Today is my youngest son's birthday. He is now 15. I can't believe it! We are heading to Top Golf and Andretti's indoor karting and games to celebrate. Living in Orlando is never lacking in fun stuff to do.
Only 6 days left of giving and FATED TO DIE. Posting the chapters is reminding me of how much I love this story. It was so fun to write. Enjoy!
I wake up groggy and weak. My body is warm and at peace. There's no pain, no ice under my skin, just warmth, like I’m resting in bath water.
Moist fingers brush hair from my face. "You truly are beautiful," someone murmurs. "And you have no idea who you are."
"Dacian?" I crack open my eyes.
He's close, really close. My cheek is nestled against his misty chest like he's cradling me. I try to lift my head. Water splashes and my hair feels weighed down.
"Where are we?" I whisper.
"A hot spring. You passed out when I was carrying you here. How are you feeling?" He slides his fingers through my hair.
"Better." I let my eyes close, too exhausted to keep them open. "What was that? I felt like I was freezing to death."
"You would have had I not brought you here in time."
Despite the warm water, a chill shoots through me. "I would have died?"
"No. Not exactly." His gentle tone is almost as soothing as the water. "You would have thawed when my mother called for you, so you could deliver another garment."
I stiffen, and my eyes spring open to his misty form, visible in the moonlight. "I broke a rule, didn't I? I spoke to him."
"Relax." Dacian brushes the back of his fingers across my cheek. "You're not enslaved to return under the river with her. The freezing was punishment. It will be your punishment every time you speak to the victims."
"Mrs. Potterfield," I gasp, my heart squeezing with pain. "She's dead because of me."
"She is dead because of the curse."
Tears of shame fill my eyes. I close them before any can escape. "She was innocent, kind." The sweetest lady I knew. "Why would your mother choose her?"
"Death chose her. It does not pardon those who are kind. It simply takes those whose time has come."
"It isn't fair." I turn my face toward his chest, seeking what … Comfort? Peace? Do I deserve, either?
"Life isn't fair," he says. "Why would death be any different?"
I shake my head. This is too much to think about right now. My brain hurts. My body is still too weak to move, but I don't feel like I’ve earned the right to rest.
"The next time I break the rules," I say because I surely will, "and am punished, let me freeze."
Dacian exhales, and I feel his body tense. He's disappointed in me. For some reason, he thinks I'm special. I’m not. I’m stubborn, desperate, and now a murderer, or at the very least a murderer's accomplice. By the end of this week, I might want to return under the river with the Hag. Then I think of my sisters and father and know I can't let that happen.
"Sleep," Dacian says. "Things will be better in the morning. I promise."
"Why are you being so nice?" I slur, as sleep starts to creep over me. "You're supposed to be cruel."
"I am cruel," he murmurs, but I'm too far gone to care.
This time when I wake, I'm in the pretty bed with lavender flowers on the canopy. The cottage is light and cozy. I'm dry and in a nightgown. My muscles are soft, my body revived.
Dacian springs to mind and his final words before I passed out. I am cruel, he'd said.
How can he think that? I don't. He saved me from that horrid pain. He brought me back, tucked me into bed, and made everything better for me. Better, when I didn't deserve it.
I killed a person last night. A kind loving person. A woman who didn’t turn me away when others in the village did.
She gave me a discount, too. She’d never admit it, but I know she did. And now she’s gone. Who will run her bakery, the only bakery in town? Will it close and life go on as if it had never existed? Will people forget her like they do all the maidens who have been sacrificed to the curse?
The families of the Messengers mourn them by walking around in black for days or months. No one dares to challenge the rules or complain about who is sacrificed to the Council, though.
Mr. Winthrop, the Head Councilman, holds service every Sunday in the castle's great hall. He tells horrific stories of past families and Fathers who went after their daughters and the Hag, and how the moment they entered the woods they were never seen again.
He says during the week the Washer Woman rises, the curse wraps the woods in its cold claws, taking aim at anyone who enters in challenge.
There will be no one to save me, not that Father would try. Once strong and proud, he’s withered mentally and physically since losing Mother. He was more like his old self than he's ever been on the day of the Choosing Ceremony, but I ruined that for him, too.
Maybe, I have withered along with him. The younger me, the girl angry at the world for losing her mother, would have risked her life for any chance to destroy the Washer Woman. Last night, I stood before and coward.
Dacian is wrong. I’m no different from the other maidens. I’m not strong and brave.
Time has changed me into a girl who spends her days caring for the manor and Father, making sure he remembers to tend the sheep so we can trade the wool and milk for coins. When I’m not giving lessons to the twins and loving them as Mother would have wanted, I care for the gardens she adored, preserving them the best I can so the girls can know the beauty their mother had created.
A sharp pain stabs my chest. I bury my head in a pillow. I miss the girls so much. I miss their soft curls, golden like mother’s hair had been. The way they laughed and begged me to play chase in the maze as mother had done with me so many times. If they lose me, who will care for them? Who will care for the manor and Father?
I shouldn’t have lied to them about Tristin. I should have done as Father asked, begged. I should have—wetness touches my cheek.
I sit up and feel the pillow case. It’s damp. I rub my eyes. I’m crying? I don't cry. I survive. I push through. I fight.
I didn't last night, though. I killed an innocent person.
No. Don't go there. I need to be strong. I know strong. I’m good at it. I need to get through this for the girls. For Father and memory of Mother, I've worked to honor for years.
Besides, I have support. Dacian helped me last night. He stopped the pained and cared for me in a way no one ever has. It may be his duty, something he's done for other maidens, as well. I suspect otherwise, though, and need to ask him about it—after I thank him, of course. He deserves a huge thank you.
I shove back my hair, climb from the bed, and open the sheer curtains the way I do at home when I need an extra boost before starting the day.
To my surprise, the woods are lovely and alive, glinting with morning light. Like rain drops, sunrays sprinkle the shrubbery and leafy ground. Trees with moss-covered trunks stand tall, their bushy green leaves appearing yellow.
Such a beautiful day after such a tragic night.
Sadness weighs on me and my shoulders sag.
"Fight it," I whisper to myself. This is what comes of being the Messenger. I’m not the first or the last.
A bird flies by the window and lands on a sunlit branch near the cottage. Its feathered body is gray while its wings are a shimmering blue. How rare.
The bird chirps in a rhythmic way as if it’s singing.
If I were home, I’d open the window and welcome him inside like I did the little Sparrows that used to visit me.
I touch the glass. "Hello, little birdy. Good morning."
It looks my way.
"Are you enjoying the warmth of the rays?"
The bird springs from the branch and swoops toward me.
"Slow down." I tap the glass. Can it not tell the window is closed?
It keeps coming.
"No. Don't." I smack the glass pane.
The bird crashes into the window and bounces off, falling to a bed of leaves on the ground.
I gasp and jump back in shock. No. The whimper rattles from my chest. I creep closer and stare down at the lifeless bird. This is my fault.
Without thought, I grip the bottom of the window and lift. A breeze wafts through cooling my skin. Realization hits, and I freeze. I opened the window.
My gaze shoots to the closed bedroom door. Why isn’t the plant squawking? Does it not know, or is this his allowed? It can't be. A maiden could escape.
Perhaps, a protective barrier blocks the way. And lets a breeze pass through? Not likely.
I bend and inspect the opening, then I chance it, and stick my hand outside. It passes through with ease. I snatch it back, and wait for the plant to react.
I do it again. Cool air and warm sunrays caress my skin. Could it be this easy, a glitch in the curse? A determined maiden would take advantage of situation.
The thought of seeing my sisters and father sends excitement whirling through me. Has no maiden ever discovered this?
No stories tell of Messengers trying to escape the Washer Woman, but then there is so little we know about their enslavement. No one knows about Dacian or the cottage, and the week of the reaping is never consistent.
In the beginning, tales say the Washer Woman killed for seven straight days. In my lifetime, my parents and grandparents as well, the Messengers can reap five lives in one summer and only three the next.
The Council likes to recall a summer, decades ago, when only one life was claimed. One life. They say we had sent a worthy maiden that week, and she must have served the Washer Woman well for the village to have been so blessed.
If she were so worthy, why didn’t she earn her freedom and return home? The Council was wrong about only losing one life that week. We lost two, the maiden and the fated victim, but no one speaks of it in that way.
I take in the poor bird still on its side. Its furry chest puffs with a short breath. He's alive?
Anger and guilt coil inside me. I might not have been able to save Mrs. Potterfield, or whoever else I’ll be forced to claim, but I will save this innocent bird.
I push the window open all the way.
The plant doesn't squawk.
Again, I consider climbing out and making a run for it, just to see what happens. What if I make it home? What if I discover a new way for maidens to break free? What if I die? I’d never see the girls again. I may never still.
Get the bird, think about escaping later.
I send my legs through the opening and try to reach the ground with my foot. It's further down than I thought. Turning, I rest my belly on the wooden sill, my upper body still in the room, and ease myself down slowly so I don't land on the bird.
The inside of the cottage darkens, the dinginess returning. Oh no. I freeze, unsure of what to do. Climb back in—will it matter—or save the bird. Had I truly believed I could do this without being penalized?
Before pulling myself back inside, I glance over my shoulder. The bird no longer lies on the ground, because the ground is gone. Blackness swirls beneath me. Bony fingers made of dark fog clasp my ankle and pull.
I shriek and slip further outside.
The bird, trees, woods, breeze, everything is black. My heart thunders. Fear sends me scrambling to get back into the cottage. I tighten my grasp on the window sill.
The hand yanks harder on my leg, drawing me closer to the darkness. It twirls faster with the center spiraling inward, like a throat opening up to swallow me.
My arm muscles burn, straining against my weight and the force pulling on me. Sweat moistens my palms and my fingers slip. One of my hands loses its grip.
I scream and call out for help. "Dacian! Please, help me!"
A second bony hand clasps my other ankle and jerks me down.
I slide further down, my body completely outside as I struggle to hang onto the windowsill with only my left hand. One more tug, and I'll be gone, sucked into the dark abyss.
What have I done? I'm didn't mean to. I didn't know. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Tears choke my words. I don't know who I'm apologizing too. The cottage? Dacian? My family?
A loud bang sounds from inside the room. A strong hand clamps onto my wrist. Hair covers my face, blocking my view to who is helping me.
"Dacian?" I ask, assuming it's him.
My body jerks upward and I'm pulled through the window. My chest slides over the windowsill. My waist, my hips, my thighs. The fingers on my ankles tighten, keeping me from going further.
Wind whips through the window, sending leaves and dirt over my body and into the room. Everything turns black like the darkness is following me inside.
The person holding me roars and wrenches me so hard the force lets go. I shoot across the room and slam onto the wood floor. Face down, I stay that way, working to catch my breath.
Panting from the other person sounds to the right of my head, like he's on the floor too.
"Dacian?" I roll onto my back, too weak to do more. Hair covers my face like a blanket. I leave it.
"You were trying to escape?" he says, his voice a mix of shock and sadness.
"I ... I wasn't. I swear. I thought about it, but I didn't try."
"Then why were you out the window?" Anger deepens his tone.
"The window opened. I saw a bird. It hit the wall and fell. I tried to help it. I didn't think, and then the ground disappeared, and something tried to pull me down." I shiver with a bout of panic and fear. "I wouldn't have left. I thought about it, but I wasn't going to do it. I-I don't know what happened. I’m sorry."
"The curse happened." He sighs, sounding both weary and annoyed. "Like the cottage, it punishes and rewards. It also lures you to do wrong when the opportunity presents itself. Earn the cottages trust and it will protect you."
"The cottage tried to kill me?"
"It was teaching you a lesson. You wouldn't have died, but you could have suffered more. Treat the cottage with respect and it will do the same to you."
"You're mad. I can hear it in your tone, and I hate that I put it there." I turn my head toward him. Hair falls away from eyes, and a gloved hand is shoved in my face.
"Don't look at me," he snaps.
I flinch and squeeze my eyes shut. "Sorry. I didn't see you. I swear. I'm not … I don't mean to mess up, I just—" I clamp my mouth shut cutting off further excuses. That's all they are.
For a few moments, we both lie in silence. I focus on his breathing and notice it's slower than it was before when he was mad at me. Does that mean I’m forgiven?
"Dacian?" I ask, curious of his response. Will he huff, or has he calmed?
"Hmm?" His tone is soft with a hint of sadness that is so often there.
"Why am I not allowed to look at you?"
He sighs. "I can't say."
"You can't say, or you don't want to?"
"Is it for the same reason I can't see your Mother?"
"Is it because you're disfigured?"
"I can't say." His words are tight, like he's frustrated, but I don't think his upset is directed at me.
Is he ashamed of how he looks? Bothered by something that might be different? Could he have an anomaly, like I do with my eyes?
"Dacian?" I start again.
"Yes," his draws out, his tone emotional in a way I can't place. Agitation and a mix of something else … humor? Doubtful.
I don't let it deter me from what I have to say. It's important. "I want you to know your appearance, no matter how different it might be, won't bother me. How you look cannot and will not change the way I feel about you. I know you too well for that. I even consider you … a friend, no matter how warped that may be. I don't have many, any really unless you count my horse, Daisy. My point is, as my friend, I'd like to be able to put a face to your name. It's incredibly challenging not being able to look upon the person I spend all my time with. Can you understand that and understand that I would never judge based on your appearance?"
He's quiet for a while. Considering my request? Finally, he says, "Yes. I can understand your needs. But I can't show you myself. Not yet."
Yet? Hope blooms inside me, along with ideas I should squash at once. Have I learned nothing.
Still, I ask, "Are the rules I break to you different than the rules I break to your mother?"
"You know they are." Movement stirs around me like he's sitting up. "But don't get any ideas. There is only so much I can control."
"Can control." I shoot upright, keeping my eyes closed. "What does that mean?"
"It means no more breaking the rules," he says, his tone reprimanding in a way that almost makes me laugh.
"I don't mean to break the rules. I truly don't." I explain, wanting him to understand me better. "I've always done things my own way. It's not an excuse. It's a habit. I wasn't raised to think my defiant nature is bad. If anything, my mother praised me for it. Passionate and fearless, is how she described me. And when kids in the village ridiculed me for my unusual eyes, she me the difference made me special. I am sorry for the trouble I've caused you, and I am thankful for your help. You saved me last night from agonizing pain and you saved me again today. I will try to be more like the other maidens."
I cross my legs under my dress and fold my hands together in my lap, my head high and my eyes sealed.
"I never asked you to do that." He whispers in my ear, suddenly at my side.
My breath hitches, and I fight the urge to open my eyes out of surprise. "You're so quiet."
"When I want to be."
"But you don't want me to be like other maidens?"
"I want you to be like you." His warm breath flutters my hair.
"I don't understand."
He slides away, his presence gone from my side. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm sorry I did."
"You don't have to apologize to me. You had every reason to yell. I keep messing up. I promise I'll try harder. I'll be better. A better me. Not like the other maidens." He said he didn't want that. "But better than I was."
He makes a soft noise, similar to a chuckle.
I turn my cheek toward the sound. "Did you just laugh?"
"I think I did."
"You think?" He doesn't know?
"Laughter has never been a part of my life." His tone dips to something somber. "Most maidens are filled with sorrow, always crying and begging me to free them. When they're not sad, they're terrified of breaking a rule and becoming enslaved for a year, which always results in death." He pauses. "You are different in so many ways. It gives me hope."