Wander

Lynn Marie Spinks

 

Chapter 1

A great gasp filled me as I dropped the heavy tome from my hands, its thick pages thudding heavily against the stone floor of the throne room, dust from within it puffing into the air around me. Smeared ink expressed a magical language I couldn’t read, one that had formed on the pages only a moment before. The very existence of such marks changed what I thought I knew of my world, my court. From beyond closed windows and stone walls, a breeze curled itself through the room before finding me and wrapping around me. My blonde hair was lifted, curled around my shoulders; the corners of the pages making up the tome arched to the ceiling, but never turned. Of all the books I’d read, conversations I’d listened to, in all my years of studying, I had never found the map of the woods between Winter and Summer—land that, even in the most ancient of stories, was forbidden to enter without a royal guard from both courts. But now, these forgotten letters and elegant drawings showed the location of the forbidden lake, the one many said was myth, even as everyone agreed it was deadly.

Blurs of steel blue whipped past my vision as I ran down the halls; my speed alone made servants hug the walls for safety. The wall of glass facing the courtyard was usually a spot I could not pass without admiring, but that day, that time, the snow-covered benches and ice dripping trees were only a part of the yard. A yard I had to leave. My heart pumped through me, coursing my life source in direct patterns to swinging arms, and to feet that hammered the ground. It was real and I was going to find it. Throughout the course of my near twenty years, I had the chance to hear and entertain some very strange ideas and traditions. Everyone knew a superstition or old wives’ tale that seemed too outlandish to be true; but their whispers reached out to me, pulling me from polite dinner conversation and studies, this one more than all the others. This one could be proven in the pages of the history tomes I loved so much—if they hadn’t been rewritten to avoid any mention of it at all.

I could feel the long trail of my hair tangle in the wind as the front door opened at my barest touch, the platinum strands flowing behind me like a cape as I headed toward the woods. Guards patrolled the perimeter and even I wouldn’t have been allowed past them. Discovery couldn’t wait to abide by rules. I stopped, huddled close to the far wall of the familiar wooden shed in the back of my yard. Chest heaving with exertion, I struggled to steady my heartbeat, wait for the guards to clear. The distance between them as they were staggered along the tree line gave just enough time to run between them before I would be seen. I crossed the final expanse of openness in which I could be caught, ducking low to the shrubs that maintained their green hues even as the white powder of my court burdened them. I released the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I had made it inside. The darkness of the woods surrounded me, threatened to take my sight and frighten me with long branches of wood that were ready to strike, alive and of their own consciousness, bloodthirsty even—if you believed the tales that had been spun, after their allegiance was sworn to Kahlan. Supposedly, there were many elements who didn’t want to be ruled. They found a new way of life, a vengeful way. It was a story I never believed. The trees were part of the earth, but they were not the earth. Just as the fish remained in water, they could not be completely controlled by it. Personally I didn’t believe the great legendary fey, Kahlan, even existed. I believed much less that there was a rebel army of nature and elements planning an attack on Corderia and all of us who lived there.

And yet, even as I told myself I did not fear them, that I could not see the slit eyes forming between their bark and the cruel grin of claw marks under them, I pulled my arms tighter to my sides, the pumping slowing until the hammering that had been heavy and quick turned silent and slow.

Thunder clapped and my eyes closed, picturing the perfect streaks of white light against the purple sky, stars shining in the middle of the day, mists that came down from the atmosphere and lay heavy among the feet of the fey in Corderia. I dared not peek to see them that time. If the elements were truly in a state of upheaval, if they listened no longer to themselves and the royals that commanded power over their courts’ elements, it was a change I was frightfully aware of. Especially alone and surrounded by them.

Existing just over the human world, Corderia changed from century to century, with rulers and their passions, with wars and myths and history. Seldom has our existence been detected by the humans on the other side of our veil; if only they would look deeper, a select few just might catch a glance. From time to time, in moments of despair in their world, some of our most elite guards and royals have crossed the veil to intervene. Be it with Summer to help warm their crops, or Winter to cool them from the extreme heat, our land formed to our needs, our beliefs. We may be existing in a world just over theirs, but the rock we stand upon is the same. The elements spoke to us, showed us their strengths and offered their power. Story had it that the changes had stopped before the rule of my parents, and the land became stagnant and unchanging—never yielding what we needed. During those times, the space between the human world and our own was very close and our lives and views seemed more like the way of their realm than ours. Even then, there were always the elements: the winter wind that cooled our land and our fey, the sun that warmed summer even in our rule, a night sky of dark blue and a day sky of one lighter. It had been so long since Corderia was what the stories of old claimed it to be, that they were doubted, and along with them, the fey who claimed to remember. Perhaps they hadn’t lived through a blue sky and singular moon. Maybe snow or heat never started making their own decisions on if they would blow cool or hot. The trees wouldn’t ever actually wrap their branches around the feet of fey that wandered too far and thrust them into the air, back toward their courts. Nature and the elements had ruled their own sort of court, or so it seemed; now they answered to someone infinite as time, yet somehow still new to command. I had never seen a blue sky or wondered if the breeze would suddenly stop blowing coolness to my fey. It was time for such worries, but the weight of it all was too heavy. The pressure was too great. Instead I put my faith in Corderia, that she would protect us as she always had. The courts had enough problems without additional worry over something we could not fight. But all was as it should be now, and dwelling on the worries of the past would not help. I glanced up through the branches at the purple haze of sky, not able to picture it any other color.

It wasn’t enough to spook me anymore: the weather, the sky, the stories of branches with twigs like knives and bark that turned to eyes. But what made my skin crawl with anticipation were the tomes, the stacks and stacks of old books my father kept in the throne room. We had read through them, almost all of them, and by almost, there were precisely three books we’d not worked through page by page, together. Alone, I had turned through the pages of one of those three. A tome with no name, no date, or inscription. Its cover was a dusty brown and its spine had two raised bindings across its ends. There was both black and brown ink on the first page, in symbols I didn’t recognize. But they spoke to me like a whisper in my ear. It was mine to read, mine alone, its secrets and stories keeping me up late and reaching into my veins. Its secrets tore me from my home and into the woods.

Deep in the heart of the woods snow refused to fall and yet there was no overpowering warmth, no weight over my eyelids forcing me to sleep as the heat would do, no rush of water reaching to take me into its depths. My royal blood was different than a common fey. I would, from time to time, have to be around the other fey Courts and it adjusted on its own to bring me a level of comfort. As if it had an automatic temperature control, my blood would cool if I were in Summer, and regulate when I was back in Winter. But I could always feel it happening. I should have still felt its presence. I should have felt the warning signs of intruding on another court, discomfort or pain or even fatigue, the elements letting me know I had reached the end of my journey—that the way to my home was behind me, urging me to go to it.

But breath still flowed from me in cold bursts and the surface of my pale skin remained cool. No icy shield clamored up my arms like scales to cover my skin as it surely would if I were in danger because of heat. Even I couldn’t tell if I was beginning to fall under the Sun’s spell. Green plants shot their heads from the dirt and reached for the sky, some blooming into flowers of pinks and purples and yellows, while others remained dark and crawled upon the ground. No snow or frost anywhere to be seen, but oh, the beauty of the things I could see. Elemental warning or not, I was not ready to leave.

Around and around I spun, taking in delicate petals with a clarity I’d never known in real life. The books I studied showed pictures of flowers, their petals open and smooth with centers comprised of tiny stems. But in Winter flowers came to me frozen, their daintiness obscured by the ice meant to preserve—though it always killed them.

How my mother would have loved the place. For as much as we both enjoyed our walks through the gardens around the mansion, the raw beauty here was unparalleled in both its natural design and clarity. The woods may have been forbidden territory, but surely the queen would be allowed. My heart pumped at the thought of my mother. I needed to show her this place. It would bandage a relationship with my mother that had seen better days. Looking over my shoulder, I recognized the first flower I’d seen upon arriving. Or was it the third? How many times had I spun? The beating in my chest speeded up in fear. Every direction, every flower and taste of sunlight above me looked familiar. I hadn’t told a soul where I was going. How would I get back?

Regardless of the distance we’d put between ourselves, my mother’s face appeared behind my closed eyes, the soft chimes of her voice soothing me down from panic. I had seen her like that, in my mind yet somehow beside me, only one time before when I had been much younger. We had been in the gardens, surrounded by shoots of cool green plants, their flat tear-shaped leaves rising to the sky. Setting me in the middle of them she stepped out of sight, waited silently, and then called for me to find her. I teetered through the light green shoots and the dark needles of the evergreens as snow fell around me and covered both of our tracks. Exhausted and frightened, tears streamed down my face as I called out to her. I couldn’t do it. In the moments of solitude came panic, my direction completely lost until her voice gently lulled me back to awareness. “Close your eyes and follow your heart.” I heard the words in my head as much as I heard them with my ears; a vision flashed before me of her veiled face. I did as she said, closed my eyes and silenced my mind, my inner vision looking for a glimpse of what I’d seen so quickly, proof that she was near and okay. And then I had found her, grasped her with hands that felt before eyes that saw.

Lost from her once more, I did as she had instructed all those years ago. My arms were light as they floated ahead of me, my chest being tugged by some unknown source. Rocks and sticks tripped me, slowing my process and damaging my concentration. I closed my eyes and tried again, over and over until with a stumble, my foot caught on something low to the ground. The world lost balance and I fell. Some gritty substance stuck to my teeth and my face, where tears I didn’t realize had fallen laced my skin with cool wetness.

I expected to rise from the ground covered in dirt and small plants from the forest floor, possibly even snow since I was heading home. But as my eyes cracked open, the sand of a beach cradled me, clung to me as I had clung to my mother after having lost her. My gaze continued its course up from the sand as I set my palms firmly in the earth and pushed myself up. The edge of a lake was only feet away, a lake I’d never seen with my own eyes. Above me, the sky showed blue, only a shade darker than that in the mansion’s halls. It wasn’t just a lake I’d not visited; it was a lake no one really knew existed. Elation and peace filled me as I realized I’d actually fallen into the place I had left the mansion to find. And find it I had; the mythological lake Mecto Plaketbonh. Those were the symbols hidden in artistic curlicues over the map’s depiction of a lake that rested between the courts of Summer and Winter. Though I couldn’t read them and didn’t know the language they represented, as I stood in the middle of it all, I knew in my core that it was what I had found.

Breath caught in my lungs and I wondered if it was the last I would breathe. Plaketbonh was forbidden, and no one was to step foot there; what little was said of it was only that death gathered amidst it. According to lost stories, fairy tales the elders spun and no one believed, there was a mist that surrounded the infected area, a magical barrier to protect all fey. But I saw no mist, felt no perspiration on my face as I should have when crossing the ripples of air and heat rising from the ground. Maybe the elders had really lost it after all; perhaps they only made stories up to keep us wondering.

But that simply couldn’t have been the case. If it had, I would have never been taken away from learning all of the stories. I had never been denied studying, not until the words “Mecto Plaketbonh” had been uttered in the range of my ears. Consistently, it was one thing my parents refused to entertain. I was not to ask about it, study it, look for it. It was a myth that would get me lost or killed, I was told. Of course, their steel-fisted attitude against it only made me more curious. As ruler of the Winter court, my father could have easily had guards scour the grounds until they found the lake, or found nothing as he claimed they would. He could have disproved the death theories if he’d found it. Even offered trips to those who wanted to see what it would be like to smile at the sun without fearing it would melt them—especially in the days when elementals chose to forfeit their control. The joy of hearing small waves lap against the beach was blissful. And to know that the usual thoughts of sadness, the knowledge that your season was about to end, the thoughts of spring and summer seasons, had nothing to do with it—it was wonderful.

Not one of Winter’s fey would have denied the opportunity. I looked out at the water, amazed. It was delicious in its beauty. Rippling reflections of my face stared back at me as I leaned over the edge and took in the tiny world thriving beneath its surface. Small fish darted back and forth at the ripples, moving effortlessly between fingers of plants that waved a friendly hello back to me. Standing water so loose and free was always a bad thing for my fey. It meant Summer, heat and melting. For my civilian fey, that meant death. None of us were ever close to it, definitely not close enough to consider playing in it. And maybe that was why I had to. The long skirt I wore floated up with the water level as I stepped deeper and deeper into the lake. Though I’d never swum, I didn’t drown. My head tipped back into the water, floating as I trusted the waters of Mecto Plaketbonh. The sun echoed my name with its golden hues through my closed eyelids, and I slept peacefully in its embrace. This was the first time my eyes had closed to the sun in pleasure instead of fear or pain. If the legendary fey existed, if he was somehow controlling the area around the lake, I hoped briefly that he wouldn’t care about my intrusion. It was a brief thought though, because only a moment after it came into my mind it left again and I was deep in slumber. For some time I remained at peace, trusting in the waters and feeling the embrace of the sun. It coddled me until I lost all consciousness.