Light filters in through the soft lace curtains, dabs of yellow against gray walls...gray. Our walls are white, block, streaked and fading at the edges of our posters. These are the color of a dove and textured like the earth. The bed's too soft, curtains of green morphing into leaves. Where am I?
"Meara. Blessings of the Fates, you're okay!" The soft voice chimes in a tone that carries the distinct feel of a gently flowing stream. A ray of silvery white sweeps through my clouded view, the voice dancing in the cool air again, "It's just us. He didn't want to leave you, but I knew you'd both need rest before the ceremony."
"Cirra." The name slips from my tongue before I have a chance to stop it, before I can remind myself that none of this is real. She feels like a memory though. The voice echoes in my mind, something about listening to the dragons and giggles popping like little bubbles in a summer's breeze. I must have had a mental break. My brain is sick and now it's trying to make me think it isn't so I won't dispel the voices or hallucinations.
Her slender body practically floats to me in a wispy sky blue chiffon dress that matches her eyes, soft ivory hands offering a cup filled with the sweet aroma of lavender, chamomile, and something I don't remember, "It's tea. If it doesn't upset your stomach, I'll make you something to eat. I just picked some fairy fruit. We have leftover lentil stew also. Or a sandwich with fresh garden vegetables?"
"Thank you." My throat burns with the attempt to speak, managing only a small croak, "What ceremony?"
"Take a sip. It will soothe your throat." Her smile doesn't quite meet her clear blue eyes as she pats my sore hand, "I'll go get Kieran. The ceremony needs to be performed as soon as possible so you may be joined. I know it's all a bit much to take in, but we really need you to regain your memory and your powers. They would be quite helpful right about now."
She's gone before I can force the protest past my lips. Minutes crawl by as I take inventory of the room. It feels like the inside of a toasted marshmallow, soft and warm. The leaves cloak the willow's arms, lightly swaying in the whispers of the wind. The air holds the charge of possibility as I fill my lungs with a purity only found in nature. It's a huge departure from the smoggy skies surrounding LA. Hints of pink and lavender bring life to the grays and whites of the walls and furniture, textures of cotton and silk adding warmth. It's lovely and something I wouldn't have thought of on my own. Maybe I seen something similar in a magazine or on TV. My therapist tells me all dreams have a stitch of reality, but this one's starting to feel more like a tapestry.
A heavy creak breaks the quiet a second before Cirra leads Kieran in with a small procession bookended by another tall man. She continues to by bedside as the others circle the outer edges of the half-moon shaped room. Two of the women watch me as the other settles her eyes on Kieran. She's more compact than Cirra, with mocha skin and haunting amber eyes. Starbursts of gold change intensity as her hand slips to her waist, checking the position of a small dagger, making it apparent she doesn't trust him.
The tallest of the three considers me with emerald eyes from behind an errant shock of white in an otherwise ebony crown, "Do you remember anything?"
"Gosh, Teagan, just jump right in." The little watch guard rolls her eyes, letting her hand relax below the hilt of her weapon.
The last girl is young, barely even in her teens if I had to guess, and observant of everyone's reactions without displaying any of her own. I wish I could feign that level of disinterest, but an attempt at blinking proves that I've been staring too long, likely with my lips parted in silent questioning.
Cirra slips to the last man's side, looping her arm in the crutch of his elbow with a grin, "Aiden has agreed to perform the ceremony for you so there need not be further delay."
All these people seem to think that I'm just going to hook up with mister fugitive elf without any explanation about what the heck is going on. Despite my body's desperate craving for his touch anytime he's within ten feet, I need answers so I can figure out how to get home. Unfortunately, with so many of them in agreeance, playing along with their plan may be my only option for buying time to devise my own escape. It's really too bad I've never played well with others, "As kind as that is, Aiden, I am not joining anyone today."
Teagan erupts into laughter as the golden-eyed woman glares at her and the quiet one collapses into a chair in the corner with a look of hopeless frustration. They're all waiting for me, counting on me to save them when I'm not even sure if I'll be able to save myself.
Cirra's about to say something when Kieran holds up a hand, "We need some privacy."
Golden eyes glowers at him hissing, "I'll be outside the door."
Power boils in my gut snapping a command drenched in an authority I didn't realized I possessed, "Enough. Out. Everyone. Now. The ceremony and whatever else can wait until morning."
Teagan gently navigates the tiny guardian toward the door, "Come on Bryn, time for tea, or spirits."
"Probably spirits," Aiden, whom I assume is Cirra's husband, laughs, his mirth filling the room, "Spirits for all."
Cirra files the youngest behind the others. With a final glance of dwindling hope, she pulls the carved door behind her. That look sparks a dull image, one I can't quite hold onto as my mind fights to make sense of the overwhelming familiarity flooding my thoughts. Kieran silently lifts a dainty chair from the corner, scooting it within reach, and folds himself onto the plush cushions like he's waiting for me to burst forth with a flash of memories. Everything is still too fuzzy to sort out, but the searing need to wake up is slowly fading into a soul wrenching desire to continue the dream.
"The soreness of the mark will fade. I can get you some waterwart to soothe the sting in the meantime." He stills my hand, careful not to touch the spot.
"I'm fine." I hadn't even noticed I was rubbing it, "What is it?"
I was always told the slight shadow on my skin was a birthmark, but I doubt I'll hear the same explanation from him. Perched at the edge of the seat like an overgrown robin balancing on a twig, his fingers slip to the edge of his shirt, deftly pulling it over his head and letting it drop to the arm of the chair. That progressed quickly. And beautifully. His body seems to have been cast from bronze, skin shimmering in the patches of sunlight as I drink him in. There are worse people to share a bed with at night...or day, anytime really. The tips of my fingers reverently skim the dapple of russet hair mingling with the raised edges of a deep purple mark that mirrors the one etched into my own skin.
His breath catches my heart as his calloused hand captures my touch, "Careful, they're linked. If you touch it, it will burn you as well and I really don't want you fainting on me again. Cirra's going to try an enchantment to lessen the pain during the ceremony."
Fabulous. They're going to burn me. Burn. Like a brand. We may not have a lot of cattle ranches around LA, but I know enough to recognize the concept of burning flesh. Holding my arm beside his mark for comparison, the designs spark with the need to finish each other, "Well that's weird. Is it normal for, your…people?"
"It's the mark of the soul. All mates have them, but they aren't typically painful. Aiden and Cirra think it's an effect of the dark enchantment." His dark tone is unnerving, but not as much as the hunger adding silver to his eyes. "You're still entrancing. I should have fought for you, searched harder. I'm so sorry I gave up before. I should have -"
I swallow his next words with a kiss, my body igniting with desire. I need him. He's ingrained in my DNA, flowing through my veins, filling my lungs with life. A strong arm lifts me from the comfort of the bed to the safety of his lap, hand splaying against the small of my back, pulsating tingles of promised passion through my limbs. A blaze of heat singes my wrist as it brushes his chest, our heartbeats syncing. I've missed him. I don't remember him, yet even though this is crazy and my mind is still in a haze, my heart remembers his and waking up from the dream flips from my only goal to my biggest fear. "Don't let me wake up. Please Kieran, promise me you won't let me go."
"Never again." He wraps me in his arms, fulfilling every desire I've ever had to belong. I don't need my memory to tell me he is my home. No matter what insanity we encounter, we'll make it. In his arms, I know I'll be okay.
My wandering spirit calms, his touch a cool salve to a lifetime of loneliness. I know what my heart is begging for beneath the ruins of my defenses. I just need affirmation that it's what he's seeking too. "You love me?"
The answer dances across the soft skin of my neck like a ray of sun pushing through the thunderclouds, "Forever. "
"So we join and…then what?"
"Yes. I can give you the evening, but we're all in danger. We need your memories and powers now more than ever." The grave tone and sorrow hiding behind his lashes send a shock of ice through my veins. They don't know exactly what the danger is or how to stop it. Now that the circle is mostly convinced of Kieran's innocence in my disappearance, they don't even know where to look for evidence of what happened or who is responsible. "We join and then we'll see what you remember."
I'm not sure how it works here either, but in the states, breaking out of prison or helping with an escape would automatically put someone in danger even if they were ultimately doing the right thing. "How will that protect you, or them?"
Like a majestic elk caught in the crosshairs of a skilled hunter's sight, he freezes, strong jaw tightening with uncertainty, "If it breaks the enchantment and your powers return, we'll have a chance at clearing our names and saving Echelon."
The plethora of other possibilities scares me, but I still press my fear into the silence, "And if they don't?"
A sad smile torques his beautiful face with a veil of irony, "Then I die joined to the woman I love."
It's like some weird fantasy version of 'Tale of Two Cities.' I won't accept an ending like that though. I've fought for everything I have, or had, and I'll fight for this, for him. I feel like a battery within me is being recharged by his proximity. Something about this place makes me feel like anything is possible. It also makes me feel completely insane for believing that maybe the reason I never fit in was because I already belonged somewhere else. The details are off though. How could I have been here if I'm only twenty and he says I've been gone as many years? We were married as babies? It seems unlikely, but so does everything else that's happened since he invaded my dorm this morning. Was that really just a few hours ago? That's a quick journey to insanity. What if that really is all there is to this adventure? What will I do if I, like Alice, discover this was all just a dream? "Okay, so how were we married before I disappeared and what were we fighting about? And where exactly am I? I mean we had whole branding issue and I passed out and now we're here and I find myself-"
His mouth captures mine in a kiss that drains all the worries from my aching muscles and adeptly silences my mind. "I think I've actually missed you talking too much. You could have kept things interesting in that rat trap of a dungeon your sister kept me in."
With kisses like that, I'd be happy to lock myself away with him forever. Without the rats though. I may be a city girl, but rats still freak me out, not as much as the mention of my sister, but the fear is still there. Family is more foreign to me that this land of dragons and enchantments, so I withhold any comment.
With a satisfied smirk he shifts us both to the bed, snuggling me tight against his side, resting my cheek just above the copper mark, "In answer to your questions, we've known each other since before our initial training began. Our mothers founded Echelon as a refuge for all without a home after the great wars. Fairies to the north. Elves to the south, and everyone else mixed in between. A treaty was made that all would be protected and each land would be ruled by its own government in accordance with their customs and the wishes of the founders. Things have been a mess since you left though and the treaty will be revoked if Kari takes the crown."
I was thinking of a geographical location, but whatever. "So we're in which land?"
"Technically neither, we're on a neutral island about sixty miles west of the fairies' territory. We're kinda being hunted since the whole escape thing."
It isn't funny, but a well of laughter springs from my chest at the improbability of it all. It's just too absurd. Trying to stifle the giggles with him scowling at me like that only makes it more challenging, "Oh gosh, sorry. Okay. Okay, I'm...stop looking at me like that!"
A slight smile cracks his scowl, "Are you done yet?"
"Do you speak Elfish? Do I speak Fairy? Say spoon."
"You've lost your mind. We don't really have time for that."
"How old are you?"
"We're 200." He replies drolly emphasizing the we, "Stop laughing, we are."
The serious stare quells the peals of laughter, but only for a second. "We look hot for our age! We should market whatever does that. Buy a little island off the coast of Europe and just hide from the world."
He rolls his blue eyes and smirks, "Keep it up and I won't even wait for the joining ceremony. I'll just claim you right now."
Well that's a sobering thought. Intriguing, but sobering. Flopping back against the sliver of pillow beside him, my mood shifts under his lighthearted threat.
Turning to face me, he props himself up on one elbow, resting his head against that hand as the other tangles with the curling ends of my mahogany ponytail. "I'm sorry. I was just teasing. I forget you don't know me anymore. You don't feel different. Your soul is unchanged."
How could I forget him? I knew him more than a century and then just left? For LA of all places? And turned into a baby? I mean I only have a couple pictures, but I remember being little. I remember skinned knees and 53 families who couldn't handle the dreams or my instance that I needed to go home. Home. This is...it would explain everything. Echelon being real would explain my draw to the ocean, the time I tried to swim past the horizon. It wasn't the water pulling me in, it was Echelon. Since I doubt I did this all to myself, someone must have really wanted to get rid of me, someone other than Kieran. "I didn't leave, did I? I don't remember what happened, but I know I wouldn't have left you."
"I love your confidence, but I have no answers. Let's see how you feel after you regain your memories, or even just share mine."
"Don't share them." I blurt without even considering what that would mean. Somehow it doesn't seem important now that I'm with him. I know he didn't betray me and I don't want to know if I walked away, because I can't handle being the cause of the sadness in his eyes. "Please, not all of them. Don't share the bad ones."
"Mear, I want you, all of you. Good and bad and crazy, I want you to be wholly mine. I can't ask you to give me everything if I'm not willing to do the same. I won't do that to either of us. I'll share my memories and if it's too much, if you need to go, I'll say goodbye." Gently kissing the furrow from my brow, he teases, "Then, I'll follow you like a dragon on the hunt."
"That was so close to being sweet." Even through the humor, I notice the lingering melancholy in those expressive eyes and my heart aches for his. Morning won't change my need to call him mine and I certainly can't catch up on more than 180 years in one night, "Let's get Aiden...and your shirt. I can't think straight with it lying on there like that."
"I'm sure." This is the most assurance I've ever felt. My whole life has been one uncertainty after another and I'm not going to ignore the chance to have this man as my constant. "Come on, they're waiting for us."
His hand dwarfs mine as he leads me out of the cozy room and straight into a scene from one of my dreams. It smells of lavender and vanilla, understated and soothing.
Less than a day and I'd already follow him into any trap he might set. I really am a perfect mark. That must be how they got to me before. Whoever betrayed me must have been close, someone who held my loyalty. A wide common room sprawls before us, lines of doors sandwiching a spacious sitting area in the glowing firelight, a cottage style kitchen stands in one corner with modest open shelving and no dishwasher. I know this place, it's the cottage I used for hiding from the monsters in my dreams. It's exactly how I left it. I don't have to walk the grounds to know the island is small, ten acres at best, with a stream feeding a refreshing miniature waterfall. Fruit trees stand in a circle around the house and further out tall firs keep watch. They told me I was crazy, all but that one lady who thought I was possessed and old lady Hawthorn who just pegged me as a pathological liar. "I thought I'd imagined it all."
Every eye latches onto me as the edges of my memory slowly sharpen. Cirra claps like a child presented with cake at her birthday, grinning and squeezing her husband's thick arm, "Let's begin!"
Brynn's grip tightens on her dagger, "How sure are we that he wasn't the one to enchant her and exile her to California?"
"Whoa there, tiny terror! Hold up." Teagan seems to be the designated babysitter of the golden-eyed tiger. "I did not save him from the gallows just to have you drive your pretty little knife through his heart. M'kay? Riley, Cirra, anyone...little help here?"
The gallows? "Did you just say the gallows?"
Green flashes as she looks to Kieran for forgiveness, "Ahhh, no. Nope. Hallows. The hallows were so out to get him."
A growl is his only reply to her, "Don't worry about it. I'm fine now."
"They were going to hang you! One does not just escape from hanging and say they're fine. Nearly hanging is not fine."
"You knowing the severity of the situation isn't going to help you with your memory. And you wouldn't even know about it if someone would learn how to keep her mouth shut."
The typically quiet one, Riley I think, shoots to her feet with thinly veiled annoyance and flashes her right palm, a bright orange ball of lightning zapping through the room, shooting directly toward Kieran's face. Before anyone else can stop it, my hand shoots up like a baseball glove, snatching it out of the charged air and snuffing its glow with a single snap of my fingers. Holy crap.
Bryn's fire is suddenly directed at Riley, "What the heck is wrong with you, girl? Have you lost that addled mind of yours? What if she hadn't caught that; or worse, what if her powers hadn't returned? I doubt Teagan or Cirra would appreciate you ruining the evening by melting the Prince's face off!"
I can see why they need a leader. They're like a pack of free-range kindergarten students. "Sit down! Everyone sit down and shut up so I can marry Kieran and we can fuse or link or hook-up…no, join, we're joining. Then we are all going to work together and figure out how to keep everyone alive with their full faces intact. Am I understood?"
Amusement plays on Aiden's mischievous grin, "I'd say she's going to make a full recovery. Now, let's begin."
Jeans and the oversized pink scoop neck tee I borrowed from my roommate before summer break hardly seem appropriate for any sort of ceremony, but the man didn't exactly give me time to pack. It may kind of blend with the other girls' casual ensembles, but I'm still really glad I put a bra on this morning when I made my run to Starbucks. Pretty sure Echelon doesn't have one of those either. Maybe I have a coffee maker. I certainly need coffee if I'm going to regain control of my memories and my land. My throat tightens when Kieran's eyes meet mine. The level of love expressed in that singular gaze is enough to melt any woman. I repeat the words as they're spoken to me, listen to him return the vows, and smile when cheers erupt in the silence of dusk.
"Meara, Kieran, I pronounce you forever fated. You may now join your souls in the presence of your people." Wow. In front of everyone? Who knew fairies could be so kinky?
Kieran gently kisses my forehead before carefully grasping my wrist and pulling it under his shirt, pressing it against his chest. Confusion floods my mind until the deep burn engulfs me in that same maddening pain. A soft white dome blankets us as Cirra's fingers tremble with enchantment. My body writhes as the mark deepens and our souls fuse. Fear constricts my vocal cords as Kieran's grimace shatters into an ethereal cry for mercy. The room spins as the past and present jumble together like puzzle pieces from separate boxes. I feel a force push Cirra's protection away from us as the intensity grows, the light blinding me until all I can see is that persistent flash of white before everything fades into darkness.