Birds sing loudly, their voices filling the forest with music. It’s a familiar sound to Meah and yet new. Different birds then those who used to wake her up back in Foula Valley, but the same kind of warmth fills her.
Opening her eyes, Meah is greeted with the sight of Ime’s peaceful, sleeping face. She can’t stop the smile spreading on her face. She carefully sits up, realizing quickly a blanket has been placed on her and Ime. She carefully moves out from under it without disturbing Ime and stands. Her eyes move across the clearing and she sees a gentle mist, already dissipating, flowing through the trees.
Dew shines on the grass and she can see most in the group have pulled out blankets to fight back the cool morning air. It is the first calm the group has had in days and they are taking full advantage of sleeping without fear of a sudden attack.
Meah spies Jaxon asleep, lying under a thick blanket, a few feet from the tree he had been propped against the night before. His armor is set next to him, as well as his weapons. His face is calm and relaxed with a small smile at the corner of his lips.
Standing close by Jaxon, Bruer keeps his eyes to the trees. Meah wonders if he was the one who placed the blanket on Jaxon and helped him out of his armor. She sees Fleance and Mava asleep with their arms around one another and Meah laughs to herself. She wonders if Rava is aware of her sister’s company.
Walking in the opposite direction of Jaxon and Bruer, Meah takes some water from the stream and splashes it on her face. She looks deep into the forest at the morning sun shining through the trees. The early morning mist, slowly dissipating as the temperature rises, creates an ethereal look to the forest.
Small animals scurry along the forest floor, searching for food and keeping close to the ground to stay out of sight of predators. Strange, larger animals, with antlers the color of ash, move slowly through the trees. Their long necks lower to the ground as they feed on the grass. The largest buck spies Meah staring at them and freezes, like a statue. The other animals continue moving forward and after realizing Meah poses no threat, the buck follows.
Meah waits until the group of beasts disappears among the trees before slowly standing. Sounds travel along the gently blowing breeze and she hears grunts and soft yells. She wades across the shallow water and into the forest.
The voices grow louder and she quickly moves behind a thick tree. She peeks around the trunk and catches Daniil and Kylii sparring. Their shirts are lying on the ground of the tree Meah is hiding behind.
Light sweat on the brothers’ chests reflects the morning sunlight as they pause between hits. Daniil grabs Kylii’s arm and twists it behind his back. At first glance, Daniil appears to overpower Kylii, but Kylii manages to maneuver out of the grasp and knock his brother to the ground. Without giving his brother enough time to recover, Kylii goes for the finishing blow, bringing his elbow down on Daniil’s stomach. At the last second, Daniil grabs Kylii’s arm and pulls against it, rolling his body closer to Kylii and out of the way of the strike. He then puts his feet on Kylii’s chest and rolls back, lifting Kylii in the air and throwing him onto his back.
They lay there, Kylii’s head at Daniil’s chest, panting. Small fits of laughter fill their chests and they look at each other, smiling.
“Kylii-li ojin ah nu,” Kylii pants, tapping his brother on the stomach with his left hand.
Daniil knocks his brother’s hand away, playfully. “Lulei sha, billa batter.”
“Lule? Oh, falla batter, bai doh nea lule ah notink to dama in.”
“Fine, fine. I was the one who got a lucky shot,” Daniil says, sitting up.
Kylii sits up and leans against his brother’s side. “So now it’s a draw. I won one, you won one.” He turns his head enough to lock eyes with his brother. A sly smile forms on his lips and his eyes shine with eagerness. “Atain?”
A pause before Daniil nods his head quickly. “Atain.”
They leap to their feet and move to opposite sides. Slowly circling each other they wait for the other to make the first move.
While the two are distracted, Meah moves to the front of the tree and sits to watch. A soft chirp to her right makes her jump. Tanith is lying on the ground next to her, her tail wrapped around her long body. Meah hadn’t even noticed the Khorgoi was present. She scoots closer to Tanith and strokes the hair behind Tanith’s horn. Tanith moves her head so that Meah scratches behind her ears.
A loud thump signals the end of the match and Kylii’s triumphant voice rings out. “Kylii-li im na vitor! Daniil-li lores to na billa batter!”
“Jei, jei, Kylii-li,” Daniil whimpers from the ground. He sits up, rubbing his neck and spots Meah. “Meah!”
Kylii’s excitement stops and he spins around. “How long have you been sitting there?”
“Since the deciding match began,” Meah smiles. “But I saw how Daniil won the previous match. It was very close.”
Kylii walks to his brother and helps him to his feet. “Were we being too loud?”
“No. Everyone else is still asleep. I only heard you because I was by the stream.” She slowly stands, using the tree to help her. “What language were you speaking just now? I’ve never heard it before.”
The two brothers look at each other and embarrassment turns their faces red. They quickly walk to where their shirts lay abandoned and get dressed.
“We made it up. It’s our special language between brothers. When we were little we created it in secret. After we were taken to the Arena it became the only way for us to feel normal for a while. We wouldn’t talk to anyone and only spoke in our language,” Daniil explains.
“Until Ime came along. Then we stopped and spoke normally,” Kylii says.
Meah bites her bottom lip. “I heard you speak it before. After we escaped the Arena and made it to Jaxon’s village.”
Tension tightens Kylii’s jaw and his eyes bore into Daniil’s face.
“So you heard our little argument,” Daniil says.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overhear, but I was worried about you two. I could tell there was something wrong and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything serious,” Meah speaks quickly.
Tanith appears next to Meah and nudges her hand with her snout. Her white eyes lock onto Daniil.
“Well, that’s good to know. It seems Tanith knew you were there and didn’t feel the need to tell me.” Daniil crosses his arms.
“Well, I guess it could have been worse. Could’ve been Ime,” Kylii groans. “And he wouldn’t have just listened. He probably would’ve yelled at us to stop acting like idiots and get back to being brothers.”
“Has he ever said that?” Daniil asks, raising a quizzical eyebrow at his brother.
Kylii responds with a shrug. “Sounds like something he’d say, though.”
A horn blast tears through the forest silencing the three. Their eyes immediately move to the trees and search for the source. Daniil and Kylii ready for an attack, raising their hands in front of them while Meah grips the handle of a knife. Tanith sniffs the air and looks to Daniil.
“Tanith doesn’t sense anyone nearby. We should head back to the group, just in case.”
Quickly, the four move through trees as a second horn blast shakes the air around them. They splash loudly across the stream, seeing members of the group, woken by the horn, searching the area in confusion. Jaxon is already standing, his sword drawn and eyes scanning the forest.
Ime leaps to his feet and runs to Meah, pulling her close. “Are you all right?”
“She’s fine! She was with us,” Kylii says.
A third bellowing horn blast fills the forest and the group moves closer together in fear. Jaxon, quickly putting his armor on, and Bruer move to stand with Meah and Ime. The deafening silence following the third horn blast creates an uneasy feeling in the group. Weapons are drawn and magic is gathered.
The horn cuts through the air so suddenly, many in the group jump or scream. They ready for an attack, but there is no movement in the forest. Jaxon slowly lowers his weapon and listens. The horn rings out again.
“It isn’t moving,” Jaxon says under his breath. “It doesn’t sound any closer than the other blasts.”
“What does that mean?” Meah asks.
Another horn sounds and Jaxon signals for Bruer to put his weapon away. “It’s a signal. Someone wants us to follow it.”
“Someone? Who?” Ime asks.
“We won’t know until we find them.”
“What if it’s a trap? Maybe the Blood King beat us here and is trying to lure us out?” Kylii asks.
Jaxon shakes his head. “There’s no possible way he could have beaten us here. Going through the caves is the fastest path through the mountains. Whoever is sending that signal is someone else.”
“Even if it isn’t the Blood King, is it still safe to follow it?” Meah wonders more to herself than to the group.
Eyes turn to Ime and he frowns with uncertainty. “We don’t really have a choice. We’re running low on food and other supplies and if they’re sending us a signal, they must be friendly. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to attack us.”