It’s the first time this day I let myself stand still. I finally let myself relax, let my muscles unbind and my mind settle down. Finally, for it’s he first time this morning that I do. I sigh heavily as my muscles start to loosen up, slowly but surely, one by one. Only now I notice how sore they feel, from all the knots I’ve been tying in them over the last three hours.
This morning I woke up early. And with a start. Shocked awake by my own fears, my own nightmare. I had felt so real though . . .
After that, I simply had to get away. From everything. And as quickly as I could. Desperately trying to take my mind of it all. And nothing is more perfect for that than the woods.
Without stopping for breakfast, I'd sneaked out of the palace unnoticed, taken my own horse, Amour, from the stables and rode through the city’s gates at first light.
The only people who saw me this morning were the watching soldiers on the walls; they stand there night and day, looking out for danger. They are the ones who see everything, know everything that goes on outside our city gates. They are the very few who dare to look.
Once out of their sights, I drove Amour as fast as she could over the out stretching fields before us. In a matter of minutes I reached the sudden edge of the forest. Breaking through the trees, my first tendency was to head straight for the lake. But for the sake of Amour I keep going. She can certainly use a bit of exercise.
For more than an hour I rode through the trees, exploring every piece and corner of the forest. We rode fast, we rode slow, we ride through water and on grass, and even a bit of sand. We didn’t stay near the beach for long though; I do anything to remain hidden by the trees. They make me feel safe and comfortable in their familiarity of feeling hidden. Hiding, after all is something I’ve been doing for years now. Hiding in plain sight.
After a long hour, I decided we had enough and I headed for my favorite lake. It’s not very big and lies right in the middle of the forest, well hidden by thick layers of trees. I knew it well. If I would be able to get away I’d come here every day. But that isn’t the case.
I looked at the narrow lane of water streaming down the not so steep hill. Looks are deceiving certainly applied to this water. Gazing down on it, you’d think it only a meter deep. At the most. But when you got in you’d find that isn’t true. It might be small, but so deep you can easily swim in it.
I'd started with splashing some of the cool water in my face as I kneeled on the edge. But soon it wasn't enough for me. I stroke my wet hands over the skin on my arms and my neck. It felt cool and fresh and wonderful. I shaped my hands like a small bowl and zipped from the water I'd caught in it. It tasted nice. As clear as tab water. But then with this extra flavor of something else. Something only water straight from nature can hold.
Something makes me want more. Not necessarily drink more, but want the water more. Want the water more. I want to delve into it. Make myself disappear ever so slowly. Become one with the water.
Without hesitation, and moving as quickly as I can, I take of all my layers of clothing. My dark blue hood is the first to go, and my riding trousers are the last. The second they are all off – all except my underwear of course – I dive in.
I don’t come up for air for as long as I can. With my eyes closed I swim further and further, deeper and deeper – into the darkness. It feels so good, it feel so wonderful. It feels . . . natural. More natural than walking, more natural than air. Which I guess I should find disturbing.
After a while, inevitably, there comes an end. There comes a moment – much too soon for my tastes – that my need for oxygen becomes a matter of life and death. And I hate it. I curse it. I don’t want to obey it, I don’t want to listen to it. But I do. Because I know I need it.
I push myself back to the surface with a few forceful strokes of my arms. By the time I come up from the water I’m gasping for air. Heavy cough-storms take me over right after that. I’m finding out the hard way that you actually can breathe in too much oxygen at once. When they finally stop, my cheeks burn as hot as flames, their color as red as tomatoes.
I dry and warm myself with a long piece of soft fabric. It’s the towel I always keep in Amour’s saddle pockets. Once I’m done I throw the cloth over a long, strong looking branch, hoping it will have dried by the time I’ll have to go back. I put my clothes back on quickly, feeling very vulnerable now I’m all dry.
Amour raises her head to eye me meaningfully as I stand staring off into space, not sure what I want to do. She waits. Before she'll go back to grazing she wants some indication of what I'm about to do: stay or go. She’s a funny animal that way.
I sigh heavily and then smile at her as I wave for her to proceed. But the only thing I get from her in reaction is a curious look in her eyes, wondering what I want from her. So I walk – or better, slush – over to the nearest tree and let myself fall on the ground.
Amour eyes me with what almost seems like concern – as far as a horse could accomplish that – but after a few moments enthusiastically continues her grazing, letting me be.
I stare up at the bright sky and imagine numerous, strange figures in the few clouds I can see. I try to keep my thoughts in this light place, just playing games, no worrying. But soon my mind ends up in other places, not caring that I don’t want that. My thoughts, slowly but surely, slid back to memories I'd rather not revisit. Currently I seem to have lost the control over what I do or do not think of though.
They take me back to the past. Inevitably, painfully familiar images begin to creep on me. My sister's face in particular. Not the warm and lively one I had known all my life. No, the face I see before me now is nothing like that. It looks the same, is the same, but so much different. It is her face, but not the one she wore when she was alive . . .
There was an accident, about four years ago. It took her warm and lively face away forever.
Well, accident isn’t really the right way to describe it, I suppose. It had been more like a force of nature.
The day she died there had been many clouds. Everywhere, the sky full with them. There dark gray color had reached as far as the eye can see. They had been poring rain for days. Maybe even weeks. It had been raining and raining for so long that everything had begun to flood. Every single thing. Including the many, many fields surrounding the city gates where the farmers grow all our food. Including the aqua system, running with its maze of long, rusty pipes, underneath the city's ground. Including the deep, deep dirty sewers. And including the big river that runs right through the center of the city.
It had rained like no one had ever seen it rain before. And after a while, even with the many precautions the people who'd built this city had taken, there was no way to control the water.
Once that was a fact, all hell broke lose. Everything started to go wrong. And most of all the river. The water began to break down the dams surrounding it. So they build new dams out of sacks of sand with people who volunteered.
And it worked. The rescue that people had thought could only be a temporary solution, at best, actually became the thing that saved the city. Despite the continuing rain, people had started to feel relieved. The greatest thread had been taken down (figuratively speaking at least) and people started to celebrate their victory.
But relieved and victorious people make careless people. People who don't think of being cautious anymore. People who aren’t careful. As was proven when the rain finally lessened and they started to take down their improvised damn.
Everyone was exhausted and wanted it done as soon as possible. So when multiple people weren't able to clime the sacks, they choose for the easy route. They gave up right away and just began taking sacks away from the first layers. The lower ones who were easiest to reach. The ones who made up the foundation for the entire dam.
It didn’t take long for the dam to start to sway under its own weight. The highest layers started to falter and the dam began to collapse in on itself.
The men who were still taking away sacks from underneath it, moving mindlessly to finish their task, could only freeze in surprise. It all happened so quickly after that. When the dam collapsed it didn't take long for the water to reach over the sacks of sands. Which were now assembled in nothing more than a big, spread out, mass on the streets. It over took them easily, reaching out to the streets and the houses along side them.
The water, flowing fast and steady had quickly spread through the city's heart. Right in the center. The place where houses are small and narrow, build to fit as many as possible. Houses with people, houses with families.
And my house.
We had both been home, my sister and I, when we saw the water rising against our windows. Barely a minute passed and it began to flow through the cracks of our house. The water rose as fast as it would in a bathtub, unnatural and terrifying. So quick that we had barely time to go from shock to action. And no time at all to think.
Unlike the houses of our neighbors, ours hadn't been that tall. We knew that running from rooftop to rooftop was impossible. But the only chance we had right then was trying to get high than the water level. My sister’s split second decision was to run upstairs. Though I think that might have been more instinct than rational thought. Once we were in the attic, nowhere higher to go, the water swiftly following us, we cracked open the only window. We’ll have to try and swim, my sister had said, right before she took that short dive into the water outside. I had followed here without thought. I trusted my sister utterly and completely, I would never doubt her decisions.
The screaming had been the most awful. The sounds people could make when in panic was nothing I could have ever imagined. I will never forget them.
Strangely enough though, I didn’t share them. I felt no panic, no dread. Every negative emotion I’d had disappeared the moment I touched the water. For some very strange and disturbing reason the water, which I knew could possibly mean my death, actually soothed me.
Before that day I had never swam once in my life. I was as inexperienced with swimming as everyone else in the city. Maybe even more. Yet I had no trouble staying afloat. I had no trouble with moving the exact right away through the water. Nor had I trouble with its movements, the waves that kept coming and coming.
I had looked behind me and noticed with shock that my sister was having it nowhere near easy. The calm that had entered my system when I was only thinking of myself, disappeared the second I saw my sister. Her body looked tired already, exhausting itself with the wrong movements to stay afloat, desperately trying to survive. Her face had been of a person who feared for her life.
I had stretched out my hand, trying to reach her desperately. Without a second though I had started to swim back, to reach her. I got closer and closer and closer still. When I had finally been able to touch her fingertips with mine, she had suddenly seemed full of energy. With that last bit of effort she had left she had pushed herself off with all her might. She was able to close the last piece of distance between us then. She had taken my hand and I had gripped hers tightly in response. My relief had been overwhelming, but not something that could last for long.
Our hold hadn’t been strong enough. We were able to stay together as long as the water was quiet. But when big strong waves started to hit us again it became harder and harder to hold on. A fourth wave had hit us and it was over. It ripped us apart the moment it crashed down.
The current had sucked me deeper and deeper under water and I was powerless to stop it. I had opened my eyes, trying to look, trying to search. But I couldn’t see either of the two things I was looking for. My sister and the surface were nowhere to be found.
The little I could see started to become darker and darker. My sight had been blurry from the start, nothing was visibly clearly in this water, but now I could barely make out my own hands as I waved them in front of my face. I was sinking, I knew that for certain. And if I kept sinking I would drown, I knew that, too. But I felt no panic. I felt no fear or desperation. I didn’t even feel worry. Not for myself.
All I could think of was my sister. All I could worry about was her life. All I could feel was anxiety and it was all for her.
It took me . . . I don’t know how long, but it had seemed to me like no time at all for I suddenly broke through the surface. One moment everything was dark and blurry, and the next moment everything was bright and clear. Overwhelmingly so.
Without ever discovering how I did it exactly, I had been able to safe myself and reach my lungs so desperately needed. A need I had barely registered. A need that had my lungs burning now it was finally – almost too late – satisfied.
I had looked around me, searching again, but had not been able to see anything other than water. It was everywhere and everything. It had consumed everything else. There was nothing else to see. Nothing else to find. Nothing, including my sister.
It took me a long time to find her after that. In the meantime I had been brought to an empty barn at the edge of the city. It was one of those storage places that was owned by the city itself. It had had many different functions in the past, and now it was something different again; a sanctuary for the survivors. Many of them had been wounded. But not me.
The days that followed I had nothing more to do than stroll around the barn, making circles, passing everyone, again and again. It didn't matter, I could never find her. Never in that barn.
In the end, I did find her somewhere else. Somewhere I wish I had never found her.
Across from the barn the survivors stayed there was another building owned by the city: a temple. Usually a place for prayer. A place where only silence is tolerated. The perfect place for people who will be forever silent.
Once they had been able to control the water – leading it back to the river and containing it there – they had begun to assemble the bodies. Better to get those nasty reminders out of sight as quickly as possible. Half a day later they were gone from the streets, moved to the temple.
I remember her face. Her skin had been blue, her hair tangled, her eyes closed, and her whole body cold. She didn't look much like my sister anymore.
I'd found her, I really had. But I didn't feel like I did. And I suppose that was true. My sister was gone forever. Only her body was left to find.
I sigh heavily, and close my eyes while I rub my temples with my fingers. When I open them, my head is empty. As I stare with hollow eyes at the clear water running slowly down the lake, thinking of nothing at all. Breathe in, breathe out – that's the only thing that occupies my mind.
Until someone surprises me, shocks me right out of my haze.
''Who are you?'' a rough voice bellows from behind me.
I wipe my head around to see whom the voice belongs to. All I can see is a dark tall silhouette showing deep in the forest. The voice is obviously male, but that's all I can tell. I don't like that.
''That is not your business,'' I snap at him. I sounded a hundred times braver than I feel.
He breaks his utter stillness the moment he hears my voice. He begins to move forward. Bit by bit I am able to see him more clearly. He has dark hair and his skin has the color of what should be pale, but is burned darker from (too) much exposure to sun. He must be poor. His eyes seem light and bright, but I can’t see what color they hold exactly. They stare at me with a hard expression, boldly.
He snorts, a little disgusted, in reaction to my words. But it seemed to have been an impulse; something I think must be regret crosses his face right afterward.
He holds up his hands, to show me he means no harm. ''By all means,'' he says, ''keep your business to yourself. I only think it’s not the best idea to go around strolling through the forest alone, in such early hours.'' He takes a moment to eye me up, from head to toe. ''Looks like that ring of yours alone is worth a fortune.''
I look down automatically at the wide, golden band I wear around the ring finger of my left hand. It's beautiful, of course. And very expensive, like he said. But the money it's worth is not why I want to protect it. I flex my hand in a fist to hide it from his sight, to show him I won't give it up without a fight – not trusting that he won't try.
But the reason for my reaction has nothing to do with the money, and everything to do with where it came from. Who I got it from; my fiancé.
The man releases one hard laugh without humor. ''Don't worry,'' he assures me in a cynical tone, ''I don't want it. I won't take it.''
''Then what do you want?'' I snap again. The tension of my fear is getting the better of me.
His face changes, turning completely expressionless. ''I want you to jump back on your horse and ride back to your lovely palace as fast as you can.''
I hold my breath in shock. Alarm bells start ringing in my head. Not only because of his tone and words – which are both widely inappropriate for someone like him to say to someone like me – but also because he knows I'm from the palace. And at first I can't think of any reason how he could.
He lives outside the city walls, that much is obvious. A farmer, probably. Only very few people know I live in the palace. And they are people who live there, too. So especially, and specifically, not some farmer's boy from the Akro.
Realization hits me like bucket of cold water, and it only makes things worse. The alarm bells in my head become louder and louder because I realize I recognize him.
As he said his last words, he had been gesturing toward my horse with his arm. And with that, leaned forward, into a small ray of light. I can see him in full view now. He must be about a head taller than me. He has short, dark blond hair and he looks pretty strong with his broad build. But he also looked like he could use some extra pounds. Not the best fed person in the world certainly.
That wasn't why I recognize him though. That is because of his eyes. They have an odd combination of being deep set and brightly colored, which make them look light and dark at the same time. I still don’t really recognize the man himself, but those eyes, definitely. I have seen them before. That is all I know. I can’t remember anything else.
''Leave her alone,'' I hear a voice from a man behind me. And this person I do know – all too well.
I glance behind me for just a second, not willing to let the man out of my sight any longer than that. I can see Eustace riding quickly toward us on his horse. My eyes shoot back to the man before me. He hasn’t moved an inch. Which is a brave move, I suppose. But I think I can detect a bit of unease in his eyes. Like he is uncertain of what to do, but has mastered to keep an – almost – perfect poker face on to hide it.
It’s only a few seconds later when Eustace comes to a halt right next to me. He jumps off and I can see he’s trying to understand what is going on, to get some info out of me, some kind of sign.
But I can’t tell him anything. I can’t even turn to look at him. I’m locked in the man's gaze. So after just a moment of trying to get a reaction from me – unsuccessfully – Eustace directs his attention to the man before us.
''Who are you?'' he demands in such a way you can’t not answer him.
''Justin, sir,'' the man says, his voice sounding almost grudging. Which isn’t very smart considering he clearly knows who we are.
''Well go on, Justin. Get out of here,'' Eustace warns the man, his voice low and threatening, glaring slightly.
I can see in the man's eyes that he wants more than anything to object and take Eustace on. But something – some kind of knowledge – keeps him from doing that. It’s not hard for me to guess what that knowledge is. Everyone in at least a twenty miles radius knows who, and what, Eustace is. Which meant he's not the kind of person you want to mess with, especially when you can help it.
And technically speaking, the man, Justin, is in the wrong here. Eustace has every right to be angry. This land is not public but private – owned by the royal family. Which means that Justin is in fact trespassing. And he knows it.
It results in him turning right around and stalking away the moment Eustace’s words have left his mouth. I watch him disappear into the forest in a fast pace, but I can’t hear the sounds of his movements. As quiet as the trees themselves, I think to myself.
I stare after him much longer than I am able to see him. Not out of interest in him, but out of cowardice for the man next to me. I can feel Eustace gaze weighing heavy on me, and I avoid it as long as I can.
I don’t want to return my eyes to him because I have no idea of what to tell him. And I know he will want me to tell him something. He’ll demand an explanation about the situation he walked into, I’m certain of it.
Finally, even I recognize that my avoidance isn’t going to help anything, or anyone. I slowly raise my eyes. I smile widely at him when our gazes cross paths.
But Eustace will not be fooled. ''Do you know that man?'' He tries a little too hard to let his question come across like mere curiosity. He doesn’t want to sound suspicious, but obviously does feel that particular emotion underneath.
''No,'' I answer him firmly.
His eyes tighten visible and he moves his head like he’s trying to inspect me more closely. I guess he's not trying to hide his suspicion anymore.
''What?'' I wonder, eyebrows raised, my voice a bit innocent – but not too much.
His eyes change from suspicious to puzzling as they turn wider again. ''What happened?''
I turn my gaze away from him, uncertain of what to tell him. Just as Eustace opens his mouth to press for an answer, I'm saved by the bell. So to speak. Actually, it is not the bell but best friend Dyria who saves me.
She comes, on her horse, forcing it as fast as it can, yelling my name with the biggest of smiles on her face.
''Rory! Rory!'' She yells my name over and over again while she jumps of her horse who has come to an abrupt halt right next to us.
My eyes turn wide with anticipation. ''What?''
''We’re going to get visitors!'' Dyria exclaims, practically jumping from excitement all the while.
''What? When? Who?'' I breathe.
I can’t get my answers fast enough, but it takes some time to get Dyria’s mind back on earth. When I’m able to catch her eyes with mine, she seems to get her feet back on the ground. ''Tomorrow,’’ she answers, looking me straight in the eye. ‘’I don't know exactly who is coming, but I know they are important. And I know they are from Kentros!''
Kentros. The very heart of the beast.
The beast being the empire we live in. Mitera has been divided in multiple little kingdoms for as long as anyone can remember. All with their own royal families, who rule them. All with different kinds of people. Not that takes away the fact that Kentros is still the capitol – main rules of all of us. And that our Emperor, Micah, has more power over Mitera's people than all the kings and queens combined.
My home, a small kingdom called Diezor, is one of the few human ones. The fact that the people in Diezor are all human could make us a target, but because the kingdom so small and unimportant it is easily overlooked. All the same, living in one of the very few neutral kingdoms left during the War of the Species doesn't make us the safest people in the world.
Would that mean a visit from ‘important people’ from Kentros is a good sign? Or a bad one?
I glance to my side, to Eustace. His face looks a lot less enthusiastic about the news than Dyria's does. That confirms my pessimistic suspicion that tends to lean more toward the ‘bad sign’ answer. Enough for me to feel uneasy.
''Why aren't you excited?'' Dyria demands when I barely react to the news.
''I am,'' I answer just a little too quickly. Dyria raises an eyebrow and gives me such an unconvinced look, I have to smile. ''I'm just not sure if a visit from Kentros is always a good sign during these times.'' These times being war times – Dyria knows well enough.
The moment the words have left my mouth I can feel and see Eustace tense up beside me. The skin of his face pales and his jaws lock tightly. His unease with this subject radiates off of him in waves.
''Oh Rory, always expecting the worst,'' Dyria sighs, brushing off my worries; her happy bubble is not to be broken, by anyone or anything.
She does register the strangeness of this little situation she has burst into now. She glance around her with an odd crinkle in her brow. ''What are you two doing here anyway?'' she asks aloud, to no one in particular. When no one answers though, she directs her question to me by eye me up with ludicrous eyes.
''Nothing important. Just relaxing a bit and enjoying the nice weather,'' I tell her smoothly. I convince myself that I’m not lying, only leaving some parts to the imagination.
It doesn't matter anyway. Dyria is caught up too much in her own excitement to notice anything else. She would have believed me even if I were the worst liar in the world. Only thinking of what is to come. The unknown visitors who will arrive tomorrow.