Authors: Leigh Michael
No one else mattered.
In fact, we didn’t notice the audience that formed behind us.
It wasn’t just an audience—it was an army—an army of Guardians.
Sensing the fact we weren’t alone, I slowly pulled my lips from Adrian’s. My eyes darted from one side of his head to the other.
“Looks like we have company,” I whispered, my cheeks flushing with pink.
Our private moment had been on full display. The heat, passion, and primal need for one another had been broadcasted for all to see.
Behind Adrian stood nearly a hundred sprites, lined up in rows, ten across. They all wore armor across their breasts with swords in hand. Their expressions were unreadable.
The thought of that many having witnessed our animal instincts made my cheeks redden even more.
“Prince Adrianus,” Maddox called, moving forward. “The Trackers have retreated.”
I sensed Adrian’s hesitation to face reality. Ever so slowly he touched his forehead to mine, then replaced the touch of his skin with a soft kiss. With a sigh, he dropped his arms back to his sides.
I instantly felt as if a piece of me went missing.
As I stared at his back, where my arms had just held tight, he addressed the awaiting crowd. “The Trackers?”
“Yes, they approached on the north side. Only moments before your men arrived.”
“And the Trackers simply left, no battle ensued?”
“For once, our numbers outnumbered their own. Our sheer presence caused them to leave.”
“How is this possible? Who led the Guardians here?”
“I did,” a voice called out.
My heart quickened as I recognized it.
Moments later, Natasha shouldered her way to the front line.
“Aurelia?” Adrian demanded. I couldn’t see his face, but his stiff stance acted as a gateway into his anxiety.
“Safe. In Tritonis.”
His fingers released from their fisted positions, his posture relaxed. I hadn’t realized I held my own breath until it was released from my lungs.
“Queen Athena has given me this great honor to lead the troops from Tritonis,” Natasha continued, confidence now exuding from her words.
“We are leaving our city unpatrolled?”
Maddox swam closer. “No, there are still Guardians who remain to protect the woman, children, and those untrained.”
“Why have our numbers come forward?”
“My prince, I know I have only recently joined your ranks on this mission, but presenting such weak numbers has been foolish.”
“It was what the Elders ruled,” Adrian countered in defense.
Maddox’s face remained unchanged.
I didn’t want to disagree with Adrian, but I also needed to share what I knew. No one else had witnessed our loss on the top of the mountain. Clemente wasn’t here. I was the only one who could deliver the devastating news.
With a hand pressed to the olive tree leaf around my neck, I kicked forward until I was even with Adrian. I spoke to no one and everyone. “Shamus is gone. He’s dead. We can’t let the Trackers hurt anyone else.”
The reaction to my words sent a rumble throughout the army⎯a wave that started in the front row and rushed backward until they all experienced the same pain. Heads turned toward one another, looks of sorrow were exchanged; the Trackers had caused one of their brothers to be lost.
Adrian held the same expression. But as a leader of Tritonis, it was required of him to support the Elders. “Our tactic was to remain below the radar. We—”
He paused, his head turning toward mine. His soft curls looked too delicate for the anguish I saw in his eyes. We both knew the decisions made in the safety and comfort of his palace no longer applied. When he continued, his voice was calmer. “But I agree, it’s best to adjust our approach. I’m not willing to lose another from our family.”
Maddox advanced, lowering his head. “Prince Adrianus, let us leave the past behind. We now have an army to move forward.”
Adrian nodded. “First, let us remember Shamus for his bravery and his sacrifice.”
One by one, each Guardian lowered his head, eyes closed.
Letting my gaze fall on each solemn face, I’d have imagined the amount of mermen in the army would’ve been more. After the depth of hatred I saw from the Trackers, I wanted thousands, not a hundred to act as my protectors. More than ten thousand sprites called Tritonis home. The numbers in Mamadjo was much smaller, but still, I figured the amount of those assigned to protect the sprites would be more significant. I wanted more.
After doing the math, the reality of the situation sunk in, but my fears weren’t eased. Subtract women, children, the injured, and those too old to fight, and the total drops significantly.
The Guardians also had a responsibility to all sprites, not just Tritonis. Not just me. There were ones like Clemente who acted as martyrs in the open sea, putting his life on the line for the greater good. And would continue to do so.
I chastised myself for allowing these thoughts to surface. My selfishness and lack of appreciation for those who risked their lives sent a rush of heat into my face. I averted my eyes to the side even as I lowered my own head.
Nothing but gratitude should be felt for the hundred in our midst that took the oath to be a Guardian, for the hundred who lowered their heads out of respect for Shamus.
I silently vowed that I’d repay each and every one for their sacrifice to come to my rescue and to aid in my conquest to fulfill the prophecy. As my eyes rose, I spotted another who risked her life for me countless times already.
Natasha was an anomaly within the Guardian ranks. Normally mermaids were not allowed to join the army. Merfolk, especially the Tritons, were an old-fashioned race. But Natasha was an exception. I remembered Adrian’s words: how after her father’s death, she was persistent to pick up where he left off. At first she lacked confidence, but Adrian admired her determination. It never faltered. She perfected her crafts and spent every waking moment in pursuit of proving herself in Tritonis.
Her resolve continually impressed me. Now I saw a new level of maturity in her simple features. She was no longer the girl who disappeared into the decor of my guest suite, unsure where she fit into the big picture. When she was given the task of my stunt double, and later Aurelia’s escort, she found her place. Both acted as turning points into her role as a Guardian. Seeing her immediate promotion into the leader of this army was the first thing that didn’t surprise me since…
My life was turned upside down.
As the mermen stood ready for their next command, Natasha approached Adrian and me. It was a moment where this maturity was on full display.
She kept her voice low, barely more than a whisper. It held a serious edge, one that demanded attention. “There’s no easy way to say this—”
“Yes?” Adrian prompted.
“On our way here, we intercepted a message. I’m not sure of the validity of it, but I believe it’s important for you both to know.”
“What do you mean?”
Natasha gathered herself. “We were traveling beneath the shores of the Western Sahara, in groups of ten, in the shape of a V. I held the front point when I noticed a white flag in the distance. I called for our troops to slow, then sent a scout forward to investigate.
“He brought back a white flag and a scroll that someone had fastened to a wild hippocampus. We scoured the area but found no signs of other sprites. I didn’t know the intentions of it until I read the scroll.
“Then I understood that the encounter wasn’t meant for us. Actually, that’s when it became clear that it was meant for you, Annabelle.”
Up until that point, she spoke to Adrian. Her last sentence was directed at me. It was so matter of fact. Without saying another word, she handed me the rolled paper.
I locked eyes with her before dropping them to the paper in my grasp.
Her face held an expression I couldn’t read.
“What does it say?”
Natasha chose not to answer. “I’ll give you two some privacy.”
She then turned and swam back to her men.
The Guardians peered at me curiously as I hovered, unmoving in the water with Adrian. A few whispered in her direction, but she shook her head in dismissal.
“Well go ahead and open it,” Adrian said.
I looked into his eyes for answers, but only more questions formed: Why hadn’t she answered them? Why did she believe it was meant for me? What would unrolling this scroll change?
Natasha was too serious. Her reaction to the interests of the others was unnerving. I’d taken what seemed like a million deep breaths over the past week in preparation for the next moment in time.
This was another one of those situations.
With my lungs full, I rolled my shoulders and unraveled the scroll. My fingers hesitated to pull the paper taunt within the water.
No amount of deep breaths could’ve prepared me for what I saw.
We have Lindsey. Come alone. Arethusa Fountain. Daybreak.
Without thinking I extended the paper away from myself and thrust it at Adrian.
I let my body go limp in the water⎯a rag doll for the currents to do with as it pleased.
My mind filled with static, as if it were a radio station out of tune.
I didn’t see Adrian lower the note and blankly stare at me.
I didn’t fully hear as he softly said my name. But I knew his voice overflowed with compassion.
I barely felt his arm as he grabbed my arm to steady me.
Instead, a suffocating panic spread to each limb of my body, sending numbness through each inch. Another piece of me went missing.
I wasn’t sure how long I lingered that way before Adrian’s persistent voice cut through the fog. For all I knew, it could’ve been a second or an hour.
But as soon as I refocused on the here and now, I turned on him. My voice came out as a growl, the pitch rising with my second sentence. “I thought you said she was safe? That she was protected.”
“No, just no.”
I wanted answers. I only wanted answers. “How am I going to save her? How am I going to get to her before morning?
This time, my questions caused my lips to tremble.
My emotions shifted like a pendulum.
Taking me into his arms, Adrian pulled me against his chest, smothering the sobs that escaped.
“We’ll figure this out. It’s going to be okay.”
“How?” I pleaded.
“I don’t know yet. I need to think. This could be a trick. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day.”
“But what if it’s not? What if they have her?” I responded, hysteria creeping into my thoughts. “We don’t have much time!”
Gently he pushed me away from his body to look into my eyes. “We just need to think about this from all sides. You’re the only one who can breathe both types of water. It makes sense the Trackers would want to keep you from the Lake of Elfin.”
“But don’t they want to destroy Triton’s shell?” I asked, the fog slowly lifting from my mind.
“Look, Annabelle. I don’t know what to do. We need help.”
“No, my sister needs help.”
Instead of responding, he motioned to Maddox and Natasha.
An instant later, my emotions shifted again to anger, but this time it wasn’t directed toward Adrian.
I spoke defiantly, to no one in particular. “I’m not going to let them hurt her.”
Maddox took the note that Adrian held toward him. He looked puzzled at first.
“Annabelle’s sister,” Adrian clarified.
With a knowing look, Maddox gave a single nod.
I knew it wasn’t malicious, and that his action wasn’t cavalier but one of understanding whom Lindsey was. Still, the coldness of that single nod stung.
I could picture my sister’s face in the moment she was captured. She was dark where I was light. Her round, brown eyes stared into the darkness of the night. Short, choppy chestnut hair framed her cheeks and accented her olive skin. Shock and fright formed her expression. It was my vision from the other night all over again.
The recollection of my nightmare crept its way into my head: The Christmas lights, the recent rain that gathered into puddles, the cool air, and the damp rag.
I shook my hands at my side and willed myself to stop this train of thought before my imagination took me further. I’d break into pieces if my mind continued to play out the hooded man’s abduction of my sister.
I needed to remember that it wasn’t real. I’d projected what happened to me onto my sister.
That was all.
It wasn’t real.
In actuality, I didn’t have the slightest idea how the Trackers had taken her. It was an unsettling notion—one that left me just as shaken.
“Where is the Arethusa Fountain?” Natasha asked.
I was thankful for the question to focus on.
“Ortygia,” Adrian replied. “It’s actually called the Arethuse.”
“No,” I said, again to no one in particular.
All heads turned to me.
“It’s in London.”
“London? Why do you say that?”
“My family went there last summer,” I mumbled. “The Diana Fountain. Sometimes it’s called the Arethusa Fountain.”
“Of course, that makes perfect sense,” Adrian noted. “If I remember correctly from our history lessons, that area of England was settled during the Bronze Age—when Triton came into power.”
Natasha didn’t look convinced as Adrian continued. “It’s fitting. Perhaps the Trackers want our mission to fail at a place with symbolic value.”
I rattled my head back and forth. “Fitting or not… all I care about is getting my sister back. I need to get there by daybreak.”
With eyebrows raised, Natasha did a double take in my direction. “Wait a minute… you are choosing to go to London instead of the Lake of Elfin?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” I didn’t bother to look at her. I stared straight ahead, my mind trying to pull a picture of the fountain from my memory.
Moving into my line of vision, Maddox chimed in, “Princess, I would advise you not to forfeit your mission. There are a lot of sprites counting on you.”