Authors: Emigh Cannaday
“Come on,” she said. “You’re joking. Fairies? Like, with wings?”
“What other sort of fairy is there?”
She looked at the word in the dirt. Annika would have laughed out loud if it hadn’t been for the serious look on Talvi’s face.
“Okay…so what does it say?” she asked, playing along with him. He smiled to himself, looking at the words.
Mo reis to comp an ya vlatzee
“Maurice toe, companya vlatzee?” she repeated slowly, making him laugh.
“Your pronunciation is very good.” A faraway look entered his eyes. “I wonder how someone like you ended up not being born here. I get the feeling that you could have grown up as one of Runa’s sisters.”
“Maybe I was switched at birth with a samodiva,” Annika laughed, but Talvi looked like he was actually considering the idea.
“If you didn’t already have the mark of the other samodivi, that would definitely be my guess. You’re such a strange girl,” he said with a sweet smile. That was probably the best compliment she’d heard in years. Annika touched his hair gently, picking out a bit of dried leaf.
“You have split ends,” she observed.
“That’s impossible,” he said, turning up his nose a little. “I’m very particular about my hair.”
“Well, they’re not bad. But you do have a few here and there. My mom’s a hairdresser, so I think I know what I’m talking about.” He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to look at the ends and see for himself.
“If you want, I can give you a trim,” she offered, but he shook his head.
“Oh, I don’t think so.”
“I would only need to take off half an inch.”
“Sorry, but no one touches my hair except me,” he said with authority.
She lay back and looked up at the silvery leaves dancing a hundred feet above her. The wind shushed through the trees gently, and carried the earthy scent of decaying vegetation with it. She didn’t want to leave this place, not right at this moment, anyway. Vince’s kitchen was in the back of her mind, as an afterthought, along with her life in America. She glanced over at Talvi to see him looking back at her with his green and blue eyes twinkling.
Annika didn’t move. Was she thinking this? Or was he speaking to her with his mind? One corner of his mouth twitched, and all she could look at were his lips. Suddenly she was sucked into a magnetic field, filled with tension and the earliest stages of desire.
Come on, kiss me… I could be that pleasant distraction,
the silent voice urged. Thinking she was hearing things, she covered her eyes with her forearm and tried to block out the voice. An image of him crawling over her and caressing her body appeared in her head, and a light dusting of goose bumps covered her skin. Every hair on her arms stood up in the electric wave that passed through her. She opened her eyes and was only somewhat startled to see him hovering over her.
“What are you doing?” she asked softly. “I’m not going to kiss you.” He seemed to disregard her comment.
“I’ve been thinking about this red hair of yours ever since that day in Sofia. And your eyes…” He ran his hand up and down the side of her body, over her clothing, across her waist, making her quiver in suspense. “Your eyes have haunted my dreams every night since.” She shut her eyes again, caught in a strong undertow of desire. Did he know that he’d been in her dreams as well? Everything he said was so enticing, even his touch carried allure.
“I’m not going to kiss you,” she assured herself out loud once more, but her voice lacked the sternness she was grasping for. Her will had been strong until he had laid his hand upon her skin, and now she could not pull away from him.
“So don’t do it, Annika. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do,” he taunted. He pressed his forehead against hers, touching their souls to each other. She was certain that her soul was looking right into his. His eyes were no longer bright and charming but dark and intense, yet they still twinkled. He was tempting, but was he harmful?
“Don’t do it,” he whispered again, touching her nose with his. Annika felt her heart racing as fast as her mind. His lips grazed her cheek as his arm hugged her body against him. She could smell his skin; he smelled like honeysuckle, cherry trees in blossom, cinnamon. His long eyelashes tickled as they brushed against her skin. She closed her eyes and lifted her chin to his mouth in a fathomless kiss. The taste of honey still lingering in her mouth passed into his. It was electric, incredible. It felt too amazing to be good for her, but she drank him in anyhow.
His strong arms tightened around her, pressing their bodies snug against each other. She saw fields of roses in bloom; could even smell them. It felt like running through the forest without her body. She moaned in rapture, not letting him go as he tried to pull away from her.
Annika’s body was swelling and burning for just another taste. She had never been kissed like that; she had never been made to feel like that. He was a powerful drug that she wanted more of, but she got the feeling that even if they kissed all afternoon, it would never be enough. He pried her arms off of him and sat up, causing her to crash back into reality. He looked at her with the same dazed expression she was certain she was wearing, wondering where on earth a kiss like that came from. He appeared inebriated and confused. For being so suggestive since meeting him, Annika was surprised that he’d been the one to stop it from escalading into more than just a kiss. His touch was so erotic, she probably would have let him seduce her right then and there. He abruptly stood and climbed one of the trees, leaving her to sit by herself and try to decipher the strange force between them. He didn’t seem angry or frustrated, and she could still taste his honey-laced flavor in her mouth.
From his boot, he whipped out a knife that closely resembled Runa’s little ebony-handled one, and began cutting narrow branches with gusto. As they fell one by one to the ground, Annika gathered them in her arms. They moved from tree to tree, collecting the fine wood in silence. It wasn’t long before they had two very large bundles, which they tied up and attached to the saddle on Ghassan’s back.
Talvi lifted her up into the seat and hopped up behind her. The animal tossed his head and set off at a slow gait, letting their bodies sway gently in rhythm with his massive, muscular body. As they made their way between the poplar, birch and aspen trees, Annika relaxed and sank against Talvi’s chest, but he didn’t so much as caress her bare arms. Every time he exhaled, her skin broke out in a new batch of goose bumps, but their lips didn’t meet again on the ride back.
“Tell me something Talvi,” she asked, still dazed by their brief embrace. “What did I see when I kissed you?”
The words he spoke were so soft that she almost didn’t hear them at all.
“Definitely not what
saw,” was his reply.
When they returned to the camp, Hilda was covering the last few warm embers of the fire with dirt.
“Oh? You remembered to collect some branches after all?” she observed, craning her neck up to look at them. “Sariel left without us. She said she had to speak with Yuri right away, and she wouldn’t wait on you two any longer. Where is Yuri anyway? She’s usually with you.”
“She’s at home tending to arrangements for the party,” Talvi said from his place behind Annika. “She’s an elf obsessed. It’s completely consumed her waking life.”
“Haven’t you helped her?”
“Yes, constantly,” he said, scratching his head. He picked out another bit of leaf, letting it flutter down to Ghassan’s huge black hooves. “I had to make all of the music arrangements and then address invitations until my fingers bled, since her penmanship is so bloody awful. Besides, she cares more about the details than I do. The rest I let her take care of.”
her take care of, or you stuck her with?” accused Hilda. When he didn’t answer right away she just shook her head and sighed.
“Oh Talvi! I hope she makes you wear something atrocious!” Runa shrieked.
“Why should she?” he retorted. “For the past few months all she’s done is fret about this party. I don’t understand what all the fuss is for; it’s just another birthday.”
“It’s not just any birthday, and you know it,” said Hilda.
“All I know is that she’s becoming more and more like Anthea every day. She doesn’t go riding with me nearly as often as we used to. She’s taken to wearing dresses all the time.”
“Dresses!” Runa cried. “She’s wearing dresses now?”
“I’m afraid so, along with other feminine nonsense that I won’t go into,” Talvi said with a roll of his eyes, as the sisters gathered their cloaks and gear. Before Annika could try to climb down from Ghassan, Runa brought over her backpack, which Talvi strapped alongside the bundles of wood.
“It’s okay, I can ride by myself,” she said, but her stag was nowhere to be seen.
“Not if you can’t see where you’re going,” he told her. Runa took off the green sash she wore around her waist and handed it up to him. “It’s nothing against your character,” he said, reaching down to retrieve the sash, “but you mustn’t see how to get to Derbedrossivic. I’m your escort. I apologize, but I must do this.”
“Hold on, wait just a minute,” Annika said, turning around to look at him. “Why can’t I see how to get there? It’s not like I could find my way back again. I wouldn’t even be here if I hadn’t gotten lost to begin with. And you aren’t making Runa or Hilda wear a blindfold.”
“It’s not you that I’m concerned about. There are creatures here who could take advantage of your untrained mind and see your thoughts. It’s my duty to make certain that my home and my guests are safe, and I can’t allow you to put everyone in Derbedrossivic in danger. There hasn’t been a human there in ages.”
“Derbedrossivic? Where have I heard that before?” she wondered, recognizing the unusual name.
“It’s the village I’m from. I told you that already, remember?”
“Oh, right.” She realized her argument was losing momentum. “Do I really have to wear this thing?”
“We’re not going anywhere until you let me put it on,” he said. “We can wait here all day, but I’d rather get home and have a hot meal and a soft bed tonight. I’m sure you would too.”
She sighed nervously. She didn’t know him that well, but she already knew it was useless to argue with him right now. “Do what you have to do,” she said in reluctant surrender. He lowered the sash in front of her eyes and tied it gently but firmly around her head.
“You only have to keep this on until we get there. But please, Annika…if you take it off, you’re putting us all in potential danger,” he told her. “If I have to tie you up, I will.”
“I swear I won’t take it off. Just don’t let me fall,” she said, determined not to reveal the fear in her voice. Ghassan was impatiently pawing at the ground, probably thinking of the hay and oats that awaited him back home.
“That I can manage,” Talvi said confidently, wrapping a strong arm around her waist. Her skin shivered in response, especially at the thought of being tied up. She felt the lurch of the horse’s muscular body underneath her, and other than a small yelp, she managed not to scream even though it was terrifying and thrilling all at once. All she heard was the pounding of hooves against earth and stone, and her stomach leapt as Ghassan flew over logs and rocks. All she could imagine was running off a cliff or getting knocked down by a low-hanging tree limb. She couldn’t even scream, because her breath had been left back at the campsite far behind.
“Don’t be scared,” Talvi said, trying to calm her nerves. “We can’t waste time or we’ll be riding in the dark.”
riding in the dark,” Annika said in a shaking voice through clenched teeth. “And it sucks!”
“Trust me,” he assured her. “I’m not letting go of you.”
“That’s asking a lot,” she protested, but the protective arm didn’t budge; it only held her tighter. She took a deep breath and wrapped her arms around the strong one that held her. After a quarter of an hour had passed, she began to realize that she wasn’t in danger of falling anywhere. His arm wasn’t letting go of her. They rode all afternoon, and her anticipation grew as the day wore on. With all that time in the dark, alone with her thoughts behind the blindfold, she recalled their conversation from earlier.
What did he see that he’s not telling me? I wonder what that phrase in Fae means? These people really think I’m part wood nymph! But then, the matching birthmarks are kind of creepy… or convincing.
Hours passed with little conversation, until the scent in the air changed subtly. Annika could hear rapids growing closer, and the animals slowed down to walk carefully over the uneven terrain.
“I guess you can go ahead and look now,” Talvi said at long last. She wasted no time pulling the sash from her eyes. The sight she saw was breathtaking.
There was a sizeable river lined with different mills that took advantage of the rushing rapids. The swirling whitecaps sparkled in the sun like liquid diamonds. A long bridge up ahead was patrolled by two guards on each side at both ends, each with black bows similar to Talvi’s strapped on their backs and swords at their sides. They were dressed in green jackets and brown breeches, with black boots and fuzzy black ushankas with the ear flaps tied up. The guard on the right nodded his head out of courtesy while the guard on the left waved wildly at Talvi and the girls as they came near.
“Hello, Sasha!” Runa called out to him, and returned his enthusiastic wave.
“Hello, Runa my dear; hello Hilda,” he said cheerfully, and gave a playful, ostentatious bow. “And good evening to you, Prince Talvi. What are you bringing home this time, besides the fair sisters?” Sasha winked at Runa, who shamelessly winked right back. Hilda just smiled and shook her head, not being the incorrigible flirt her sister was. Talvi nudged Ghassan closer to show off his prize.
“Why, I found one of those modern girls wandering about the forest,” he replied, puffing out his chest in pride. “She’s a feisty one, too.”
“I’m betting she is, with hair like that,” Sasha agreed. “A fine specimen indeed.” He grinned up at Annika, making her blush.
“Have you ever seen a modern girl before, Grigori?” Talvi asked the more reserved guard, who shook his head. “Don’t be shy. Come have a look.”
Grigori stepped a little closer towards Annika, but seemed happy to observe from a safe distance. Sasha, on the other hand, had no qualms about walking right up to her.
“Do you have any sisters that we can send Prince Talvi back for?” Annika only managed to shake her head ‘no’. She felt completely humbled that this impertinent elf she was sitting in front of was a prince. He certainly hadn’t acted like one the previous night, let alone earlier that morning.
“Take a good look, gentlemen,” Talvi instructed them, smoothing her long hair affectionately as if she were his pet. “I do
want her to leave the village unless she’s in my company. If you or your scouts catch her anywhere beyond the walls of my home without me, you’re to bring her back at once. Do you understand?”
“Oh, am I your property now?” she demanded as she turned to scowl at Talvi.
“You might as well be—
!” Sasha began, only to have Grigori jab him in the gut, causing him to lurch forward and lose his hat. The earflaps had come untied so that when he put it on they stuck out to the side like airplane wings.
“Prince Talvi is wanting to keep you safe; this is what he’s meaning,” Grigori explained, giving his partner a stern look before returning to his post. Sasha nodded in agreement, making his hat’s earflaps bob up and down while he sent the party on their way. As they crossed the long wooden bridge, Annika could see a small group of curious elves gathered on the other side.
“I see word of your arrival has already spread. I imagine Sariel notified the guards on both ends, as well as my parents,” Talvi remarked.
“Are you going to be in trouble?”
“Oh, heavens no,” he chirped. “I’ve done far worse things.”
“You didn’t tell me you were a prince,” she hissed so that only he heard.
“Does it really matter if I am?”
“I…I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything anymore,” she said, nervous about what impression she would make among the villagers, let alone his royal family. She hadn’t showered in a few days now, and she was positive she smelled worse than the nymphs by a long shot. When they crossed the bridge she smiled at the elves in front of her as politely as she could. They looked at her curiously, sharing glances with each other. Most of the women, especially the older ones wore simple dresses or saris made of silks and other soft looking fibers. The beautiful fabrics were all hand dyed and the vivid colors bled into one another. Green became yellow and red changed to scarlet, then violet. Some of the younger women wore pants with long blouses. Most of the men wore old fashioned drop-sleeve shirts and trousers. A few had jackets similar to Talvi’s, though none of them matched the detail put into his.
While it was a fairly large village, it remained picturesque, thick with trees that grew quite high over their heads, sometimes bending to make each stone-paved road a quietly shaded path. Annika couldn’t have imagined a more relaxing place to live. It had all of the tranquility of a spa. There were little stone cottages with pointed roofs and wooden doors with rounded tops. There were no overly-manicured lawns or neighbors jammed so close together that there was no privacy. The trees were so thick that much of the town remained partially hidden. Everything grew wild or only slightly tamed, from the rosebushes to the ivy that grew up the sides of some of the houses. The few fences that did exist were surrounding vast vegetable gardens that lay between some of the homes. Some of the chimneys were sending up thin trails of smoke, and orange, yellow, and red leaves fell slowly in the breeze, twirling madly before they hit the ground.
They passed through the small crowd relatively fast, and headed out of the most populated area. It seemed that there were more shops than houses in the town, and Annika could see the cottages become scarcer and scarcer beyond the dense woods.
Talvi and his guest continued on at their slow pace, but Hilda and Runa darted ahead of them, anxious to meet up with Sariel and Yuri. There was a bluff that towered higher above the rest of the village which was also covered by trees. Ghassan walked up the hill towards the bluff and turned at the bend in the road that led to it. Slowly, the loveliest house that Annika had ever seen came into view.
It was a beautiful country villa built of pale stone and wood, with many wings on different levels, as though it had been built one section at a time. Every doorway was arched and the walls were half overgrown with wild ivy. Annika counted at least eight chimneys and many of the larger windows had a balcony. There was one tower that stood higher than the rest of the house. It balanced on a sheer drop right along the exposed white stone of the bluff, and almost directly below the river sped past. It seemed miraculous that anyone had found the courage or the insanity to build such a structure on such a precarious spot.
Two curved staircases led the way to the massive front doors hewn from dark wood. Stained glass windows ran up the length on each side of these doors, about six feet across and fifteen feet high, where they came together at an arch. It would’ve taken an army of soldiers to break through the solid walnut.
They bypassed the front of the house and instead walked around a wide path that ran along side of it. They stopped at a stable where Talvi dismounted and helped Annika down before leading Ghassan into a stall. She peered down the center aisle at the horses out in the pastures beyond while Talvi coaxed off the saddle and bridle.
“Help me carry these inside, will you?” he said, motioning to the bundles of wood before hauling the saddle to a nearby tack room. Then he gathered the rest of his things and led her past the biggest garden she’d ever seen, where two young women were filling baskets with vegetables. Annika assumed that they were servants, since he didn’t bother to introduce her to them.
There were three great arches that opened to the back yard which they passed through, and the sight she saw took her breath away yet again. She’d stepped into a long rectangular courtyard that had been overtaken by ivy-covered stone arches, six on each side and three on each end, all at least three times her height. At the center was an impressive fountain made of black marble; four black marble fish on top were spitting the water back down the three tiers. At the bottom of the fountain were large black and orange spotted fish swimming leisurely, popping their heads up in hopes of a juicy bug.