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The steele wolf, p.12
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       The Steele Wolf, p.12

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  My cheeks burned in embarrassment even though I knew that Kael knew that Joss and I had feelings for each other. It was obvious that Kael disapproved of Joss and I being together. And so did my father, because he was a Denai. Maybe it was because I felt like Kael was the eyes and ears of my father now. The two had become fast friends, whereas I had thought that my father would be angry towards Kael for entering the Kragh Aru tournament and happy that Joss had saved me from going over the waterfall. But it was the opposite. My father liked and even respected Kael and had an intense and ingrained dislike of Joss. So maybe I was feeling guilty that I was letting myself start to have feelings for a Denai against my father’s wishes.

  Sighing, I dropped Joss’ hand and followed him into the stable to get Faraway settled against the storm.

  Are you going to be okay with the storm coming? I mentally asked my horse.

  Of course. I’m well sheltered and have fine company, he snickered good-naturedly.

  My horse happened to be very vain and found himself in the company of two mares on this trip. So he would pride himself on being the strong, courageous stallion if they were frightened.

  Why did I even bother asking? I thought at him sarcastically as I ran my fingers through his mane pressing my forehead against his.

  Because you care for me and worry about me. It’s all right, I worry about you too.

  I know. Turning away from Faraway, I saw Joss watching me quietly. I had told him that my horse and I could speak to each other and it never fazed him; he was very observant and never interrupted when he saw me withdraw and become still, a sign, he said of when I was speaking to Faraway.

  “You ready to go in?” he asked politely.

  “No.” I walked over to Joss and wrapped my arms around him and leaned my head into his chest. He smelled wonderful, of earth, spice and faint horse. “Joss, I’m scared. I want to help find your sister but I’m terrified.”

  “Thalia, you’re only human. I expect you to be scared. I would be worried about you if you weren’t. After all, you have a reason to be scared.” He hugged me tighter and kissed the top of my head. Another crack of thunder hit and we both jumped as a torrential downpour started. Even though the stable was next to the way station shelter, we still had to run outside to get to the front door. It didn’t matter, a few seconds in the rain and our clothes were soaked clean through.

  Entering the one-room way station, I realized what my delay in coming inside cost me. There was no place to change. Joss and I took off our soaking boots and placed them by the fire. He stripped off his wet shirt and hung it to dry. My eyes drew to his abs and I felt myself blush and look away, only to find Kael’s stormy blue eyes and my blush deepened. Refusing to take off any clothes, I just scooted closer to the fire and did my best to wring them out, pulling the wet material away from my body.

  Hemi handed me a plate of food and I did my best to eat it. But every mouthful felt like it was about to make a hasty exodus. It had been this way our whole journey. Every time I ate, I felt sick and I wasn’t sleeping. I could feel the concerned looks from Hemi as he watched me eat. I tried, but I couldn’t keep it down. Sighing, I pushed my plate dejectedly away and stared at the fire until my eyes drew heavy. Moments later I felt myself being lifted off the ground by strong arms and laid gently on the one of the two bunks in the room. My eyes fluttered open briefly to make out the red hair and trimmed beard of Hemi. Covering me with a blanket, he turned. I could hear a heated whispered debate going on between him and Kael.

  “This is not protecting her!” he argued. “You must be blind if you haven’t noticed. She is not eating, not sleeping and is losing weight. She weighs nothing more than a small child now. She’s having nightmares. She is obviously terrified.”

  “I’m not blind. I’ve seen it before. In even the bravest of warriors. It is to be expected. She knows what we are going up against.”

  “She’s just a child. I should turn around and take her back to our valley, back to her father, since you seem to be lax in your duty that you were charged with. It would be the right thing to do.”

  I couldn’t hear Kael’s quiet answer even though I strained to hear it against the rumble of thunder. When the thunder faded, they had obviously quit talking and had gone to make up their beds. The storm sounded like it was about to get worse.

  ***

  A crack of thunder made me jump and I felt a pulse of lighting soar painfully through my body. It was the iron butterfly, and I was once again trapped within the machine. The iron bands wrapped around me and pierced the different pressure points along my arms and body. The Raven peered at me closely through the silver mask, his eyes black and sinister. He raised his hands and called down another bolt of lightning and sent its currents through the bands and I jerked upright as the spasm wracked painfully through my body. Tears of pain poured uncontrollably down my face and I started to sob.

  But my sobs were muffled as I awoke to strong arms holding me and my face buried into a masculine chest. The thunder from the storm made me sob and shiver uncontrollably in terror. Strong hands held me and comforted me as I tried to get a hold of my fear. The fire had gone out and darkness enclosed the shelter.

  A low voice whispered comfort to me “Shhh, Thalia. You’re okay; it’s just a dream. It can’t hurt you anymore.” Another crack of thunder and my body jerked in memory of the pain; the sound of thunder would forevermore be linked to torture. The whispered voice continued to hold me throughout the storm, never letting up, never releasing me. I was safe; the voice kept the terror away as I snuggled into the deep chest and fell asleep, barely realizing that the scent was not the familiar scent of earth and spice but of leather and musk. It was the first time in weeks I was able to sleep through the night without fear of being plagued by my real life nightmares.

  ***

  The next morning I awoke alone, cold and a little disoriented. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that I was the only one left in the way station. Sounds from outside attested to the whereabouts of Hemi, Joss and Kael. I was glad for the moment’s reprieve as I had the privacy to get dressed and ponder over last night. I was originally under the assumption that it was Joss comforting me during the storm, but now that I’m awake I’m not so sure.

  Rushing to change into fresh clothes, I packed up and ran outside to find Joss who was clearing the path to the way station of broken tree limbs. It was an unmentioned code to users to leave the station as you found it. Clearing the path of debris and restocking the wood was expected.

  I snuck up behind Joss and sat on a stump and waited until he saw me before speaking. “That was quite a storm last night, wasn’t it?” I quipped more cheerfully than I actually felt.

  Joss turned and grinned at me. “I love thunderstorms! It always reminds me of home. You will see why shortly.”

  I pasted a fake smile on my face as I asked him as carelessly as I could, “So how did you sleep?”

  “Like a baby; nothing could wake me during a thunderstorm. How about you? Did you sleep okay?” He asked, handing me a long branch to haul to the side of the path without sparing me a second glance.

  My smile wilted in confirmation that Joss was definitely not the one who chased away the terror last night. Otherwise he wouldn’t be acting so carefree this morning. “Um, fine,” was all I was able to spit out, as my stomach churned with unanswered questions. I flung the branch to the side of the road and went to find Faraway so we could get on the road and leave this way station as far behind as possible.

  I had no sooner stepped into the stable when I felt Kael’s presence behind me. Turning to him, I looked at him hard with question in my eyes. His blues eyes were calm this morning, with no hint of hardness; the dark shadow that I could sometimes see following him when he was angry was gone. I couldn’t figure him out. It was as if he was hiding behind a mask. One moment he was hard, uncaring and acted like he hated me, while the next, he would be polite, soft-spoken and nice. He confused my senses. I was about to open m
y mouth and ask him about last night but I saw in his eyes a slight fear as if he knew what I was going to say. He spoke first.

  “I’ve brought you breakfast. We are eating a cold meal today so that we can be on the road.” Kael handed me biscuits and a slice of jerky.

  My stomach quelled at the thought of food and I took it without words and put it in Faraway’s saddlebag.

  “No, Thalia. You will eat it now.” He ordered firmly. I whirled on him, my mouth open wide in shock.

  “I’ll eat it later, when I’m hungry.” I stated, refusing to back down. Too late, I could see the darkness start to form around him. He was getting angry.

  “No, I’m going to watch you eat every bite, or I’m turning you around and marching you straight back to your father.” Gone was the kindness I saw earlier and back was the stubborn hardheaded SwordBrother I was used to. Kael was the only other person I knew that could be as stubborn as my father. “Hemi was right to take me to task. I promised your father I would look after you and I’m doing a poor job. You are wasting away. I will not have you die on the road because you can’t take care of yourself and eat properly.”

  “I’m taking care of myself—“ I shot out but Kael interrupted me again.

  “No, you’re not; I’ve noticed it and let it go on long enough. I should have said something sooner. Remember, it’s my life on the line if I don’t bring you back safe. I will not be lax in my duty again! So you will eat now or I’m taking you home!” He roared at me and I felt chastised.

  Gone were any lingering feelings of gratitude I may have held toward Kael as they were replaced by anger and resentment. He was only being nice to me out of duty, out of preservation of his own life; how typical, how selfish, how just like Kael. Flipping open Faraway’s pouch, I grabbed the jerky and bit a hunk off of it. I chewed furiously on the meat, but the sweet and salty juices hit my empty stomach and I paled and headed for the nearest unoccupied stall and spit it up. I had been stupid. I should have started with the biscuit, something gentler on my queasy stomach.

  “Here, chew on of this first.” Kael gently touched my elbow and handed me a small green leaf. “It will calm your nerves and stomach. I think that’s what making it hard for you to eat; your nerves.”

  I took the leaf and chewed on it and felt a moment of refreshment as a mellow mint flavor enveloped my mouth. I sucked on the leaf as long as I could and then spit it out. I took another bite of the jerky and sure enough it stayed down. Kael watched me like a hawk, as he made sure I ate every bite, before handing me a cup of water. When he was finally satisfied he turned and left.

  When we were on the road again, the trees soon became larger, greener and the valleys turned into mountains. The scenery was slowly changing before my eyes; the roads became steeper, rockier and harder to find.

  We stopped at midday to feed ourselves and water the horses. Kael came over to me and handed me lunch. I looked at it despairingly, but Kael’s stern gaze left no room for argument.

  “Do you happen to have that magic leaf again?” I sounded pathetic and I knew it. Kael pulled out the leaf out of his pocket and I followed the same routine as breakfast. He made sure I ate every bite and then he brought me a second plate.

  When we stopped for the night and dinnertime came it was again the same routine. Joss and Hemi noticed the change in routine as Kael made sure to bring me dinner and once again babysat me while I ate it. My stomach was growling and for once I was actually hungry for dinner. I asked for the stupid leaf anyway just so I wouldn’t embarrass myself and get sick. Kael just laughed at me as I held out my hand for the leaf as soon as he brought me my plate. I saw Hemi give a nod of approval to Kael when he thought I wasn’t looking. I would have tried to think of a good comeback for Hemi if I wasn’t too busy shoving my mouth full of food.

  Tomorrow we would reach Skyfell and I slept soundly that night. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had a full stomach or because a certain SwordBrother slept closer to my bedroll than normal.

  Chapter 18

  Joss was a wreck. We were almost to Skyfell and he couldn’t sit still on Arrow, his horse. I couldn’t blame him. It had been months since he had seen his family and there would be one less person to greet him on his arrival, the reason for this trip, Tenya. It would be a joyous reunion cloaked in sadness.

  I heard rushing water and the sound of a waterfall getting closer and I felt my heart beat faster at the reminder of almost going over Kirakura Falls. When we traveled closer I realized I didn’t hear one waterfall; I heard the thunder of numerous waterfalls. And the air was filled with mist that clung to every strand of my hair, branch and leaf. Birds of various colors flew from treetop to treetop singing a symphony of songs.

  We finally came to a stop along a cliff that looked out into nothingness, just mists upon mists. I could see that the cliff stretched miles in the shape of a half-moon and that all around the various rivers spilled over the cliffs to create a meeting place of some of the most majestic waterfalls I’ve ever seen. The mists created a continuous cloud right in the middle of the crest.

  “Well, here we are.” Joss said proudly, holding his hand out to the sky. “Isn’t it great?”

  I was confused; all I saw was cloudy mists unless the Skyfell clan resided at the bottom of the cliffs. I leaned over and looked down the cliff to try and see the bottom below but all I did was drench my face with more drops of water. Hemi looked equally perplexed and looked around in wonder. Kael stood frozen, eyes darting back and forth looking for danger.

  “Joss, where? I don’t see anything.” I looked up in the giant trees looking for any sign of life.

  “Out there!” He pointed again, this time into the mists. I followed his finger and looked harder. I caught a hint of green and then it was hidden by the mists.

  “There’s something out there,” I pointed excitedly. “I saw it.”

  “It’s Skyfell, I told you.” Joss grinned at me, grabbing my hands in excitement. He released my hands to pull a whistle from his pack. Playing a fast trill of notes, he waited and then a call of a bird answered. A beautiful white majestic bird flew from the trees and came to land on Joss’ outstretched arm. The bird was at least two feet tall, with a rainbow of tail and a crown of feathers floated above his head. On the bird’s claw was a small tube in which Joss inserted a small note. Joss threw the majestic beast into the air and I watched as he flew straight into the mists. It wasn’t long before I heard a loud zipping noise and out of the mists flew what looked to be giant birdcage with people inside. Down out of the mists they flew at incredible speeds and only slowed when the line it was connected to evened out.

  The square cage slowed and came to a halt a few feet from where Joss stood. The solid lines for the cage were hidden in the trees that led out and up into the mists. Two men disembarked the cage and came to greet us. One was the familiar form of Darren Hamden. He was dressed impeccably in colorful clothing, his smile spread from ear to ear along with his gold hoop earring and blue bead he always wore. Darren was the epitome of the rover lifestyle, loving one woman, Melani, but spending his days traveling and looking for adventure. He was also Joss’ godfather. The other one with Darren was a young lad about fourteen who was called Geff. He helped Joss unload his packs from his horse and then came over to get mine off of Faraway.

  “Wait a minute, what are you doing?” I stopped him from grabbing Faraway’s reins. I startled the boy and he looked scared.

  “I’m taking the horses, miss. They are too heavy for the skycage.” He nervously ran his hands down his pants and looked apologetically at me. “There are no horses where you are going; they don’t take well to the heights.”

  “Relax, Thalia,” Darren came over and threw his arm over my shoulder. “Geff is taking them down the hill to the bottom of the cliffs to Skydown; all of the horses are stabled down there. Skydown’s a smaller village of people that live on the ground; not everyone is suited for life in the sky,” he chuckled at me.

  I reluctan
tly looked at Faraway and then looked at the cage that looked barely big enough to hold four people. Darren was right; there was no way for him to travel where I was going. I pressed my hands along Faraway’s flanks and ran my fingers across his back. I felt if we were going to be parted I wanted to let him know I was going to miss him.

  He already knows. Faraway’s soft nicker reached me. The boy’s right, I would not like to ride that box into the sky. I will be fine.

  Taking a deep breath, I took off Faraway’s pack and let the boy lead my horse and tie his reins around Joss’ saddle horn. The boy made a caravan of all four horses and grabbed Arrow’s reigns and began the long trek down a small hidden path in the side of the cliff.

  “Come on, come on,” Darren called. “We must get going.” Hemi, Kael and I followed Darren into the cage and watched in fascination as he closed and locked the latch. There was barely enough room for the four of us to stand there comfortably.

  “Joss, are you coming?” I called out to him nervously when I noticed he didn’t enter the cage. Joss was over by a very large tree and was unwinding a rope that was carefully hidden within the branches.

  “Yeah, I’ll be right behind you. The dorabills can only pull at max four people, I’ll follow behind with a skite.”

  I was at a loss as to what he was talking about. I had no clue what a Dorabill or a skite was but I wasn’t left to ponder long when Darren pulled out another flute similar to Joss and played a short melody. Whereas Joss’ tune brought a beautiful white bird called a Perot, Darren’s song brought on a fearsome creature of giant proportions.

  I heard the terrifying scream before I saw the large birdlike creature dive out of the mists, his wings tucked close to his body in what looked to be a suicide dive. At the last moment he spread his wings and stopped, hovering above our cage. I backed away from the bird in fright until my back hit the back of the cage. I was so scared I actually latched onto Kael’s arm. Kael had pulled out his knife and was crouched, ready to attack the beast if necessary. Hemi just stared in wonder, never moving a muscle.

 
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