At the head of the Great Hall, Glaciem sat next to Bick. Her chair was in the middle of all others seated at the Table of the Elders. The ceremonial chair that had been reserved for her was far too big and far too hard. It made her back ache the moment she sat down. She had spent the majority of the night shifting uncomfortably, unable to find a position that didn’t send waves of discomfort up her spine and into her hips.
The entire Village had spent the whole of the evening taking turns congratulating her, a long line forming along the side of the room, slowly moving by her. She was obliged to acknowledge each one, offering her hand to the men who lightly touched their lips to it, something that irritated her skin to no end. When the women passed by, she gave them what she hoped looked to be a courteous nod.
Bick was in the chair to her left and seemingly in a wonderful mood. He laughed gaily with those who stopped to speak with him before they paid their respects to Glaciem. The Elders, five on Glaciem’s side and four on Bick’s, sat tall and were quietly enjoying the feast, their black robes in stark contrast to the festive clothing of the guests. Their stones glimmered brightly in the light of the many torches hanging from the walls, their many colors reflecting back into the eyes of civilian and guard alike.
Glaciem had immediately noticed Narratus’ vacant seat. She had not, however, been so foolish as to enquire about him to the guard who had escorted her to her seat at the beginning of the feast. Her earlier encounter with the guards had taught her better.
She still felt uneasy whenever she thought of the House of Meeting and of her vision. Questions regarding the nature of the boy she saw in the Forest and why she had not been permitted to see Narratus wrestled in her mind, further tangling her thoughts and deepening the discomfort in her stomach. She had not been able to stop thinking about it the whole evening, the jovial atmosphere exacerbating her nerves more than anything.
While her unease was nothing compared to what she had experienced earlier during her vision, she wholly regretted eating from the platter in her room earlier. The fact that she was being deliberately kept from the old man gnawed at her incessantly and her stomach threatened to reject what little food she had managed to get down. Not only was Narratus was as precious to her as she to him, she was confident that he was also the only one in the Village who would have the answers she so desperately craved.
“You look as if you’re being held here as a captive.” Bick leaned over to hiss at her. “Can you at least try to smile?”
“Forgive me, but my mind is preoccupied with other, more important things.” She whispered back.
Bick snorted. “More important than your betrothal ceremony?”
“Yes.” Glaciem snapped. “Besides, there are too many people I don’t know, and it is far too loud! I don’t understand how you’re in such high spirits. How can you abide it?”
“You need to put the events of earlier aside and focus on what is happening right in front of you!” He raised his voice a little, though she could not tell if it was out of frustration or so he might be heard above the noise of the crowds.
She looked at him skeptically, “And pray tell, how should I go about doing that?”
Bick grinned at her, “Well, for one, you might try a sip of what’s in your goblet.” He held it up to her with a wink. “You might like it!”
Glaciem sniffed at the wine sloshing in the cup Bick had shoved in her face. She took it from him and immediately set it back down without drinking.
“If you are suggesting the only means by which I can enjoy myself tonight is to get drunk, then you can keep your sage advice to yourself, brother.”
Bick laughed and took a long drink from his own goblet. “I’m not suggesting you should get drunk, I’m only suggesting that you not worry so much about things you cannot control. Narratus is fine, I’m sure of it, and I’m sure the guards were placed before the House of Meeting for a perfectly sound reason. You were nervous about tonight, which is why you acted as you did.”
Glaciem gave him a look that made it clear she wasn’t convinced.
“Glaciem,” Bick said, exasperated. “There is nothing to worry about. Look. Tonight has come and no terrible disasters have befallen us. Everything is as it should be.”
Even as he said it, Glaciem could see the barely visible falter of his smile.
“The Tenth Elder’s seat is empty. All is not as it should be.” She retorted, pointing at the empty chair at the end of the table.
“That Tenth Elder is ill.” Bick countered. “You should enjoy tonight for his sake if nothing else. He will want you to describe every detail to him later.”
He picked her goblet back up again and held it in front of her, lifting his eyebrows in expectation. She sighed, conceding to his request and took it, holding it up to him in a toast. They clinked the edges of their cups together and drank deeply. She felt the sweet wine burn its way down her throat and settle deep within her belly, warming her from the inside out.
Glaciem closed her eyes and silently beseeched the heavens for peace of mind and for her stomach to still, but as she did, she knew she wouldn’t be granted either one. As she opened her eyes and looked around, the world shifted under her chair. She had drunk too much too quickly and had eaten too little food. The rich liquid was a rich drink reserved for ceremonial gatherings and was quite potent, something she now realized with chagrin.
“Oh heavens, Bick, what have you done to me?” She looked at him worried, the wine far stronger than the watered down variety she was accustomed to drinking.
“I have done nothing, Icicle! It is no fault of mine that you can’t hold your liquor.” He laughed loudly and stood up, holding out a hand for her to take.
She took a deep breath and raised herself up. Though she was not as unsteady and she might have expected, she still felt wobbly and her limbs were heavier than normal. She accepted Bick’s hand without realizing that she had done so, and allowed him to pull her away from her chair. He led her out from the long table where the Elders could see them, a crowd parting for them as they passed.
“What are we doing?” She asked as she silently tried to gather her wits.
“We are going to make you enjoy this night whether you wish it or not. Dance with me.”
“I don’t trust my feet.”
“I don’t care.”
When they reached the center of the room, Bick turned to smile and bow first to the Elders, and then to the musicians. As he held Glaciem’s hand lightly, poised and ready for the music, the audience offered their applause, the sound of enthusiastic clapping echoing up to the high ceilings of the Hall.
“No, Bick, please don’t make me.” Glaciem quietly begged as it became apparent that he intended for them to not just dance, but to showcase it in front of the entire Hall.
“You’re going to miss the beginning if you don’t focus.” He replied, ignoring her protests. He held her hand tightly in case she should try to escape. “After tonight, these will be your people, Glaciem. Be the protector they need you to be.”
The music began. The tune was lively, an old piece from the Singing Islands, well-known and loved by all. There were no words; according to the customs of the Islands the dancers were meant to do the singing through their movements. The dance, though simple, was quick and light-hearted and one Glaciem and Bick had been forced to learn years ago along with all other traditional dances known to the Village. At first, they had both fought hard against Narratus, but over time their distaste for the dancing turned to enjoyment. It helped quicken their feet and steady their balance when brawling.
Glaciem and Bick began and she was relieved to find that, even with the wine, she moved with ease. She realized now with overwhelming gratitude to Narratus that they had been given the unfair advantage of learning how to dance in the privacy of the inner courts as opposed to out in the open as most did. She knew every movement from memory and could have closed her eyes and still known exactly where Bick was on the floor. They were both light footed and as they turned and pivoted, the skirts of her dress and the length of Bick’s cape only served to further grace their already fluid movements.
The dance took them across one end of the room and back to the middle, their hands and steps always meeting with precision and elegance before moving away again. The guests laughed and clapped in time with the music. Glaciem avoided the eyes of those watching and instead focused on the further corners of the Hall, where she spotted Alexandros. He was leaning against the wall with his arms folded, his fingers tapping in beat with the music. He was watching her, a smile playing across his lips as his eyes caught hers.
Her heart jumped a little at seeing him, the shock of him there bringing her focus back to the reality of their betrothal. She missed a step and met Bick half a beat too soon. He furrowed his brows at her mistake and improvised a quick turn that set them back into the rhythm of the music, the audience none the wiser.
I must pay attention, lest I make fools of us both.
Glaciem forced herself to look away from Alexandros and turned her attention to Bick. He smiled at her when he caught her eye and she returned the look. She was determined to see the rest of the dance through without further blunders. She tightened her grip on Bick’s hand as he twisted her around, taking care to keep the skirts of her dress lifted just high enough to keep from tripping on them.
The music ended and the dance had led Glaciem and Bick back to the center of the room where they had first begun. The room erupted with applause.
“I can’t breathe!” She gasped, trying to speak loud enough for Bick to hear, and trying to avoid looking around the crowd, especially the corner where Alexandros was standing.
“Let’s go to the balcony to catch our breath.” Bick was breathing heavily, his eyes shining.
They walked hand in hand to the Elders’ Table.
“I beg you father that we might have a moment outside.” He said as he bowed to the First Hominem.
The First Hominem hesitated before nodding his consent, his eyes cold towards his son. Glaciem furrowed her brows, but Bick turned and began walking away from the table, seemingly unfazed by his father’s callousness. The First stood as they turned to leave.
“The Elders bid you all to allow our dancers a moment of solitude!” He said in a loud voice as Glaciem and Bick weaved their way through the people. “Eat and drink, for this is a momentous night to be remembered by all! There is much more celebrating yet to do!”
The guests applauded as the Elders raised their glasses in a toast, all who had drink following suit. Bick turned to watch his father drink, his expression a mix of emotions, none of which Glaciem could interpret. After a moment, he pivoted on his heel led Glaciem out the main hall as those who had been sitting at tables now stood to offer them ovation, tipping their cups and goblets in their honor.
They walked slowly with their backs straight and their heads held high. Glaciem discretely looked around the room and noted that Alexandros was no longer in the corner.
As soon as they were out of sight and had reached the flight of stairs leading to the balcony above, Bick gave her a mischievous grin which she readily returned. They both broke out into a run, going as fast as they could manage, skipping as many stairs as they dared without tearing the fine material of the skirts and cape billowing behind them.
When they reached the top, they were even more breathless than before. Glaciem collapsed against the balcony wall, desperately trying to fill her lungs with air, the boning in the dress making it near impossible. Bick joined her, holding his arms out to catch the cooler winds gently flowing about them.
They looked down at the empty Village below them. Almost everyone was inside, still dancing and feasting, the sound of music and laughter wafting up the steps. The only people who could be seen outside were the guards.
When their breathing had slowed, Bick dropped his arms to his sides and turned to look at Glaciem. He pursed his lips, as if mulling his thoughts over one last time.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you. Something you should know before the night is over.” He said at length, his eyes dropping back to the ground.
She tilted her head, waiting for him to continue, when a guard who had followed them up the stairs interrupted.
“My lord Strong Heart, you are needed by the Elders.” He said, bowing low as he spoke.
Bick looked at him questioningly. “The Elders have only just given us leave to be alone.”
“Forgive me, but the First Hominem has called for you. He says it is an urgent matter, one that is too important to be delayed.”
Bick looked at Glaciem helplessly. She nodded for him to go, not turning away from the balcony wall.
“I shall return shortly.” He grabbed her head between his hands and kissed the top of her head in dramatic fashion.
He turned and walked swiftly down the steps, the guard following closely behind.
It’s just as well. Glaciem thought.
She would normally never have turned down spending time with Bick, but just now she found the silence of her own company more appealing. She was, however, curious as to what he had wanted to say to her.
She stared absentmindedly at the empty Village streets. As she let her eyes travel past the outer walls and to the tops of the Forest trees, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around as Alexandros walked past her. He joined her along the balcony wall, leaning against it as she did.
“I see you received my gift.” He said, nodding his head towards the blue gem about her neck.
She touched it lightly with her fingers and turned back towards the balcony. “I did. Thank you.” She looked at him from the corner of her eye, unsure whether to be irritated or benevolently understanding at his interruption.
“You are most welcome.” He smiled warmly at her and turned to look over the Village, following her gaze.
After a moment’s silence, Glaciem asked, “I do wonder though, were you obliged to beg a key off of a servant in order to put the necklace in my bedroom, or do you want me to believe you climbed through the window this time as well?”
Alexandros grinned, but did not look at her. “Oh neither, my lady. You may not know this, but I am a wizard of sorts. I magicked it to your room.”
Glaciem snorted. “And I suppose my brother being called away as soon as we had reached the balcony could be credited to your wizardry as well?”
“I promise you I had nothing to do with that.” He shifted himself so he was facing her, resting his elbow against the wall. “I had intended to stop you as you left the Great Hall with the intent of speaking to you alone. It seems fate has looked kindly upon me and offered me an alternative to begging yet another favor of Bick.”
She raised an eyebrow skeptically. “I suppose I don’t have any other choice but to take you at your word.”
“What reason have I to not tell you the truth?”
“You don’t.” She said, the words coming out more sharply than she had intended. She paused and made a mental effort to soften her voice as she explained. “You must understand I’m still uneasy with the idea of believing a person I have never before met, let alone trusting everything they say.” She turned towards him, “Trust is paramount, and once lost, I don’t know if it could ever be regained.”
“I’m telling you the truth. You have my word.” Alexandros replied, his tone far more somber than she had anticipated.
She looked away again, uncomfortable with his stare. “I believe you.”
“I’m being serious with you.”
“I said I believe you.”
Alexandros leaned forward slightly. “Glaciem, I want you to understand that I am in earnest when I tell you I have no intention of ever lying to you. I tell the truth, and I tell it from my heart, from the very core of who I am.”
She grinned ruefully, “Then, you did magick the necklace into my room?”
Alexandros laughed quietly, but did not answer. Glaciem chanced a glance at him before letting her eyes drop again, unable to hold his gaze.
“You are an extreme sort of person.” She muttered, running her fingers absentmindedly along the walls.
“How do you mean?”
She paused for a moment. “You don’t seem to do anything unless you put everything you have into it, both when you tease and when you’re serious. All I said was that I don’t tend to easily trust or believe people I’ve just met, and you take the opportunity to vow to me your honesty forever. I’m not so sure everything I say should be taken as seriously as you seem to take it.”
Alexandros tilted his head as he considered this. “I suppose that’s true in some respects. I only meant to assure you that I intend to treat you as you deserve to be treated. This isn’t a small matter to me. Our betrothal, that is. There’s quite a bit of pressure on me what with knowing you are the last Daughter of the Forest. It’s a daunting thing.”
“Do I intimidate you?” She looked at him in surprise.
He grinned at her and she was beginning to notice how infectious it was.
“Would you be shocked if I told you I was terrified of marrying you?” He said, the softness of his voice a polar opposite to the mirth in his eyes.
“Was your first impression of me so unpleasant then?”
His grin widened as he looked back over the Village, refusing to reply. The night was growing colder and the moon was shining brightly, washing them both in clear, white light.
“You’re ignoring my question.” She said, still leaning against the ledge and facing him.
“It was a silly question.”
She pursed her lips and ignored his comment.
Let him be stubborn then.
They were silent, both lost in their own thoughts as the night breezes continued to ruffle their clothing and hair.
“To be honest with you,” Alexandros said, breaking the quiet. “I’m terrified of marrying you because I’m not convinced I’m worth your hand.”
She looked at him silently, studying his expression. His eyes met hers, caution evident on his face. She hadn’t really thought about the fact that Alexandros might be just as uncomfortable with the idea of marrying her as she was uncomfortable with the idea of marrying him.
“Have you nothing to say to that?” He said, moving away from the wall, shifting uneasily.
“We could always refuse the betrothal.”
“Why on earth would we refuse the betrothal?” Alexandros asked in surprise.
Glaciem shrugged. “Do we really want our lives to forever be dictated by the Laws of the Village and the Elders’ wishes? You’re terrified of marrying me and I’m marrying into the Village because of a foolish quarrel with the First Elder’s son five years ago. After we’re married, I will be relegated to the role of Village guardian and protector against the Forest, my Forest, for as long as I live. Which is something else to consider. I’m a Wielder of the Elements. I’m supposedly immortal. Do you want to be wed to a person who will never age with you; who will never age at all?”
She stopped, realizing she was saying much more than she had intended to.
“Would it be so bad to be expelled from the Village if it meant we would be free to choose our own futures and destinies?” She finished quietly after a moment.
Alexandros looked at her confused. “You’re jesting.”
She faced him dead on, her eyes boring into his. “And if I’m not?”
“No…” Alexandros said earnestly, though his voice was soft. “I don’t believe my future or destiny lies elsewhere. I don’t want to refuse the betrothal.”
“What if I refuse it?” She asked.
“Are you going to?”
She tilted her and contemplated. She thought of what it would be like to be forced out of the Village without being able to say goodbye to Narratus or Bick. She thought of the hardships that would befall Alexandros and his family. Though she did not know him well, she did not wish him or his loved ones harm.
“No. I will not refuse it.” She said after a while, wishing the apprehension tightening in her chest would lessen as the words left her lips.
Alexandros’ grin returned. He gingerly reached out and took the blue gem in his hands. She could feel his fingers graze her neck as he lifted it, the chain pressing gently against the back of her neck.
“This is my mother’s.” He said, looking at it fondly. “She bade me give it to you. She said the blue reminded her of your Element.”
“It’s beautiful,” Glaciem responded. “I have never been given something quite so extraordinary. You must thank your mother for me.”
“You could always thank her yourself. You shall meet her soon enough.”
“What type of lady is she?”
Alexandros chuckled. “She’s a bit too wild to be called a lady, but she is the most protective and loving woman you shall ever meet. Of all the members of my family, she is the most pleased with our betrothal. Not because of elevated statuses or renown, but because she is genuinely happy. For both of us.”
Too wild to be called a lady.
Glaciem grinned slightly. She had a feeling she and Alexandros’ mother would get along well.
Her hand went up to the necklace, her fingers brushing against his. “She was right.”
Alexandros tilted his head, a silent question.
“When I first saw the necklace, when the light hit it just right, it did look as if water was moving inside it.”
He gently set the gem back against her neck and looked at her, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
“It is true you can pull water from the air?”
“It is.” She looked at him questioningly.
“Did my dagger in the library not convince you well enough, then?”
Alexandros simply shrugged and looked at her expectantly.
Glaciem grinned in amusement. He had asked so earnestly that she didn’t have the heart to refuse him. She stretched her fingers out to him and his hands moved to her palms, tracing the markings of blue with his fingers as he had done in the library. He studied them with fascination.
“Watch.” She commanded softly.
She cupped her hands together and her markings began to glow brightly in the night air. She could hear a small chuckle of wonder from Alexandros. She smiled widely as little flakes of snow began to form together. At first, a small white ball the size of a pebble materialized, hovering between her hands, but soon it grew into a dense snowball perfectly spherical and roughly the size of a piece of fruit. It was covered in twirling filigree snowflakes; an extra touch of detail she wagered he would appreciate.
She handed it to him and he held it in his hands as if it were thin glass, afraid it might shatter at the slightest movement.
She laughed, “Don’t worry, it’s quite solid.”
His grin grew even more.
“In fact, it is so solid that….” she said, trailing off, looking over the wall, an eyebrow lifted impishly.
Down below, guards were still circling, talking to each other and not paying attention to what was above them. She grinned wickedly at him and gestured ever so slightly towards the guards.
“I am shocked my lady would suggest such a thing.” Alexandros said, his own grin now a wide smile as he teased her.
He took careful aim and flung the snowball as hard as he could towards one of the guards. It landed with a thud against the back of his head and exploded into a thick cloud of shimmering dust. The guard shouted in surprise and looked up to where the blow had come.
Anticipating this, Glaciem dropped down below the wall’s surface and grabbed Alexandros’ hand, pulling him down with her. They sat hunched together on the ground, laughing as quietly as they could, holding their sides to stay their breathing.
“I can only imagine what the Elders would say if they saw us acting like children.” Alexandros whispered in between their muffled laughter.
Glaciem smiled. “Bick and I have been misbehaving for years and they’ve never managed to catch us yet. I don’t intend for them to do so now.”
It didn’t escape her that Alexandros had yet to let go of her hand.
“May I?” He asked suddenly, looking at her with expectant eyes.
“May you what?” She asked in surprise.
He slowly raised his head above the wall and, seeing that the guards had walked away to try and find their assailant, stood up. He pulled her up with him.
“May I?” He quietly asked again as he raised her hands to his mouth, just shy of his lips, hovering as he waited for her to answer.
Glaciem looked at him confused, “It’s just my hand, you don’t need to ask permission to kiss it. It’s a common courtesy here.”
Alexandros rolled his eyes at her. “I’m not asking to kiss your hand as some random person offering you a courtesy. Earlier, in the library, you were uncomfortable when I kissed it. I didn’t want you to think I was acting out of turn if I did so again without first asking.” He held her hands firmly, but did not move them closer, waiting patiently for her consent.
Glaciem did not know how to answer him, the gaiety she felt only moments before fading rapidly. While she could see he was genuine, he was still a stranger to her. She knew after tonight they would spend the rest of his life together, and yet she could not help but hesitate at the thought of the intimate gesture.
“Forgive me.” She murmured finally and though she did not pull her hands out of his grasp, she did gently push them back down to their waists. “I’m still uneasy with this.”
She turned her head and looked away from his inquiring eyes, but as she did she felt him release a hand. He gently tipped her chin with a finger. She looked up at him and shifted awkwardly. Eye contact had never been a strength for her.
“Please don’t apologize. Especially when you’ve done nothing wrong. In truth, I’d rather you never feel as though you should apologize to me.”
Glaciem blushed and her stomach curled into itself. As she opened her mouth to protest, she heard something behind her. She turned around to see Bick standing behind them.
Glaciem yelped and sprang to her feet, her heart thumping uncomfortably in her chest as she did. She spread her hands wide, calling for any water she could summon from the air. There was not much; the books in the room greedily sucked up whatever moisture they were able to find. She could only manage a small knife of sorts. It was thin and frail and would only give her one strike should she need it.
“Reveal yourself immediately.” She commanded, raising her weapon up in front of her.
Enemies of the Elders were few, but Glaciem and Bick had spent their life training for them and she was fully prepared to fight whatever threat that might have come upon the Elder’s home. She felt calm, nothing like when she had faced the guard, the agitating effects of the vision no longer controlling her logic and sense. Here, she was fully in charge, poised, and prepared to handle whatever fool who had been idiot enough to assume he could slip unnoticed into the Elder’s home amidst the bustle of the crowds below.
“You needn’t worry. I’m not here to cause you any harm.” A young man chuckled lightly as he stood up from the chair on the far side of the unlit fireplace.
It had been too dark for her to have spotted him originally. He held his hands up to show that he did not carry a weapon.
“Who are you?” She asked, no less alarmed and irritated at herself for having not scanned the room before.
He stepped towards her and into the afternoon light. He was handsome, with light brown hair and rich amber eyes. He looked older than Bick, but it couldn’t have been by more than a few years. He was dressed in simple, well-made clothes. He paused a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light before bowing to her.
“Currently, I’m a person bearing little significance to you, but I’ve known you for quite some time.” He said, holding his hand out to her.
She did not take it.
“You cannot know a person whom you have never before met.” She replied coldly.
He laughed. “I suppose you’re right.” He let his hand drop to his side gracefully. “My name is Alexandros. I am a friend to Strong Heart.”
“I did not ask how you know the First Elder’s son, I asked how you can claim to know me. I have never laid eyes on you until this moment.” She noted his relaxed stance and lowered her weapon slightly, still unwilling to let her guard down entirely.
He tilted his head and smiled impishly, clearly enjoying himself, “I’m your betrothed, Glaciem.”
Glaciem took care to conceal her annoyance at his declaration, unwilling to give him any sort of advantage over her, however small. She studied him for a moment before deciding he wasn’t a threat. The ice knife melted from her hands, the water dissolving into a wisp of mist. She weighed his words as she bent down to pick up her book from the ground, having dropped it in her haste.
“I don’t believe you.” She said finally.
She walked past him to leave through the door. If the library could not offer her solitude, she would find someplace else.
“It’s locked.” He turned to watch her.
She turned the handle and huffed. He was right. The door would not open.
“How on earth did you get in here?” She asked, frustrated. She had hoped to avoid any further conversation with this strange man whom she had never seen before.
“I entered the same way you did.” He said, gesturing towards the window. “You don’t suppose you’re the only one who’s thought of that, do you?”
Glaciem snorted, her irritation growing. “Of course not.” She admitted flatly.
With the Village having been so busy, she realized he could have climbed the wall and made his way into the library hours before she and Bick had even returned from the Border Tree. It was also possible that he could have been climbing the far side of the wall the same time as she had been working her way from her room. It would have been an amusing sight from the ground, and the fact that she now found herself laughing inwardly at the thought of two people simultaneously scaling the tower only served to annoy her even more.
She rested against the door as she faced him, her jaw clenching in between sentences. “Regardless, I would have thought any person not a family member of the First Elders would think twice before trespassing upon their property so freely.”
Alexandros’ grin widened as he fluidly turned to lean against the wall opposite the door, his eyes never leaving hers. It unsettled her. “I’ve never been one to follow the rules of decorum, to be honest.”
“Clearly.” Glaciem said as she clenched her fists in time with her jaw.
Alexandros continued, wholly unfazed by the bite in her words. “Strong Heart showed me this place earlier. I had been harping on him for weeks now to be allowed to meet you before the ceremony, hoping to introduce myself to you before we were ruthlessly thrown before the entire Village. Finally, he relented and told me about the library and how you scale the wall to get to it. It was a bit of a gamble; he wasn’t entirely sure if you would be coming here at all, but I was willing to wait and see. Besides,” he said, gently running a hand across the shelves of books beside him, “you have an impressive collection. I can see why you enjoy spending your time here.”
Glaciem was irked. Bick should have known better than that. “And what else has Strong Heart been so kind as to tell you? Does he now give you a full report of my whereabouts?” She asked, emphasizing Bick’s given name.
“No, Bick does not.” Alexandros retorted, emphasizing Bick’s nickname. “He simply showed me where I might find you and told me that if I could find a way up to this room without notice then I was welcome to try.”
“And did you think about the considerable challenge of climbing back down?”
Alexandros pulled a small, golden key from a back pocket. He took a step closer to her so she could see the small piece of metal glinting as it caught the light from the window.
“As clever as I supposed I was, I had not considered it. Strong Heart, however, did. He offered me a safer route. He said it was easier going up than down.”
Glaciem looked at the key for a short while before handing it back to him. “Well, you have met me. I am sure I’m not at all what you expected and I’m sorry to disappoint, but I fear I must get ready to meet…well, you, if you’re telling me the truth.”
She went to the window to open it and leave as Alexandros turned to watch her, his hand on the door handle behind him.
“You will find out soon enough that I’m telling you the truth, Glaciem. And you need not leave that way.” Alexandros moved to the door and unlocked it. He opened it for her. “It would be faster.” He said, nodding towards the hallway.
Glaciem paused as she weighed his offer silently. Finally, she moved away from the window and back towards the door.
“Thank you.” She said quietly.
“You are most welcome.” He replied quietly, moving aside for her.
She walked through the door, but stopped, pausing in the hallway. “I have never met another person who could scale that wall. How were you able to?” She asked as she turned back to Alexandros.
He grinned. “Do I impress you?”
She couldn’t tell if he was poking fun at her, or simply trying to make her smile. Neither option pleased her.
“No.” She replied stiffly.
“It seems you require more than gallant acts of bravery.”
Alexandros laughed loudly. “Believe me or not, amazingly enough, I did manage to climb that damned wall, though I can’t imagine doing it more than once. It was harrowing enough the one time. I don’t think I’ll ever try it again and you have my full admiration for climbing it regularly.”
He held out his hand to lead her back into the room and though the spark remained in his eyes, his tone was more serious.
“Please, don’t go quite yet. Talk with me for a little longer? I have failed utterly with your first impression of me…tell me what I might do to redeem myself.”
Glaciem looked back down the hallway. She didn’t want to go back to her room or the bathhouse and finding another place to hide from people would be near impossible at this point.
“Very well.” She sighed as she walked back into the room, ignoring the hand he still offered to her. She sat down in one of the chairs next to the dark fireplace, the one he had originally been sitting in. “Feats of stupidity, or bravery, or whatever you wish to call it, do not appeal to me in the slightest. I would prefer honesty from you above all things.”
“I suppose I should expect nothing less.” Alexandros replied as he sat down across from her. He pondered her for a moment. “If you desire honesty then you shall have it. I wasn’t lying to you when I said I have known you for quite some time, even though you may not have known me. Though, you are rather a popular subject among the people in general and are known to many, something you might not have been aware of considering how you spend most of your time underground.” He paused to raise an eyebrow at her.
She shrugged at him. She didn’t really have a good response.
He continued, “The First Hominem sought my family out five years ago, after yours and Bick’s altercation.”
Glaciem snorted at the thought as Alexandros allowed a small grin to pull at the corner of his lips. He continued.
“The First had settled on my older brother as your prospective betrothed. However, my brother would not be persuaded. He refused to bend, even at the threat of exile. My father, who if nothing else is an extremely clever man, suggested me instead. This was the chance of a lifetime, fame and renown. My father came from a wealthy family and he was not about to let the opportunity of further elevating his status slip through his fingers simply because one son refused to comply. The quandary, however, was that I was already betrothed.”
Alexandros stopped for a moment as he remembered. As he did, Glaciem silently noted the rueful snort that quietly escaped his nostrils.
“Her name was Rose, and I was entirely besotted.” He said quietly, looking at the dark and cold fireplace. “I was madly in love. I was young when I met her, our betrothal having been established in my fourteenth year which was much earlier than most. My family had arrived here nearly fifteen years ago from across the Mountains. We hail from the Northern Waters. We are of an old name and history and the Elders were very interested in the wealth of knowledge we could provide them. They made sure to strengthen our bonds to the Village as soon as a suitable girl had come of age. A decision too hastily made, they later decided.”
Glaciem raised an eyebrow in surprise. The people of the Northern Waters were unique; having lived with the threat of the Barbarians of the Salted Waters on one side, and the ruthless wilderness of the Mountains on the other. They provided many of the guards in the Village, a race of warriors and talented fighters. It was strange for anyone of the Northern Waters to travel to the Village without having first been called by the Elders.
Alexandros continued. “Even though marrying Rose would have secured our place among the people, my father wanted more. He wanted power, not just recognition. Power, wealth, knowledge, the favor of the Elders. Thinking about it, who would not wish for that? When my brother refused you, Rose was immediately married to him, thus revoking my betrothal and freeing my hand to take yours instead.”
As Alexandros finished, he studied Glaciem intently, any hint of mirth now gone from his eyes.
“You must have been devastated.” Glaciem replied softly after a time.
He looked at her evenly. “Quite.”
“I’m surprised you’re interested in speaking to me at all if that’s the case. Do you not despise me entirely?”
Alexandros shrugged. “There was a time when I did resent you. My father had married Rose to my brother without even giving me the chance to say goodbye to her. I was forced to watch her marry a man she did not love. I watched my brother silently bear the weight of my father’s commands and take the hand of a woman he barely knew. I watched them bear my nephew, the son who would have been mine. His name is Derens. He might become a respected leader of the village in time.”
“So you are angry with me then.” Glaciem did not ask, but rather stated it.
“No. I’m not.” Alexandros said quietly, shaking his head slightly.
“Why are you not?”
“You know as well as I, and probably more so than most, that the Laws of the Village are absolute. The will of the Elders cannot be argued. I realized my anger towards you was not caused by you, but rather because of the situation you happened to also be a part of. The reality is you had as little a choice in the matter and I, my brother, or Rose did.”
Alexandros’ eyes did not leave Glaciem’s until she finally blinked and looked away, uncomfortable with their blatant staring. The whole conversation made her uncomfortable. She shifted in her seat, discreetly trying to position herself into a less open angle.
“I’m sorry for the hardships your family and loved ones have endured. In some ways, it is my fault, whether you would admit it or not.” She said after a moment.
“You might be of the Blessed, but you shouldn’t presume to think so highly of yourself.”
Glaciem looked back at him in surprise and huffed, “That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
Alexandros gave her another lopsided grin.
Glaciem sighed, trying to suppress her irritation. “Must you poke fun at me when I’m trying to be sincere? I’m sorry. Truly.”
“Don’t be.” He said as he waved her apology away with his hand. “Strong Heart and I were already friends when he was sent to persuade me to consent to the match. I trusted him, and in all honesty, it didn’t take long for me to become interested. He’s quite fond of you. I believe he speaks more highly of you than he does his own father and mother.”
“I’m quite fond of him.” Glaciem admitted. “He is my dearest friend and brother. Though I’m not sure he was telling you the full truth about me if he described me as kindly as you say he did.”
She flashed him a rueful grin, surprising herself as she did. She was still uneasy with the man across from her. She hadn’t expected to be willing to jest with him, however mild it might have been.
“I can assure you he was most honest about what you might consider to be faults.” Alexandros said, his eyes dancing a little.
“I see. And…?”
“And?” He looked at her curiously.
“Well, surely you must have a more complete opinion of me now that you’ve seen me in person. I’m curious to know what it is.”
“And if my opinion of you is poor? What would you say?”
“I’d say you don’t have a choice in the matter.” She retorted bluntly. “As you said before, you know as well as I that the Laws of the Village are absolute.”
His response was somber, but even so, Glaciem could sense his amusement at her attempt to make light of their situation.
She did not reply and the two remained quiet as they considered one another. After a time, Glaciem shifted again, not so much out of discomfort this time, but more as a desire to rally her will to prepare for the evening. As she made to lift herself up from the chair, Alexandros’ voice broke through the silence.
“I am pleased at the thought of marrying you.” He said softly.
His response surprised Glaciem. She settled back into the chair, unsure how to answer him. Until now, the idea of a betrothed had been nothing more than something spoken of by others. She had never devoted any time to think about it, choosing rather to accept it as the inevitable fate of all who were not naturally born into Village.
When the issue had first been brought to her attention, the Elders had made it clear that, should she refuse, she would be parted from Bick and Narratus immediately. Her love for Narratus was well-known and as Bick had now become her closest companion, she had consented, as did all who were faced with an unwanted betrothal, of which there were a great many. Now, however, she was becoming more aware of its inevitability, and with that awareness came a swirl of feelings and thoughts that she was unable to fully interpret.
Finally, she said, “I’m glad you’re pleased. I have to admit I’m also a bit relieved. The Elders have made worse matches before.”
Alexandros chuckled. “I suppose that is all I could hope for.” He stood and offered his hand. “Please. You have rejected my hand each time thus far. Allow me at least one chance to hold it, if only for a moment.”
She hesitated a moment before accepting, allowing him to pull her out of the chair. Alexandros pulled her close enough for her to take in the clean scent of his clothing, the sharp aroma of some unknown spice pricked at the corners of her eyes. Glaciem braced herself as a jolt of panic zipped through her stomach, but he did not bring her any closer.
Instead, he simply turned her hand palm up and traced the blue design with his thumb, studying it before looking intently at her. “I am truly honored to be your betrothed, Glaciem. And I gladly offer you my loyalty in all things.”
Glaciem drew in her breath as Alexandros gently pressed his lips against the palm of her hand. His breath was warm against her skin, and the panic returned in full force, rising up in her throat and overtaking the steady thrum of her heart. Her cheeks burned as she yanked her hand away. His sincerity shook her thoroughly and she didn’t want to be in the same room with him for another moment.
“Forgive me,” He said sheepishly, looking at her, his grin apologetic. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong.” She replied tightly, her voice strained.
Alexandros bowed slightly before stepping to the side so she could pass him. Glaciem forced herself to meet his eyes.
“Thank you for going through the effort of meeting me here.” She said softly, her fists balled tightly as she willed her heart to calm itself. “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.”
He smiled softly at her. “You’ve done nothing to offend me. I’m sorry I took you by surprise. Shall we talk more at the ceremony tonight?”
“Yes,” she replied as she walked past him.
She did not look back.
Guards were blocking the doors, which were shut tightly. This was something she had never before seen. The guards themselves were wearing far heavier armor than they normally had any cause to. Their shoulders dipped from the weight of thick breastplates. Their collars were lined with additional armor that was heavily spiked, a helpful ward against a rogue blade. She could see them grasp their swords tightly as she neared.
Glaciem spoke clearly, trying to keep the defiant edge at bay as she neared the guards. “I have come to see the Tenth. I have not visited him today and this will be my only chance to do so. Let me pass.”
“Forgive us, my lady, but we have been instructed to forbid anyone from entering or leaving the House of Meeting until the morrow.” The guard to her right said, clearly uncomfortable with denying her demands.
Glaciem’s stomach clenched uncomfortably and the uneasiness from her vision returned in full force. “I don’t care what your instructions are. You will let me pass.” A hint of frost rose from her mouth, agitation muddling her nerves.
The guards glanced at one another before moving closer together, barring her way with both their bodies and weapons.
“Please understand this is not our choice. I beg you not to be angry with us for our orders. I may not let you see the Tenth Hominem.” The same guard replied, his voice apologetic and pleading.
She might soon become a guardian of the Village and therefore their ally, but in this moment she was angry and possessed far greater skill than the two guards put together and he knew it.
“And who has given you this authority?”
“Your father.” The second guard, the one to her left, spoke. He was less sorry for his orders and less convinced of her abilities.
Glaciem bristled at the guard’s words. “The First Hominem, though he has been gracious and attentive to my needs, is not my father.” She said coldly as she turned to him, her grey eyes iced over.
She knew it was unnecessary to point out her lack of blood connection to the Elders, but she was suddenly defensive about the matter and felt she needed to say it, even if only for her own sake.
She continued. “You will let me pass, or I shall make you let me pass. I will speak to the Tenth and there is no person in this Village who can prevent me from doing that, Least of all you.”
“I do not fear you, Ward of the Village.” The guard said, spitting out the words, sizing her up with his eyes as he spoke. “You can fling your snowballs at me all you want. I like the cold.” He lifted his chin in a defiant challenge.
“Do you?” She whispered as her eyes darkened, a wicked grin spreading across her lips.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, holding her hands out in front of her. She splayed her fingers wide and coaxed a crude icicle from her mouth, continuing to exhale until it had reached several feet in length and was thick enough to serve as a spear, its jagged edge glinting in the sun.
The men’s eyes widened as they watched her. The first guard’s dedication to his post failed him and he moved away from the door, stumbling as he went. He ran off as fast as his heavy armor would allow, his feet leading him towards the center of the Village.
Glaciem did not care. Her quarrel was not with men who were wise enough to not challenge her. It was with men like the one in front of her. Men who insulted her and refused to let her see the one person she needed to see.
Glaciem pointed the end of her ice spear towards the guard. “Do you still like the cold?” She asked the guard sweetly.
She was bursting with apprehension and would do anything to ease the panic slowly and persistently rising in her gut. If that meant putting one of the Elder’s men in the infirmary then so be it, damn the Laws of the Village.
The guard pointed his broadsword towards her. “I find I like it about as much as I like you. Not at all.”
He sprang towards her and she tensed to meet him mid strike, but before she could engage him, a figure rushed past her and rammed against the guard. The guard gasped in surprise as the weight of his armor brought him to the ground with a hard thud. He moaned, clutching his side as he looked for his sword which had been knocked several feet away from him, shock evident on his face.
Bick stood above him, his stance wide and fists clenched. His green eyes flashed first towards the guard and then towards Glaciem. Behind him stood the first guard who had been fortunate enough to find the First Elder’s son in his desperate search for someone to stop the carnage he knew would ensue if Glaciem had been left to her own devices.
“You would dare raise your hand against a member of the First Elder’s family and who was once the charge of the Tenth?” Bick growled through clenched teeth.
The guard on the ground grunted something and rolled onto his knees. He pulled off the helmet and held his head in one hand while the other ripped the striped of spiked metal from around his neck so he could move more freely.
“Answer me!” Bick barked.
“She provoked me, sir!” The guard snapped at Bick. He stood up and glared at Glaciem. “She threatened to use force if we did not permit her to see the Tenth. I stood my ground and she attacked me!”
“What makes you think you had any right to defy her?” Bick walked up to the guard, forcing him to move back against the doors behind him.
“The First Elder has given us strict orders to refuse entrance to everyone. Including her.” The guard jutted his chin towards Glaciem, fire blazing in his eyes.
Though not implicitly stated, it was impossible to miss the unspoken meaning behind the guard’s words. The Elders had not suggested that the order to bar anyone from the Tenth Hominem’s quarters should include Glaciem, but were rather meant to apply specifically to her alone.
The guard glanced back at Bick, but quickly lowered his gaze. It was a queer thing to see the man struggling to show both respect for Bick and disdain for Glaciem.
Bick stared at the guard for a moment before moving away abruptly. He turned and grabbed Glaciem’s icicle, throwing it to the ground. It shattered and instantly melted into the grass beneath her.
“You will come with me.” He ordered, grabbing her roughly by the shoulder and walking her back through the gates and back into the busyness of the Village.
“Let go of me.” Glaciem snapped, trying to shake his hand off, knowing it was useless to struggle against him.
As if in response to what she already knew, Bick’s grip tightened as she fought him.
“Do you realize how fortunate you are that those walls are blocking the sight of all who might have seen you deliberately disobeying the orders of the First Hominem?” He hissed as they maneuvered through the still crowded streets.
“I don’t care.”
“Do you not?” Bick pushed her down a quiet alley. He towered over her. “And what do you suppose would have happened had someone seen you? Do you not understand everything happening tonight depends on the Village accepting you as one of its own? Do you realize what will happen should you fail to meet their standards? If you had hurt that guard, which you know you could and would have, it would have been enough to have you exiled, or worse. You know the Laws of the Village as well as I do. Did you stop to consider what the Forest would have done to the Village if that had happened? It was near providential I happened to be close by and was able to stop you before anything began.”
The dread that had been building up within Glaciem now became near unbearable. She needed to speak with Narratus about her vision and being prevented from doing so only further worsened the knotting in her stomach.
“Listen to me, Bick!” She said desperately, but he interrupted her, unwilling to hear anything she had to say.
“No.” He said, continuing to reprimand her. “My father and mother have done everything they can to keep you safe in this Village and Narratus has done everything he could to make sure you were capable of controlling your own powers. I have stayed by your side to protect you and see to it that you were looked after. Now, finally, when we all have a chance to see these efforts come to fruition, you try to attack one of my father’s guards? What were you thinking? How could you risk ten years worth of hard work so easily?”
She looked at him, clenching her jaw in defiant silence, her stomach still churning. He was right. She had no right to try and threaten her way to Narratus. He would never have approved. Engaging the guard in a duel she would have very easily won was idiotic, regardless of the desperation she felt from the vision. Glaciem took a deep breath, and let her shoulders sag as she exhaled. Though the unease she felt was only slightly less, she willed the fight in her to fade.
“I don’t know what came over me.” She murmured, quietly deciding to herself that she wouldn’t explain the vision to Bick, at least not until she could make sense of it herself or speak to Narratus about it. “I have no excuse for my behavior. Forgive me.”
Bick sighed and let go of her shoulder. He had been squeezing it until now. “I’m not the one you need forgiveness from.”
“I know. I shall go back to the guard.”
“No. You won’t.” Bick walked back out of the alley, gesturing for her to follow. “There’s no time. I’m taking you home. Now.”
They passed through the ever crowded streets of the Village. As they passed, men and women bowed upon seeing Bick. He stayed close by Glaciem’s side, his hand on her arm, as if afraid she might try to run. They turned and maneuvered their way through crowds until finally, they saw the tall stone walls of their home. It was a castle in comparison to the other dwellings, for the First and Second Elders were the greatest. Their home was at the very center of the Village and was always heavily guarded in case foreign travelers should attempt to force their way in and usurp the Elders’ authority.
“There.” Bick said as they passed by the guards and into the main hall, breaking their silence. He dropped her arm. “You have arrived and you shall go to your chambers and prepare for tonight. I don’t understand how I even managed to lose you in the first place. Were you not following me from the Border Tree?” He asked, puzzled.
Glaciem looked down at the floor, avoiding his eyes. “I was following you, but I lost sight of you after you passed through the gates.” She spoke slowly, tiptoeing her way through her words, choosing them carefully. “I had intended to come home and prepare, but I wanted to see Narratus first. I couldn’t help it.”
Bick pursed his lips as he studied her, clearly not convinced. “I have never seen someone so dedicated. You will see him soon enough. Go get ready. I have other business to attend to. I’ll join you after.”
He turned and walked back through the doorways, deigning to not reveal what he was really thinking. Glaciem watched him leave, most likely on an errand entrusted to him by his father.
She thought about the First. It would only be a matter of time before he found out about what happened at the House of Meeting and she prayed Narratus would not be the one to suffer for it.
Glaciem signed as she ruefully admitted to herself that her actions had been utterly foolish. Her only hope now was to avoid the inevitable punishment until after she spoke with her beloved Tenth. Ideally, she wanted to avoid it until after the ceremony. Once she was committed to the Village, the First Elder would be obliged to see her in a far more benevolent light, though she knew ultimately there was no telling what the punishment would be until it happened.
As she continued to watch Bick through the crowds, he turned, having felt her eyes on his back. He met her stare and gazed at her thoughtfully before turning around again to continue walking, disappearing from view as he did.
She hesitated before turning on her heel, intent on walking out the way she had come. As she did, her mouth dropped open as she watched the trees twist themselves together, barring her path home completely, the fenced border totally blocked from view. She was not leaving this place until the Forest decided she could leave. She froze momentarily before turning back around slowly. With one careful step at a time, she began moving deeper into the Forest, knowing now there was no other way.
As she moved, Glaciem continued to slowly look around, trying to take in as much of the trees and brush before her, everything utterly vibrant and wild, magnified by an invisible power she could not see, but could feel. She closed her eyes and breathed in the rich smell of dirt wafting from the ground, feeling it move and roll beneath her feet. The grass flowed with breezes only the Forest Itself could feel. The Whispers, which had been only a quiet tug in previous times, now sang with a sure and clear voice, their tune soft and strange. It was dissonant at first, but Glaciem found she could still pick out different bits and pieces.
As she listened, her uncertainty at being there lessened and she found herself smiling slightly at the wonder of it. The Whispers sound like water. She realized, the babbling joining together to form a single melody.
Even the light had changed. Outside, it was not yet afternoon, but within the Forest, golden rays shone through the tall trees, bathing everything in an unearthly warmth. She could not tell where the light was coming from, but it was hot and made her sweat, the air so thick she could almost chew it. She stopped walking, the plethora of sights and sounds too much to take in while moving. Where there was no moss, there were rich, yellow flowers, the petals no bigger than the nails of her fingers. They rippled in the air, moving as if submerged in water. She bent down to touch one and it quivered before moving towards her cautiously to brush against her finger timidly, the soft and velvety petals leaving behind a small trail of glittering pollen on her skin.
Glaciem stood up and continued walking further into the Forest. Though she did not know what she was looking for, she could sense the Whispers pulling at her. In their own quiet way, they were directing her, telling her where they wanted her to go. She still could not discern words, but she could distinctly feel their tugging within the deepest parts of her core, their urging incessant and unrelenting.
As she walked, Glaciem recalled the tales from the books she read in Narratus’ study. When King Audens disappeared, the Forest became feral and violent, having grown wild for lack of a keeper. After hundreds of years, it had become so dangerous those who dared to attempt to travel beyond the outer rings of trees were often never heard from again. Very few successfully passed through and those who did never spoke of what they had seen within, unwilling to divulge even the smallest, most insignificant amounts of information lest the Forest exact revenge on them.
When the Village UnNamed was founded now many decades ago, the first generation of Elders had struck a deal of sorts with the Forest. The borders created by the Elders served as a barrier between the two and a begrudging truce was forged. There was the occasional rebel on both sides; small trees could be seen roaming the fields and children often played games to see who could venture furthest past the Border Tree. Members of the Village with many years of experience were permitted to pass into the outermost parts of the Forest, but the legends suggested those who dared to delve deeper were consumed by the ground, fed upon by the monsters dwelling deep within.
The first time Glaciem had visited the Border Tree she had been terrified, too unsure of herself and her Element that Narratus had been obliged the nearly drag her to it, let alone to the Forest itself. She had been awake and out of bed for two years by then, but was still frail and weak. Even though she was still hundreds of feet away from the Forest, Narratus’ promises that she would remain unharmed had fallen on deaf ears. When she had finally reached the single tree, she had expected giant roots to rise up from the ground and consume her. She found, however, the Forest remained where it was, the trees blurring together in a tangle of leaf and twig, the Border Tree still and silent. It had been both a relief and a disappointment to her. Even from afar the Forest had never looked like it did now, alive and breathing.
As the years had passed, both her frailty and weakness had been trained out of her, countless hours of brawling and fighting with Bick had honed her skills and drawn out what seemed to be a natural talent for combat. None of that comforted her now however, for with each step she became more nervous of where she was being led. She was not thrilled at the prospect of walking blindly, but she could not deny the fact that the Whispers were growing louder in her mind and the Forest more agitated with each step she took. The song she could hear was becoming darker, notes of anguish surfacing above the dissonance. The fluttering flowers were slowly drawing into themselves, little green petals folding over yellow ones.
Why must I continue deeper into the Forest? She pleaded with the Whispers as she tried in vain to stay the tremble in her hands.
She felt dread settling deep in her bones. If the Forest was going to act out against her, would it not do so now that she was alone and It alive and free to move about, uninhibited by human eyes? She stopped walking.
Glaciem stood still, not sure what she was waiting for. The song remained dissonant and harrowing, but beyond that, she could hear nothing save the occasional creak of the trees or the rustle of grass. The twisting in her stomach continued to grow worse and after a moment of waiting, she decided to chance returning to the entrance once more. If nothing else, she could try to find a way to climb through the wall of trees.
She had only made it a few steps when the singing abruptly stopped. All noise followed suit, ceasing completely and leaving her in silence. Her eyes widened and she stopped walking. The light began to wane as she tensed and prepared for a fight, her fingers gripping the ice daggers so tightly she thought she might crush them.
The trees in front of Glaciem began to shake. Her stomach dropped as she heard the dozens of branches snapping and shattering in the wake of whatever was barreling towards her. A great rush of wind blew a wave of leaves in her face and she flinched as a deep roar echoed through the Forest. Something big was coming to meet her and it was moving fast. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, calming herself, forcing her still trembling hands to steady themselves.
If the Forest wants my life, then It’s going to have to fight for it. She thought as the reckless need to survive coursed through her body, the will to live a crackling electricity surging through her limbs.
She ran towards the sound, both hands raised, ready to plunge her daggers deep into the heart of whatever thing racing to meet her.
As quickly as she had started, Glaciem stopped and gasped. Looming before her was the largest tree she had ever seen. It easily surpassed the height of all the other trees around her, its trunk so wide it would have taken nearly a dozen of her arm spans to circle it. The tree was breathing heavily, its bark creaking and heaving with each expansion of invisible lungs. Though its bark was smooth and its surface was void of knots, Glaciem knew she was looking at its face. She also knew with absolute certainty that it was looking back. The Whispers paused with a breath of anticipation.
Glaciem’s eyes grew wide and she could feel her heart pounding in her chest. All fight in her immediately dissipated as she felt her lungs collapse in on themselves, her limbs suddenly heavy with terror. She slowly raised her hands and opened them, allowing the daggers to fall to the ground so the tree might know she surrendered and would attempt no harm. It did not move or change its breathing as the daggers dropped to the floor of the Forest. They melted away instantly.
She was trying not to panic, all previous ease and wonder vanished and replaced with unabashed fear. If the tree did not accept her surrender, would it kill her? Should she try to flee? She took a slow, cautious step backward, but as soon as her foot touched the ground behind her, the tree lurched towards her, closing the gap she had attempted to create. An involuntary yelp escaped her lips. She was not leaving until the tree said she could.
“I…I am a Daughter of the Forest…a Wielder of Elements” She stuttered on the words.
The tree did not react.
“The Whispers called me here, I would not have thought to trespass had the Whispers not called me here.”
The tree grumbled, the low sound deep and strong enough she could feel it in her feet.
Glaciem dropped to her hands and knees.
I’m going to die.
She bowed her head, her stomach churning in knots, her will to fight gone in moments. No amount of training could have prepared her for the behemoth now standing before her.
Abruptly, the Tree wrenched its roots up from deep within the ground, flinging moss and dirt into the air as the thick tendrils tore themselves free from the earth. She flinched and clenched her eyes shut, preparing for the blow that would surely end her life. It did not come. When she cautiously opened her eyes again, she saw the Tree was holding out a root in front of her, as if offering a hand to help her up from the ground. She looked at it in surprise.
“I’m not touching you.” She said quietly, horrified at her own words. If the tree hadn’t been angry with her before surely it would be now.
The tree, however, ignored her comment and continued to hold the root out for her. It rumbled again and pushed closer to Glaciem’s face. She whimpered slightly at its touch, turning her head away, but to no avail.
Knowing full well what it wanted, she clenched her eyes shut and blindly grasped at the air, her fingers flinching slightly when they brushed against the dampened wood. The tree shivered and Glaciem forced herself to remain still as the root traveled up and down her arms. She wasn’t sure if it was feeling or tasting her.
She allowed the tree to run its smooth tendrils of roots up to her shoulders and back down, surprised at how nimble they were for their size. Small strands of roots broke free from the larger one, creating finger like appendages that begin to travel across her face and neck, flitting gently across her nose and cheeks. She flipped her hands up for the tree and as she did she slowly opened her eyes. She raised her eyebrows in surprise as she looked at her palms, now glowing more brightly than she had ever seen before. The tree stiffened and froze at the sight and for a moment Glaciem thought she had done the wrong thing, but the tree relaxed after a moment and the thin roots slid down to trace the markings on her hands. Glaciem’s breath hitched in her throat as she watched the roots begin to glow green, its light blending with the blue light of her palms.
As quickly as the roots had raised themselves, they sunk back into the ground. The tree started to rumble again and something beneath Glaciem’s feet began to split, the sound bouncing off the trees surrounding them. She got up from her knees and looked around. The Whispers’ song returned and she braced herself, trying to remain upright as the ground began to rise and fall in rolling heaves.
The whole of the Forest is breathing.
The tree growled as it moved away from Glaciem, its trunk shaking and trembling. The Whispers commanded that she follow. She did, but soon the tree was moving so quickly she found she could not keep its pace. She began to jog before almost immediately breaking out into a run in order to keep track of the tree, a task much harder than she would have thought for its size and girth.
“Wait!” She called, watching it disappear into a large thicket of smaller trees that had moved aside, allowing the tree to disappear within their mess of branches and leaves.
As Glaciem broke through the trees she stumbled and crashed into the ground, large piles of moss easing her fall. She groaned as she pushed herself up, brushing away the vegetation from her shoulders, looking around as she did.
She furrowed her eyebrows at the half buried slab of stone jutting out of the rich earth of the clearing, its presence a stark contrast to the otherwise unmarred landscape. Small flowers and bits of vines wrapped themselves into the tiny cracks running along the ancient stone. The scent of rot filled her nostrils, the heat of decomposing grass rising up to prick at her eyes, the blades killed by the weight of what rested upon it.
With each passing moment, it became more clear to Glaciem where she was. She knew what she would see once she dared to step forward towards the slab, yet even as she forced herself to look upon the large stone vessel nestled deep in the earth beside the lid, she was obliged to press a hand to her stomach to stay the nausea that threatened to overwhelm her.
The Whispers hummed quietly as she exhaled the breath she had been holding in before standing up. She slowly ran her eyes across her gravesite, willing herself to walk towards the coffin, the very one in which she had first been discovered ten years ago.
The coffin was void of marking and a soft light peaked through the cracks within the stone. As Glaciem tentatively peered in, she could see no reason for the glow; the inside as dark and cold as it had always been.
“Why go through the trouble of scaring me half to death by sending that monster of a tree if only to allow me passage in the end?” She murmured. “And why bring me here of all places?”
As if in answer, a large gust of wind blew through the clearing and the circle of trees shivered and swayed. For the first time, she could understand the Whispers clearly, the breathiness of their many voices working together to form a single, unmistakable word.
Protect. They sighed, speaking through the wind as it rushed about her.
“Protect? Protect what?” She asked.
Protect, protect, protect, protect.
Over and over again, never ceasing. The Whispers chanted, louder and louder. The wind was growing stronger, the trees moving in closer. She could see their roots rising to the surface of the earth, all glowing green as the giant tree had before. The moss crawled towards her.
Glaciem’s eyes widened. The Forest was coming for her, coming to take her alive. She could not move and when she looked down she realized with horror that her own feet had become roots, buried deep within the ground. She was trapped.
The Whispers were screaming in her head and the trees groaned as the ground began to roll more violently than before. As the chaos overwhelmed her, Glaciem covered her ears with her hands, her palms still glowing bright blue. It did nothing to help dissipate the noise. She bent down to the ground, trying to cover her entire head with the rest of her body, trying to protect herself from the Forest as it closed in tighter and tighter.
The trees were nearly touching her and her scar was burning white hot. She could feel her Spirit being sucked from her body by the earth as the roots reached out to her, the branches clawing at her from all directions.
Her knees were sinking into the soft ground beneath her. She was becoming a tree, with bark for skin and knots for eyes. She felt stiff and wooden and old. She was not being consumed, but rather being absorbed and added to the Spirits of the Forest.
Protect, protect, protect, protect. Over and over and over.
She was growing weary, her muscles giving way. Amidst the chaos, she could hear a single voice beckoning to her. The voice was both old and young and as Glaciem let her lids shut, she could clearly see a boy with large eyes and long white hair. His head tilted to the side as he called to her.
Come back, Daughter of Trees. He said, his voice a low whisper. Come home to us.
I am already home.
Whether she spoke the words aloud or only thought them within her mind, she could not tell. She pulled her knees free from the earth, the roots tearing and ripping at her skin as she wrenched herself free. She cried out in agony from the pain, prying her mouth, now made of wood, open.
“STOP!” She cried.
She knelt down and put her palms to the ground, calling every ounce of moisture she could find deep within the earth. The trees were screaming with the Whispers, loud wails of anguish and pain rising from all around her.
PROTECT, PROTECT, PROTECT! They bellowed.
The wind was rushing straight up from the ground now, blowing her clothing every which way and the earth was rolling so rapidly she could barely keep her balance.
Glaciem sucked in a breath, waiting for a moment, trying to find the right time. Finally, she tensed and jumped as high as she could into the air. A great flow of water raced up from the earth, following her into the air and back down. She landed on the ground with a dull thud, her legs spread wide, every muscle in her being flexed and firm. She flung her arms out as hard as she could, icy water spraying onto the branches of the trees in a frozen sheet of thick ice. What water remained within the soil now froze in winding tendrils, wrapping themselves around the roots she could not see, but could feel.
The trees did not like the ice and they growled and hissed at her as the wind turned cold. The ground trembled and groaned under her and in her mind’s eye, she could see the boy, cowering and wincing.
Protect. He insisted, his voice a pained whine.
“You will be silenced!” She commanded in a voice she did not recognize.
She raised her hand to the skies. A great thundercloud clapped above her head. Frigid rain poured down, drenching her and the already frozen Forest. Her thoughts rang out clearly in the air.
I am your Keeper, and you are mine to command. You will not take me.
A blinding flash of lightning cracked through the sky and another great roll of thunder rumbled above them, vibrating through the earth. The trees wept and shrieked, shivering from the cold as they did.
“Do you yield to me, Old Forest ?” She asked quietly, speaking aloud this time.
She could feel the pain of the Trees and a pang of sorrow rushed through her, but she kept her hand to the skies, unwilling to relent for fear of the repercussions of her doing so.
Yield. The wind choked out the words, the boy in tears.
She immediately dropped her hand. The rain stopped and the ice melted. The trees retreated from her and dissipated into the rest of the Forest, abandoning their post around her grave. The giant Tree had disappeared from her view entirely.
It was dark, the Forest asleep and silent. Glaciem could not see the boy in her mind, nor could she hear the Whispers, their many voices having gone silent. Everything around her was quiet and black, the yellow flowers blanketing the ground gone. The golden light had faded away. Everything was drowned in the pitch black of nothingness.
What have I done? Glaciem thought as panic seized her.
It took her several moments to realize her eyes were clenched tightly shut, something she had not remembered doing. She opened them. She was lying on her back, staring at the sky. She reached out and felt grass beneath her hands, instantly recognizing the fields that stretched between the Village and Forest.
Glaciem turned her head. She was only a few hundred feet away from the gates of the Village, the same place she had been when she first heard the Whispers. The guards were still talking amongst themselves, the grass having obstructed her from their view.
She sat up and looked toward the Forest before pressing her fingers against her scar. It was throbbing mildly.
Was it a dream? A vision?
She shook her head, confused, trying to recall what she had just seen, finding it difficult to do so. Everything was hazy, as if it was simply a distant memory from long ago. She closed her eyes and tried again to picture what she saw.
Talking flowers, and swimming trees…no, that wasn’t right. She grit her teeth. Talking trees? A single talking tree. No. Not a tree. A boy…What did he say to me?
She stood up, taking a mental tally of her limbs to make sure nothing was hurt. The only discomfort she felt was the pulse in her scar and the irritation of not remembering what the boy had told her. Over and over she had heard it in the Forest just now, but here on the outside she found she could not remember.
I must speak with Narratus. She thought. He will know what this is about.
She walked with purpose to the gates, praying the old man would be well enough to offer her at least some information regarding what had just happened.
When she reached the guards, they nodded at her stiffly.
I am not yet one of them.
Though many lived as welcomed and cherished members of the Village even before their betrothal, she had been treated much differently, partly by her own fault. She was a silent and reclusive creature and had made no attempt to befriend anyone apart from Narratus and Bick. There was no reason for the guards or anyone in the Village, therefore, to feel any warmth toward her, nor she toward them. Regardless, she had questions and whether they wanted to or not, they would speak with her.
“How long has it been since my brother returned to the Village?” She asked.
The guard to her left stared at her oddly.
“He passed by only moments ago, my lady.” He said, answering her, his confusion at her question evident in his voice.
She nodded her thanks and continued to make her way through the Village, her course straight and unyielding. She ignored the small murmurs of protest at those she passed swiftly by.
It did not seem possible for her to have dreamt all those things in a matter of moments.
She needed to speak with Narratus.
The next days were a confusion to her. She could not recall when she was asleep or awake, when she spoke to the old man, or when she only dreamt she had. She did not understand what he meant when he had spoken of the Elements. Often, the pain in her head was so great at times the only thing she was capable of doing was that of biting her lip to keep from crying out.
When she couldn’t stay her cries of pain, the old man would come to her and bid her bite down on a thin plank of wood. It dulled the pain almost completely, even more so than the ointment. She learned quickly, however, that it was effective for only a short time and she would be obliged to continue chewing on the bark continuously for it to remain useful to her.
During the times when her pain ebbed and allowed her a moment of reprieve, she would stare at the ceiling and think. She could not recall anything about herself; her name, where she was from. The only thing she had been able to discover while confined to her bed were two identical markings on the palms of her hands. They were thin, blue lines in the shape of teardrops, but they held no meaning for her.
The evenings were long and filled with nothing but the ache of thoughts void of memory, a haunting fact that regularly robbed her of sleep. Night after night, she spent the dark hours staring at the ceiling, impatient for the old man to come and disrupt the ever growing apprehension plaguing her.
On the nights she did manage to drift into sleep, her dreams would be chaotic, images of things she did not understand raced from one incomplete thought to the next as her mind desperately tried to put the broken pieces of her past together. She was never successful.
On the morning of the tenth day since her first conversation with the old man, nearly a month since she first awoke, she was able to sit up and drink a little hot broth. She did not care for the taste, but it strengthened her. The broth had been brought to her daily since she first woke up and the old man had been obliged to spoon feed her. Today, she found the strength to feed herself. The old man, she learned, was also called Hominem, as were all the male Elders of the village. He also allowed her to call him Narratus, but he took great pains to make it clear to her to do so was to contradict the Laws of the Village.
“When will you let me leave this room?” She asked as she sipped the broth ruefully.
She was tired of broth, water, and sleep. Her life was a relentless cycle of meaningless tasks. She wanted to move, wanted to explore, to do more than sit in a bed with a handful of broken memories.
“I shall permit you to leave, but only when you can go a day without putting that in your mouth.” He replied curtly, pointing to the bark next to her bed. He was aware of the addiction she had developed for it.
“I prefer the bark to the ointment. It keeps my mind clear and the pain at bay. It also happens to improve my mood. It might improve yours as well if you were to try it.”
She took the bark and offered it to him with a playful raise of her eyebrows. He lightly slapped her hand away.
“Eat your broth.”
“This is not food for eating. This is food for drinking. I tire of it, Old Man.”
“It is the only food you’re going to receive until you can learn to tame that tongue of yours. You would not be calling me Old Man if you knew what you were, Child.” He shot back.
Despite his age, he had a quick mind and was clever. He was a source of amusement to her. She was fond of him, at least more so than the other Elders, all of whom visited only on the rarest of occasions. This suited her well.
“I would know what I am if you were to tell me. But you have yet to do so.”
She choked down the last of her broth and set the bowl down next to her bed before taking up the bark in her mouth. She bit down hard. She loved chewing on it. It felt good to crush something between her teeth even if it caused her scar to pinch. That in itself was a comfort to her. It was something she had control over, however small that something was.
“I rue the day I ever gave you that damned thing.”
He tried to reach for the bark, but she was too quick. She twisted her head down and kept it away from his reach.
“Give me the bark, you stubborn ass of a creature.” He demanded.
She took it out of her mouth and hid it away behind her pillow.
“No.” She replied flatly. “This tree has been the only source of comfort to me since I woke up. It is the only thing I know anything about since you refuse to offer me any information at all.” She paused to look at him. “I’m going to go mad if you do not start talking. Narratus, please.”
She spoke earnestly now, desperate for both something to distract her from her confines, the room that was becoming smaller and smaller each day, and for any information to help aid her in remembering her past. The old man, or Narratus, as she called him, sighed and sat down on the bed next to her.
“I shall strike a deal with you, Daughter of Trees. I’ll tell you about yourself, but only if you are willing to stay here with me for another fortnight. After that, you will be released to the Village and free to do as you wish.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Within reason.”
She gave her consent quickly. Another fortnight would be nothing if she knew there was reprieve to follow.
“Tell me everything. Who am I?”
He paused for a moment, considering how to begin. “What do you remember of yourself before you woke up?”
She looked down at the palms of her hands, tracing the lines of blue with her eyes. “I can’t remember.”
“What can you not remember?”
“Anything.” She looked into Narratus’ eyes, pained. “All I can recall is the throbbing in my head and waking up here. There’s nothing before that.”
“Do you know how you came to sustain the wound on the back of your head?” Narratus stared intently back.
“No.” She shook her head.
“Then, I suppose I should begin with that. When you were discovered by the Elders, the wound on your head had become…” Narratus paused, struggling to find the right word.
“Had become what?” She prompted.
“While others might have assumed your wound was infected simply by virtue of it having been open and uncleaned for so long, the truth is whatever weapon was used to cause your wound was also laced with a particular poison.”
She felt a deep lurch in her stomach.
Narratus continued. “The poison used is one I have not seen for a very long time. By the Common Tongue, it’s called the Breathless Slumber, an old venom wielded in the days of the Old Kingdoms. The unfortunate recipient of its effects would slowly lose all feeling and fall into a deep sleep, but not before experiencing great pain and agony.”
“Could they not have simply been woken up?” Even as she asked the question, she knew what the answer would be.
“It was not a natural sleep, Child. It was a sleep meant to kill the victim by consuming their spirit, the very essence of who they were, leaving behind a hollow body, void of all thought. Of all memory. Void of life itself.”
Narratus rose and went to the back of the room which was covered in shelves holding rows upon rows of books. He took a large, black volume with gold writing from the top shelf and brought it back to the bed, grunting under its weight. He sat next to her again and opened to the center of the book, turning it towards her as he did.
“You will not understand the words, but look upon the drawings.”
She looked at the page and her breath caught in her throat. The drawings were of men, women, and children. They were crude at best, but the meaning could not be mistaken. These were living corpses, their eyes white and without life, blood dripping from the corners, pooling into sunken cheeks. Their bodies had withered to bones and skin, their teeth protruding from beneath frail lips caked with mold and rot. Rats consumed entrails that spilled from their broken bodies. The drawings cried out to her in wretched anguish, the stench of the dead rising with them.
“Take it away.” She said, turning away from it.
Narratus pulled the book to his other side. “I’m sorry. I know these images are far from pleasant. I show you only so you might understand. The creatures you see are what is left of those who were exposed to the Breathless Slumber. The same poison you suffered. It was created by the barbarians of the salted waters, and it came to the Valley by way of the man they hailed as their lord. Umbra, who is also known as the Shadow.
“Umbra was a dark being not of this earth. He was wholly evil, known to feed on the spirits of the living, consuming them. He was the cause of great suffering and pain during the days of the Old Kingdoms. He bore no light, only darkness, and was without compassion entirely.”
She shook her head as she looked at Narratus. “I don’t understand.”
“Look at the book again.”
She gave him a wary glance, but he turned to a different place in the large volume and set it before her. Upon the page was a painting. A tall man with white hair, not unlike her own, though much longer, looked back at her. She could not tell his age, for he seemed youthful, yet more wise and ancient than even Narratus. He was extraordinarily handsome, and his icy grey eyes and elegant features bore the countenance of royalty. He was dressed in earth toned cloaks, the fabric pulling against his broad shoulders and strong limbs.
Thick roots rose up from the rich soil beneath him and were wound around his bare feet. Fire and water danced behind his arms, and his hair and cloaks billowed around his legs, caught in a strong breeze the artist had not drawn. She fixed her gaze upon his eyes, unwilling to look away just yet. He was alive to her, and as she gingerly ran her fingers across the page, she imagined she could hear the whispering of voices.
“This is Umbra?” Glaciem questioned, confused.
“No. This was his brother. Audens, the King and Heart of the Old Forest. He is the one who brought life to the Elements. He was their first master.”
Narratus took her hands in his. He turned her palms upwards.
“Look at these markings. They are unique. You will not see them on another, for it is forbidden to bear the mark of the Elements if you are not able to wield them. The Forest declares it.”
She looked down at her hands. The markings were curious; teardrops, but not inlaid into the skin as one might have done with needle and ink. They glimmered as sun on water, and were raised ever so.
“What do you mean by Audens giving life to the Elements?” She asked, emphasizing the name. She liked the way it sounded.
Narratus nodded back at the open book. The man on the page stood with his arms held away from his sides, his palms facing outward. The markings on his palms were similar, only his were more than what she had. The large teardrop encircled a tongue a fire. Within the tongue of fire was the shape of a leaf, within the leaf a small spiral of white.
“King Audens and his people were called the Sons and Daughters of the Forest.” Narratus searched her face, looking for any indication of recognition.
“Daughter of the Forest.” She repeated slowly, feeling the words in her mouth as she recalled the first time she had heard it weeks before.
“Some have coined them People of the Earth, or the Blessed Creatures.”
“Why are the roots coming up from the ground to meet him?”
Narratus flipped the page back to the depictions of the decayed humans. “King Audens and Umbra were twins and dwelt within the Old Forest. It was said they were born of the sun and moon. They were revered by all. Audens was crowned King by the ancient people of an ancient kingdom and as time passed, Umbra grew jealous and a terrible rivalry developed between the two brothers. Umbra betrayed his brother and tried to kill him, burning his kingdom to the ground. The Forest, taking pity on Audens, took the Spirits of his subjects and placed them within the Elements, giving Audens the ability to wield them. This was the birth of the Sons and Daughters of the Forest. It was said that, because of the love his people bore him, King Audens could move whole mountains with a whisper.
“This was not without great cost, for as he was a twin, Umbra was also blessed with this ability, and he used his power for great evil, killing his own army of salted men so their black Spirits might provide him a vast Elemental army in order to wage war against Audens. King Audens, however, was more powerful, and he was able to bring down his brother, the Shadow. It is not known what happened to King Audens after that great battle, though it is rumored he died from his own wounds and the Forest, so struck with grief at the death of their King, turned savage.
“The Old Forest, as it is now called, still bears the Spirits of Auden’s peoples, though it is but a whisper of the glory of the great Kingdom that once resided within it. The trees have now grown quite feral. There are few who dare to venture into Its borders, and fewer still who return when they do.”
Here, Narratus stopped, and the two sat in contemplative silence.
After a time, she looked up at him. “You mean to say that because I bear these marks on my hand I am of the same people as this man here?”
She flipped the pages back to the image of Audens.
“It is as you say.”
She shook her head. “But the markings on my hands aren’t the same. Not exactly.”
Narratus shook his head and sighed. “No, they are not. I fear you’ve lost not only most of your memory, but also the majority of your abilities. Had we found you even a day later, you might have lost them completely. I blame the poison for this.” Narratus chuckled ruefully. “I suppose, on some level, you should be flattered. The Slumber was not often used on those whom the Shadow did not view as a true threat, if history is to be believed.”
She pursed her lips, unconvinced. “This is nothing more than a story imagined for the sole purpose of scaring children. It is a myth you’ve told for so long you’re starting to believe it.”
“And where do you suppose myth comes from? Whether you would believe me or not, there are often hidden truths buried deep within myths and legends.”
She snorted. “What truth can there be in a story such as this? Men who wield the Elements, poisons that steal memories, magickal trees…” She trailed off, shaking her head.
She flipped through the pages, only catching bits of the illustrations. There was a part of her that yearned to accept what Narratus said, and she could not deny the disappointment she felt as she mentally resigned herself to disbelief. She turned the page back to the drawing of Audens. She leaned forward, staring at the illustration intently, silently willing it to prove her wrong. When it did not, she signed and flopped back into the pillow behind her.
“It’s just a story.” She said flatly.
Narratus chuckled quietly. “You can pretend all you like that you don’t believe me, but I can see it in your eyes, Glaciem.”
That name again. She thought, her lips tightening in mild irritation.
Narratus poked a finger into her forehead. “You can feel it, I can tell. Don’t try to deny hundreds of years of proven history simply because you can’t make sense of it. Remember, Child, you’re the one with half a memory. You can’t presume to claim something as invalid or otherwise when there is so much you can no longer recall.”
She swatted his hand away as she gave him a rueful look. “Half a memory or not, you can’t possibly expect me to blindly believe a story from a complete stranger, much less a story in which I am a supposed being with powers that defy the laws of nature themselves. Besides which, if I were to believe your story, it would mean that I am also the supposed mortal enemy of an evil lord named Umbra and sustained an almost mortal wound that conveniently took away those supposed powers in addition to my memory. We’ll not mention the fact that this all happened hundreds of years ago. Can you truly blame me for not believing you?”
“Do not mock these stories, girl.”
“I’m not mocking them, I’m simply saying you can’t possibly expect me to believe them!”
They glared at each other, neither refusing to turn away until finally Narratus relented and stood abruptly. He stared down at her for a moment before nodding his head in silent agreement with some thought she could not interpret. He took the book from her and slammed it down on the chair beside the bed before stomping out of the room. She was sure he would not return and was about to scoot further down onto the bed, but just as she was about to do so, he burst back through the doorway and walked swiftly to her and slapped her hard across her face.
She gasped in shock and yelped as he grabbed her by the throat and pinned her down onto the bed with one hand, his grip surprisingly strong for his age. He raised his other hand high above her head, his fingers tightly grasping a long, silver dagger with a red hilt.
She tried to breathe, but could only choke as his hand squeezed tighter. Her eyes felt as though they would explode, so she closed them tightly, desperately trying to talk, to plead for him to relent. Her head was throbbing and her wound was ignited with a fire that shot deep into her limbs. She clawed at his arms, but he only pressed down on her harder.
“Stop me! You have the power, Glaciem! Stop me! If it means my life, then so be it! I will force you to understand!” Narratus shouted, his voice echoing in the room as he drove the dagger down towards her heart.
The seconds that followed slowed as she watched the dagger lower itself towards her. Icy white pain began to build in her palms, growing stronger as it ran up the length of her arms to meet the fire that traveled from the back of her head. Quite suddenly, she found she was no longer gasping for air. She felt calm.
She opened her eyes, and it was only then that she realized her hands had moved of their own accord, both palms out toward Narratus and the weapon he wielded. Between her hands was the dagger, trapped within a thick sheet of glassy ice. The markings on her hands glowed a brilliant blue. Narratus himself was on the floor in a heap. The only sound in the room was that of the bowl of water beside her bed as it wobbled on its edge, emptied of its contents.
She cried out and pushed back into her pillows, trying to create distance between herself and the dagger. It fell from between her hands, clattering heavily against the floor as the ice encasing it melted into the floorboards. She looked at her hands in shock. The lines had faded to their customary blue, but she could still feel the burning cold pulsing in her fingertips.
Narratus moaned on the ground as he struggled to get up, failing almost as soon as he did. She shifted herself to the edge of the bed and tried to stand up, but her feet gave way and she crumpled to the ground beside him. It took her a moment to realize, much to her frustration, that she had not walked for more than a year and had no strength left in her legs. Refusing to give up, she began to pull herself along the floor to the old man.
“What have you done?” She gasped when she reached him, clawing at his shoulder to turn him over, checking him for signs of injury as he rolled over to face her. “What have I done?”
Narratus looked at her, his eyes wide with shock, the blue a stark contrast to the blood that was beginning to seep from a gash in his forehead. He wiped the blood away with his hands, and as he did so he broke into a wide grin which remained even as he pulled his fingers away, the tips red and wet. He chuckled and then almost immediately groaned, his free hand going to his side. She stared at him incredulously.
“I didn’t know how else to convince you. Yes, yes, It was foolish, I know, but I wanted to show you proof of both the claims I made and of your abilities. I took a chance, hoping the Elements would naturally protect you when you experienced a threat.” Narratus explained, pursing his lips ruefully. “I did not imagine they would react so quickly nor so powerfully. You are strong, Child, so very strong. I think great things may come of you.”
“I am as you say then?” She said it more to herself than to Narratus, a queasy feeling settling heavily in her stomach.
She helped him to sit upright. They sat together on the floor, holding each other up, neither possessing the strength yet to stand.
“I am… ”
“You are a true Daughter of the Forest, yes, and it would seem you are the last of your kind. The records have not indicated Elemental activity for over a hundred years.”
“Everything you’ve said then, Umbra, King Audens, it is truth.” She did not ask it as a question, but rather stated it, willing herself to believe fully. She paused, then asked quietly. “Why did Umbra want me dead?”
“I do not know, Glaciem.” Narratus looked at her, a sad smile on his face. “But you are alive and well, and that is enough. We have much to learn from one another.”
She opened her mouth to reply when she heard a shriek from the doorway. Both she and Narratus turned and saw three Elders, two women, and one man, staring at them in horror.
“What has happened?” The first Elder who had spoken to her upon her awakening moved swiftly to Narratus’ side. “Why are you both on the floor?” Her eyes grew wide as she saw the wound on his face. “You are bleeding.”
“Do not be alarmed, my fellow Elders,” Narratus grunted as the two women pulled him up. “I fell, and the Daughter tried to help me. Her legs are still too weak to support herself for any length of time, and she was not able to lift us both. She stayed with me on the ground to see to my wound. It is nothing more than a light scratch.”
“You were fortunate she was awake and of sound mind.”
The man who had accompanied them was also one of the first to have spoken to her when she awoke. She remembered him by the stone around his neck; bright blue.
“You are not hurt, Daughter of the Forest?” He asked as he picked her up and brought her back to the bed.
“I am well.” She said, bracing herself against the tall man’s arms. She still did not care for the touch of the other Elders.
“And the wound on the back of your head?” He tilted his head as he reached out a hand to touch her scalp, but she gently turned away.
“It is healing well. Narra-” She caught herself before the full word escaped her lips. She willed herself to use the proper term for Narratus, grimacing at how foreign and unnatural it felt on her tongue. “That is to say, Hominem, has taken great pains to ensure it did not infect again. I believe I might be able to leave here soon.” “Not away from the Village, I hope?”
There was a tightness in the man’s voice as he asked the question and it set the hairs on the back of her head on end. She looked towards Narratus, who was standing between the two women. His look was uncertain, cautious perhaps, and while she could not quite interpret either Elder’s look, she could not deny the swell of emotion that was filling her heart as she looked at him. She did not relish the thought of losing his company.
“No. Not away from the Village.” She said finally, nodding slightly to Narratus.
He smiled discreetly back at her.
“This is most excellent news!” The Mulier who had spoken to her first, her stone purple, came forward and stood next to the man. She gently brushed the arm of his black robe with her hand. “We must confess that we had hoped for this answer. It has been our greatest desire to invite you to live with us.”
She furrowed her brows, confused. “Will I not to stay here with Narratus then if I am to remain in the Village?”
The man sighed. “I see he has allowed you a name by which to call him.” He turned to look disapprovingly at his fellow Elder. “The Elders do not have names, Daughter, and it is not good to call him this, for he had vowed to relinquish all names in order that he might surrender himself entirely to the Village. This is his duty. He is the Tenth Hominem, the Keeper of History, and he is the least of us. You shall call him either Tenth Hominem, or the Tenth Elder, from now on.”
He gestured first to himself and then to the woman beside him.
“I am the First Elder and this is my wife, the Second. Standing next to the Tenth is the Third. We have come to see your progress and to ensure your healing, for we desire to move you to your permanent residence here in the Village. The Second Mulier and I have arranged for you to stay with us. There, you will be given the care you need.”
Uneasiness began to settle in her stomach as the First Elder spoke. She did not want to be parted from Narratus. She had grown fond of him in the short time she had been with him. Now, she turned to look at him helplessly, her eyes conveying her trepidation. He stepped forward to speak to the others, his head bowed and his eyes turned to the ground.
“Forgive me, my First, but she has not yet fully recovered. Might I be granted the honor of keeping her with me to ensure her wound has closed properly for a little while longer? She has many things to learn as well, for her memory has been completely destroyed. She does not know of her people, she does not know of her history. Permit me to teach her these things first for it is, as you say, my duty as an Elder.”
The First Hominem studied Narratus before turning back to glance at her. “Do you wish to stay with the Tenth Elder?”
“Please.” She tried not to sound desperate as she said it.
The First Elder sighed, his brows furrowing in irritation. “Very well. You may stay with the Tenth until you can walk without aid, at which point you will be moved to our home at the heart of the Village.”
It was not a suggestion, but a clear command that was not to be questioned further.
He motioned to the door and another Elder, a shorter, younger man with a red stone entered. Beside him was a tall boy with wide green eyes and dark hair that fell in his face as he walked. She looked at him curiously and he looked back defiantly, his eyebrow cocked in mild arrogance.
“This is my son, Strong Heart.” The First Hominem placed a hand on his shoulder. “He is twelve years of age and is the most talented boy in the Village. He has a great capacity for knowledge, and has already accomplished a great many things. I fully believe and expect him to become a great leader.”
“He is called Strong Heart for at his birth a sickness had come over him and stopped his breath.” The Second Mulier said. “We thought we had lost him and his spirit had passed beyond but, quite miraculously, his heart began to beat again and he overcame the death that had attempted to claim him.”
“He will be your companion, Daughter of the Forest. Let him teach you the ways of the Village.” The First Elder firmly pushed the young boy towards her.
The two stared at each other for a while until finally, the boy turned to his father. “How am I supposed to address her? I don’t know her name.” He spoke quietly, his voice deep for his age.
“My son is quite correct.” The First Elder said, smiling. “We must give the Daughter a name! Perhaps the Second Mulier would be so kind as to-”
“-I have a name.” She interrupted him. They all looked at her in surprise. “What I mean to say is,” She shot a glance at Narratus, who shook his head subtly, his eyes warning her to keep his part in the matter secret, “That is…”
“Have you remembered something of your past?” The Second Elder asked softly, catching the silent communication between her and Narratus. She smiled and beckoned her to continue.
She looked at the Second Mulier. She wasn’t willing to outright lie, nor was she willing to squander the opportunity given. “I have a name.” She repeated slowly, silently praying the First Elder wasn’t as perceptive as the Second.
The First Elder showed only impatience.
“Tell us your name, Child! Do not keep us waiting!” He huffed.
Her eyes flashed briefly towards Narratus once more before turning back to the other Elders. She held her chin up and looked at the First Hominem evenly, willing her voice to remain steady.
“My name is Glaciem, the Ice Child.”