It's time for chapter nine. You'll get the whole one in this post. The chapter isn't long like the previous two-part post.
I don't know about you, but I'm enjoying this. Who'd have thought posting chapters to one of my ms's would inspire me to do more writing. It might be the new year, or sharing this fun read with you but creative juices are flowing.
This chapter is filled with action and, of course, strong emotions. This novel is filled with both, which is uncommon for me. LOL I'm learning.
Anywho, enjoy the new chapter!
Cold fear slices through me like a blade made of ice. I dig my heels into the gravel. The door is mere steps away, but I can't stop. No matter what I do or say, the shirt tugs me forward, closer to its victim.
"No! Not here! Not this house!" The words rip from my throat, raw with panic and desperation. "Dacian?" I call out, searching for him in the darkness. He's not with me.
Light shines in the upstairs window of the manor. In his night robe, Father peers out, his face ashen, his wrinkles deeper than I remember. He's straining to see me, but it's too dark.
"Don't come out!" I shout to him, trembling and straining against the pull. "Stay inside. Don't open the door!" This can't be happening. Not again. He's suffered enough. Why more? Why now?
Rage engulfs me. I let out a warrior scream and throw my body backward. I'll run off a cliff if I have to, but I won't deliver this. The shirt doesn't surrender, not even an inch. Tears blur my vision and stream down my cheeks. To the night, the curse and the Washer Woman, I beg, "Take me! Take me instead!"
I shoot upright in the chair. My throat burns, and sweat coats my face. I'm in the cottage, not back at home with Father’s blood-stained shirt.
My heart races. I put my hand to my chest and urge myself to calm down.
"It was only a dream. Only a dream," I murmur until the panic and fear leave me.
When I open my eyes, the cottage is different.
It's not grimy or pristine, it's somewhere in between. Light oak panels make up the walls and floors. The furniture is sturdy yet slightly worn, like the furnishings at home in the manor. Soft light filters through the windows and warm oats sweeten the air. Breakfast is waiting for me on the table.
"Thank you," I tell the cottage, my voice still weak from my cries.
I stand and flatten my hand over my rolling stomach, still sick with worry. The last thing I am is hungry, but I don't want to offend the cottage by not eating.
At the table, I sit and nibble on blueberry and cream oats. I drink some orange juice, too. Neither eases the tension inside me. Nothing will make me feel better, except for seeing my family.
"All I want is to know they're all right." A tear slips down my cheek, then another. I don't wipe them away. One falls to the floor, darkening a small part of the white wood.
The cottage is back to its cozy, clean self. Does it feel sorry for me? Does it know my pain?
Standing, I address the cottage. "Would you be so kind as to summon Dacian for me, please? I need to speak with him."
If I beg, he might take pity on me and help me get a letter to my family. I can't go on without communicating with them somehow.
"Please." My voice breaks.
Instead of getting upset, I drag myself over to the chair and sit. My body feels heavy, weighted by emotions I’m not used to experiencing. Tucking them away is my specialty. Taking control and forging on, no matter the obstacles.
That's why I refuse to believe this is it for me or for my family. Determination fueling me, I pound a fist on the chair. There must be something I can do to change things in my favor. Something other than reading that book.
I glance at it on the table. It's too thick. If I had a month, I might be able to do it, but seven days is hardly enough time.
"Please help me." I look up to the Blessed Ones. "Help me to find a way."
Movement by the door snatches my gaze. A fat leaf falls to the floor.
Is the plant ill?
It appears to be healthy. The leaves hang in a relaxed manner. The coloring seems as vibrant as ever. Even the leaf on the floor is green. Gold writing glistens from it.
I snatch it up and read. Dacian will not be visiting until this afternoon.
"You can communicate," I gasp, even as my shoulders slump. Now I’ll have less time to convince Dacian to reach out to my family.
Another idea arises. If my intuition is correct, the cottage and plant, maybe even the Blessed Ones, have taken pity on me. If I play my cards right, I might be able to use it to my advantage.
I draw in a deep breath. Please don't let this backfire on me.
"Might I offer you a trade? I'm worried about my family," I say, careful of my words. "I have younger sisters, twins who are lost without me. If I could be granted permission to let them know I’m all right, that I miss and love them, I would gladly clean and care for you in return for your kindness."
Moments pass in silence. When nothing happens, I gather the bowl and cup into a neat pile and use the napkin to wipe the table.
"You see? I'm quite good at tidying up. I have much practice caring for the home where I've lived for several years now."
Next, I take the cloth napkin to the mantle above the fireplace and wipe it clean, though there isn't anything to clean off. Then, I fluff the cushions on the chair. I'm about to wipe down the small table when another leaf falls to the floor.
I squeeze my eyes closed with a silent prayer—please let it be good news—and bend to pick up the leaf. Gold words glint from one side.
You have been granted two hours. Do not be late.
I can leave? I can't believe it. I don't know what I was expecting but this—wait. What if it's a trap, like the bird.
The door isn't opening like the window did. And this came from the plant inside the cottage. Dacian said the cottage will protect me. Does that mean I can trust it to leave?
I don't want to upset the plant, afraid he'll take his offer away, but I need to be safe. "I hate to ask but is this a trap?"
The top leaf shifts to the side. A shake of the head?
"And I won't be punished?"
The leaf moves to the other side.
Still, nervous, I press in the gentlest way. "How is this allowed? Is it something other maidens have been granted or just me?"
A moment passes then another leaf falls to the floor. I pick it up and read the gold script.
No other maiden asked. Ask the right questions, get the right answers.
Dacian said a similar phrase to me. He also said the other maidens spent their time crying and begging to be set free. Perhaps, they never asked if they could leave and come back, or perhaps, my kind gesture of cleaning and trading favors made the difference.
Another leaf falls.
My pulse jumps. "Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much." I put the leaves in my pocket and open the door.
Fear seizes me and I struggle to move. When my feet touched the ground outside the window, it turned black and tried to suck me under. Heart pounding, I glance at the plant. Its green leaves fall in a relaxed position. Does that mean it's safe? I hate that I don't know. I hate that I'm scared. This could be my one chance to see my family and I'm wasting time.
A nervous squeal bursts from my lips. The plant does nothing to assure me. I grip the door frame and ease one slippered foot onto the mossy ground outside. It remains solid under my weight. With my hands still clutching the door frame, in case I need to pull myself back in, I step down with my other foot and wait. No bird chirps. The woods don't darken, and the ground doesn't disappear.
Two urges strike me, leaving me torn. Jump back into the cottage, or take off through the woods. Mother used to say, "If you think for too long, you often think wrong."
My legs and arms shake with my nerves. The plant hasn't moved, as if it’s sleeping. Shoving my fear to my toes, I let go of the door frame and run.
In my haste, I slip a few times on the marshy ground and bang my shin when I jump over a fallen tree. Panic keeps me going until I realize I don't know the way out of the woods. I've never spent time on this side of the forest. By my house, the woods get darker and thicker the deeper I go, and thinner where the trees meet open land.
Here, I don't see a change. Everything is thick and dark. I need to stop and check my surroundings. No matter how afraid I am to slow down, if I don't, I'll never find my way out.
My heart hammers and my faster breathing dries my throat. I'm not sure how far I ran, only that I can't find the cottage. To keep moving, I walk around trees, surveying the area. Nothing looks familiar. Panic builds inside me. How do I get anywhere from here? I'm lost. Lost.
My eyes sting with tears I refuse to let fall. I did this to myself. My breath hitches and a familiar scent fills my nose. The river. I can smell it in the air. I must be close.
If I can find it, I can follow the direction of the current. It will lead me to the village.
Relief transforms my fear into determination. Following the scent, I round trees and hop over roots jutting from the ground. The air grows moist and rushing water sounds ahead.
A long row of hedges blocks my view, but I’m certain the river is on the other side. With no end in sight of the fortress-like shrubs, I choose to cut through them. Most likely, I'll get scraped up, but it will save on time.
At the hedges, I search the leaves for a thinning area. Mumbled voices sound from the other side. For a moment, I think it's villagers, even though they never venture into the woods during the week of the Summer Solstice. I think they're here to save me, no matter how preposterous the idea. Then the air turns cold and dread seeps into my bones, alerting me to who is talking.
"You should be more cautious about visiting, child," the Washer Woman says, her voice dripping with such sorrow and pain, I physically ache.
Warnings fire inside me, screaming for me to leave before she catches me or lightning strikes the rocks, but my legs are frozen, my feet anchored in what feels like blocks of ice.
Like a lasso around my neck, my head jerks toward a small break in the hedges. Fog rises from the river like plumes of smoke, masking two figures. Their dark silhouettes appear to be standing on the surface of the water. Both are tall and human in shape. Who is this other person?
"You know why I come." Dacian's voice rings clear.
Panic and terror blasts through me, melting the chill from my skin, and still, I can't force my legs to move. What if they hear me? What will they do?
"Praya," Dacian says.
My heart lodges in my throat. They know!
"She's not like the others," he adds, and I can breathe again. "She's smarter, braver, and irrational in a way that works to her advantage. We talk. She asks questions. She pushes the limits and it’s changing things. It's making me stronger. I can influence my powers in ways I couldn’t before."
"This is not for my ears, Dacian. You know better." Anger grates in his mother's voice. The fog darkens to a stormy gray. "I cannot stop the consequences if we're caught."
Caught? By who?
"Then help me," Dacian implores. "Tell me the right answers to seek. She could be the—"
"Silence," she bellows. Lightning strikes in the fog, bright and blinding.
The hair on my arms stand. I shiver and cover my ears to lesson the loud boom that often follows a bolt like that. It never comes.
From the hedge, a black snake slithers around my feet. It's orange tongue flickers from its mouth with a hissing sound. The tail brushes over the toe of my slipper. I clamp a hand over my mouth to keep from shrieking. It circles back into the bush, leaving me in tremors—part from the snake and part from the situation.
I need to run away. I want to, but they might hear me.
Footsteps trudge over debris, drawing closer. I squat low to the ground and hold my breath. The snake could be beside me in the bush, waiting to strike. The Washer Woman could enslave me for a year after my service for breaking the rules. This could be it for me. The end.
"What is it, my dear?" the Washer Woman asks, the endearment sounding off in her glum voice.
The footsteps stop on the other side of the hedge. "It's a snake," Dacian replies so close that if I stuck my hand through the shrub, I bet I could touch his leg. "A big black one. We're fine."
"We are never fine." His mother declares. "Stand back so I can kill it."
Dacian's shoes scuffle away.
I need to go. Now. Rising, I lift the hem of my dress and run.
Light flashes through the woods. Thunder clashes and a whoosh of air sends me stumbling forward. I fall and throw out my hands to catch myself. My arm and cheek scrape against a twig sticking up from the ground.
Water gushes behind me, like the falls at Mount Loras. I glance over my shoulder, terrified its rushing toward me.
A wall of water crashes over the hedges where I was squatting a moment ago. I blink, not trusting my eyes. Like a flood, the water sweeps away the hedges and recedes to the river.
I jump up and push my legs to go as fast they can. My heart pounds. Every part of my body shakes. I can't breathe or think, but I keep going, afraid any second the Washer Woman will call for me and I'll be forced to greet her.