It was the warm kiss of yellow light against her eyelids that jolted Slevyn awake. A young, merry sun climbed into the cloudless sky while birds chirped with abandon, as though trying with all their might to wake up the rest of the world. On the ground beside her, Shasta slept soundly. His wool blanket was wound up around and over his head so that only the tip of his coffee-coloured nose could be seen. He breathed heavily, making snotty gurgling noises which made Slevyn uneasy.‘Shasta!’ she hissed in his ear. ‘We overslept! We have to go. Now!’ The boy groaned in his sleep and butted her in the stomach with his elbow in protest. He was always a difficult riser in the morning, but today was not the time for any of that bratty nonsense.
Slevyn bent down to his ear again and whispered, ‘By now the villagers know we’ve gone and are probably looking for us…well looking for you, at least! Get up before I drag you up!’
At last, her brother arose. He groaned while rubbing the sleep from his giant blue eyes before getting to his feet. They shook out their leaf-encrusted blankets, shoved them deep into their packs, and only spared a few seconds to sip from their water skins. There was no time for breakfast. The pair tightened their belts against the loud rumblings from their indignant—and empty– stomachs.
Within minutes, their packs were tied to their backs and Slevyn had brushed away the signs of the impromptu camp with a tree branch. She then led Shasta deeper into the trees and away from the wide footpath that ran the length of the Chimera Wood. Just in case.
As they picked their way through the spindly trees and brushing ferns, Slevyn continued to notice something about her brother, something that had been nagging at her since he had awoken. She squinted at his back, trying to figure out what it was. Like her, he kept his head down, watching the ground for the best places to set his feet. Then he inhaled loudly, allowing her to hear something which caused a wash of concern to pass through her.
‘Shasta, are you sniffling?’ She stopped him by putting a hand on his shoulder. He turned his face away from her, but she caught the determined pout of his lips and jut of his chin. ‘Are you sick? Have you caught a cold?’ Prone to chest colds and sometimes fever, Shasta’s general health bordered on frail. If he fell ill–
He jerked away from her to turn back to the trail, but again, Slevyn stayed him with a firm hand. ‘Listen to me, Shas. If you are not feeling well, you should go back. Sleeping outside, living off little more than berries and all that, it’s not good for you. You might get sicker.’
She felt him stiffen under hand. He turned and glared at her.
‘No, I don’t think you’re weak! You’re the strongest kid I know! But I’m not willing to let you get hurt or worse because of me.’
Then Shasta turned around and looked her full in the face. As he had done last night when he’d caught her sneaking out of the cabin to escape, he set his little fists on his hips and tilted his head to the side.
‘No, I’m not going back,’ Slevyn answered. ‘I can’t. You heard Father; no one wants me. But you could. And I’ll even let you tell them whatever you want about me so you don’t get in trouble.’ Thinking, Slevyn put a hand to her chin. ‘We’re still in Lower Chimera. You could easily find your way back home, as long as you follow the—‘
She was cut off by the sounds of feet tramping along the dirt road. Neither of them could see who was coming because of the bend in the path. In a flash, both Slevyn and Shasta dashed deeper into the trees.
‘Hi! Men! I hear something!’ cried a deep voice.
Afraid to make another sound, the children ducked behind a marbled green and blue moss-covered outcropping. Slevyn peeked around its corner, straining through the ferns to catch a glimpse of the man who had spoken. Shasta tugged at her sleeve, looking up at her with wide eyes. She put a hand to her lips and squeezed his hand with the other. ‘Let’s listen,’ she whispered. ‘They don’t know where we are. Maybe we can learn something useful.’
Shasta pressed his body against hers, and she squeezed his hand gently to comfort him. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.’ When his breath caught in his throat, she added gently, ‘I’ll be fine, too. I promise.’
She turned her attention back to the man in the road. From this distance, she couldn’t be sure, but she thought it was Arnot.
‘You sure it’s not a bear?’ asked a second man when he caught up to him. That must be Stirling, she thought.
‘No, sounds like a lighter, smaller creature. Maybe a cub.’
‘Hey!’ called another villager from somewhere down the road behind. ‘Looks like the children spent the night right here. One of them even tried to cover their tracks. Probably used a branch. They can’t be gone far away, then.’
‘Good. I’d like to get back to town before lunch. Can’t believe we have to look for two spoiled runaways! If they want to leave home so badly, let them!’ complained Arnot. This didn’t surprise Slevyn at all. That man wouldn’t go the extra mile for his own mother, let alone another man’s lost children.
‘You know,’ said Stirling, ‘I don’t mind that the girl is gone. I never agreed to Steig keeping her in the first place, especially for so long. The original agreement was for a year or two, at most. Twelve years is a long time to temps fate. It’s the boy I feel bad for. The world has changed. It’s become rough and wild, especially since the dragons are gone and aren’t protecting our lands any longer. The Wood is no place for a little kid, let alone one who doesn’t speak.’
‘You know there are rumours. You don’t think she–?’
Stirling scoffed. ‘No. Just because they are known for swooping in and snatching up prey and all that doesn’t mean—‘
‘It certainly doesn’t mean that at all.’ The new voice cut in on the conversation, startling the men into silence. Slevyn could not see the newcomer yet, but she would know that baritone voice anywhere. It was the one that sounded as good to her as chocolate tasted. It was Uncle Stamos.
She almost jumped from her hiding place to throw herself into those massive, strong arms, the ones she believed were more than capable of holding at bay all the bad things in the world which threatened to hurt her. But she did not trust the other men, so she stayed where she was, hidden behind the rock and the ferns.
Stamos continued. ‘Shouldn’t you two be looking for the children rather than speculating about such nonsense?’
Arnot looked down his nose at Stamos. ‘You always take her side, even though you know the truth about her.’
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ Stamos practically roared at the men. Startled birds, chirping angrily at their lazy morning being interrupted, burst out of a tree. Flashes of yellow, red and blue dotted the clear blue sky as they flew away. ‘She’s just as much a child as Shasta is. You’ve got your orders, so get to them.’
‘You’re not our boss,’ said the third man, who likely bolstered by Arnot’s resistance, dared to enter the conversation. ‘We don’t have to do anything you say.’
‘No, I’m not your boss,’ Stamos agreed, folding his arms across his barrel chest, making himself appear even bigger and stronger. Those arms were used to hard labour as well as carrying deer carcasses and other game for miles back to the village over his shoulders. Few people dared trifle with Stamos, and those who did always regretted it. ‘Still, I think it is in your best interest to get back to perusing the trees…before you find yourself thrown face-first into one.’
Grumbling, one by one the men turned to continue down the road. Stamos watched them for a long time, as though counting the seconds as they passed. Then he turned and looked straight at Slevyn. How did he know?
He strode through the underbrush and the press of the ferns. They parted before him like water. When he reached them, he squatted down looking every bit as strong and as protective as a great mother bird, and folded them both in his arms.
‘Don’t cry, Slevyn.’
‘How could they say such terrible things about me?’ Angered and embarrassed by the villagers’ words, she kept her face pressed into his shoulder, shaking her head against his gentle encouragement to look at him. ‘What rumours are they talking about? And why would I do anything to harm Shasta? Do they really think I’m as horrible as all that?’
Stamos sighed and released them. Seeing that Shasta’s nose was running, he handed him a handkerchief to blow his nose.
‘Are you hungry?’ he asked them. Shasta nodded and quickly tore into the strip of dried meat his uncle offered. Slevyn shook her head, but Stamos insisted. ‘You’ll need to eat or you won’t have the strength to make it to the mountains. You’ll be too weak and likely die before you get there. Or worse, you won’t be able to protect Shasta along the way.’
The last part got her attention. She nearly snatched the meat from her uncle’s hand. ‘What are you talking about? The—the mountains?’ Could he really mean those mountains?
‘Yes, Slevyn. It’s time.’
‘Time for what? Every one is talking in riddles. I don’t understand any of this, except that no one wants me around! Even…even my own father!’
‘No, that’s not true. Look at me. Your father…Slevyn, sending you away was the hardest thing he ever had to do. In fact, it’s killing him.’
‘Didn’t seem that way when I heard him at the town meeting.’
‘You were there?’ He looked sharply at her. ‘I see. That’s why you left.’
She lowered her gaze, unable to meet his serious, deep-brown eyes. ‘I sorta snuck under the hall and listened. Shasta heard, too. My father’s wishes were very clear. Uncle, you still didn’t answer my questions. What were the villagers talking about?’
Stamos wasn’t looking at her anymore. His eyes were turned towards the sky, scanning the depths of the blue realm for…what?
‘There’s no time to explain everything right now,’ he said, abruptly coming back to her. ‘Those men will soon return once they get fed up walking around in circles. Go west to the mountains. Be careful and above all, stay safe. Once you get to the city, you’ll get all the answers you need. And one more thing,’ he added while tugging on her orange-red braids. ‘You are no longer a villager. You are…you are who you are. Let your hair loose.’
‘Loose?’ she echoed, picturing her mother’s horrified expression at such a thing. Taming the long, wavy and at times fuzzy mane had been the bane of her existence until Slevyn had managed to learn to braid her own hair. As much as Slevyn enjoyed thumbing her nose at convention or the ‘acceptable and expected’ thing to do, even she balked at the idea. ‘Wouldn’t that attract unwanted attention?’
‘Attention, yes. But not unwanted. Do you trust me?’
Slevyn looked him straight in the eye. ‘Like I trust no one else.’ She started to untwist her braids.
A strange expression crossed Stamos’ face and his eyes closed a fraction, but he quickly recovered. He handed her a bundle of tied cloth. ‘Good. Take care of your brother and see that he doesn’t get worse. The herbs in this bundle should help.’
‘You don’t think he should return with you? Ow!’ she cried when Shasta pinched her, hard.
‘No. There’s no force in this world that could keep that one from your side. Besides, you need each other. Now go! Remember, head west. And don’t look back!’
Stamos didn’t need to name the city to which he was sending them. Slevyn already knew.
They were going to Perth.