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Tears streaked down Fiona’s face and heavy sobs wracked her frame as she ran through the dark forest that bordered her town. The trees were reaching out, grabbing greedily at her hair and clothes, drinking in the blood it drew from her exposed skin as her worn cotton shirt was ripped to shreds. The starlight that was surely present else where was blotted out by the merciless foliage, leaving Fiona completely blind in an alien setting. Her ankle caught on a protruding tree root and she tumbled to the ground, unknown things crawling about her, her right arm twisted painfully under her stomach. Flopping to her back with difficulty, Fiona succumbed to hopelessness and frustration, screaming her fury at the unseen stars, hot tears mixing with blood before hitting the ground beside her. She closed her eyes, frustration and anger fading to despairing listlessness, aching sorrow welling in her chest, a numbing pain that left her without the desire or will to rise and resume her futile quest for survival.
Hours passed, but Fiona had no thought of the time, lying in a catatonic state alone in the middle of a forest where it was unlikely any people would find her. Not that they would be looking. Tears continued to stream lazily from her eyes, her brown hair almost black with caked blood and dirt from her frantic run through the woods. She knew that this far into the forest, all of the predators that had been driven away from the civilization of her old town ran freely, none too kind to stray people. As the sun began to stream through the thick underbrush, Fiona’s sluggish mind processed how strange it was that, vulnerable as she was, she had not been killed. To her mild surprise, the fact disappointed her. She had no reason to trudge forward, it would be infinitely easier to simply die here, but naturally the universe would not grant her that one little kindness. Bitterness filled her, chasing away some of her apathy, replacing some of the uncaring numbness that had tamped down the biting pain that lurked beneath her calm hopelessness.
A loud growl came to her ears, startling her to a sitting position, green eyes bright and alert against her streaked, muddy face. The sound came again, and slowly Fiona realized that it was only her stomach; no unseen predator had arrived to quit her of her misery. She groaned, hunger biting through self pity as she realized she would have to get up and look for food. As she stood, she gave herself a quick assessment, noting grimly the tenderness of her right wrist and ankle. She was not in a good condition to fare these woods alone. Finally glancing around her, she saw that she had ended up about 50 feet from a large clearing through which ran a shallow stream. Limping into the fuller light of the more widely dispersed greenery, Fiona knelt before the stream, cupping her dirty hands to gather some of the scarce water. As she brought it to her lips, she heard a slight cough from behind her. Stiffening, she whipped around to face the noise. When faced with imminent danger, the prospect of dying in this cold wood seemed much less appealing. Before her was a man, appearing barely of age, yet his stance and expression spoke of experience and confidence beyond his apparent years. Fiona backed up to the stream like a cornered animal, frightened by the man, mind racing for a way to escape.
“I wouldn’t drink the water if I were you,” he stated blandly, seeming almost bored by her fear.
“Who are you?” Fiona’s voice was sharp with anticipation.
“My name is Luce. You don’t need to know anything else about me.”
“What do you want?” her voice losing none of its edge.
“I want to know what you’re doing so close to my home,” the mysterious man said, eyes narrowing with suspicion.
“I…I came from Eldenton. I…wait, you live…here?” Fiona stammered at the accusation, not knowing how to respond to the stranger’s probing gaze.
“Yes,” the man replied simply, “I do.”
He looked at her intently, and as he did Fiona saw that his eyes were an unnerving violet. With a start she realized that he was not any average human, if he was human at all. Her fear completely renewed, a tremor went down her spine, completely unrelated to the chill. The man looked at her with some concern. Looking over her haggard appearance for the first time, a slight frown creased his smooth brow.
“Are you alright? What happened to you?” His words were kind, but harsh, and did nothing to ease Fiona’s trepidation.
“Nothing. I’m fine,” she lied, cursing the shake in her voice that betrayed her emotions.
“No,” the man stated, “You are most definitely not. You’re covered in blood, your ankle is sprained, and your wrist looks broken. Come with me, you’re not safe alone in this condition.”
Fiona balked, backing away slowly from the man, instinct telling her to stay away from him. In her fear, she forgot about the stream bed behind her, falling as her wounded ankle landed in the indenture. She felt her head smash against a rock, and with a blinding pain accompanied with small flashing lights, her consciousness flickered out.
Dreams flickered through Fiona’s unconscious thoughts, chillingly disturbing and amazingly beautiful in equal measure. One moment she was being carried, in her father’s arms, who she had thought she would never see again. He smiled at her, worn tanned face crinkling with familiar warmth, his bright brown eyes shining with the adoration he had always held for his oldest daughter. His arms tightened for a moment, a gesture of reassurance, and Fiona felt some of her constricting grief blend away into the happiness of the moment. But when she looked back up at her father’s face to ask how he had found her, his brown eyes were gone, a sharply inquisitive violet pair in their place. Fiona squeezed her dreaming eyes shut, willing back images of her father, but they would not come.
Time passed, and Fiona dreamt of many things; of birds in cages, bashing against their iron constraints in a desperate struggle to be free; of grinning faces staring at her as she climbed the steps to the hangman’s noose; of her mother and brother, who welcomed her with warm embraces and kind words, gloriously contented until Fiona’s touch cast them dead on the floor, blood streaming from their gaping mouths. In her sleep, Fiona sobbed, and shook, and thrashed, occasionally screaming with the horrors of the haunted images that flashed before her unconscious mind. For fifteen hours she stayed as such, and the strange man with the purple eyes looked on at her, cool patience painted on his features like a mask. When Fiona showed the subtle signs of waking, Luce stood and walked quietly away from her fragile form, exiting into a dark hallway blocked by a heavy black curtain.
As Fiona stirred, she realized with mild shock that she was lying on a maroon leather couch, swathed in blankets, with a fire burning adjacent to her. She attempted to sit, but when she tried her head throbbed with an intensity that made her think better of it. Lying back down, she tried to process what exactly had brought her here. She remembered her frantic run through the woods, away from the town that held no future for her. She remembered falling and overwhelming hopelessness. She had a vague suspicion that at some point she had risen…but where did she go when she did? And what was a house like this one doing in the darkest swath of forest available? The questions were beginning to inflame her already throbbing headache, and so she settled for lying in an unthinking consciousness. She really was in a predicament. She didn’t know where she was, or who had brought her here, and she couldn’t get up to find out without setting her head on fire. Wonderful. She rolled over with a groan, her whole body protesting to the movement. She shut her eyes tightly, willing back her uneasy sleep, but it wouldn’t come.
A few moments later a faint rustling from the vicinity behind the couch alerted Fiona to the entrance of the man. She sat up quickly, forgetting for a moment her pounding head to stare. The second her green eyes met his violet ones, she remembered the clearing where she’d seen him. Remembered falling into the stream, and realized that he must have carried her here. But why? She opened her mouth to put her puzzling questions to words when he held up a hand to silence her. She glared indignantly, but felt her mouth close, almost unaware that she had closed it.
“I know that you have questions,” the man said solemnly, “But they will have to wait.”
“Why?” Fiona asked, frustrated, “Why can’t I know who you are? Why you brought me here? What you want with me? For all I know you’re some horrid criminal sent here to be exiled in the woods and you’re just going to kill me. And, by the way, if that is in fact the case, can you please get over with it now? Because I’ve really had a rough day and don’t need to put up with the antics of a murdering psychopath right now.” For some reason her rant had brought the first sting of tears into her eyes, and Fiona’s voice cracked oh the word ‘psychopath’. She cursed silently to herself and blushed at her outburst.
For a long moment the strange man just looked at her, head cocked slightly to the left, a bemused smile fighting to split his young features. He seemed to be debating something, what he was hiding in his expression written deep within those bizarre purple eyes. His face set, decision apparently made.
“Even if I were to answer your questions, you wouldn’t understand just yet. There are whole books dedicated to the history that must preface the answers you seek. No, answers will come; just not now. I can, however, assert that I am no murdering psychopath and that I have not the slightest intention of causing you harm.” A small smile tweaked the corners of his mouth as he gave his brief reassurance.
Fiona frowned, processing what he had told her. “Well,” she countered slowly, “I suppose if you really were a psychopath, you wouldn’t tell me about it anyway. I just want to know what I’m doing here.” Not that I have anywhere else to go, she thought unhappily to herself, not wanting to vocalize the statement.
Luce looked at her again, considering what she had said. He gave a short laugh. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t,” he said with a trace of playfulness in his tone before his face became, once again, deeply serious. “But I couldn’t just leave you unconscious and wounded in the center of an unfamiliar and undeniably dangerous forest on your own. I didn’t have much of a choice than to bring you here.” He frowned, trying to think of any other viable decision he could have made.
Fiona squirmed on the couch, acknowledging the merit in the man’s words, but entirely unsure of what she would do next. She couldn’t stay with him, could she? She wasn’t even sure she was safe with him. His words reassured her, but her gut reaction to the man had been to flee. However uncertain she was, though, Fiona could not deny the man had shown kindness where she had expected only loneliness and despair.
“Thank you for that, really, I would probably be dead if you hadn’t. And I’m sorry for my…ah, less than appreciative behavior earlier. I hadn’t expected to encounter kindness out here, and I certainly won’t forget it. I…” The man scowled deeply, cutting off her stumbled goodbye and causing Fiona to blush deeply.
“Do you really think,” he said shaking his head, “That you’ll be able to survive out there on your own? That the creatures that live here will leave you in peace? I will take you wherever you need to go, wherever you were headed before you got lost, but I won’t let you wander into your death after the trouble I’ve gone through to keep you alive.”
As he spoke, Luce had crouched down so that he was eye level with her, and his gaze kept her eyes locked on his, entranced. He blinked, releasing Fiona from the strange spell, and she felt like she had woken from some sort of dream. Shaking her head dizzily, she began to process what the man had said. He thinks I just got lost, she thought to herself, slightly amazed. If only he knew the truth of it, maybe he wouldn’t be so set on protecting me… Fiona sighed, looking down.
“It’s not that simple,” she said in a quiet, strained voice.
“And why, exactly, is that?” Luce asked perplexedly, arching a brow.
“Because,” Fiona said. “I wasn’t really…headed anywhere in particular. I don’t have anywhere left to go.” The admission brought back memories of the past few weeks, and Fiona’s eyes began to sting with the embarrassing threat of tears.
Luce looked down, his brown knitting pensively. Slowly, he stood up, striding leisurely toward the window, shifting his gaze to the glimmering night’s sky. He stood staring upward for an endless minute, before turning once again to face Fiona.
“If you have nowhere else to go,” he said softly, but powerfully, “Then you will stay with me until you are prepared to survive the forest on your own.”
Fiona’s stomach clenched tightly; the thought of staying with this stranger was a difficult prospect, and she wasn’t sure what exactly it was that had such a hold on her stomach. Love is of the heart, she heard her father’s voice in her head, reason is of the mind, instinct is of the gut, and fear is of the stomach. Do not get these powerful sensations confused, Fiona. They will lead you to do tremendous deeds, but always know the motive by which you act. Fiona shuddered at the memory, cold needles prodding at her heart. I’m afraid of the man, she thought confused. After what he’s done for me, and every chance he hasn’t taken to hurt me, I’m still afraid of him. Brief frustration ran through Fiona as she attempted to master her fear. In this situation, deep in woods she could not survive alone, fear was not a justified motivator to turn down the help of a kind stranger. She looked up at him, meeting his concentrated gaze with difficulty. He regarded her patiently as she struggled for words.
“I..” Fiona began, completely unsure of her decision.
“I will stay.”
Luce nodded slightly, and walked away without a word.