Seven

She awoke to the smell of a freshly-cooked meal, yawning sleepily as she stiffly sat up and stretched cramped muscles. She wasn't used to sleeping on a rock bed all night. Asher sat hunched over a small fire, turning a makeshift spit, and she watched curiously. "Where'd you get the wood to make a fire?" she asked through a huge yawn.

"I've been up for awhile, making myself useful," he replied lightly. "Hungry?"

She grunted and brushed her sleep-tangled curls out of her eyes, gazing longingly at the water flowing through the rock. "I don't suppose there's any way I could take a bath in that stuff?" she asked without much hope. "I feel dirty."

"You look dirty," he agreed, earning an insulted glare in return. "But then, so do I," he added with a slight grin. "And a bath does sound welcome. The water isn't so hot that it'll boil us if we get in."

"Great! So, you leave the cave while I get a bath," she stated, taking one of the roasted squirrels from the fire and nibbling delicately.

He raised an eyebrow at her. "So who says you get to go first?" he challenged.

"Oh, Shadow!" Fairlight called sweetly, and the huge wolf raised his head, ears pricked forward.

Asher glared at her. "That's blackmail," he grumbled.

"That can't be blackmail; I don't even know what blackmail is," she pointed out, laughing a little as his expression. "Oh, don't be such a baby. I'll be quick about it."

Asher rolled his eyes skyward and grabbed his sword and cloak, stalking out of the cave and muttering to himself all the way.

Half an hour later, a much cleaner Fairlight was carefully working the tangles out of her thick hair when Asher came strolling back into the cavern. He looked around cautiously, relaxing when he saw the girl sitting before the fire, fully dressed in a clean tunic and trousers. "Head out," he commanded, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. She shot him an indifferent glance and continued to comb through her hair. He raised a pointed eyebrow at her, then shrugged. "Suit yourself," he stated carelessly, and promptly pulled his shirt over his head.

She didn't even still in her task. He reached for the tie holding his trousers closed, watching her face pointedly. When she still didn't move, he sighed. "It wouldn't be very lady-like to watch me bathe," he pointed out dryly.

"Who said I was gonna watch anything?" she sniffed, shooting him a somewhat disgusted look. "I'm busy. Can't you just wait a few minutes until I get my hair finished? If I let it dry like this, I'll never get the tangles out of it!"

"Be quick about it," he stated impatiently. He sat on the rock beside the spring and watched as she carefully picked the wooden comb through another snarl. "What is the point of hair like that, anyway?" he asked, watching the black tresses gleam in the firelight. "Isn't it a lot of trouble to take care of?" He ran his fingers through his own silken, straight-as-a-board locks.

"It isn't like I had a choice, you know," she snorted. "I'm pretty much stuck with whatever I was born with. Besides, whoever heard of white hair? Only old people have white hair!" Although, in her memory, her mother's hair had been nearly white, as well, and she hadn't seemed very old. Her comb caught on another snarl, and she nearly growled with frustration. Although she'd never admit it, she envied Asher and his long, smooth hair. It was beautiful and silken and it glowed like pure silver in the moonlight. Apparently pale-colored hair was inherent in the Sidhe race; she couldn't recall seeing any one of those elves with hair of any color but varying shades of blonde. She wasn't looking forward to getting to this Fairhaven place. If all the elves had hair that color, she'd be clearly noticeable with this ebony mop of hers, and noticeable was the last thing she wanted to be.

She sighed and viciously yanked at the stubborn tangle until it came loose, then reached back to run the comb through again. It was abruptly snatched from her fingers, and she yelped in surprise; she hadn't even heard Asher creeping up behind her. "What are you doing?" she growled, trying to fix him with a glare. He merely placed both hands against her head and made her face forward again, her back to him.

"If I leave it to you to get that mess combed out, we'll be stuck here all day and we don't have time for that," he replied conversationally. "Now hold still." And before she could protest, he'd buried his hands in her curls and was carefully and gently untangling them. Fairlight wanted to protest, but the feel of his hands working through her hair stilled her voice in her throat. It felt so good, and the sensation of his fingers brushing her scalp suddenly brought back another long-suppressed memory, of when she was a mere child, sitting on her mother's knee, while the woman lovingly brushed her hair into smooth, shining ringlets, humming softly to herself as she did so.

Fairlight yelped as an abrupt pain in her head snapped her back to reality. "Watch it!" she snapped.

"Sorry," came the muttered reply. "Don't move your head."

"I wasn't…" she began, then stopped and huffed a sigh. No use arguing with him about it. "Are you finished yet?" she asked snappishly.

"Almost," he murmured, smoothing yet another snarl from her hair. He laid it gently against her back, handed her the comb, and gathered the thick mass into his hands.

"Now what are you doing?" she huffed.

"I'm braiding it so it doesn't get tangled so much again," he replied dryly. "Hold still." He deftly wove the ebony curls into a thick, heavy plait, tying the end with a leather chord and letting it drop against her back. It hung nearly to her waist. "There," he stated smugly. "Now you won't have so much trouble with it." He shot her an odd look. "Why don't you ever braid it, yourself?" he questioned curiously. She looked away, a faint flush gracing her features, and suddenly he understood. "You were never taught to take care of it like that, were you?" he asked quietly. He reached out to touch the soft braid.

"My mother liked it to hang loose," she replied stiffly, abruptly getting to her feet and pulling her hair from his grasp in the process. "She decided to leave before she ever thought to teach me something like that." With those words, she called Shadow to her side and started back up the tunnel, leaving Asher to stare thoughtfully after her.

When they finally left the cavern, it was a silent walk. Both elf and human were deep in thought, and Shadow was off somewhere or other. He always reappeared every few minutes, however, as though to reassure Fairlight that he was still there.

They had gotten off-course while searching for the big wolf, and Fairlight realized that she had no idea of which part of the woods they were in. It was disconcerting to realize that the land had shifted and changed almost overnight, until it was something entirely new, entirely foreign to her. It was like they weren't even in the same forest anymore. She tried to keep her unease from Asher, but the elf was more astute than that, being much more perceptible to things that most humans couldn't sense.

"All we need to do is to find the river again and follow it upstream," he told her reasonably. "It flows from the mouth of the Obsidian Falls. When we reach the Falls, we'll reach the border of Fairhaven, as well."

"But the Obsidian Falls are dangerous," Fairlight replied uneasily. "Why would the border of Fairhaven start there? Even the poachers avoid them. Only the silver wolves live around there, as far as I know."

"That's precisely why we chose that spot," Asher told her. "Not many people go near that area, so there isn't much of a chance that unwanted guests will inadvertently stumble into Fairhaven." It made sense, she supposed, but she still wasn't very fond of the idea of traveling near the Falls. She'd seen them a few times from various distances during her yearly foraging trips, and even from far away they had looked dangerous. She wasn't looking forward to finding out just how dangerous they were.

They followed the river for another day, keeping a close eye on the water in case they met up with any other creatures like the river beast they'd fought on the bridge. Eventually, Fairlight began to hear what sounded like a faint roar in the distance, which grew steadily louder as the minutes passed by. It was the roar of water, she knew, falling from a great height and crashing to the currents below. It seemed odd that they should reach their destination so quickly when they'd gotten so off-course, but she could only assume it had come from the land shifting around them so drastically. Perhaps it had somehow shortened their journey. She could only wonder what her home would look like by the time she returned to it after her quest was finished. Would she even recognize it anymore?

They camped for another night in a small vale, and slept peacefully with Shadow guarding nearby. Fairlight was relieved that the wolf didn't go off to hunt; after the last adventure, she wasn't sure she could take her longtime friend vanishing on her yet again. They were up with the sun, and after a quick meal they started on their way again. Fairlight, who was getting sick of all the silence, hesitantly ventured a question about what it was like in Fairhaven. Asher, although a bit surprised at her sudden interest, eagerly began to regale her with tales about the lifestyle of the Sidhe, how peaceful and happy everyone was, how beautiful the land was. He was a skilled storyteller, she discovered, and by the time he'd finished telling her all about Fairhaven, Fairlight thought she might actually be looking forward to seeing it all for herself.

In the meantime, the distant, steady roar was growing ever louder, and gradually it grew so thunderous that the companions had to nearly shout to make themselves heard. Fairlight was just beginning to wonder how loud the sound would get before they actually reached the Falls, and whether or not her eardrums would burst ahead of time, when the forest ended abruptly. The ancient trees, growing so closely together, suddenly gave way to younger saplings which were spaced widely apart, and through them Fairlight at once beheld a truly awesome spectacle. It was the Obsidian Falls that loomed before them, so close that she could feel the mist from the water spray as it plummeted over the side of the cliff. It was a spectacular sight, and she stood in stunned wonder for a long, silent moment, simply staring.

She realized, then, that despite its name, the water spewing over the side of the cliff was not black at all. It was as clear as glass, and it sparkled like precious gemstones where the brilliant sunlight struck and fractured, casting a million scattered rainbows into the white mist. It was the cliff itself—in actuality a part of the Dragon's Tooth—which gave the Falls their name. Its rocky face, stretching high, high into the heavens and vanishing into a frothy cloud of mist, was as black as polished coal, glittering almost as brightly as the water. Fairlight's gaze fell from the dizzying heights to rest upon the deep lake stretching before her, into which the Falls poured and from which the great river ran throughout the valley. The lake churned with the pressure of the water pouring into its basin, and where the waves and mist parted, Fairlight could see sharp, jagged, ebony rocks rising from the waters, gleaming wetly in the sunlight.

On the other side of the lake, where Fairlight and Asher stood, the waters were calmer, lapping gently to the shore with a musical sound. But they could see that even there, hidden within those deceptively peaceful, clear-as-glass depths, even more of those deadly, natural blades waited to impale unsuspecting creatures on their ebony points. No doubt lying scattered among them were the bones of previous victims, and Fairlight shuddered. Perhaps this, she thought uneasily, was what truly gave the Dragon's Tooth its name, for the entire lake did remind one of the deadly, gaping maw of some great leviathan, waiting to snap shut at any given moment.

"Well," she began slowly, after several long, silent moments. "We're here. So now where are we supposed to go?"

Asher fixed her with a steady gaze, before turning to gesture to a point about halfway up the cliff, where one of the smaller waterfalls tumbled and spewed out of a crack in the shining cliff face. "There," he stated simply. "The border of Fairhaven lies there." And before Fairlight could get over her shock enough to protest, the elf had left the cover of the trees and was striding purposefully toward the obsidian cliffs.

Getting to the base of the cliff was no easy task. It was further away than it appeared—that lake really was vast—and the ground surrounding both lake and cliff was soft and swampy and treacherous to cross. It was infested with stinging plants and snakes of every variety, and insects buzzed irritatingly around their heads. Oftentimes the ground was so soft that they were forced to turn back and choose a firmer path, lest they be sucked into the mud. By the time they reached the cliffs, they were all-over mud and nearly exhausted, and Fairlight found herself once again questioning her sanity for agreeing to come along on this journey.

And they hadn't even gotten to the hard part yet.

"You want us to climb that?" the girl yelped, staring wide-eyed at the narrow, treacherous path which rose along the side of the Dragon's Tooth toward their ultimate destination. On one side was the smooth, black rock of the cliff, rising like a gigantic chunk of polished coal, but on the other there was nothing except open air and mist and the violent, raging froth of water and deadly rocks below. "Are you out of your mind?!" she shouted. "There's no chance for anyone to climb that and live!"

"I can," Asher replied calmly. "And so can you, if you set your mind to it. Don't worry; I'll be here to help you."

"Oh, well, that makes everything better then, doesn't it?" she retorted, tossing her braid back over one shoulder. "Oh! But have you forgotten about the fact that I hate heights?"

"Fairlight, you have to trust me," Asher told her patiently. "Just take my hand, and I'll lead you through this. I won't let you fall."

"Right. Because I'm the only hope for your world and you'd be doomed without me," Fairlight muttered. "I feel so special." But she took his hand and allowed him to lead her onto the treacherous path. Shadow appeared again, looking about as muddy as Fairlight felt after bounding through the swamp. He took up a position just behind his friend, close enough so that she could get a good grip on the thick ruff of fur around his neck, and between them, she began to make her way carefully up the side of the cliff.

It wasn't easy; the path was slick to begin with, the black rock smooth and polished and slippery. Add to that the moisture of the Falls, and the patches of pale green mold that grew in abundance over the narrow trail, and it ended up being potentially deadly. Fairlight slipped a few times, but always Asher was there to keep her from tumbling over the side, and Shadow's footing never wavered, even though her death-grip on his fur had to be nearly painful by then. She envied the sure-footed, graceful, nearly-silent movements of the elf as much as she was comforted by his presence (although she'd toss herself over the side before she'd ever admit to that last part), and the steady click-click of Shadow's claws on the rock behind her calmed her even more.

Finally, after hours it seemed, the steep trail leveled out and widened into a kind of ledge over which poured a steady stream of crystalline water. The crack in the rock through which it flowed was actually a small tunnel, reaching just high enough for a person of Fairlight's stature to stand in without brushing her head on its ceiling, although Asher had to stoop due to his height. He stepped into the tunnel, ignoring the water that rushed over his boots, and gestured for Fairlight to follow him. She did so, feeling the icy water immediately soak through her already-wet boots, and began to pick her way carefully through the tunnel. Shadow padded beside her, pausing every now and then to take a drink. Fairlight—who was by then intensely thirsty—decided to follow the wolf's example and stooped to scoop a handful of water. It was delicious, pure and sweet and cold. It gave her a heady rush to taste it and her body tingled strangely for a moment.

"That isn't a good idea," Asher warned her when he realized what she was doing. "This water flows from Fairhaven, and it's probably filled with magic."

Her eyes went wide and she quickly shook off her hand. "Corrupted magic?" she croaked.

He blinked. "No…just the regular kind."

"You don't think the corrupted magic could use this waterfall as a way to get out of Fairhaven, though?" she questioned suspiciously.

He shrugged. "I have no idea how the corruption is escaping Fairhaven, but I don't sense anything tainted or dark about this water. I'm just saying that drinking too much of it might have unusual results for a human, that's all."

"Thanks for the warning," she muttered, wiping her hands dry on the seat of her pants. "Any other surprises you care to tell me about?"

He grinned suddenly. "Not at the moment, no," he replied. "Come on. Only a few more steps to go." He grabbed her hand and pulled her forward, and suddenly the air in front of her seemed to blur and shift for a moment. It happened so quickly that she had to wonder if her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. But the tingle that ran through her body—like when she'd tasted the water, only much stronger—wasn't false, and the mouth of the tunnel that she was suddenly facing certainly hadn't been there a moment ago.

"Wh-what happened?" she stammered, looking around in confusion. She looked behind her to see where Shadow was, but he had vanished. "Shadow?!" she called out, panicking a little.

After a moment, the air seemed to ripple again, and the huge, silver wolf abruptly stepped out of nowhere, appearing as suddenly as though he'd passed through some invisible doorway. Fairlight was so startled by this that she yelped and jumped back, forgetting about the treacherous footing and managing to slip and fall on her backside into the stream. "What is that?!" she demanded angrily, shaking off Asher's helping hand.

"It's the border that splits my world from yours," he replied calmly, although his eyes were dancing with suppressed laughter. "Nobody can see it, of course, and should a human actually manage to make it as far as that, they'd never even realize it was there. In fact, they'd pass right over it and they'd see nothing but a cracked wall through which the water runs."

"Then how come I was able to get through?"

"Because you're with me, of course," came the haughty reply. "And, of course it's also because you're the chosen one."

Fairlight looked around in astonishment. "This is too strange for my liking," she muttered, hugging herself. "So…this is Fairhaven?"

"Aye. Come, they're probably waiting for us," Asher replied, leading her out of the tunnel and onto a wide, flat meadow through which the shallow stream ran. Pale mist swirled low over the water and spread itself over the tall, waving grasses of the field. An ancient forest stood in silent vigil to their left, and it was into this that they headed. Its trees were massive, so wide around that it would have taken ten people to encircle it while clasping hands, and so tall that their topmost boughs vanished into the clouds. The mist swirled thick between the ancient trunks, covering the forest in an eerie, mysterious haze. Everything seemed to shimmer faintly; whether it was from the moisture or from something else, Fairlight couldn't tell. All she knew was that this was the most beautiful country that she'd ever laid eyes on.

"Where are we now?" she asked, her voice hushed. It seemed wrong somehow to speak with a normal tone in this stately woodland, as though she would be disturbing something sacred.

"This forest is so old that its name is forgotten," Asher replied, his tone also hushed. "The trees have been growing here since the dawning of this world. Many a creature seeks haven within them, and even natural enemies lay aside their differences within the boundaries of the forest." Fairlight nodded, her hand reaching unconsciously to grip Shadow's fur. The big wolf padded silently beside her, ears pricked and nose twitching, and when a rabbit suddenly darted across their path, he didn't give chase to it as he normally would have. Even he seemed to know the rules of the ancient forest.

They came upon a wide, dirt path that looked to be well-used, and it was onto this that Asher turned. "This is the main road leading into the city of Jerann," he explained. "We'll reach it more quickly this way."

"But…won't we meet people on the main road?" Fairlight questioned uneasily.

"Of course," Asher replied unconcernedly.

Fairlight nervously chewed at the inside of her lower lip, reluctantly stepping from the shelter of the trees and onto the road. It was abandoned for now; not a cart or person in sight, and she supposed she could be grateful for that much, at least. But how long would it be before she met other Sidhe? What would their reactions be when they realized that a human was wandering freely about in their world? She could only hope that Asher was prepared to explain the reason for her unwelcome presence, because she doubted that anyone would believe her explanation that she was the destined savior of their world. She herself barely believed it. With a grim smile, she scratched Shadow behind the ears and leaned in close. "Shadow," she began confidentially, her voice laced with dark humor, "if I ever again agree to something as crazy as this is, be sure to maim me severely, okay?"

Shadow sniffed at her hair and whuffed in agreement.

The road was surprisingly empty. A stray cart passed them on its way through the forest to another town (assuming there were other towns in Fairhaven, of course), and Fairlight could feel the gaze of the driver fixed intently on her. The driver himself looked the same as every other Sidhe that Fairlight had met so far. Tall, pale hair, sharply pointed features…beautiful and mysterious, just like Asher and Forrest and the brothers. But the eyes staring into her back as she hurried past the slow-moving cart were not friendly, and she wished heartily to hide until the elf was gone again.

"I don't like it here," she muttered to Asher when the cart had rumbled down the road. "I don't like the way that man…elf…was staring at me."

"What do you expect? He's probably never seen a human before," Asher replied casually.

"Well, I never saw an elf before until I met you, and I wasn't rude enough to keep staring like that!" she bit out.

A sly grin touched his face. "No, you didn't stare. As I recall, you chose to attack me, instead," he reminded her, amused to see the fierce blush that spread across her face.

"W-well…you deserved that!" she exclaimed haughtily. "Treating me the way you did…somebody had to knock you down a peg or two, and nobody else seemed inclined to do it!" She crossed her arms stubbornly and stuck her nose in the air.

Asher didn't seem at all put out. He simply smiled and replied, "We're almost to the city. The end of the forest is just ahead. You can get a pretty good look at Jerann from there." And he was right. As they came to the edge of the ancient, nameless forest, the land abruptly dropped into a large, bright, hillside meadow that sloped gently downward into a small valley, and it was within this valley that Fairlight saw her very first city.

She hadn't known what to expect, really, despite what she'd often imagined a city to be like, based on the bits of information she'd managed to pick up here and there. But she had to admit that Jerann was far more extraordinary than anything she could have invented in her mind. It started out with sparsely-spaced huts which looked much like her own little cabin (only in considerably better repair outwardly). These houses were surrounded by neatly-trimmed gardens and stately trees and walls which marked the boundaries of each plot of land. The gardens were lovely, filled with all manner of flowers and vegetables, a variety of which she'd never seen before that were no doubt native to Fairhaven. A low wall of pure white stone surrounded the outer boundaries of the entire city, and the dirt road led right up to a set of gates, which hung wide open in invitation to enter.

Just on the other side of those gates, the road continued on, only now it was paved with smooth, flat stones of a variety of rich, earthy colors, with small paths leading off the main road to each of the little houses. Those houses, Fairlight noticed, seemed to become larger in size the further in to the city one went, growing ever more impressive, the yards becoming larger until one could house a small fruit orchard within their boundaries.

But the most impressive sight of all was the gloriously huge, shining building that seemed to be situated in the very center of the city, surrounded on all sides by high walls. From its towers and turrets flowed brilliantly colored streamers, and its golden peaks glowed in the sun. Fairlight's breath stilled in her throat when her eyes fell upon it, having never before imagined that such a glorious thing could exist. "Wh-what is it?" she breathed, her eyes fixated on the glittering beacon.

Asher noticed her awe-struck expression and smiled fondly. "That, my dear, is the castle," he told her with quiet pride. "It's the home of Fairhaven's ruling family."

"It's so…" Intimidating, was what she wanted to say, but she remembered at the last moment who it was she was speaking to, and, not wanting to incite more mockery, she instead added, "It's so beautiful."

"It is indeed that," Asher replied, "and it's to that castle where we're headed, so we best be on our way. It's much further away than it looks, you know."

There? We're headed there? To the castle? Fairlight thought nervously. She was going to meet whatever king and queen ruled this land? How would they react? She didn't know much about kings and queens in general, but she knew that if they decided to have her imprisoned or killed, there weren't a lot of people who could contradict them. I don't like this, she thought nervously. Why can't we just start looking for the corruption and get it over with already, so I can go home? Nobody would even have to know I was here to begin with!

Asher was walking again, and she reluctantly fell into step behind him, Shadow padding silently at her heels. She imagined that they made a rather strange trio; the tall, graceful Sidhe—who looked exceedingly glad to be home again—the short, scruffy-looking human girl following on his heels, and a wolf that was almost as tall as the girl padding along directly behind the both of them. It wasn't any wonder that anyone they passed (and there were a great many anyones in this city, it seemed) instantly stopped whatever they were doing to stare in bemused wonder at them.

Fairlight squirmed beneath their gazes and wished heartily that the ground would open up and swallow her. She stayed as close to Asher as she dared. Even if he was a beast at times, at least he was familiar. He seemed to be oblivious to the way people were staring and whispering, even going so far as to call out a greeting once or twice to a certain person. Or maybe he does know how uncomfortable I feel, and just doesn't care, Fairlight thought mutinously. The castle, in the meantime, was growing steadily larger and closer. In fact, she could now see a set of huge, door-like gates just ahead of them, with two Sidhe—who wore strange, metal clothing over their arms, chests, and legs—standing on either side of them. She stared wide-eyed at the elves, having never before seen clothing like that in her life. "How can they move in all that?" she whispered to Asher, somewhat bemused. "Isn't it awfully heavy?"

Asher smiled at her. "It's called armor," he replied, "and it really isn't as heavy as it might look. I've worn it a time or two, myself."

"It looks uncomfortable, and hot. It seems cruel to force people to wear something like that," she proclaimed. "Don't they have cloth or leather to wear?"

Asher was hard-pressed to keep from laughing openly at her indignant response. "It's for their own protection," he explained. "If somebody should attack the castle, swords or spears couldn't hurt them so easily through the metal. They have metal helmets to wear on their heads, as well."

Fairlight turned suspicious eyes to meet his gaze. "I thought you told me Fairhaven was peaceful," she stated pointedly.

Asher blinked. "Well…erm…yes, that's true. Fairhaven is a peaceful world," he stammered. "Probably an attack on the castle would never—"

"Then why force those men to wear that…armor…if they don't need to?" she interrupted triumphantly, crossing her arms as though daring him to contradict her. Behind her, the one guard was grinning from ear to ear, and the other one standing behind Asher was having difficulty stifling his chuckles.

Asher raised a hand to rub at his temples and sighed in exasperation. "Let's just…go inside," he muttered. "The queen is expecting us." He took her by the sleeve and forcefully pulled her through the open gates, shooting a warning glance at the still-chuckling guards. Sometimes the girl asked too many questions for her own good.