The caravan leaves the valley well before the sunrise. Although the river continues north, they cross a stone bridge over the rushing waters to head east. The valley’s slender trees mix with different, thicker ones. The thicker trees reach high above them and block out most of the sky. Even after the sun begins to rise, the forest is so dark that nocturnal animals continue their chorus.
Meah raises her head as the surrounding trees keep the sunlight at bay. She moves to the front of the carriage to escape the angry looks of those behind. The men patrolling the caravan pause to peer in at her. She avoids their gazes and looks out at the new forest in awe. The thick trees are darker in color with bark like fingers tracing long lines through the wood. The smell is new to her. She can almost feel the rough bark with each breath.
The rising sun finally reaches sufficient height for its rays to pierce the trees to reveal more and more of the forest floor. Strange plants cover the ground. Beautiful ferns grow vibrantly, oddly shaped flowers bloom at all heights from the earth or from the sides of the great trees. Sunlight is green, filtered by the leaves from above, giving the forest a dreamlike quality.
Strange beasts leap from tree to tree, using their long limbs to grab for branches as they soar through the air. Large beasts with mighty horns dash across the caravan’s path only to stop and watch it pass by from the safety of the surrounding brush. A bird lands inside the bars of the carriage and casts curious looks at Meah with its golden eyes. Its sleek body is pitch black with a long tail that curls up at the end. Meah reaches out her hand and feather rise on the bird’s head, displaying a beautiful shock of colors—red, blue, and green. As it flies away into the trees, Meah tries to follow its path but loses sight of it quickly.
Three days pass quickly. Meah watches the beautiful forest pass by the carriage with awe. Every hour provides strange new sights and sounds. She almost forgets she’s traveling to be sold as a slave until one of the men brings her daily bowl of water and pathetic amount of food. Every day the same man comes, probably assigned by Jaxon to keep an eye on her. When he slams the bowl and plate on the floor of her moving cell, she is forcibly reminded of the dozens of weaker slaves made to walk so she can ride. Through the nights she cries for them and for herself.
By the third day the trees are farther apart. With each passing hour the trees become fewer and the ground cover lowers. Eventually the trees stop and a great plain of tall, brown grass stretches before them. Wind blows the tall blades creating beautiful waves. Hills add to the wave effect, making the plains seem like a vast brown ocean rolling with each breeze. The forest fades behind the caravan, leaving only the plains in view on all sides. For two days there is nothing but the brown waves of grass. The few animals Meah spots are long, lean beasts. Their fur or scaled bodies are warm colors of tan and brown, making it easy for them to blend with the grass.
Green grass mixes with the brown on the morning of the sixth day. By midday the green grass has completely overtaken the brown. The hills are now lower and rarer. Solitary trees appear separated by great distances. The tops are flat and the bark twists into amazing shapes. One of these odd trees appears to be in a constant state of falling over. Immense herds of great beasts appear in the distance, appearing at first to be great stains on the earth. But she realizes the stains are moving, slowly. As the herds move, individual beasts stop to graze on the lush grass or, for taller beasts, leaves on the occasional tree. Meah spies birds landing on the backs of the beasts and fears for their safety only to be pleasantly surprised to see the beasts ignore them. The birds pick at bugs that land on the beasts and a few birds occasionally move beneath the animals obtaining shade as well as more bugs. Young animals hop around their parents or play together. One small animal hops onto its mother’s back while she is lying down only to be knocked over when the mother turns her head suddenly.
Meah tries to keep from being excited by all she is seeing, guilty for enjoying it while others suffer around her. But her dreams of seeing new lands and amazing beasts is coming to life around her, even if she must enjoy it from within a cage.
She finds herself smiling widely when Jaxon makes his way down the caravan to her. “Is it like anything you’ve imagined?” he asks. “I’m sure you’ve listened to many stories from travelers.” His eyes scan the great stretch of plains, stopping for a split second on each herd of beasts.
Meah erases the smile from her face and looks away from him and the amazing sights around her. “We don’t receive many travelers. Our village is too far for many to risk the journey, as you said.” Her eyes grow distant and she plays with the silk bracelet on her wrist. “But Elder Mircien would share stories his mother told him as a child. The many different kinds of lands, unimaginable beasts, sights that could only be imagined in dreams.”
Jaxon urges his epic closer to the carriage. “You may think of your valley as normal, but for me and my men it is strange and beautiful. The way you see this land is how we first viewed your own. Where we come from trees are sparse and barren and the ground is dry and cracked.” He leans forward on his saddle. “It isn’t shameful to be awed by the new even during times of hardship. You don’t have to hide your smile.”
“I don’t think it is appropriate for me to smile while the ones walking behind me are dying,” Meah says, turning away from him.
Jaxon looks back at those walking behind the carriage. He laughs and turns back to her. “Those who die on the way are lucky ones. They won’t have to face the Arena’s cruel practices. Don’t feel pity for them. Feel pity for the ones who survive this journey.”
Meah shakes her head slowly, her brow furrowed in confusion. “Do you feel nothing for those you capture?”
“No. If I did, I wouldn’t be very good at my work.” He kicks the sides of his epic and returns to the front of the caravan.
Meah watches him until he’s out of sight, then faces those walking behind the carriage. Their eyes are downcast. They don’t have the energy to look up and see the sights around them. Those few who do only enjoy it for a short time before the pain in their feet and bodies reminds them of their fate.
Jaxon peeks behind him to see Meah lie down in her cage. He smiles sadly.
“You shouldn’t become too close to that magic user, Jaxon,” Bruer Frig, Jaxon’s second in command, says.
Jaxon looks at the large, round man riding next to him. He has a thick blonde beard and dark brown eyes. His hair is pulled back into a short ponytail. Standing two heads above Jaxon, his muscles make the armor bands tight against his skin.
“I am not becoming close to anyone. She is a Rare Kind. She must be well cared for or we won’t receive the highest price we deserve,” Jaxon responds.
Bruer shrugs his great shoulders, the leather armor creaking at the strain of movement. “I know that. But these newer bastards you’ve rounded up won’t see it that way. They’ll see it as a sign of weakness and exploit it.”
“Do you see it as a sign of weakness? Would you exploit it?”
Bruer laughs and pats Jaxon on the back. “I know what you’d do to me if I did. I’d rather live to see my children again, if it’s all the same to you.”
Jaxon turns his head just enough for Meah’s carriage to enter his peripheral vision. If anyone were watching him they wouldn’t know where he is looking. “She is different than other Rare Kinds we’ve collected.”
“Maybe so, but she’s still only a child. She lived in a tiny village surrounded by non-magic users who more than likely treated her like a superior being or even a god. She’ll find the Arena to be a cruel and heartless place. I’ll be surprised if she survives her first game.”
“I have seen stranger things in the Arena.”