Only two days left of giving. It went by faster than I thought it would. If you're new to the blog, I did 12 Days of Giving of one of my novels. FATED TO DIE. It's a ya dark retelling. The premise can be found on my novels page. If you're interested in reading the ten chapters that I have posted so far, start at the first one titled, 12 Days of Giving. I'm adding some pictures from my Pinterest that relate to this chapter. Enjoy!
Pictures from left to right - The river, the woods, the bridge leading to town, the manor (Praya's home), Praya.
The trees blur as I sprint through the woods. A few times, I slip on the marshy ground. The river trails to my left, never far from sight. I could move toward dryer terrain but I'm afraid of getting lost. Then I'll never find my way back—or out of the woods.
This might be my only chance to see my family. Even though, the cottage let me leave, it doesn't mean Dacian will be happy. My guess is he'll be angry that I didn't tell him before I left. I would have, but, according to the plant, he was detained until later. If I had been able to tell him, he might have stopped me from going, and then I'd be angry with him.
Guilt slides through me over my actions and how he'll react—if he notices I’m gone. Hopefully, he won't. Hopefully, everything will be fine when I return.
Ahead, the white village appears through the trees. Although, my leg muscles and throat burn from exertion, I don't slow. If I do, I might stop and pass out, or worse, let fear send me back to the cottage.
The village bridge comes into view. Thick brush grows between the trees as if the woods wants to keep me from escaping too. Never slowing, I raise my arms in front of my face and plow through them. Thorny branches scratch my arms and hands. One nicks my cheek, another scrapes my neck and collarbone. My dress snags and tears at the hip.
I break out on the other side, ignoring the sting of my wounds and keep running. Instead of crossing the bridge, I tread under it to keep from being seen. Not that anyone is out in town this week. The only time people leave their homes is before dusk when they meet in the castle chapel to pray to the Blessed Ones. They ask for mercy and compassion, but no one dares to ask for the curse to be broken.
As the head Councilman, Mr. Winthrop opens and closes the service. He warns villagers not to become greedy, reminding us that greed is what landed us cursed in the first place. People worship him as if he were royalty. I suppose he's the closest thing we have, given his family has lead the Council since the day it was established.
Stepping stones aide my way across the river to the bank on the other side. Grass slopes down from the wall surrounding the village. I follow it the entrance of town, where another bridge leads to the manor.
Sweat coats my skin and burns the cuts on my body. Blood oozes from a few on my arms and hands. The wounds and my disheveled appearance won't help assure my family I'm doing well, surviving. Nothing I can do to chance it now.
My muscles scream for me to stop. My lungs feel like they've stopped working. Against my will, my legs slow to a fast walk. More than anything I want to lie down and sleep, after I guzzle a bucket of water. That can't happen though, not until after I see my family.
I come up from under the bridge that leads to our property and glimpse the white manor atop the hill in the distance. Home. Excitement gives me a second boost. I stride across the field, tall grass blowing under the sun, and start up the long driveway to the manor.
Magnolia trees line the way. At the top of the hill, I take a moment to catch my breath. I made it. I'm home. It seems unreal. Tears prick my eyes. I blink them back. They'll be plenty of time for crying later.
Colorful flowers brighten the gardens and perfume the air. The tops of blooming Crepe Myrtles sway in the breeze. Neighing sound from the barn at the bottom of the small hill. Does Daisy sense I'm back? I want to see her too, but I know there isn't time.
I listen for the giggles of the girls, frolicking somewhere on the property. This time of day they love to play outside. The manor is quiet. Too quiet.
My heart rate shoots back up, not that it had fully calmed. It had never fully calmed from racing to get here. I pinch the fabric of my dress, lifting it above my ankles, and race up the steps to the front entrance.
The big doors open with ease.
The foyer and winding staircase seem darker. The air is stuffy like the house has been closed up for the winter. Where is everyone?
"Father?" I call out, short of breath and cough.
"Girls? Girls! Where are you?" I take the stairs two at a time, my knees weak like they might give out.
No one replies.
On the way to their room, I pass Father's open bedroom door. He sits in the chair by the fireplace, his head hanging forward as if he's asleep.
"Father?" I inch toward him as a new fear takes hold of me. What if he's dead? "Father?" It comes out as a bark.
His head shoots up, but he doesn't look at me. His gaze lingers on dried-out wood in the fireplace. Deep lines carve a permanent frown on his weary face.
"Oh, Father." I drop down beside him and place my hands on his knee. What have I done to him? "Forgive me. Please forgive me."
Puffy blue eyes, streaked with red veins turn to me. "Praya?"
"I'm so sorry, Father," I cry, plead. "I don't know if you can forgive me, but I want you to know how sorry I am. I never meant to lie to you. I couldn't go through with it. Tristin was awful and I-I couldn't do it. I should have told you. I thought I would be safe. I never thought I'd be chosen." I rest my head on his knee and sniffle, tears flowing from my eyes.
He doesn't touch me or move at all. "Is it really you?"
"Yes." I lift my head and squeeze his hand on his lap. "It's really me, but I don't have long." I glance at the clock again. Less than an hour. Oh no. I still need to see the girls.
He cups my cheek and wipes away tears with his thumb. "I thought I lost you forever."
Not yet, I want to say. Instead, I sniffle and cry a little more. "I'm still here, and if I can find a way to earn my freedom, I will." If I haven't lost it already. "Just know I love you and I'm fine."
His eyes seem to focus on me now, as if he’s just seeing me clearly. "You're hurt." He lifts his palm to the scratch on my cheek.
I take his hand in mine and kiss the top. "I'm fine. I promise. But I can't stay. I wish I could, but I can't."
"You can't leave." He clutches our joined hands and pulls me close. "I need you. The twins need you. We can't lose you, too."
Guilt, shame, and an achingly deep sorrow burrow in my heart. "I know. If I can make this right, I will. Trust that I will." I nod and swallow the lump of doubt in my throat. Am I spouting more lies? Aren't I already doomed? No. I can't think like that. "I have to go, Father." Slowly, I stand. "Be strong for me and for the girls. They need you, too."
He squeezes my hands, unwilling to let them go.
I kiss his forehead. "I love you. Don't ever forget that."
Pulling away from him takes all my strength. Once I'm free, I sprint from the room before he can protest or try to stop me. There's no time for long goodbyes. It won't change anything anyway.
Ignoring the pain in my heart, I race through the house in search of my sisters. Their room is empty. Seeing the rose patterned wallpaper and twin beds, their ribbon and bows, and their dolls tucked in their cradle—the cradle mother and I had been rocking them in the night she died—almost sends me to the floor.
What if I never see this again?
Forcing myself away, I check every room downstairs, mindful of the kitchen and laundry room in case the kitchen maid is working.
No one is here. With my time almost up, I check the back terrace. The twin's little voices catch my attention. I follow them to the garden on the side of the house.
Ivy covers every inch of the stone wall enclosing Mother's favorite retreat. The iron gate squeaks when I open it, but the twins don't notice. They stand by the fountain, arguing. Water speckles their apricot dresses like they've been splashing each other. Their golden hair hangs in messy curls down their backs and the sashes around their waists are tied in knots instead of bows. Father's right. They need me, or else they risk sharing my same fate one day.
"Girls?" I step forward, warmth and love colliding with the hurt and guilt flooding my veins.
They freeze, and their already pale faces turn as white as the stone on the fountain. A moment later, they're rushing toward me, embracing me.
"You're free." Calyssa hugs me tighter.
"I knew you'd come back," Carys says, her face buried in my side. "I knew it."
I bend lower, enveloping them in my arms, wishing I could tell them everything is better and that I'm back for good. They smell of Plumeria and honey suckle, the best scents in the world. I drop a kiss on the top of their heads and force myself to straighten, or else I may never let them go.
The next words out of my mouth might be the hardest I ever say. "I am not free, and I don't have long, but I had to see you. I'm so sorry for what has happened. I’m sorry I didn't get to say goodbye before the ceremony, and for so many other things. If I could make it all better, I would—I will. For now, I need you to be strong for me. Help Father and help each other. Remember your manners and how to tie proper bows." I tease and tug at the sashes around their waists, while trying not to cry. "Be good and say your prayers at night before you go to bed. I'll be doing the same and thinking of you." I kiss their cheeks and fight the urge to hold them forever. "I love you."
"You're leaving again?" Heartbreak shows in Carys's green eyes.
"I don't want to."
"Then stay," she pleads, slicing a hole in my chest.
"I can't." My chin trembles. I’m barely keeping it together.
"Why?" She frowns and Calyssa takes her hand. Always the strong one, Calyssa lifts her chin, emotions darkening her teal eyes. "Why do you keep leaving? Where do you go? Father won't tell us. No one will." She stomps but her breath hitches, giving away her hurt.
My sweet girl, defiant in ways that make me proud as well as fearful of her future. More than ever I want to break the curse, so she never has to know why I left, and why I'm leaving again. If I make it back to the cottage without being discovered, I will do whatever I must to free the village from this horror so my sisters can live whatever life they choose.
"It's better you don't learn about where I go," I say in the gentlest tone. "You have to trust me to know what's best and know I’m doing all I can to make it home to you."
Realization hits me like a bolt of lightning. I'm not making it better. I'm doing the opposite. Seeing them was selfish. If I truly cared, I would have stayed, followed the rules, and worked with Dacian to break the curse. Instead, I ran away to see my family at the risk of losing them forever and my chance to make a difference. The cottage said I could go, only now I'm not so sure it was the right choice.
"I'm sorry, girls. I must go. Remember how much I love you and how much I'll be thinking of you. Take care of Father for me, and Daisy. She needs you too." I squat to their level. "Can you do that? Please?"
Calyssa must sense my urgency because she doesn’t push back. She nods and Carys does the same. "We'll be good," Carys says.
I can't stop a tear from falling down my cheek. Quickly, I wipe it away. "You are good, so good." One last time, I wrap my arms around their little bodies and breathe in their sweet scents. "My girls. My beautiful strong girls. I love you with all my heart."
Straightening, I fight my sniffles and manage a warm smile. They don't know this could be the last time they see me. They don't know what might await them if I lose the chance to break the curse.
My legs feel weighted as I back away, my chest heavy with grief. Every part of me wants to stay and play in the gardens, tuck them into bed, and wake up with them tomorrow as if nothing has changed.
I blow them a kiss and run for the woods, the cottage, and the consequences that might await.
"Hear me, Blessed Ones," I pray, "forgive me for my defiance and save me from having ruined my chance to break the curse. If you do, I vow to find a way to free the village forever, no matter what happens to me."