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Will fought. He fought the branches of the tree that wrapped around him like vines. He fought with everything he had. And he cursed the foolishness of the girl for dragging him to Clachan and his eminent death.
If only he could reach the dagger the king of Ferngold had given him, he could cut his way free. Yet the tree squeezed him until he could hardly breathe, cutting innumerable gashes into his skin in the process. His left arm was pressed too close to his body to move, and his right arm was being pushed into an unnatural angle above his head. With a pop, his shoulder dislocated. He couldn’t bite back the yell that took too much of the oxygen left in his lungs. The tree squashed his chest, making it hard to breathe.
Death by tree was a horrible thing.
The plant must have decided he was sufficiently immobile, because now it set to work killing him. Leaves unfurled over his mouth and nose. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see.
Just before oxygen deprivation made him lose consciousness, the girl’s voice reached through the foliage. His mind was fuzzy. He couldn’t concentrate his ears enough to understand her.
The leaves shriveled away from his face. Air rushed into his lungs, changing his sluggish sleepiness into dizziness. Too quickly, the branches dropped away from him. He fell out onto fresh grass, limbs too numb to hold him. As circulation returned, it felt like a thousand needles poking him all over.
“Will!” the girl called. Her hands were on his back, rolling him to face the sky that was endlessly, deeply blue. In the process, she jarred his dislocated shoulder and he saw the stars in the evening sky swirl. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“No,” he grumbled.
The worry in her brown eyes deepened. “What’s wrong?”
Where to start? “I’m going back home to the worst parents in existence, I’m on a quest with little chance of success, by a fern’s word I have to bring along a strange, useless servant girl, we got attached on our first day, she forced me into Clachan, I was almost eaten by a tree, and I’m pretty sure my shoulder’s dislocated.” That about covered it. It felt good, too—he had never vented his frustrations in his life, and now he understood how cathartic other people made it sound.
When hurt pinched the girl’s—Annette’s—face, he thought he had probably never said such hurtful words in his life, either. His brief pleasure soured into disgust. There was more Bill in him than he liked to think about.
“I’m sorry,” he softened his voice. She didn’t respond. Perhaps it would be best to steer the conversation in a different direction? With great care to sound as nice as possible, he asked, “What did you say to get the tree to release me?”
“Nothing,” she pressed her lips together.
He started to apologize again. “Annette, I’m really—” he forgot about his shoulder, until he pushed himself to a sitting position and had to stop mid-sentence to hiss through his teeth.
“We need to find someone to fix your shoulder,” Annette said curtly. “And we should probably get those cuts looked at.” Without another word, she stood and started walking.
Somehow, Will managed to suppress a groan as he followed her. Why did nothing in his life ever go right?
Even finding help didn’t go right. Soon it was night, and they hadn’t seen a soul.
“Let’s stop here,” Annette said when they could no longer see the ground.
Though nothing else had attacked him, the general atmosphere of Clachan made Will feel like he was being watched. The air seemed to drag at him in an effort to slow his progress. He imagined the land was only waiting for him to drop his guard before it finished him off in a sudden sinkhole.
“No, let’s go over there,” he pointed to the Poldar side of the border.
Annette shuddered. “I don’t want to go back there.”
“You’ll have to, eventually. But I can’t sleep here. Clachan hates me.”
Her eyes roamed the damage the tree had done to him, and she sighed. “Fine. But we’re staying as close to Clachan as possible.”
“Deal,” he agreed.
His foot crossed the line, and the air shifted. Its malice was now less directed fully at him and more general hatred for all living things. Of course, it was still dangerous, but Will let himself relax and drop to the ground.
“I don’t suppose you know how to start a fire?” Annette asked in a small voice.
He looked over to see her small arms wrapped around her and her eyes darting about them. “No,” he sighed. “Do you?”
She shook her head. “I know how to put them out, not how to start them.”
There wasn’t much else they could do. She sat down well within arm’s reach of him and tucked her knees under her chin.
“What did you mean earlier,” he asked the least important question of the day, which had nonetheless been plaguing him the most, “when you said you were born of the dirt?”
She inspected her short fingernails. “That’s what my father always used to say.”
“Why?” he prompted.
“He found me lying in the dirt outside his house when I was a baby. He said the fairies made me from the dirt for him so he wouldn’t be lonely anymore.”
“Where is he now?”
She turned her face away. “He died soon after he married my stepmother.”
“That’s why you and your sister work in the castle?”
She nodded and laid down with her back toward him.
Huh. She seemed to genuinely miss her father. How was it possible to have parents that you liked—or even, that you loved?
Will laid down, contemplating this marvel, and prepared to sleep.
But sleep was long coming. The mystery of Annette’s affection for her father slowly left his mind, but only as a creeping awareness of stinging in all of his cuts and scrapes grew. Soon, it felt like the slices left by the tree were on fire. Shivering set in. He tried to wake Annette, but found he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even speak.
Sleepiness poured over him, but Will fought the inclination. If he lost conscious now, would he ever gain it?
But maybe, he thought, maybe it would be okay to close his eyes for just a few minutes.
Let me know what you think! Look for chapter 7 on Monday 🙂