"Aria! Put on some clothes and get out here right now!" my Guardian's voice exclaimed, snatching me from my sleep. Warm, rough, controlling hands grabbed at my ankles and pulled, wrenching me out from the comfort of my woolen bed. I forced my eyes open, fighting off sleep, as the light from a burning torch stabbed at my pupils.
"What? What is it?" I asked groggily.
"We'll talk downstairs. Put on a warm tunic and hurry yourself up." His tone left no room for argument, and I begrudgingly stood up and stumbled to my closet. Grooge, my sworn Guardian from when I was just a baby girl, paced with wide eyes and shaky breaths. I peered at him quizzically, wondering what had him so nervous. Grooge never got nervous.
"Despite the fact that it is not yet dawn- and usually I am unable to form a coherent thought this early- I can't help but wonder what could be troubling you so much that you can't even look me in the eye?" I asked. He was my father, my protector, my hero, and my only friend. We'd been together through everything, and his apparent anxiety worried me.
"Aria, you need to hurry up. We have... guests in the house, and they aren't fond of waiting." I looked up from my drawer of tunics to see the urgent expression on his face. My brow cocked in confusion.
"Really? And who are these guests?"
Grooge sighed. "Aria, please trust me. You must get down there soon or they'll have to retrieve you themselves. It's bad enough that I had to beg them to let me come up here. I don't want them coming anywhere near you."
My brain started working, thinking of who could be down there that Grooge wouldn't tell me. I pulled my tunic on, some leggings, and my workboots before rushing out the door behind him.
Entering the foyer, I was met with four knights: Eriadoc, Sterling, Metrit, and Barook. I immediately recognized them as the knights whom so many town women adored. Eriadoc, the young knight who wasn't much older than I was, had dark ebony hair and a razor-sharp jawline. He stood tall and confident, with an ease to his stride and a smirk that meant he was used to girls fawning over him. Sterling, the older one who had eyes that seemed too perceptive for his own good, had golden hair that was slicked back so harshly that his hairline must have been pulled backward as well. He was also tall, but with broader shoulders and bulkier arms. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back. Metrit, the man whose hair was a much more bright and shining gold than Sterling's, had a scowl firmly planted on his pale face already. They were all pale-skinned, except for Barook, the knight who was rumored to have killed five men with one strike and answered only to the king. He was the most formidable of them all, with bulging arms and exceptionally broad shoulders- it was as if he were made to be a fighter. His gaze was dark and shadowed, as was his face, making me skirt away from his eyes. I then cursed myself for being scared, and turned my head to face them full on, ignoring the creeping bit of fright that was brewing in my stomach.
These four knights were the most dangerous and cunning I'd seen with my own eyes, and it was beyond me why they would all show up at my house. I exchanged strained nods with each of them, before I was ordered to take a seat and Grooge was ordered to stand by the couch.
Sterling was the first to speak to me, and did so in a condescending voice. "Aria, you are a fine young woman. How do you do this morning?" He smiled tight-lipped.
"Fine, thank you," I replied, struggling to sound polite while my mind scowled at his tone. Instead, I let my eyes take in the sight of the four famous men of the town, and was confused as I saw that they looked rather prissy and patronizing. Are these the same knights whom so many women my age fawn over? I struggled to fit the men they'd described with the men actually in front of me. Sure, I suppose they're... not ugly... But Sterling's attitude isn't quite helping. My eyes locked with his, and I'm sure my thoughts were written on my face. I cleared my throat. Stop being finicky, Aria. These are righteous people, and they're your guests. I strained to keep my voice respectful as I said, "May I ask why you four knights have presented yourselves so early in the day?" Immediately, I winced when I realized that my choice of words wasn't very smart. Grooge hissed at me, and gave me a watch your mouth look. I paused, before looking back at them blankly. I hope that went unnoticed.
My hope crashed when Sterling sneered at me. He turned his lips up and laughed scornfully, scaring me a bit. "Why, we were drawn to you, Aria," he said. "Do you not feel your spirit?"
"Feel my spirit?" I repeated, confused. What is this perverted knight talking about? I glanced at Grooge to look for some kind of clue, but his face was now strangely blank. Even more confused, I turned back to the knights.
"I see that you have been misinformed," said Metrit, stepping closer to me. He glanced at Grooge. "Or shall I say, uninformed."
"Yes, it would seem that you are out of the loop, like all remotely attractive women are these days," Sterling added with a grin. Metrit started to laugh, bringing a disgusted expression to my face.
I recoiled at his words, and struggled not to snap back at him. If I did, I knew I would regret it later. Well, the ladies in town square never said that the knights were so revolting. Where are their enchanted smiles? Or their charming voices?
"But what is it that I don't know about?" I said impatiently. Beginning to lose control over my irritation, I narrowed my eyes at each of them. They all began to smirk. "What?" Sterling caught my eye and winked, just barely, but enough to make my skin crawl. Don't look at me like that. It's horribly revolting, I thought, wishing I could scream the words in his face. Glancing at each of their swords warily, I wondered how I could tell them to leave without angering them. The knights all seemed much too interested in me, as shown in their pointed stares and close proximity. I suddenly wished that my muscles were more capable to fight than just turn soil.
"You have quite the hasty attitude, Lady Aria," said Metrit. I scowled. "Oh, I have forgotten; you are not a lady. You are a commoner, correct?" My hands clenched into fists as I desperately tried to keep in my anger. His eyes gleamed contemptuously. "Do we make you uncomfortable in your own little... quaint home?" His voice held not even the slightest hint of concern.
It took my best effort to ignore him and his childish taunts. "Why are you here? All of you? Do you not have business to attend to in the mornings?" No one spoke, just grinned at me and made faces at each other.
Fuming, I looked back to where Grooge was standing, and saw the intense look on his face. It was made clear by his expression that he wanted to cut in and defend me, or maybe throw the obnoxious men out of the house altogether. His eyes were locked on Metrit, Sterling, and Eriadoc, but in the shadows I caught Barook silently advancing towards him. I hadn't even noticed that he'd moved from behind the other knights. He watched Grooge with a hand on his sword, and the stealth of a cat about to pounce on its prey. Panicked, I turned to Grooge to warn him that Barook might attack him. But I caught myself just barely, once I realized that I couldn't just accuse a knight of wanting to attack my Guardian in front of three other knights. Silently pleading for Grooge to make eye contact with me, I bit my lip to keep from bursting. The men were now beginning to scare me.
"Why, this is the business we are attending to, Aria," Eriadoc said loudly, making my attention crawl to him. "It is a great deal more pleasant than our usual business, might I add."
I narrowed my eyes at him, my lips twitching as I forced a smile. "And might I add that it is quite strange for all four of Sidhe's knights to come to my house at once, only to confuse me with their half conversations?"
Eriadoc's smirk faltered, and I saw a gleam of a predator in his eyes. My spine quivered in fright.
"Your confusion is most appealing to us," Sterling said, stepping closer as well. He sneered at me again, with the a look of sickening enjoyment. His eyes were fixed on me, and he seemed as though all he wanted to do was taunt me.
Something snapped in my mind. I was fed up with their disrespectful remarks and appalling comments on "my confusion." Well then. I stood up angrily. "First you barge into my house at an ungodly hour, tease me about something and not tell me what it is, and now come on to me with perverted admiration in what I believe to be an effort to distract me from Barook's advancements toward Grooge?" I exclaimed, all in one breath.
A heartbeat after I spoke, Grooge must have spotted Barook just as he lunged to attack him. I heard him take in a sharp breath and the rustle of his sleeves as he brought up his arms, while Barook's sword ringed as it was pulled from its sheath. Fear struck my spine cold when I saw that the rest of the knights' smirks had dropped, and were replaced by unbridled hatred. Eriadoc pounced on me with his sword unsheathed, and I couldn't breathe as his arms tackled me to the ground. His face was directly in front of mine, and I could see glowing orbs of a crimson color in his eyes. I had unfrozen just enough to shudder at the sight of them, and he chuckled.
"You dare disrespect me and my friends?" he asked in a deadly calm voice. I whimpered and looked away, catching the eyes of the other three knights. Oh, skies... Their eyes were glowing orbs too; Metrit's a startling green, Barook's a crystalline blue, and Sterling's a bright silver. I closed my eyes and refused to open them again. "Answer me!" Eriadoc shouted.
"Stop!" yelled Metrit. "Eriadoc! Release her, or you will only make it happen now!" What would happen? You would be killed of course. Metrit came up and touched Eriadoc's shoulder, but Eriadoc roared and he flinched back.
I prayed in my head, begging for forgiveness for all the mistakes I'd made and asking for a painless death. Wait a second, I thought, just as a moment of clarity came, am I praying? My brained clicked and suddenly I could think again, and I remembered that I didn't believe in prayer; I also remembered the very few self-defense moves Grooge had taught me over the years. Taking a deep breath, I wrenched my shoulder from underneath Eriadoc's hands, knocking him temporarily off balance. With my free hand, I palmed his other elbow and let him fall onto me. He landed hard, knocking the wind from my lungs, and once again I couldn't breathe. The sensation of my chest being flattened made me freeze up again, and Eriadoc simply righted himself and straddled my body instead. My abdomen hurt terribly, and I cried out in pain. With a heated glare and flaming eyes, he raised his sword to my chest. I locked eyes with him and I knew he could see my fear. He chuckled darkly. I could feel his sword about to embed itself in my heart, and feared what would happen after that.
But in an instant Eriadoc's breath was no longer blowing into my eyes, and I heard a frightening battle cry. My breath came out in a gasp.
I pried my eyes open and saw Grooge tackling Eriadoc to the ground, and then as the other knights rushed him, Grooge raised his palm to the ceiling and the Earth lifted up into a wall- right in the middle of my house. The air in my lungs left me. Grooge turned.
His eyes were a glowing, forest green.
I could barely grasp what it meant, before Grooge was hoisting me onto his back and sprinting out the back door. I absently held on to his arms like my life depended on them, clenching my teeth as Grooge's feet pounded against the ground with each heavy step. Being carried by someone who was sprinting was not a pleasurable experience at all; my head was jostled and I'd bitten my tongue several times before I thought to clamp my jaw shut. My eyes wandered around numbly, tears forming of their own account. It was tiring to keep a steady grip around Grooge's shoulders, but I repeated my mantra over and over in my head: Be strong and don't let go of your Guardian. I forced myself to breathe in and out, and not to dwell on the scene I'd just witnessed.
Grooge ran parallel to the pebble-ridden road that led from our house to the town square. He kept to the edge of the trees, remaining in the shadows. Since it was so early and the sun had just barely begun its ascent, there was enough darkness and cover to hide in. I had a feeling that Grooge's wall of earth wouldn't hold the knights back forever. Wall of earth. Red eyes. Grooge's eyes. Supernatural. Magic. Impossible. Trickery.
Stop thinking about it! I mentally berated my mind. Distract yourself. Distractions are good. Think about something else.
My gaze followed the trees passing by us. Spring was beginning to emerge from the sleeping blanket of winter, and little green and white buds formed on their spindly limbs. Though the temperature had only warmed very little, the thaw was beginning in the land as the ground defrosted and rivers started to run again. The soft rush of water somewhere in the forest was an accompaniment to the start of birds singing. I tried to spot them up in the trees. Then the sound of distant chatter reached my ears, and I turned toward the road. We'd come to town square, and just some distance away was the courtyard of merchants' stands. The morning crowd hadn't arrived yet, but a few merchants were already busy setting up their various wares and services to sell. Town square could hold twenty stands, give or take a few, and about one hundred people at a time. It had a gravel floor and there were restaurants surrounding it. My favorite restaurant was there: Scraps. It had the best roast chicken I'd ever tasted.
But then again, I had never been outside of Sidhe before, so I didn't have anything to compare it to. My lips turned down as I realized that I had never seen another town before; I was always at home, tending to the small farm and sometimes venturing to town square. Grooge was never one to take me places, and he was a firm believer that we had no business going to places outside of home. He raised as a firm believer in that too, I believed it with my soul.
That's what I told myself.
But deep inside, I knew that I wanted to see more of the land. I wanted to know what other forests and towns looked like. I wanted to see if the storytellers' tales were true, or how fake they were. I wanted to know all about people other than those in Sidhe. I wanted to know things. I wanted to see things. Like the knights did every day, I wanted to travel from town to town. Probably not as a knight, but I still wanted to travel. New things were always so fascinating for me.
But perhaps travel is not such a wonderful thing, if it makes people become like those knights. I frowned at the thought, but then other feelings rushed in. Panic. Fear. Fright.
Stop thinking about that!
When the town square was completely out of sight, Grooge turned to the left and ran straight into the forest. I heard his exhausted breathing and how with each step he grew weaker, and knew that we would soon have to stop. The trees continued to pass by, and twigs crunched periodically underneath Grooge's pounding feet. The soft forest floor was covered in grass, and small animals scurried away as they woke up for the morning. I watched the horizon as the sun finally crested, and the trees glowed in light from the sun at their backs. Grooge muttered something under his breath, and I shut my eyes securely. The jostling slowed down, and then I was being settled onto the cold ground. He grabbed my shoulders.
"Aria, snap out of it and look at me," Grooge said.
"No!" I screamed.
"Aria, I'm not going to hurt you, I just need to talk to you, and there's something very urgent that you need to know, because I care about you and I want you to be safe." He spoke all in a rush. "Open your eyes," Grooge pleaded.
I struggled to draw in a calming breath, terrified that if I opened my eyes, I would see Eriadoc's face in front of me instead of Grooge's. I couldn't forget his evil-looking eyes, that made his gaze all the more scary. I forced myself to gulp down air, and reluctantly... slowly... hesitantly... opened my eyes. Finding myself sitting on the forest floor, my body relaxed and an involuntary sigh escaped my lips. This was the forest. This was alright. I was comfortable here. I knew everything about the forest, whether it was searching for water, or picking a tree to climb and sleep in. Many times in my life had I slipped away into the endless expanse of nature all alone, just to center my mind and refresh myself. Grooge always let me, and I was thankful for that. Sometimes our house felt too small, and like it was going to close in on me. I loved to get out and breathe fresh air. My fingers automatically tangled themselves in the grass. Though I wasn't relaxed at all mentally and my heart still felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, I could at least breathe and move normally. I looked to the Guardian in front of me.
Grooge still possessed that glowing gaze, but it was no longer frightening.
"Thank you." He slumped in relief, and the familiar slouch of his shoulders calmed me slightly. I stared at him with a very overwhelmed expression, and he cleared his throat nervously. "Now Aria, I've not been entirely honest with you from the beginning." He looked back at me to gauge my reaction.
"Your eyes are glowing," I said, staring at them.
He sighed and looked down. "Yes, my eyes. They're probably glowing like the moon right now." He looked back at me. "This only happens when I Awaken my spirit."
It took a few moments before I stopped staring and actually looked at him. "What?" I said. I hadn't heard what he said.
He blinked several times, and looked down again. He spoke in a light tone of voice. "They are brilliant, aren't they? Are they a bright forest green that seems to capture the very essence of a tree?"
I started staring again. "Yes." They were dark green and deep, fading into a lush brown near the pupil. Lighter flecks of green appeared around the edges, brightening them up. I could've probably stared at them all day. "I've never seen them like this before."
He exhaled slowly. "No, you haven't. Because I've been very careful around you." Grooge briefly met my eyes, and they held an intensity that made the green color look like the pastels I'd seen on gowns in the dress shops. "I just couldn't bear to see that... that animal strangle you."
I broke from my trance. "Thank you, for doing what you did," I said. He looked at me closely. "But..." I played with my hands. "I don't understand. Why did they come?"
He let out a doleful laugh. "You see, that is a very difficult question to answer, for there could be many reasons. And I'm not sure which one it is." Grooge closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "I'll try to explain everything first."
I held my breath in wait. All at once I got a feeling that after hearing what he was about to say, my life would change. I wouldn't be the same person, I wouldn't think of Grooge as the same person, and my life in a house in the corner of a small town would end. Things will be different from now on, I thought to myself, scared at how sure I was that I was right. I started to tell him not to explain.
Suddenly, Grooge opened his eyes. "You are of the Art'un; only those who are Awakened may join."
I blew out a breath. Too late. "Awakened? You say that as if it means something."
"Yes. Awakened means something deeper, something within your being. Awakened means that your spirit has risen from your soul, to guide you for the rest of your life." He waited for my reaction.
I tried to understand his words. "My spirit? What does that mean?" It sounded like a bunch of religious junk that I'd never believed in.
"Your spirit is what you are connected with. For the Art'un, there are four possibilities: earth, water, fire-"
"-and air?" I asked, my brain finally working again.
He smiled. "Exactly." I leaned back and was struck with awe. "Now, the Art'un is not the only clan of Awakened. There is one other- the Ari. Their clan connects with three different spirits: stone, ash, and..." I strained to hear Grooge's voice, for it had dropped low and inaudible.
He gulped. "Shadows." His face looked pale, as if he were reliving a nightmare in his mind. I reached out and grasped his hand.
"It's okay," I whispered, before I even noticed that I had.
A few seconds later when he'd recovered, he said, "The Ari are not like us. They use their spirits for greed and power, enjoying the act of pushing others down so they can rise up." Suppressed anger brimmed in his eyes. "We use ours only when necessary. Even some who have Awakened choose not to wield their spirit once they become too old to handle the strain. I rarely ever use my spirit," said Grooge with a shrug.
"What do you mean by 'use my spirit'?" I asked. I stared into his face. When the realization hit me, I gasped and sat straight up. "Do you mean that you can manipulate that element?"
He nodded with a small smile. "Yes. For example, I can direct parts of the ground to go in certain directions, and sometimes even conjure plants with my hands." I gasped and hung onto his every word. "Those who connect with water can direct various amounts of water to go in certain directions, and even sometimes conjure a small amount of it from their hands if they're very powerful." I imagined creating rain from the tips of my fingers, and using it to water the farm instead of carrying buckets all the way from the well. "Those connected with fire can manipulate it, and again, some can create it from their hands, if they're very well-practiced. Those connected with wind can create wind easily, and have it gust at whatever speed they wish." My face lit up into a huge smile. What a wonderful spirit that must be in the summer, when it seems to be too humid for there to be wind.
"I saw you create that wall of earth. It was incredible," I said, trying hard to relieve the tension. I could tell he was still thinking about whatever memory had passed through his mind at the mention of the Ari. "You must be a king of the Art'un!"
He half-grinned, trying to hide his pride at my exclamation. "That was merely a taste of the extent of my powers." I oohed for his benefit. "But your connection with your spirit will far surpass any other."
I snorted. "I'm going to be stronger than you?" I asked, disbelieving but also bewildered.
Grooge nodded. "Oh yes; in fact, you will be stronger than the entire Art'un clan. Perhaps even the Ari." My eyes widened in shock.
"Me? The most powerful?" But how?
"My dear, that is your destiny. You were born the brightest of the Art'un. You are stronger, smarter, and braver than all the rest. You were appointed at birth to awaken at a young age, so that your spirit will grow with you on a stronger level. The power you have will guide you through what lies ahead. And let me assure you, Aria, many things lie ahead for you."