The low roof loomed over Sophy’s head as she ducked to enter the next lot of tunnels beneath Castle Crioch. “God, it stinks in here.”
“You’re the one who wanted to go on a ghost tour. Stop complaining.” Aria lifted her lantern and leant in closer to the stone wall, her nose wrinkling. “The quilts and flowers would have smelled nicer, but no, you had to do something more adventurous.”
Sophy peered over Aria’s shoulder to see what her best friend, now foster sister, was looking at. “You could’ve said no.”
In the cracks between the stones, mortar had bubbled and oozed, leaving a rust-coloured trail of froth. Aria screwed up her face. “Gross. I can’t believe I let you talk me into this. These old dungeons and tunnels are disgusting and creepy.”
“I seem to recall that I have to suffer the quilts and flowers once we get out of here. That was the deal, right?” Sophy said.
“Yes, and you’re not getting out of it.” Aria sent her a piercing glance clearly discernible in the gloom. “You owe me. I haven’t recovered from that awful story of murder and ghosts the guide told us.”
Ahead, the guide in question’s voice echoed off the walls and the rest of the tour group were lost in the shadows ahead. “Don’t stress, it’s only a tour,” Sophy said, waving her hand to dispel the dank stench. “It’ll be over soon.” She shrugged. “They just make up the stories anyway. Besides, I’m here to protect you if anything really monstrous comes clumping towards us.”
Aria scoffed and resumed walking. “You’ll have to. My phone doesn’t have a signal down here. I can’t even call for help.”
The hair on the back of Sophy’s neck rose and she swung around. Something was there—a man-like shape in the darkness, with red, glowing eyes. Sucking in a breath, she blinked instinctively, but when she looked again there was nothing. Unsettled, she said nothing to Aria who was already creeped out.
In a few minutes they had caught up with the stragglers from the tour group. Brady, their tour guide, had a broad Scottish accent, rolling his ‘r’ and mumbling half the rest. Light from lanterns flickered and jerked as people moved. Sophy listened a bit harder as the story Brady related took a nasty turn. “An’ the Laird returned to find the heads of all his loved ones hanging from the walls…”
Her gut twisted. Betrayal, murder, ghosts lamenting. Were people really that nasty? As she listened a bit longer, she decided they could be. “How much longer?” Aria asked. “Mum and Jeff will be waiting for us.” The tour rounded a corner.
Sophy drew out her phone to check the clock display. “Another half an hour, I think. I’m sure Maralain and Jeff will figure out the tour is running late. Don’t worry about it.”
“I want to go back right now.” Aria hissed the words in her ear with a decided edge of panic
“Now?” Sophy turned her astonished gaze to Aria. “But—”
Aria grabbed her upper arm and squeezed with fingers like claws. Aria’s eyes were wide, her breaths coming in short pants. “I need to get out of here.”
The light from the lantern quavered in Aria’s shaking hand. “Yes!” Aria’s voice was hoarse and hard.
“I don’t understand.”
Aria’s fingers dug harder into Sophy’s bicep. “Oh god! I think I’m having a panic attack.”
“What the? A panic attack?” Sophy gaped at Aria. “But the tour isn’t that scary.”
Aria covered her mouth, as if holding back a scream.
“I don’t understand…why…” Sophy was cut off. The tour moved off again.
“Sophy, please, I’m being squeezed in half. I can’t breathe.” Aria sobbed. That hit Sophy right in the empathy spot.
“Okay. I’m sorry I didn’t realise.” Sophy cast around looking for an emergency exit. But this was an old Scottish castle and not an amusement park ride where they could hit an emergency stop button. The tour group had turned a corner. Sophy had a choice: race up there and get Brady to turn back, or they could reverse their steps and go back to the beginning. It would cause less embarrassment to Aria if they just found their own way back. She grabbed Aria’s hand. “Come on, we’ll head back to the start. We haven’t come that far.”
Aria kept a tight hold of Sophy’s arm. “Thank you,” she whimpered.
They turned the corner and walked for a few minutes. A deep groan enveloped them. Aria screamed, bending over and holding her stomach. The floor pitched and rolled. Sophy’s heart thumped and her mind went white with terror. She barely kept on her feet. Dust rained down on them. “Quick! The doorway!”
Aria’s breathing sounded like a bicycle pump but she didn’t move. Sophy snatched at her jacket and dragged her over. “Come on. Hurry up!”
The tremor continued. Aria let out a scream and looked ready to bolt away. “No, wait. Don’t run,” Sophy said as she fought to keep Aria in the doorway. Weren’t doorways the best place during an earthquake?
Aria screamed, panic taking hold. “Noooooo.”
Sophy’s heart sounded like a heavy disco beat: boom tish, boom tish. She peeled Aria’s fingers off the lantern and placed it on the floor. Screams still fled Aria’s mouth, creeping Sophy out. “Stop it.” Aria didn’t listen so Sophy gave her one across the cheek. Aria stopped mid-screech and then cried into Sophy’s shoulder.
The earthquake ended, but the ground didn’t seem to stop moving. It was as if the foundations of Castle Crioch were reorganising themselves and the dull thuds reverberating under her feet meant the building may not have survived intact. Could the towers have fallen? They had survived the quake but weren’t out of trouble. She gulped: there was a big pile of stone above their heads between them and safety.
Sophy couldn’t believe their luck. Was Scotland prone to earthquakes? Not that she’d heard. And if it was, why didn’t someone say so before they came down here into the bowels of this place? Sure it’d stood for hundreds of years, but if she had known it was seismically unstable she would have thought twice about it. Maybe.
She listened for voices, hoping to hear others from the tour or the guide. It was eerily quiet except for the sound of grit hissing as it fell, timbers creaking overhead and her heart beat.
Aria stiffened, her finger nails pinching Sophy’s shoulders. “What’s that?” The absolute dread in her voice chilled Sophy. Peeling Aria’s fingers from her shoulder, she turned.
“What the hell?”
Before them was a tunnel, one that oozed moisture and smelled weird, like freshly mown grass. Aria grabbed onto the waist of Sophy’s jeans. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” she replied stepping forward. “It wasn’t there before.”
A glove of cold air enveloped them, snatched them up and dragged them into the tunnel. Sophy screamed and flailed about, her stomach dropping to her toes. Aria’s voice was in her ears so she seized onto her and drew her close. They were freefalling. Was it possible to die of fright? Eyes slammed tight, her ears popped with the change in air pressure. She struggled to come to terms with what was happening, yet even in the centre of her fear her brain worked. They were travelling somewhere: how or why she didn’t know.
Sophy clung tightly to Aria as wind howled in her ears and snatched her breath away. Her long hair whipped about trying to suffocate and strangle her at the same time. When she dared to open her eyes, nothing but a blur of indecipherable colours surrounded them. The silvery tunnel sucked them down its gullet and become a nothing: a no space, a place of wind and noise and disorientation.
A sudden shift in direction and their bodies dropped, gravity returning abruptly. A force pulled Aria from her grip, her scream falling rapidly away.
No time for panic. A blazing light stunned Sophy just before she thumped to the ground, winded. For a long, uncomfortable moment she couldn’t breathe. She tugged at the strap of her shoulder bag wrapped around her neck. Then the world went dark.
Sophy came to. She must have blacked out, but for how long? A second, a minute, an hour? Pushing herself up on her hands, she tried to orient herself, relieved she still had her bag and her precious phone. The light was dim, not dark like the tunnels beneath Castle Crioch.
Wind crashed through dark-leaved trees filling the space around her. An early sun dispelled the shadows cast by their trunks. How did she not get snagged in the branches when she fell? Glancing up, she wasn’t sure she had fallen. A sudden pain pierced her forehead. What had happened? She couldn’t quite recollect the last few minutes of her life. They were on a ghost tour. Except now she was here. And here wasn’t there. “Ohh?” she moaned. Everything hurt—her head, her face, her ears. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t feel twisted and bent out of shape.
A shrill scream sounded over the sound of the wind in the trees. Her head jerked up. “Aria?”
Sophy lurched to her feet and staggered at the pain in her head. Aria’s next scream impelled her forward; she had to find Aria, had to protect her.
Aria’s screams allowed Sophy to gain her bearings. Aria was close by. Sophy’s fingers clung to the bark of the nearest tree, but creaking branches made her push away quickly. She didn’t want to be squashed if one fell. Around her, light flickered. Dark patches came and went in her peripheral vision. She thought someone was there yet, when she turned, there was no one. Before she reached the shelter of the surrounding woods, a strange wind rocked her, and it felt as if bits of her were ripped away.
“I must have hit my head,” she said to herself. “I’m imagining things.”
Stepping under a large tree, Sophy called out. “Aria? Aria.”
No answer. Sophy kept walking. How had they had become separated? Short shrill screams pierced the wind. Sophy sped up.
Aria screamed again. Unhurt, opening her eyes proved too difficult. She was somewhere else. Felt it, knew it in her heart. It was in the air, in the ground and in the trees surrounding her. The taste of this place was on her tongue. She screamed again and then let her panic go.
As her heartbeat slowed, she drew in a breath of clear, sweet air. Instead of scrunching her eyes shut, she opened them. Living things around her exuded golden warmth. She saw life flowing through the trees; saw it in the water burbling in the stream beside her.
Calm, she told herself, be calm.
Crawling on hands and knees, she put her hands on the trunk of the nearest tree and felt the faint pulse of its life. Snatching her hand back, she curled herself into a ball and rocked back and forward. It couldn’t be happening, it couldn’t, she said like a litany to herself.
Sounds assaulted her ears, making her lift her head and hold her breath. Birds, insects, soft leaves fluttering on a light breeze, all made joyous, vibrant and overwhelming noise. She heard Sophy calling her name. What had happened? How had they ended up in this place, this beautiful place? She could barely remember what she was doing before finding herself here.
Sophy ducked under a low-lying branch and pushed through some undergrowth. With her ginger curls covering part of her face, Aria sat on the ground, next to a pool fed by a small stream. Relief rushed over her: thank goodness.
Sophy knelt next to her. “Are you hurt?”
Aria didn’t respond and kept staring wide-eyed at her surroundings. Sophy’s head pulsed with pain and her stomach twisted in knots. She leaned over to vomit on the ground. All she wanted to do was lie down and sleep until the weakness faded, yet some instinct made her resist the urge.
“Sophy?” Aria spoke at last. Sophy brushed the hair out of Aria’s face, and quickly assessed her for injury. Aria was unharmed, not even a graze on her arm or a smear of dirt on her jeans. Her eyes though were still wide and staring.
“I am here. We’re okay.’’
Aria’s green gaze met hers, focusing finally. “We are not…not…”
“No. No. We’re okay. We’re fine.”
Aria shook her head. “This place is different. I can see it, feel it. And look, my phone screen is completely blank. Nothing at all.”
Sophy’s brows cinched together. “I know something weird happened.”
“We are someplace else. I can feel life here, see it in the trees.”
Sophy’s mouth fell open. Aria spoke with such conviction that she became uneasy. She cast a glance around her, but all appeared to be normal. “No, we haven’t. We’re in Scotland—”
“The castle is not there.”
Sophy shifted her head, trying to pinpoint the castle, the road, the village and couldn’t. She couldn’t explain what happened. They were in the tunnel on a ghost tour…She shook her head. Nothing. She couldn’t remember. “Well, maybe we’re lost.” She noticed Aria assessing her. “What?”
“Your eyes…your eyes…” The hint of panic in Aria’s voice sent fear crawling up Sophy’s spine.
“What?” Sophy pressed her fingers around her eye socket, thinking it quite likely that her landing had given her a black eye.
“The colour has changed from dark blue to…to well…black. And your skin…so pale…”
“Right, I’m calling Maralain. She’ll know what to do.” Sophy pulled her phone out of her shoulder bag. The display was dead.
“It’s not working, is it?” Aria asked.
Sophy shoved the phone back into her bag, with a sigh of resignation. “No. The battery must be dead, though it was fully charged before we went on the tour. Well, if somehow we…er…the castle is not there then there must be a road or a village or a police station around here.”
“Do you really think so?” Aria’s voice sounded calmer.
“Yes, of course I do.” Even though Sophy was rattled by their experience, she needed to be strong for Aria. The sooner they found Maralain the better things would be.
“I doubt if you can walk anywhere,” Aria commented her gaze fixed on Sophy’s shaking hand and then pushed her hair behind her ears. “You’re not well.”
Dappled sunlight fell upon the nearby pond, revealing clear water and clean stones along the bottom.
“I think I’m okay. Some water might help.” Sophy crawled over to the water’s edge and splashed cold water over her face. Turning back to Aria, she asked, “Better?”
Her foster sister stood surveying the trees and the pond. Their gazes met and Aria nodded. Something in her expression led Sophy to believe that her looks had not improved.
They walked for a few hours with no sound of traffic or signs of people. Aria had not renewed her unnerving chatter about ‘feeling or seeing life’ in her surroundings, which allowed Sophy to file it away under hysteria in a moment of crisis. She tried not to let the complete absence of technology or human habitation unnerve her.
They entered a glade. In the centre, Sophy saw a beautiful, silver-barked tree. Sunlight reflected off its prism-like leaves and the air shimmered with colour, shifting and fading as the wind tugged lightly at the branches. Sophy’s heart lurched as she tried to get her brain to understand what it was that she was seeing.
Aria gasped. “Look at that!”
“Yes, odd,” she agreed. Her gaze roamed about the clearing, trying to put a frame of reference on what they were seeing and experiencing. “Is it real?”
“Beautiful…” Aria said in an awed whisper.
The crystal-clear, almost-silver leaves were vaguely oval shaped with protrusions that made them appear like small, solid stars. They looked as if they could fit into the palm of her hand. Was it a construction of some kind? Was it safe?
Aria reached out and touched one of the leaves.
Too late. The leaves began to play music. The sound reverberated around the clearing, like little bells tinkling. The melody amplified as it bounced off the forest, flowing back upon itself, deepening the song with multi-layers of notes.
“Listen to that,” Aria’s expression was full of rapture.
Sophy tried to block out the discordant sound. Even with her ears covered, the nerve-twisting feeling managed to snake up through her jaw into her eyes. Glancing upwards, Sophy spotted two silver leaves floating ever so slowly down. They mesmerised her, fluttering and skipping before her eyes. She couldn’t dodge out of their way. One landed on her chest, right below her collarbone. Disappearing through her clothes, it seared her skin. Pulling at the neck of her t-shirt, she tried to get rid of it, but she couldn’t see it, only feel it delving into her flesh.
She tried to warn Aria, but pain overwhelmed her and a strange sense of dislocation coursed within her body. Falling backwards into scattered leaf mulch, she heard Aria say, just before she lost consciousness, “Do you hear that? Feel that? Delightful…magic.”
Next thing she knew, Aria was leaning over her and shaking her by the shoulder. Sophy’s mouth opened, guppy-like, but no sound came out.
“Wake up! Did you faint?” Aria asked, cradling one of the crystal leaves in her hand.
“I’m okay,” Sophy finally managed to say in a croaky voice.
“That’s good. You know, Sophy, this tree, it’s not normal. Now I’m certain that—”
Sophy sat up and saw movement at the edge clearing. “Sssh”
“What is it?” Aria asked. “Do you hurt somewhere?”
“There’s someone there.” She pointed to the woods behind Aria.
Two archers crept out of the woods behind a man, who slowly approached them. He was young looking, maybe twenty-something, and wore coffee-coloured hose and a brown and green leather jerkin. Sophy was hoping that they were caught up in some kind of medieval re-enactment. Her gaze flicked to the tree, and she quickly squashed that train of thought.
“Lord.” Aria gasped and absent-mindedly dropped her leaf.
“Run! Get away,” Sophy said, keeping the man in her line of sight.
“It’s all right. He means us no harm.”
“Are you nuts?” More archers, with arrows nocked, emerged from the cover of the trees. Their chance of escape evaporated.
Aria turned to her. “They glow with a golden light and mean us no harm.”
“But they have arrows pointed at us.” Sophy climbed to her feet and tried to position herself in front of Aria. Obviously, Aria was affected by their fall.
The stranger approached them, hands held out from his sides. He was tanned and well built. Sophy could also see his clothing in more detail. The collar of his white undershirt, embroidered and elegant, kissed the edge of his clean-shaven, squarish chin. At first he bowed from the waist, left hand sweeping before him and then he looked quizzically at them both. In a smooth and rich voice, he said, “Please move away from the Crystal Tree.”
Aria gaped. “I’m not getting that.” She turned to Sophy and raised her eyebrows.
Sophy had understood him and that made her frown. “He said to move away from the tree.”
Holding on to Sophy’s arm, Aria took a step in the direction the man indicated. Aria whispered, “How can you understand him?”
“Don’t know, but perhaps we should do as he says before they decide to let those arrows fly.” Sophy took another step away from the tree, bringing Aria with her. Angling her head over her shoulder, she checked the position of the archers. Arranged in a rough semi-circle, they had bland expressions, but there was no mistaking the tension in their hands as they held the arrows on the strings.
“What language is he speaking? It sounds familiar, but I can’t seem to grasp it,” Aria said.
Frowning, the young man kept his gaze on Aria’s dropped leaf, glinting in the afternoon sun. He bent to pick it up, took a long step in their direction and placed it gently into Aria’s hand. She didn’t flinch or edge away and appeared quite comfortable with the stranger getting close to her. The men surrounding them shared looks and murmured. Sophy couldn’t quite catch what they were saying.
“The Crystal Tree has gifted you with a leaf, my lady,” he said, his gaze lingering on Aria.
“This?” Aria said, holding the delicate crystal leaf. “It’s very beautiful.” She smiled, then looked over her shoulder at Sophy. “I can understand him now.” She lifted the leaf. “I was right. It’s magical.”
“Sure it is. Why are they pointing arrows at us?” Sophy glowered at the man. When his gaze met hers, his mouth tensed. She tried to fix her hair by hooking the loose strands behind her ears and refrained from scratching her neck. It didn’t seem to help.
“Forgive me,” he began, facing Aria. “My name is Dellbright. The Crystal Tree Woods are in my care, and the tree itself is sacred to us. It does not give gifts lightly.”
“We didn’t harm the tree,” Aria said, smiling shyly. “I think it sang to us.”
He nodded. “We heard. We do not often meet travellers in these woods. Have you travelled far?”
Aria smiled at him again. “Yes…er we don’t know, actually.”
Sophy moved forward to stand by Aria, ignoring as best she could the six archers with arrows clenched against their bowstrings.
“This is…Sophy and I’m called Aria… Where are we exactly?”
“You are near my home, Valley Keep,” he said.
“Do you have a phone? We need to make a call,” Sophy asked.
“A phone?” He shook his head. “No. I do not…” He chewed his lower lip, then as if remembering himself, he said, “Forgive me for being so discourteous, but I must ask you to accompany me.”
Sophy heard one of the men behind her whisper. “There are two of them…”
When she swung round to look at who was talking, she met blank expressions. Turning back, she saw Dellbright take a gold chain from around his neck. “Please let me,” he said, holding out his hand for Aria’s leaf. He deftly attached the leaf to the chain. “May I?” he asked and, after Aria’s nod, placed the chain around her neck.
“Thank you,” Aria said.
His eyes, full of suspicion, moved to Sophy’s face. He didn’t ask if she had a leaf. Then again, she didn’t want to say what happened to hers. She scarce believed it had happened and didn’t expect anyone else would either.
“The archers are here because of the Puri raiders. Do not be alarmed.”
“Raiders?” Sophy repeated, feeling dizzy. “What are they?”
“Nothing to worry about, I assure you,” he said as they followed him out of the glade and into the forest. The archers disappeared into the surrounding trees. Sophy could only see one or two of them at any given time, their presence enough to prevent escape.
The party continued walking, for perhaps an hour, when Dellbright stopped.
“Would you like to rest? You appear tired.”
“Yes,” Sophy said as she dropped to the ground.
“Can I get you some water to drink?” Dellbright asked.
“Thank you,” Aria said breathily. “Water would be great, wouldn’t it?”
Sophy nodded. Dellbright stared at the ground and took a few steps to the left. He knelt down and spoke to the ground.
Sophy’s eyebrows shot up, and she looked over to Aria, who smiled as if the goings on around her were perfectly natural. Curious, Sophy climbed to her feet and followed Aria to stand near where Dellbright knelt. Water bubbled up from the ground like a playground tap. What the hell?
Dellbright glanced up, eyes crinkled with a smile. “Come closer and drink. The water is fresh and sweet.”
Aria knelt, leaned over and drank deeply. “That’s delicious. Thank you.”
Sophy leaned over, her lips tracking the water as it slid back into the ground. She pulled up short of the grass and frowned. Dellbright’s mouth hung open, and his cheeks grew pink. “I do not understand. I have never seen it act this way before. Please, I will call it again.”
And he did, but as soon as she drew closer, it fell away. Her proximity to the water was driving her crazy. The suspicious look Dellbright gave her didn’t help. After three more tries, and Dellbright’s increasingly sour expression, Aria asked if she could look in Sophy’s shoulder bag. Aria took the cap off a deodorant spray and rinsed it before filling it and handing it to her.
Sophy drank deeply, having the cap refilled many times before quenching her thirst. The water receded into the ground, with only a small damp patch of earth to evidence its existence. Fixing her eyes on Dellbright, she asked, “How did you do that?”
“I asked and it was given.”
“Given? What is given?” Aria asked.
Dellbright turned toward Aria. “You do not know of the given?” He gaze shifted between their blank faces. “Argenterra is famous for its given, bounty and craft.”
Aria said. “Won’t you tell us about them?”
Sophy sat down on the ground and groaned with her head in her hands. Argenterra! A bloody nutter! This was taking the whole ghost tour thing way too far.
“Are you all right?” Aria asked, squatting beside her.
She threw her head back and glared at them both. “I’m fine. What is wrong with you?”
Aria leaned back and replied, “I feel perfectly well.” Then turning her attention back to the Dellbright, she said, “Please, tell us.”
“Very well. The water was given. Bounty is for taking and Craft is what we make with our hands.”
Aria drew her curls behind her ears. “I’m not sure what you mean, are your clothes given, bounty or craft?”
He looked aghast. “My clothes are craft, of course, but of the very basic craft, I assure you.” Gesturing to the trees, he stood up. “Fruit on the trees is bounty. It can be plucked. However, if it is not the season for fruit, the given will ripen it. Such is the way of a traveller who finds himself without sustenance. If he asks, Argenterra will give it to him.”
He stopped for a moment as if thinking of a better way to explain. Then he walked to a bush that was full of green leaves and small closed buds. “The water was given, but it was there under the ground. I only asked it to come to the surface, thus not so difficult. This bush has the possibility of a flower.” He spoke quietly to the bush and stroked it leaves. The bud grew and opened to a beautiful, green-petalled flower, which he handed to Aria.
When his eyes fell upon Sophy again, the smile in them died. “Let us continue on,” he said blandly and marched ahead, stopping to make sure Aria was following.
Sophy kept opening and closing her mouth. The land? Bounty? Was everyone but her crazy? She raced after them. Two archers flanked her, giving each other hand signals.
“So, Dellbright, are you some kind of magician?”
He turned back to her. “All who live in this land may ask and it will be given. Wait, I think I know what you are asking. Do you mean am I an adept?”
Sophy nodded, she thought that’s what she meant.
“No, alas, I am not an adept. The adepts are recluses who study the mysteries of the land. They have spent many hundreds of years studying them, including the given.”
He continued walking, eyes constantly straying to Aria. Sophy chewed her lips and tugged on her hair. There was too much to process, too much to deal with. Her heart beat a little faster, and she tried to quiet her anxiety, until a couple of archers leapt out of the trees and startled her.
Aria could see the edge of the forest and the smattering of sunshine as it gilded the edges of the leaves. A faint breeze shifted the branches. As they passed through the last of the trees, she saw green fields gently undulating, and the folds of darker hills beyond. Aria breathed in the clean, fresh air and the feeling of life that washed over her, filling her up. She marvelled at the thought she was in another world. The concept and the reality no longer frightened her. Argenterra felt like home. Now she was out in the open, she noticed the sunlight had a bluish hue, another hint they were somewhere else entirely.
Dellbright emerged from the forest behind her. There was something about his smile and the way he looked at her. Her breath caught when he grinned at her. The essence of him glowed like a beacon. Aria looked away in case he could read her thoughts in her expression. It was not right to feel that way about someone she hardly knew. Then came Sophy, a pale echo of herself. Aria could hardly account for the difference in Sophy, her beauty smudged as if by an ineffective attempt to erase it. Now with almost translucent skin, she appeared bloodless, particularly with her dark, straight hair emphasising her pallid complexion.
Aria could not take her gaze away as Sophy stumbled to a halt to take in the view
“Is your friend well?” Dellbright asked her quietly, leaning in close.
“I’m fine,” replied Sophy as she stepped beside them. “Stop asking.”
Dellbright stepped ahead of them allowing them some privacy.
“You have been acting a little…well, strange,” Aria said.
“I’m not acting strange. I thought you were, acting all friendly with our captor.”
“But he’s nice. Can’t you see that? Can you see any of the beauty around you, the colours, the freshness, the life?”
Sophy cast her gaze around. “It looks pretty enough, but nothing out of the ordinary. Do I need to remind you that we’re prisoners? They’re as likely to kill us as they are to smile at us. I don’t trust this place, or him.”
Sophy’s comments were like a punch in the stomach. “I don’t understand you. Are you experiencing something different from me?” Aria could sense things she hadn’t before. Lowering her lashes, she looked at the archers and then at Dellbright. She could see that golden glow to them, a new ability to be sure, but Sophy was a faded version of her former self — and had no golden glow. Closing her eyes to shut out her view of them all, the sense of the other men was still there, although diminished in intensity.
“Please follow me,” Dellbright said, interrupting her little experiment. “There is someone I would like you to meet.”
“Aria? Do you have my bag?” Sophy asked.
Aria lifted her empty hands. “No. We must have left it behind when we stopped for a drink.”
“But it has my phone in it as well as other things. We have to go back for it.”
Aria considered her surroundings. This place did not have technology as far as she could see. The bows and arrows hinted at a society less advanced than their own. Dellbright’s clothes were well made to the point of envy, but still hand crafted. Making an issue of going back for the phone would be pointless. There was no network to support it, and no electricity to recharge the batteries. She was about to say so to Sophy when Dellbright interrupted again. “I am sorry your possessions are missing. We do not have time to go back for them now. It will be dark soon. Is it important?”
“No. I do not think it is,” Aria replied, adding when Sophy let out an inarticulate sound of protest, “I’ll talk to her.” While they followed Dellbright, Aria did her best to reassure Sophy that the phone was useless and not worth worrying over. Besides, she reminded Sophy that the ghost tour had been her idea, after all and that their current predicament was therefore her fault.
A camp came into view with rows of triangular tents, encircling two larger ones. The late evening sun caused the shadows to lengthen. The sound of men talking and horses neighing reached them. Sophy stopped complaining about the missing mobile phone and gaped at the scene unfolding before them.
Sophy’s trepidation grew. The leaf in her chest sat like a hard lump, and she ached to push at it, except that would draw attention. About twenty men lounged outside tents, dressed in similar clothing to Dellbright and his archers. Some pretended to be busy, but Sophy saw that they peered at them as they walked between the tents to a larger, green tent.
Aria’s lecture about the lack of technology, while annoying, appeared to be true. What she was seeing had to be real. She really was somewhere else. There was a magic called the given, which she could not feel, but could see the results of, and there was a crystal leaf embedded in her chest.
Before she had any time to adjust to these profound happenings, two men lifted the flap of the large green tent, and Dellbright ushered them inside. Sophy tensed as she examined the shaded interior. Light from a brazier spilled over the patterned rugs, and there were big, colourful embroidered cushions scattered around the floor. On her left was a flat-topped chest, and in the gloom she could make out other items of furniture.
“Excellency?” Dellbright called.
A tall, broad man with long, almost white, blond hair bound in a queue, stood up from behind a desk and came forward. He was wearing a dark blue vest and beige trousers. At first he looked askance at them, then recovering quickly, he laughed softly. “Cousin, what strange game you have caught for dinner? Two ladies snared in Crystal Tree Woods. I am in awe of your skill.”
Dellbright grimaced and flushed slightly. “Lady Aria and Lady Sophy, let me introduce you to his Excellency, Oakheart of the Silverbow, the high king’s ambassador, among other things,” Dellbright said politely. “He jests, of course.”
Sophy couldn’t restrain her eyebrow at the honorific Dellbright had given them. She didn’t think she’d ever been called a lady before, except when being scolded while in school.
“Pleased to meet you, excellency,” Aria said as she curtsied elegantly, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
On the verge of being overwhelmed, Sophy stood there dumbly and it wasn’t until Aria coughed purposefully, that she tried to curtsey. “Pleased to meet you, my lord, I mean…excellency.” Then she cursed herself for being so awkward.
“Please call me Oakheart. Everyone else does.” He smiled at Sophy, but she couldn’t tell if it was a real smile. Although, he did not put on the charm for Aria in the way Dellbright did.
Pulling out a chair, he sat down and stared at them. “This is most unusual, cousin,” he said to Dellbright, but his eyes never left them. Aria stood radiant, and Sophy could only feel dishevelled. They looked at her as if there was something terribly wrong. Did she have two heads?
Since the ambassador made free to study them, she decided to do likewise. Oakheart’s skin was tanned but his features were bland, like a pile of sand. His green eyes were his most remarkable feature.
“How long were you in the woods before Dellbright found you?” Oakheart asked, suddenly all business.
“Not long,” Aria said.
“’Tis said that the pathway that leads from other worlds to Crystal Tree Woods is transient. I am afraid you cannot return the way you came.”
Sophy’s head spun and her knees trembled. “We can’t go back?”
“This is the first time such an event has occurred in my lifetime. We know the histories and the tales, but as far as I know none have been able to find that pathway again.”
“So you were expecting us?” Sophy found that rather sinister, considering the welcome they had received.
Oakheart scratched his chin and shrugged. “There were signs that led us to believe a visitor was to arrive. It grows late. I think ’tis best that you rest here for the night so we can arrange to take you safely to Valley Keep in the morning. Dellbright might have mentioned we are wary of Puri raiders. They do not often venture this far south. But it pays to be careful at a time like this. Forgive me if I place guards around this pavilion. ’Tis for your protection. We will have a meal sent in.” Oakheart glanced at Dellbright.
“Yes…and some hot water for bathing…” Dellbright added, his cheeks reddening.
Oakheart stood, smiled again, and tugged on the hem of his vest, which Sophy could see was actually a doublet. “Perhaps we will break our fast together at sunrise.”
Aria smiled. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“But this is your tent, isn’t it?” Sophy asked Oakheart.
Aria jumped in. “We aren’t putting you out, are we?”
Oakheart frowned. “Nay, I will share with Dellbright. And as he does not snore…overloudly…I shall be comfortable. I thank you for your concern.”
Dellbright lifted the tent flap, and Oakheart, a whole head and shoulders taller than him, crouched down to exit the tent.
“I don’t like this…” Sophy said and went to peek out the tent flap. A guard wearing a blue tabard stood there. She stepped back and put her hands on her hips. “Dellbright was waiting for us and now we can’t leave. I don’t believe this crap about Puri raiders. What are they?”
Aria frowned. “Sophy, don’t be difficult. Where would we go?”
Sophy plonked herself down on one of the cushions, grabbed a chunk of her hair and began twirling it around her fingers. “Why do they look at me strangely? Do I look that bad?”
Aria’s expression grew serious. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you look different…like a faded you.”
Sophy stopped twisting her hair and her chin dropped. “I do not.”
“You do. If I can see it, maybe they can too.” Aria arrayed herself gracefully on one of the cushions.
Sophy sat forward. “Really? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, but it could be why they are acting wary. We are strangers, after all.”
Sophy climbed to her feet and paced on the carpet. “Pfft! They think I’m an evil apparition, do they?”
“I don’t know…what they think. But I know we can trust them.”
Sophy stopped her pacing and face Aria. “They like you, I can tell. Somehow you look beautiful here.”
“What do you mean?” Aria’s expression was puzzled yet slightly eager.
“Not that you didn’t before, but it’s more pronounced. Your skin shines. I can’t explain it.”
“Oh,” Aria replied. There was a smile on her face as her gaze roamed over the interior of the pavilion.
There was a hail from outside the tent. The flaps opened and a couple of guards brought in two servings of roast vegetables and meat. Aria thanked the guard, who replied, “Water is being heated for your bath and will be brought to you shortly.”
“Thanks,” Sophy said to the men as they left. Turning to Aria she added, “Well, we don’t have to worry about them being vegetarians.” Sophy’s stomach growled loudly.
“What? I haven’t eaten for ages…a day… maybe more.”
With a nod from Aria, Sophy began wolfing down the food. Aria ate hungrily, too, but took a touch longer to chew. Sophy had already put down her plate when there was another other hail from outside the tent. When Aria invited whoever it was in, four of the blue tabard wearing guards came in, followed by four green clad ones. Each group carried an oval bath tub, oozing steam, which they carefully placed on the matting.
As the guards filed out, a shy, young guard left a pile of fresh clothes on top of the chest by the opening, then bowed neatly and left. Sophy stepped over and did a quick inspection. There were two lightweight, pale lemon-coloured linen shifts, with fine, rose-scented soaps carved into the shape of rosebuds nestled within them. Several linen towels sat at the bottom of the pile.
Aria tied the flaps of the pavilion shut. “Okay,” she said. “We’ve got some privacy so let’s get busy. I feel like I’ve been rolling in muck.” She started to peel off her t-shirt. “There’s a fancy chamber pot over behind that screen.”
Sophy headed to the corner to relieve herself and then wasted no time in stripping off her jeans and t-shirt and easing into one of the tubs.
“I never thought I’d feel such pleasure again,” Aria said with a drawn out sigh as she lowered herself in the water and lathered the perfumed soap.
Sophy let the hot water ease her mind. “You think we can trust these people. Why?”
Aria rubbed soap across her left shoulder and met Sophy’s eye. “I can see their essence shining out of them, at least, I think that is what it is. Sort of overwhelming at first, but I’m getting used to it. The Crystal Tree was something else altogether. When I touched it, I was reborn. What did you feel?”
Sophy splashed around in the bath, flicking suds. “Besides incredibly ill? Nothing. Everything is the same for me. I don’t get it. Until I saw the Crystal Tree and Dellbright, I just thought we were lost.” Sophy tentatively touched the spot where the leaf dwelt. That was too hard to talk about. “Dellbright’s given was a tad interesting.”
“You know, when he used the given I could feel it happening. This place…”
“Don’t tell me about that. I couldn’t feel anything, except my eyes bugging from my head. What about your parents? They must be beside themselves by now.”
Aria let out breath slowly and lay her head back to stare at the roof of the tent. “They will be worried. But there’s nothing we can do about it, is there?”
Sophy lathered some more soap on her skin. “I guess.”
“I’m happy to be here.”
“We don’t have much choice, do we? There are guards outside. Perhaps you may have noticed them.”
Aria smiled as she lazed in the tub. “I like here, guards and all.”
“Especially Dellbright,” Sophy muttered under her breath. She glanced over at Aria, but her friend had undone her braid and was diligently scrubbing her scalp. Sophy washed the soap from her own hair.
Sophy had only that moment slipped into her shift and was drying her hair when there was another hail from outside. Aria quickly wrapped a blanket around herself where she was lying down on some cushions. Sophy undid the tent flap and gazed out. Four men waited. She stepped back, and they walked in and removed the tubs. Too late, Sophy saw that one of them had gathered up their discarded jeans, t-shirts and underclothes.
“Hey, wait. Don’t take those…” she said. Already, the tubs were through the flaps, if she didn’t act quickly, there wouldn’t be much she could do. Frustrated, she halted the last guard as he turned to bow. “May I have our clothes back?”
“Good rest, my lady,” he said as if he hadn’t heard. He bowed and departed.
Perplexed, Sophy redid the flaps. Sighing heavily, she went to the cushions she was to share with Aria. Why did they take their clothes? To wash them? That thought made Sophy uncomfortable. Leaning back, she huddled into her blankets to ponder their situation.
“Is everything all right?” Aria said sleepily from under the covers.
Sophy put out the lamp and a rich darkness filled the pavilion. “Yes, everything is fine. Go to sleep.”
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