There is a story and it goes like this. There is a tower of brick and stone, raised up like a mountain. Its peak puts holes in the bottoms of clouds. A princess sits by the window at the top, and... [+]
My body crashes into the trunk of a tree, the deep strips of bark digging into my back. I nearly cry out, but slap a hand over my mouth. I can’t make a sound. If I do, she will hear me. And then she will come, and it will be over.
I squeeze my eyes closed, trying to steady my breathing. After all, the Fae have superior hearing, and too much breath will draw her to me just as surely as any cry would.
I listen to the sounds of the forest as I collect myself. The peace of the night is a harsh contrast to the pounding of my heart, the raggedness of my breath. The crickets have started their chorus now that the sun hangs low above us, about to disappear over the mountains to the west. A mist swirls between the trees like ghosts. Fireflies blink like will o’ the wisps around me, lighting the forest with their tiny lanterns. The woods seem to stretch on for miles.
And at the other end of the woods lies Ailen, trapped by the Fae queen, desperate for help. I haven’t seen the rest of my party in what seems like hours. I fear if I don’t get to him, no one will. And I certainly can’t defeat the queen without his help.
Once my lungs finally stop burning, I lean around the trunk and peer through the fading light. The woods are still and calm, no sign of the queen. I crouch low to the wet earth and creep like a salamander toward the edge of the hill, to a place where the soil gives way to a gaping cleft full of rock and hanging roots. I duck below the lip of dirt, keeping myself as much out of sight and in the shadows as possible.
The ground thumps softly above me. A footstep, directly overhead. Dirt rains from the ceiling of my small hiding place, sprinkling me with decay, scattering on the rock underfoot. Is it her? Has she heard me?
I freeze in place and look upward, as if I can see through the layer of rock and dirt. I hear the scuffing of a boot along gravel, another thud of a foot striking the hard-packed earth, then nothing. I imagine I see her crouched as I had been, peering into the darkness of the forest, sniffing for any trace of her quarry.
My heart skips a beat. I hadn’t considered the wind. Will she smell me? Am I upwind, or down?
The steps resume, growing softer as she turns her hunt away from me. I am safe. For now.
I wait until the steps have faded completely before venturing from this hiding place. Ailen needs me. I can’t stay here. I may feel protected, safe, under this outcropping, but I know I am not. All it would take is one shift of the breeze to carry my scent, one wrong move to collapse the cleft. I would be finished either way.
I approach the edge of the cleft and listen again. A mosquito perches on my arm, but I don’t dare swat it, not until I’m sure she’s moved on. Hearing nothing, I brush the bug away and step back into the forest.
As the darkness grows deeper, it hides dips and holes in the forest floor, and I stumble more than once. Moss coats rocks that are slick with rain from this afternoon, and I slip, scraping my knee open.
Blood will draw the Fae queen more surely than the scent of my sweat. I have to keep going.
I wipe away the blood as best I can with a leaf, but it simply smears red and brown, mixing with my blood and turning to mud. The cut is deeper than I’d thought, though I barely feel it. I can’t stop the bleeding, not now. I have to rescue Ailen. Finish this game. I have to be strong, be brave.
I pick myself up and push forward. Within a few steps, my knee already feels stiff, but I carry on regardless.
A twig snaps to my left, and I freeze. I turn my head slowly, holding my body steady as I search the approaching night for the source of the sound. I nearly laugh in relief when a racoon scurries up the tree next to me.
“Did you really think you could hide from the Queen of Mist and Fog?” comes a voice from behind me.
My blood runs cold. I slowly turn to face the high, light voice of the queen. She stands like a wraith in the fading sun, her gossamer dress flowing around her like the mist she controls. Her arms are crossed over her chest, and she taps one foot. She stares at me with bright, ethereal eyes, full of power.
I only have one chance. I have to run. If she touches me, it’s all over.
I turn back away from her slowly, listening, pretending I’m not preparing to flee. I hear no sound behind me, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t moved; she may just be as light as the mist, as soundless. I take a breath.
And I run.
The earth speeds by below me, and the trees blur past me as I run, faster than I have ever run before. I duck and dodge as branches and vines drop in front of me, reaching spiny fingers to grab me. I leap and bound as shrubs rise up and holes fall away below me, seeking to ensnare me. Does she control the forest, too? Does she call to the earth and trees and flowers?
I can’t imagine that horrible possibility. If she controls more than mist, I don’t stand a chance. But I can’t stop running, no matter what she is capable of doing.
I can see the trees thinning ahead as more of the fading golden light of the sun passes between the trunks and branches. The darkness is fading, fading, and then the meadow opens up in front of me, bathed in the sunset light. Across the open field, I can see Ailen’s prison, casting long shadows on the ground. It is like a cattle field’s fence, all twisting branches and brambles, high enough that he can’t climb over, thick enough that he can’t crawl through. Ailen is barely more than a shadow through the crossing of shrubs and grasses.
I break out of the cover of the forest, not that it matters any longer. I have been found. I still can’t hear the queen behind me, but I know she’s there. I can feel her presence behind me, pursuing.
My feet pound across the damp field, grasses and flowers parting around me as I hurtle toward the prison. I can see Ailen more clearly now, jumping to his feet, bouncing with impatience. He reaches a hand through a tiny gap in the woven wall, waving it toward me.
And then his eyes grow wide with fear. I can feel the air shift behind me as the queen approaches.
I’m almost there. I can make it.
Then a hand falls on my shoulder. It’s over.
I stop running, and we both tumble to the ground, laughing uncontrollably. I pant and gasp for breath.
Ailen breaks from the jail and drops to the ground next to us. “That was incredible! I really thought you’d make it!”
The queen leans up on one elbow, her face red with the energy of her pursuit and her eyes smiling with mirth. “It’s your turn to find us!”
I sit up, still gasping for breath. “Then you’d better go hide.”
Ailen and the queen stand and turn to run. I cover my face and start the countdown.
The game has begun again.