It hurts their eyes after being trapped in the darkness for so long. Many of the group moves slowly out of the darkness, covering their eyes with their hands. As the light becomes bearable and their vision clears, the group gasps at the sight before them.
The cave exits from the side of a mountain, but a short climb down leads to a small field of tall, green grass. At the opposite end of the field from the cave, a wall of trees leads into an immense forest stretching beyond the horizon.
Meah is reminded of her village surrounded by trees, but the trees of this forest are different. Even from a distance the forest feels old and the magic hidden in it vibrates through their bones.
“The Forest of Spirits,” Jaxon announces, staring at the amazing sight with wide eyes.
The group carefully begins their descent, taking extra care on the rocky terrain. The tall grass of the field feels strange against their skin, but it’s a pleasant feeling. Excitement fills each member and they celebrate their escape from the dark caves. They walk quickly towards the trees, eventually breaking into a gleeful run. The warmth of the sun and the feel of the wind on their skin fill their spirits. Their cheers and whoops of joy tear through the field.
Meah grabs Ime’s hand and he looks at her. The relief in their eyes makes them smile and they join in the excitement, running for the trees. Tanith leaps through the grass chasing small animals startled by the sudden rush of people. She falls to the ground and rolls in the grass, cooing happily. Daniil and Kylii laugh and race each other to the forest, leaping over any obstacle in their way.
Jaxon follows, moving noticeably slower than the rest of the group, finally allowing his exhaustion and the pain of his wounds to show. Bruer and Fleance move to either side and help him towards the forest. He looks from one man to the other, but none speak. A wave of emotion flows across Jaxon’s face. Bruer and Fleance don’t need to speak. Their loyalties are clear.
The forest trees rise high above the ground, creating a stunning natural wall cutting across the field, clearly marking the forest’s beginning. As soon as the group enters passing through the line of trees, a new sensation washes over them. The feeling of ancient magic fills them, but it is a calming feeling, a welcoming feeling.
Giant birds fly through the air and their songs are beautiful to the ears of the group moving across the forest floor. The trees are spread apart enough to allow sunlight to reach the earth below allowing flowers and other plants to grow around their mighty trunks, which are large around. No hands of man have made their marks in this great forest.
The group runs through the trees until they reach a large clearing with a stream cutting through the trees. Gathering together, the group collapses, one by one, on the grassy forest bed. Tears of joy and panting breaths mix with laughter.
Bruer and Fleance set Jaxon down on the soft earth before joining him. Jaxon’s breath is short and his eyes go in and out of focus. “We’ll rest here. Tomorrow, we continue further into the forest. The canyon we seek is beyond these trees.”
Even before he finishes speaking, many in the group have fallen asleep. The other follow suite, the sounds of the forest a perfect lullaby. Bruer and Fleance alternate between resting and staying awake to ensure none of the flesh carvers dared to follow them, moving to the back of the group.
As Fleance begins his first round keeping watch, Mava Eene joins him. She brings him water and stands with him. Eventually, both fall asleep, Fleance forgetting to wake Bruer for his round of watching, but no one notices.
Meah wakes from a short nap and sees Jaxon has moved away from the group and propped himself against a tree. The sun is beginning its move behind the mountains and the dark of night begins. Meah carefully moves away from Ime’s still figure and walks to Jaxon. She kneels and takes a look at his injuries.
“Is it all right for me to heal you now?”
Jaxon laughs and rolls his head to the side to look at her, dark bags under his eyes. His skin is pale and dried blood on his head is more noticeable. “If I say no you won’t leave me alone, will you?”
“I’ll wake Bruer and have him hold you down.”
“He would, too. All right, heal me.”
Meah places her hands on Jaxon’s leg wounds. “You should sleep, too,” she says, without looking up.
Jaxon winces. “I have been.”
She looks up at him, her eyes locked onto the dark circles under his eyes. “You’re lying.”
He shrugs, his eyes focusing ahead of him on a distant memory. “Old habits are hard to break. Plus, these wounds don’t quite lull me into a peaceful sleep.”
Meah finishes his leg wounds and moves to the wounds on his arms. “You don’t have to be the watchful protector. There is no one here who wants to attack us. We’re safe.”
“This forest is full of old magic. These trees are older than most of those mountains.” He nods his head in the direction they had come from. “There are things in this forest no man has ever seen.”
“But none of it is going to hurt us. You need to sleep. Especially to regain your strength from your magic. You’ve been ready to pass out for hours.” She places her hands on either side of Jaxon’s face and closes her eyes. “Why didn’t you at least let me heal your head wounds?”
The surprise in Jaxon’s eyes quickly fades. “I guess I shouldn’t be that shocked you noticed.”
“I didn’t need my magic to tell me.” She furrows her brows. “Though it frightens me to know you would hide these from me. There’s internal bleeding. If you waited any longer…”
“I could have died. In fact, you’re thinking, I should have already been dead.”
She finishes healing Jaxon’s wounds and leans back on her heels, opening her eyes. “You knew? How did the bleeding not spread?”
“An addition to my blue flame magic is being able to slow a bleeding wound for a short time. It’s not as powerful as other healing magic, but it’s saved my life more than once.”
Anger rushes blood to Meah’s face and she glares at him. “It wouldn’t have saved your life this time if I wasn’t here.”
A smile spreads slowly on his face, one Meah hasn’t seen on Jaxon’s face before and it cools her anger. “I knew you would be able to save me.”
The blush on Meah’s face brings tears to her eyes. “I don’t want to see you almost die in front of me again. Promise me you won’t do this ever again.”
Meah wipes the tears from her face and takes a deep breath. “Can I see your fire? If you aren’t too exhausted?”
Jaxon raises his hand and a small blue flame dances on his palm. He watches it with half lidded eyes. “I haven’t used my magic in front of others in so long. Even when I thought I was alone and out of sight I wouldn’t use it. I knew if anyone in my caravan discovered it they wouldn’t hesitate to throw me to the Arena.”
Meah looks at Fleance and Bruer who are both sleeping against the same tree. Their weapons on their laps, ready to be taken up quickly, but the peaceful looks on their faces prove they are in a deep sleep. Mava is next to Fleance, her head resting on his armored shoulder.
“Bruer and Fleance don’t seem to be treating you any differently.”
Jaxon’s eyes slowly move to his men. “If they’d been given the chance they would have given me up. I wouldn’t have blamed them either. We do what we must to survive.”
“Or they would have kept it a secret. They respect you for the man not the magic user.”
“Maybe…” Jaxon stares at Meah, curiously. “Do you know why I chose Fleance to watch over you in the caravan?”
“You had a reason?”
“I have reasons for everything I do. I chose Fleance because I knew he would never hurt you. He’s a good man. He joined my caravan shortly after Bruer became my second in command. He never tried to impress me or try to take over. He would do as I asked without complaint or questioning. Except for one time. I ordered him to punish one of the slaves who continuously gave us trouble. He refused.”
“Did you punish him?”
“No. I asked him why and he told me he would not become like the others in the caravan who found enjoyment in being cruel. He told me the slave was only doing what any man would do. I asked him if he thought I found enjoyment in being cruel and he responded, “You do what is necessary to keep the others from viewing you as weak, but I can see in your eyes you hate this life as much as I do.” I accepted his refusal, but warned him that if the slave in question did anything that put the caravan at risk he would be responsible for the man.”
“And did something happen?” Meah asks, enthralled in the story.
“The slave killed another slave in a fit of rage. He threatened to kill more slaves unless we released him. Of course, I wasn’t going to risk my entire load on a crazy man. We released him and I sent Fleance after the slave in secret. He came back with the man’s head and I asked if he regretted killing him. He told me the slave had become one of the men he abhorred and from then on he stayed with my caravan, returning to the one who followed orders without question or complaint. Though I made sure it fell within his line of belief.”
“You chose him to watch over me because he was the only one you trusted to watch me, besides Bruer.”
“Well, Bruer didn’t want anything to do with you at first. He thought you were turning me soft,” Jaxon says, smiling. “He thought you would change me.”
Meah stares into Jaxon’s blue eyes. Her mind flashes back to her village when she had first met Jaxon. He had only been the man in black armor, the one who had ordered Elder Mircien’s death. “Have I changed you?”
“Bruer has always been the only man who could ever read me, other than Elder Pu’ah.”
Meah starts standing, ready to walk back to where Ime is sleeping. She hesitates, biting her bottom lip. “Promise me you’ll sleep.”
Jaxon doesn’t answer her, but she doesn’t wait for one. She can see it in his droopy eyelids that he will.
She walks back to where Ime is and lies down next him. She presses her back against his and takes a deep breath. He rolls over and places an arm around her, pulling her close to him.
“I trust him completely,” he whispers in her ear.
A smile spreads across her face and she scoots close to him, feeling his warmth surround her. They fall into a deep, peaceful sleep, free of the nightmares from the dark.