A Song Among the Silence Sample Chapters
My armor clanged loudly as I landed against the hard stone floor in the ring. Despite the polar air, sweat poured over my brows, hair clinging to my forehead. A growl rolled in my throat as my opponent bared his teeth and drove his sword down at me. I raised my sword to block, and our weapons collided.
I refused to let my arms give out. I couldn’t let him win. Not again.
“Focus, Derrick.” His sword inched closer to my throat. “Think.”
“Do you think…I’m not, Heath?” I struggled between heavy breaths.
“You’re going for the obvious kill. Think better.”
Heath shoved his blade harder. A grunt escaped me, my muscles burning like a raging inferno. I tried to think, to rationalize like a Nixorman soldier should, but the tearing in my muscles consumed me. My eyes squeezed shut, begging to black out so I wouldn’t be conscious of the pain.
Rallying just enough strength, I kicked him hard in the chest. Heath leapt back, just dodging the blow. He lifted his sword as I began loosening the pommel of my own. Once it slackened, I hurled it at him, aiming for the shoulder. Usually the head was my target, but I felt like being generous. Plus, getting a reprimand from Lord Aldon wasn’t on my to-do list today.
He caught it easily in his palm. He eyed it with annoyance before swiveling his gaze to me, his expression rigid. “Really, Derrick? Pommel again?”
“What else can I do?” My arms flung out in exasperation before letting them sag to my sides. Heath’s annoyance only lasted a second, but that was still long enough to feel the weight of his disappointment. I trudged toward the other Nixorman soldiers, who were all snickering behind their hands and watching me with amused stares. I wiped the sweat off my face with the back of my long sleeve, ignoring the soldiers’ mockery.
A heavy hand clapped my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Derrick. You’ll get the hang of it one day,” Heath said.
“The dueling or the thinking?”
Heath considered for a moment. “Hopefully both.”
I sighed noisily. “You don’t have to keep pretending I’m going to become like one of you.”
I already accepted the impossibility of that long ago. Most Nixormans stood at least a foot taller than me, with immense strength and speed that humans couldn’t measure up to. Even their appearance was noticeably different. While I had a fair complexion with tousled brown hair, their skin was chalky white with silver-streaked hair hanging long down their backs. Though what stood out the most were their eyes. Shining the same sparkling silver as their hair, a Nixorman’s eyes were double the size of mine. Whenever I passed a mirror, I couldn’t help but cringe at how unnatural I looked.
I began yanking armor off my body, tossing the pieces carelessly to the ground, each one clanging loudly against the pavement. Heath knelt and arranged my armor in a more organized manner in my pack. I nearly snapped at him to stop, but I bit it back. I wasn’t in the mood for arguing.
“There’s no point in losing hope,” Heath said. “Give yourself a few more years to see what kind of soldier you’ll become.”
I snorted. “I’ve been training for a decade. I’m almost eighteen and I’m still the poor loser in the ring. What’s going to change in a few years that hasn’t changed in the past ten?”
“Face it, Heath. You were all born to be soldiers. And I’m just…this.” I gestured to my slim frame. Though I had fairly broad shoulders and a toned physique, fighting him in the ring was like an insect fighting a boot.
He chuckled lightly, shaking his head. “You don’t give yourself enough credit. What you need is an ounce of confidence. Go out hunting and bring us some more caribou. You’re good at that.”
“Good at a fight so long as my opponent is defenseless. Great,” I muttered.
“Actually, I would like a word,” a voice said behind me.
I jolted and spun to face Lord Aldon, who was standing at the exit door of the ring. Instantly, the laughter and chatter of the soldiers died as we all bowed to the Nixorman tribe’s leader—and also my guardian. He came forward, the hem of his midnight blue robe sweeping across the ground, his footsteps barely audible. He stopped where I bowed, and I glanced up at him, neck craning to see his face. His wrinkles appeared more prominent than I remembered. Or perhaps I hadn’t been paying attention to his aging.
His mouth thinned as he stared. “Come with me. I wish to speak with you before you leave.”
“Yes, sir,” I said hastily. For as long as I could remember, my relationship with Lord Aldon had always been formal. Never a father, or even a mentor—only the leader of the tribe, and someone to not disappoint. To this day, I still felt on edge when I was called to speak with him.
I stood a bit clumsily and lifted my pack over my shoulder before following him. Faint whispers and snickers resonated behind me. I glanced back at Heath, who gave a respectful nod. Heath was certainly a competent leader and trainer to the soldiers, but I wouldn’t call him a friend. An ally, maybe. At least he didn’t make fun of me like the rest. That was something.
We walked out of the training ring and into the familiar snowy village I grew up in, each petite home coated with ice on every exposed surface. The chilly wind slapped my face, and I shuddered. Lord Aldon hardly seemed to notice. None of the Nixormans around the village seemed bothered by the cold either, walking around in their simple tunics and bare feet without so much as a shiver. Compared to them, I looked like a bear with a bundle of fur and wool wrapped around me.
They all stared at us as we passed. I could imagine what their thoughts were, seeing the only human in a Nixorman village following their leader to his estate.
“What is Lord Aldon going to do with him?”
“Is Derrick being punished for something?”
“Is Lord Aldon finally going to get rid of him?”
I could only hope. I’d been trying to escape nearly since I could walk. I’d tried everything from fooling the guards with pranks to sneaking out between the guard’s shifts. Even persuasion and bribery hadn’t done the trick. No matter the number of attempts, I only found myself trapped here with no luck. All because I needed to be protected from Dark magic.
We entered Lord Aldon’s property, where an ice-sculpted home with designs etched into its surface lay ahead. A cluster of pines stood around it, icicles dangling off the branches. Frost decorated the stone pathway, and snow covered every inch of ground. In the distance, the waves of the Tolman Ocean rumbled and roared. Though the cold struck my face every day, the scenery was worth it.
Guards opened the grand doors and led us into Lord Aldon’s sitting room. Columns covered in runes lined the walls with colored glass windows behind them. I shielded my eyes from the bright colors as we sat in formal chairs in the middle of the room, dropping my pack on the icy floor with a clatter. Two wolves rounded the corner, stalking over to flank Lord Aldon’s sides. Their golden eyes gleamed in the colored light. They were so large I could be their next meal. They were meant to be ridden by Nixormans, not humans. I couldn’t even count how many times I’d made a fool of myself on one of their backs, whether I had fallen off or just looked plain stupid.
Lord Aldon called a guard to heat a fire, for my sake. A couple maids strode into the room, handing us cold drinks and a couple extra layers for me to wear. Always taking care of me. They practically raised me, but only because they were told to. Not because they wanted to.
As a blaze began to flicker, Lord Aldon clasped his hands over his lap, his expression serious. “I wanted to speak with you about your training, Derrick. I’d like a report on your progress.”
I took a swig of the cold drink and swallowed. “My training? Oh, it’s going great. Only a little slow, is all.” I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly.
He gave me a knowing look. “Remember, I do hear gossip from the soldiers.”
“I’m not doing that badly.” I hoped he didn’t register the quiver in my voice. “Those men like to skew the truth. For instance, I’m sure you didn’t hear about my stellar knife throwing the other day.”
“From what I heard, you almost shattered one of my prized relics.”
I hesitated for a second. “My wrist was off at that moment.”
Lord Aldon shook his head. “I don’t know what to do with you, boy. You’ve been training for years now and have not been progressing as quickly as the rest. I should have known your human traits would slow you down. Perhaps forcing you to become a soldier was the wrong plan. You haven’t even made any friends throughout your training.”
I winced. “Thanks for pointing all that out.”
“Don’t take it personally, Derrick. It’s only the way you were created. Our abilities don’t align with yours. I’m sure that’s something you’ve noticed throughout your time here.”
Scenes flashed in my vision of the Nixorman soldiers training with each other. The swiftness of their movements, the strength they exhibited, their quick thinking in high-pressure situations. And then there was me: always slower. Always weaker. Always two steps behind the rest.
I leaned against the chair, a weight settling in my chest. My voice came out gruff. “What are you trying to say?”
He didn’t speak for a moment. His eyes fixed on a stained-glass window as if he were frozen in time. He blinked twice before finally meeting my gaze. “Nothing in particular. These are merely observations.”
My brows arched. “You sure? For a second, I thought you were finally going to let me leave.”
He shot me a frosty glare. “That is out of the question.”
“But I thought—”
“Just because you have not measured up to our skill, does not mean you should leave this tribe. You know very well why you cannot leave.”
I pinched my lips together. Every scroll I found on human history talked about those reasons. The Nixormans and humans used to have a peaceful agreement of trade throughout the eternal winter we lived in. Nixormans were able to provide food and supplies humans couldn't retrieve on their own, and in return, Nixormans received gold, jewels, and other fine adornments that made them a favorable species.
But once Darkness overruled the humans’ souls, nothing the Nixormans received could be trusted. Dark magic contaminated the treasures, causing many to grow sick or die instantly from merely touching them. The humans turned greedy and self-centered, and the Nixormans strayed from the humans, knowing the Darkness they possessed was only used for arrogant purposes.
Though, the reason for my imprisonment here went deeper than their history. Heat flushed through my body, thinking about the note Lord Aldon had once read to me after hours of my pestering him for answers. The vaguest note anyone could write. When I was brought to the Nixormans as an infant, only a pan flute and a note that said Keep Derrick safe from the Darkness was brought with me. No mention of parents, home, or destiny.
I had never questioned this note or where I came from. My real parents didn’t want me, so why bother dwelling on who they were or where they came from? Trying to imagine a life I could never have would only cause more pain, and I’d had enough of that to last a lifetime.
“It is my duty to keep this tribe safe from the dangers outside it,” Lord Aldon reminded me. “You have no idea what encounters you could face outside these walls. Whatever deals you make or objects you touch may be polluted with Dark magic. Its power can hide very well in ordinary things, and I cannot risk this tribe being exposed.”
“Then I’ll leave, and I’ll never return. I swear it! Then you can keep your precious tribe safe.”
Lord Aldon pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know nothing of this power, boy! Even the most appealing of books and people can deceive you.”
“You are not responsible for me!”
Lord Aldon stood, turning on his heel to retreat. “You will not leave this tribe. Am I clear?”
This couldn’t be the end. My head pounded and rage fumed in my throat. I struck my fist against the armrest and forced myself to my feet. “So that’s it? You’re going to keep me from my people just so you can protect your tribe? Why didn’t you just leave me to die in the snow years ago? Why give me a chance when you should hate me?”
“We had no choice!” he yelled, whirling toward me. I didn’t flinch, but a tingle erupted at the base of my neck as I took in his expression. The anger in his eyes dimmed, hardened, replaced with a guarded look. A look that hid a secret.
“Is there something you’re not telling me, Lord Aldon?” I asked quietly.
His mouth drew into a firm line. “Unless you wish to hear the words of the note once again, there is nothing more.”
Lord Aldon stood with confidence, staring at me intensely, but I knew he was sheltering the truth. I didn’t need to read any signals to know he was lying.
I opened my mouth to speak, but Lord Aldon disappeared around the corner before I could. He didn’t return. I thought to call after him and demand the truth, but the conversation had already drained me, not to mention my muscles were still fatigued from training earlier.
Besides, I had some caribou to hunt.
I snatched my pack off the ground and stormed to my room, avoiding eye contact with the servants and guards I passed. I searched for my bow and quiver of arrows, attached my snowshoes to my feet, and bolted to the only truly peaceful place I knew here.
The cluster of pines lengthened as I ran into the forest. The only sound that reached my ears was the wind brushing through tree branches. Behind me, the small village loomed in the distance. It was only with time away from the Nixormans that I could finally think. I could finally have a moment to be myself, without judgmental eyes or whispers following me around.
Gushes of cold air speedily flew out of my lungs as I willed my pulse to slow down, but it continued to race, my mind still lingering on Lord Aldon’s accidental confession. If only I had the ability to pry his head for answers. It would take a miracle to get any information out of him.
I shook my head. Time to focus on food.
I let the hours drag on, not caring if I was gone for longer than I should’ve been. My feet took me beyond the main clearing of the forest toward a wild, seemingly unexplored area. I was careful to sweep the snow with my snowshoes to hide my tracks. With the Nixormans’ challenging history with humans, they didn’t want to expose the secret clearing the caribou liked to hide in to the human village that neighbored us.
The idea of keeping one of our main food sources hidden from humans—from my people—made my blood simmer. But there was no point in arguing it with the tribe.
Only one caribou wandered in the area, and I gave it the mercy of a quick kill before quickly skinning and cutting it. I walked slowly toward the village, the pack of freshly cut meat heavy on my back. The evening sunlight filtered through the tree branches, bringing a soft glow to the forest.
I still didn’t feel ready to return to the other soldiers, knowing they would only crack more jokes at my pathetic training session earlier. I stopped, slumped against a tree, and pulled out the pan flute from inside my vest. I blew gently into the pipes, a soft melody dancing out like snowflakes drifting in the wind. The song came naturally to me, even though I had never heard it from anyone. Maybe it was a song one of the Nixormans sang to me as a child?
No, that couldn’t be. The Nixormans didn’t sing. Music wasn’t a part of their culture, but somehow music spoke to me like a call to home. From the first moment I blew into the pipes, a connection formed. I taught myself to play over the years, finding the somehow-familiar song came clearly like shining ice.
I never played my flute around the Nixormans. It only reminded me more of how much I didn’t belong. But whenever I did play, the music calmed every part of me. My head, my nerves, the beating pulse beneath my rib cage. Like a spell enchanting me, dismissing any tension welled inside.
Out of nowhere, the conversation with Lord Aldon distracted me. The tune went sour. I dropped the flute on my lap and blew out a frustrated breath. My brows furrowed. “What’s the big deal about me staying in the tribe? Why be so overprotective of me when he doesn’t really care about me? He hates humans. All of them do. Skies, it’s so frustrating! Why can’t he just kick me out and I can—”
I pushed myself off the ground, snatching a dagger from my belt. My gaze darted in all directions, but no one was in sight. The peaceful quiet overtook the forest again. Still, I held my breath, my muscles stiffening.
Must be some animal. But what could be small enough to hide behind bushes? Only caribou, bears, and deer lived in the forest.
With a rush of curiosity, I took a few steps forward, wincing at the crunch of my snowshoes against the snow. Nearby, a bush rustled vigorously. I moved slowly toward it, dagger elevated and ready to stab.
Several more cracks sounded before a small figure fell into the snow.
I rested my head against my vanity, watching the golden fairy in my snow globe spin slowly to the tinkling music. The same song Mother used to sing when I was little. No matter how many times I turned the knob to let the song play again, the melody repeating itself over and over, I never grew tired of it. Memories of my mother swirled in my mind, a lump forming in my throat.
Then my bedroom door burst open.
Startled, I sat upright in a proper position as Jezebel hurried in with a huff. “There you are! You should be down in the ballroom greeting guests right now.”
She rummaged through the dresses in my closet, pulling out a soft lavender gown and throwing it on my lap. I grimaced, rubbing the material between my fingers. “Must I wear something so light?”
“Well, you certainly aren’t wearing black today.”
I preferred wearing my black dresses. It had been three months since Mother’s passing, and though the rest of the castle was done mourning her death, wearing anything lighter still felt unfitting.
I watched Jezebel explore through the contents of my jewelry box. “You’re wearing black, though,” I pointed out.
“That’s because it looks good on me,” she said with a smirk.
My stepsister did look gorgeous in her black, shimmery dress. It hugged her curves perfectly against her dark brown skin. Her long, straight hair fell over her shoulders, one side of it pitch black, the other stark white. Silver shimmer painted her eyelids, bringing out the purple in one of her eyes, downplaying the brown in her other. Though she was beautiful, the violet in her one eye made the Darkness inside her more prominent. I tried not to shudder.
The music from the snow globe faded to nothing, the fairy ceasing her rotation. Jezebel glanced at it and scowled, snatching it off my vanity. “It’s been three months, Kota. You must stop listening to that drab song.”
“Hey, give it back!” I lunged for it, but Jezebel kept it out of my reach.
“What, this old thing?” She examined the globe, the white flakes swirling in the water as she turned it. “The thing that’s causing you to sulk all day?”
I gritted my teeth. “It was my mother’s.”
“Yes, I know that. I’ll give it back once you go to the ball. And when you stop moping about a silly song.” She twisted her wrist, and the globe disappeared in a cloud of purple smoke.
I dropped back into my chair, ducking my head, letting my hair hide the hurt on my face. Several retorts swept through my mind, but I held my tongue, knowing none of them would help my already-trying relationship with her. I had known my stepsister for far longer than the three months my father and Jezebel’s mother had been married. But even when we were just friends, it was hard getting along with her. In fact, maybe friends was an overstatement.
“Where are your maids?” she asked, glancing around the bedroom.
“I sent them away.”
Her eyes rolled back as she groaned. “Please don’t be difficult. This is the third time you’ve done this before a ball. You’re acting like a child. Stand up. No excuses.”
With a sigh, I stood to let her dress me. The gown clutched my waist tightly, the skirt falling to the floor in gentle folds. She fixed my long, thick hair in a simple chignon, tugging and pulling at it until it fit her expectations. She hooked a pearl necklace around my neck before she stepped back in approval. “Better. Now come. My brother is waiting to escort you.”
Jezebel left the room hastily, slamming the door behind her. I heaved a sigh at my reflection. How inappropriate to wear something so cheery when I hadn’t stopped mourning Mother. I eyed the black dress I had on before, lying across my bed, and bit my lip. Maybe I have been mourning for too long.
I hadn’t done much since her death. I’d stopped going to my tutoring lessons, hadn’t sung any songs for days, and hadn’t had a good conversation with anyone that made me laugh, let alone smile. Not even with Father, whom I loved and cherished more than anything.
The balls certainly didn’t help. My parents—most specifically my stepmother—expected me to marry in the near future and no doubt suitors would be lining up to dance with me. The idea of marrying, let alone dancing with any noble man, made me bristle. Not to mention the loads of nobility devouring the castle’s food when the villagers were suffering. Envisioning the poor people hungry while the rich gorged themselves made a sickening sensation coil around my gut.
I opened the double doors to my balcony, letting the cold air bite my skin. Small lights from homes and shops below illuminated the sunset sky. Esydal was a small kingdom compared to the ones that bordered it, Rovalia and Urania, but the city of Aramore lying beneath my home appeared grand—grand enough that it was hard to imagine anything bigger. But despite its hefty size, it suffered greatly. Food stores from the greenhouses dwindled by the day, and there were far too many poor people to take care of. The Dark mages in the kingdom were running low on supplies to make spells to nourish the plants. It didn’t help that the kingdom was cursed with ongoing winter, making it difficult to grow food and find meat in the forests. People were becoming sick, and more were dying every day. If only there was something I—
Well . . . there was something I could do.
I took a step back, a small seed of excitement taking root. Stepmother would surely scold me when she would find I wouldn’t be at the ball, but I couldn't stand being around nobility with such shallow hearts a second longer. The villagers deserved better than their wretched state.
Filled with anticipation, I undressed clumsily out of my gown and threw on an olive-green tunic and leggings before draping a matching colored fur cloak over my shoulders, pinning it in the front. It took longer than usual without any maids to assist me, but it was a necessary delay; no one could know where I was going.
After slipping on a pair of riding boots and freeing my hair from its pins, I went to work finishing the rope made of blankets and bed sheets I had started months ago. At one point I had planned to sneak off to the village to experience a more mundane life for a day, but when Mother got sick, all thoughts of leaving the castle fled me. Now I could finally test my escape plan.
I tied one side of the rope to my bedpost, then flung the rest over the edge of the balcony. Peering over the rim, my blood ran cold, a wave of dizziness spreading through my head. Faint music carried through the air, presumably from the ballroom. Carriages were already arriving full of nobles from Rovalia, Urania, and other parts of Esydal to attend the ball. They would be expecting me.
Should I do this?
Flashes of the last ball clouded my sight. How much the people had laughed, danced, and gotten drunk. How my potential suitors only danced with me to learn of my riches or gawk at my chest. Nobody had truly cared about me.
But then, there was my snow globe. The only possession of Mother’s I had. I couldn’t let Jezebel keep it.
Yet the outside world called to me. The people needed me. What would Mother have me do? Something for my benefit, or something for the benefit of others?
My hands tightened on the handmade rope, determination hardening my resolve. I’ll find a way to get the snow globe later. This is what I must do.
Heart pounding in my ears, I carefully hauled myself over the balcony, scenarios of the many ways I might manage to fall to my death running through my mind. Thankfully, my bedroom was on the third story rather than one of the chambers higher in the castle. I forced myself to think about how close I was to the bottom until my feet hit the ground and my foot promptly slipped on ice.
I snatched the rope once more, swaying until I could find a foothold. There weren't too many guards around; most would be at the ball. Despite that, I still scurried through the shadows, keeping my hood over my head to avoid being recognized.
I headed to the east side of the castle, where an entrance to the kitchens lay. Going through the outside entrance reminded me of times in my childhood when I snuck in to steal pastries with Elias, carrying armfuls of treats to our tree house, where we stuffed ourselves until we got sick. If we were ever caught, the cooks didn’t reprimand us. Maybe they would be nice enough to let me take some food instead of stealing like I was a child again.
Warmth settled over my bones as I entered the kitchens. The smell of a variety of breads, steamed vegetables, broths, and the few meats we could muster filled the air. My stomach rumbled, but I ignored it. I spotted a young kitchen maid around my age, maybe sixteen or seventeen, busily washing dishes. I tapped her on the shoulder. The maid spun with a gasp.
“Shh, it’s only me,” I said, lifting the hood off my head.
The kitchen maid’s eyes grew. “Your Highness! I—I thought—”
“No time to talk. Can you help me with something?”
After I explained what I needed, the kitchen maid fetched me a large basket and filled it with an assortment of fruits, breads, and cheeses, setting on top of it as many blankets that would fit. “What you’re doing is incredibly kind, Your Highness.”
“The castle has enough food. It’s the least I can do. And what better time to do it when there’s a ball to distract everyone?”
The kitchen maid smiled shyly, but it faded fast. “I will get in trouble if I’m caught.”
“Then we better keep this a secret between the two of us. If you do get caught, I’ll take the blame.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
I offered a gentle smile before slipping back into the crisp evening.
The tiger's den stood a ways off, where I would fetch Navi before she went to sleep. Several tigers were sprawled out, some asleep, others yawning, including Navi—a large white tiger with ice-blue eyes.
I patted her head to fully wake her. “Carry this for me, would you?”
Navi yawned again, stretched out her limbs, and grasped the handle with her wide mouth. I hauled myself onto her back. “Let’s get out of here.”
I grasped Navi’s coat, curling my fingers around her fur as she leapt out of the den, bounding under the darkening evening sky. The houses grew as we drew closer. How would the people react when they saw me? The last time I visited the townsfolk was when Father remarried. It was supposed to be a celebration, but instead, the people had continued mourning the previous queen’s passing. Just like me. As the bitter wind smacked my face, I wondered how they were still taking my mother’s death.
Villagers wandered outside small wooden cabins and shops when we arrived. Navi came to a swift stop within the little neighborhood, releasing a dull grunt. The people immediately scrambled away from our presence. Children screamed, but the adults didn’t cower. Their bodies only froze in shock. Everyone knew the white tigers belonged to royalty. I didn’t blame them for being tense. None of them were prepared for someone from the castle to appear.
I slipped off Navi and took the basket from her mouth. “Don’t worry. I’m here to help.”
A few people peered at me as if trying to discern who I was before taking steps back in shock. Panic took over one man’s face, and he hurriedly bowed. “Princess Dakota! W-we weren’t expecting you. P-please forgive us, w-we weren’t—”
“There’s no need to apologize. I should be the one apologizing for arriving without notifying you all. I only wanted to bring something that could be of help.” I handed the basket of goods to the man. His eyes brightened like a flame. I waited for him to say something, but it seemed he was speechless. My feet shifted on the icy pavement. “It’s not much, but please share it with those in need of it. I trust you know the people here better than I do.”
After a moment of hesitation, the man fell to his knees and began kissing my boot. “Thank you, oh thank you, Your Highness.”
I froze, heat igniting my cheeks. The other villagers' faces lit up as much as the man’s. A few women burst into tears, families laughed with joy, and children didn’t appear so afraid anymore. Despite their happiness, I frowned. Is it really this bad for them? Enough to make them cry at the sight of food? It seemed like a nightmare coming true, and it only made me want to change it into a pleasant dream for them.
I climbed back on Navi, nodding toward the man and the rest of the villagers. “I trust you won’t speak a word of this to any guards or royal members if they arrive?”
They all nodded hastily as they gathered around the man holding the basket of goods. “I’ll try and bring more later on,” I said.
“Thank you, thank you!” many of the villagers replied. Their voices dimmed as Navi and I darted out of the neighborhood.
After climbing a hill away from the homes, we stopped to stare at the towering castle, the frost creeping up the white stone glimmering in the last rays of sunlight. The windows glowed bright yellow, and a low tune resonated from the ballroom. The ball wasn’t over yet.
The idea of showing up to the ball made my stomach churn. Not only would I be late, but meeting more potential suitors and having to socialize was the last thing I wanted to do.
Plus, I was outside the castle. How often did I have the chance to explore outside, even if it was nearly dark out? Out here, I could be free from the obligations of royalty for once.
A smile crept across my lips. “What do you think about exploring for a while?” I asked Navi. The white tiger purred, kneading the ground and nodding her head toward a cluster of trees on the other side of the bridge. I giggled. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
I suppressed a yelp as Navi sprinted down the hill. We traversed along the outskirts of the city until a high bridge appeared. The Costell River rippled beneath it, the soft lapping of water soothing my nerves. I gave a quick glance behind me. The castle shrunk the further I fled, the spires rising high, as if they were poking the sky. Large snowy mountains trapped the kingdom within like border walls. Never had I realized how grand my home was until that moment.
Soon, a cluster of trees swallowed us. Navi slowed her steps to let me slide off her back. Snow melted into my boots, and I shivered. I should have worn old trousers rather than leggings, or perhaps some snowshoes would have helped, but I hadn’t intended to be out this long. As I trudged through the snow in large steps, I ignored the chill, letting the beauty of the forest distract me. The sunset light streamed through the cracks in the trees, making the snow glisten like diamonds.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered, though Navi didn’t seem to hear me; she was picking at some branches a few feet away. A gentle breeze brushed my skin, and I sighed softly. This was nothing like the stifled quiet I felt in the castle. Here it was only me and the trees, the bitter cold kissing my cheeks.
Then a melody caught me off guard; soft and angelic, echoing around the trees. My eyes closed without my direction and I let myself drown within its rhythm. For a moment, I forgot about the ball, the suitors, my mother’s death. It went on for several minutes and my body swayed to it, losing myself in another realm. Another world. A place where I wasn’t a princess living in a cursed winter. A place where I finally felt freedom.
Suddenly, the notes turned acidic. My eyes flew open, and fear coursed through me. There was someone in the forest. Playing music.
Stranger. Get away.
My body whipped as I looked for Navi, but she was nowhere to be seen.
“Navi,” I hissed. I opened my mouth to call louder, but I didn’t dare, not with someone potentially dangerous lurking nearby. I slipped behind a bush, doing my best to stay hidden, creeping carefully—
Until my foot accidently snapped a twig.
I mentally chastised myself, then tensed when I heard the crunch of footsteps close by.
Please, Navi, where are you?
Another twig snapped. I sensed a figure drawing closer. Fear twisted in my stomach. I shouldn’t have gone out by myself. Father told me how dangerous it could be, and I didn’t listen. I should have at least brought a dagger, even if I didn’t have any experience with weapons.
I carefully shifted my position to peer around for Navi, and my cloak caught a branch. I tried to tug it free, but I moved just the wrong way, my foot slipping on a slick patch of ice and snow. I landed on the ground with an oof, the impact knocking my breath away. My body seeped into the snow, the cold overpowering my senses. My breath hitched as I took in the figure standing above me.
A boy. A boy with a dagger in his hand.
Air sucked sharply into my lungs. My head wouldn’t stop spiraling, every thought spinning straight out of my mind. Every muscle in my body stiffened as my focus centered on the creature—the person—lying in front of me.
Of course, I knew what a human looked like from the pictures in the human history scrolls I read. But seeing one in person was an entirely different experience. I held my breath, a thousand questions I couldn’t speak blooming in my mind. My eyes lingered on it, unblinking.
No, not “it.” This person was obviously female, based on what I knew from the scrolls. Her frame was small, pink lips standing out against cream-colored skin, and long red-brown hair fell in waves down her shoulders. Her eyes were wide-set, the color of sapphires, with impossibly long, dark lashes sweeping around them. They didn’t look like Nixorman eyes. They were smaller, narrower…
Human eyes. Like mine.
I watched as her gaze shifted between me and the dagger. Then she scrambled off the ground, struggling through the thick snow as she went.
I shook myself from my hypnosis, my pulse speeding. “Wait! Come back!”
A growl rumbled nearby, and a large figure barreled out of the forest. An enormous white cat charged at me, knocking me against a tree and pinning me there, its paws knocking the breath out of me with a grunt. The cat towered over me, its face inches from mine. Drool rolled off its sharp teeth, its ice-blue eyes boring into me menacingly.
My voice shook. “Nice kitty.” I examined the cat’s size again and gulped. “Big kitty.”
“Navi!” the girl shouted. The cat’s head whipped to where she stood. The color in her fair skin had drained. The cat snarled at me before leaping off toward the girl. My muscles quivered, paralyzed until they woke from the crunch of snow. I clambered to my feet, but I was too late. The girl had swung onto the tiger’s back, bounding out of sight.
“Wait, don’t go!” I glanced at the dagger still in my grip, then understanding flooded in. I waved it in the air. “I don’t even know how to use this very well!”
But the girl was gone, and I was once again alone in the forest.
I kicked the snow, cursing softly, sheathing the dagger like I should have moments ago. Instead, I’d blown what was possibly the only chance I’d ever get to finally speak to someone like me. I could have spoken when she fell, but what would I have said? Hi, I’m Derrick. I’ve never met a human before. Also, I was raised by a freakishly tall species who don’t care about me.
I facepalmed myself. I’m such an idiot. I turned in the direction the cat and the girl had gone, realization dawning on me. The human village was nearby—what was it called? Aramore? The girl must have come from there. Adrenaline rushed through my veins, and I unconsciously took a few steps forward before forcing my feet to halt.
What am I doing?
My conversation with Lord Aldon came back to me and my fists tightened, nails biting into my skin. The threats of Dark magic were what kept me within the tribe’s walls, but were there other dangers? Why did the Nixormans of all species protect me? Question after question piled in my mind until the dreaded query I was trying to avoid appeared.
What if my parents were there?
I snatched my bow and pack of meat up forcefully and stomped out toward the Nixorman village. Never in a million years would I try to answer that question. Who cared about them anyway?
My pulse rapped against my temple as I traveled out of the forest toward the village, the sun setting below the horizon. Stars began to twinkle in the darkening sky. The windows were glowing in the house where all the soldiers gathered for meals, their faint laughter echoing through the icy walls. I wrinkled my nose at the thought of being around them. I dropped the caribou off at their door and headed toward Lord Aldon’s home instead.
The idea of talking to him so soon after our argument made me want to throw something. But after seeing a human’s face in real life, I couldn’t let go of the idea of leaving. No matter how many times Lord Aldon tried to stop me, I wouldn’t let him win. I’d made my decision, and I hoped telling him to his face would bring him some realization. That I wasn’t joking about leaving. That going somewhere I belonged was what I was meant to do.
Fire blazed in small lanterns outside the entrance to his sitting room. Two guards stood outside the double doors, and their eyes leered at me.
“I wish to see Lord Aldon again,” I said as confidently as possible.
“He is not taking visitors now. You will have to wait to be requested,” one of the guards said.
“I live here, for crying out loud! And this is urgent. I must speak with him,” I said, my temper rising.
The guard’s frown deepened. “You must wait, Derrick. Go to your room.”
I growled. “Listen. It’s about—"
The doors yawned open, creaking as Lord Aldon appeared. Dark, silky night robes wrapped around his tall frame. His gaze leveled on me for a moment before he spoke. “Let him through.”
“My Lord, what is this about?” one of the guards asked, confused.
“Derrick requested to speak with me, and I accept. Is there anything not clear about that?”
The guard grunted as he and the other guard stepped aside to let me through. Once the doors closed, the Lord eyed me with a raised brow. “You return so soon. I would have expected you wouldn’t come back for a while after our last conversation.”
“Yeah, well, it was tempting.” I crossed my arms, noting how intently Lord Aldon stared at me. He still didn’t seem pleased to see me. His forehead wrinkled as if he was waiting for me to yell at him. My mouth gaped open, but I couldn’t find the words to speak. I had never declared to him that I was leaving. I’d asked—and attempted—to, but I’d never demanded he let me go free. Doing this somehow felt…awkward.
“Is there something you want to tell me, Derrick?” he asked with a hint of skepticism.
I cleared my throat loudly and stepped away from him. It was easier to not look at him directly. “You…you have tried to keep me hidden here. Shielded from the outside world. Because of Dark magic. But…I can’t take it any longer. Aramore, it…it calls to me. The human world calls to me. It’s where I belong.”
Lord Aldon rubbed his forehead, as if a headache were coming on. “Derrick, please, let’s not have this—”
“Listen!” My voice rose, and a new degree of confidence surged in me. “You’ve kept me away from people like me for almost eighteen years. I barely know a thing about the human world. Do you expect me to live in this tribe for the rest of my life? To keep getting beat up by the soldiers? To keep having the others glare at me, talking behind my back? Maybe it’s about time I start making my own decisions.”
Lord Aldon’s lips trembled. His body turned away, and he began muttering. I strained my ears to hear what he was saying. “I knew this would happen. It’s not the right time yet. He’s—”
“It’s not the right time for what? What is it that I’m not supposed to know?” I couldn’t control my tightening chest.
He didn’t answer me, though. He continued muttering to himself, refusing to look my way.
Then a flame ignited in my throat.
“Fine. Leave me in the dark. I knew there was more besides that note. You’re just too much of a coward to tell me because it has to do with humans—”
I took a step back, suddenly mute. His nostrils flared, and the veins in his head seemed ready to burst. Whatever happened between the humans and Nixormans must have been more personal to Lord Aldon than I thought. Or maybe I’d simply spoken too harshly to the tribe’s leader.
Though, strangely, I didn’t feel guilty. No, I’d finally said the words that were trapped inside me for years. I wouldn’t take them back.
My spine straightened, and I gazed at Lord Aldon with newfound determination. “All right. Don’t tell me. Not like I care. I’m leaving in the morning, and you won’t stop me.”
I turned on my heel and headed toward my bedroom. I would pack my bag and plan my route. Hopefully the snow would hold off for a bit; I didn’t want it covering the cat’s tracks. They would make it easy to—
“If you leave, you are never to return.”
I halted, my posture stiffening.
“There’s Dark magic lingering out there, and you will no doubt be exposed to it. I cannot have you endangering my tribe.”
My lips couldn't move. I’d known this would happen. I even offered it to him earlier. Once I set foot outside of the Nixorman village, there would be no going back. But hearing it from Lord Aldon—my guardian for my entire life—made ice snake up my back. I couldn’t help but feel the strings of my heart tug hard. Is this what it feels like to truly not belong?
My eyes swept to Lord Aldon, hoping my expression made it clear what my answer was, and I stepped out of his sight.
During the night, I tossed and turned endlessly, unable to stop picturing what Aramore was like. What did humans do in human villages? Did they share food and resources like the tribe did? Did they gather to worship and pray to the gods? Did they sit on the ground and feast with their hands?
The girl reappeared over and over as well. Her long wavy hair and wide blue eyes. The way she stared up at me like I was a beast. Where did she live? What was her life like? I could find her, and she could show me where I belonged.
Though what if...what if she used Dark magic?
I’ll be careful, I thought, staring up at the ceiling through the dark, wide awake. I can protect myself.
Dawn eventually broke through the icy window. I crept out of bed as quietly as possible and snatched the bag of supplies from the floor. I double-checked the contents within it. Enough caribou and wild fish to last a week, a canteen of water I’d need to refill somewhere in the village, a bag of pommels in case I lost any, and some furs to keep me warm. I tucked my flute into the inside pocket of my cloak and made sure I had at least two kinds of weapons: a sword to keep on my back and a dagger slipped into a scabbard on my belt. If there was anything I’d learned from training with Nixorman soldiers, it was to always be prepared for an attack.
I rummaged through medicinal equipment, stuffing a few cloth bandages into my pack, until I caught a rolled-up piece of parchment tied with a string lying next to my bed. A blue, broken seal with a strange symbol was stuck to the edge of the paper. My hands went still. The parchment hadn’t been there before I went to bed. On top of it was a note with my name written on it.
Curiosity overtaking me, I picked up the note and read.
Your father wrote this for you. I hope you will leave your animosity toward your parents behind and read it.
And remember, it is not your abilities that show who you are. It is your choices.
Best of wishes,
P.S. Trust no one.
My hands wavered. The note slipped from my fingers. Every muscle went numb.
“My father,” I mouthed. Was this what Lord Aldon had been keeping from me? Swallowing dryly, I picked up the parchment, brushing my thumb over the tied knot. The bow slowly came loose as I pulled the string.
Then I stopped, my jaw clenching. This was only a set-up to try and get me to stay. Lord Aldon only wanted me to know the truth so it could crush me. There was no reason that would be good enough to make me understand why they gave their child up to a species who treated him like one of the wolves. No reason good enough to explain why they didn’t want me.
My grip crushed the parchment, and I stuffed it into my pack.
I stepped out into the brisk morning and headed toward the wolf den. Most of the wolves were still sleeping, huddled together and breathing smoothly. I approached one of the smaller-framed wolves—the runt of the most recent litter—and pet his head.
“Kai, wake up.” I shook his body until the wolf yawned and stretched his legs. “I need you to take me somewhere.”
Some of the wolves stirred as Kai stood. Even as the smallest of them, he towered a few inches taller than me. The wolf shook the snow from his fur. I held out my hand to dodge the flying snow. “Not so loud.”
Kai snorted and groaned.
“Hey, I’m sorry to wake you from your beauty sleep, but you know I can’t ride your giant friends.”
Kai’s tail wagged, and he panted as if amused.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, yeah, make fun of me all you want. I’m still having you get me out of here.”
I climbed on Kai’s back and took one last glance at the tribe’s village, then to the soldier’s house. I never said goodbye to Heath, the only Nixorman who’d ever treated me like a normal person. Hopefully, he would understand why the tribe wasn’t my home. Though sitting there on Kai’s back, ready to leave forever, I couldn’t help but feel my heart ache, knowing I was leaving the only person close to being a friend.
I shook the thought away. Leaving to join the human world was what I had to do. With a kick of my heel, Kai took off into the forest.
I didn’t look back.