Chapter 9

     Anna was soaked despite the cloak. It felt like hours since they last said good-bye to Bloor. That seemed far away now. The veil of mist blocked out not only the view of the East side, but its memories as well. For the moment the only things that seemed real were the wave after wave of the torrent washing over them, the cold, wet wood underneath her and the damp rails onto which Anna gripped on tightly with both hands. 

The little boat rocked violently, looking for the perfect wave to ride on. Anna shut her eyes as a bathtub worth of water was dumped over her and opened them again when the upsurge passed. Not that there was much of a difference between the two. Closed she saw darkness trimmed with light; open she saw foggy white broken with flashes of water. Anna could barely make out the gray creature before her that's Leapyquick and the swishing movement of his tail under the cloak. She wondered vaguely how the horse kept his balance, having no hands of his own, until another plounge of water scattered her thoughts.

Anna kept a deadly firm hold onto the rails as the boat tilted sideways until they were an inch away from drowning in the swift current. She saw through slits of tight shut eyes a huge surge of wave quickly rolling toward them. She took a sharp breath and held it, dreading what was to come. But just before the wave swallowed them up, the boat suddenly jerked, tilting just as dangerously to the opposite side, and leapt forward. Anna, feeling exhausted and tight sprang at the same time, let her breath out slowly, then opened her eyes.

They were riding on the top of the waves now, and the little boat glided triumphantly from one rise to another. They went smoothly for a while, devoid of sudden movements. Then without warning, the mist parted to reveal a haggard, gray shore. The boat slipped smoothly unto the extending land and stopped.

When no one moved, the boat wriggled, as if urging its passengers off. Anna stood up and got out, her balance threatened by the wonderful solidness of land. Eric and Leapyquick stumbled out after her, and they all stood silently on the uneven land, catching their breath and calming their hearts. The boat had been still. Leapyquick gently nudged it with his hoof. It drifted further and further away until it was part of the River once more.

Eric suddenly grinned, "Well, we're here!"

Leapyquik neighed as a renewed excitement filled them. "let's get going."

They turned and found they faced a world strange, cold, and fascinating. It was well dark into the night, which was odd, since they left the other side of the River in mid-afternoon. Perhaps the times were different, or they had been on the boat for a long time—it certainly seemed like it. They looked up to find galaxies of brilliant stars twinkling above, blending into folds and layers of magnificent light. Yet the stars' light did nothing to light up the ground, for it was pitch dark below their ankles. Anna thought it was almost like they were standing in a quiet, shallow black sea.

No trees or hills blocked their view of the plains stretching out from the left, right and front of them as far as they could see. The stars' luminous light wrapped up this dark, flat world, yet the black sea underfoot was undisturbed except for a silver winding path that was appearing. It gradually became stronger as the travellers stood, and lay there, twinkling in the dark.

They were standing on this road now, the light shining true and intense but never straying beyond its strict borders, leaving the shadows alone. There were no living creature near them, and certainly nothing obviously threatening protruded from this land, other than its bareness itself, and the snakelike shadows that surrounded them like currents of black water.

Anna was relieved to see that it wasn't totally dark, as she had feared. In fact, they could see their surrounding perfectly well and still easily make out the silver road. She took several steps forward, followed by Eric and Leapyquick.

"I'm hungry." The winged horse suddenly said.

"So am I, soaked as well. But let's not eat or rest until morning." Anna responded, "Or at least until we get used to this traveling." She shivered and took off her wet and dripping cloak, trying to remember where the towels were kept.

They walked on for several hours. Anna spent the time deep in thought. She thought of her adoptive parents. Even though they had never really acted like a whole family, or even gained much knowledge about each other, she still felt a slight pang of guilt at abandoning them so easily. They had provided her shelter, protection, and education for the past fourteen years, and that's enough for her to be grateful for, not counting all the other things she was given. In fact, she told herself quite sternly, everything she had was due to her adoptive parents.

But she was also the daughter of a star…

Her parents were Estella and Shine Starway—the locket told her. They were captured, presumably slain, in a war against the 'Dark Force', which as far as Anna could tell was Setira and all those on her side. So she and her brother, babies at the time since Anna couldn't remember anything, were given up for adoption in the world where their mother came from, to live oblivious of their true identities and homeland.

That all make sense, once diagnosed. But together something didn't add up to provide the exact reason why she was where she was. There were still too many questions. How did her parents meet? How was she transferred to Earth? There must have been someone who went with them, to supervise and make sure they were adopted by make-do parents. If that's so, then who is the someone? Why were she and her twin separated? And what had Leapyquick to do with any of this?

Anna found herself dropping back behind the winged horse, and eyeing the creature warily. Bloor had said that only the ones with the Power can defeat the witch. Assuming he was right, then Leapyquick also possesses a huge amount of Power. The horse walked easily along, his tail swishing back and forth, untiring. On his back were two of their four packs, sitting in between the folded wings. Could it possibly be the wings? She thought, but soon gave up altogether, not knowing any Power to compare with.

"Leapyquick." She called, her voice sounding warmly familiar in this unfamiliar silence, the horse slowed down to walk alongside her.

"Leapyquick, why did you come? Bloor told us about it, who told you?"

"Bloor." He answered, looking surprised that she hadn't known it.

"Okay, so, why do you think Bloor went to you? I mean, why you?"

"In other words, my sister wants to know why you are here." Eric advised Leapyquick.

Anna shot him an annoyed look, "Not that I don't like you or anything." She hastily reassured the horse, who in reality looked more confused than hurt.

"Hmmm, I don't really know. The others didn't know about it, just me."

"Hey, didn't Bloor say something about Leap related to the Sky King or something?" Eric asked.

"Oh, Gandiboo? Yeah, he was my great-great-great-great grandfather, I think. It's a straight blood line." He announced proudly.

"Right." Anna said, thinking.

Eric was more interested, "A straight blood line? What was Gandiboo?"

"A very strong and wise winged horse leader. He lead in the claiming of the South and the lake of Miradias. They say that he was a seer, too. Though he never used it much. Some people would say that's just talk, but I think it's true, him being a legendary leader and all that."

"Are there many seers here?" Anna, who had been only partially listening, suddenly asked.

"Oh no! Not at all. Seer are really rare here. I can't think of anyone I know or even heard of that's got the Gift. Maybe one of the younglings will. I do think it's high time one gets born. There's usually at least one every century, and we haven't had one since Old Mistress Dellingold, and she's been gone for ages!"

"I see. When do seers usually start to show signs of, you know, their seerness?" She asked.

"Hmmm? I don't know about that, from 100 to 200, I think, maybe even earlier than that." Leapyquick answered.

"Oh, 'cause I was thinking, maybe they somehow found out that you have the Gift. That would certainly explain why they chose you." Anna explained.

"What?" Leapyquick looked shocked as he turned his head to see if she was serious.

"She has a point, you know." Eric told him, his brows screwed up in concentration.

"But-but I'm already 180! We aren't even sure if Gandiboo did have the Gift, and I'm sure no one else in the family did. Plus, surely I would know if they know!" the horse stuttered, looking utterly astonished.

"There must be some signs that mark a seer that only some people can identify." Anna suggested.

"But what about us?" Eric asked, "We aren't seers also, are we?"

"I don't know about us." His sister admitted, "What are you good at?"

Eric thought about it, "I'm good at climbing trees." He said helpfully.

Leapyquick spoke, "What was it Bloor said about you in the meeting, King of the Forest?"

Before he had a chance to answer, Anna said excitedly, "That's right! Peer of the Woods. That must have something to do with climbing trees. And I'm Lady of the Kaylings—" she paused, "Leap, what are Kaylings?"

The horse shrugged his broad shoulders, "I dunno. Do I get a title? I only heard the Forest part before I fell asleep again."

"Let me think…Oh yes, you're granted free access to the Kingdom of the Sky. Is that where the Sky King lives?"

"Holy Hiiya!" said Leapyquick, his mane shaking with excitement "That means I can go visit the Sky King whenever I want! Especially now that I can fly! Why don't I ever listen to people in meetings? Anna, Eric, this is incred—" 

"Stop!" Eric shouted, "Leapyquick, stop!"

"What's wrong?" Anna automatically grabbed his mane and looked around. But the horse who had already raised a leg, stepped sideways onto the border in a panic. A handful of white sand, brighter than silver, flew up into the air and vanished.

"Wha—!" Leap yelled, stumbling with wide eyes into more sand, Anna and Eric were doing all they could to drag him back and avoiding the firebird territory at the same time. With a final pull they finally got him clear. But immediately ugly squawks sounds around them, and five firebirds rose into the air and flew toward them vigorously.

"Weapons!" Eric, who already had his sword in hand, shouted before dropping down to the ground.

Anna dropped down also with her bundle, disentangling her blade. Only Leapyquick remained standing, ears laid back and holding the spear with his teeth.

Two of the giant birds went for him and three flew over Anna and Eric, circling back instantly as the two scramble up to meet them. Anna jumped sideways to avoid a peck from the bird's sharp beak and thrust her blade forward. The bird flew upwards with a squawk, but immediately bore down, aiming for her head. Anna stepped sideways again and sliced at it. This time it avoided the weapon and circled her. Anna turned to face it, tight for any sudden movement. She feinted to attack from the right; just then, she felt a sharp pain in her right shoulder. Whipping her head around, she saw the fifth bird flying off, aiming for Eric. Only luck made her spun back just in time to see a ball of red fire of high speed reaching her neck. Instinctively she held up her sword arm to take the blow. The unbelievable pain made her cry out and drop her blade. But through the hot blinding pain she dimly saw the red ball fall. She felt for and picked up the fallen blade and stabbed the exhausted firebird in the heart.

Gasping, Anna staggered and turned, peering to see her companions. Leapyquick was doing a good job fending off two firebirds at once: One of them had a bleeding wing and the other was obviously blind in one eye. She turned to see Eric in a tangle with the firebird; flying feathers and angry squawks told her all she needed to know. Now she looked around for the fifth bird. It was nowhere in sight. Feeling uneasy, she watched Leapyquick step on a bird with a hoof and thrusting the other through. Eric soon emerged also with his firebird held upside down in one hand. Grouping together, they checked each others' wounds. Other than a similar wound on the shoulder and some scratches, Eric was fine. "I would have killed that damn bird three times and more, was it not for this one." He told them, motioning to the firebird in his hand.

"Great Sky, Anna, your hand." Leapyquick exclaimed, catching glimpse of her hand wound where the bird had struck it. That brought Anna's attention back to her hand; it hurted more than ever now. She looked at it and saw, to her horror, the small finger missing.

Anna stared numbly at the place where a finger had been. Finally she croaked, "Leapyquick, will you teach me fighting art?"

"Why, of course, whenever you wish." He replied, looking at her concernedly.

Eric frowned at the wound, "Anna, it's not—it's not bleeding."

"Good." Anna dismissed the matter and refused to talk, or even think about it. "We need to leave as quickly as possible. I have a feeling the last firebird, the one that didn't do any open fighting, went off to get more of their kind. They might be here soon."

"Damn bird." Eric muttered as he shielded his sword and righted his bundle on his back. His sister agreed.

They left at a small run, wishing to put as much distance as possible between them and the Firebird Territory, and didn't stop until the stars above dissapeared one by one and were replaced by a single pale star of dawn.

"The path is fading." Leapyquick said, coming to a stop and gasping slightly.

Anna took several deep breaths and looked down. He was right, the silver path had faded to a light gray. "Let's stop now. It'll be morning soon."

Throwing down his pack and the bird on the ground, Eric yawned and stretched. "Anyone care for roasted firebird for breakfast?"

Anna glanced at it. It was as big as an eagle, with bright orange eyes, fiery red feathers and a sharp yellow beak. "Bright colors for a bird…better make sure the meat's not poisoned."

"It's not. We used to learn about those things back home." Leapyquick recited, "Firebirds, also known as the Lithicas, delicious when cooked over hot fire with a  pinch of pepper, feathers make excellent arrows—we can make some after the meal, and I think that's it."

"Wow." Said Anna, impressed, "You learn about these things?"

"Yep. I was one of the brightest ones, mark you." The horse shook his mane.

Eric plucked a bright feather out of the dead firebird, "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's start the fire!"