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Have you ever chased a butterfly across an open field? Or watched the stars wink out as the sun opens its eye? Did you ever listen to the wind and hear its words of wisdom? Or hear the singing of the falling rain on the beaten earth? Have you ever sniffed the pages of an ancient tome? Or pressed your hand to your heart and question what was beating there? Did you ever understand the booming thunder and asked it what it said? Or ask an ancient oak tree for its ancient history?
Time passes by too fast for humans to realize that they should slow down in their busy
world, and just listen, and appreciate the beauties around them. One day melts into the next. One never realizes how fast time flows until one looks at the sun, realizing it was hours, not minutes ago, since it has last risen. And the routines continue. Wars rage and ravage the land, tearing apart centuries of civilizations. Fragile truces are formed, and in these times, the land is rebuilt; but it is never again the same as it was before, soaked with the blood of its children. Wars raze again. Death spills over the land once more like an overflowing cauldron. What took years to build took seconds to destroy. The ancient souls that have inhabited the land from the beginning of time watch with agony. It was they who have brought humans into the land, and they realize that something should be done. They are the Fey, wild spirits that are the Guardians of all that is true and beautiful in nature. And for the first time since their existence, they have come together, knowing that something must be done. “But what shall we do?” Andromia whispered. The animal spirit had come in the form of a unicorn. She was settled in a bed of moss, cloaked in emerald green leaves. The other spirits looked at one another, their regal heads nodding as they considered their options. “Is there nothing the forest-kin can do?” Yaol, the mountain spirit, rumbled. His powerful barrel chest protruded out from the rest of his form like a great drum. He had come in the form of a rather menacing rock golem, but the other Fey kindred knew he was the sort that would not harm a fly. Andromia shook her regal head sadly. “No. We have tried, and failed. All they have done is taken more of our homes. Soon the creatures that inhabit the forests will have to flee to other forests,” she murmured. “It is troubled times indeed for my kin.” Aquaria the water spirit sat silently in the pool of water that Yaol had kindly dug out for her earlier in the evening. She was in the form of a beautiful mermaid and her blue eyes observed the other spirits without comment. No harm had come to her realm. She did not have any say, or have any need to. “By ancient law,” Firenze, the fire spirit, intoned, “we cannot harm the creatures we have created.” The other spirits nodded but said nothing of this reminder. “We cannot harm them, even if they harm others that we love. They must be taught. That is the only way.” “But who will teach these…these…creatures?” Wren, the forest spirit, asked wretchedly. Anguish and loathing ruined his handsome features. He had come as a faun
to the gathering – half man, half goat. All knew that of all of the spirits, Wren would have the most pain as it was his home and kindred that were being harmed the most. “Who can teach them? They are a young race. This I know. But they cannot live long enough to learn enough as a race. They cannot pass on memories like other species.” “Perhaps I can be of some assistance,” a voice said. All the spirits looked up as Luna, the spirit that lived in the moon appeared in their midst. She was a beautiful woman, glowing with power and light that was the moon, clothed in a bright white light that formed into a curious gown. In her arms was a small bundle, a child. “Luna,” Andromia breathed. She got to her feet, her eyes on the woman. The woman regarded the unicorn with kind ancient eyes. “Of all the spirits, I do believe you would be of most assistance, as you always have in the past. You are the all Seeing. Your view on the world is not damaged or biased.” Andromia sank into a deep bow and the other spirits soon followed her example. Luna smiled and shook her head, her gaze going down momentarily to the small bundle in her arms. “Please, stand, all of you. I do not wish for you to bow down to me,” she murmured. “I have been listening to your pain, and the pain of those wronged, and I have a plan.” They all looked at Luna, and in the way that spirits were, they knew what her plan was. As if by some unspoken consent, the clearing grew brighter with a brilliant light. Luna smiled as the spirits vanished back to their respective realms.
Chapter One Sora stood at the mouth of a cave, breathing in its dark, damp smell as the stale wind
blew through it winding tunnels. Her eyes were closed as if she were in bliss. Long fingers curled gently in the folds of her plain green gown and black curls streamed down her back in a graceful waterfall. Her bare feet curled in the cool dirt at the cave entrance. Her sharp hearing picked up the voices of drowsy bats far in the back of the cave. When the wind turned, bringing her scent to them, they stirred as one. Some woke sleepily from their stupor and blinked watery black eyes in the darkness. Sora, they murmured. It is the Child…Sora… She smiled at their voices and her eyes opened. They revealed two brilliant blue eyes hazed over by a milky film. Anyone would have gasped and smiled in pity, knowing that she could not see, thinking that she could not see them. But such was not the case. In fact, Sora saw more than anyone else did, despite her blindness. She knew that her blind eyes distressed those who saw her and they treated her like she was as fragile as crystal glass because of it. But she paid no heed and let them think and do what they wished. Her full lips curled into a soft smile at the feeling of the afternoon sun on her skin. Then, she turned and strode down the sun-warmed path. She walked with a cat’s grace, but she did not saunter, as some young women of her age might. She walked with an air of confidence about her – her head high and proud, her back straight. There was a glow about her, one that many could not put their finger on. As she walked through the thick forest, following a trail that only she could see, the greenery around her seemed to react to her presence. Trees whispered as she passed, swaying in the unseen wind. They seemed to blow their heavy branches down closer to her, as if trying to hear her voice. Sora took no notice and walked on. As she neared a bridge that crossed over a small stream, she stopped and reached behind a tree, pulling out a pair of soft sun-warmed deer hide boots. She slipped these onto her feet and strode across the bridge. As she set foot down on the other side of the bridge, a woman similarly dressed burst around the turn in the stone path. She was similarly dressed like Sora. A straw hat covered her head and most of her face. Sora stopped as the woman appeared and ironically, the woman almost crashed into Sora. Sora steadied the woman as she looked up with a pair of worried green eyes. As soon as she saw Sora’s face, the look disappeared, replaced with relief. “Sora! There you are! Where were you?” she gasped. It was very apparent that she had run up the steep hill that led down to the small village where Sora lived. It was the same path that Sora had been on before the woman had appeared. “Quick! Quick!” Sora laughed, a soft melodious sound that filled the summer air. “What is it, Lola?” she asked softly. Her blind eyes gazed down solemnly at Lola. The older woman suppressed a shudder at the sight. “There are visitors in the village! I think they are the king’s soldiers, they are!” she whispered excitedly. Graceful eyebrows rose up towards Sora’s hairline. “Why are you coming to find me, then?” Sora asked the other woman. Her sightless eyes rose from the woman’s face and she turned them towards the direction of the village as if she could see it from where she stood, surrounded by thick greenery. “Because they asked about you, Sora.”
Startled, Sora turned back to the woman. She could not see Lola’s face but she could feel Lola’s body quiver with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Sora’s sharp uncanny hearing picked up Lola’s quick breathing and knew that she was frightened, at the same time awed, by these soldiers. “Me? Why ever would they want me for? And how do they know of me?” she whispered. Sora was one of the village’s best kept secrets. Ever since she had turned up in the middle of the village, with no parents or clues to as whom she belonged to, they had taken her in. The only thing that Sora did know was her name. They raised her as their own, despite the obvious difficulties of blindness that handicapped Sora. When Sora was about five years old, a group of young fanatics had ridden through. When they saw Sora, they had tried to kidnap her. The villagers had protected her and chased out the group of fanatics at great cost to themselves. Ever since then, Sora had been sent up to the forest where she was now whenever visitors arrived in order to protect her. Lola watched as the memories of six years ago flickered across Sora’s face and knew she was thinking about the fanatics. “No one told them,” she assured her. “They just knew. They came asking about a blind child who stumbled into this village nine years ago. That’s all. They only asked to see you.” Still, Sora’s strained look did not disappear from her face. “Are you afraid?” Sora looked down at Lola, who had been her constant friend and companion throughout her childhood. The other children had rejected her because of her sightless eyes, but Lola had always remained Sora’s friend, despite their vast age difference. “Yes,” she said in a steady voice. “I will stay here. Tell Fa Coran and the others. I will be fine in the forest.” Lola nodded. Then gathering her skirts in her fist, she vanished around the turn in the path and disappeared once more. Sora retreated back over the bridge and into the cool shade of the forest. For the first time in a long time, she was afraid. She shivered as if the summer air chilled her skin, rather than warmed her.
The buzz of laughter and talk flowed around Caden like water. He drank with his men
and listened to their boasts but he did not join in. His mail coat was heavy on his shoulders, hidden underneath his cloak. After a hard day’s ride, he was tired, and wanted nothing more than to find his bed and sleep. Grey eyes stared blankly at the empty tankard he had just drained. He turned it in a large gloved hand. Like his men, he was dressed plain black. He was of slight build, but he was quick and agile on his feet. No coat of arms or badges on his clothes indicated his loyalty of service, and it was the same of any man who rode in his train. He waved the barkeep over with a sigh. The man came and refilled his tankard. He nodded his thanks and took a deep sip of the bitter golden liquid. A man appeared at his elbow as he lowered his tankard. At the same time, the tavern door opened and a woman wearing a straw hat entered, looking flushed as if she had been running. His eyes followed the woman as he leaned toward his man. “Everyone is avoiding talking about the girl,” the man whispered. His master’s grey eyes followed the woman to the bar where she leaned over the counter and
whispered hurriedly to the barkeep. “They all immediately change the subject rather quickly when one of our men asks after her.” All the while, the woman’s gaze flickered over to where he and his men sat, entertaining the locals with their stories. The barkeep nodded and the woman ran out again hurriedly. “I see,” he replied absently. “Sir?” He set the half-full tankard down on the counter and stood. “I’m going out for a walk,” he announced. He nodded at the barkeep. “Just put my men’s drinks on my tab.” The man nodded and resumed polishing a glass. The men and villagers parted as he left, staring curiously in his wake. As soon as the door closed, the conversation resumed. Reed scrambled to follow Caden, weaving his way through the people in the tavern. When he burst into the sunshine outside, Caden was nowhere to be seen. Damn, he sighed to himself. He went back inside. Caden was, in fact, not so far away. He had stridden off, following the woman that had entered the tavern earlier, flitting from shadow to shadow, unseen by passerby. He was curious about the way she was acting. The village was small, he thought logically, so anyone acting curiously strange would definitely have something to hide. The woman paused by a shop and went inside. Caden leaned against the brickwork of a wall and mused. Where would a small village hide a single young girl? he wondered. The village is set in a deep valley, with the only exit or entrance to the village where we came in. So she has to be in the village anyway. “Hello, sir, can I help you?” He started with surprise. He was so deep in thought that he had not realized that he had been spotted. The woman he had been following now stood in front of him, a hard look on her face, green eyes blazing. Her voice was kind, but her gaze – hard as diamonds, he thought wryly. “Ah, yes you can,” he glanced around. “I was wondering if you could tell me where a good place to take a walk in your village might be. I am a bit curious about the surroundings in this area as I have never been by this way before.” She stared hard at him for a moment. “If you look hard enough, there are some paths that lead out of the village and into the hills,” she replied. Her arms crossed in front of her. Caden noted it. She definitely did not want him to know something. “However, I would suggest that you just take your walk in the village streets as these paths often lead to trails that even the best of us would not dare to venture.” “Oh? Why not?” Her head tilted slightly. “Because there are wild animals in the forest. No one goes there. If you should get lost, no one could guide you back, or find you. Good day, sir,” she said and made to leave. “Wait!” Caden called out. She turned, one eyebrow up, looking at him curiously. “Thank you,” he told her with a grin, sweeping her a low bow. She flushed with pleasure and hurried off. It was then he realized that the woman was no older than sixteen, possibly seventeen – a girl on the verge of womanhood. He chuckled to himself and went to find one of the paths that she had mentioned.
As the sun began to set, Sora climbed into her favorite tree, a reed in her hand. Her hair
was wet from washing in the nearby pond and dripped water as she swung up into a high
branch. She left most of her clothes on a branch, hanging to dry. Her boots stood next to them. As she settled into a particularly wide branch, she pulled out a knife from sheath on her arm and began to whittle as watched the blue sky turn into a splash of oranges and pinks. A bear grumbled nearby and she smiled but her hands never stopped working. By the time the sun had set, she had a well-worked flute in her hands. She stuck the knife back into the sheath and blew into the reed flute, testing it. Finding that it was rather accurately in tune, she began to play a haunting melody. The sound flowed beautifully in the air. The wind blew softly through the treetops, carrying her music down the valley.
As Caden climbed the hill, he regretted ever coming up there. The girl had been right –
he was lost and the path, winding away from him, seemed to always change. There was no path to mark where he had been, and at this height, he could no longer see the village. He cursed himself loudly and swore even more when his hand slipped and was cut against a sharp edge of a rock. It was getting dark, and soon, his men would wonder where he was. Then, the faint sound of a reed flute flowed to him and he stopped to listen. A haunting melody drifted into his hearing. It was beautiful and fey, and wild, not like any music he had heard before. Grasping the sound like an anchor, he made his way towards it. “Better than getting lost,” he growled as he heaved himself up over a boulder. Every once in a while, the music would stop and he panicked, thinking that he was following a figment of his imagination, dreamed up because he was exhausted. But just as he was about to give up, it would start again and he hurried his steps as best he could towards the sound. I have to get there before whoever is playing decides to stop, he thought to himself, gasping. Otherwise, I would be completely and totally lost. At least whoever that is can help me. Ahead of him, he saw an edge – an end to the endless cliffs that he had mistakenly climbed. Just as suddenly, he heard a growling sound next to his ear. Slowly, he turned and saw that a few steps below him was a giant cat-like form. It advanced on him. Knowing he would be killed for intruding on the large cat’s territory, he scrambled for the ledge. He heard it pouncing after him and just before it reached him, he threw himself over the edge with a yell. He fell farther than he thought into open space. Just when he thought it was the end, he plunged headfirst into the dark waters of a small pond. He scrambled to his feet, gasping. Struggling to see in the dark, he saw a small human figure drop down from a tree. In one hand was a reed flute. He had no time to think about the mysterious person. The cat had followed him over the edge. It dropped gracefully into the water with a splash and advanced on him. He scrambled for his sword, trying to free it from his scabbard as the cat advanced on him. Suddenly it pounced and with a yell, he went down into the water.
Sora heard the man fall into the water and she heard the splash of a large cat pouncing on
top of the man. The cat was growling. Immediately, she put the flute to her lips and began to play. The cat, its attention drawn by the music looked up at her. Its expression seemed
to soften at the sound. She never took her eyes from the cat, even though she could not see it. Sora, Sora, Forest Child, the cat whispered. It stared at her hungrily, but not with anger. She had heard it speak but she did not stop playing. Why do you protect this human? He carries the weapons of death, and death with him, and would seek to bring it to our refuge.
The music stopped. “I know,” a voice said. Caden shivered at the sound of the beautiful
voice. It sounded just as fey and wild as the music. He gasped for breath as the cat, who seemed to be about to eat him, still did not move his large paws from his chest. The cat looked down at him and then at the figure behind him with contemptuous yellow eyes. With a growl, the cat stepped off of Caden’s chest. It vanished and Caden looked up in time to see a flick of its tail disappear over the edge he had fallen from. He scrambled clumsily to his feet and turned to face his rescuer. “Umm…thank you for what you did. You saved my life,” he said to her. He looked up and gasped as he met sightless eyes. What was more breathtaking was the beauty of the young girl who stood before him, despite her odd attire. She regarded him coldly. “Who said you were saved?” she asked, her voice soft. “Well, the cat would have –” “You trespassed on territory you should never set foot in,” she interrupted bluntly. He looked sheepishly down at his feet. “Yes.” He looked up again. “But, it was not without reason.” She looked sharply up at him. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom of the forest, he could see her more clearly. She was wearing clothes that were similar to that of the villagers in the village, and she walked with an air of grace about her. He noted the clothes hanging on a branch and the boots that stood next to them, and realized that she had been here for a small time. The moonlight filtered in through the treetops and lit up the small clearing in which they stood. “What reason do you have to wander the hills at night, then?” she asked. With a start, he realized who she was. “I am looking for someone.”
Sora regarded the man in front of her with hidden curiosity. Despite that he trespassed
here, there was something about him she liked. She knew by the way he dressed that he was one of the soldiers that Lola had warned her about earlier in the day. “You are looking for me,” she said bluntly. The man looked up at her with surprised grey eyes. “Yes. How did you know?” he asked. Then he waved his hands as if motioning her not to talk. “Wait, wait, I know. You were told by that one woman, were you not? The one with a straw hat?” Sora’s eyebrows rose up in surprise. “Lola?” “Ah, yes, her. We never got quite introduced.” For a moment, Sora considered taking this man back down to the village. But she knew that they were deep in the hills and would never make it in good time, especially in the dark. Surely it cannot hurt to keep him around just for one night, she mused. Unaware that the man watched her curiously, she picked up her belongings from the tree branch.
She stooped to pick up her boots. “Come,” she said to him, and strode off into the forest, following only a path that she could see. Behind her, the man scrambled to keep up with her. “What are you called?” he asked her, breathing heavily as he climbed over greenery and shrubs to catch up with her. “Sora.” “My name is Caden,” he replied. She smiled. “Nice to meet you, Caden.”
Caden scrambled to keep up with Sora, his chain mail coat weighing him down heavily.
He often stumbled across upturned roots and rocks and wondered why Sora, in her blindness, did not do so. “So, why have you come to seek me, Caden?” she asked from up ahead of him. “My master asks that I bring you to him. He has need of your help,” he replied. She stopped quite suddenly and he almost crashed into her. “Sora – where are we going?” “Not far,” she replied. There was a smile in her voice. She started off again. “Why are we not going to the village?” he asked her. She stopped again and this time, Caden saw and stopped as well. “Rest here,” she told him, nodding at the base of a tree. He sat down with relief and unbelted his sword, which hindered him more than anything. He slung it over his shoulders so it lay across his back. “We are not heading to the village because we would not make it in time.” “In time for what?” She smiled at him and her blind gaze passed over his head. “There are dark dangers in these woods, Caden,” she said softly. As she spoke, an eerie howl echoed across the valley and she nodded. “Even dangers that the animals do not know of. It is best not to travel these forests in the dark. Come, we have to move.” He shisvered and got to his feet.
Sora led Caden deeper into the forest as the night-dwelling inhabitants began to wake
with the rising of the moon. She felt the presence of thousands of creatures around her, all calling to each other as they woke. An owl hooted to another, a rat darted through the underbrush. As they approached a set of caves, bats burst from the mouth, startling Caden. Her hand flew out and grabbed him before he tumbled over the edge of the narrow trail they had been walking on for the past hour. His arm was tense as she steadied him on the trail. “Thank you,” he whispered, his breath coming shakily as she smoothed down his clothes. She merely nodded and put a finger to her lips. “Be quiet and watch your step,” she whispered in warning. “We are merely visitors here. Do not disturb the life.” He nodded and followed her again. By the time they reached their destination – a grove of birch trees that stood in a circle – Caden was stumbling with weariness. Gratefully, he sat down on the dirt and untied his cloak. Warily, he looked up at the girl who towered over him. Her body was poised and alert, as if she could hear something that he could not. He made to move his mail shirt and she reached out a hand to stop him.
“Keep it on. We will not be moving any longer. You will need any protection you can get if we are attacked,” she told him. His hands dropped back down to his sides. “But what about you?” he asked her. She shrugged and turned to him in the darkness. The whiteness of her teeth flashed in the dark as she smiled. “That is why you need to keep your armor on,” she said with a soft laugh. The sound made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He unsheathed his sword. Sora paced along the stand of trees for a moment and then sat down next to him. “Are you bleeding?” she suddenly asked. Startled, he looked down at his hand. Blood gleamed on his hand, bright red against the paleness of the skin in the moonlight. He had forgotten that he had cut it on his climb up the hill before he met Sora. “Yes, I did.” She said nothing and instead, ripped a strip from her sleeve. He made a protesting sound but before he knew it, she had seized his wounded hand and bound it up tightly with the rag ripped from her shirt. In the silence the followed, she sat back and stared out blindly into the night. “How did you know I was bleeding?” “The smell of blood. It is the strongest smell in the world,” she explained with a grin at him. Then her smile faded. “Who is your master? What does he want with me?” He looked down at the girl beside him, noting the small sheath strapped to her forearm. The weathered look, even in the darkness, told him that it was long used. Her long fingers still clutched the reed flute she had been playing. “A man of great power,” he finally replied. “I do not know the reason why he sent us to find you. I suppose he needs your help.” “What would a great man, with many men in his command, need me for?” she asked quietly. “I am simply a blind girl, just trying to live in her home. So many have come for me before you, and none have left successfully. What makes you think that I will come with you?” Caden shrugged. He hid his feelings and emotions behind a polite mask, knowing that this girl saw more than most. “He told us that we were only to bring you to him if you came of your own free will. If you do not wish to help, then we will leave, and never return.” He felt, rather than saw, her smile. “I will consider this. For now, you should sleep. You sound weary,” she told him. He nodded and pulled his cloak around him. Leaning against the nearest tree, he went to sleep.
Sora woke Caden early the next morning, shaking him gently awake. He started to his
feet, his sword leaping to his hand. When he saw there was no danger, he relaxed and put his sword away. Sora grinned at him and led the way forward. As the sun rose higher in the sky, Caden labored to keep up with Sora as she led him through the thick forest around him. He marveled, when he could, at the untouched greenery around him – so wild, yet so beautiful. Birds called to each other in the treetops as they woke. Small animals chased each other through the undergrowth. A wild boar snorted as it sifted its large snout through the dirt, ignoring the two humans who passed
in front of it. The last creature Caden was wary of but it paid them no mind even as they turned their backs to it. “Beautiful is it not?” Sora asked him. Startled, he looked up. She had turned and was waiting for him at what he saw was the edge of the forest. She held up her hands towards the trees. “This place has been untouched by man for many centuries. These trees are old, and if you listen well, you can hear the music of the forest. If you learn to learn, they may teach it to you.” Relieved for a chance to stop, he straightened and caught his breath. “You speak as if the forest is alive,” he commented. He pushed back a lock of sweaty hair from his face. Sora regarded him with a curious look that was beyond amusement. It was a mixture of pity and wisdom. He shivered at the ancient look it brought to her blind eyes. They were eyes that have seen much, and yet nothing. “Unlike you, Caden, I have lived my life among the trees. I have come to know their beauty and grace, and each being that lives in their shelter. They are mother and protector to us all. You have a taste of what it was like last night, did you not?” she asked him softly. “The trees protected us. An evil presence came close to us last night, and the trees shielded us from its terror.” Caden stared at her like she was mad. “But I –” He stopped when she shook her head with a sigh. “Let us just concentrate on getting you back to the village,” she told him. And with that, she turned and began down the trail only she could see. Caden sighed and followed her once more. By the time the sun was high in the sky, Sora had led them to the bridge she had crossed yesterday. Caden saw the stone path wind down around the bend and uncertainly turned towards Sora. “Will you come with me?” he asked her. Her head cocked to one side. “What for?” He shrugged before he remembered she couldn’t see his movements. “I would certainly feel better,” he replied. “I would not want to face your friend Lola if she grew angry with me for venturing somewhere she told me not to go.” Sora laughed, a clear ringing sound that flowed like music to his ears. His eyes closed as he reveled in the beautiful sound. Suddenly they snapped open when he realized what he was doing. “All right, if only to defend your side against Lola,” she replied, amused. “However, I have one condition.” “Name it.” “You are not to force me to come with you.” He looked up at her. Her face had lost the mirth it had showed only a few seconds ago. It was dangerously dark. Unconsciously, he shivered with apprehension. “I will not force you to come with me, I promise. I did tell you that you were only to come if it were of your own choice, remember?” he said to her. Slowly, she nodded. “Men often change their minds,” said Sora, before she walked past him. Caden couldn’t decide whether she was warning him or not. He started down the path after her. “Where do you come from anyway?” she asked him after a moment. The path turned and they could see the village not far below. She picked up her pace and he followed her easily this time. He didn’t miss that she had put on her boots at one point in their trek.
“I come from a far away place called Nemera,” he replied. Quite suddenly, she stopped in her path. He stumbled to a halt beside her. “What is wrong, Sora?” Her eyes were wide in her face and her nostrils flared. One of her hands reached out and made as if to grab for him. He caught that flailing hand and held it to his chest. Instinctively, his other hand went around her waist, catching her just in time as her knees buckled under her. “The village, it is burning,” she whispered. Tears streaked from eyes. “I can hear them screaming.” “Sora, that is ridiculous. We just saw the village,” Caden told her, “it’s not – oh my.” As he spoke, a building ahead burst into flames. A few seconds later, Caden could hear the screams that Sora had heard. Quickly, he scooped Sora into his arms and made for the village at a run down the slope of the hill, his weariness quickly forgotten. As they reached the small gate, he pushed it open and left Sora on the ground beside the gate. “Stay here!” he shouted in her ear and dashed off, drawing his sword. Sora scrambled to her feet, her hands feeling the walls of the gate. She made her way towards the village square, refusing to stay where she was while her people were being killed. “Sora!” Lola screamed. Sora turned blindly towards the sound of her voice but could not pinpoint her location over the groans of the buildings and the screaming of the other villagers. Horses thrashed in their stalls, screaming as burning buildings fell on them. More galloped wildly down the road. Sora managed to dash out of the way as she heard them coming. Then she heard a steady drumming rhythm of hoofbeats heading for her. She knew the horse was mounted because its footfalls fell heavier and steadier than those who were running wildly down the village road. There was a whisper of leather on steel as the rider drew his sword.
Caden had dashed for the tavern, knowing his men would be there. He was right. They
were all trying to bring order to the village, guiding frightened horses out from burning stables and organizing a bucket line to bring water to burning buildings. “Caden!” one of them shouted. The man’s face was covered in soot. Caden strode towards the man and clapped him on the forearm. He recognized the burly form of Drew, his second in command. “Drew, what is happening?” he shouted. “They attacked at dawn. First it was a warning, and a few hours later, they came,” he replied grimly. “I don’t know what they want, but they sure seem intent on ripping the village apart looking for it. Morn the barkeep woke us up as soon as the first rider came into the village. The man was smart.” Caden nodded. “All right – round up any survivors and head for the hills. There is a back gate in the village that will lead you to a stream with a bridge. Cross the bridge. It will be safe,” he instructed the man. Drew did not question how Caden knew this – there was no time. He saluted him and set about bellowing instructions to both the men and villagers. In no time at all, survivors were running for safety. Caden glanced around and saw that most of his men were mounted and ready to fight. They spotted him and came. “What should we do, sir?” one of them called down. Caden patted the horse’s neck.
“Defend the survivor’s retreat. Some of you go with the survivors to make sure they make it to safety,” he replied. He repeated the same instructions he had given Drew and after a brief discussion, they burst away to follow them. “Sora!” a woman screamed. He whirled around in time to see Sora facing down a horseman who was riding towards her at a gallop. His breath caught in his chest as the man drew his sword. He ran for the small figure of the girl, knowing he would never make it. Then, she did something he had not expected. Sora leaned to one side as the horseman made a pass at her. As he turned his horse around, viciously sawing at the reins, to make another pass, she pulled out the flute she had shoved into her belt the night before. “Sora!” he shouted. He didn’t know what she was doing – all he knew that she was in danger. She turned and smiled at him and put her lips to the flute. He watched in, at first, horror, and then amazement, as she played. The horse had been galloping at her in full speed; but as she began to play the same wild music he had heard the night before, it snorted and shook its head as if its head were full of flies. Then it balked, stopping so suddenly its rider flew over its head. Meek as a mouse, it trotted over to Sora and touched its nose to her shoulder. She put the flute down and reached out to stroke the horse. “Magic,” he whispered, staring. Sora saw him and came over to him. Dauntingly, the horse followed behind her like a large dog. “All creatures have a wild side that does not want to obey the will of men,” she told him quietly. As he watched, she unsaddled the horse, tossing all of its gear onto the ground. “Now this one will no longer be a captive.” She murmured something to the horse that he could not hear. It shook its head, blew out at her once and trotted off. As it disappeared around the corner, Caden regarded the girl in front of him with new eyes. “Come,” he said to her. He put out his hand took hers in his. “We have to help your people.” She shook her head. “They are safe. He was the last of them,” she said and nodded in direction of two of Caden’s men who rode up to them at that moment. As they approached, they pulled up their horses and dismounted with a nod for Caden. Both were dressed the same as Caden, all in black with a mail coat. They walked with a swagger that assured their authority, and with a confidence that all of Caden’s men had. One of them was blonde haired and the other brown. The blonde haired man had a smear of blood down one cheek. “Sir, we beat back the rest of the bandits,” they told him. He nodded in reply. “Most of them ran and broke rank when we attacked. Apparently they did not expect an armed force to be among the villagers. Is everything else in order?” Caden nodded and turned to Sora. “Sora, I would like you to meet Danny and Max, two of my men,” he told her. She nodded and for the first time, the two noticed her eyes. “Is she the blind girl?” Max, the blonde, asked. Caden nodded. Danny strode over to Caden and put an arm around the other man’s shoulders, drawing him away from Sora. Max smiled at Sora. “Nice to meet you, Sora,” he told her. He talked to her as he watched Caden and Danny nervously. “What is it, Danny?” Caden asked quietly.
Danny looked uneasily at Sora. “I know that we told the master that we would bring her only if she wanted to come, but Caden, you have to convince her to come with us. They were after her too. They were all saying, ‘Find the blind witch.’ I very much doubt that she will be safe once we leave,” he told the young captain. “And knowing bandits, they will be back in greater numbers. They will not suffer a defeat like this.” “I know, but she will not leave,” Caden replied in a whisper. “What do you think I have been trying to do last night and this morning?” “She will, if she knows that she is the source of the danger,” Danny told him. He looked at Caden with a dangerous look in his eye. “We can deal with bandits – whatever the numbers – by ourselves, but these villagers will not be able to. They don’t even have a fighting force among them.” Caden waved him away, shrugging off his friend’s arm. “All right, let us just ask her first, shall we?” he told him, giving him a warning look. They went back to Sora and Max who were both engaged in a conversation. They waited for them to finish. When both had their attention on Caden, he crossed his arms on his chest. “Sora, I would like you to come with us,” he began but she was already shaking her head and he sighed. “Sora, I know that you said that you would not come, but you have to see that you will be safer with us –” “But what about my people?” she whispered. “What about their safety?” Caden sighed but it was Max who spoke. “Sora, if you leave, they will not come back here when they realize that you are no longer here,” he said gently. Sora’s blind eyes followed the source of his warm voice. “Sora, I know it is a hard choice to leave your people behind – but if it is for their benefit, would you do it?” Sora slowly nodded but then shook her head. “There has to be another way.” “There isn’t, Sora, and you know that,” Caden told her in his blunt way. “You have to be wise about this decision. You know the answer, but we will not force you to make one. We were to leave this morning, with or without you, and now we are behind schedule. Choose, Sora.” “Caden!” Max hissed, but Caden’s gaze was hard and Max fell silent. For the first time in the short time that he knew her, Caden saw that Sora did not know what to do. Despite that she knew the forest well enough to trek across it in confidence, even with her handicap, she was uncertain about making a decision. Give her a break, she’s only a young girl, Caden told himself, remembering Sora’s supposed age. At her age, all I wanted was home as well. It is a hard decision for her. He pushed down his exasperation at her hesitation and knelt down in front of her so that he was face to face with her. “Sora, we are only thinking about the safety of you and your people,” he told her gently, looking up into his face. She stared down at him as if she could see him. He tentatively took a hold of her arms. When she didn’t shake him off, he was encouraged by that lack of gesture. “Please. Come with us.” “No.” “Then I will stay with you,” Max said quietly. Caden looked up at the other man. Max returned the look with a challenging stare. “I will stay and help you rebuild your village. Should you change your mind, I can still take you to Caden. Either way, I am staying.”
Caden made as if to protest but Max shook his head. “They need help. I think our master would understand, if I know him correctly,” Max said quietly. “Besides, you cannot stay. You have other responsibilities.” Reluctantly, Caden nodded, seeing the hidden logic of Max’s words. If Max stayed, there was more of a chance that Sora would be kept out of harm. And should Sora change her mind, Max, like all of his men, knew where to find him. Max had also grown up in a village similar to this one, so he would fit in better than any of his other men, who were the sons of noblemen. “All right. Let us move out, men,” he said quietly. He looked up in time to see the man who had been dismounted rise from the ground. He cursed at forgetting about that last man and pushed Sora behind him. Max saw the movement and turned, his sword whipping out in time to block a blow from the bandit. The big man let out a war cry and swung again, wildly. Max parried the blow easily and got through the man’s roughshod defense. As the big man fell, Max turned back to them, sheathing his sword. “I think you should help clean up a bit before you leave,” Max commented, nodding at the man who lay still on the ground. Caden laughed, a brief ringing sound, and let Sora go. She turned to Caden. “Thank you,” she whispered. Caden nodded and watched her go, skirting around the dead man on the ground. “How do you think she does that?” he mused out loud. Max shrugged. “She cannot see, yet she knows where everything is. It is a might bit….” “Spooky? Aye,” Max said with a sigh. “Come on, let’s find the horses.”
Sora? Where are you?” Max called into the forest. He peered into the bat cave where
Sora was usually found. “Sora?” It had been a week since Caden and the other men had left. They had cleaned out the village of any stray bandits and had helped round up the horses that had been spooked by the raid and the fires. Max had worked with the villagers in rebuilding the buildings that had fallen and had taken his turn hunting in the forest for the village where Sora spent her time. Although he was left with the responsibility of Sora’s safety, he could never find her when he needed to. “Caden’s laughing at me,” he grumbled under his breath. “He knew that she knows this forest better than I. I should have made him take this job. How in the world did he keep up with her….” He cursed as his foot was caught in an unseen hole and was sprained. With a sigh, he sat down near the path on a rock and pulled his boot off to examine his ankle. At the same moment, Sora appeared, almost seemingly from nowhere. He jumped in surprise at her sudden appearance. She pushed back the hood of her green cloak. “Max,” she said with a smile for him. He couldn’t help but return the beautiful smile, despite his frustrations at her. The enchanting beauty of the girl before him always dazzled him. It was often hard to remember that she was only eleven, especially the way she spoke and carried herself. “Did you turn your ankle, Max?” He sighed. “Yes, I did. Chasing you through this forest is killing me, it is,” he told her with a scowl. She laughed and he remembered that she couldn’t see his face
expressions. Her laugh was like water tripping itself through a brook – it soothed him and he soon forgot about his pain. “I’m sorry, Max, but you should not follow me everywhere,” she told him, sitting on the ground in front of him. She took his foot in her cool hands. She held his foot for a moment. He shivered at the touch of her fingers on his skin. “It is not that bad. We just need some water. Come, the pond is nearby.” He sighed and put his boot on. She put herself under his arm and helped him a few steps over from the path until they reached the pond. Relieved, he pulled his boot off and put his foot into the cool water. Sora took her cloak off and laid it beside her in the grass. As usual, she didn’t wear her boots, having left them by the bridge. “Sora, it is my job to protect you, you have to understand that,” Max said after a while. He glanced over at the girl sitting beside him. The afternoon sun shone down onto the pond, bringing a warm flush to the girl’s face. Her blue eyes were brilliant under the milky sheen that was her blindness. A soft wind blew across the surface of the pond, pulling at her hair. “I know,” she answered. Her gaze was towards the sky. “Max?” “Yes?” “Do you wish to return home with Caden?” she asked him. He thought for a moment. “Yes, I would.” “So why do you not leave?” He smiled and looked down. “Because I have a responsibility,” he replied. “I have to stay here until the danger for you has passed, or until you decide to join Caden and our master.” “Do you even understand why your master wants me?” Max shrugged. “His business is his, but I know him to be a good man. He would not harm you without reason. He is a fair and just ruler, and we all love him and are willing to serve him,” he told her. He noticed that her head had cocked to the side as it always did whenever she had a question and prepared himself for it. “What is love?” He smiled. “Has no one spoken to you about love?” She shook her head and he suppressed a chuckle of amusement. “Well, love comes from your heart. It is, as some believe, when you have feelings for another person of that of caring, compassion, and much more. It is the most unselfish feeling in the world. It is what keeps families together, people safe, and villages standing,” he explained. He blew out a breath. “It really is quite complicated to explain, Sora. But believe me that you will know it when you feel it.” Sora had lain down on the banks of the pond as he had been speaking, clearly sunbathing. Her arms were flung open as if to catch the sunlight streaming down from the treetops. As he watched, she stretched luxuriously, her nostrils flaring at a scent only she could smell. Her eyes were closed but her eyes flickered to and from underneath them. Max laid down beside her, propping himself up on one elbow, and watched her. Sora rolled over onto her side and curled up against him. The move was so innocent, yet so intimate that Max couldn’t help but brush a strand of black hair away from her face. “Do you love me, Max?” she asked him in a whisper. Her eyes were still closed. All at once, his heart fluttered in his chest. He knew that she was innocent, much younger than he was, and still oblivious of hardships in the world. Yet the question she
asked was, yet, deep. Did he love her? This child of the forest? “Yes,” he whispered into her ear. She giggled as his breath tickled her skin and she smiled a brilliant smile. “I love you too, Max,” she told him and proceeded to fall asleep beside him under the sun. One hand reached out and clutched at his shirtfront. He sighed and put his arm around her and fell asleep as well, lulled by the innocent afternoon sun.
No, I will not do it, Your Majesty,” Caden said stubbornly, crossing his arms in front of
him. His men were uneasy at his defiance behind him, but they were loyal to him and said nothing. The man he addressed sat before him on a low chair, very much unlike what one would expect of a king. He wore no insignia or jewelry to show who he was, but he had no need to. An air of power and grace resonated from his very person and any who saw him would instantly know he was the king. The throne that sat on a raised dais behind him was abandoned, not very often used at all. The hall was lit with hundreds of candles and chandeliers that hung from the ceiling, seeing as the sun had gone already. It was empty save for the king and the men before him and a mousy clerk that sat next to the king at the table, who every now and then, cleared his throat and wrote down notes. Caden couldn’t figure out what notes would be written down by the man since they were meeting informally. “No?” the man raised an eyebrow. He had one leg thrown over the arm of the chair and he leaned against the other. It was a very un-kingly posture, but the king delighted in just being a normal man so he did not care what others thought of him. Kind green eyes measured the man before him. Even though his head rested on his fist in a rather relaxed pose, his body was poised and tense, ready to jump up at the first warning of danger. A spray of raggedly cut golden hair decorated the top of his head, giving him a rakish look. “No, Your Majesty,” Caden said firmly. His grey eyes darkened. The king sat up with a sigh. “You know, Caden, we are running out of time,” he said in a whoosh. He swept all the papers on the table before him into one pile, to the exasperation of the clerk, who sat beside him a few feet away. The man had spent hours before this meeting to file them into neat and organized piles. “Oh, sorry there, Watson.” “That is quite all right, Your Majesty,” Watson said through gritted teeth, stifling a groan. He snatched the papers from the king as if fearing the other man would do more harm to them. Quick as a mouse, he vanished out of the hall. The door closed softly behind him in a click. Caden stifled a laugh. “Why do you always do that to him?” Caden asked curiously. The king flashed him a grin. “Because it amuses me.” “No, really, Lionel.” He was silent for a moment. “Oh, all right. You got me. It is because he would never leave if I did not do something like that,” he replied, leaning back. He propped his boots up onto the table and crossed his hands on his stomach. “You are the king, Lionel. You can just ask him to leave,” Caden pointed out.
King Lionel shrugged. “I know, but the man just never does. And I don’t want to fire him for disobedience. He is the best clerk I have had. Anyway – I haven’t forgotten. Why do you not want to bring back the girl?” Caden put his head back and counted to three, putting his frustration away. He looked at his old friend again. “Because you instructed me to bring her back on her own free will, not to force her,” he told him with gritted teeth that he hoped looked like a smile. “And the girl does not want to leave her people. She wants to make sure they will be fine for the winter, after that attack that I told you about.” The king sighed. He put his boots back on the ground and leaned forward on the table. “You know we are running out of time and I really need that girl to come here. I have task for her. Our land has a task for her. Do you understand?” Lionel said. Caden resisted the urge to draw back from the hardness of the man’s gaze. He knew now that it wasn’t his childhood friend talking now, but the king that was inside him. “All right, here are new orders. You saw and assessed the damage at the village. You have my permission to go to the taskmaster and gather enough supplies to help the village build a defensible wall and to help the village survive for the winter. After that, you are to bring the girl back. It seems to me that this is the only thing that she really wants – to see that her people are safe. You will also bring two squads of the King’s Guard to help prepare able defenses for the village until they can train their own men-at-arms to fend for themselves. Do you agree to those terms?” Caden sighed. The king was right – those were the only things that the village needed desperately but lacked. And if the village was safe, Sora could leave with a light heart, knowing that her people would be safe and waiting for her when she returned. “Yes, Your Majesty.” “Good. Now what are you waiting for? Get going, man!” the king cried, jumping to his feet. Then an idea dawned on him. “On second thought, I will come with you this time. To make sure things go according to plan.” “If you say so, sir,” Caden said, rolling his eyes. Lionel laughed and pulled his friend into a headlock.
Ashley Davenport examined the butterfly that landed on his finger with idle interest. He had stopped for an afternoon meal at the side of the road, on his way home to visit his parents in their small farm manor in the countryside. The king had granted him this visit after years of faithful service, and he could not help but to just enjoy the day. His life had been a tangle of hurried gallops throughout the country, delivering messages for the king as his messenger. Honestly, he was glad to be going home for a while. Breezes tugged playfully at loose locks of black hair that fell across his handsome young face. His long hair was tied back with a rawhide strip. His clothes were dusty and travel worn, but they were of good quality. The empty hamper beside him on the grass lay open on its side, its contents long gone. His horse whickered nearby, grazing on sweet summer grasses. With a flick of a finger, he sent the butterfly spiraling up into the air and within a few moments, it was gone. He decided that it was time to get back onto the road again. As he got up, the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. Alarmed, he looked up as a group of five mounted horsemen came into view. They were all dressed in black. “I don’t seem to recall the king sending out more men,” he muttered to himself as he called his horse and leaped into the saddle. He turned the horse’s head around and with a kick, sent him galloping down the road. When the men didn’t stop, he knew that they were after him. He leaned low over his horse’s neck and urged the animal on. The horse’s sides heaved for air as she carried herself and her master down the road, as fast as she could. But, quick and spry as she was, she was tired after riding a full day without rest, and she began to slow. Ashley could hear the men closing in behind him. “Go, Sasha,” he whispered to his mare. The horse’s ear flicked back to hear her master’s voice, but despite his urging, she could run no longer. Her feet caught on something in the road and tripped. Ashley flew from her back and into the road, his head striking something hard. The horse got to her feet, trembling as the men finally caught up. Ashley was dazed, and he vaguely felt someone roughly lifting him to his feet. Someone gave him a rigorous shake and he came to his senses briefly. A serious face was in front of his and he drew back slightly. “What were the contents of the last message the king sent?” the man demanded. Ashley returned his hard look with a dazed expression. “Huh? Wha’ message?” He received another shake for his answer. “You are the king’s personal messenger, are you not?” the man asked. Ashley noticed in a daze that the man’s eyes were black as coal and he was dressed like one of the king’s soldiers. The only difference was the poorer quality of the clothing. Ashley grinned stupidly at him. “You are….who are you?” The man sighed. “It doesn’t matter who I am. Just answer the question.” “Oh, yes it does. If you are not who you say you are, then I cannot answer the question. If you are who you say you are, then I may be able to help you, but it all, of course, depends on who you really are, because if you –” “Shut up!” the man roared. He looked at the man holding Ashley. “How hard did he hit his head?” Fingers probed Ashley’s scalp. “Pretty hard, sir. There’s a bump here.”
The man interrogating him sighed. “Bring him with us. We can question him on the way when he has his head on straight,” he commanded and mounted the black horse that stood patiently behind him. “What shall we do about the mare, sir?” “Kill her. Make it look like bandits did it.” “No!” a scream escaped from Ashley’s lips. As he watched in horror, a man walked up to his mare, who was trembling from exhaustion, and slit her throat. She fell to the ground, his belongings spraying all over the road. The mare’s legs kicked as she lay on her side, her blood pouring all over the road. Ashley struggled against the men but it was no use – they were grown men with hard muscles from hard training, and he was just a young man, and a messenger at that. As the men tied Ashley and put him on one of the saddles, the others opened bags on the dying mare’s saddles and scattered their contents all over the road. By the time the mare gave her final kick in a final defiance to death, the men had already mounted up onto their horses and ridden away.
With delight apparent in every fiber of his being, a massive black stallion greeted Sora
in the village square. The beast was giant, bigger than most horses in the village. However, he was untamed and would only listen to the young girl, to the chagrin of many young men who had attempted to tame it for themselves. He was magnificent and beautiful, and was Sora’s most loyal friend. Max stood close by as Sora returned the giant stallion’s enthusiastic greeting. He knew the horse wouldn’t harm Sora, but the creature was huge, and it never hurt to be careful. Gracefully, Sora climbed onto the stallion’s back with the help of the rim of the fountain in the square. She laughed as the stallion cantered playfully around the square with her on his back. “Good evening, my friend,” she whispered to the horse, scratching his neck. The horse slowed to a stop in front of Max and Sora slid off his back. Max stepped forward and caught her and then put her on her feet on the ground. “Be careful,” he told her, a curious look on his face. She looked up at him and smiled. “Don’t worry so much, Max,” she told him. As he watched, her face changed from delight to alarm. “Someone’s approaching the village. I can hear them because there are a great many of them.” Max was immediately businesslike as he swept Sora up into his arms, running for the tavern. Morn the barkeep looked up as he entered and ran up the stairs with Sora in his arms. “It better not be what I think you’re doing,” he called up to Max. Max’s golden head appeared again. “No it’s not, Morn, you scoundrel,” he said, scowling at the other man. “She said that she heard a party of horsemen approaching the village. We better get the villagers into their homes, and the men armed.” Morn nodded, wiping his hands on his apron. “I will stay here and watch over the girl then,” he told Max. “You go ahead and get ready.” Max nodded and with a clap on the shoulder for the other man, he dashed out the door, calling for his horse as he pulled on the mail coat and armor he had gotten from his room. He belted on his sword as the stable boy brought his horse to him. The villager on
lookout had seen the party and the horn was sounding already. Max mounted the horse and without hesitation, he dashed out of the village at a gallop, determined to stall and meeting the newcomers first if they were intruders. But as he drew closer to the large group that kicked up road dust in a plume behind them, he recognized King Lionel’s emblem – a fierce golden lion on a red and white field – and relaxed. Smiling, he put up his helm and sheathed his sword, and rode out to meet the king’s party. As he drew near, the party stopped. Max spotted the king riding in the front with Caden beside him and bowed low to the king. “Your Majesty, I welcome you,” he called out with a salute. The king grinned. “Ah, Max, it has been long since I last saw you,” the king called out as Max approached the king on his horse. “I was afraid that Caden had left you to your doom and you had become a true peasant, living in a place such as this, so far from your duties, that is.” Max laughed. “Never, Your Majesty. I would never forget my duties to you and to the kingdom,” he returned. He glanced at Caden. “If I may ask, Your Majesty, what brings you here so far to the edges of your kingdom?” “His Majesty would like to personally come and oversee the defenses of such a peaceful and loyal village,” Caden replied. The king called for the party to move on and Max fell in step beside Caden. “He heard of their plight from my reports and would like to oversee the building of defenses. He has also brought two squads of guards to defend the village until men can be trained from their own ranks.” Caden lowered his voice. “Mostly, he wants the girl.” Max nodded. “Sora is fine, by the way,” he told him. “I suppose she’s glad that her people are safe, thanks to our men in the last attack. But I do not think she will leave this time, even if it is the king personally coming to ask her. She loves her people too much.” And her forest home, he thought. Caden looked at him curiously. “You’ve changed, Max.” His friend turned to look at him. “How so?” “I don’t know…you are just….different.” “Maximum,” the king called. Max saluted Caden and went to the king. “Yes, Your Majesty?” “Would you kindly ride ahead and tell the village that we bring now harm, but help? I do believe they are armed to the teeth in there,” the king said, amusement decorating his voice. Max looked up, alarmed, as he realized that the villagers were armed with whatever weapons they had and were facing the large group with apprehension. “Yes, Sire,” he replied and spurred his horse towards the village as the king’s group came to a groaning halt. “They are friends!” he called out to them. “It’s the King of Nemera. He brings friends for the village’s aid.” As the villagers heard this, they stood down and dropped their weapons. He pulled up short next to the village’s headman, a man named Brael. “You should go greet them, sir,” Max suggested. He dismounted. “Take my horse. And do not worry, they are friends. It is our sovereign who waits for you.” The man nodded and mounted up without difficulty. Max got a few men to spread the word as the headman rode out in a slow walk to meet the king. He made his way
towards the tavern and calling to Morn the news, he went up to his rooms to get Sora. As he opened the door, a whisper of wind brushed his face and he knew that Sora was no longer there. He gazed out the open window through which moonlight shone and sighed, looking out towards the hills. He made his way downstairs to greet the king.
Sora was, as Max guessed, in the forests again, her green cloak about her as she walked
down the path. The great black stallion walked beside her, stopping now and again to eat a twig or a sprig of a plant along the path.