Someone was whistling a merry tune.
I opened my eyes and I was suddenly all too aware of where I was. In a tree. Deep in the forest. Alone.
But who was whistling?
I quietly switched my positioning in the tree branches so I was on my stomach, looking down onto the ground below.
Alarm shot through me at the sight of not one, but three men sitting around the base of the tree directly next to mine. Not warriors, at least not from Harfeld. No shields or crests branded them. But I saw that all three were in possession of weapons. Several weapons, in fact. They were drinking from the stream, filling up water pouches. The sight of them puzzled me. This was a Fey Haunt, no mortals dwelt within its reaches, I was certain. Yet, these men certainly did not look like fairies. Who were they? And what were they doing in Blackwood Forest?
Stay still, people rarely look up. Gavin had told me that once. I settled back against the trunk of the tree, moving as quietly as I could. I would just wait until they passed on. I was high enough to be concealed by the leaves. Running would do nothing but get me hopelessly lost, and potentially caught. That was something I couldn’t afford, with nothing to defend myself.
It was a wise decision. As the sun sank lower and the forest slowly surrendered to the coming of night, the men moved on. I waited until it was nearly full dark before I descended, certain I could hear nothing of them before I moved from the safety of the tree. My throat was dry, screaming for a drink. I approached the bank of the stream, kneeling down to scoop up handfuls of the cool clear water.
It was then I heard the sound of a low whistle
I should have run, but for just a moment too long I was frozen, there on the side of the stream on my knees, the front of my dress splattered with water. And then there were men leaping out of bushes, appearing from behind trees, armed and yelling.
I screamed and took flight, darting between trees, running in a chaotic pattern, ducking under low branches and pushing through bushes. My hair and clothes got caught on brambles, a stinging on my face told my a thorn had cut through my cheek. I came to a slight incline and lost my balance, falling down the hill and landing on a wide expanse of dirt.
Stay away from the road. Of all the places for me to happen upon, this was the worst. I was out in the open, unable to hide. I heard them coming. The pounding of their feet was close. I stumbled and managed to stand, but did not see the way a spot in the road was darker than the rest until my foot hit it and I fell into a hole disguised as a large puddle. The mud sucked my feet up and I couldn’t move my legs, in muddy water to my chin.
Trapped. I was trapped.
There was the sound of laughter from behind me and I couldn’t have turned to look even if I wanted to. Footsteps of men, too many men, came to a halt.
And then I was looking at a pair of boots, through my mud flecked lashes. Willing my face to be calm, or even better, turn invisible.
“Is this your fairy girl, Beld?” said the owner of the pair of boots with more than a hint of mirth in his voice.
At his question the rest of his company broke out into raucous laughter.
“She does have a peculiar look to her, I’ll admit,” he said, lowering himself on his haunches to see me better. I would not look at him. I was terrified, and refused to let him see it, “who are you, girl?”
“No one,” I found myself saying, my voice tight, “Leave me be.”
Laughter broke out all around me, and despite myself I flinched, startled my eyes locking with those of the man before me.
His eyes were bright, cinnamon colored and lively. Dark curling hair paired with dark skin that reminded me of the rich nutty bread Thilda made in the mornings, a handsome face sporting a smirk that took me off guard.
His smirk turned into a teasing smile, “Leave you be? Tell me,” he leaned forward a little from his safe place on dry land, “how do you plan to get out of that hole?”
I struggled to move my legs, and found them stuck. My eyes searched the edge for something, anything to grab a hold of, but there was nothing.
“Surely, not the same way you got in it?” he questioned, the smirk on his face revealing a dimple in his left cheek, I noticed because it was the same cheek my only dimple appeared. You have the same smile as your father, my memory came unbidden of my mother, trying, as she so often did, to help me feel like I belonged. She’d pressed the tip of her finger softly against my cheek where my dimple hid when I wasn’t smiling and said, his dimple is right here, too. Just like yours.
“I’m not sure that would work.”
The second part of the man’s goading statement brought me back to the present, but that did nothing to erase the breathlessness I felt at that memory. The pain and fear that made it hard to swallow thinking about why I was here in the first place. And the people I loved too far from me.
I would drown before I let these men hurt me. Something wild and fierce spiraled through my blood and I all but snarled at the man, every muscle in my body tense.
His eyebrows flew up and he clutched his chest as if I had struck him, “What a fire in that look!” he exclaimed, “Could strike a man dead with that.”
He had the audacity to wink at me.
I laughed, a hard broken sound that surprised me as much as it surprised him, “Then I supposed you’re rather lucky I can’t. You’d be the first I’d try it on.”
We stared at each other then, eyes narrowed, calculating. Each of us attempting to read the other. However, I was tired. And I had the extreme disadvantage of being up to my chin in mud. So, I looked away first, taking in a quick breath through my nose. I had never been so scared as I was in that moment with this strange man carefully watching me with his strangely bright eyes.
I wish you were kind.
Again his eyebrows raised as if surprised. It was then I realized I’d uttered those words aloud, but I wouldn’t refute them. It was true.
And then his demeanor changed so suddenly, I was startled. All traces of mirth vanished and he stood, handing off his weapons to another man and pulling off his boots.
“A rope,” he ordered.
I watched as he tied one end of the rope around his chest and handed off the other end to another man.
“Can’t move your legs, can you?” he asked.
I shook my head.
And then without another word he waded in. He was tall. The muck that was up to my chin only reached to about the middle of his abdomen. There was a sucking sound as his feet were swallowed in mire beneath. However, this concerned him little for he reached for me, bringing an arm around my shoulders and the other behind my knees. He hauled me upward until my feet were free. I felt my shoes get stuck, left behind in the mud puddle. He struggled a little getting his own feet free before walking toward the edge and dumping me onto the road.
I rolled to my feet every instinct within me screamed at me to run. But run where?
Still, I took a step, and then another, slowly backing towards the trees. He climbed out of the muck and calmly removed the rope from about him. There were more men than I’d thought. More than a dozen or so faces were all looking at me, and then looking back towards the man who was in fact, much to my disliking, my rescuer. He took his time in looking my way.
I slowly backed closer to the trees, to the forest that I was sure to be able to disappear into if given the chance. Another step, a quick turn and I’d be gone.
“Where do you plan to run to?”
The question stilled all my movement, my eyes flying to the cinnamon colored ones gazing right at me. I did not answer, because he was right. Where would I go? And he seemed to know it.
He looked at me for a moment longer. A long moment, and then he began to give orders.
“It’s nearly dark. We’ll need to make camp. Let’s go,” he placed his weapons back in his belt, slinging a bow across his back, taking his time in pulling on his boots, all the men walking past me back into the safety of the trees as if I didn’t exist. Soon they all had moved on except him.
I was still near the edge of the forest, frozen as if my feet were still stuck in mud, watching him with a wide-eyed gaze, wary. My feet itched, ready to run if necessary. He slowly made his way over toward me, fiddling with the ties on his sleeve near the wrist. He walked past me without a word, not even looking at me. When he was nearly ten feet away he turned back to see me watching him.
He lifted his brows, mouth quirked ever so slightly and simply said, “Coming?”
Then he turned and walked away without a backward glance until he was swallowed up in the greenery. I stood there for several moments, trying to make sense of the entire occurrence. And then, with no conscious decision on my part, I was sneaking through the forest after them.
It was not a hard thing to do. For they were men in their own place, safe and unhindered by the fear that comes from being on the run. They laughed and joked as they walked until finally they stopped in a clearing between four great trees that was their camp for the night. Some men roasted meat over an open fire, while others strung up hammocks in the trees. A clever and safe way of sleeping in a dark forest.
I watched them for a while, still in the shadows, leaning up against the trunk of a tree fifty paces or so from where they camped. My mouth watered with the smell of hot food, and my throat was suddenly so dry I thought I would die if I didn’t have water. Which was very well. I had just run for my life. The dull pounding in my head gave evidence to that.
And I was suddenly very aware of how wet and cold I was, without shoes. I scrunched my toes together in an effort to warm them.
A man brought out a stringed instrument and began to play, while others sang the words to the tune. It was the same one that I’d heard one whistling earlier. I sneaked closer, for what reason I do not know. Only that there was food and water and warmth. About twenty paces or so from the camp I froze, realizing what I was doing.
Willingly entering into a camp full of men I did not know, alone?
I swallowed and pressed my back against the trunk of one of the four great trees that bordered the clearing. And suddenly, I was weary, so weary. I sank to the ground and stared straight ahead of me, swallowing against the sudden urge to weep.
“Ah, there you are.”
I startled so badly, I toppled over onto my side and then scrambled to my feet looking about wildly for the owner of that voice.
I found him in the tree I had been leaning against, sitting so still it wasn’t hard to see how I’d missed him, not that I’d been looking. He jumped down.
“Took you a bit longer than I thought,” he said, and I noticed he was wearing a simple white shirt and a pair of brown trousers tucked into his knee high leather boots. All of which were perfectly dry. I was then very aware of how wet I was, the only dry thing about me the mud that had dried on my skin and in my hair. I clutched the skirts of my sodden gown in my fists.
He noticed and his mouth quirked up again, as if he desired to smile very much but decided against it.
“Who are you?” the question slipped out before I could stop it.
Then he did smile with a shake of his head, “That’s the first question you ask?”
I frowned, thinking it was the most important one. Knowing a person, their name, their identity, “Well, yes.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and chuckled, “Well, I’ve got questions of my own. But I’ll save those for later. You’re hungry and tired and soaked to the bone besides,” he shook his head again, “Stay put, I’ll be right back.”
And with that he walked into the camp, leaving me staring after him. I watched carefully, from my place in the shadows. I was aware of a warmth on my shoulder and a sudden stillness of the forest, the voices of the men dimmed.
“You need not fear him.”
I did not need to turn to know who was speaking.
“He will help me?” I asked quietly.
“He already has.”
I turned then to ask, “What do you mean?” but the Great Prince was gone.
“Who’re you talking to?”
I glanced back sharply to find the man returned, clothing thrown over his shoulder and a plate of food in one hand and a mug of water in the other, the questioning look on his face was severe, eyebrows drawn downward.
I didn’t answer.
He set the plate and the mug down on the ground and grabbed the clothes slung over his shoulder and threw them to me, “There you are. You’d be best off putting the clothes on first, I should think,” he said, noting how I was shivering.
Despite the assurances I’d received about him, I eyed him suspiciously, not liking one bit the way he ordered me about.
“Stubborn girl!” he exclaimed, “Freeze and starve, then.”
He turned his back on me and crossed his arms dismissively.
I went behind a cluster of bushes to change. He’d given me a large shirt, a belt and a pair of short trousers that would have reached the knee of any man, but hit the top of my feet. Still barefoot, but once I was in dry clothes, my toes didn’t seem quite so cold as they had been; I carefully hung my dress on a tree nearby.
When I returned, he was gone. I quietly walked over and sat on the ground cross-legged to enjoy my meal, I nearly choked on the water, drinking it too fast. I spied my helper talking earnestly with another man; I narrowed my eyes as he gestured, however discreetly, in my direction.
All too soon, the food given me was gone and I sat still, watching the merriment going on by the fire. My belly was full, and I’d never before thought to be thankful for such a thing. But I was. That made me frown a little too. How little did I know of life, living in my castle? What would it be like to live hungry, searching for meals and being unbelievably thankful when they came, however they came. My parents did their best to take care of their own, extending their generosity to the village, but it made me wonder.
Soon, I felt my eyes grow heavy, my body numb with the setting in of exhaustion.
But I couldn’t sleep, not yet. Not until I knew what was being said about me. I needed to be awake enough to run, far and fast if I needed to flee these men.
Stay awake, Freya, I instructed myself.
The moss coating the forest floor like a rich carpet was soft, so soft as I brushed it with my fingertips. It would feel glorious to stretch out, lie down, and sleep. Maybe I would just close my eyes for a moment . . .
“Should we wake her?”
“I dunno, Mack said to let her sleep.”
There was an exasperated groan, “But it’s been more than half the day.”
At the sound of unfamiliar voices, I was fully awake, but kept my eyes firmly shut, heart pounding in my ears so loudly I was terrified they’d hear it and know I was awake.
“She’s had a rough time of it,” said the second voice, “Just look at her. Poor thing.”
A snort that meant the other man didn’t particularly care about how rough a time I may have had. There was a blanket covering me. Someone must have placed it on me while I slept. I was thankful for it.
“I still dunno why we don’t just kill her,” one of the men grumbled.
“She’s seen us, who knows who she’ll tell?”
The other man grunted in response. There was a moment of silence.
“When’s Mack gettin’ back?”
“Not sure, he said sometime in the afternoon. Round an hour or so I suspect.”
“No, I’m right here.”
The men chuckled at being sneaked up on, I’d imagine, “Your fairy girl’s still sound asleep.”
There was a moment of silence, a moment I knew that they were all looking right at me. I tried not to squirm.
“Well, I’ll guard her for a while.”
The two men got to their feet and walked off, I slit my eyes open just enough to see the man I thought they’d referred to as Mack settled down on the ground a few feet from where I lay.
“You can open your eyes now,” he said calmly, “They’re gone.”
My eyes flew open, surprised. I sat up a moment later, “How did you know . . ?”
He smiled then, and what a wicked smile it was, all at once charming and mischievous, fine lines showing themselves around his eyes and the corners of his mouth.
“My name is Cormack,” he said suddenly, “call me by it if you like.”
“What else would I call you?” I said, rather crossly.
He ignored me, “Tell me. What is a young girl such as yourself doing alone in a big wood such as this without a scrap of food or a drop of water?” he glanced at me and stopped on my bare feet, “Or shoes?”
“I had shoes,” I stated quickly and then shrugged sheepishly. What did that matter? He had a point and he knew it. He simply looked at me, an expectant expression on his face. I bit my lip, my heart hammering because I did not know what to say.
My castle was attacked and I had to flee for my life?
I swallowed as that thought sunk in. Gavin. Thilda. My parents. This was my second day in the forest. Gavin had not come, and if he had he probably had not been able to find me. I’d strayed far off the forest path, lost my horse and now I was in the company of a host of men who I knew nothing about. Men who could and might still kill me.
Cormack was watching me carefully, a guarded expression on his face, “Let me ask again, what are you doing in Blackwood Forest?”
His eyes were hard. I caught what he meant. You don’t belong here. Blackwood Forest, a Fey Haunt. But the way he said it was protective, as if somehow this place was his. I regarded him carefully, he didn’t look fey. As far as I could tell he was completely ordinary.
“You’re too young to run away from home.”
I narrowed my eyes at the emphasis on young. I was nineteen, I thought in outrage. However, I paused, struck by the fact that I was nineteen. It was my birthday. Two days. Two days had passed since the night of the attack. I’d been complaining about a birthday feast I didn’t want two days ago to Gavin. Well, I’d gotten my wish. Swallowing against the wave of sadness that came with the realization I shrugged and said, “Now, what would an old man like yourself care about that?”
I saw his eyebrows fly to his hairline as I calmly shot those words back at him, his lips twitched.
“Got a bit of fight in you,” he grinned, rubbing a hand over his chin in a thoughtful gesture, “And I’m not old. Just shy of six and thirty, thank you very much. I’m a wee babe as far as most men are concerned.”
Nearly seventeen years older than myself. I frowned, something about that age gap catching in my memory, as though somehow, in some unfathomable way, it meant something.
“If maturity is any indication of that, then I’d say yes,” I spouted, “wee babe is an apt description.”
He narrowed his eyes at me, even as his amusement was apparent, and opened his mouth to say something when another man approached.
When the other man saw me, he gave me a glare, “She’s still here, eh?” I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at him before he turned to Cormack and said, “What news?”
Cormack hesitated a moment, glancing at me. He stood then turning his attention back to the man and took a few steps away from me. I turned my gaze on the ground. I plucked out pieces of moss and ground them between two fingers, pretending I wasn’t straining every muscle in my body to listen.
“Attacked,” Cormack said, a touch of anger to his voice.
“Humph,” the other man growled out, “what’s she playing at?”
I peeked at them then, only briefly, let them think I couldn’t hear the words being spoken. Cormack looked angry, all traces of merriment vanished from his face, eyebrows drawn downward, and shoulders tense. Dangerous, that’s what he looked.
Not a man to cross, I thought to myself.
“She’s been planning this for years,” Cormack replied in answer to the man’s question, “I just thought without . . .” his words drifted off, drawing them back into himself, looking deeply troubled.
“It’s always been Harfeld. She lusts after that kingdom more than she’s ever lusted after a man.”
His words were bitter, biting.
Harfeld. I couldn’t breathe. They were speaking of my kingdom. My home.
The ground was rippling as if it had turned to liquid, the trees swaying before my eyes. My breath came quick and shallow.
Cormack shook his head and was silent for a moment, “Revenge on the king who scorned her.”
“Are they overrun then?”
I froze, my heart stony with dread.
“I learned nothing else.”
The other man was shaking his head, “And what of the princess? I heard from fairies she’d gone missing the night of the attack.”
The fairies? I knew I was being watched. The realization sent a shiver through me.
Cormack seemed surprised by the question, “Princess?”
The man nodded and began saying something else but Cormack ceased to listen, his gaze fixed on me.
And in that moment he turned to look at me I could see how his mind worked it all together. His look was one of dawning understanding, and I knew he saw me clearly.
He knows who I am.
My heart pounded and my head ached with all the emotions pulsing through me, my stomach sick with the anxiety over my people, my family. Gavin, Thilda, Mother, Father. The names repeated themselves in my head over and over again.
And in that moment, I felt an overwhelming urge to run. I stumbled to my feet, blinded by tears and ran. I ran and ran, heedless of the path my feet tread, not caring if I got hopelessly lost. As if I believed that if I could run fast enough, far enough and long enough all of this would be as if it had never happened at all.
My body ached and my chest was tight, but I did not stop. Even when the day darkened and the shadows crept out I made myself keep moving. Walking and running in bursts.
I choked on my tears, a loud sob escaping me that sounded like a cry of anguish. There was a sharp pain in my shin as I banged into a protruding root I hadn’t seen in my blinded dash and I fell to the earth.
Make it all go away.
I curled into a ball and wept.