River awoke to the sounds of singing birds and rustling leaves. She blinked, staring stupidly at the wood ceiling above her, her mind a complete blank. All she was aware of was the sounds of a forest and the paneled ceiling she stared at. A moment later she realized she was very thirsty. Some cold water would be nice.
She had barely finished the thought when everything came flooding back – the tiny creek, the light from her pendent the strange images she had “seen” just before reaching the creek, the impossibly long walk with Caleb, and the horrible creatures that had attacked.
Sitting up with a jerk, River swung her legs off the cot-like bed she rested on. It seemed to be made of leaves, still fresh and green. The frame looked as if it had been built with sturdy tree branches, and the floor beneath her bare feet was paneled with wood as well.
Looking around, River realized she wasn’t in a room. Instead, she was on a wooden platform with a wooden canopy above. Five posts held the canopy aloft, one in each corner and one in the middle of the platform.
Near the far right edge of the platform stood a woman, her back to River, her dark green dress floating in the breeze. Her blond hair swished from side to side with the slightest movement, and whirled when she turned. She was shockingly beautiful, with a heart-shaped face, full pink lips, and a delicate nose. A light pink flushed her sculpted cheeks. She appeared to be in her late twenties or earlier thirties, and her eyes were a sky blue. They had a slight upward slant to them, giving her a soft, sultry look. A light brown belt hung from her waist, just short of brushing the floor.
“Oh, you’re awake.” The woman seemed to glide rather than walk as she moved toward River. River, startled, scrambled back. The woman stopped, probably having seen River’s look of fear and confusion.
“It is alright,” she said, her voice soothing. “You have had a bit of a fright, but you are fine. The yarrow worked wonders.”
“W-who are you?” River stammered. “Where’s Caleb? Where’s my brother?”
“Peace, child. My name is Amára. I am a healer.” Amára held her hands out, as if she were trying to soothe a wild beast.
River stood up, getting ready to run, but her legs immediately wobbled and gave out. Amára rushed forward just in time to catch her.
“You must return to bed,” she said sternly. “You are not strong enough yet.” She gently helped River return to a sitting position on the cot.
River eyed Amára warily before saying, “What do you want?”
Amára blinked, looking puzzled. “Want? What do you mean?”
River stayed silent. Truthfully, she didn’t even know what she meant.
“No matter,” Amára said, brushing off her puzzlement as if it were a pesky fly. “I said you are healed, but not strong. Your strength shall return soon, though. You may recover enough to join the feast tonight.”
River stared at the woman blankly. There was something off about the way she looked and spoke. The sound of her voice was too musical to be natural, for starters. But there was something else, something about her face that she just couldn’t identify.
“My brother, Caleb,” River said urgently, still trying to figure out what was off about Amára. “Is he here too? I want to see him.”
Amára’s face fell. “There was no sign of your companion,” she said gently. “However, our best trackers are still searching for him.” Amára turned and gestured to the forest. “There is hope they will find him.”
River gasped. When Amára had turned, she had suddenly realized what was not right. Amára’s ears. They were pointed. Not large or sticking out, but pointed. Like an elf’s.
“What is wrong? Are you in pain?” Amára asked, scanning River, looking for any sign of further injury.
“N-no,” River stammered, getting dizzy with confusion. Finally she asked, “Where am I?”
Amára gave her a queer look. “Taroth, your home.”
“Home?” River repeated. She shook her head. “Look, there has to be some mistake. I live in Walnut!”
Amára tilted her head in a bird-like fashion. “There are no walnut trees in Taroth… have you come from Menégra? There are many there. But what of your strange raiment, and why has no word of your birth come to our ears? You are young, not more than fifteen years by my guess. There would have been much rejoicing at the news of a child being born, and of the birth of your brother, as well. Why were no messages sent regarding your births? Has trouble come to Menégra? Speak, child, speak!”
River stared blankly at Amára, utterly confused. “Wha – what are you talking about?”
A faint expression of concern crossed Amára’s face. “You are of Elvish blood, are you not?”
“Elvish… Look, I don’t know what kind of sick joke this is, but I want you to stop it!”
“Calm yourself,” Amára said. “I do not know what you mean, but perhaps both you and I will receive our answers tonight. As I mentioned ere, there will be a feast soon. You may speak with Íllandril then.”
River blinked. Old English? She vaguely remembered that “ere” meant “before”, but her brain quickly dismissed the thought as a more important one forced its way in. “Íllandril? Who’s Íllandril?”
“The king,” Amára sighed. “Truly, child, is there no end to your questions?”
“Not until I get some answers,” River insisted. “And stop calling me child! My name is River.”
“River? A strange name, and yet it suits you. Your questions come as fast and constant as a rushing river. Now hush, you must rest. The yarrow is working well, but if you continue like this you will become ill.”
“But my brother! I have to –”
“Silence, child. There is nothing you can do. His fate is out of your hands.”
“No! I have to find him!” River struggled to stand up, but Amára was suddenly there, gently but firmly pushing her down onto the cot.
“Enough. Or shall I restrain you with ropes?”
“You – You wouldn’t – how dare –!” Spluttered, garbled exclamations of fright and shock escaped River, and a faint expression of amusement spread across Amára’s beautiful features.
So, with a frustrated huff, River lay back down on her cot. She kept her gaze fixed on Amára, though. “Are you supposed to be an elf?” she asked cynically. The puzzled expression returned to Amára’s face.
“I am an elf,” she said. “And so are you.”
“No, I’m not! Stop saying that!”
“Indeed you are,” Amára said. “You have the features, and though your skin is likened to the color of a fawn, you are of Elvish blood.”
“Ugh! Cut it out!”
“Cut? Cut what?”
“Never mind.” Exasperated, River glared at the ceiling, as if it could tell her everything she needed to know. Absently, she fingered the chain of her necklace, drawing the pendant out from under her shirt. It must have gotten tucked in at some point during the run or her sleep.
“Where did you acquire that?” Amára gasped suddenly.
River jerked in surprise. “What? Acquire what?”
“The pendent. Where did you acquire it?”
“M-my mom,” River said. Now it was her turn to be puzzled. “It’s a family heirloom.” She tightened her grip on it, as if she thought Amára might try to snatch it from her.
Amára began to pace, her dark emerald dress floating around her. She muttered to herself constantly, though River couldn’t understand what she was saying. She seemed to be talking in a different language. Finally, Amára stopped and stared hard at River.
“Stay here,” she ordered. Then, without another word, she hurried over to the edge of the platform and grabbed hold of something beneath it. She swiftly lowered herself down, as if descending a ladder. Soon, she vanished from sight.
River, curious, staggered up from off the cot and walked unsteadily over to the edge, looking down. As she looked down, she realized that the platform was nestled high up in a tree, with the ground at least fifty feet below. A rope ladder dangled from the edge of the platform with large, sturdy knots in place of steps.
At the foot of the tree stood Amára, looking up at her. The woman then turned and ran with a liquid grace that River could only envy, heading through the forest. She quickly disappeared from sight.
Frustrated and confused, River sat back on her heels and stared at the spot where Amára had disappeared. Her mind whirled with the sudden onslaught of information, deciding what to do with it. She could, of course, take the easiest route and go insane, but she had no desire to become a senile fifteen-year old. She could also accept the information and just play along, humoring the people until one of them slipped and told the truth. Or, she could take the sensible route and be diplomatic, but not giving an inch of her position: she would insist on seeing her brother and demand to be returned home.
The last choice seemed the best. Standing up, River returned to her cot and sat down. She crossed her bare feet, preparing to take several calming breaths, when she noticed something. Her bare feet.
Where were her shoes?
Standing back up with a jerk, River looked around. There. Her black half-calf boots rested at the foot of the cot, her socks stuffed in them. Her backpack sat beside them.
Sighing, River sank onto the cot. Enough was enough. She needed to relax and think. Taking several deep, calming breaths, she forced her mind to slow down. As her thoughts calmed, she began to hum, her voice low and hypnotic. She continued to do so for what seemed a long while.
Finally, she stopped and opened her eyes. Amára wasn’t back yet, but she hadn’t expected her to be. After all, it had only been a few minutes.