Chapter 2: James and Jace

Alisha awoke to find herself lying on the riverside, drenched in river water. Rain dropped onto her eyelids and the memory of the wounded boy flashed before her eyes. Groaning as she sat, she checked herself over and removed several painful shards of glass sticking onto her wrists. They were probably from the torch, which must have shattered as she went sprawling.

Standing up, she attempted to stem the blood flowing from the scrapes on her elbows but it was no use. One of the disadvantages of being able to heal, she thought wryly, is that you can't heal yourself. Her hair was filthy and her face, caked with mud. Spitting blood from her mouth, she brushed her hands on her dress and attempted to re-climb the hill she had fallen down.

It was morning, or so the dim, peaky sun indicated. Light slithered through the gaps in the canopies of branches and highlighted the surroundings. Alisha found her torch wedged between the roots of one of the trees. It was still working but the glass covering the front had indeed shattered. She found her butcher knife about a metre away. Shuddering to think of what might have happened if she had landed on it; she gripped both tightly and worked her way upwards.

By the time the ground flattened out, Alisha was out of breath, her stomach grumbling with hunger and her arms and legs shaking with exhaustion. Standing still for a moment, she looked over to where she remembered the wounded boy lying and made her way through the brambles and uneven grass, carefully keeping a lookout for any surprises, but nothing out of the ordinary happened.

However, when she got there, there was no one in sight. All that remained was a thick pool of blood and a few coins. Alisha picked them up and studied the carvings, after wiping the mud off them. They looked foreign.

Slipping them into her pocket, she examined the pool of blood but it wasn't going to lead her anywhere. It pretty much ended after two metres. Indecisive, she looked towards her right. The path continued a long way down, and then curved out of sight. On the left, was the path she had come from last night. Should she go searching for him or should she go back to her tent and move on as if nothing had happened?

After a few moments, the memory of the boy made her stomach squirm and she had no choice but to go looking for him. It was stupid. She knew that. She could easily get lost or worse, attacked. But what could she really do? Even if she did go back to her tent and keep on walking towards Estonville, was there any hurry? It was unlikely that the villagers were hot on her heels and there was no one waiting for her to arrive at Estonville either.

Decided, she journeyed onwards, her gaze exploring her surroundings and taking in important landmarks for when she would return. Time slipped by and she grew dehydrated. She ate the remaining loaf in her pocket and kept walking, looking out for any movement or sign of life.

The day got hotter and she kept treading slowly onwards. Her back was hunched and her feet were blistered but she didn't stop for more than a few minutes. Eventually, she rounded a bend to suddenly find two pale faces gazing at her with apprehension.

For a moment, her parched brain couldn't comprehend what she was seeing, but then her face broke into a relieved smile when she realised that she had found him, and he was alive. For a while, she wondered if she was hallucinating. But no, he was real and so was the younger boy sitting next to him.

Neither of them moved. Alisha looked at them unsurely. Maybe she'd better explain about last night, but just when she was about to speak, the smaller boy – who must have been about ten years old – clambered towards her whilst drawing a sword. It was long and sleek and radiated power and although Alisha had little knowledge of swords, she knew that it could slice her in half within seconds.

She attempted a smile and held her hands upwards in peace.

"I'm not going to hurt you," she said boldly. "I've been looking for you since last night."

She turned to the older boy who'd stood up. "You were injured and bleeding severely. I was just passing by but then I heard something so I came to investigate…" Her voice trailed away as the boy limped towards her. It was apparent that he was in a lot of pain and the little boy obviously cared for him as he immediately sprung up to assist him.

However, the older boy shook him off impatiently and continued to limp towards Alisha, his dark hair falling onto his eyelids to highlight the inky, black eyes and long, thick lashes along with the fine bone structure of his face. His nose looked like it had been broken several times and his cheeks were covered in scars but his body more than made up for these deficiencies. He wasn't exactly handsome, but a fair amount of muscle was highlighted through the blood caked vest.

Right then, those muscles were straining with the effort and those eyes were penetrating Alisha's hazel ones. She stared straight back, hoping to convince him of her trustworthiness and sincerity.

The boy paused about two inches in front of her and stood silent. Alisha uncertainly tucked a strand of hair behind her ears and waited, her face turning warm under his inspection. She was acutely aware of how filthy and disgusting she must look. Her nose was probably covered in dirt, her hair was covered in blood and mud and who knew what else, and her clothes were torn and revolting. Shuffling a little, she looked at him uneasily as he held up a hand and moved it closer to her face. She didn't move backwards, although she instinctively wanted to.

The boys' rough fingers caressed the left side of her face gently and Alisha felt a familiar sensation run along her body. Everything else faded into the background and she knew her healing powers were on the go. The warmth was creeping up her body and leaving her from the place where the boys' fingers touched her skin, and Alisha felt a weakening in her knees. They buckled and she fell onto the ground but for some reason unknown to them both, the boys' fingers stayed glued to her cheek.

He looked astonished and obviously couldn't understand what was happening. She could tell by the way he kept tugging on his hand but some unconscious part of Alisha willed it to stay so that she could finish the task she had come here for. Soon, the familiar coldness began to settle in her again and she sighed as her strength returned and she struggled to stand.

The boy snatched his hand back and backed away. At first, he looked angry, but then his face suddenly registered shock as he realised that the pain had disappeared. He looked at his arms and then, at his body and head before shaking his head disbelievingly.

The small boy who Alisha assumed was his brother was looking at her like he couldn't believe his eyes. He rushed to the older boy and hugged him and for a moment, Alisha felt like a passer by who'd just stopped to watch one of those rare moments of displayed sibling love.

After a moment, the older boy turned towards her with an expression of intense gratitude and something else that she couldn't quite put her finger on, before saying sincerely, "I'm James and this is my friend Jace. I don't know how to thank you."

"No problem. Though it might be nice if you kept that little guy of yours-" she nodded at the younger boy, "-under control. Oh, and I'm Alisha," she added, almost as an afterthought.

James laughed as Jace reddened. "He believes it's his duty to protect me," he said, completely serious. Alisha laughed a little uncertainly. She had a strange feeling of déjà vu at that moment and although it seemed like any other day, she felt a clammy sensation of foreboding in the pits of her stomach. She looked at James. She wanted to know what had happened to him and what Jace was supposed to protect him from, but she knew she had to get back.

Shivering and glancing at the darkening sky a little suspiciously, she said, "Look, it was nice to meet you but I think I should get back to my tent."

"No," James replied firmly as he glanced at the black clouds rolling in on the sky. "You must stay with us. From the state of you it seems like you have journeyed from afar. We'll find some shelter, and then you can go back in the morning. It will be too dark to set off walking again today anyway. Jace," he turned to the small boy standing dutifully by his side, "didn't you say you saw a barn earlier?"

"Yes. It was over there by the Northern canal," he pointed to the North but it was getting harder to see by the second.

"Well, let's go then. We've got quite a way to go yet." He picked up a long sack from behind a rock. Something clanged and Alisha felt a chill run down her spine.

"What's in that?" she asked, pointing to the long sack.

"Just a few weapons in case we should meet someone we do not like." He casually hefted it onto his shoulder and began leading the way. Alisha hurried after him.

Ducking their heads against the wind, they made their way as quickly as possible. James often stopped to help her when they waded across rivers, and Alisha hid a smile each time.

Sometimes, she caught him staring at her with a strange expression on his face. It was stupid, but once she could have sworn he'd called her Arabella. But as soon as she'd looked at him, he'd blushed and strode on ahead. Alisha wasn't sure what all this meant but she didn't really have much time to dwell on it, as the path they were following required a whole lot of concentration. She lost her footing several times on slippery rocks but for the most part, she managed to stay close to James and Jace.

Eventually, they located the barn and went inside. Alisha gratefully sank to her knees in a corner and regained control of her breathing. The storm raged on outside and it was getting pitch black in the barn. After recovering slightly, she stood on her wobbly legs and went over to where the boys were attempting to light a few candles. She helped them and then placed a few around different places in the barn to give them a fair amount of light. It was quite an old barn by the looks of it. Insects littered small areas and old bags and sacks were buried under piles of leaves.

They sat together for a while and shared a sponge cake and apples that James had with him before going to their separate, allotted corners of the barn.

Yawning, Alisha made herself comfortable. The last thing she saw before sleep overcame her was the rugged face of James hooded with darkness as he covered her with a sheet and said, "Goodnight Arabella. Tomorrow we will talk."

"My name is not Arabella," she mumbled but she wasn't sure if she actually said it or whether it was just her imagination.