Authors: Barbara Kloss
It was such an odd word—boyfriend—and I didn't like applying that particular title to Alex. I couldn't put a finger on why, exactly. The word felt shallow and confined—its scope infinitesimal compared to all Alex represented for me. It was the kind of word you used for the guy you had a crush on and would sometimes go out with and kiss. However, it wasn't the kind of word you used for your childhood best friend, who you'd fallen completely and irrevocably head-over-heels in love with and would sacrifice anything to protect.
Not that Alex needed my protection. And he seemed to enjoy reminding me of this little fact every time we would stop for the night.
Just like he was doing now.
He raked a hand through his now sweaty dark hair before coming at me again.
He lunged, frowning. "You're holding back."
I parried and jumped back. "I don't want to hurt you."
A grin touched his lips, as if the idea amused him. "You won't."
He didn't think I could, did he?
I attacked, but he was too quick on his feet. It was like trying to catch a tornado. "Would you slow down?" I gasped.
This time he smiled broadly, but it didn't keep him from striking again. The idea crossed my mind that any normal person would probably consider our relationship sadistic.
Still, it was awkward—at least for me. I didn't know how to be "more than friends." The subjects I'd read and studied covered things like the rise and fall of the Roman Empire or common equestrian practices. Not How to Be a Girlfriend. That was completely new territory for me, and it didn't help having Vera around all the time. I didn't feel like I was free to figure it out with her always watching. It was like constantly having an audience when you shower.
Which I hadn't in two days. That had to be a distinct violation of Girlfriend Etiquette.
Alex kicked my legs out from under me and we fell to the ground, unarmed and rolling. This…this was where I felt most comfortable: grappling with no weapon except my body. When I couldn't really see his face or look into those hypnotizing green eyes. Where I could just
in ways I'd done so many times I could do them in my sleep.
But Alex had been a lot lighter back then. Managing his mass and density was a bit of a challenge now. However, it helped that I could anticipate his movements due to my strange ability to sense others' emotions, and that ability was strongest with him. Alex had a piece of this ability, too, but only when it came to my emotions. Even so, his senses weren't as attuned to mine as mine were to his. So when he tried to hook my arms, I was ready for him, and when he tried to secure my legs, I'd twisted just right so that I'd flipped him around and I was on top of him with my knee digging into his lower back, pinning his arms behind him.
He smiled, though half his face was in the dirt. "Better," he grunted.
"Better." I panted. "You were just beaten by a girl half your size, and all you can say is 'better'?"
He moved quickly. Before I could think, he'd thrown me off, pressed his knees in to my quads, and secured one of my arms at my side while pinning the other over my head.
His dark hair fell forward as he leaned over me, our breaths mixed in a cloud of condensation.
"Like I said," he whispered. "Better." His last word dropped on my lips, light as a feather. His eyes flickered over my face with something in them that made my heart skip its next beat. "Never drop your guard," he said as a bead of sweat slid down his temple.
"I can't even
my guard." I squirmed against his knees still digging into my quads. "Never mind the dropping part."
He chuckled, a soft sound that resonated through me. I suddenly found that I couldn't move. Even if I'd wanted to, I wouldn't have been able to. His eyes had that effect on me, unfortunately. Especially when they were looking into mine the way they were then, and I suddenly became very aware of his weight against my body, his legs on top of mine, his fingers wrapped tightly around my wrists, and how close our faces were. All I had to do was tilt my chin…
"Sorry. Is this a bad time?" Vera appeared holding a stack of wood, and she didn't look the least bit apologetic.
Alex hopped fluidly upon his feet and extended his hand, which I accepted, and he pulled me to standing. My quads throbbed where his knees had been, and my heart was still pounding. But that wasn't because of the fighting.
"Here." He walked toward Vera. "Let me help."
She ungraciously dumped the wood where she stood, then stalked over to a rock and sat, arms folded over her voluptuous chest.
Honestly. It had to be below freezing and she still had cleavage exposed.
Alex set to work arranging the wood while Vera picked mud and pine needles from her soles with the tip of one of her daggers.
"Would you like to try tonight?' Alex glanced at me over his shoulder.
I hesitated. "Sure," I said, though trying was the last thing I wanted to do. I suppressed my frustration as I crouched beside him.
He waited, silent.
Relax, Daria. It's just fire. A little, tiny flame, that's all. You're not trying to set fire to the entire forest.
But that was the thing. It
. Every single time I tried, it felt as if someone were trying to turn me inside out. There had been a block on my magic, placed there by my beloved grandfather the tyrant. In an act of desperation, I had managed to remove his block, but not without inflicting significant internal damage. Every time I tried using magic—even the smallest bit—it hurt. Before we'd left the castle, I'd managed to dim the lights in my room, which had given me hope that the wound was healing. But it was a faulty hope. It still hurt, and it almost seemed as if it was getting worse.
Still, Alex kept giving me the chance to try with small things, like starting a fire. But I was like Pavlov's dog: I winced in anticipation of the pain I knew would soon follow.
I shut my eyes, steadying my breath.
Heat. That's all you need to think about. Heat.
Warmth bubbled in my gut.
The warmth turned scalding and I clenched my jaw in pain.
Focus. Breathe. Push the heat out of you.
I strained, certain I would shatter all of my teeth, and with a gasp I fell forward on my hands and knees, heaving. I fisted the ground, waiting for the throbbing in my gut to subside. Just waiting and waiting while it squeezed my insides into a pulp. Alex laid his hand gently on my shoulder, just to let me know he was there, and once the pain subsided he removed his hand. I sat back on my heels, my heart pounding and my head throbbing, and winced my eyes open.
No fire. Not even a spark.
Vera huffed somewhere behind me.
A small pulse of energy passed from Alex to the logs, and a sudden wave of heat warmed my face as they ignited. It was so easy for him. So natural, like breathing.
"It'll come," he whispered. He touched my knee before standing, and then walked over to Parsec, his black stallion. Calyx and Nimarra stood beside Parsec. Nimarra was Vera's horse—a beautiful, chocolate brown mare with eyes like obsidian. I liked Nimarra, though she didn't like me. In fact, she was very much like a cat. You could stroke her mane exactly twice, but try for a third, and you might just lose a few fingers.
The perfect horse for Vera.
I hugged my knees and stared absently at the fire. This would make our third night out in the middle of the woods. The temperature was dropping fast, and when I looked up, I noticed the underbellies of dark gray clouds through the giant pines. It would probably snow tonight. I picked my cloak off the ground and shrugged into it.
Alex dropped my bindingbooks beside me.
"Thanks," I said.
"Sure." He sat beside me and stretched his legs before him.
Both nights since we'd left the castle, I'd checked the bindingbooks to see if either Stefan or Fleck had written. I was anxious to hear from them—to know if they were all right. Fleck was with Tran, so I wasn't as concerned about him, but Stefan…
I trailed my finger over the dragon crest embossed on the cover of his bindingbook. Ever since what had happened during the games, my grandfather, the king, had shut himself away in his chambers, admitting no one but Headmaster Ambrose. I didn't mind my grandfather's absence—in fact, I'd welcomed it—but a kingdom couldn’t be without its king, so my brother had been forced to step in as acting regent. This responsibility had fallen prematurely, as far as Stefan was concerned, but I knew deep down that he was ready. He had been trained all his life for this role, and this kingdom was fortunate to have a man like Stefan acting on its behalf.
It didn't stop me from feeling guilty, though. Guilt that I'd abandoned him at the castle while he'd been hurting and despairing. But I'd also known I needed to do this. Stefan and I each had to deal with the repercussions of recent events; his method was diplomacy and my method was something much more physical. Action helped distract me from the pain of the gaping hole inside of me.
I sighed. I missed my brother. I missed his dimpled smile and his paranoiac protectiveness. Surprisingly, though, he hadn't told me not to go on this mission. He'd almost seemed eager for Alex and me to leave.
I looked up at Alex, who stared at the fire while holding Cicero's compass in his hands. Cicero's compass was a curious object. It had two arrows: one to give direction and the other to give purpose, and a perimeter filled with runes and strange symbols. I'd never had much luck with it, but Alex had brought it along. Even now, the arrows on the compass were slowly turning round and round and round in opposing directions. His thumb absently pushed the clasp in and out, in and out, and when he felt my gaze, he stopped fidgeting with the compass and looked into my eyes.
"You've been quiet," I said. It was true. Ever since we'd left the castle, he had withdrawn into himself more with each passing day. I hadn't asked him about it yet, because I wanted to give him his space in case he'd needed it. But it bothered me. I wished I could crawl into his head and read his thoughts. Or maybe it was a blessing that I couldn't.
Alex studied me a moment then shut the compass with a sharp
. He smiled, but it didn't touch his eyes. "Hungry?"
I guess he still needed that space. "Starved." I smiled, hoping to help ease whatever was gnawing at him.
He stood and walked back to the horses; our food was still tied to their saddles.
"I'm going to find some water," Vera announced and set off before either of us had a moment to say anything.
So, I set to Stefan's bindingbook.
For some reason I was unusually nervous about opening it. What if he hadn't written? Or what if he had written and he had bad news? I wanted to know the bad news just as much as I didn't, because out here I couldn't do anything to help him. I would only worry, and worrying never gives any good gifts. Worrying only gives headaches and panic attacks.
Very slowly, I lifted the cover and glanced at the first page.
I pursed my lips and let out a short, irritated breath.
"Nothing?" Alex handed me a few pieces of dried meat and resumed his seat beside me, close enough that our thighs touched.
I glared at the blank page. "No."
He glanced sideways at me. "He'll write, Daria. He's busy right now."
"And? I'm his sister and for all he knows, I could be dead right now." I shut the cover and dropped the book rather unceremoniously on the ground beside me.
Alex arched a brow. "But you're not."
"A fortuitous circumstance for him," I replied. "I'm not asking for him to write a novel. A simple 'hi' would do. Or even an 'I'm alive' or 'I miss you being around here to make my life miserable.'"
Alex chuckled while he chewed.
"Honestly," I continued, tearing off a bite-sized piece of meat. "It's been two full days; how busy can he be?"
"Quite busy, I imagine." Alex swallowed. "An entire kingdom has just been dropped into his lap and he has no one around to help him manage it."
"No one." I grunted. Stefan had the entire guild to help him manage it and more advisors than he probably wanted. Which only supported the suspicion that had been slowly creeping into the back of my mind: Stefan hadn't written because he was afraid to tell me what was happening.
It would be just like him, wanting to protect me from the truth. Not wanting me to worry so that I could have the confidence to keep moving forward. He would support me if it killed him in the process.
"I think he hasn't written because something bad has happened and he doesn't want me to worry about it," I said.
Alex grabbed a stick and poked at the fire. "Well, then, he's not doing a very good job, because you're worrying about it anyway."
I chewed on the meat Alex had given me, which, according to him, came from some kind of rabbit found only in the forests of Valdon. It was tough but tasty, if not a little heavy on the pepper, and I took a sip from my canteen to wash it down. I had to crane my head back far because it was almost empty. "Do you think he'd tell me if things were getting worse?"
Alex set down his stick and leaned back on his arms, watching the fire. "Probably not." He paused, the firelight flickering brightly in his eyes. "But he believes in you, Daria. He believes in what we're doing. He wouldn't have allowed us to leave otherwise."
I twisted the cap on my canteen and wiped my lips. "Three more days?"
"Assuming the weather holds." He squinted at the sky. "Then we should reach the Narrows."
The Narrows, I'd been told, was a sort of natural rock bridge between two mountain peaks, and it had been named the Narrows due to its width of a few feet and an encouraging rail of sheer cliff on either side. I wasn't looking forward to it. Even Calyx got all jittery when Alex mentioned it.
The Narrows was also the link from Valdon to the outer plains of Gesh, and from there it would be another week—tops. There might have been a different, faster way to Gesh, but we needed to stay as invisible as possible, and this, Vera assured us, was the most invisible way. No one used the Narrows—especially in the middle of winter.