"Ria!" Malena shouted into the listening trees, feeling her irritation banking into anger. "We need to get back to the caravan!"
Wiping sweat from her brow, she raked her hands through her short red hair, fingers coming away damp. If there was one thing she hated more than having to chase after her twin it was sweating for no reason. Chores were one thing. Helping her father another, but stuck in the forest, wet from sweat, and itching from bug bites made her irritable.
The day dawned uncharacteristically hot for late summer in the countryside, transforming the humidity and choking road dust into an unbearable miasma. At only nine, Malena Erfinder was confident she would die from boredom. From the back of her family's cart, she watched the hills and valleys slip past in a unified, mind-numbing blur.
The caravan had been trundling along for over a week, one crawling mile at a time. For most of the journey, the weather held--hot and miserable but blessedly storm-free--but luck was a fickle master. As the three heavily packed wagons crested the rim of a shallow valley, the driver in the lead spotted a distant cluster of thunderheads marching towards them, ripe with the promise of rain and wind. Taking one look at the oncoming weather, Malena's father called a stop.
"This will set us back another day," the driver complained, wiping sweat from his bald head with a rag. Even the horses were wilting, heads drooped and tails barely flicking at the cloud of flies gathering near their rumps.
"I won't risk traveling through a valley while it's raining," was all the answer Bastian gave the man in his employ. The driver twisted his mouth in displeasure but saved his objection, obediently guiding the caravan under a thin crop of trees that barely provided enough shade to cool the ground. The wagons were promptly lashed down in the event the wind became dangerous.
Seeing her opportunity, Malena's twin sister Ria lunged at the chance to escape the stuffy wagons. She roamed the campsite with the overflowing energy of a child confined to a small space for too long, chatting with everyone and climbing on everything.
Seeing the trouble her sister was causing, Malena reluctantly set aside the clock her father had given her to disassemble and allowed her twin to choose a game they could play until lunch was ready. It was a decision the older sibling--in Malena's mind being five minutes older made her the eldest--was starting to regret. As par usual, Ria chose the only game where she could actively hide.
"Ria!" Malena shouted, hands bracketing her mouth. Her voice rang through the waiting forest, rebounding in a diminishing echo until fading altogether.
She stood still, listening. Head slightly canted and eyes closed, Malena focused on the sounds her sister might make while trying to remain hidden. As small and wiry as she might be, Ria wasn't inherently stealthy, a fact Malena hoped to exploit. However, when nothing more interesting reached her ears than the gentle rustle of hot wind, she gritted her teeth and wondered, not for the first time, why siblings were so awful.
"Fine!" she stamped her foot angrily. "I'm going to leave you here for the wolves!"
When her threat didn't elicit the desired response, Malena snarled and turned on her heels. It was too hot, and she was too aggravated to care anymore. At least, that's what she told herself.
What if something happened to her? she wondered, a cold twist of dread trickled down her spine. What if she fell and hit her head? What if... Malena swallowed, feeling her stomach do a nauseous flip. What if the Huntsmen found us?
It was the nightmare haunting Malena since leaving London come true, filling her with ice. Turning in a tight circle, her blue eyes skipped from bush to tree to snarl of root and back again. There was no sigh. No telltale hint of red hair among the green and brown foliage. No noise. Nothing. Oh gods...oh gods.
"Ria!" she screamed, feeling her world begin to shrink. "Ria, please, where are you!"
Panic replaced fear, buzzing in her veins like hornets, but before Malena could bolt back to the caravan something moved. A set of hands encircled her waist, driving the air from her lungs when she shrieked and twisted away.
"Got...you!" Ria gasped, succumbing to helpless giggles that pulled her to the ground.
"What the hell is wrong with you?!" Malena shrilled, terror, anger, and relief jockeying for control. She scrubbed furiously at her eyes to be rid of the moisture brimming among her lashes, trying to focus on the burn of her anger to make her hard when all she wanted to do was sob.
"Oh," the red-faced redhead chided, drawing out the vowel sound. "You said a grown-up swear."
"That's because you scared me!" Malena retorted at the same volume as before, never mind the anxious pink flush creeping across her cheeks. Her mother would kill her if she knew Malena had picked up the swearing habits of her father and the convoy workers.
"I'm gonna tell Mama," Ria teased in a sing-song voice, flopping onto her back, twigs tangling in her unbound hair. Malena glared, but her expression turned from indignation to startlement in the space between breaths when flowers began sprouting under Ria's outstretched hands, growing like weeds the more she giggled.
"Ria, stop!" Malena darted forward, grabbing her sibling by the wrist and jerking her upright. She stamped down the blooms like someone stamping down a fire, frantically looking around for any possible onlookers. There were none, but that didn't mean the fear wasn't there.
"I'm sorry," Ria suddenly wilted, backing away from the green patch like a scolded dog. "I didn't notice."
"You're so stupid sometimes!" her sister hissed over her bunched shoulder, venom making her words acidic. "You can't use your knack! Not now, not ever! They'll kill us if they find us!"
"I didn't mean it," Ria pleaded.
"I don't care! We're going back to the caravan," she snapped, taking her sister roughly by the hand and setting a punishing pace.
"Mal, no! Wait!" Ria cried in dismay, digging her heels into the dirt like it made a difference. She might have been lithe and willowy but Malena was broad through the shoulders and powerful, even at nine. "I found something I wanted to show you!"
"I found a castle! A real castle!" Ria said tugging against her sister's vice-like grip.
"I'm not!" Face scrunching in a deep, obstinate scowl, Ria employed one of her patented get-away-from-sibling techniques by wedging her thumb under the webbing of her sister's thumb and forefinger, slipping her hand free. She fell back with a muffled thump and quickly scrambled out of Malena's reach.
"Ria, stop! We're going back."
"Not until I show you!" the younger twin declared defiantly like seconds ago she hadn't conjured flowers out of thin air and scared her sister half to death, taking off running in the opposite direction.
Faced with either following her sister or returning to the caravan alone, Malena took chase with a wordless cry. This was just like Ria. If Malena could, she would gladly hogtie her sister like she'd seen the butchers do and physically carry her back.
Ten minutes and one merry chase through the rolling terrane of an unfamiliar forest, the trees thinned and opened into a wide, circular clearing large enough neither sibling could easily see the opposite end. It was like some nameless god had scooped away a chunk of the forest and filled it with tall grass.
Ria slowed to a stop next to a knobby oak tree, sweat pouring down her face in shimmering rivulets. Despite the punishing pace she set, Ria didn't appear to be even remotely winded, unlike a heaving and wheezing Malena who barely had enough energy to cling to the tree beside to her. But whatever sharp rebuke she might have loaded on her tongue evaporated when she looked out across the clearing.
"See?" Ria grinned smugly. "I told you."
Malena worked her jaw until she could form words again. "You weren't lying..."
YOU ARE READING
Blood and TinesFantasy
This isn't your grandmother's Beauty and the Beast. A question to the reader: Do you know how to survive? If your creature comforts fell away and you were forced to endure under the reign of a foreign power, would you live to see the sunrise? That...