When Jasmine awoke, her stomach rumbled and she grasped it, hunger gripping her. She heard the storm and opened her eyes, taking in unfamiliar surroundings. Where was she? She panicked when she couldn’t feel her magic, the ache spreading throughout her body, worse than the physical hunger. It was a psychological hunger, one that pervaded her mind and thought. She felt so empty inside.
She sat up slowly, and glanced around her. There was a fire that was dying in the fireplace. She looked at the other end of the room and saw Gareth sitting at a table, his head in his hands. She furrowed her eyebrows. She saw vulnerability in him, something she had never seen before. She bit her lip, wondering what was wrong. The storm was raging outside; seemingly worse than when they had been running in it. They had apparently made it to the cottage, but she saw no one other than Gareth. Were they alone here?
She stood and silently walked over to the table, sitting down next to him. Startled, he lifted his head, looking at her.
“How are you? Are you hungry?” Not giving her a chance to answer, he got up and walked into the kitchen, looking around as though lost. She just drummed her fingers on the table, hoping the storm let up soon. Her head hurt from the noise it was creating, pounding upon the windows and stone.
“Was there anyone here?” Jasmine asked, seeing the stairs.
Gareth hesitated, taking in a deep breath. “Yes,” he murmured, looking as though he didn’t want to answer her question.
“Who? Where are they?” Jasmine was confused. Did the owner of the cottage go out into the storm?
“She had to leave,” he said, bringing her a plate. She grabbed the dried meat and took a bite, chewing quickly and swallowing to ease her rumbling stomach.
“But where did she go? Isn’t it dangerous to go out in this storm?” She asked in between mouthfuls. The hungry feeling was finally leaving her, and she slowed down, chewing slowly to enjoy the explosion of taste on her tongue.
“I’m not sure, she didn’t say,” Gareth replied, looking uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure what his problem was, and it seemed strange, how he was acting.
Jasmine looked out the window, the rain pelting it so hard she was surprised it didn’t break. “Shouldn’t it be letting up by now?” Gareth didn’t say anything and she sighed, hoping his mood improved soon. She still thought about using the opportunity to escape whenever she could, whenever it presented itself. The thought of the queen made her shudder.
Before she had ran, she’d heard stories of the queen and her atrocities from travelers that had passed through her village. The things they had witnessed were horrors that no one should have to suffer through. She remembered one story in particular that raised the hair on the back of her neck.
An old man had come upon her village, worn, and dirty. His clothing had been singed in places, blood staining parts of his ragged shirt. His grey hair was dirty, as was every inch of his skin. He had collapsed on the dirt, gasping for breath. Jasmine had thought for sure he was going to die. The healer, Ruby, rushed in, and asked a couple of the villagers to carry the man to her home. They lay him on one of the cots for the sick and removed the old man’s shirt, a wound to the stomach festering and oozing pus on his stomach. Ruby started bustling about, taking various herbs and making a poultice that stank nearly as bad as the infection. Jasmine had hung around the background, wondering what had happened to him.
Ruby had grabbed a wooden bucket with fresh rain water and a sponge, carefully cleaning the wound. The man had passed out, his breathing deep and even. She’d wiped the dirt from around the wound, wringing the sponge out many times. She finally applied the thick green goop on and around it, wrapping some gauze around it with the help of the fae who had brought him inside. Everyone left, talking amongst themselves in whispers about him, speculating whether or not he would live, where he came from, and what had happened to him. Jasmine was the last to leave when Ruby scooted her out the door, closing it firmly behind her.
For the next three days, Jasmine thought about the old fae. No one had heard anything about him, and Ruby had been shut in there the whole time, coming out for nothing. Rumors flew around the village, tongues wagging. Jasmine didn’t make any judgments, because no one really knew anything.
On the third night, there was a great campfire built in the middle of the village and everyone prepared food for a great feast. They ate until their bellies were beyond full, stretching out before the fire, stories and laughter ringing throughout the dark. The children played a little ways away as the adults enjoyed the stories. The crowd suddenly hushed, and fierce whispers started going around. Jasmine had looked behind her, surprised to see Ruby leading the old fae man to the fire. He was limping, but he was clean, wearing a clean white tunic and pants. The dancing flames created shadows in the creases of his face, his long grey hair shimmering in the light. His eyes were a grey blue that reflected the fire, and they looked sad. Jasmine could sense that this man had seen much; it was reflected in those eyes.
The crowd hushed even their whispers as the two got closer. He sat on a log and had stared into the fire for a few moments as everyone else stared at him. No one spoke, and only the crackles of the fire could be heard. He had lifted his face to the sky, and stretched out his arms, palms to the sky. The fire rose to a magnificent height, sparks of fire zooming out from the blaze to meet the night sky. When he lowered his hands, the fire died down, barely anything more than glowing embers. Jasmine had felt the push and pull of energy, heady in its power.
“I’ve been running for a couple of weeks now,” he started, his voice paper dry, mixing with the sizzling of burning wood. “As fast and as far as I can, every day. Barely pausing to take a breath. I ran from the dark halfing queen and her evil.” Jasmine hung on every word that he spoke, watching the way his eyes had grown with fear. He’d waited for a moment before continuing on.
“I had been living on the edge of the forest at the castle that Awen had stolen from our queen, Tiana. The fighting with magic burned the forest. The fighting with sword stained the ground with blood. Fae and halflings littered the ground, dead. There wasn’t time to bury them. When we could we waded through the stench of rot and death to gather our own and burn them on pyres, fires reaching high into the sky. So much death, so much destruction.” He slowly shook his head with this, pausing again before continuing.
“I was captured, a year ago. The halflings invaded the little camp I was inhabiting along with a few other fae. They took us, and locked us in the dungeon. I could feel the air through the open windows, but it smelled of death. The cold stone became my companion as I waited for my own death, the cries of the forsaken echoing through the chambers of our prison. Sometimes we heard the screams of the tortured. Time passed, inconsequential.”
“Finally, someone came for me. A halfling with red eyes and black hair, hunched over with rotting teeth. I was certain it was my time to die. He handcuffed me with iron and shuffled me up the winding stairs. I was passed along to another guard, this one cleaner. He led me through the castle, and we were headed to the ballroom. We entered, and Awen sat upon the throne, guards at her sides and all along the blood red carpet. I was led to stand before her. When I refused to kneel, I was hit behind the knees, forcing me down. I bowed my head, lest some other injury came to me for refusing orders.”
“’Where is Tiana?’ She had demanded. I replied that I didn’t know. She called me a liar and asked me again. When I said I didn’t know once again, she said, ‘You were once Tiana’s right hand. Do not think you can fool me into thinking you do not know where she is, along with her family. And her daughter, Zaria. You know where they hide. Tell me.’ I told her I didn’t know, and Awen nodded to a guard, who drew his sword and stabbed me in the stomach. She said, ‘You will die if you do not tell me where they are.’”
“It was all the strength I had to pull energy in a moment of weakness from them and burst fire into the room, setting some of the guards on fire. They screamed, and I ran. I didn’t look back at whom or what was chasing me, but I felt energy attacks at my back. Some fire hit me and I rolled onto the ground, getting up and once again running. I nearly died a few times, but I knew I must go on. I had to get away from the wretched, stinking place. I knew I was dying when I came upon this village.”
The old man finished his tale and everyone sat in silence. The fire had burned low as we stared into it, the heaviness of the story sinking in as we imagined a castle on fire, stinking of dying flesh and bone. At once, the war had become very real to the villagers, who thought they were far removed from the fighting and death and lived their lives under the sun. It was uncomfortable in the silence that followed, as everyone remembered how it used to be, and how life had changed; wondering about distant family and friends and how they fared in the fight.
The old man had finished his story and stared directly at Jasmine, his gaze intense and unwavering. After a minute, her father had gotten up and he and the man went off, talking in voices too low for anyone else to hear. Jasmine had sat on her log, her mother’s arm around her, gripping her tightly to her, pulling her head to her chest. Jasmine had sat there for a long time, watching the fire die, and wondered when it would be her time to do the same, talk of war and rotting corpses forcing mortality upon her.
The next morning, the old man had left without a trace, and neither her mother nor her father spoke of him, and pretended nothing had happened the night before. That there had been no man, no story, no gaze from an old fae man that had been dying. Two weeks later, their village was attacked, and Jasmine had run, as her father told her to do.
Now staring out at the rain falling outside the cottage, she realized there was a connection between the queen Awen, the old man, and the attack on her village. She didn’t know what it was, but she intended on finding out. She looked at Gareth, who was lost in his own thoughts. An idea started forming in her mind, and she wondered if she would be able to pull it off. Indeed, it would be a risky move, especially if she didn’t succeed. There wasn’t much time, she knew, and she had to get away.
“Gareth,” Jasmine said, rousing him from his own mind. “You need to let me get rid of this storm. There’s no way it’s letting up soon.”