The Right Thing
She’s an auburn haired, hazel eyed, Scottish teenager, amateur detective, and a “golden girl” who rarely gets in trouble. She also answers to “Kee” or “Elf,” and has no middle name.
Audrey Violet Grashen
She’s Kelia’s raven haired, green eyed younger sister. She’s the family troublemaker, and her style is something close to Goth.
Emma Rose Grashen
She’s Kelia’s blond haired, blue eyed youngest sister. She’s very sensitive and has an overactive imagination.
Mum/Andrea Siver Grashen
She’s Kelia’s mother, and has blond hair and green eyes. She’s overprotective, and has lived in Scotland since she was married, yet has no accent or anything else that would suggest that she lived anywhere besides her childhood home of England.
A loud crash coming from downstairs was what started it. As soon as the sound reached my ears, I leaped off my bed and dashed down the stairs in our two-story Edinburgh, Scotland house. What I saw at the bottom of the stairs stopped me in my tracks, which is saying a lot. I’ve seen the results of more bombs, kidnappings, murders, and other bad stuff like that than some policemen. However, those didn’t scare me nearly as much as this did. No way, no how.
What was this terrifying scene? My eight year old sister, Emma Rose Grashen, stood over a broken vase, one that was completely shattered. She was also crying.
Now, I know this probably sounds strange, but let me explain. This wasn’t any old vase. This was Mum’s favorite vase, an heirloom from her side of the family, and an antique from the seventeen-hundreds or something like that. Father had warned her many a time to put it in a cabinet or something, but Mum wouldn’t listen, despite the fact that the vase was one of her most prized possessions. Now it was broken. Add the fact that my little sister was crying, something I absolutely hate, and you’ve got a personal disaster.
The sound of running feet coming in our direction broke me out of my trance. I looked down the hall just in time to see Audrey Violet Grashen, my thirteen year old other sister, come dashing towards us, socks slipping slightly on the polished wood floor. “Audrey! Stop!” I yelled.
She immediately put on the brakes, but she still slid. She stopped just short of the first pieces of glass, and I breathed a sigh of relief. “Whoa! What happened here, Kelia? Do yu know?”
I hid a smile. Audrey and Emma both spoke more like Mum, with just a hint of Scottish accent. It was a stark contrast to my own heavily accented tongue, and stood out instantly in the even heavier accents that I’d heard in the downtown Edinburgh area. “Nay, I don’t, but I’d b’ likin’ t’ know that meself.” I said. I carefully picked my way over to Emma. “What happened, sweet lass? Are yu hurt?”
Emma shook her head. “No, but I broke Mama’s favorite vase! Now she’ll hate me forever!”
I hugged my sister. Being accustomed to disaster can be very useful when it comes to a crisis. “Now don’t yu b’ silly, Emma-lass. Mum could never b’ hatin’ yu.”
Emma began sobbing harder. “But I broke her vase, Kee!” I smiled at the fact that she could remember to use one of my nicknames, and hugged her closer. That was when Mum appeared on the scene.
Incredibly protective, Mum’s first instinct was to be, well, a mother. “What happened? Are any of you hurt?”
I stood, surrendering Emma to Mum. “I’d not b’ thinkin’ that anyone’s hurt, Mum. Emma’s a wee bit upset, but that b’ all.”
Behind me, Audrey snorted, and I turned to glare at her. I desperately hoped that she got my message that this wasn’t something to laugh about. It didn’t matter. A gasp form Mum made her stop immediately.
“Who did this?” I turned to see that Mum was as angry as she ever got. I gulped, remembering how Mum had instructed us to be very careful around her vase, and how she had warned us of dire consequences if it was broken. Now, it looked like one of us was about to face those consequences. “I repeat,” Mum said, “Who did this?”
I glanced around and saw both Emma and Audrey open their mouths to speak, and knew that I had to do something. If the punishment’s anywhere near as harsh as I keep imagining . . . Emma will think Mum really is going to hate her forever. And Audrey’s already in trouble with Mum because of her sneaking out, though I know she’d take the blame. I gulped again. There’s only one thing to do. “I did it.” I said, before anyone else spoke.
Behind and to the side of me, Audrey and Emma gasped. In front of me, Mum quailed. Inwardly, I smiled grimly. As the oldest, Mum was a little more protective of me. Most of the time, I hated it. Now, it might work in my favor. “I did it.” I repeated.
Audrey found her voice. “But that’s not-“
I cut her off with a glare. “Yu b’ quiet!” I hissed.
Mum regained some of her ferocity. “Kelia Grashen! I’ve told you hundreds of times, be careful around my vase! It’s been in the Siver family for years!” I winced. Every time Mum’s English side of the family is mentioned, it means someone’s about to get in very hot water. “Clean up this mess, young lady! And after that, you’re grounded for a week! No TV, only the most necessary computer access, no going out except for school, which means I’m keeping your car keys for now, and . . . ” Here her mother instincts kicked in “You can either keep your iPod or whatever it’s called, or you can have limited cell phone usage. Take your pick.”
I pulled my silver iPod from my pocket and handed it to Mum. I couldn’t risk giving Mum my cell phone. Who knows how many of my important contacts she might accidentally delete, or worse, block calls from? “Yes, Mum.” I said. Then, I hurried away to get a broom and dustpan. It’s going to be a long week.
Hours later, I was lying on my bed, making what I knew would be my last private phone call for a week. I quickly found the number in my contacts and pressed the button to call it, knowing that time was of the essence. I muttered under my breath as the other person’s phone rang. “Come on, pick up the phone!”
“Hello?” The cheerful male voice of Ian Ross, my on-and-off boyfriend, bounced into my ear.
“Hello, Ian.” My gloomy tone was an enormous contrast between the two of us.
“Kelia, love! Yu called early! What’d b’ the occasion?”
I rolled my eyes. “Ian, please. This b’ me last private call for a week. I dinna want yu t’ spoil it with callin’ me love.”
Ian was still incredibly cheerful. “Dinna b’ tellin’ me that yu b’ in trouble with yur mum! Kelia, yu’re the golden girl o’ the school, yur family, Edinburgh, an’ all o’ . . . yu know. Yu’re never in trouble!”
I sighed. “Well, Ian, yu b’ wrong for once. I b’ grounded for a week. I won’t b’ able t’ come to our night out Thursday, yu hear?”
Ian’s reply was less cheerful. “Ah well. I suppose that I won’t b’ dyin’ from not seein’ yu. Farewell for now, Kelia.”
“Farewell.” I no sooner finished the word when Mum entered.
“Kelia, no more phone calls in your room until your punishment is over, you understand?”
I nodded. “I b’ understandin’, Mum. Dinna worry.”
Mum smiled at me. “Good. Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, so you’d best start getting ready.”
I sighed. A week of imprisonment loomed above Lady Kelia of Scotland. Would she make it out alive? I frowned and shook my head. Forget Lady Kelia of Scotland! Will I, Kelia Grashen of Edinburgh, make it out alive?
I got home from school later than usual the next day. Mum had confiscated my car keys, which meant that I had to walk to school in the typical Scotland rain, which cast a grey cloud over my mood. It didn’t help that many of my friends were vastly unsympathetic, and the few that were sympathetic didn’t have cars yet. Also, I discovered that I had an Algebra test, a surprise Social Studies quiz, and we were playing basketball, one of the few sports I don’t like, in gym. The single bright spot was the hug and whispered “thank you!” I received from Emma. As you can imagine, my mood was decidedly black by the time I arrived home. However, all school paled in comparison to what awaited me at home in the form of a mop, scrub brush, and bucket.
Mum cornered me as soon as I got in the door. “You have work to do.” She thrust a mop towards me. “If you’re going to be home the rest of the day, you should do something useful.”
I gulped, remembering the stacks of homework that I needed to finish tonight, and the leather-bound copy of The Book of Lost Tales that awaited me upstairs. “But Mum,” I protested, as I removed my coat, “I b’ havin’ homework t’ do and books t’ read! Yu wouldn’t like t’ see me fall behind in me schoolwork, would yu?” I hoped that Mum’s overprotective-ness would work in my favor once more.
Unfortunately, Mum wasn’t swayed. “You can do that after you clean the kitchen floor. If you get started now, you can finish with plenty of time to read.”
I knew there was no hope of changing Mum’s mind now, but I did try to buy a little time. “Mum, can I at least take off me school clothes first and put on something else?”
Mum nodded. “Go. But make sure you hurry!”
Ten minutes later, I was on my hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor and wondering why in the world I bothered to take the blame. I was so intent on this that I didn’t hear Audrey walk up behind me. “Yu missed a spot.” she informed me.
I turned and glared at her. “I haven’t gotten there yet, and don’t yu b’ sneakin’ up on me like that!”
Audrey just smirked and stood there with her hand on her hip. “Yu’ve gotten yurself into a lot of trouble, Elf. So much for yur reputation of being the golden girl of the house and the high school.”
I almost smiled at hearing my nickname, but Audrey’s other words made me glare more. “Yu and I both b’ knowin’ that I didn’t break Mum’s vase.”
Audrey attempted to raise an eyebrow in my direction, but failed. “Oh? Then why’d yu take the blame? Yu could’ve let me do it and kept your reputation. I’m already in trouble, what’s a little more?”
Audrey’s question stopped me in my tracks. Though it was the same question I’d been asking myself all day, it seemed to have much more weight when spoken. Why did I take the blame? Then, the answer dawned on me. “I b’ takin’ the blame because o’ love, Audrey. It b’ the right, lovin’ thing t’ do. That b’ all.”
Audrey frowned. “What do yu mean?”
I sighed. “I b’ takin’ the blame because I love yu two. I don’t b’ wantin’ Emma gettin’ the blame and thinkin’ that Mum hates her. Yu b’ knowin’ that’s what would’ve happened. And yu say that a little more trouble won’t b’ hurtin’ yu, but yu’re wrong, Audrey. If yu b’ gettin’ in one more bit o’ trouble, yu won’t b’ leavin’ the house for a year. I don’t want t’ see that happen. I love yu too much t’ want that. So, I b’ takin’ the blame. Now, if yu don’t b’ mindin’, I b’ havin’ a floor t’ scrub.”
Note: This next piece of writing will likely be familiar to those of you who've read my Berstru Tales series on my Underground writing thread. It's part of my 2011 NaNoWriMo novel. As background for those of you who are unfamiliar with novel and series, Dustin and Hunter are brothers (twins to be exact), and they're also fire dragon Riders.
Note: This next piece of writing will likely be familiar to those of you who've read my Berstru Tales series on my Underground writing thread. It's part of my 2011 NaNoWriMo novel. As background for those of you who are unfamiliar with novel and series, Dustin and Hunter are brothers (twins to be exact), and they're also fire dragon Riders.
Dragon Rider Legend Scene
Dustin nodded. He remained silent for a few moments, then began to speak. “Gaze into the fire and watch its dancing light. Gaze into the fire and listen, my friends, as I take you on a journey to the past, to the time of legends.
“In those days, Berstru was still young, and many places had not been explored. Even the great ports of Beylend were barely more than small towns. And at this time, there lived a young man in Uldea-”
“Hold on a minute!” Hunter had looked up from the fire to frown at his brother. “It was Hoaka, not Uldea.”
Dustin shook his head. “No it wasn’t. It was Uldea.”
Hunter crossed his arms. “It’s always been Hoaka and you know it.”
Dustin scowled. “I’m the one telling the story and I say it was Uldea.”
Hunter shook his head. “Da always said it was Hoaka, and he’d know.”
Dustin let out an exasperated sigh. “Da was born in Hoaka. Of course he claims the hero is from Hoaka. Anyone who told the story would claim that the hero was from their region. If someone from Shidu was telling the story, the hero would be from Shidu, never mind the fact that Shidu wasn’t even established at the time. Now, do you want me to tell the story or not?”
Hunter sighed. “Fine. I still think it was Hoaka, though.” He returned to staring into the fire.
Dustin shot one last glare at his brother, then also turned his attention back to the fire. He began to speak once more, manipulating the flames so they reflected his words. “And at this time, there was a young man in Uldea who was the only one brave enough to enter the Dragon’s Roost Mountains. You see, these mountains were filled with ferocious dragons who refused to allow anyone other than their kind on their territory.
“However, the young man was skilled at evading the dragons’ watchful eyes, and he would often venture into the mountains, both for hunting and pleasure. He learned the mountains like the back of his hand, and though he had a healthy respect for the dragons, he did not fear them.
“One day while the young man was out hunting, he spotted a young dragon trapped at the bottom of a rocky gorge. The dragon’s wing was broken so it could not fly, and every time it tried to climb out, the loose rocks on the sides of the gorge sent it tumbling back down in worse shape than it had tried to go up. Eventually, the dragon lay exhausted at the bottom of the gorge, unable to move.
“The young man, however, went down into the gorge, finding the best possibly route. He picked up the dragon, which, being young, was small enough to carry. He then made his way back up the gorge and set up his camp not far away. There he tended the dragon’s wounds and cared for it until it was well.
During this time the young man and the dragon became strong friends. When the dragon was well and able to go back to its kind, both were greatly saddened at having to part. So, in an effort to not loose the friendship they had built, they made a promised to remain friends as long as both were alive and to meet as often as they could.
They sealed this pact with the mingling of blood, and whether it was the mingling of dragon and human blood or the strength of their friendship or the blessing of Elohim or a combination of all three, something amazing happened then. A bond was forged between the two, stronger than ordinary friendship. The two were given a connection by mind and heart and could contact each other with their minds at any time, much as the dragons could do with one another. In addition, the young man was given a few powers like those of the dragons: the ability to read and communicate through minds, a healing ability, and the power to manipulate fire, as the dragon was a fire dragon. Thus they became the first Rider and Dragon.”-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I stared up at the great ship before me, the Titanic. They’d called it the unsinkable, the greatest ship ever built, and incredibly, I’d be traveling on it to America. I could hardly take in the thought. What was more, this would be its maiden voyage, which made the whole thing twice as incredible.
“Impressive, isn’t she, miss?”
I turned to see a wealthy-looking gentleman standing behind me. He wore a black top hat and overcoat, and had a round, rather reddish face. I nodded, trying to hide my embarrassment at being caught staring. For a moment, I wondered where I’d seen the gentleman before, but then I shook it off and answered his question. “Indeed, sir. Will you be traveling on her as well?”
He nodded. “I shall. But I have not introduced myself. I am Richard Barstable.”
I frowned slightly, my brown eyes sparking with hidden anger. I knew the name all too well. Mr. Barstable had been employing my father when he was killed. I had always blamed him for what had happened. Still, I hid this. “I’m pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Elisabeth Smithson.”
Mr. Barstable nodded thoughtfully. “The pleasure is mine, I’m sure. Smithson, you said? Where do I know that name?”
I swallowed hard. “My father, perhaps? William Smithson? He worked for you.” I bit back tears, remembering how Father had been killed after falling from the roof of a building on Mr. Barstable’s property where he’d been repairing the roof. Mother had died soon afterwards, leaving me on my own at the age of seventeen. Now, three years later, I had finally earned passage to America so I could leave these memories behind.
Mr. Barstable nodded. “Ah, yes. Your father. A good man. I am quite sorry, miss.”
I nodded, not quite sure how to respond. Finally, I picked up my bag and turned towards the ship. “I need to get on board, sir.”
“Of course. Perhaps I will see you on our voyage?”
“Perhaps. Good day, sir.” I hurried away, hoping that I never saw Mr. Barstable again.
The voyage went smoothly for the first few days. My 3rd-class compartment, though very small and a bit cramped, was enough to suit my needs. I saw Mr. Barstable once or twice, but it was always from a distance, and I slowly began to forget my anger towards him once more.
Then, one night, I was awakened by someone knocking at my door. I sat up and slid out of bed, then drew back suddenly as my feet encountered cold water on the floor of my cabin. My mind raced, wondering what was going on. I hurried to the door, pulling a robe over my nightgown and hoping to find someone who could explain. Sure enough, a steward stood outside.
He nodded politely. “Miss, everyone is to come up on deck as soon as they can. You’re to wear your life preserver. Please be quick.” He nodded again and hurried away before I could ask any questions.
I hastily pulled on a jacket and a life preserver over my nightdress. Was the ship sinking? No, it couldn’t be sinking. It was called unsinkable, after all. But if it wasn’t sinking, why was there all this water on my floor?
As I hurried through the passages, I looked for anyone who might have answers, but saw no one. Finally, I decided that I’d have to wait until I reached the deck to find out.
When I arrived on deck, I found it crowded with people, many of whom seemed unsure of why they were there. Over at the rail, people were being helped into lifeboats by the crew. I frowned. “What’s going on here?”
An all-too-familiar voice came from behind me. “Miss Smithson! Why are you not on a lifeboat yet?”
I turned and saw Mr. Barstable standing just behind me. I frowned, putting my hands on my hips. “What is going on here, sir? Does anyone know?”
Mr. Barstable began guiding me towards the lifeboats. “I do not think we are supposed to know, Miss Smithson, but the Titanic is sinking. Women and children are to leave first. You must get on a lifeboat at once.”
I frowned, noting the small number of lifeboats remaining. “Sinking? It can’t be sinking.” I remembered the water in my cabin and in the passageway and almost took my statement back. Maybe it was sinking. “And what about you; aren’t you getting on as well?” Even if I didn’t like Mr. Barstable, he didn’t deserve to be drowned.
He shook his head. “It is sinking, Miss Smithson, and I shall follow later if I can. If not, well, Christ died for man. I can do no better than to follow His example.”
Before I could protest, I was helped into the last spot in one of the lifeboats. The boat was quickly lowered away from the ship. There were several minutes of confusion after we reached the surface of the water, but eventually, several people decided to start rowing. I, however, sat dumbly, not quite believing what was happening.
Before long, I heard a strange noise behind me. I looked back to see the ship oddly cracked in half, one end pointing up towards the night sky, one end pointed into the sea. I watched, fighting the urge to cry out, as the ship sank into the dark waters. I knew that Mr. Barstable would not have been able to escape. He died to save me and all of us here. Why? Why would he do that? I straightened up, pushing back the tears. I had to be strong; I could grieve later, when we were safe, if we were ever safe.
After several long hours drifting in the darkness, another ship arrived and picked us up. I was given a blanket and a hot drink, and taken with the others to a large room. I was too exhausted, mentally and physically, to recognize anything about the room, save that it was warm, dry, and hopefully safe. I curled up in a corner, and finally allowed myself to cry. He died. They all died, everyone back on that ship. They sacrificed themselves for me and the others here. Why? Why would they do that?
I bit my lip, remembering Mr. Barstable’s final words to me. “Christ died for man; I can do no better than to follow his example.” I knew a bit about what he meant. My parents had both been Christians, but I’d never really cared. Now I wondered if maybe I should’ve cared all along. Bringing to mind a few of the things I’d heard from my family years ago, I bowed my head and whispered a prayer. “Jesus, I don’t know much about You, but I’d like to learn more about who You are. I’m sorry for my hatred of Mr. Barstable and all the other things I’ve done. Please forgive me. Amen.” I looked up, glancing out a nearby porthole towards where the Titanic had sank. I won’t forget. I’ll never forget.
Note: This next story was inspired by the TobyMac song Speak Life. It's an awesome song; you should definitely listen to it.
Erica woke to darkness so pitch-black she could feel it. It felt like spiderwebs on her skin, tickling and sticky. This, for some reason, thoroughly annoyed her.
Her annoyance was immediately followed by a half-dozen questions. Where am I? Am I dead, or am I still alive? What am I doing here? Are there others here? Why is it so dark? Most pressing of all was the last question she thought of. And who am I anyway?
The realization that she couldn’t remember anything except her name was accompanied the cold pinpricks of fear. Erica tried to shrug the fear away, but the question remained: where was she? Who was she? This bothered her even more than the darkness. She had a life, didn’t she? Or she’d had one, if she was dead. She should be able to remember it.
Erica took a deep breath, and was pleased to find that breathing still seemed to work. She pushed herself to a sitting position, and felt her hands press against cold, rough stone, like the floor of some medieval dungeon. Then, just to make sure she could, she called out, “Where am I?” to the darkness. As she spoke, a grey glow formed in front of her face for a moment like frosty breath on a midwinter morning. The glow quickly disappeared, fading into the pressing blackness.
Erica frowned. This is odd. Even without her memories, she felt sure of that fact. She tried again. “Anyone else here? Hello?” Another glow, this one a bit larger than the first, though it lingered no longer. Erica frowned. “Come on! If there’s anyone out there, I just want to know where I am!”
A sigh came from somewhere in the blackness. “Very well.” The words appeared as a pale blue swirl that floated into the darkness some distance before disappearing. “Give us some light!”
What happened was not so much light breaking away the darkness as it was the darkness growing transparent enough in one spot that Erica could see. About ten feet away, three people sat: a sleeping boy no older than six, an old man seated on a stool with his back against a stone wall, and a young woman a few years older than Erica herself. They were quite obviously family, perhaps a grandfather and his grandchildren.
Erica, however, cared not for this. She could see someone else, and that someone else seemed to know something about where they were, and that was all that mattered. “Who are you? What is this place? Where is this place?” Instead of forming a cloud, her words appeared like tiny fireflies that zoomed away and circled the young woman’s head before disappearing.
The young woman sighed again. “I am Emraldra. This is my brother, Lukas, and my grandfather, Markus Key. We are three of those who have wandered into this place and cannot find our way out. As for what and where this place is, we cannot tell you.”
Erica frowned. “What do you mean, you can’t tell me?”
“I mean what I said.” Emraldra raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “We cannot tell you, for we do not know. It appears as a castle, but if it is a castle, it is impossibly large. I have walked for a week without reaching the other side of it. I cannot tell you where it is, for I do not believe it is anywhere.”
Erica crossed her arms. “It has to be somewhere, and it has to have an end. Nothing is infinite, and everything has to have a location.”
“Then perhaps this is nothing.” Emraldra shrugged. “I have told you what I know. I can tell you no more.”
Something inside Erica suddenly snapped. “You really aren’t very smart, are you,” she spat. “You live here. I’m willing to bet that people you know have died here. And you don’t know where you are. What kind of idiot are you?”
Each of Erica’s words appeared as a fiery ball before her lips. They flew towards Emraldra like arrows from a bow, striking against her and exploding like tiny fireworks. With every word that struck her, a wound appeared on Emraldra’s arms, back, or face as if someone had struck at her with a knife, or perhaps with a whip. She bore it without a sound, though her face contorted with pain.
Erica didn’t even notice until she’d finished her tirade. Then and only then did she see Emraldra leaning against the wall, blood oozing from her cuts. Erica’s eyes widened. “What- What happened? Who did that to you?”
The old man glared at Erica as he stiffly rose from his stool. “Who did that to her?” he growled. “You did that to her, fool girl. And don’t you dare do it again. Emra never did anything to you. She’s too sweet-hearted to. She tried to help you, even. And you hurt her for it. You’re lucky, fool girl. Lucky I don’t have the breath anymore to give you twice what you gave her. Don’t you know that if you speak hate, you speak hurt?”
Now it was Erica’s turn to be on the receiving end of those fiery balls. Again and again, pain rippled across her arms or back. The darkness grew solid again as she crumpled to the ground. She curled up in a ball, hoping to protect herself from most of the strikes, but by then they had stopped. “I didn’t mean anything,” she whispered. “I just wanted to get out of here. Can’t someone tell me how to get out of here?”
Erica had spoken so softly she could barely even hear herself. She didn’t expect anyone else to hear her, and so didn’t expect an answer. She didn’t hear one either. But something from the old man’s torrent of angry words had stuck in her mind. If you speak hate, you speak hurt. Speak hate, speak hurt.
Abruptly, Erica realized what had happened. Words are more than words here. No. That’s not right. They’re still just words. But you can see what they do here. That’s what happened. I yelled at her. And instead of the effects staying inside like they should, the hurt showed on the surface.
And if that was true, the opposite should be true. If words brought pain and darkness, couldn’t they bring healing and light too? But how do you heal with words? Then, suddenly, Erica realized the answer. She didn’t know how she knew it. She just did. And she knew what she needed to do.
She pushed herself into a sitting position, doing her best to ignore the lightning-bolts of pain that shot through her. “I’m sorry,” she called into the darkness. Her words formed a stream of golden vapor that floated away and disappeared. “Emraldra, Mr. Key, even Lukas if you know what happened, I’m sorry. I didn’t know-” She stopped herself. “No. I did know. That was why I said them. But I shouldn’t have. I realize that now. Mr. Key, you’re right. I had no reason to yell at Emraldra. No excuse for saying what I did. I deserved every word you threw back at me.” She swallowed hard. “I hope you’ll accept my apology. And maybe, even though I don’t deserve it, you can forgive me.”
Five minutes of silence passed. Then ten. Erica wondered if her words had been heard by anyone. Maybe they hadn’t. Maybe Emraldra and her family had left. Then, suddenly, Erica heard Emraldra’s voice. “I forgive you.”
The words appeared in the form of a golden glow that flowed towards and around Erica before disappearing. The pain from the word-induced wounds eased. And Emraldra’s voice came again. “I forgive you. How could I not? I have made the same mistake many times. And I have been forgiven to it. I cannot withhold the same mercy from you.” Her voice grew soft. “Speak love, speak life. Speak life, speak light. Speak hate, speak hurt. Speak hurt, speak darkness. We all have to learn it. And yet, it seems, if we do learn it, we always seem to forget when we most need to remember.”
As Emraldra spoke, the darkness finally lifted. Erica could see her surroundings now: grey stone walls and floors, extending twenty feet in each direction before coming to a wall. In each wall was a door, and directly across from Erica, behind Emraldra and her family, was a stone staircase. She could see Emraldra, her wounds healed but scars remaining. Erica knew that she had been healed as well. Hurt or heal. Death or life. Funny what words can do.
Erica stood up and shook herself. Slowly, she crossed the empty space between herself and Emraldra. She extended her hand to the older girl. And, smiling, she said, “Let’s find a way out of here.”
Her words glowed golden.
His footsteps echo in the hall. I curl into a corner of my cell, pressing against the rough-hewn granite walls. I wish for a hiding place, but the bare stone room I am kept in provides no such luxury. I have my chains, the chains I have worn as long as I can remember, even before I was put in this place, and that is all.
The cell door creaks open. I hide my face as the Prince enters. I have never looked him in the face. I dare not. I have found cruelty and rejection in the eyes of far too many, even those who claimed to offer kindness, to risk it again.
The Prince kneels beside me. “My princess-”
“I’m not a princess,” I whisper.
I do not respond. We have made the same exchange many times. I do not understand why he calls me a princess, much less his princess. I am a commoner, a servant, a prisoner.
People say that the Prince can look at a man and know exactly who he really is, in addition to who that man thinks he is. So why is he so blind when I try to make him see that I truly am nothing?
The Prince speaks again. “Let me free you, my princess. Let me remove your chains.” His soft voice wraps around me like a cloak, offering peace and comfort, even in this dark cell.
I refuse to let my sorrow be taken from me, however, holding onto it like a small girl clutches a treasured, though tattered, doll. “You cannot,” I whisper. “No one can. My master put the chains on me; not even he can take them away.”
“I am greater than your master.”
I shake my head. “You cannot remove them.”
“I can, if you will let me.”
I shake my head again. Like the title the Prince gives me, I have heard this offer and refused it many times. I cannot fathom why he persists in making it each time he visits. Why does he even care? I am one of hundreds of prisoners, among thousands, or even millions, of slaves and servants. Surely someone else would be worthier of his attentions.
All is silent for a time. Then the Prince speaks again. “I journeyed to my kingdom yesterday. It is spring there now. The flowers are blooming everywhere. Their colors nearly overtake the green of the new grass in the meadows, and in the forests, it is impossible to find a tree that does not have a cluster of daisies or violets or some other blossoms around its base. The birds are singing their finest songs for joy of winter’s death. At night, you can lie on your back and see hundreds of stars, like silver dust and gems on a backdrop of black velvet. It is not a dull black like what you are used to in this realm. It is a rich, shining black, and when the sun rises each morning, it rolls back to reveal first a blue so deep it nearly blends with the night, then brilliant pinks and golds to bath the new day in soft light. And when those fade away, you are left with the clearest blue you could wish to find.”
I make no reply. I have never seen any of these things the Prince speaks of, but he has described them to me so well and so many times that I can almost picture the scenes in my mind’s eye. I wish I could see them for myself, but I am trapped in my master’s realm, and we never see the sun down here.
“I would like to show you the wonders of my kingdom.” The Prince is sitting beside me now. I can feel his eyes upon me, watching me. “Will you not let me take you?”
I shake my head. “I cannot. There is no exit from my master’s realm except for death, and death leads to nothingness and more torment, not to your kingdom.”
“If you trust me and let me remove your chains, I can give you eternal life and take you from this dark realm.”
I shake my head, squeezing my eyes shut to hold back the tears. “It is impossible. No one can live forever.”
“Nothing is impossible for me, my princess. I have given my life for you; all you have to do is accept my gift.”
I say nothing. This, too, the Prince has offered many times, but I cannot believe that even if my chains could be removed, that death could be defeated as well. And even if it could, death is all I deserve.
We sit in silence for a while longer. Finally, the Prince rises to his feet. “I will be waiting for you, my princess. When you need me, call. I will come.”
I cannot think what to say. How can he possibly come whenever I call? He has spoken of going to his kingdom often, but if he is there, how could he return here as soon as I need him? How could he even hear me?”
The door creaks shut. The Prince’s footsteps recede down the hall. And I am alone.
Three more days pass. The Prince visits me at least once a day. Our conversation runs much the same each time: I tell him I am not a princess and refuse his offer to let him remove my chains. He tells me of his kingdom and asks if I will let him take me there, and I refuse again. He sits with me for a time and tells me before he leaves that if I call for him, he will be there.
On the third day, after the Prince leaves, a new pair of footsteps, heavy and foreboding, makes the trip to my cell. I peek up as the person shoves open the door with a clang. One of my master’s higher servants stands there, and he carries a whip. Without a word, the man walks over and grabs hold of my chains. He pulls me up, hooking the manacles on my arms to a hook on the wall so I am hanging there, my face to the wall and my back exposed. I do my best to struggle against him, but my feeble strength is not enough to bother him more than a fly buzzing by his ear would.
The first whip stroke hits my back. I scream. I have been whipped many times, and each whipping is more terrible than the one before. With every stroke comes a hiss, a whisper, that wraps itself around my heart and bites down with venom-filled fangs.
You are alone.
No one cares about you.
You are worthless.
You are dying.
You deserve to die.
You will die soon.
No one will notice when you die. No one will care.
You will die alone, unwanted, forgotten.
What do you have to live for? Why do you cling to your miserable existence when you are nothing?
The whipping goes on and on until I do barely have the strength even to whimper. My master’s servant throws me to the floor, and I lay there like a dirty rag. My back bleeds in a thousand places from the strokes of the whip. I cannot move; cannot do anything at all except lay on the ground and sob.
It is late, perhaps midnight, when I realize I cannot take another day of this. I cannot go on living in this cell. I wonder if the voices are right. Should I simply give up? Die, as they say, alone, unwanted, forgotten?
“Let me free you, my princess. Let me remove your chains.
“If you trust me and let me remove your chains, I can give you eternal life and take you from this dark realm.”
The memory of the Prince’s voice warms me, lessens the pain. Perhaps he could help. Perhaps I should’ve accepted his offer. But it is impossible for him to give what he says he can, is it not?
“Nothing is impossible for me, my princess.”
He has said nothing is impossible for him. He has offered me freedom. All he has asked of me in return is that I trust him. Never has he harmed me. Never has he shown me anything but love and respect. He is my only hope. But he is not here.
“When you need me, call. I will come.”
“Please,” I whisper. “Please, my Prince. Please come. Take away my chains. Set me free. You’re the only one who can.”
There are no footsteps in the hall, no creak of the door as he enters. He is simply there, kneeling beside me. I somehow find the strength to look in his face for the first time, and I see love in his eyes. “Please,” I whisper. “Remove my chains. Take me to your kingdom.”
He smiles. “Gladly, my princess.”
Just as they always do, his words offer to cover me in a blanket of comfort. I do not refuse this time, and I feel my pain and fear fade to be replaced by peace.
The Prince reaches towards my chains. For the first time, I see the marks of nails in his hands, the marks of one who my master has had killed in the worst possible way. I look up in confusion, but he simply smiles at me.
“I have given my life for you; all you have to do is accept my gift.”
As I remember his words, I feel my chains fall away. I gasp, finding myself to be free for the first time.
The Prince gathers me into his arms, lifting me as easily as if I were a feather. “Are you ready to travel to my kingdom, my princess?”
I nod, resting my head against his shoulder. “I am ready.” He carries me from my cell and through passage after passage. I close my eyes, resting in his secure embrace. I can feel his love all around me, as well as the promise that he will protect me, and I wonder why I protested for so long.
After a time, I feel a breeze on my face rather than the stale air of my former master’s realm. I open my eyes to see that we are standing in a meadow before a great castle. It is night, but it is not dark. Not like I have known dark. The Prince smiles down at me. “Welcome to my kingdom, my princess.I smile back and whisper “Thank you for freeing me.” My gaze travels up, and I see the stars, glimmering silver dust and gems on shining black velvet, just as he described him. For the first time, I realize why the Prince called me his princess: he loves me, loves me enough to give his life for me, and so I am indeed his princess.
I smell the human before I see him. The familiar scent brushes by my nostrils on a breath of wind, causing me to tense for a moment. I cannot forget it, nor do I wish to. I turn and take off through the forest undergrowth, following the scent to its source. I am supposed to be hunting for food for my village, but this prey is far more important.
I remember the words of my friend, Jaylen, as I was leaving this morning.
“Be careful, Kuri. They say there’s a human on the loose.”
I stopped short, turning to stare at him. Within my heart, the first fierce sparks of angry anticipation were beginning to light. “A human?”
Jaylen nodded, his face solemn. “Yes. The hunters yesterday think they smelled one. They couldn’t tell it if it was the murderer or not. Be on your guard.”
A growl rumbled through my body. “Don’t worry. I will. And if it’s the murderer, he’d better stay on his guard as well.” Then I bounded off into the forest.
I know now that it is the murderer I chase. I am close enough to hear his footsteps as he runs through the forest. I know he is trying to escape me, but he will not. No mere human can outrun a Tiger Clan shifter on a hunt for justice, no matter how hard they try. And I will see that this murderer gets what he deserves, just as I vowed one long year ago.
Metal scraped over wood as I drew my knife. With barely a glance, I slid the edge of the blade across my palm, opening a shallow cut. I pressed my hand against the Justice Tree, leaving a fresh handprint among the many bloody ones. “I will avenge her. I swear it. It is my right. I was her guardian, and so her murder will not go unpaid.”
The old man who’d been my teacher for much of my life shook his head. “You are better than this, Kuri. Do not let anger rule. The man did not mean to do it. He said as much, and I believe him. I know he has caused you immeasurable pain, but if you seek revenge, you prepare death not only for him but also for yourself.”
I lifted my chin defiantly. “I seek justice, no more. You know the laws, not only of the Shifters but of the humans as well. Blood for blood, a life for a life. Death is the just punishment for murder.”
My teacher shook his head, sadness reflecting in his gaze. “No, Kuri. You say that vengeance is your right, and that death is justice, but there is room for forgiveness as well. That, too, is in your rights, even now. Let go of your anger. It will only lead you down a dark path to destruction.”
“You are wrong,” I snarled. My body tingled as my anger threatened to trigger the change from young woman to tigress. “You are wrong. I seek justice and I will see it done.”
I am close now, so close! Soon, I will be within springing distance of the murderer. I put on one last burst of speed and then launch myself towards him. He falls beneath my weight, and I pin him to the ground. “You cannot escape any longer, murderer.”
He struggles to squirm away. “I am no murderer. It was an accident. I would not have even considered the shot if I had known. I have told you as much before.”
I snarl again. “You lie. I was there. I know what happened.” I doubt I’ll ever forget.
“Please, Kuri? Please?”
I stretched, shifting to a more comfortable position on my tree branch. “I told you already, Kali, no. I hunted yesterday; there’s no need to go again today. Why don’t you ask Jaylen?”
My little sister, Kali, paced around the base of my tree. “I did, and he said no. Please, Kuri? You know I’m not allowed to go by myself.”
“Yes, I am quite aware of that.” My eyelids drifted to a half-shut position. “And it makes no difference. If you want to come with me, be ready to go on my hunting days and stop bothering me.” I shut my eyes completely, signaling that the conversation was over. Kali let out a long sigh and continued pacing.
A breeze brushed past me, ruffling my fur and tickling my nose with a hundred scents. I my eyes opened again as I recognized the smell of a human. I sat up and scanned the forest. I spotted the young hunter just as he released the arrow. Seconds later, I heard Kali fall. I let out a wordless cry and leapt down to the ground. I landed beside her, now in my human form, and pulled her into my lap. She had turned to human form as well, so small and so vulnerable. “Kali, no. Don’t go. Don’t die. Just hold on.” I knew that my pleading would do no good. The arrow had been expertly shot; she would be dead within minutes. Tears gathered in my eyes, and I blinked them back. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry, Kali. I love you.”
I don’t know if she heard me or not. Seconds later, I knew she was gone. I raised my head and for a moment, I saw the horrified expression on the hunter’s face as he saw what he’d done. Then he turned and fled, leaving me to bear my sister’s body back to the village.
“I’m not lying, I swear.”
I stare down at the hunter with fire in my gaze. He’s stopped struggling now, but he’s turned his head so he can see me out of one eye. He speaks again. “I told you what happened. I told you that it was an accident. I asked for forgiveness. You know that.”
It’s true, he has. On the night of the funeral, he’d approached the village under a white flag of truce. Only that and the laws against killing on a funeral night had kept me from killing him then and there. He’d made his case on his knees, the picture of repentance. And much as I tried to forget, his final words were burned in my memory.
“I know I have wronged you. I know I cannot begin to make it up to you. But please, can you forgive me?”
I remember, too, what I snarled at him in reply. I repeat it now. “You do not deserve forgiveness.”
“I know,” he replies, his voice almost a whisper. “I know. But who does?”
My only answer is a snarl. I lift a paw for the killing blow, then pause, noticing something. “Your bow is gone.”
“I burned it. I will not hunt again. Not after the mistake I have made.”
I hesitate. A voice that sounds like my teacher seems to whisper to me, “What good will killing him do? Will this man’s death satisfy you?” I try to push it away. I have to do this. I have to see justice done.
But is it truly justice? Or is it revenge? Why do I want to see this man die? Is it because he has broken the law? Or because I want him to suffer for my suffering? I know the laws of my village. There is no honor in killing someone simply out of a desire for revenge. And I can tell this man is no longer a threat to us. It is I who am the danger.
“If you seek revenge, you prepare death not only for him but also for yourself.”
My teacher was right. Another death will not fill the ache in my heart. It will only lead to more sorrow, more pain. And there is enough trouble in this world without me adding to it.
The hunter is silent beneath me, perhaps resigned to his fate. I shift to my human form and rise to my feet. “Go.”
He scrambles to stand, his eyes wide as if he can’t quite believe I didn’t kill him. I gesture in the direction he’d been running. “Go. Your death will not satisfy anything or anyone. You asked me to forgive you. And so I will.” With those words, I turn and walk away, feeling lighter than I have in a long, long time.