The night was short and perhaps that was lucky. Sally slept despite the cold, but when the first rays of sun oranged the inside of her lids and woke her up, she realized that she had crawled into fetus-position and could barely move her fingers.
Each limb was stiff. She had to concentrate on her nerves to make them react. She wanted to call for help, for a warm hug, but only a faint whimper slipped from her lips.
The trunk was so hard under her. When she rolled a bit to one side it was like intermediate ripples of numbness and cutting awareness resonated through her body.
"Au," she moaned and somehow sat up. Legs dangling over the side of the branch she looked around for the others. She rubbed sleep from her eyes and called: "Leela."
Something was odd about Leela, lying on the branch above. She somehow wasn't as distinctly green as she used to be. Was it because they were out of the caves? No, it was still dark enough in the forest to resemble the caves, so it was the same lighting.
Leela was pale. That was why.
"Leela," she called again.
"Let her sleep," Damen said, cradling Leela as he sat up. He moaned, too. "Zigo?"
Sally looked down. The top of his head was whiter than in the caves, she mused. He was pressing his fingertips against each other, head turned towards the rising sun. He didn't seem uncomfortable at all.
"Did you sleep?" she asked.
He looked like he was nodding, but it was hard to tell from that angle.
"Did the trolls come during the night?" she asked and shivered.
"Yes," Zigo answered, "but they returned to their caves after a short time. But they know we're weak. They'll return."
"So what now?" Sally asked. She threw a glance in the direction of Damen, who was as absorbed with Zigo's scalp as she was. Had he forgotten what he'd said in the caves? Did he still intend to make her pay?
"My village isn't far from here," Damen said. "We can reach it within a day's march, so the trolls don't stand a chance if we get going now. Unless they have underground paths to get them closer to it, of course, then they could move during daytime. But why would they go there, they don't know which village I'm from."
"But won't the trolls just follow our trail and attack your village?" Sally asked.
He shook his head. "Sometimes one or two trolls attack us, but never the actual village, only scouters and hunters, people separated from the rest. They're smart." His voice was bitter. "They don't kill their source of supplies."
"It sounds fine," Zigo said, standing up without strain. "I can carry Leela and then you can lead the way."
"No," Sally interrupted, "I'll carry Leela."
Damen's eyes snapped at her. His brows were arched, and his hair, even greasier than hers, clumped in front of his eyes, creating deep shadows. His lips were stiff.
"Really?" he asked.
"I don't trust you."
"Forgive me, Damen, you've got to understand why I did the things I did." Sally stood, supporting herself with other branches. "We had to survive. I'm sorry I didn't believe we could all get out and save everyone."
Daman was about to answer. Zigo cut him off.
"We couldn't save everyone. We barely made it after Hothor died. Without it how would we have gotten the chance we did?"
"I'm sure those skeletons would have raised anyhow?" Damen said.
Zigo finally lifted his face. His eyes were oddly fierce.
"No," he said. "I couldn't."
"So it was you," Sally said.
He nodded. "I couldn't have done it if you hadn't been that close to the corpses. I placed a magical mark on you, to channel my energy."
Sally frowned. "Is it still on me?"
Hesitation. Another nod.
Her first thought was to have him remove it but then she changed her mind. Why should she fear Zigo now? Even if he did raise skeletons … Then again, that was kind of cool. But! She reminded herself. Now that he's not going to die, what are his intentions?
Damen fidgeted, obviously struggling with the new situation.
"The bottom line is we all owe each other," Zigo said. "Now let's get down from here. Sally will take Leela, you'll lead the way and that fits 'cause I'm probably the most capable watch guard among us."
"I'm pretty good myself," Damen claimed.
"Sure," Zigo snorted. "Come on."
Sally snickered and followed him. Branches crunched and leafs rustled as Damen moved behind her.
On the ground Sally began stretching her limbs. Damen put Leela down and joined Sally. The fairy's lids were fluttering. She muttered something. While the others did their morning gymnastics Zigo kneeled by her and put a hand on her forehead.
"No fever – yet," he observed.
"I stopped the bleeding," Leela murmured. "But I'm shaken. My power reserves are low; I can feel the fever stirring in my body. I'm doing my best to keep it down, but I need water, some food. Can we get some, please?"
Her eyes were wide open now. Sally's stomach twitched, she wished she could go cut down a deer right then and serve a roast venison for Leela.
"I'll find something," Zigo promised. "For now just rest. We'll carry you – we're going to find Damen's village. He says we can get there by the end of the day."
"Really?" Leela smiled. She looked exhausted and was sweaty.
Sally put her arms under Leela's knees and back and lifted her up.
"You weigh nothing!" she exclaimed. "What a bitter world we live in."
"Really? I'm considered heavy for my race."
"Yeah, just rub it in, that's fine."
"Are you unhappy about being chubby?" Damen asked.
Sally turned to him, her expression frozen. She expected a sly grin but instead found genuine surprise.
"I'm not that chubby!" she exclaimed. "I just have curves. And I haven't had proper food for a week, how can I be chubby?"
"To him you're a bit chubby," Zigo replied. "Remember, in the wild villages it's not every day that brings food."
"Oh." Sally flushed, suddenly aware of the privileges she'd ignored for years.
"Let's get going," Zigo said, gesturing to Damen.
Damen nodded and looked at the sun for a sense of direction. Then he purposefully decided to head southwest.
At some point her arms were bound to give in. They had walked for hours, only stopping at a break when they found clear, delicious water and a bush full of berries. They were all tapped of energy, Sally most of all. She could still hear a faint buzzing in her head that shouldn't be there. It was like a hangover. She so wanted salty scrambled eggs.
It was midday and the sun was right above them.
Sally's knees broke under her, just before her arm muscles gave up on holding onto Leela. The fairy lifted her hands in an attempt to protect her face as she rolled away from Sally.
Zigo immediately kneeled beside them. "I'll take her," he said and lifted Leela.
"Thanks," Sally muttered and got up, staying a few feet behind. Damen hadn't looked back as they switched. Was he just longing for home or angry with her lack of self-sacrifice?
"Zigo, can you still keep watch? I really don't know what to look for."
"Sure. But tell me what in the world you're doing in the wilderness without any guidelines? You're pretty dumb, aren't you?"
Sally snorted. "I was smarter than the people who stayed in the Safety Area, they all got burned and eaten by the dragons. I fled while there was still time. Nobody listened to me."
"You knew it would happen?"
"Yeah. I could feel that something was going on. The last time a Dandy Witch had that sort of feeling was when I was a little girl and five dragons moved into the mountains near us. Back then they didn't attack. Maybe she just had a strong gift so she could see far into the future or something. I don't know."
Zigo's hair moved rhythmically with his movement. Sally's eyes followed it.
"A Dandy Witch."
"Yeah. Nothing special."
"Well, you managed to do a good deal with it. But yeah, it's not going to last you long in the wild."
"I figured maybe I could find some new Safety Area, or maybe some sort of family somewhere."
"You have family in the wild?" Zigo exclaimed. "So you're not just human? You look like it."
"My mother's a pretty strong witch."
"Ah. Do you think she survived?"
"I think so. Maybe she rejoined the witches afterwards, since I'm gone and … everyone else." Sally held back stinging tears.
"And you think you might find some family, huh?"
She smiled, glad that he sounded encouraging, and nodded at his back.
"Forget about it, Sally," he said in a morose voice, like talking to someone with cancer. "Don't go looking for witches. You'll be unlikely to find the right ones."
His speech wasn't very uplifting. Sally slouched and looked at the ground.
The sun was almost kissing the west, flirting with the night, when they reached the outskirts of the village.
Sally wouldn't have noticed. They were still surrounded by trees; she was convinced that the pain from blisters would never end and that she would continue smelling of unwashed body and hair for weeks.
She jumped. In front of her Damen held out his arms, shouting.
"It's Damen! I was captured by trolls but survived! Please help us, I've got a wounded fairy with me, and two who helped me escape."
Inside Sally's head her heartbeat was bumping like a deep base. Goose bumps raised on her arms. She kept turning halfway around and checking all directions.
Men clad in plain, brown or green clothes stepped out from between the trees. Their faces were hard and skinny, wind bitten and harsh, with scars covering faces and hands.
Weapons were drawn.
"Hey, wait!" Sally exclaimed. "We're not –"
"Shut up," Damen sneered.
One of the men, smaller than average, stepped forth. He had a large beard and granite eyes.
"Damen," he greeted in a booming voice.
Their arms flung out, grabbing each other.
The man had tears in his eyes.
"So great to have you back."
"Thank you, chief," Damen said as if taking some sacred vow. "I came back as soon as I could. Will you help my friends?"
Sally raised an eyebrow, impressed with her new title.
The chief eyed them with interest.
"Yes," he decided. "Come. This way."
He turned around and all the hunters followed, closing in on Sally from behind. She felt forced to move forward and stumbled along near to Zigo.
"I don't like this," she muttered to him.
"Don't worry," he said. His face was cold, but it was always cold. What he really felt remained a mystery.