A/N: I removed all but this first part of the story. So, I'm sorry to anyone who wanted to read more! I'm focusing on other projects now and considering my options for publication. Most of the stuff I have left on fictionpress is very old. I wrote several novels when I was a teenager and ultimately it was a very good experience to write for people on this site and get feedback, but I can't say I'm perfectly happy with any of these stories any longer. I may reboot some of these stories, or reuse ideas here and there, but I wouldn't feel comfortable soliciting publication for any of these texts.

Part One: Hearts

II

The dark water of the river rushed by. Lea's reflection rippled through it in ribbons of sparkling light. She finished arranging the flowers in her grasp, water lilies, wild roses, daisies, and other flowers that she had found along the path on her way to the river. Lea caressed the petals with her thin white fingers, feeling the sticky moisture from their broken steams and the silken texture of the colorful blossoms.

She had tucked a small lily behind one ear. The pale hue of the flower was almost indistinguishable from Lea's soft white-blonde hair; draped in waves over a petite frame, tickling her hips as she moved her head.

On the other side of the river, the forest marked the limits of her world. On this side of the water, she was perfectly safe. It wouldn't be hard to cross the little stream, it wasn't very deep or wide and she knew places were the barrier was even thinner. Further down the road it curved off into the forest itself and a pathway opened up in the trees—inviting to any strangers who didn't know better than to go into the woods. But the rules had always been clear with regards to her family's property; this side of the water was safe, the other side was not. It looked innocuous enough. She saw the birds across the river. They were just fine. The deer lived in the forest safely enough. There were more beautiful flowers and deep green foliage on the other side, but Lea didn't dare claim them.

She broke eye contact with the thick of trees and gazed at the bouquet in her hands, running the stems over her fingers. Slowly she raised the flowers to her breast and looked in alarm at her reflection. She had removed her grey apron and hung it on a branch nearby, leaving only a white cotton dress around her thin body.

She did look like a bride. That couldn't be right.

Her wide, dark eyes shut tight against the image, she felt the flower fall from her hair as if she had willed it, then let the bouquet drop from their arrangement in her hands and onto the riverbank.

"Here flies a friend, with a message from thy mother," a small voice rang out from across the river, "Get thee home girl." The little grey starling that had spoken was flitting its way from a perch in one of the dark trees of the forest to the bushes on Lea's secure side of the world. The bird had the same strange accent that all the birds that learned to speak did. Like they made every word sound like it was dancing around an S, but Lea was used to the strange whistling way that they talked.

She walked to her apron on the ground and pulled a small bag of seeds from the pocket, gathered a half dozen in her hand for her mother's messenger. The bird landed on her palm with only a second's worth of caution, and ate as Lea sat down and awkwardly put her shoes back on with one hand. When the starling had finished and flown away, she pulled her apron back on before making her way to the fields. Lea's feet guided her through the tall grass toward the little brown house in the distance.

An autocar thundered by on the dirt road, its engine released a trail of smog in its wake. She let it pass, catching a brief, terrified glance at the woman in the window She looked like a mage, the way she was done up so splendidly. The mages and the necromages were always rich. They only ever came to this passed through this part of the country. This carriage wouldn't stop in town. Lea darted across the street and caught sight of two of her sisters doing the laundry outside. Their outfits were different from hers, in only the detail that their aprons were blue rather than grey.

They had been talking about her. Both girls had frozen in their work, as their slip of a sister separated herself from the long grass in front of their yard. Their identical long blonde plaits hung over their shoulders and their hands perched on their hips. They looked at Lea with confusion and disappointment.

She put her head back down and closed the door behind her.

Mother had no confusion in her expression, she just looked angry. The woman released her grip on the wash rag she was using to clean the counters. Her eyes were glued on Lea and looking as if they would never blink again.

"I could not accept him mother." Lea really did not wish to speak first, but her family obviously already knew everything about her morning in town. Keti would have told everyone hours ago.

"Sealea," mother hissed and raised a hand to let her know that she was not expected to say anything, until mother had finished. "I do, remember, however vaguely, that you once told me you really wanted to marry for love."

Lea shook her head, in spite of her mother's protests. The incident of which she spoke had occurred when Lea was seven years old. She said "I am not a fool. I have weighed the issue; removed it from my own emotions and looked at it rationally. I cannot marry him."

"Mr. Holden is the richest man in town, Sealea! He has inherited his father's wealth at a young age. You could never design a better match. Do you realize how this could benefit our family?!" Mother rose to her feet.

"He is cruel!" Lea blurted out, "I have seen the way he treats his animals, his servants, and even the children in town. I cannot let my children have a father like that, no matter how much money he has!"

"He can take care of you, is the bottom line." Mother argued reasonably. "We cannot," she added with a depth of regret that Lea had not been prepared for. Tears shown in her wrinkled eyes, "You need to understand this, Sealea; your parents… I can leave you nothing but the house and sick crops. You have to make your own way in the world, here is your opportunity to have all of that taken care of, so you have security, and never have to worry and you refuse him? I do not understand!"

"I..." she tried to form her words but could not in time.

"I will not have you working." Mother literally put her foot down. "It is too dangerous! If you do not get married then you will eventually have to find a job in the city. There is nothing but necromages in the city and sorciers in the woods. Stick to town, little slip. Marry a rich man, my caution."

"The city does offer jobs for girls like me," said Lea in a small voice, "grand houses, theaters and banquet halls, I could be a maid."

"There are mages in the city, Sealea. You cannot travel more than ten feet out of town without running into some awful sorcier. You would be cursed in an hour," Mother snapped, "Sorcier Grae, the mage Volden, Yule and Sidyan there are too many of them around."

"No." Lea shook her head, "I do not want the trouble," she could not look at her mother, and instead let her eyes rest on Dust, the grey colored cat that belonged to her oldest sister, as it ate what remained of the supper that Lea had missed.

"Then find yourself a husband. Mr. Holden is the best offer you are ever likely to get." Mother was calming down now. Her face was still red, but her breathing was normal. "Go, find him. Tell him… tell him anything. Tell him you refused because your sister was also in love with him and you were afraid for her feelings. He will believe anything as long as you cry a lot, and keep touching his hands."

Lea was very quiet. She knew the crying would be sincere, but misunderstood. Slowly she nodded her head and left the house, running quickly back towards town.

The sun was drooping into the earth now, though sunset was still a few hours away. The light glared through the taller trees. She walked down the dirt road, dreading what she had to do. She knew her mother was right but how could she marry Mr. Holden? She had thought her mother would at least agree that it was against propriety. Lea was the youngest of seven daughters, only the three oldest were married. She should let her three unmarried sisters find suitors first, shouldn't she? But it seemed her mother did not care about propriety when an opportunity to be wealthy presented itself.

The girl fingered at her woven grass bracelet moodily, she had made it that day during the hours of hiding after her unexpected marriage proposal. Lea was not the only girl to be married off at fourteen years old. It was not uncommon for girls to be married when they were as young as twelve. But, Lea had never thought she would be one of those girls.

Lea really could not afford to have these feelings of doubt and fear. She looked ahead to the growth of buildings that butted the vast forest. Mr. Holden's home was on the very edge of town. She always had to pass it on her way to the market. She could see the sweeping lawn already. One of those loud horseless carriages was parked before the house.

A cat yowled from the tall grass to the right and Lea used it as an excuse to stop, "Dust, is that you?" She peered at the cat that had followed her from the house.

"Mistress comforted the child while she cried," purred the cat in that strange, lilting voice.

Bewitched yellow eyes and a grey head looked up at her from the grass, the cat's whiskers stretched out wide, while his ears pulled themselves back. Not all animals could talk, only the very smart ones, or the animals that lived with mages. Even when they did speak, they usually said very little, or spoke in jumbled rhymes and riddles, the way Dust did. You had to listen closely to understand them. Especially Dust.

"Flutter, flutter, come closer…" the cat rolled onto its back, purring more loudly.

"Are you keeping me company?" Lea approached the cat, "Or out searching for food you do not need?" She rubbed his fat belly, and out of the corner of her eye Lea saw a small bird fluttering close to the ground.

She opened her mouth to cry out and warn the bird. But, before she could manage more than a gasp of surprise, the cat had leapt into the air and caught the tiny winged creature in mid-flight!

"Dust! You naughty beast, let it go!" Lea cried in horror as she descended upon the cat. Its jaws clamped down over the struggling ball of feathers.

The bird was shrieking violently as Lea tried to pull at the cat's razor-sharp jaws, "Let the poor thing go!" She ordered, and felt a delicate wing brushing over the palm of her hand; desperately trying to free itself from the cat's white teeth.

Reluctantly, it seemed, the cat opened its mouth just wide enough that the bird shot out, getting caught in Lea's grass bracelet as it struggled into the air. The bracelet slipped right off her wrist as the bird got away with the grass plaits tangled in its ruffled feathers.

The bird fluttered to the dirt road, with the bracelet caught around one wing, it stumbled in the dirt, while Lea rushed to help it and also keep the cat from changing its mind about letting the bird go.

"Thy friend is spared, Boney," the cat seemed to grumble at her.

The bird was squealing sharply and looking around in panic as its one wing was stretched out toward the sky, and its other was held pathetically in place by Lea's bracelet. Quickly she snatched the bracelet off. The bird's liberated wing shot away from its body as it flapped wildly, trying to get far away from Lea and Dust.

"Wait!" Lea raced after the bird, which was flying drunkenly down a small path that led into the forest. The trees that grew there seemed to curl inward, creating a kind of tunnel at the beginning of the path. Lea had always wanted to explore this part of the forest; the part that wrapped around the stream and almost made a road right into town. It couldn't be as dangerous as the forest further north. But she had always been too afraid to venture very far. Her mother had spent much of her childhood, warning against going into the forest, with as much enthusiasm as when she warned her against going to the city. 'The forest is dangerous, Lea. The sorciers leave dormant spells there to trap foolish humans'

She stared down into the throat of the dark forest and then back at the house of Mr. Holden. She was in a great hurry, and in the same instance she would do anything to prolong the moment when she must become engaged to Mr. Holden.

A breeze caught a thick lock of pale hair and blew it before her dark eyes. The bird had not gone far, it might be injured. Its twittering sounded vaguely like "Lea, Lea!"

She bolted towards the trees, catching up with the bird quickly. It kept landing every few feet, as if it needed to catch its rapid breath. She followed the bird deeper and deeper into the forest, distantly aware that for a least a short time, the cat had been following, though it left them when it found a butterfly to hassle.

The bird was flying very low to the ground, and not straight at all. Lea was worried that Dust may have hurt it very badly. But the deeper into the forest it traveled, the straighter the bird flew and the less it dipped toward the earth. She tried speaking to it, but the bird wouldn't respond. Lea decided after several minutes that it must not know how to speak; she had imagined it calling to her.

After some time, the bird found a tree it liked and went to rest itself.

Satisfied that the cat had done no lasting damage, Lea realized, with a somber surety, that she really ought to get back to her duty now. She should go and correct her mistake with Mr. Holden as soon as possible. Still, she paused, and stared at the trees of the forest, longing to see more of the world that the animals might call home.

Making up her mind with a smile, Lea began to walk deeper through the trees. If she had to do this, she was going to take her time. A small walk would not delay things too much. She thought it would probably take Mr. Holden at least a week to decide on another suitable bride. She would only spend an hour in these trees, at the most.

The shadows from the wood cast eerie shapes over the ground as she ran.

Lea ran until she lost track of her surroundings and just let her feet move her, while her mind thought and worried and wondered. Mr. Holden would not treat her kindly, she knew that. He treated no one with respect, least of all those closest to him. Her life would not be easy or sweet. She would be something more than a prisoner in her own home. But maybe, there was some hope her life as Mrs. Holden could be blessed with glimmering moments of happiness.

What about children? What would she do with them? She could not keep them away from their father. She would just have to do everything she could to ensure that they were loved and cared for, and turned out different from her husband.

Lea stopped running and soon found herself collapsed in fatigue on the floor of the forest, kneeling in leaves and covering her face in her hands. She cried, but not much, just enough to get the emotion out of her system, before she could push it away.

She was milk-white against the darkness of the forest, the light faded as a cloud passed over the slowly dying sun.

Lea needed to go, she knew this. She did not know how long she had been running, but she needed to see Mr. Holden before dark, and get home or her family would worry.

She was not the sort of girl to run away. Her mother was right, the world was too dangerous. If she went even an inch farther than she already had, Lea was bound to find herself in the path of a necromage, angry sorcier or some other foul thing that would ultimately end in disaster, or maybe adventure.

"No!" said Lea out loud, trying to stay calm and scare the thought away at the same time. She could not run anymore. She had nowhere to go. She was scared.

"Save me." She prayed, a tear fell to her neck and Lea closed her eyes.