|Posted by Christie V Powell on December 8, 2016 at 3:20 PM|
Two seasons before 'The Spectra Unearthed' opens, Keita Sage went with her father to meet the other rulers to prepare for an arranged marriage. On the journey she decided to slip away...
Keita Sage crept through the underbrush of the forest, ears alert for any sign of followers. The sunlight sneaked passed the pine branches overhead and set a dappled web of shadow across her path. She placed each step with care. Her father could command someone with a tracking talent to find her, and she needed to avoid leaving a single clue. Going back was not an option.
The trail led to the bank of the raging Silver River and continued up a steep trail crossed by rocky ledges. A shiver, half of anticipation, half of excitement, traveled down her spine. She'd been here once before, when she'd sneaked out of the Inner Vale to explore, but she wasn't allowed so far from home without an escort--someone who was sure to be dull and unpleasant, like her useless cousin Felix. Her father's camp was out of her sensing range, at least a mile behind. Home was a three-day journey south--although she could have made it in one if she tried.
Home. They couldn't exile her from her own kingdom, and she wasn't about to stick around and find out which horrible foreign kingdom she'd be sent to.
The trail smoothed and widened as she climbed, but she hardly noticed until she heard voices ahead. She swore under her breath. She could climb either cliff, but not without notice, especially when Sprites could sense as well as she. She reached out with her mind to sense them and then blanched. No Sprites, but humans, a pair of the unnaturally large creatures, astride even bigger horses. She glanced at the river below--could she climb down the cliff before they noticed?
They rounded the corner in an instant, a forest of knobbly legs and boots. Both were male, maybe a foot or two taller than she, but on the horses they seemed gigantic. Long frizzled hair hung past their shoulders, and bundles of all shapes and sizes dangled from their saddles, giving off such a disgusting mix of stenches that Keita stumbled as they drew near.
"Hullo!" one boomed. "What have we got here?" The voice might have been kind, but it was so rough and thick with accent that she couldn’t be sure.
Her mind went blank. She was so fast at thinking up excuses for her father and tutor--why didn't the thoughts come now? "I...I got lost," she choked out.
"You must have wandered a ways."
Before she could think of the answer, the second man leaned forward to study the trail behind her. “You came up through there? That valley looks like a good place for trapping but we’ve yet to find a way down.”
“There’s nothing you’d want down there,” Keita said quickly. Her father and his escort were still camped in the valley below.
The second man’s grin grew. “Humans,” he repeated. “You’re not human?”
She gulped as everything she’d ever heard about humans flashed through her brain. Dangerous, especially in mobs. No abilities, but fearsome weapons to make up for it. Her kind had hidden from them after their first bloody encounters 200 years ago, and few still believed in them.
She had to escape. “I don’t know what you mean. I’ve got to go.” She edged toward the cliff.
A hand gripped her wrist. Keita forced herself not to panic. She couldn't show them what she was--but how could she escape? And the humans were heading toward her father's camp. She couldn't go back and warn them. Her father, King of Spritelands, had ignored her plenty but until now she'd never known how little he cared. In front of everyone, without the slightest warning, he announced that she, not her twin brother Glen, would attend this year's summit council. Not because she might enjoy the journey or want to meet people from other clans, but because he wanted the other kings to look her over and decide which of their sons she would marry. Quite beside the fact that she knew no one outside of her own kingdom, Spritelands, the marriage would mean she would leave home forever. She would leave the mountains, the trees, the great river below. Even the sky, if she moved to a kingdom where the people lived underground. How could she live without seeing the sky?
She couldn't let them find out about Sprites. Images flashed through her mind: gathering at the Autumn Festival, all united, a hundred strong. Training with her favorite cousin Hunter under the great trees. No, she couldn't let these humans discover them. Spritelands was worth saving.
The group was passing a pine growing just uphill. One of the pine branches grew across the path, high enough to block horses but easy for the humans to duck under. Keita focused, sending her energy into the tree. The branch expanded, reaching downward, pointy needles sticking into the path. She smiled. Wood bending and plant growth were talents of hers—though undeveloped, of course.
“Hey! What's that?”
The two men were standing on the other side of it, staring with open mouths at the tree branch that had been growing before their eyes. Keita let go of the tree, but the damage had been done.
“Natives, I've heard of,” one muttered. “Talking bears, giant cats, people with wolf heads... but never, in any legend, have I heard of living trees.”
Living trees? What a stupid thing to disbelieve. But Keita thought she knew what he meant, and it gave her an idea. Keita pressed her energy into the tree. Its branches began to wave. Then she stepped out, where they could see her, and screamed.
Both of them whirled around. "Miss?" one called uncertainly.
Keita backed toward the tree while its limbs flailed around her. "Help! It's going to eat me!"
A human took a tentative step forward. She took another step back and felt rough bark against her back. She leaned into it and the wood swelled, growing outward around her. The men screamed. From her hiding place, Keita heard them thundering away. She felt them reach their horses and stampede eastward.
The men faded from her senses. She grinned and pushed her way out of the bark that shrank back to make room for her.
She wasn't going to run away.
She knew it was true before she knew where the thought came from. The humans had known she wasn't one of them in a second. She couldn't hide among them without risking her entire kingdom. The risk wasn't worth it. Too many Sprites knew her by feel for her to hide among the other tribes or live alone. They would find her, they would send her home. And strange though home had become recently, she suddenly knew that home meant too much for her to risk, even if she had to leave to protect it. She sighed and turned back the way she had come.