(As is, and I really mean that
Copyright© – No part of this may be reproduced without permission
By Sheri L. McGathy
"Get off of me!" Aldous sputtered while shoving at Col's shoulders. "What are you trying to do, kill me?"
Col scrambled to his feet and offered his hand to the wizard, who promptly slapped it away.
"Oh, balderdash!" Aldous struggled to stand. "Double balderdash and poppycock," he growled as he fought to straighten the tangled knot of silk that used to be his robe. The more he fought with it, the tighter the knot became and the redder his face grew.
Finally, he threw his arms upward and shouted, "Balderdash!" before taking a deep breath. With near precise movements, he tugged his belt tight about the tangled mess of silk and then thumped Col on the back of his head. "Never, ever," Aldous stressed while shaking a bony finger at him, "do that again. What's gotten into you, boy?"
Not waiting for Col to answer, the wizard added, "Lance, you'd better have a talk with your charge." He folded his arms across his chest in a smug stance while he waited for the warrior to handle the matter.
When nothing happened, the wizard said again, "Lance, did you not hear me?"
"He is not here, wizard," Ovid whispered. "None of them are here."
"What? Oh, poppycock, they're trapped in the portals. Ovid, ignite the Key. Lance is most likely a terror by now." With a wave of his silk-clad arm, Aldous dismissed the OrbWard and turned his attention back to the prince.
"I cannot," Ovid said.
The Orbward's words made the wizard swing around to see Ovid staring down at the pile of ash left from the recently opened portal. "Oh, poppycock and phugh! What has gotten into all of you today? Must I do everything myself? I'm not growing any younger, as you can plainly see, now am I?"
He hiked his knotted robes above his knees and searched the grass. "Ovid, where is the Key?"
The OrbWard pointed to the ash pile.
The wizard's bushy brows rose impossibly high. "Do you mean to tell me…Bother," Aldous shouted. "Col, of all the stupid things you have done, this is the worst! Without the Key, we're stranded, there's no other way to open a portal! Our companions are just as trapped as we. They may have the Key, but they have no one to wield its magic. Why did you not listen to Davenhawkes?"
"I did. I was going," Col protested. "I'm not sure I understood his reasoning, but I was going."
"Then, why, pray tell, did you jump out of the Portal?" Ovid queried, finally surfacing from his shock.
"I didn't; I was pushed!"
"Col, who among us would want to push you, hmmm?" the wizard snapped.
"Me," came a soft reply. "Aimee."
Aldous swung about, hands held before him, the aura of magic lighting his fingertips. "Who said that? Show yourself!"
The air before them grew thick, it swayed with the wind, creating small eddies of swirling light in the otherwise empty space. Hues of gold and blue crisscrossed the air like threads woven upon an invisible loom. At the center a form slowly emerged.
Col could only stare as the shape shimmered into existence. He could see her, yet she remained illusive, so fragile that he could see through her to the trees that stood behind her.
Covering his head as if to ward off a blow, Ovid sank to his knees whimpering, "Blessed Orb, save us from spirits that walk this plane," even as the wizard called forth his magic. The tips of his fingers glowed.
One blink, two, and a girl stood where only moments before there had been only air.
As Aldous raised his hands higher, his hands now ablaze with his magic, Col placed his body like a shield before the girl and screamed, "No, don't hurt her!"
"And why not?"
"She's my friend," Col managed as the memory of her pressed against him as he dreamed colored his cheeks.
The wizard studied Col with one bushy brow cocked high. "Hmmm, I see," before he snapped, "OrbWard, get off your knees!" Then he swung back to Col. "Girl, hurry your self along. I need you fully materialized so you can explain this mess. And Col, step aside and stop acting like I'm going to kill her. I haven't decided if I will yet!"
Col opened his mouth to protest, but the wizard simply pushed him aside. "Child, I'm an old man with enough to worry about right now without you adding more to this nonsense." Still mumbling, Aldous snapped his fingers impatiently at the nearly solid shape before him. "Girl, I'm waiting."
As if on command, Aimee solidified. She stood with head bowed, her long white hair doing its best to shield her from view. She remained silent, her arms folded protectively about her.
Col stared, mouth open. She was near his age, maybe a year or so younger, but near enough his age. She was slim, near the point of being underfed, as evidenced by the way her ragged shift hung on her slight frame. Her hair hung in matted disarray down her back and over her bare arms, serving her as a living mantle.
She wore no adornment save for a wide, silver bracelet coiled about her left wrist. Attached to this band were fine, silver chains that ran the length of her hand and connected to identical bands that she wore on each of her fingers, one band to each digit.
Col thought her the most glorious creature he'd ever seen.
"You're a Byda," Aldous stated rather than asked.
The girl nodded, her movements tentative. Raising her head, she turned near clear eyes upon the old man, near clear except for a faint and illusive trace of blue that served as the iris though the color swirled in an almost dizzying pattern.
A sharp intake of breath escaped Col before he could pull himself under control. His heart beat so loudly he was sure the others could hear.
"Now don't you start, young man," Aldous snapped, shaking a warning finger at Col. "I haven't forgotten you, remember that. And you," he redirected his finger to point at the girl, "do you understand the predicament you've placed us in?"
"I, I," she stammered, but grew silent, finally answering him with only a shrug of her frail shoulders.
"Oh, phugh." Aldous placed his hands on his hips and turned away to stare off to the distant horizon. "I am too old for this," he mumbled waving a hand out behind him. "Leave me be, all of you. I must think." Without saying more, the wizard resumed his silent vigil, hands on hips, staring at nothing.
Col tried to approach Aldous, tried to explain, but found his way blocked by one of the wizard's shields. He shrugged and sought the shelter of a nearby tree. It wasn't long before Ovid and Aimee joined him.
The silence stretched out before them, broken only by the soft whimpers of the OrbWard and the brittle snaps of dry leaves beneath Col as he fidgeted.
Col watched Ovid as he stroked the tops of his hairy hands, over and over, a slow rhythmic motion that grated on his nerves, but he continued to stare at those hands, using them as a reason to avoid the girl who sat next to him. Lowering his head, he peered at her through the veil of his hair.
Aimee sat quietly, her small hands folded in her lap, resigned to her fate.
Col wondered at her calm acceptance of whatever fate held for her. He was sure he could never remain so calm while others decided his course. He smirked as he thought of his guardian. He knew he would never remain so calm or so quiet.
The silence grew oppressive. It was stifling and burdensome, but Col didn't know how to break its awkward hold on him. He rubbed his own hands, aping Ovid. He was about to start pacing when Aimee's stomach announced itself with a loud rumble.
"Oh," she whispered, placing a hand over her middle.
"Hungry?" Col asked.
Not waiting for a reply, he unslung his pack and rummaged within. When his rumpled bedroll appeared, he felt his face grow warm and quickly shoved it from their sight.
"Aha," he proclaimed as he withdrew a small bundle, neatly wrapped in soft linen. "Callie, my sister," he explained, "always leaves me part of her meal."
The girl turned her eyes on him and he nearly forgot to breath. Those eyes, those wondrous, magical eyes.
He quickly bent his head, hoping that his hair hid his face, and unwrapped the bread loaf.
Aimee didn't hesitate. In mere seconds, the loaf was gone.
Col's eyes grew wide. "You were really, really hungry."
Mouth still full, Aimee nodded.
"I'm Col." He smiled as he watched her lick the crumbs from her fingers.
She offered him a weak smile, before saying, "I am Aimee, daughter of Mir, granddaughter of Lorna, from the House of the Great Shield."
"Nice to meet you."
Aimee nodded, but said no more as she stared at her lap.
Again silence reared its awkward head. It made Col uncomfortable, waiting always made him uncomfortable. The silence reminded him they were doing nothing to remedy their situation. He'd rather do something, anything, even if wrong, than do nothing.
The longer he was made to wait, the more the silence threatened to smother him. He couldn't stop fidgeting, couldn't stop worrying, couldn't… "That's it," Col proclaimed. He slapped a hand against his leg and rose. "Wizard, I have had enough of this waiting."
"As have I," Aldous replied as he turned to face them. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Aimee whispered, "I know of another orb."
Aldous narrowed his eyes. "What did you say?"
Aimee raised her head slowly and met the wizard's glare. "I know of this orb you desire, I have seen another, here on Bydameur."
Ovid jumped to his feet. "Wizard, we must find it. It will–"
"Sit down, Ovid, and calm yourself." Turning toward the girl, Aldous said, "Now, Aimee was it?"
"Aimee then. I want you to tell me about this other orb. Leave nothing out. Then, I want to hear how a Byda came to be here, with us, rather than in service to the Mother Wind."
Again she nodded. "I will tell you all I know."
"Good, and when you're through," he leveled his stare on Col, "I'll decide what we do next."
"I am Aimee, daughter of–"
"Yes, yes, I heard all that before." Aldous waved a hand at her. "Skip that. What I want to know is how you came to be here, causing me so much trouble and where you saw the other orb. Now, continue."
Aimee sighed. "I was given to the wind near my thirteenth cycle."
"You were a Chosen?"
"Yes, I was chosen and was near transformation when slavers pulled me from the shrine and shackled me in their cold iron. The demon metal shielded my gift from me. I could not transform before the moon completed its own cycle. Thus, the Mother Wind did not see me when it was my time, and now," she whispered, "I will never dance with the wind."
"Transition?" Col frowned.
"Death," Aldous supplied. "Her ability to become invisible is why she was chosen to die. Those born with this ability are considered the spirit children of the Mother Wind. They are given back to their mother before they become of age."
Col gasped. "You mean sacrificed, don't you?"
"Col, hush. You are in no position to judge." Aldous shook his head at the prince.
Aimee met Col's gaze. "It is no sacrifice, it is an honor. I was charged to shed my earthly shell forever and join my spirit to that of the Mother Wind. I would then protect my people for all time. It is a noble thing. Death is merely a transition to something more."
She returned her gaze to her lap. "Not all are blessed by the Mother. Not all achieve transition."
"Why would you want to die?"
"Col," the wizard shook his head at him. "It is their way." He placed a hand on the girl's shoulder and offered what small comfort he could. "It is a great honor to be chosen. Very few are. Fewer still hold the power to conceal. Yet only the girl not yet a woman may transcend. Once that time has passed–"
"Then the girl who is no longer a girl is forever banned from the Mother's kingdom. The wind no longer speaks to her; her spirit will never soar free. She will remain a shadow to her people, a mere shell of what she could have been." A tear trailed down Aimee's cheek. "It is the slavers who stole my honor; it is they who hold the orb you seek."
Aldous sighed. "Then it is to the slavers we must go."
Copyright© – No part of this may be reproduced without permission