The cold edge of the blade lay like a weight upon my neck, pushing against my windpipe as I struggled to speak.
"If you're gonna kill me, get on with it," I sputtered with a dark frown. To my utter surprise, the man's mocking smirk fell away, transforming into a softer, almost kind smile.
"I'm not gonna kill ya, lad," he replied, standing to his feet and sliding the sword into the sheath hanging by his side. I breathed out heavily in relief, subconsciously rubbing the spot where the cold iron had pressed against my skin. "I take it you're from the latest batch of Grims, eh?" the man queried, offering me a hand.
"Well I didn't come out here for fun," I answered haughtily. I refused the man's hand, using the tree behind me to stand without any assistance. The wounds across my shoulders stung from the exertion, but I ignored the pain.
"How many of you are there?" asked the man, lowering the hood of his cloak to reveal a weathered face, with sharp green eyes and a head of scruffy, graying brown hair. I hesitated, searching through the surrounding forest for any signs of Leni.
Then, as if summoned by some magical force, the light-haired girl stepped out from behind a tree, carrying some sort of crude canteen made of a fruit husk. She screeched to a halt at the sight of the man in front of me, and I noticed her free hand settling over the handle of her dagger.
"Who are you?" she asked the man, eying him up and down quizzically. Her gaze was curious, but there was a layer of suspicion hidden behind her blue eyes.
"The name's Kip," was the man's answer as he studied the girl with a bemused glance. "I'm one of you lot." Leni raised an eyebrow at this.
"You're a Grim?" she asked, her grip on the dagger loosening. "And you're still alive?" The man threw back his head at this, laughing wildly.
"You don't believe all that nonsense about dragons, do you?" he replied, wiping an eye as he regained control over himself. "There's a whole settlement of us folk, just up the river a few miles."
"Really?!" Leni stammered. "But -" I interrupted before she could continue.
"Since you two are getting along so swimmingly," I murmured, my head spinning slightly as I stepped away from the tree. "I'll be off now. Have fun in Grim Town."
"Shayden!" Leni exclaimed, throwing me an exasperated look. "These people can help you!"
"You're lookin' a little pale, mate," Kip added.
"The gryphon's got to him," Leni explained. Kip nodded in understanding.
"Gotta watch out for those nasty buggers," he muttered, shaking his shaggy head.
"Please," Leni said, turning back towards me as I stumbled away from my support tree. She blocked my path, grasping my arm pleadingly. "You can't survive alone out here."
"Get out of my way," I hissed, pulling my arm away from her yet again.
"You really are the most pig-headed person I have met in my entire life," Leni retorted irritably.
"Then you'll be glad to see me go," I responded heatedly. I attempted to step past her, but my head swayed, and I stumbled. Leni reached out to stop my fall, but her slender arms were no match for my larger frame, and I toppled to my knees.
"I should leave you here to rot," I heard Leni murmur. Her words sounded muffled, and distant. My sight began to blur, and I realized with a heavy heart that I was slipping out of consciousness again. I wrestled against the clutches of my wounds, desperate to stay awake. It was for naught, however, and as a soft voice murmured something close by, I collapsed, the world going dark.
I awakened with a start, gasping for breath. My eyes flew open and I found myself enveloped in a cloud of gray. A tent. I was in a tent. I began to sit upwards, only to realize there was something soft underneath me. A cot, with a thin feather mattress, and a pale cotton blanket spread over me.
I glanced around the tent in wonder. There wasn't much else beside the bed; two wooden chairs took up the opposite corner, and a small table between them. A rug of white fur had been placed just beside the bed. I was preparing to lift myself off of the mattress when I realized… my shoulders were noticeably absent of pain. It was difficult to ascertain a decent look at them from my position, but there was some sort of herbal stench that was emanating from underneath a stack of bandages.
There was a sudden rush of wind, and my gaze shot up in time to see the tent flaps parting. A familiar face emerged, the man named Kip, followed by a younger, unfamiliar man with flame-colored colored hair and cerulean eyes. I tensed instinctively, slowly raising myself into a sitting position and swinging my legs over the edge of the cot.
"Hello there," said the red-haired man, flashing a smile that wasn't quite kind, but wasn't rude either. He was… unreadable, in a word. I squirmed uncomfortably as he reached his hand out, and offered him nothing more than a harsh glare in return.
"Where am I?" I asked, instantly detesting the nervous quaver in my voice.
"There's no need to be so calloused… Shayden, isn't it?" the man replied as he lowered his rejected hand, then took a seat next to Kip in one of the chairs. "We're not going to harm you."
"I'll be as calloused as I like," I spat harshly. "And I didn't ask to be brought to… wherever we are."
"If Kip and the girl hadn't brought you here, you would be dead," the man answered calmly, folding his hands in his lap as he studied me with a steel-like gaze.
"This is the Grim settlement," I said, struggling to catch a glimpse of what lay past the tent's entrance. "You're all Grims. Why should I trust any of you?"
"For the same reason we're choosing to trust you," the man responded, his face souring ever so slightly, as if he was tiring of this conversation. "The Grims are not what you've been led to believe."
"Oh, so you think you're all the good ones?" I scoffed. "And those inside the Wall are evil?"
"I didn't say that," the man replied, his blue eyes narrowing.
"Well," I said in a gruff tone, "In my experience, there aren't any good ones, and trusting in anyone is a waste of time." There was a brief stretch of silence, and the red-haired man gave me a look that was almost pitying.
"You must be a Seer-Son," the red-haired man answered, simply stating the truth rather than asking for it. I clenched my jaw irritably, beginning to feel an intense dislike for this man.
"What makes you say that?" I inquired, shifting ever so slightly. The man's sharp blue eyes bored into my own.
"I suppose you remind me of myself," he murmured.
I blinked, surprised.
"You're a Seer-Son?" I queried, unable to help the curiosity from overcoming my tone.
"You're not the only boy with a woeful tale," the man responded lightly. "And you're not the only one who seeks justice." I glared at the red-haired man, torn between the bitter anger settling in my stomach, and the mysterious, yet enticing words he had just uttered.
"What do you mean by justice?" I asked quietly. The man smiled blankly, his expression empty and void.
"I think you've had enough excitement for now, Shayden," he said in a voice that bordered the edge of kind. "You should relax for now. Besides, your girlfriend's been demanding to come see you ever since you got here."
"Girlfriend?" I repeated in a confused tone. The man smirked.
"I hope you'll stay, at least for a while," he replied as he stood to his feet. "I think there's a lot we could learn from one another."
"Who are you?" I asked in a wary tone.
"My name's Corwin," the man answered, nodding his head once more, then ducking out of the tent with a graceful flick of his crimson cape.
"I'll send in some food with the girl," Kip added, throwing a friendly grin in my direction before following Corwin out of the tent.
As the tent flaps closed behind him, I felt the coiled tension in my chest begin to unwind. Running a hand through my dirty black hair, I sighed heavily, my mind whirling miserably with all of this new information. A thunderous symphony was playing a chaotic melody throughout my head, and try as I might, I couldn't quite fit all the pieces together.
Before I could ponder my new surroundings any further, however, there was a rush of footsteps outside of the tent. The entrance was roughly pushed apart, and a familiar face appeared. I resisted the urge to groan as Leni approached with a relieved grin, bearing a tray with a plate piled high with steaming food.
"Hi there," she exclaimed excitedly. "I've been trying to get in here for ages, but the healer was quite insistent," she said, setting the tray down on the table between the two chairs. "But you're looking much bette -"
"I've got to get out of here," I interrupted, reluctantly standing to my feet. Although there wasn't a bit of pain in my shoulders, my legs were still a bit wobbly. Leni planted her hands on her hips.
"It's actually quite nice here, you know," she remarked.
"And I'm sure you'll live a long and healthy life here," I grunted in return.
"Shayden, you're not well enough to go off on your own," was her response. "You should at least stay for a few more days." My eyes narrowed.
"More days?" I murmured. "How long have I been here?" Leni hesitated.
"We brought you in the evening before last," she answered. "You lost a lot of blood, it's no wonder you were asleep for so long." I gritted my teeth together.
"Wonderful," I spat, sinking back onto the cot. "No telling what they did to me."
"They saved your life," Leni replied with a frown. "You could show at least a little gratitude."
"We were sent out here to die," I scowled up at her. "And I was perfectly alright with that arrangement." At that, Leni's face suddenly fell, a look of horror and pity dawning across her freckled face. She opened her mouth to respond, but words seemed to elude her temporarily.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," she finally said in a quieter tone, scratching the side of her neck as she shifted her feet. "The food's there if you want it," she continued, gesturing to the tray. "I really do hope you'll stay."
I stared after her, bewildered, as she strode towards the exit with her head bowed meekly.
"I don't understand," I found myself saying. Leni paused, glancing over her shoulder with wide eyes.
"What?" she asked.
"I don't understand why you're a Grim," I answered, uncertain why I was even saying such a thing. Granted, I truly didn't understand, but that was a thought I should have kept to myself. To my surprise, Leni smiled softly.
"That sounded awfully close to being nice."
"I must have said it wrong," I replied, dropping my gaze from hers temporarily. Leni chuckled lightly.
"Get some rest, Shayden" she murmured, shaking her head ruefully as she exited the tent, leaving me alone at last.