Chapter One : Part Five

The Runaways

“Do you think they’re still out there?” Fitch whispered, his eyes wide and his breathing still ragged.

When they’d reached the forest, the children had run headlong into the overgrowth and found shelter in what remained of the hollowed out trunk of a fallen tree. Roots and underbrush obscured them from view, but also made it difficult for them to see anyone who might be approaching.

Aiyana tried to listen for footfalls but her heart was racing, its staccato rhythm thumping in her ears as she tried to catch her breath as well. After a few moments of futile listening, she whispered back, “I don’t know.”

Fitch reached over and grabbed both of her hands in his, drawing them close to his chest. Aiyana had learned long ago that it was not a gesture meant to comfort her, but rather to draw comfort from her. He was always the one borrowing from her strength.

As he slowly gained control of his breathing, Fitch whispered again, “Who were they? What did they want?”

“I don’t know,” was the only reply she had to offer him.

“How did that man know that you were… well, you? The princess, I mean?” he asked, his voice less quiet this time.

Aiyana looked at her friend incredulously and yanked her hands from his grasp, bumping her elbow against the cramped interior of the trunk. “Ouch,” she muttered. Then, raising her voice to match Fitch’s, she said, “Maybe it was because you were dancing around in the street with a sword, drawing attention to us. Or maybe because you kept calling me Aiya and telling everyone I was your sister. I was supposed to look like a boy, and we were supposed to blend in and disappear in the crowd.” Her tone was accusatory, and Fitch had the good sense to duck his head at her disapproval.

“Sorry,” Fitch mumbled. “But,” he said obstinately, as he looked back up at her, “It’s not my fault you have white hair. If you had a normal hair color, no one would have even noticed us.”

Aiyana stiffened, pulling further away from him. “What are you saying?”

“Nothing, nothing.” But his tone was defensive. “It’s just… sometimes it’s hard because everyone notices you and everyone pays attention to you and there are just so many rules when your best friend is a princess. I wish you could be normal for a change.”

Aiyana flattened her palms against the damp, leafy earth and pushed herself up and out of their hiding spot, then turned and faced Fitch, looking down on him with her hands on her hips. “Do you think I want to be a princess? I hate it! I hate all the rules and all the attention and that I can’t ever have any fun.” Tears of fear and frustration formed in her eyes and it made her even angrier that she could not control them as one slid down her cheek. “I thought you were the only person in the whole world who understood that.”

Fitch scrambled his way out of the trunk and stood opposite her, his expression remorseful. “I do, I do. I’m sorry, Aiya. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Please don’t cry.”

Aiyana balled up her hands in fists at her side. “I’m not crying,” she insisted, even as another tear slipped down her cheek and she angrily wiped it away.

Fitch, wisely, kept his mouth shut.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Aiyana continued. “Nobody calls you a half-breed Chaya brat like Talea and her friends do me. Even some of the grown ups say it like they think I can’t hear them when my brother’s not around.”

“But they’d never say it around Kellen because he loves you,” Fitch offered, desperate to quell her rare outburst of emotion.

“Kellen is just doing his duty,” Aiyana growled, pushing past Fitch and tromping through the thick brush, looking for the trail that they’d abandoned in their haste, all thoughts of their pursuers long gone. “It’s all about duty and responsibilities and doing what’s expected of you,” she cried. “He’s expected to take care of me, so he does. And if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t have to, because we’d still have a mother, but I had to go and kill her by being born. And maybe we’d even have a father because if she’d been around then maybe he wouldn’t have died and… and… and it’s all my fault and I just wanted to find the targol and wish it all better!”

Heedless of the ground beneath her, Aiyana flopped herself down and stared woefully up at her best friend. “I just wanted to make everything better… I just… wanted to meet my mom.”

Fitch dropped down on the ground beside her and sat silently for a moment. When her angry tears had stopped, he sighed and said quietly, “Do you think the targol can do that? Can they bring people back from the dead? I thought they couldn’t do that, like… like they have rules and they can give you all the money you want, but they can’t… change things like death.”

Aiyana wiped her cheeks with her fingers and avoided meeting Fitch’s gaze. Crying was weak, and she was not weak. Not even in front of her best friend. She took three long, deep breaths as Cheven had taught her. His voice rang in her ears as if he was there in that moment: Be still… be calm… Nothing is ever conquered by emotion. After several more steadying breaths, and still not looking at Fitch, Aiyana got to her feet and walked with purpose back to the fallen tree, collecting their bags that they’d thrown inside in their haste to hide.

Still not meeting his gaze, Aiyana handed Fitch his bag and opened hers, drawing out the two swords that protruded from its depths. She unwrapped one and handed it to Fitch before sliding hers back in the bag and pulling out a small lantern instead. “It’s getting dark and Cheven says these woods are full of predators.” Finally, she met Fitch’s gaze as she asked, “You sure you know how to use that thing?”

His questions forgotten, Fitch grinned and nodded his head. “You bet. Which way should we go?”

It was impossible to see the direction of the sun through the canopy of trees, and there was no path immediately evident, so Aiyana just pointed in the direction that she assumed they’d come from. “I think we came that way.”

They walked for so long that even Fitch grew quiet. As light from the sun slipped further from view, Aiyana twisted the switch that caused their lantern to spark to life to ward off the darkness that was settling in the forest. Leaves and twigs crunched under their feet as they peered through the circle of light for any sign of the path. At last, they saw a break in the foliage and Fitch ran ahead, nearly dancing with joy as his feet touched the hard packed dirt of the forest road.

“Finally!” He exclaimed with joy. “I thought we were going to be lost out here all night.”

Aiyana tugged at twigs that had lodged themselves in her tangled hair with one hand as she lifted the lantern high with the other and peered around, trying to figure out where they were on the path.

Neither of them had ever been in Evendwood Forest. Neither of them had ever been outside the city of Almontera, and Aiyana had never even ventured from the palace grounds without an armed guard and one of her siblings as an escort. As she looked down the path in first one direction, then the other, her sense of adventure began to waver as she realized they were lost in a giant forest with no shelter and no protection save for two small swords that neither of them really knew how to use.

Her voice barely above a whisper, Aiyana said, “I think we are going to be lost out here all night…”

“What do you mean?” asked Fitch.

“I don’t know which way we’re supposed to go.” Aiyana suddenly felt very small and very alone, even with Fitch by her side.

“But… but I thought you’d studied the maps.”

Beswarick had been militant about teaching them geography, but he only showed them the maps of Earlis’ kingdoms and cultures, great city locations and ports. To prepare for their journey, she’d had to sneak into what she and Fitch had called “the war room” and study the detailed topographical maps the captains used when planning routes for troop movements or important royal visits.

“I did,” Aiyana insisted. “But… We were supposed to walk out of town, and follow the path, and in two hours we were supposed to turn left at the fork in the road, and an hour past that we were going to see that abandoned hut that Samaire’s brother told her about, and… and we were never supposed to buy swords or get chased by crazy men or run into the woods and get lost.”

As if reflecting the panic Aiyana was feeling, Fitch whimpered, “What are we supposed to do? It’s getting really dark, Aiya… and there are… creatures in Evendwood Forest. My father used to tell us stories…” he trailed off, his voice wavering.

Aiyana closed her eyes and took another deep breath as the memory of Cheven’s voice echoed in her mind again.

Bravery doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, Aiyana. It means that even when you are afraid, you choose to do the right thing. Take the next right step, even if it scares you.

She opened her eyes, held the lantern aloft again, and took Fitch’s hand in hers. “We pick a direction and we walk… There’s only one fork in the road, so either we’ll find the fork or we’ll find the city and hide out near there until the morning. Everyone will be so busy with the High Prince coming that they won’t even notice us.” After only a second’s hesitation, she chose a direction and tugged on Fitch, pulling him alongside her.

They walked in silence for several minutes, jumping occasionally at the sounds of the forest coming awake at night. A large black bird flew through the branches high above them and came to rest on one further down the path. Fitch looked up at the bird and whispered, “Do you think it’s following us? It looks like it’s watching us.”

Aiyana had been thinking the same thing, but shook her head and whispered back, “Birds don’t follow people. Maybe it sees a mouse and it’s hungry.” She shivered slightly, and not from the cool air settling through the forest.

The black birds, known as Obscuri, were rare in Cyrea. Like others of its kind, this one was a little smaller than a hawk and had wide grey eyes and a sharp, curved beak that was a dark golden color. Obscuri were often depicted as portents of death in the terrifying stories of the ancient days that were recounted in hushed whispers around fires late at night. Kellen hated them, though he’d never explained why, and if any dared enter the palace grounds, there were standing orders to kill them or chase them off. Looking up at the dark, winged creature just now, Aiyana felt like she understood her brother’s aversion to the nightmarish birds. She shivered again as the bird squawked at them.

“M-maybe we should go the other way,” Fitch stammered as he tugged at her hand and pulled her closer.

But in that moment, a feeling of anger welled up in Aiyana. She was so tired of being afraid. Already fear had robbed so much of the excitement of their adventure. She whirled on Fitch, letting go of his hand.

“No,” she said, stopping just short of stomping her foot on the path. “We are going to find that cabin and we’re going to eat, because I’m starving, and we’re going to sleep, and we’re going to wake up in the morning and we’re going to travel north until we find that targol!”

Fitch’s eyes went wide at her outburst and his mouth dropped open. He looked as if he was trying to say something, but no words came out for a moment. Aiyana smiled. It wasn’t often that her force of will overpowered Fitch’s, but this time he looked genuinely afraid of her.

Finally, he managed to stammer, “B-but… A-a-Aiya…” and he raised his free hand to point behind her.

There was a deep huffing sound as Aiyana turned, raising the lantern to lock eyes with a giant brown bear blocking their path.

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