Chapter 6

In a clearing below the whispering trees, two quiet people and a horse shivered in the moonlight.

Neil rested his head on his hands as he sat on a fallen log. He could hear Ayden unloading her horse close by. More distinctly he heard the clunk of her sword as she lowered it and tied it to her belt. Their only real weapon at this moment and it rested with her. He knew what was coming-her endless and unwanted questions about the event which had just occurred. He knew who those twelve villagers were...or at least, he had a good guess.

Neil had come to the Lake Winsted to assassinate a particular individual. One whom he suspected of slaving and selling human beings. His intent in that town must have leaked out causing him to end up in this current depressing position. He heard the crunch of grass as she walked towards him. With a deep breath, he sat there in the cold waiting for her eventual interrogation.


She stared down at him expectantly, as she wrapped her cloak around herself. She raised one of her eyebrows.

Neil sighed deeply and ran both of his hands through his hair causing total chaos in those tousled locks. "Look,'s better if you don't know."

He glanced again to see both her eyebrows scrunched together. "Neil, I want to know why there was an attempt to murder me back there."

He looked the other way his expression saddening as he thought about all he was hiding from her. "Once you know...there is really no turning back." He stood and looked back at her. "I am not going to tell you, Aydan. You are going back to Merdlyn as soon as possible."

"Excuse me? This clearing contains one horse, enough supplies to last a week, and a sword...all of which belong to me. The nearest town is...not conducive to your health in a way. You have no money, nothing to bargain with and wandering through these woods is not recommended." She stepped closer to him, her eyes narrowed. "If you don't want to be stranded in the middle of this forsaken wasteland, you will tell me what is going on, your highness."

He had never confronted such a forceful spirit within her before. He stood up and stepped away from her, clenching his thick cloak tighter. Her words rang false in the clearing. She would never abandon him and she wouldn't win in a showdown with him either, but she deserved to know the truth and she can handle the truth. She was the representative of Shae after all.

They stood frozen for several minutes before his voice penetrated the silence.

"Those men worked for a man whom I am…trying to terminate."


"Have you ever heard of the Curse of Camille?"

Ayden was taken aback by this seemingly random topic. "Of course, it was in my history books."

"Well...what do you know, exactly?"

She sat down on the log in deep concentration, trying to go back in time to those days spent enclosed in a classroom. "A long time ago-more than four generations-a great disaster struck the lands of Aristar. My book explained it to be a plague which wiped out all of the crops causing uneasiness in the kingdom, a plague which generated in a village of Camille...but..."

"But it doesn't add up, does it? It doesn't fully explain what happened in those days."

Ayden rubbed her frozen face with her hands. "There is a different account of the tale told by my old schoolmaster from the southern nomadic tribes. He told me that it was indeed a plague but of a different kind than the historians in the capital tried to pass it off as. It started in a village...not of the name of Camille but in which resided a woman of that name. She took the fancy of a local...well he sounded like a magician and she eventually bore him a son. However, the magician could tell immediately his son was more powerful than himself and ended the newborn's life within hours of his birth. Camille, finding her first born gone upon waking, ran away and hid from the evil man. With vengeance clouding her heart she snuck back into his mansion and stole a sacred object of his, a powerful object with which she cursed all of the newborn magicians in the kingdom, dooming them to die before their lives could ever really begin. In her eyes, she was sparing those young magicians from being affected by the greed that comes with power."

"A very thorough summary indeed but he seems to have left out the truth of the famine and the natural disasters which tore the lands apart from the power of her curse. A series of deadly natural disasters struck the land in the ten years following her curse. Flooding at the shore lines, earthquakes in-land, flames erupting from the ground, and tornadoes leaving scars in the land. By the end of those hellish years, most of the magicians in the land were dead and the ones left were scared into hidden lonely existences."

"Ok, ok, the books were part of a giant conspiracy theory to keep the true history of magic from young children's growing minds. What does all of this have to do with the current situation, exactly?"

Suddenly, suspicious noises penetrated the secluded space they shared. The creatures of the night were restless.

"Perhaps we should leave," Neil whispered as he stepped towards Shadow.

Ayden's mind was overrun with images of the deadly night creatures she remembers from books as a child. Before Neil could grab Shadow's reigns, Aydan took them herself and mounted her horse swiftly. "My horse, I lead," she calmly stated down at his amusing face. She held out her hand for him. "Come on."

After he slid on behind her, she avoided the smirk on his face by settling the supplies more comfortably. The trio entered the main road; one way lead to possible injury or death, the other to the foggy north. "So...which way?"

"I'm thinking the path away from the charming men trying to slit our throats."

Rolling her eyes, Aydan turned her horse and the pair headed north, both veiled in the silver from the three-fourths moon in a clear starry sky. They kept their ears trained on the slightest sounds which penetrated the silence of the forest. Without another comment, Neil continued his story.

"Some years ago, before the war in the north started, children began disappearing all over the country. You probably never heard about it. Most of the children's disappearances were hidden well considering they came from...high class families. I only heard about the several disappearances from the high priests in the Capitol…."

Ayden was surprised. He was right, disappearing children hadn't come across her ears anytime in the past few years.

"My…my sister was only eleven when she was taken right from her bed in the middle of the night. That was three years ago…Ever since then I have been chasing any leads that might have to do with her…the man I am after…well you could say that he had something to do with…dark magic."

"I'm…sorry about your sister…" Ayden whispered, the wound of loosing a loved one fresh on her own heart. "But…are you…are you implying that the Wrath of Camille has something to do with the disappearances?" She took his silence as a yes.

"That is impossible! Magic was wiped out of the Kingdom and the curse was directed at the young magicians specifically. Unless…" in her surprise, Aydan yanked on the reins bringing Shadow to a halt. "You can not mean that your sister somehow had magic?"

She heard him sigh. "I cannot truthfully answer that but…I do not believe the curse is the answer anyway. If it is…that would mean that I have no chance at finding my sister…and I will find her. But…" a note of fear entered his voice. "This speculation was not created out of nowhere."

Before Ayden could ask him to explain, Neil interjected "We should stop here. Your horse needs its rest."

Ayden felt the slightly labored breathing of her faithful horse and slid off quickly. Neil jumped down and started leading her horse towards a nearby cliff covered with dead creepers. Ayden reeled with lightheadedness at her sudden decent and closed her eyes for a moment to rid of the dark spots plaguing her. When she opened them she noticed the hints of the coming dawn, the sky above was no longer the endless inky black. She looked around at the forest, keenly searching for any signs of followers, before following Neil towards the plant covered wall. He passed his hands over the wall until his hand finally went impossibly deep into the rock wall. Ayden strode up beside him and pulled the crumbling veins aside to stare into a small dark cave.

"How did you know this was here?" she turned to face her companion.

She caught a glimpse of his narrowed hazel eyes before he turned away and lead Shadow into the perfect hiding spot. "It is not my first time traveling in these regions."

She took his turned back as a hint that he did not want to approach this topic further. They stood side by side in silence as she unloaded the beast and he slid off the saddle and halter. She turned to set down her bag and sword on a nearby raised rock when he spoke again.

"Ayden…do you know the real cause of the northern war?"

Ayden was caught off guard and she turned partly to look at him. "Well…I do not really know many details. Mostly it was our reaction to increasing raids by the people of Epilenes."

He was looking down, eyes narrowed in what seemed to be anger. "Desperation grew in an already suffering country overrun with weak leaders. The cause, a series of violent natural disasters not unlike the ones which plagued our own history."

Ayden slid down onto the ground, reviewing this new information with interest and shock. She knew more than most people about the war, considering that her kingdom bordered the northern country they were currently in war with and that her father played a very important role in their offensive strikes. However, even she did not consider the Epileans side of this conflict, the cause of their unrest. But this new information, if it was true, gave more fuel to the theory of the curse returning. Ayden sighed and tiredly ran her hands over her eyes and through her newly shortened hair. To think that a few days ago she would have only listened to tales of magic as folk lore and now she was making it the cause of every suspicious event she fell across.

A yawn halted her thoughts for a second. Her mind and body were overwhelmed and stressed beyond their limit. As her eyes slowly drooped she asked one final question, "After all you have said, I cannot decide if you believe that the curse has returned or not…"

By the time his whispered reply had seeped out, she was already half way into the world of dreams.

"I pray everyday that it has not…"

The whispers irritated Ayden a lot. She readjusted her position but they continued. The whispers of people. Coarse voiced men. Ayden's eyes jerked open. Shadows flickered over the cave walls. She slowly pushed off the ground into her knees. She slightly twitched when a warm hand landed on her shoulder. She stared back at Neil whose narrowed eyes stared straight past her at the cave entrance. They rose slowly and he beaconed her to come back and mount Shadow who was already ready to go. As she pulled herself onto her horse, a quick thought that Neil had woke long before she did, if he even slept, and she would be in definite danger without his presence passed through her mind. But now she was awake, he was awake, and there were strangers slowly nearing their hidden cave. She felt, not heard, Neil settle behind her. The pressure of his hand on her shoulder reminded her to wait for the right moment. Feet appeared in the gaps of the drapery of dead plants. Slowly, a narrow beam of light widened on her chest as hands slowly pulled the plants apart. Element of surprise, here we come.

Ayden sharply pulled on the reins, causing Shadow to let out a chilling cry and charge right through the dead branches. In the moment of blindness after they left the cave, all the two could do was pull off any attaching branches, hoping that those tangled lines were not human and that those humans did not have anything sharp and pointy coming towards them. Ayden forgot the reins and leaned forward to grip Shadows silky mane. She felt one of Neil's arm slipping around her waist as they blinked furiously and hoped to the goddess that the horse knew where it was going. In a few seconds, Ayden was looking around at the quickly passing branches of the forest. She slowed down her horse and closed her eyes, calming her breathing. "Neil, you can let go now." She could almost feel him grinning behind her as his hand slipped from her waist. "Now what?"

He shrugged behind her. "Now, we need to loose our chasers, and I need to buy my own weapon and horse. I recommend…"

Both simultaneously said, "Kouttou."

Ayden smiled with the anticipation of visiting a city of her homeland. "But how to loose those men….hmm." she mentally ran through the maps of surrounding areas. "I think the best way is to detour." She stated haltingly before glanced over at the forest.

Neil peered over her shoulder and stared at her. "Cut through the forest?" His eyebrows rose in his doubt.

She glanced back at him, a smirk on her face. "If anyone can travel through the forests around Shae and bring you out alive, it would be me. It is really our only option."

"Or we can turn around and permanently incapacitate those men."

Ayden scoffed, "Yeah, even if we win with two against more than a dozen, what will you do? Leave them in the middle of the road unconscious to be eaten or mugged by the next forest creature or passerby? It is more reasonable and wastes less time to just lose them and go on our own way."

Neil sighed as she turned Shadow right and they descended into a half shaded forest path which twisted through never-ending forest.

"They will never let us go like this." He suddenly jumped off and walked back onto the main path. Taking a broken branch nearby, he brushed away their tracks leading towards the forest. "But for now, we will leave them a nice surprise." He walked backwards until he reached Shadow, then threw away the branch and pulled himself back onto the horse. Ayden nodded appreciatively before they ventured further into the forest. Eventually the main path was completely hidden by the thick growth of trees.

After what felt like hours of silence, Neil softly commented, "You do know which way we are going, yes?"

After a suspicious jerk backwards which almost seemed like Ayden had just woken from an unintentional nap, she replied, "Straight, if we go straight we'll run into the southern pass. That leads straight up to-" a yawn interfered. "-Kouttou."

She was so wiped out, her head overworked with the danger of being found and her body stressed beyond its limit, that she didn't notice the warm arms which twisted themselves around her and gently took the reigns from her heavy hands. The half shadowed path in front of her blurred until her eyelids finally shut to embrace the soothing darkness.

Ayden's head kept rolling around on Neil's chest until he finally adjusted her into the crook of his shoulder and arm, her face pressed against his upper left bicep . The sun had risen higher into the sky and was almost at its zenith. He once again looked down to shake his head sadly at the state of the girl in his arms. She was dressed in what seemed to be something she stole from a castle servant, softer than peasant clothes but the same tan tunic and loose brown pants, along with a regular dark green cloak. Her brown hair barely brushed her shoulders now, and, though she had pulled most of it back into a choppy ponytail, clumps of shorter hair still fell over her face. From a distance, she really did look like a young boy. He smirked at the thought of another lady of the court's reaction to Ayden's…disguise.

He did not understand this girl who completely abandoned her image. The girl who ran away from the only prospect of easy living offered to her to step into her father's shoes and represent her country of Shae, not to mention travel cross kingdom to find her father. Neil knew that he would never be able to follow in her footsteps. He would never be able to completely abandon the image and life he had before his sister's disappearance so that he could efficiently spend all of his time looking for her. Today, he was not the same young boy as three years ago, but he was still arrogant royalty with, according to Caedmon, a superiority complex and a loner habit. He still had some duties as far as attending the royal court and representing what was left of his family, duties that, though he abhorred them, he still did not have to courage to defy due to the rules of society.

He looked down at her again as her she sniffed and rubbed her face, starting to wake from her nap. Where did she get the courage, I wonder?

Ayden shifted, her head turning from his arm to lean against his chest instead. He kept still as she seemed to somehow become comfortable in that very awkward position. Just when he thought she was unconscious again, Ayden jerked up from her reclined position, knocked him on his chin with her head and proceeded to lean dangerously to her forward right and slide off the horse, head first.

Blinking against the pain, Neil managed to grab her left leg before her head smashed against the not so inviting forest floor. "Agh…" he groaned, rubbing his throbbing chin against his shoulder as he held steadfast onto her boot.

"You can let me go now…" He looked down to see that Ayden had stretched our her arms to support her body. As soon as he let her foot slip, she did a half cartwheel and landed on her feet. Her head still downcast, she took a loud breath and stood up dusting herself off. "I think I will walk from here on…" She kept her face looking straight forward, her look of concentration just adding to the comedy of her flushed face.

Neil wondered whether it was because of the blood which rushed to her head, finding herself sleeping in his arms, or both. He slipped off the horse on the opposite side. "Well I am not the one to let a lady walk alone."

She let out an irritated huff then started walking, tying back her hair again at the same time. Neil, with a twinkle in his eyes took Shadow's reins and started after her. With his other hand, he reached into the supplies pack and took out an apple and held it in front of Shadow. The horse paused for a second, neighing at his hand and the apple before his large wet lips swallowed it in two bites. "We should stop for lunch."

"I am not tired…or hungry."

Neil raised his eyebrows. "I am more worried about your horse."

Her turned back stiffened. She turned around, her face showing regret at her ignorance of her loyal horse. She walked back to Shadow, taking notice that Neil had just finished feeding her an apple, and took off the supplies bag and her sword. "Her name is Shadow, by the way."

"Shadow…how appropriate," he replied, running his hand over the shiny black hide of the mare.

She turned around to finally notice what she had overlooked in her state of distraction. They had stopped in a small clearing next to a clear stream, a perfect location to rest at. Ayden placed her items on the grass before stepping closer to the water and crouching down. She cupped a hand and lifted some water up to observe it closer.

"Careful. It might not be safe." Neil warned her.

Her emerald eyes glinted with anger back at him. "I know that well enough, highness. I grew up around the forest, after all." She let the water slip through her fingers and took notice of the stream's banks. A sign of poisoned water can be dead animals which drank from this source. As it was, she found two bodies rotting on the opposite shore, a squirrel and a small rabbit, before the stream curved way into the hidden lands of the forest. She leaned forward and looked into the water, just as she saw her reflection, a dead body of a fish floated past her. She rose sharply and took a step back, her face turning from surprised to horror. "I think…the water really is poisoned!"

"What?" Neil looked at her with uncertainty. He stepped up next to her and looked at the same carcasses and dead water creatures. He also kneeled down and ran his fingers over the dead grass which lined the shore. "It seems like it…"

Ayden observed the forest with misgivings. "There is something wrong with this place. We should move on."

"We can afford to rest here for some time. Your horse really needs it. As long as we keep away from the water, there is no harm done."

Ayden graced an annoyed expression at his back as he walked back and tied Shadow to a tree far enough from the dangerous stream. The unaware horse began munching on the readily available grass. Ayden moved her stuff further away from the stream and settled down between the roots of a large tree. She dug through her bag and pulled out two packages, one of which she unwrapped to reveal a loaf of bread. She broke it in half and held it out to her companion who had settled against a rock nearby.


She nodded at him before opening the other package and pouring out some berries in her hand. She held out half of those stolen goods also.

"Well, you came prepared. Even packed the delicacy of wild blue berries."

She rolled her eyes as she took a bite out of her bread. "If you do not want it, all the more for me." she drew back the commoner berries.

Neil grimaced, "No…I guess I am just a little put off at the fact that I lost all of my supplies."

Ayden turned her head up. "You are still not getting any berries. They are a delicacy, you know."

Neil ran a hand through his dark brown hair, pulling back the stray locks that fell onto his forehead, locks that flipped back to their position anyway. "Why were you so startled when you woke up anyway?" he exclaimed. "Really, falling right off the horse. That is one violent reaction."

Her face flushed again as she continued to stare away from him and devour her bread and berries. "Well…I thought we were under attack…or something…"

His laughter only caused her face to redden even more. "A-Attack?"

She threw a dark blue berry at him. It bounced off his head and landed on his legs. "I think that I was still…in the moment of this morning."

"Obviously." Another berry bounced off his cheek. He smiled cheekily at her, "I hope you had a nice nap, though." He caught this berry in his hand and popped it into his mouth.

"You are just insulting me so that you can get berries!" Ayden replied, her angry expression betrayed by her forming smile.

"And if I am, do I get more?" he grinned at her as she threw the bag filled with half the berries at him, shamelessly taking pleasure in the taste of the peasant fruit which grew excessively around the Merdlyn castle.

"Take them, you fiend. Hope you choke on one."

Though they sounded like they were arguing, Ayden felt more relaxed than she had for ages. Their conversation had returned to a semblance of normality, in its own odd way. The worries of murderers and poisonous waters drifted away slowly as they quietly enjoyed their pathetic excuse for a lunch under a cheery sun in an otherwise pleasant clearing, with the exception of the carcasses. The day felt like it was moving sluggishly as they walked in a twisted path through the beams of sunlight which made patterns on the forest floor. Ayden remained on one side of Shadow, holding her reigns, Neil on the other.

"I remember the first time I got lost in a forest. It was a lot like this one." Ayden mused. "I was determined to camp out there all night to prove that I was a worthy warrior, but soon I was just running around panicking, trying to catch a glimpse of my home again."

Neil looked over at her with a curious expression. He thought about what a shock it must have been to her family to find out that his young daughter wanted to be a warrior. Ladies of high class families never even approached the topic of warriors other than praising other men. It was not a custom he thought much of considering it never related to him, but now that he thought back to Ayden's secret practices in the forest and her battle against him, he realized that she had to always prove her skill to others and most people probably underestimated her because of her gender. Neil had no doubt after he saw her eyes during their sparring session that she was a warrior in heart, something the court will never approve of.

"Now that I think about it, I am pretty sure I finally just sat down against a tree and waited for my father to come get me. The guards did not find me until the moon was well in the sky and everything was blurring into what seemed to me shapes of monsters." Ayden let out a small laugh, "After that day, my father locked the gates and all ladders in the manor over night. I asked him the next day why he did that since, before, he kept telling me that the creatures of the forest were not to be feared.

"…Dad replied saying that the creatures minded their own business and we minded ours but if a little mouse like me wandered into their property, even if I meant no harm, they would be forced to defend their nest…like he always defended his own."

Hazel eyes observed her as they walked peacefully. She was looking off into the distance, probably reminiscing about her missing father. He tried to lighten the mood a little by bring the topic back to her childish adventure. "How old were you anyway when you decided you wanted to conquer the forest?"

She turned to him, a smile still on her face and a her eyes still glazed. "Around four years."

"Four? What kind of insane child would run into a forest at four?"

"Obviously this one." Ayden replied, rolling her eyes at his shocked expression.

Neil chuckled thinking about how General Fallon, Ayden's father, must have felt about his unusual daughter. As the silence passed, he felt like he probably should share something from his childhood too considering that she just opened up a pretty personal story to him.

"I was seven when my sister-she was one then-showed strong signs of magic. This was before the priests had found out and had…our old nursery maid and I were the only ones who knew at first. I kept it a secret because I…well I guess to me she was like a fun new toy. Most days she would be found in the most random locations, like the roof of the chicken coop, and sometimes she is crawling over water."

Neil felt Ayden turned towards him and he glanced, only to be take aback by her wide interested eyes. "Magic can make her walk on water? What else could she do?"

He shook his head, internally laughing at her curiosity. "It is not like she could control it. At that age, the magic is so unused and present in a large amount that it bursts out in random forms. I remember one time when she was levitating a foot off the ground for almost an hour. But the best one was at one of the court meetings. She was already in a bad mood when people crowded around too much. As suddenly as she started crying, the tapestries hanging all around the room caught on fire. My mother and father were thankful that everyone was so absorbed with not being burnt to a crisp that they didn't notice the coincidence. To me, that will always be one of my favorite court meetings."

"Wow…" he saw that Ayden was now back to staring off into the distance except now she just looked bewildered. "Imaging having such power like that. Being able to make fire out of nothing. Magic is so…so…amazing!"

"Ahh…you are a witty one, I'll admit. Such a way with words." Neil smirked as she grimaced at childish description and turned back towards the path ahead. However, her words made him realize something. To him, magic had always been a burden. A secret to sweep under the rug when society called. To her…it was something extraordinary. It surprised him…until he remembered his own childhood when he had first learned about magic in the dusty old tomes that the high priests used to stack in front of him. The stories of magicians and their feats, the kingdoms and princesses they saved, it gave him the same rush that his naive companion was probably feeling right now. What he would give to live in the world of storybooks. Reality usually had a bit more handwork and sacrifice, along with ill treatment by those who…misunderstood. Magicians were not heros…that was something that had been drilled into his training since his youth. That lesson was the one he promised himself to never forget.

A/N: It's been a in a looong unforgivable while since I've updated. Well here is the long anticipated chapter 6 fellow readers!