Eleven days. Amelia had been trapped in this gods-forsaken circle for eleven days. She sighed, gouging yet another tally into the dirt to mark her time. She was exhausted and frustrated, but most of all she was just confused.
Amelia had awoken in this spot eleven days ago, brain foggy and completely disoriented. The first thought she had was that she was very far from home; the air was warm and heavy, the landscape surrounding her covered in green. She had never seen so much green. The ground was covered in plush, thick grass, dotted with wildflowers in varying shades of purples and blues, while the trees towering above were topped with leaves the colors of emeralds. Within the glade was a small lake, the clear water glistening in the fading afternoon sunlight. It was the most beautiful sight Amelia had ever seen.
Her second thought? What in the hell was going on? The last thing she could remember clearly was walking home from Chéile, cursing the ever-freezing winds. She had still been wearing the same clothing she had picked out to wear into the city: sturdy yet fashionable black trousers, a light blue tunic with long sleeves to combat the cold, her boots, and her heavy traveling cloak. Back home the outfit was perfect for the season. Wherever she had woken up, however, it was stifling. Whoever had brought her here obviously hadn’t cared about her comfort.
Amelia had learned fairly quick that the toadstools circling her were more than just natural decoration. They were her prison walls. She had attempted to walk over to the lake to try to wash the nasty taste out of her mouth, only to slam into an invisible wall. That little jolt managed to clear the last wisps of her brain fog, leaving only anger behind. She spent the next few hours screaming, kicking at the invisible barrier, calling for help. But no one came. Not a soul. Eventually she fell into an exhausted sleep. Ever since, she had spent the hours with nothing to do but think, her mind running wild with the possibilities of what happened.
Who ever had taken her knew about the old magic. Had been able to actually wield it. Did that mean they knew about her? Was it possible? She had been so careful. So very, very careful.
Apparently that hadn’t been enough.
There were very few left alive who knew much about the old magic. Who knew the tales of the deities living amongst the humans are much more than just bedtime stories. All of the old texts were burned, the evidence of magic destroyed along with every bloodline connected to the gods. Well, all except hers of course.
That first morning started in confusion. Where am I? What happened? And most importantly, Why did this happen to me? But that confusion quickly faded into outrage as she slowly began to remember. Remember waking up alone and trapped, left here to die. At least the view was nice. Sighing in resignation, she brushed her long pale hair out of her eyes, sitting up to watch the sun rise behind the trees. What she saw instead had her biting back a scream.
Animals. Animals of all types, just sitting there at the tree line. Staring at her. Birds, squirrels, rabbits, even a few deer. Just sitting there, completely still. It was eerie, to say the least.
Amelia stood slowly so she wouldn’t startle the creatures. Not a single one stirred. Barely even blinked. Definitely creepy. Could they sense what was within her?
Trying to ignore her audience, she walked the perimeter of her prison. Her stomach tightened in hunger. Food. How was she supposed to get food? Or water? How long would she last without either?
Panic settled in, causing her blood to thrum, her secret trying to rise to the surface. She squeezed her eyes shut, taking a deep breath to calm herself.
Amelia learned at a young age that her magic was linked to strong emotions, especially panic or anger. It would do her no good to lose control here. Wherever here was. She had no idea who might be around, who might see her. Her father’s number one rule floated through her head: never let them see the truth of what you are. She would be murdered on the spot if anyone ever knew her secret. If they ever discovered that the old gods’ magic flowed through her veins. Gods-blessed, her parents called her.
Cursed was more like it.
The magic was volatile. It had a mind of its own, it seemed. She had been trying for years in secret to try to harness control, but every time she thought she had made progress, the second she began to panic or got angry, the magic reared its ugly head. And each time she used these powers, the side effects became stronger. The aches and emotional turmoil were not worth anything using that damn magic could give her. She hated every bit of it.
She had to focus. Think.
Once she was satisfied that she was in control, she scanned the area once again. She was relatively close to the forest on one edge of the ring, but that wouldn’t help her one bit if she couldn’t get beyond the toadstools. The lake was too far off to even dream about snagging a drink from there, so she moved on quickly.
There was nothing else. She only had grass within her prison and the trees at her back. The animals were still watching her from across the small glade, as if waiting for her to notice something.
So, she scanned the limited area once again. Her father had practically raised her in the forest, teaching her how to hunt and how to track, how to tell any edible plant from a poisonous one. She had never enjoyed the hunting portion, but scavenging for edible things in the woods had always been a fun game for her.
Eyeing the trees nearest her once more, she noticed a smaller one clustered in with the towering trunks, almost hidden in their shadow. She recognized the leaves, the shape of the small trunk.
Her mouth began watering as she spied the ripe fruit hanging from the branches.
So close. So close, and yet so far. The gods must be taunting her, to put her so near a precious food source without any way to actually obtain it.
She silently cursed those gods. If she wanted to eat, to survive, she would have to tap into that old magic flowing in her veins, if only to try to push some of that fruit within the boundaries of the ring.
Fists clenched, she whirled to pace, her frustration rising once again. Her woodland audience had vanished, but she was too upset to be freaked out by how silently they had dispersed.
Surely she could last a few more days without food. She’d be tired, weak, but she’d survive. Would it be worth it to use even a little of her magic to gather the fruit to her? Was she willing to expose herself in such an open and unfamiliar place?
When her stomach tightened once again in hunger, she realized she didn’t really have a choice. Use the magic, or die slowly. Those were her only options.
Cursing those old gods under her breath, she stomped back to the rear of her prison, focusing all of her energy on that fruit-bearing tree. Usually whenever she tried to control her magic, it didn’t go quite how she wanted. Once, she had tried to conjure a simple breeze but brought in a thunderstorm instead. Her magic was like a living thing, an extension of herself. Typically the magic came out in bursts, no direction to be seen. But maybe, if she could shake that tree trunk hard enough…
Amelia focused, letting all of her anger and fear at being trapped against her will flow into her. She tried not to flinch as she felt the magic rising in her veins, her blood practically boiling with it. It felt like a living thing within her, writhing to get free.
She pushed it down, just a little. She didn’t want to destroy the tree, and she surely didn’t want to draw any outside attention to herself. There was no telling how close she was to a village, or a road. She couldn’t afford to have anyone bear witness to this act. She was already in enough of a mess as it was.
Steeling herself, she lifted her hand towards the tree and pushed; she felt the magic leave her in a somewhat contained burst. The tree shook, a couple pieces of fruit dropping to the ground. The round, dark fruit rolled as it hit the ground, but didn’t quite reach her.
Not enough power, she thought, drawing a shaking breath as she prepared to try again. She pushed, letting more force out this time.
The magic slammed into the trunk, causing the tree to sway at the impact.
Amelia held her breath at the too-loud noise as her magic hit, and then again as the fruit rained to the ground, almost sounding like pounding feet as they struck the grass.
The sight of the precious fruit rolling towards her sent her to her knees. A tear fell down her cheek as she watched her only chance of survival roll across the barrier. Apparently, inanimate objects could cross the toadstools without a problem.
She didn’t dare to move until all of the fruit had stilled, ignoring the spinning in her head. Once the fruit stilled, she counted the too few that had made it within the ring.
Seven. She had managed to get seven pieces of fruit.
She had run out of the fruit on the eighth day.
On the ninth day, as she sipped at the measly amount of rainwater she had managed to collect in the hollowed-out fruit husks, she saw a man.
At first she thought she was hallucinating. Her mind was still a little muddled from her magic usage, her body weak with hunger and thirst. But then the man happened to glance her way, and the complete shock on his face told her he was real.
His appearance was enough to quickly check her excitement of being found. It was the middle of the day, and he was stumbling around as if he were drunk. His clothes were disheveled, and he had dirt on him as if he had tripped and fell a few times in the woods.
The sleazy smile that bloomed on his mouth once his surprise wore off told her enough about what he was planning to do with her.
Amelia’s heart rate picked up as he prowled closer to her. She couldn’t run, she was too weak to try and fight, and screaming would do her no good.
There was nothing she could do but watch as the man got closer and closer. Could only watch as his gaze traveled up and down her body.
She backed up as far as she could. The stench of alcohol and sweat burned her nostrils; the man reeked.
Amelia didn’t get the chance to feel truly afraid, however, because as soon as the man tried to step over the boundary set by the toadstools, he was impaled with hundreds of thorns.
He managed to stumble back a few steps before he just dropped. Amelia could only stare as blood slowly trickled from every point of impact on his body. Her head swam; she sat down roughly before she could pass out.
Dead. This man was dead for trying to get near her. Whether or not his intentions had been good, he didn’t deserve death.
Two days had passed since the man’s death, and Amelia had no way to cover the body. Every time she accidently glanced at it she felt sick.
The body had an oily sheen to it, the skin starting to loosen. It was disgusting looking. There was nothing quite like waking up in the middle of the night with a corpse staring at you with dead eyes.
The heat hadn’t let up during the day, either, and the body was starting to smell. It was bad enough that Amelia was contemplating trying to use her magic to throw the body far into the woods so she wouldn’t have to see it or smell it for another second.
With her back to the corpse, Amelia spread her cloak out on the ground. She stroked her fingers along the fabric lovingly, remembering the day her mother had gifted it to her. She had been so proud as she presented Amelia with the gift she had sewn by hand. She had sewn similar ones for herself and her father as well, and they all wore them with pride, even three years later.
Amelia sighed as she thought about her parents. The act always made her sad. Were they okay? Had they tried to find her yet? Or did they think she was dead? Would they even know where to begin to look for her?
Lying on her back, she stared up at the clouds. Amelia was an only child, and her parent’s only family. Surely they were looking for her. They would find her.
That thought was the only thing that kept her from giving up. Her parents deserved a strong child, so strong she would be. She was all they had.
She didn’t feel very strong, though. She felt weak, and tired, and scared. She felt lonely.
Amelia hadn’t spoken aloud in almost two weeks. Possibly longer, but she couldn’t remember the trip she must have gone on to make it to this strange place.
That’s what scared her the most. Not being able to remember.
There was just a blank spot in her memory, a black hole in her mind. Her head began to pound every time she tried to force herself to remember something. A voice, a face, anything to give her some indication of who took her and why.
But she had nothing to go on. She couldn’t think of a single reason why anybody would be angry with her, at least not angry enough to go to these extremes. Her mind kept whispering that somebody knew her secret and had abandoned her here at the mercy of those old gods whose magic she carried, but it just wasn’t possible. Not with how careful she had been. Nobody outside of her and her parents had known. Not a soul.
So why kidnap her?
The frustration she felt each time she let her mind wander down this path grew and she groaned, getting up off of the ground so she could pace like a caged animal.
She supposed that’s what she was now. A helpless, caged animal.
Amelia had tried everything she could think of to get out of this prison. She had tried feeling around every inch of the barrier, searching for a weak spot. She had clawed at the soil until her fingers bled, trying to dig under the toadstools. She had even resorted to pounding on the invisible wall as hard she could until tears of pain and frustration were pouring down her face.
But nothing worked. Nothing made even a dent. For the life of her, Amelia could not figure out the complexity of this prison. Something about it caused the animals to flee and kill that man, but left her unharmed. Why? Why trap her here?
So instead of wasting what little strength she had on fighting to get out, she focused on plotting ways to get answers once she was out.
Making her way over to her stash of fruit rinds, Amelia sipped again at her water. It had only rained twice since she woke up in this glade, and the rainwater she had managed to collect was dangerously close to being gone. So she sipped slowly, savoring the slightly sweetened water as it coated her tongue.
As she sat on the ground, she tried to imagine what would be going on if she were back at home. It would be well into spring at this point, the snow almost completely melted. The locals would be so happy to finally see grass again that they wouldn’t mind how muddy everything was. Families would be readying the fields for spring crops soon, and her father would be leading the hunts into the woods to find the returning game.
Amelia had always been bored by the mundane routine they followed. Everything they did was predictable. Very rarely were there any surprises. As a child, she had always wished for something exciting to happen in their sleepy little village.
She snorted. Wish granted, she thought. Getting drugged and kidnapped had definitely been exciting.
“Is something funny?”
Amelia jolted at the voice, pivoting her body so she could chuck her fruit rind at the intruder.
“I’d love to hear the joke. Sharing is caring, you know.” The stranger winked at her.
He had a different accent than she was used to. It was soft, lilting.
Where in the hell was she?
The stranger was standing with his thumbs hooked casually in his front pockets, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Amelia gave him a quick once-over.
He looked tall from this distance, probably a good seven inches taller than her. He wore dark brown trousers with matching knee high boots, and a thin white shirt tucked loosely into his pants. There was a heavy-looking leather belt slung low on his hips, holding what looked to be a dagger. He had a small pack looped over one shoulder. He was thin, but she could see obvious signs of strength in the way he was standing, the way the muscles in his thighs shifted as he took a step closer. Amelia was trying to decide on the best way to explain the barrier and the corpse.
The man cocked his head to the side as Amelia’s gaze traveled up to his face, speaking before she had a chance to explain. “Do you like what you see?” He ran a hand through his thick, short dark hair, causing it to stick up every which way. His hair was a lovely shade of brown, like an acorn in the sun. The stranger cleared his throat. “Do you not speak? Or are you just stunned into silence by my remarkable beauty?” A muscle in his cheek twitched as he tried to suppress a smile.
Amelia, not a fan of being laughed at, straightened her spine. He could learn the hard way about the barrier. “It’s so hard to get a grasp on your beauty from so far away. Why don’t you step a little closer so I can properly judge?” She batted her eyelashes and pasted the most innocent look she could muster onto her face. Her long hair covered most of her face, and she looked up at him from under her lashes like she’d seen so many girls do back in the village.
If she could just get him to come close enough, she could chuck her used up fruit at him. Wipe that stupid smirk off of his face. This man reminded her of the disgusting men back home that would flirt and grasp at any woman within reach.
He burst into laughter. Amelia’s eyes narrowed into slits, and the stranger held up his hands in surrender. “Alright, sheesh. I’ll stop teasing. But seriously, what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere by yourself? Don’t you know it’s dangerous? You never know what might find you in the woods.” He stepped closer as he spoke, his eyes darting automatically over to the corpse on the grass. The toe of his boot was barely a foot away from the invisible line as he froze, finally registering what the body was.
“I wouldn’t come any closer if I were you. That guy tried to step over the toadstools and got quite the surprise.” She nodded towards her dead companion, shrugging. “But by all means, I won’t stop you if you don’t believe me. Go ahead, come right on in.” Amelia stood, sweeping her arms in a welcoming gesture.
The stranger glanced between her, the corpse, and the ring of toadstools for a minute before taking a few steps to the side and collapsing gracefully onto the ground. He propped his chin up on a fist, just staring at her. His staring made her uncomfortable.
“What?” She snapped, placing her hands on her hips.
Sir-stares-a-lot raised his eyebrows and gestured lazily to Amelia. “I was just wondering if you always introduced yourself to new people in such a lovely manner.”
Not about to let this swaggering stranger under her skin, Amelia sat down across from him in the grass. “You mean filthy and with a corpse mere feet away? Sorry, I didn’t have time to prepare myself for your visit. Please forgive me.” She made sure to lay the sarcasm on as heavily as she could, her voice raspy and raw from disuse. He only grinned at her. “Who are you, exactly?” Could she trust this person? Did she have a choice?
He didn’t respond, but instead took a moment to scan the area with a puzzled look on his face. When he met her eyes again he gave her a small smile that at any other time would have filled her stomach with butterflies. Up close, she could see that his eyes were a brown almost a shade darker than his hair. If she was being honest with herself, he was an extremely attractive man. Too bad she had too much going on to care.
“My name is Torquil.” He interrupted her thoughts with his honeyed voice. “And you seem to be in a predicament. Is it safe for me to assume that there’s a story that goes along with why you’re sitting all alone out here, or is this just where you like to vacation?” He was staring at her again, one eyebrow raised, looking very expectant.
Amelia raised her eyebrows. Whoever this Torquil was, he was clearly used to getting what he wanted using his pretty eyes and easy smile. He was in for a rude awakening.
Mocking his posture, Amelia propped her chin up on a fist. “How about this: you figure out how to get me out of this damned prison, and I’ll tell you my story.” She made her face look bored as he looked around her skeptically. He didn’t seem to believe that she was trapped. To prove herself, she leaned forward and placed her palms flat on the invisible wall. His eyes widened, seeming fascinated by the entire thing.
As long as his fascination drove him to help break her out, she didn’t care.
“I suspect someone figured out how to use the old magic. Think you can figure out how to break it?” Careful. She had to be so, so careful when discussing the old magic. She couldn’t let on just how much she knew about it.
Torquil looked thrilled by the challenge, that wicked glint back in his eyes as he scanned the area once more. He jumped up, pacing the outside of the ring. Amelia watched him warily, never putting her back to him. He looked like a wildcat stalking its prey. Finally, he made it back to where he started.
“You have a deal, doll.” He flashed her that crooked smile again. Amelia sighed in relief, ignoring the stupid pet name and instead focused on the fact that he had agreed to help. “On one condition.” Torquil held up one finger, and Amelia held her breath. “You have to tell me your name first.”
Amelia released her breath in a rush. “Amelia. My name is Amelia.” Her voice sounded breathless. “Do you really think you can get me out of here?” She thought her voice might sound too desperate, but she didn’t care. She had a chance.
Torquil simply looked at her, staring into her eyes, taking in her clenched fists hidden under her crossed arms and the hope that must show on her face.
All he said was, “I’ll be back, Amelia. Don’t miss me too much.” And winked before turning on his heel and striding back the way he came, whistling as he went.
Before she knew it, he was gone. Just like that. In a matter of a few minutes, her situation went from dire to full of hope. All because of one stranger. Wringing her hands before her, wishing she could do more, Amelia stood there and watched as her only chance of getting out of this glade disappeared into the tree line.