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Sometimes one just had to stop. Especially Sarren. She had to stop and close her eyes and slow her breathing and simply stop. For hours she would not see, would not hear, would not touch or taste or smell. She’d only feel. From deep inside she pulled something, an ache so pleasant yet so terrible it set the world on fire. Pulling that up, she’d simply feel for hours the drum of the world. In that state Sarren could sense everything by not sensing anything. She could feel a blade of grass twitch, a cloud grow larger, a stream gently curve past a stone and the thundering vibrations that sent the earth into jarring, broken images as a group of saddled horses approached.
Sarren’s eyes snapped open. Diving up the nearest tree, she was out of sight just in time for the group to pass under her. The last of the feeling was spinning around her, her palms and soles and heart feeling like it was pouring some fine liquid. As she reined in the feeling that allowed her to see the world so differently she caught the anxiety and hurry of this group. In seconds they were through the forest and galloping across the plains toward the front gate of Eversea. Slowly, Sarren let herself down again.
A deep chill was settling in her stomach, the kind of chill that settled deep inside her, the kind of chill that the earth had warned her about. That was the sign that it was real, that whatever the feeling was about she had to act fast. Sarren started running after the horses. She could run for hours but at this pace she was short of breath in no time. Easily, she navigated the terrain, knowing every scoop and hill of it, but she was still too slow. When the riders were entering through the city gate they looked like tiny figures to Sarren. She slowed to a stop, her hands on her knees, her breath giving her trouble. Whatever the feeling had been for she couldn’t act on it.
Now a new urge overtook her, not something that the wind warned her of or the earth trembled about, just common sense. Get away from the gate, don’t let anyone see you. She turned and forced herself to jog until she’d crossed the tree line again.
Sarren lived away from the city, away from people. In the thickest part of the forest that was rarely traveled she’d built herself a small house hidden in the bows of two willow trees. A wide creek ran past it and along its shores she could find many edible plants and not too far away were bushes and bushes of berries. In the creek she could easily catch fish and sometimes she even shot a squirrel with the bow and arrows she’d made but other than that she had no mind for hunting. It tormented her, as being locked behind city walls, her feet pressed against nothing but cobbled stones, tormented her. Whenever she killed a fish or a squirrel her heart would stop as well, just for a moment, as if in pity. The light in the creature would go out, extinguishing so abruptly that it shocked her every time. Sarren could feel it, the life of someone, the life of everything. From a speck of dirt to towering bears. She’d rather not be the cause of it going out but plants and berries could not sustain a fifteen year old girl.
That night she stood outside for a moment, closed her eyes and simply stopped. Instantly her mind leapt from her, feeling everything, how the stream moved, how that tree swayed, the wind brushing her face ever so slightly as if in welcome. Sarren was not looking for these things right now, not here to simply be. She sharpened her mind so only the animals jumped forward. The scratch of claws on bark as a squirrel scurried up a tree, the flap of a bird’s wing, the wolf’s growl somewhere far off, but not the feeling of something dangerous, no bears and no humans. Sarren slowly opened her eyes, drawing the feeling with her until she was almost just a girl. Turning away, she pushed open her wooden door and settled near the fireplace in the middle of the tiny house. The smoke would not be seen here. She cooked fish, flavoured with the plants that grew along the stream. Once hunger was no longer a problem Sarren settled herself on the ground, pulling a warm bunch of moss she’d knotted together long ago over her. It was as good as any thick blanket if maybe a little too short now. Sarren promised herself to find more tomorrow as she drifted off to sleep.
Drums echoed in Sarren’s ear as she slept, but her brow furrowed because this wasn’t rhythmic at all. It was a clattering, as if a bunch of toddlers had gotten hold of some sticks. She frowned because the sound was only in the ear pressed against the cool earth. Sarren’s eyes snapped open. Riders. She jumped to her feet, grabbed a bucket of water and extinguished the fire, fretting over the bunches of steam that rose up in its place. She secured the door though it would make little difference if someone wanted to get in and waited. They couldn’t see her, she had to believe it. The willows covered the house and it was nighttime. In order to find her they had to be looking for her and even then it was hard…but the hoof beats were getting closer. Sarren crouched in a back corner, pressed against two walls, her arms wrapped around her legs, her eyes squeezed shut. She suddenly had a terrible feeling again, one that told her to run and run and never come back. The riders were very close now, if she ran she’d be seen. Instead Sarren forced herself to relax. The world sprang into a new focus and she ran toward the sound of the galloping horses. She spoke to them, not with words, but with feelings. Pushing and nudging at the horses until they began to run the other way, make a new path to wherever these riders were going. As Sarren withdrew shouts met her ears and then the terrible sound of a whip. Sarren’s stomach churned at what the horses were going through now but it was better than what she’d have to go through if she were caught, and they’d never put down a perfectly good horse.
That’s when Sarren heard the crunch of dirt under a boot. Her eyes sprung open and she watched fearfully, her heart pounding and her breath short, as a shadow showed between the crack in the door and the wall. Someone had gotten off their horse and she’d missed it. The door creaked slightly open and she pressed herself tighter into the corner. Maybe he’d think it was empty. The figure had to stoop as he entered and terrifyingly this directed his gaze right at Sarren. She knew she was caught but she didn’t dare move. It was the problem all the hunted had, stay still and hope they haven’t been seen, or to run and risk the chase. Unfortunately, Sarren could tell by the look on the man’s face that she’d been caught. It wasn’t a surprised look. It was a look that said ‘I won’. His mouth formed a smile that sent shivers down Sarren’s spine and she hugged her knees closer, her eyes wide as she watched the man straighten.
The man took a horn from his belt and blew into it three times, blasting the air with sharp, cold, music. It was enough. Sarren jumped up and tried to get past him, dashing for the door but the man extended an arm and caught her, pulling her close and holding her struggling form. Sarren kicked and screamed and even bit his arm but nothing she did made him do anything apart from squeeze harder. Then the horses were back, pulling up around Sarren’s home and she was being forced outside. Sarren threw her head back and let out an animal cry that was ripped from her heart, from her soul, and let it shatter the night, waking all the creatures into a chorus of noise. The birds screeched instead of singing, squirrels chattered, bears growled, the creek gurgled, backing itself up, slight tremors shivered the ground and it appeared that even the trees were bending to protect their Sarren, to ward off the danger.
The men quickly had her sitting in a saddle, her hands tied to the knob at the front and a man behind her, taking the reigns. The air was getting hot and muggy and the riders looked at each other, trying not to show fear but obviously failing. They rode. Fast and strong, faster than they had ever rode in their lives. And the forest gave chase. The creek threw itself over its banks, the birds and other small creatures gave chase, bears lumbered toward them, greatening the riders’ fear with their growls, the night grew ever hotter until it seemed they were in fire, yet Sarren was unaffected. She let loose another wild scream, a call to nature itself. Yet the gate was very close and the tangling grass was doing little to slow the horses. Sarren could see the gate being pulled open, up into the giant stone wall that surrounded the city. She knew she was lost, that nature hadn’t done any more than speed the horses’ hooves with fear. So she craned her neck to look back at the bending trees and the flocks of birds and the flickering of fire here and there and a soft, high note sang from her, a note of submission. Suddenly the trees righted themselves, the night cooled, fire went out, birds retreated and the stream resumed its usual course, but it was all saddened. The forest had lost Sarren, had lost one that understood everything in it. As Sarren righted herself, forcing her spine straight and her head high one final note called out to the night. A wolf howling a cry that broke the heart of the forest.
Sarren felt it immediately when she entered the city of Eversea. The lifelessness of it, the cold, darkness of the city. She tried to convince herself that it was just the fact that it was night, that everyone was sleeping, that no one was here to see a girl from the wild be hauled up and up through the winding streets to the castle that crowned it. Sarren was thrown down stairs and through doors and finally into a small cell. Two of the walls were made of stone but to the left and in front of Sarren the walls were bars. She immediately tried to squeeze through but once her head hit the bars she knew there was no getting through.
There was a small window in the next cell and the moonlight that shone from it rested on a small boy with wide brown eyes. He’d been watching Sarren since she’d come down the stone stairs. Sarren considered him a moment, as the only human she’d considered talking to for years. She wasn’t exactly sure she knew how to talk. Scooting closer, Sarren held out her hand, sticking it through the bars. The boy pondered her a moment before putting his in it. Sarren turned it over, examining the skin. It was not as dark as hers and as she rubbed it the hand became lighter. It was covered in dirt, just as hers was. She looked up at the boy and saw that every part of him, his skin, his clothes, his matted hair was covered in dirt. Just as hers was. Sarren smiled, sensing the boy’s strong life. She held out her hand to him and, after a moment of studying her, the boy took it, rubbing off some of the dirt there too. Then he smiled because they both sensed they were now friends.
As the night went on the two sat across from each other, simply looking, neither saying a thing. If they’d tried maybe they would have been able to but Sarren’s skills in communication by language were seriously doubted. Then day came, lighting the cell for a moment as dawn came and then the sunlight was blocked by a tree, a wall, another building, whatever was outside that high window. Sarren looked up at it longingly and the boy followed her gaze. At last he had to ask her something.
“Why are you here?”
Sarren’s eyes snapped back down to his. She’d barely understood him. As the boy repeated his question Sarren allowed herself to summon that tendril of power, of feeling from deep inside herself and sense what he wanted. She sensed the English language.
“I’m different.” She told the boy. “They want to know why.”
Her eyes turned again to the window, drawn by the sunlight and the temptation of freedom.
“I’m a thief.” The boy told her. “My name is Eto.”
Sarren smiled and told him her name, her eyes still on the window.
“Can you feel it?” She asked him.
Eto was about to ask her what she meant but the door at the top of the stairs suddenly banged open, hitting the stone wall hard. He immediately shot across his cell, folding himself into the corner of his cell where the shadows were thickest.
Two men came down the stairs and stopped before Sarren’s cell. She stood up quickly, glaring at them. Smiling in that way that was obvious they were trying to hide their fear, they opened the cell and took hold of Sarren’s arms, leading her out and up. Down some corridors, they eventually entered a small hall. It seemed that it was usually full of people but now only a few occupied it. Three tall, strong men, stood next to a throne, emanating command and violence. Sarren recognized them as the riders she had failed to stop yesterday and her lip pushed out in a pout as she realized what had been so important about that feeling. A fourth man stood slightly apart from them, smaller and slighter, his straight hair slightly messy and his hands wringing each other. Sarren smiled at him but he didn’t seem to be concentrating enough to notice. A fifth man was sitting on the throne, lazily thrown back in it but still holding himself upright, regal. Sarren didn’t like him at all. The man had that feeling, of too much power, of cruelty. He looked at Sarren like a prize, like he’d just won something great. Nodding for the guards to release her, he beckoned her closer and Sarren walked a few steps but still he beckoned her closer so she walked until she was just a foot away from him. The man on the throne took his time studying her, his eyes moving up and down in a way that made her skin crawl.
“Do you know what you are?” Even when he spoke quietly his voice seemed to fill the hall.
“Me.” Sarren replied, tripping slightly over speech. “I am me.”
The man smiled like he found this amusing.
“Yes.” He drawled. “You are, aren’t you?”
“Should I bow?” Sarren asked abruptly, her words holding the crispness of someone trying to use them properly. “I think it is a courtesy here, to bow to someone with more wealth than you.”
“If you like.” The man on the throne waved his hand, welcoming it with a slight laugh.
Sarren gave a small bow and when she righted she could see how it affected the man, having someone bow to him. He must get it all the time but even now, being bowed to by a small, dirty girl, it lit his eyes with greed. Sarren cast a sly glance at the three warlike men, seeing their hard faces and their own small amount of greed. Then she looked at the slighter man and saw that his brow was pinched, his hands no longer wringing. He was studying Sarren with a frown. Sarren smiled at him again and this time his eyebrows rose.
“Now I want to know why I am here.” Sarren said, “why I was kidnapped in the middle of the night, stolen from my home.”
Now the man on the throne stood and suddenly Sarren was looking at his shoulder an inch away from her nose. She didn’t take a step back, maybe because it was a sign of weakness, maybe because she felt like she wanted to get in this man’s way. Instead she kept her eyes on that shoulder.
“Have you heard any rumors of the forest just outside this city’s walls?” The man asked, circling her.
Sarren addressed the empty throne.
“I’m afraid rumors don’t reach me, seeing as I live in the forest.”
“People say a witch lives in the forest. Nonsense if you ask me, but I believe there is something special about someone that lives in the forest.”
“Whoever could that be?” Sarren asked, her head tilting slightly, her eyes rolling upward.
The man stopped just on her left, facing her, not even glancing at the other men.
“I don’t like games.” He said harshly. “And I see that you are good at them. So let’s stop these riddles of words and get to the point.”
Sarren turned to face him, which meant looking several inches up.
“These men,” He jerked his head at the three that surrounded the throne. “Are my war advisors, some of the finest, and the other man is a philosopher. I am Lord Ander and I have something to request of you.”
Sarren waited patiently and she saw how it got to him that she showed no signs of being impressed by his status.
“You have powers, correct, you can control the earth, the rain, nature itself?”
“It seems only right, Lord Ander, that since you gave me your name I should give you mine. I am Sarren. Where you live in a castle I live in a forest. Where you have war advisors and philosophers I have trees and animals. Where you have guards that kidnap potentially powerful and dangerous people in the middle of the night I have intellect.”
Sarren fixed him with a gaze that she fixed wolves with when they threatened coming too close to her home.
“You seem to think that nature can be controlled, but what you have missed is the fact that nature is uncontrollable.”
Lord Ander smiled briefly, obviously annoyed by Sarren’s words, words that she wasn’t sure she’d known a few hours ago.
“But it is controllable, my guards saw it. So I ask you to stop lying, Sarren, and to grant me this request because these lands, this civilization, must be protected and spread, the people that threaten it wiped out!” Lord Ander fixed Sarren with his own dangerous gaze, his dark eyes warning her of the consequences of denying his request. “I want you to have nature fight on our side.”
Sarren stood, surprise churning in her and something else, something she didn’t want to feel. Hate. Her lips rose in a sneer.
“No.” She hissed.
Immediately one of the guards held a sword to her throat from behind, blocking escape with his body.
“I have researched many myths and legends before calling on you, Sarren. You can’t stand it in here, can you? The moment you entered the city you felt the absence of life, of earth, of freedom. So I ask you to make nature help me and you will get freedom back, if not…” He let the threat hang there, having Sarren’s imagination fill in the rest.
“Nature doesn’t choose sides.” She hissed.
“Oh, it does.” Lord Ander grinned. “It chose sides when it tried to protect you.”
Sarren was thrown in a box. A metal box that the top could slide off of. They’d left it slightly open so she could breath but she couldn’t move it. There was enough space to turn on the spot while sitting down. Apparently Lord Ander had had it specially made for her, incase she had refused his command.
Sarren’s heart was closing, her soul shrinking. She was panicking, her hands banging on the sides of the box again and again but it only filled the box with a dull ring. She couldn’t feel anything, no life, no warmth, nothing. Her breath came fast, a thousand times louder in the small space. What seemed like hours later someone pushed the lid farther open and peered inside. It was one of the war men.
“Have you reconsidered?” He asked. “Or do you need until tomorrow?”
“You’re killing me!” She screamed and he slammed the lid shut, leaving Sarren with her echoes.
They were too, killing her. She was cut off from everything, the dirt on her skin all that was left of her freedom. If she couldn’t feel the world she crumpled inside. She fed from the earth as the earth fed from her so they tried to protect each other and it seemed that each one was failing. Tomorrow came slowly and when someone finally opened the lid it was the philosopher.
“Are you really dying?” He asked, seeming genuinely worried.
“Yes.” She replied with a voice quaking in anger.
The philosopher was shoved aside, replaced by Lord Ander.
“Have you reconsidered?”
Sarren tried to punch his nose but he slid the lid shut again so all Sarren did was hurt her knuckles.
The next day the same thing happened but Sarren put away thoughts of hunger and thirst and cramping muscles and even the feel of death to deny Lord Ander again. She thought of all the things he’d probably done to people. Ripping them apart, beheading, hanging, chopping off hands and fingers. Sarren would rather that he just chop a hand off because when she was in that box she couldn’t believe there was a world out there and she knew that if she didn’t get out in a few hours and meet the earth again she would die, her soul crippled and broken. Finally on the third day her mind had changed.
“Will you submit?” Lord Ander demanded and finally Sarren nodded her head, her face hard and sad.
The whole top of the box was off and she was helped out.
“I need to be outside.” She managed in a whisper before collapsing.
The philosopher and two guards helped her out into a garden. She told them to be quiet and collapsed onto the grass. The whole front of her pressed against the warm earth, the blades of grass tickling her skin and the sun warming her back. She took hours to simply close her eyes and feel. Without any sense but that inside of her, she viewed the world. Suddenly there was life again, brimming through everything. Though it was muted and dull inside Eversea’s walls, it was there. Sarren smiled as a bird beat its wings high above them. Tentatively, the philosopher approached and just as he was about to place his hand on Sarren’s back, she rolled out of the way and into a standing position, looking at him blankly.
“You’re sorry.” She said and he nodded.
Sarren glanced at the two guards muttering off to the side. If Sarren and the philosopher whispered they wouldn’t be heard.
“You have to know that what Lord Ander asks is impossible.” She said quietly. “I am but a part of nature, not its mind.”
The philosopher stared at her a moment before speaking.
“How do you…how are you…”
“How do I speak with the trees?” Sarren smiled. “Give me your hand.”
Quickly the philosopher held his hand out and Sarren took it in hers, looking at the palm and the fingers and the small lines on the back. She pressed her palm to his and closed her eyes.
“Calm.” She whispered to him and when he’d relaxed enough she extended herself into the earth, through the soles of her feet and into the roots of the grass, off the trees, into the soil. The philosopher came with her and felt all the creatures there and in the air, too. The birds’ happy lives and the leaves that were carried on the wind. Then he was released and back inside his own body, his hand at his side and his heart aching at not being able to understand all that.
“I could teach you.” Sarren told him seriously. “If you helped me escape, but you must know that once you are a part of nature you would never be able to walk into a place like this again and stay there. Even now I am still wasting away, though my feet are pressed to the world.”
“I think that if I understood all that, if I…It’s indescribable, Sarren, but I think I would love it. You would let me come with you?”
“Of course.” She smiled and then frowned. “But I want someone else too. Eto, a thief in the cells. I think he’d like it too.”
So the philosopher, under the pretext of gathering information from the still healing girl in the garden, began to plan. Eto had been caught before and this time it was death for him so they had to move fast, before tomorrow.
At night the philosopher made sure that he accompanied Sarren back to her cell and, with regret, banged the guard that had come with them on the back of the head. Sarren winced but he was alive. She quickly took his keys and let a bewildered Eto out of his cell.
“Come quickly and quietly.” Sarren whispered and he did.
The two children followed the philosopher back up the stairs and they used servant passageways to navigate to the front door. This was the tricky part. On the other side of the rather large wooden slabs were guards, four just there and twenty archers patrolling the balustrade. Their entire plan rested on a single, flimsy lie. If they were caught it would mean death to Eto and the philosopher and a fate much worse for Sarren.
Sarren and Eto trailing at the heals of the philosopher, the man pushed open a door and lead them outside. Immediately four guards had their swords drawn and the philosopher quickly pulled a letter form inside his cloak.
“We’re meant to be allowed into the yard.” He explained quickly. “Lord Ander has a task for Sarren and this boy.”
The guards doubtfully leaned over the letter and began discussing the seal stamped at the bottom. It had taken but seconds for the philosopher to slip into Lord Ander’s office, use the stamp, and slip out, though he’d almost been caught. Whatever doubt remained the philosopher was too well respected to be questioned at length and the guards let the three of them pass, watching them warily as they set themselves up on the lawn.
Sarren could see the front gate that would lead them off of the castle grounds and into the town and visualized the path that would take her straight back to the forest. Yet they had to wait. Acting as if they were doing something important that required all of their attention, the philosopher, Eto and Sarren made whispered comments, being sure they carried on the wind to the guards.
Sarren’s mind was not on the comments, not on the charade. Her toes were wiggling, burying themselves in the soil beneath the grass. Slowly, piece by piece her hair was being lifted, tested by the wind. Nature was recognizing her and listening.
The guards began to relax and finally they were no longer paying attention. Sarren and the other two began to drift toward the gate and right when they thought they’d be caught they ran. They dashed through it were heading down the path quickly, their feet flying. Behind them came the sound of chasers. The guards were after them, their swords at their hips. The ground lurched. Beneath the cobbled, man made roads dirt and rock shifted, throwing itself up for one moment in a movement that threw the attackers off their feet and away and cracked the foundations of houses.
“Keep running!” Sarren cried to her friends.
They were lagging behind her, the philosopher especially. As the sound of clattering hoof beats from one of the mounted guards that patrolled the city echoed in Sarren’s ears her heart sank. The gate to freedom was still minutes away and the philosopher and Eto were still behind. Risking a glance back, she saw the mounted guard trot out of a street and set his sight on the philosopher. Sarren froze, calling the others on. She locked her wide eyes with the horse and begged it to stop. Somewhere inside him the horse recognized Sarren, recognized the thing he shared with her, nature. He shied, whinnying and rising onto his back legs. The guard’s legs locked around the horse’s sides but as soon as the horse was back on the ground he leapt off and pursued the group on foot, drawing his sword.
Just before Sarren turned to run she saw the guard gain on the philosopher and her friend stumble, just enough for the guard to get close enough to sink his sword through him. Sarren’s heart stuttered, her vision momentarily going black as she saw this vibrant life suddenly gone, quicker than a candle.
“Sarren!” Eto called and she forced her legs to move.
No one was after them now and when they reached the front gate they catapulted through it, leaving the guards confused as to what had just happened. They flew across the field toward the bowing trees, the rushing creek, the twittering birds and the gleefully barking wolves.
The next day they traveled long as well as the next and the next until they found a new place to build. Eto became as attached to nature as Sarren was and soon it pained him just as much as her to walk into a city. They stayed together, friends with nature, understanding that control wasn’t won with violence or bribery as Lord Ander had hoped, but with friendship.