The sun rose cheerfully that morning and dispersed all of the clouds in its wake, leaving pale blue splotches in the awning of leaves above. It was late afternoon when a distinct crunching of ferns and other undergrowth echoed through the brush. The source of it? Not the very girl who still lay asleep some hundred yards away, and most certainly no stranger to this dense wood.
Her name was Aera. She stood tall and lean, much taller than any human could ever be. Her skin was pale and unmarred, her face was neither too bony nor too ovular, and her eyes were perfect large almonds with irises of a bright emerald and peridot color. Her ears were long and pointed, and her hair was slung back in a braid of silvery-gold that reached almost to the hem of her tunic – whatever couldn't fit in the style hung over her face and brow.
Indeed she was an elf, and unlike most, she was dressed inelaborate-ly in a simple tunic, overcoat, leggings, and laced up boots. She carried a longbow and quiver full of arrows across her back.
She trudged through the undergrowth and soon reached a clearing, a familiar oak standing within encircled by trees of lesser beauty. Aera narrowed her eyes at the bundle underneath it an approached it cautiously.
Shyla woke, feeling the heaviness of her cloak over her head, still weighed down by rain water from the night before. It was hotter out now than it ever was before, and the cloak only made her more uncomfortable than before. She threw it off, hearing the sickening plop of it as she squinted against the sudden sunlight that flooded her eyes. She paled a bit when she saw the tall figure above her and reached for the sword.
"Don't move." The figure had knocked an arrow before Shyla even had a chance to blink. She held up her hands, palms showing in a gesture of surrender.
"Get up." The figure commanded. Shyla didn't defy, leaving the sword on the ground.
Aera loosed her stance a little as she glanced down at the sword.
"That's a mighty big knife for such a small girl," she commented, chuckling and cocking her brow a bit. Shyla flushed.
"I am not small," she retorted weakly.
"Right, right… I'm sure you're due for a spurt … eventually," Aera brushed her off. "What are you doing here?"
Shyla pursed her lips; was it worth lying to a stranger? Should she tell the truth, hoping for a sympathetic ear?
She didn't answer, just stared at her mud-caked feet.
Aera gave an exasperated sigh, un-knocking her arrow and slinging her bow across her back.
"Look," She reached down picking up the sword and shoving it into Shyla's open hands. "Why don't you turn around and go back to wherever you belong – which most certainly isn't here." She promptly took Shyla by the shoulders and spun her around, then gave her a rough push. Shyla stumbled a little but turned back around persistently.
"I … I can't go back," she responded quietly.
Aera sighed again. "Can you walk?"
"Then you can go back, can't you?"
Shyla thought of another excuse.
"I don't know how to get back."
Aera started to walk away. "If you ran here blindly, then you can turn yourself around and pick your way back. It's not that bloody difficult." Shyla stared back at her an indescribable emotion on her face.
"I don't want to go back." She stated plainly, yet boldly. Aera stopped and turned back to her with bored eyes.
"I do not care. You don't belong here." She turned away and continued walking out of the clearing.
Her words hit her like a blow to the face. Never had someone been so blunt to her in all her life. Her cheeks tingled with blood, her mind swirled with rejection and determination at the same time. She galloped in Aera's footsteps until she caught up with the elf again.
"Please," she begged with haggard breath, trying to match Aera's stride. "I don't want anything here; I just want to pass through."
Aera made a sudden about-face and stared her hard in the eyes, making Shyla flinch and falter as she tried to argue out her case.
"Just… A-all I need is a way out of this forest," she pleaded, trying to meet the elf's harsh emerald stare with her own meek sapphire plead. "You don't have to tell me anything; just point and I'll go." Aera grimaced in annoyance.
"You've never been in a forest, have you?" She asked, leaning her face in her hand, rubbing her brow.
"Then you have no idea how to survive out here, do you? You haven't been trained in basic healing techniques, botany, or anything, have you?"
"No, but I-"
"Then please tell me you at least understand that the second you trip on a rock or bare root and so much as twist your ankle, you're fair game for any famished monstrosity in this forest like an abandoned fawn."
Shyla pursed her lips a little again, and finally said, "I have a sword."
Aera rolled her eyes. "Thank you, I see that. Sadly, you wouldn't know the first thing about how to handle it would you?"
Shyla lowered her head and shook it slowly. Aera held her by the shoulders and turned her around authoritatively like a parent.
"Then I highly suggest you turn around and go back to your home." She gave Shyla another rough push away, but Shyla, undeterred turned around again.
"I don't want to go back!" She argued back childishly. Aera sighed again but Shyla quickly cut her off. "Please, let me explain."
Aera crossed her arms impatiently, Shyla continued, albeit nervous.
"I live in this castle to the south, right? Well I mean I used to-err, anyway. Um I've lived there practically all my life-"
"Then why leave now?" Aera interrupted rudely. Shyla took a deep breath.
"I'm getting to that, if you please… I've lived there almost all my life, but… I didn't belong there. I'm not very sociable, and not very pretty either. You see, I was sort of 'adopted,'" She struggled to say the word, "by the lady of the house, Mirr." Shyla did not see the corners of Aera's eyes twitch.
"She raised me, I guess – but we were never close, I think. But, then I found out that this," she held up the sword, "belonged to me, and that she was going to have me married off to a man named Marrin and-"
"So that's why you're running away, marriage? That is one of the stupidest reasons to run away." Aera judged her, giving a curious glance.
"That's only one of the reasons why I left," Shyla argued, "Mirr lied to me. I'm not anything she raised me to be. I know she cared for me and she fed and clothed me, but why? There are probably a thousand children who might be orphaned like me that she could have cared for, but why me? What does that have to do with this sword?"
"So you think you're an orphan, or do you know?" Aera asked quizzically. Shyla was taken aback by her question, though it took her a bit to think about it, she answered nonetheless.
"I honestly have no idea," she shrugged tiredly, "I don't know, but I want to – I want to find out where I come from, I want to know who my true family is."
"… And if they're dead?"
"I still want to know. If I go back now, I feel I will slip into a life that wasn't meant for me, and then it will be too late."
Aera sighed a little and looked down at her. "Running away to find something you don't even know exists is foolish."
"I know it is," Shyla concurred, voice quiet, "but I don't want to go back. Not now, anyway. It's a foolish thing to do, yes, but I stand by my choice and the mess I've made for myself." She hung her head finally.
Aera looked down at her, empathy washed over her face. "You're very wise for someone your age, you know." Shyla didn't respond.
"This is probably going to get me killed, but," she whispered to herself first, then said aloud, "I think I can help you."
Shyla lifted her gaze.
"You will? Really?" She asked brightly.
"Yes, I will." Aera said, turning away once and weaving a path in the underbrush. "Follow me. … By the way, my name is Aera."
"Mine is Shyla."
They walked for a while, Shyla struggling to match Aera's long stride, red-faced, sweaty, and tired. Aera didn't seem to be bothered by the heat as she, but then again, Shyla had lived in relative comfort up until now.
Shyla was once in awe of the magnificent that surrounded the castle, but after walking through the forest for sometime, they began to blur together in an ominous green ceiling above her head as she traced behind Aera.
At first, she and Aera had made small-talk, but as the minutes wore on, neither of them bothered to keep up with the conversation. Shyla was having a hard enough time as it was with breathing, being so young and out of shape, and Aera was trying to keep her concentration on the road ahead.
Aera came to a slow down but Shyla did not notice and promptly ran into her back, and fell backwards onto the ground.
"Here we are," Aera said pleasantly.
"Where are we now?" Shyla asked grumpily, dusting herself off.
"Where I live, obviously," Aera retorted. Shyla looked up. Only a few feet in front of them stood the most beautiful oak Shyla had ever seen. It must have stood over a hundred feet tall – it probably dwarfed even the highest turrets of the castle, Shyla reckoned from her own highth.
"You live in a tree?" Shyla asked incredulously.
"What? Would you prefer that I lived in a hole in the ground?" Aera sniffed. "Because there's an abandoned fox-hole out back. … At least I think it's abandoned." Shyla looked at her, wide-eyed.
That was a joke, dear," Aera cocked her brow at her, "ha-ha and all that?"
"That was supposed to be funny?" Shyla asked, confused. Aera slapped her forehead gently and walked up to the base of the tree.
"Look," she knocked on the trunk with her knuckles. "Not hollow, see? I don't live in the tree, I live up in it." She pointed upwards, and Shyla stood with her in the shade of the tree and looked up.
Sure enough, above her head were planks of aging brown wood, a square of dead space between the large, woody digits of the tree.
"How in the world do you get up there?" Shyla mused, daunted by the distance between the stray tips of her hair and that square hole above her head.
"Me?" Aera asked. "I normally can jump and pull myself up with my arms alone. There is a ladder, though I don't use it much anymore." She reached with a long arm and gently hit the wood.
Nothing happened, as if the wood were deaf or could not understand her. Aera furrowed her brow, narrowed her eyes and promptly kicked the tree at its base. A think rope ladder tumbled down awkwardly, the rope no longer flexible and smooth, but brittle and frayed like an old woman's hair after years of cross-stitching.
"Sorry," Aera said, pointing to the tree with her thumb. "It does that sometimes."
Shyla felt uneasy on her feet as she watched the sagging rungs sway like a frond in the wind.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Aera asked, her hands on her hips. "Go ahead and go up – it's still stable even if it hasn't been used in a while.
Shyla looked up at her and met her eyes – she was not reassured. Aera gave an exasperated sigh, and stood on one of the rungs, one hand clutching another towards the top.
"See? It's fine," she said, exemplifying. She jumped off the ladder. "If it can support my weight, it can support yours. I'm sure I have a good hundred stones on you anyway."
Shyla didn't move – she was not fond of heights in the least bit. Aera narrowed her eyes again, focusing their intensity on her.
"Do you want my help?" – Shyla nodded – "Then get up there."
"Why don't you go up first?"
"Well, let's see, if I were to do that, and you were to fall and hurt your pretty little self, then what?" Aera said. "Think of me as a net; if you fall, I'll catch you." Shyla sighed nervously, and started up the ladder. An unexpected breeze arrived midway of Shyla's journey up the ladder, causing the ropes to sway and groan pathetically. Shyla clung to the rope as if she were an infant clinging to her mother's bosom. There was little comfort in the crude strings, however, so white-knuckled and sweating at the brow, she clamored up the ropes and heaved herself up into the hole like a salmon out of water.
Her eyes were closed and she was slightly nauseous, but the smell of bark and the warm brush of wood against her cheek chased it away quickly. She rolled herself onto her back and eased herself onto her knees.
"Are you alright?" Aera asked from below.
Shyla glanced down the hole. "Fine, I guess. I'm, a little shaken though."
"Eh, you'll get over it soon enough." Somehow Aera's words brought no comfort to Shyla. "I'll be up in a moment," Aera continued, "there's something I want to take care of first."
Shyla heard a lazy shuffle of foliage below, then quiet. She slid her bag off of her shoulders and let it hit the floor with a soft thud, and then set the sword beside it. She took in her new surroundings.
Aera's home was much larger than Shyla thought possible. Somehow it didn't seem possible that an almost perfectly cylindrical home could have been supported by a tree – no matter the size. Her home was only one room that wrapped around the tree's girth like a snake. She was surprised, though – Aera's room s was in possibly the most awful condition that Shyla had ever seen any room in before. Parchment and books littered the floor; china and wooden bowls lay in piles; assorted knives and wooden shivs lay on small blankets dotted with brown-washed out spots.
Suddenly, Shyla was having second thoughts about asking, begging, for help. She shrugged a little to herself – help was help, no matter who it came from. Even if Aera was crazy, hopefully she would be leaving soon enough, so maybe it wouldn't matter much.
She kneeled down at the trunk of the tree which protruded through the floor and into the roof, and acted as a central, supportive column – something drew her near, and she could not understand what. Her fingertips brushed against the bark, then let her whole palm touch its roughness. Somehow she suddenly felt content; life was good, and hopefully winter would be mild. She took her hand away and the feeling parted as well, leaving Shyla confused. She'd have hoped to muse on that sudden feeling, but the marks on the bark drew her attention away from the fog in her mind.
They were no natural crevasses of split and bent bark, rather they were vertical scrapes, all of them, every five, crossed out with a single slash. Some were tapered and jagged, others were smooth and thick cuts that did not ache the flesh of the tree. However, all were arranged in neat rows, wrapping around and around.
Occasionally the rows were spiked with numbers, ranging from one all the way to eleven. It was odd, but again, Shyla did not have the time to ponder again, thanks to interruption.
Aera had thrown herself up through the trap door.
"Sorry," she breathed, standing up with a bouquet of lilies speckled with black, gold, and orange in her hand. "I saw that some flowers had bloomed and I decided to pick them." Shyla stared – nothing she had ever seen in her life was as beautiful; she almost felt ashamed to look at them. Flowers so wild never grew even within the ramparts of the castle – the soil remained infertile and bitter as if someone had salted it.
"What's wrong?" Aera asked, concerned. Shyla flushed.
"Nothing, nothing," Shyla admitted. "I've just never seen flowers that beautiful in my life.
"My then," Aera sauntered around looking for a vase. "If you've never seen flowers like this, I can only imagine what else you've been sheltered from."
Shyla nodded a little, hanging her head, imagining what else she didn't know.
"Well, I won't ask," Aera said comfortingly, finally picking up a long wooden cup, arranging the flowers in it just so. "It's none of my business, I feel. … Unless you want to tell me."
Shyla sat down, crossing her legs.
"I wonder," she sighed. "Where should I begin?"
At the castle, things were hectic. Mirr had woke up in a mot befouled mood. Shyla was gone, but she had expected that. Indeed, she knew that Shyla had been listening to Marrin and hers conversation the night before, but she would have bit her tongue in two if she knew that the book she had chosen that night was the one that might very well undo her life's work.
And Marrin – well, Marrin wasn't particularly bright and his promiscuity left his ideals of women skewed – if not completely perverse. While she did expect Shyla's flight to occur faster because of her promise to Marrin, she did not expect him to bother even to attempt consummating his 'relationship' with her that same night.
'Marrin, Marrin,' she thought to herself, leaning her head into her pale hand, 'you are such an idiot.'
They had found him early in the morning, a couple of maids, and he was sent straight to the infirmary. His outlook was bright; it seemed as though he had only suffered a couple bruises and a small cut on his scalp. As to what had happened to him however, Marrin would not say, and from the moment he left the infirmary he had spent the rest of the morning drowning his sorrows in wine he had swiped from the kitchen.
Mirr knew, though she did not speak of it to anyone else, either. She knew that Shyla was not one to be pushed in the wrong way; Marrin did and paid for it.
Oh how she had warned him countless times as a boy. Served him right.
Mirr shook her head. Now all she could do was wait in another stiff, dark dress, standing in the dim light that leaked through the smoky glass of the Great Hall.
Small steps rang in her ears.
"You called for me, milady?" Electra had materialized beside her. Mirr smiled warmly, though dolefully.
"Yes," She said, giving her a comforting embrace. "How is Hectra?"
"Asleep. I told her what Marrin did a little while ago," Electra explained. "She didn't seem surprised, but she was saddened that Shyla had left already."
"Yes, yes, as am I. I don't doubt quite a few people will miss her-"
"Not Cait," Electra scoffed distastefully.
"There's a lot Cait wouldn't miss," Mirr agreed, "I suspect she's feeling a bit Schadenfraude and smugness right not. She's still stupid enough to believe that she could sink her claws into Marrin, now."
Electra laughed. "Everyone knows what a fool she is. Marrin doesn't let go and Cait is, sadly, in denial… What did you call me here for, milady?" Her tone changed quite suddenly to curiosity and dread. Mirr looped her arm over Electra's shoulders.
"I want you to find Shyla for me." Mirr said calmly. Electra looked at he incredulously.
"Milady, I do not think I am one for this-"
"Do not underestimate yourself, Electra," Mirr said, leading herself and Electra out of the Great Hall and into the hallway. "You are very smart and Shyla could not have gotten far by now. After all, she is young and never has worked a day in her life, as you know very well. A slender and unfit girl such as herself could not have gotten more than a mile in one night… Besides, I wasn't planning on sending you alone, either." She pointed to the end of the hallway.
There, some distance away, stood the silhouette of the very man who had chased his betrothed away. He staggered forth, hair in a disarray, dark circles underneath his eyes, the orbs above rouged-over as if sobbing all day. He had no changed his clothes from the day before and held a green, uncorked bottle of liquor in one hand.
"Ah, Marrin," Mirr did not seem pleased, "I'm glad you came."
"Wha'd'ya want?" He asked, voice distant and speech slurred roughly. She came to him and reached out to him like a mother.
"I have a proposition for you," she said, holding him close, pressing his head to her chest maternally, to steady him. "You love Shyla, don't you?" He nodded quietly. "… And you would do anything to keep her from harm, right?"
"Then what I want you to do," Mirr said patronizing, as if tutoring a toddler, "is to go with Electra here and go find Shyla. Electra will help you, so you won't be lonely – but Marrin dearest," He looked up into her eyes sadly, listening. "Do try not to frighten the poor girl. You know how she gets when she's frightened."
He did not answer.
"You're a suave negotiator of women, from what I understand," Mirr let go of him. "I'm sure you could convince her to come home to us – to you – with your words." He swayed a little, Mirr took the bottle from his hand and patted him on the head sweetly, though he did not look as though he had heard her at all – or if he did, he did not look as if he remembered any of it. Mirr turned to Electra. "I want you to go with him-"
"But why, milady?" Electra asked, almost pleadingly, both upset and confused. "Why can't I take my sister along instead? He's in no condition to travel on foot-"
"Because I want you and him to, dear," Mirr bit back a twisted smile on her face. "You see, Shyla took something of mine with her, and I need it back. If she Shyla chooses not to return, that is not a problem – I doubt she would with Marrin in the vicinity anyway, but you see, she is carrying with her a book, a nice crimson one, very pretty to look at. I want you to procure it and bring it back to me-"
"Why? Why shouldn't we try to bring Shyla back? Why would she even bother to bring a book with her-"
"If I wanted questions, Electra, I would have requested them," Mirr snapped quietly. "There are just things you do not need to know or understand right now, dear. Just do as so kindly ask, and do it in full without question. After all, curiosity doesn't just kill innocent cats." She gleamed harshly at her. Electra swallowed deeply, harshly, slightly sweating.
She pushed Marrin towards the great doors calmly, not looking back at Mirr, out of fear, out of respect.
"C'mon you stupid drunk, let's go." She said harshly pulling back the handles and leading him outside into the summer light. She closed the door behind them.
Mirr smiled a little to herself, lifting the bottle to her lips. A single maroon droplet spilled out onto her tongue. She put it down, dismayed.
"Damn him," she cursed harshly. "I wager this was good wine, too."