“It’s my fault,” said Will, “I should have seen it; the knife isn’t right for you. Great One….”
I wasn’t listening. I was re-living the events of the past hour in my head.
Back, before we were dragged to the headmaster’s office…there was the fighting. Great One knows how I won all those first matches. And then the weapons round. I played back the terror and panic I felt when I realized Feyden was going to kill me (whether that was his intention or the product of unrestrained anger, I had yet to determine).
That was it. My fear. Terror. Panic. The nightmare felt it, responded to it. It had protected me. How ironic.
Then Feyden had fallen back in terror as the nightmare reared. He nearly killed it-once the whole room recovered from the shock of a nightmare, stamping angrily in front of me, here in the “safe” City. Only my protection kept them at bay long enough for it to disappear into the shadows once more. And even that seemed to be a bad move.
Darius re-entered the room, obviously repressing distress. “I’ve managed to calm the staff. They’ll take care of the students. It’s the Council we’ve got to worry about, however. They will not be so easily pacified. What will I tell them? Nightmares in the City? Safe nightmares in the City? Harmless? It’s my fault, not thinking to kill the blasted thing the moment I saw it in my office-“
“No, Professor,” said Richard-Richard of all people! “I had plenty of opportunity to kill it, before Sensa jumped on its back. I was too busy saving my own skin-“
“To save mine,” finished Gwen, staring miserably at her boots. “It’s pathetic, really. I’m a Warrior and I couldn’t kill a nightmare. A bloody nightmare! I-“
“Gwen, stop.” Will said, his usual compassion in his voice. “No one could have foretold the events that happened that night. No, we were all taken by such surprise…and then it disappeared. No sight of the beast for weeks.
“What happened today was no one’s fault but mine. The horse was protecting Sensa. She wouldn’t have needed protecting if I had seen-“
“SHUT UP, ALL OF YOU!” I shouted. I didn’t know I was going to stand up until I did. The Warriors looked up at me, probably surprised both by my outburst and by the fact that I was actually there, in the room with them.
“I am so /sick/ of this! Stop treating me like a child, all of you! I can take full responsibility of my own actions!” I closed my eyes and took a moment to compose myself. When I spoke again, my voice was raspy, barely louder than a whisper.
“It never went away. I see it, in the shadows sometimes. I wanted to get rid of it…. I should have told everyone. They wouldn’t think I had something to hide. But now…” My breath caught. The numbness holding back any real emotional reaction had subsided; dread, despair, relief and resignation ran through my veins in a torrent.
“But now they’ll hate me.” I finished.
* * * * *
I was right, that day. Over the course of the next two months, I had more dirty looks, whispers behind my back, and outright meanness directed at me than I had in my previous fifteen years. I felt the suspicious glares on my back at every waking moment: in class, in the mess, in our dorm room.
It was worst in the Halls, where students of every class whispered as I passed. It was always the same things they said: “That’s her, the girl with the nightmare…” “…tried to kill a boy in her sparring class…” “…the bloody thing is still here!” “…my sister heard her whispering things in the dark…” “…parents were arguing, Mother doesn’t think the Academy is safe anymore…” “…destroy the bloody City…” “…cursed, I tell you, she’s cursed!”
Cursed. That was a big one. Feyden came up with the idea. Hayla and Natyly broadcasted it to the whole school, slight whispers that multiplied exponentially. Everything lent to the explanation: my nightmare, my strange Mark, my ability to read, my missing Gramma, my black eyes.
I was feared and hated. And I was alone. My friends took my side of course. They told everyone in full detail exactly what happened the night I was found. But the part about my riding the nightmare backfired-people either marked it as a lie or used it in the “Cursed” campaign. For the most part, though, they didn’t receive the same treatment I did. I tried to spare them, really; spending less and time with them so others wouldn’t think of them as conspirators in my diabolical plots for world domination.
I found myself in the library more often during my spare time. I buried myself in the stacks where no one could see me and disappeared into books for hours. I ventured deeper into the shelves each day; the library was far bigger than I had originally thought.
On one such afternoon, I got the brilliant idea to go as far back as I possibly could, find a corner, and literally build up a wall of books around myself. No sooner had I carried out this stroke of genius, completely enclosing myself in my little book fort, than I remembered a very important fact:
I am deathly claustrophobic.
It was like I flipped a switch in my head, from Angry-and-Depressed to Frantic-and-Panicky. I found myself hyperventilating as I pushed against the walls of my leather-bound prison. Then I realized that the collapse would make enough noise to draw attention to myself. I didn’t want that, even in my panicky state.
I turned to the bookshelves instead. I foolishly pulled and pushed, looking for a crack between my book-walls and the actual walls. There wasn’t any. I scrambled against my paper cell frantically, thinking I was suffocating. It took my a while later to figure out exactly what happened next.
I slammed my palms up, against the underside of a bottom shelf. I must have hit it at exactly the right right angle to both pull it out and push it up in one motion. I looked down and there was my escape; a black hole in the wall, square, only a few feet tall and wide. It was beautiful.
A cold breath of air blessed my face as I crawled in. Once through the opening, I found I could stand up, if I crouched a bit. I was in a tunnel. The walls were cold stone.
I ran through the tunnel blind. After a but of running free, the dark mood that had followed me for weeks melted into the thrill of exploration, of finding my own secret place. The passageway took several twist and turns before I realized it was sloping slowly upward. I raced on, following the secret tunnel to its end. I took a spiraling staircase three steps at a time and was flushed and out of breath when at last I climbed through latched door at the top.
The first thing I was aware of was darkness, as far as the eye could see. Back home this wouldn’t have surprised me, but after three months of colorful, lit corridors and classrooms, the night swallowed me whole.
Then I looked down and my breath was taken from me again, this time by the City below me, the whole of it stretched out and tucked inside its Wall. The patchwork of rooftops I saw amazed me with their number and complexity and diversity, like the people who lived beneath them: big and small, squat and towering, wood and stone, rainbows of paint or bare walls. Even at this hour (I knew it must be late), the City teemed with people, with life. The streets glowed with lantern light, flowed with the ebb of humanity, connected everything like the veins and arteries of a magnificent beast, and I was perched atop the heart.
I was standing on the roof of the Academy and the Headquarters, holding fight to the building’s only steeple, pointing to the sky. I was, at the moment, the highest person in the whole, great, Soldiers’ City. The irony. I was closest to heaven while those below claimed I came from hell.
But then I looked up and felt small once more. Above me was the expanse of the sky, thousands of stars shining lightyears above me. They were truly the only beautiful thing about the night. Sister Moon looked tired. I would be, if I were her. Governing over the stars with no rest. Each star trying to make up for the lack of light, trying to shine bright enough to be a sun. All the loneliness I’d kept at bay crashed in on me at once and found myself sitting.
The wind was blowing, I realized. It never did that. How, I didn’t know it care. I clung to the steeple of the school that I felt didn’t really hate me as much as the people inside did and breathed it in, the first wind of my life.
I looked behind me and saw a star, or what a star would be if it were a person. After a moment I realized it was just Will, with his white-blond hair and pale skin and very bright blue eyes, cut against the night like one if the diamonds above me. Unfortunately for him, I was rather angry with the stars at the moment. I sighed flopped on my back, hoping I wouldn’t have to deal with an Actual Human Being.
Surprisingly, he said nothing. I didn’t hear a sound from behind me. He could have gone back down the stairs for all I know. Somehow, though, I knew Will wouldn’t do that.
“What made you come up here?” Those words that broke the silence were spoken by me, surprisingly. Says a lot for my patience, doesn’t it?
“You were gone.” Will said. He sounded confused, like it should be obvious. There was another long pause. “And, you know, a gigantic, closed-off book fort in the back of the library doesn’t exactly speak well for one’s emotional wellness…”
I sighed. That idea grew more idiotic to me by the moment. I felt heavy footsteps as Will walked over and sat by me. I still said nothing.
“Wait a minute,” Will said after a long moment, “it’s windy! There is a /wind/!” I could hear the wonder in his voice. He stood up, and since curiosity got the best of me, I sat up too. He was facing the wind, arms outstretched, laughing. When he looked at me, his huge smile was contagious. “Actual weather! How-why? What do you think?”
“Who knows?”My hair kept flying annoyingly into my eyes and mouth. That side effect of wind had never occurred to me in my imaginings. “Great One got bored? Faeries?”
Will sobered. “That was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. The faeries have some big egg blooming thing coming up, and they want extra protection-nightmares try to destroy their young or something.
“Long story short, Darius offered us the mission. Three weeks in the Faerie Circle under the command of a Captain Pyrsylla, doing whatever guard duty thry need. Gwen and Richard are willing to go, as am I.”
That was-excuse my chamber-potty mouth-crappy work. Away from home, monotonous guard duty, rough hewn Warrior bunkers, bad food. I couldn’t wrap my head around their excitement to go. “Wait, why would you want to-” Then it hit me. My team-my friends-were going for me. They knew how badly I needed to find Gramma, and if this would get a step closer, they willing to do it. For me.
The gesture touched me, really touched me. They’d respected me when they saw my Warrior spirit, took me in when they discovered me as kin, and treated me like a friend ever since. But the reality that Will, Richard, and Gwenolyn were really my friends had never been apparent until now.
“Thank you.” I said at last, my voice almost lost in the wind. I felt I should have said something more, but I just…couldn’t.
“When do we leave?” I asked.
Will smiled. “Now.”
“It’s my fault,” said Will, “I should have seen it; the knife isn’t right for you. Great One….”