus looked to the Elders for an answer, but received none. “I do not know, Glaciem.” He said, turning back to her. “It is possible some trees have been corrupted, but there were many trees that came to your aid last night, so I do not believe the Forest in Its entirety has been fully taken by Shadow. That’s not to say you will not suffer opposition in the Forest, but I do earnestly believe you will have allies.”
Glaciem paused to ponder this. After a moment, she let her eyes drop to the floor.
“Do you still believe we should go?” She asked Bick quietly.
“Yes.” He replied immediately.
“No.” Alexandros looked sharply at Bick.
They stared at each other, at odds.
Narratus shook his head and turned to Glaciem. “Bick and Alexandros are both right. You are not obligated to go. You may choose to stay here and protect the people. However, you must consider that the Village has seen your true power and they have seen you attack their own with that power. There is a very real chance they will no longer want your protection. You may also choose instead to go into the Forest and seek out the Shadow. But, as you’ve said before, you do not have complete control over the Elements.
“Ultimately, the choice is yours and yours alone, Glaciem. I do not know which is the right path. What I do know is, you are capable of far more than I have ever been able to teach you. I believe it’s safe to assume Umbra has indeed been looking for you and now, in all likelihood, he knows where to find you. Will you stay here and wait for him? Or will you go out to meet him? If you stay, you risk the Village. If you go, you risk your life.”
Narratus paused to cup Glaciem’s head in his hands. He gently kissed her forehead. “What will you do, Daughter of the Forest?”
Glaciem looked at him steadily, then turned to Bick and Alexandros. She sighed. “Too many people have died because of me. I will not stay here and risk the lives of the Village. I will go. I will find Umbra. And I will put an end to this.”
“Glaciem, are you mad? You have the choice to stay here and you’re still going to go out there instead? What is the matter with you?”
Alexandros tried to reason with Glaciem as he followed her down the hallway to her room. Glaciem had hoped he would give up following her with his leg, but he was bent on talking to her.
“Alexandros, I’m going, and that’s final.” She snapped. “There’s nothing you can say to stop me at this point.”
“And why not?”
She rounded the corner and entered her room. She wasn’t even entirely sure what she needed, having only been told to gather a pack and then meet the Elders back in the library. Bick had been bid the same. She pursed her lips as she turned around and faced Alexandros.
“What happened to the man who fought beside me last night? Where did he go? This man before me is different. I don’t recognize him.”
Alexandros clenched his jaw as he met her stare evenly. “That man is still standing before you. Don’t think for a moment he’s gone elsewhere.”
“Then why are you asking me to stay here?”
“When I said I would protect you I meant it. Right now, you are about to go into the Forest which we now know is possibly hosting an ancient evil whose sole purpose is to kill you. You are ill-armed, with little to no knowledge of what awaits you, and you have absolutely no idea as to what you’re going to do once you get there. Admit it, Glaciem, you’re walking into that Forest blind.”
Glaciem clenched her jaws. She wasn’t sure what bothered her more. The fact that Alexandros believed she didn’t know what she was doing, or the fact that he was right.
“I am not completely unable to protect myself.” She said at length. “And I’m not going into that Forest blind. That Forest belongs to me. It will listen to me. I have been training with Bick for ten years. We’ll be fine. You have only known me for a day. And in that day, you have seen me wield every single one of the Elements. I am more capable than I look and I will not have you second guessing me simply because you aren’t able to go with me.”
She turned back around and grabbed a pack from underneath her bed, trying to believe what she said as much as she hoped he would too.
Alexandros watched her silently before turning around and limping back through the door and down the hall. She assumed he was going to the library.
“I am not yet your wife.” She muttered to herself, not bothering to watch him leave.
Glaciem turned around in surprise. Bick was leaning in the doorway. She turned back around to focus on her pack.
“Nothing.” She said quietly.
Bick grinned ruefully, the glint in his eyes bordering between anger and triumph. “Were you and Alexandros having a lover’s quarrel?”
“We were having nothing of the sort.” She snarled.
“Oh, don’t be so sour. I’m only jesting.”
“I don’t care what you’re doing. This is not the time. This is not the place. We have work to do, so unless you’re ready to go to what is most likely our death, please be quiet and leave me be.”
She rustled mindlessly through her belongings, hating how dramatic she had sounded just then.
“Glaciem…” Bick started, his tone less playful.
“Please, Bick…just leave me be.”
Bick was silent for a moment before he took a tentative step forward towards her.
“You and I are about to embark on a journey where we will be stuck with one another for who knows how long.” He said softly. “Let’s not start that journey badly. Please? Tell me what burdens you.”
Glaciem paused before looking over her shoulder. “Why haven’t the Elders exiled me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I spilled blood, the same as you and Alexandros. Why haven’t I been exiled or sentenced to death?”
“You’re the Valley’s only hope. They can’t kill you. They saw what you did when they threatened something important to you. In truth, I have a feeling they wouldn’t be able to hurt you even if you yourself placed a knife in their hands and told them to strike.”
Glaciem pondered this for a moment. “What about your mother? What about what she said to you?” She asked at length. “About the darkness?”
Bick shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“And what of the horrible noise we all heard when the coffin was destroyed? It didn’t hurt me at all, which I can understand, but you were also able to withstand it. Why was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“But doesn’t it bother you?” She insisted.
“Of course it bothers me!” Bick sat down on the bed and looked up at Glaciem. “I simply don’t see a point in worrying about it right now.”
“What if something happens to you when we enter the Forest?”
Bick chuckled. “Glaciem, something will most certainly happen to both of us in the Forest. We aren’t going somewhere safe. Chances are, you and I will both face our fair share of hardships.”
“How can you be so calm about it?” She threw her hands up in frustration. Water from the washbasin sloshed in response.
She was agitated and the water knew it.
Bick sighed. “I have to be calm about it because if I’m not calm, I fear I shall lose heart.” He looked at her steadily. “Nobody fully understands the risks we’re taking. It could be much easier than we anticipate, but in reality, it’s probably going to be far more difficult than either you or I could even begin to imagine. What I do know, the only thing I am certain of, is that I believe in protecting our Village. And I believe in protecting you. I believe you are worth fighting for and…”
Bick trailed off. Glaciem held her breath as she watched him struggle to find the right thing to say.
“…you are worth dying for.” He finished quietly.
Glaciem exhaled heavily and looked down at her feet. “I think it would be better if I went alone.”
“I don’t care what you think. I’m going with you whether you like it or not, Icicle.” Bick stood up and slapped Glaciem upside the back of her head playfully. Then, more seriously, he tipped her chin with his finger. “I lost my father and my mother tonight. You are my only family now. Don’t force me to be parted from you too.”
“You’re too stubborn for your own good.” Glaciem replied sharply as she pulled her chin away.
She dropped the pack on the bed and pushed him out the door, ignoring his protests as she did.
“I need to change and so do you. We need to leave soon. I doubt the Village will tolerate my being here for much longer and once they find out I’m taking you with me, they’ll tolerate me even less.”
Glaciem shut the door in his face, not waiting for a response. She looked down at her dress, or rather, what was left of it. She pulled at the neck and it ripped down the center and fell off of her body in ribbons.
It had been such a beautiful gown. She shook her head sadly.
She picked up the pile of fabric and set it on the bed, sorting through the torn cloth, looking for a piece that was relatively blood and dirt free. She settled on the silver ribbon which had served to close the back of the dress and pulled it away from the rest of the fabric. She wrapped it around her wrist, tying it off as best as she could. She was not typically the sentimental sort, but still, she wanted to keep a piece of it with her.
She dressed as quickly as she could, choosing her usual tunic, leggings, boots, and cloak. She wasn’t sure what she would need in the way of weapons, nor was she convinced the Forest would even allow weapons to enter Its territory.
How do the Hunters manage it? They enter and leave the Forest with weapons regularly…perhaps they’re all in league with the Shadow? Perhaps those at the Great Hall have gone to tell Umbra what happened?
The thought was uncomfortable. Even though she had read about Umbra in the books Narratus provided her, she still had little to no idea as to what he actually looked like or what he even was. She knew he was King Auden’s brother and was the most dangerous threat to mankind, but beyond that, she could only guess. Not even Narratus knew more than what was provided in the books.
Except for the fact that he knew Umbra was still alive.
Though she understood why Narratus hadn’t told her the truth and knew he would have eventually told her when the time was right, it still bothered her to know he had withheld the information for so long.
“None of that matters anymore.” She said, her voice clipped, as she tried to convince herself she was ready to go.
She took a deep breath and looked over her room one more time before grabbing the still empty pack. She walked out of the room, refusing to look back.