Maia felt as though she had been walking for days.
She would never curse at her worn boots ever again; she would even apologise to the damned things for threatening to buy a new pair after the monthly market had left. Her bare feet had suddenly grown too heavy, fatigue and sorrows made Maia drag her feet along the hard dirt. Her feet were filthy and worn from the dry earth she had been plodding over throughout the night. The cool ground had somewhat soother her throbbing feet throughout the last hours of the night, but now another day had come, and the sun was high and unrelenting in shining down on her. The ground was hot and uncomfortable beneath her feet, blisters bubbling on the bottom of her heels.
Maia had counted thirteen sharp stones she had stepped on, as well as thirteen curses that passed her lips at the jabbing pain that shot through her leg from the soles of her feet.
There were twenty-two villagers ahead of her – she had counted them last night, all with their heads hung low as they swayed with each slow step. The rope that connected them all by their wrists swinging between them, the weight had become a silent rhythm for the chain.
She stood on another sharp stone, a curse passing her cracked lips. How she longed for her grubby boots. Maia shook the pathetic thoughts away, glaring ahead of her; It was selfish of her to focus on her own suffering, all she had to endure currently was the sun burning her face and legs.
But Astrid, anything could be happening to Astrid right now and she wouldn't know any different.
Her sister could be anywhere in the lands and Maia wouldn't even know where to begin to find her. The large iron wagon she had been caged within hadn't been made from the familiar maple wood all of the Sun Court wagons were often made from. Wherever that wagon was headed, it must have come from a Court that was more popular in trade or had more silver to its name. Honestly, she was surprised that she had even recognised the material at all; it was so very rare for iron to be used amongst the Fae, Maia could have sworn she had heard within stories that Iron was damaging to the Fae and they had outlawed the use of it.
Maia glared down at the ropes that were wrapped around her wrists. She had to find her, but where would she even start? Maia had barely explored all of the Sun Court, the lesser Fae that lurked in the shadows were enough of a threat for her to stay safely within her village. Even when she ventured down to the sands she regularly had to sprint away from a nymph or sprite trying to eat her.
She knew close to nothing about all of the other courts within Ryunsei. All that she knew was that there were six cities that ruled over their courts, which meant there were six courts that Astrid could be imprisoned in. For all Maia knew, Astrid could have been taken to the City of Luxeat and not have left the Sun Court at all!
Maia sighed heavily, worry and annoyance clouding her thoughts. Even if she was capable of escaping her restraints and running from the two Warrior Fae and five Wranglers, she then would have to find her way through Ryunsei. If she weren't caught again by the same Wranglers or Fae, something else would definitely sink their teeth into her. Or worse. It was forbidden for humans to wander freely throughout the six courts, and all ranks of Fae knew that if they found a wandering human they had found a quick bite to eat.
Cringing, Maia dragged her imagination away from the different ways a lesser Fae might enjoy her flesh or blood.
A cool breeze sent a chill spiralling over her skin, goosebumps scattering across her arms. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt a cold breeze, or if she had experience it at all. Crisp air surrounded her, her burning face thankful for the break away from the sun.
A break from the sun?
Maia snapped her head up to where she would have expected to find the ever-present sun, her eyes already squinting in preparation for the familiar bright light, but all she saw was a sky full of pale grey clouds. A full sheet of plump clouds rolled over the sky above her, small gaps revealing that the sun still remained and was casting beautiful beams down onto the dampening ground.
The lingering scent of sweet maple that clouded the Sun Court suddenly faded, the air around her rippling slightly and replacing the sweet smell to damp grass and pine needles. Her head whirled for half a second, the boarder to the Woodland Court simmering at the presence of human blood. It was never a welcoming feeling when a human passed a court boarder, the protective magic always seemed to push her away.
Maia remembered the sensation from when Theodore had called her a coward only last summer, daring her to jump between the boarder of the Sun court and the Woodland Court. They had argued for barely ten minutes before she had puffed up her chest and strutted to the shimmering wall that separated the Courts. It was one of their many reckless ideas of fun, the endless days of sunshine boring them to death.
She hadn't noticed she was smiling to herself, her dry lips protesting at the stretching of her skin as a crack in her lip parted and a spot of blood bloomed into a small droplet. It was a fond memory of when she had stepped over the Sun Court boarder and into the Woodland Court, Theodore's hesitant warning vanishing instantly. The transparent wall rippled at her touch as she stepped onto the wet grass, the sudden plunge into dimness stunning her. She had barely taken another step before Theodore's tanned hand grabbed the collar of her shirt and tugged her back into the Sun Court.
They had both laughed during the whole walk back to the village; Maia was sodden and dripping, the downpour of heavy rain she had stepped into must have been a spring shower. Her boots squelched for the whole walk, Theodores bright grin and teasing had infuriated her so much she wrung out a wet sleeve over his head.
But now, the clouds silently crossing the sky and the rain having already passed, there was no teasing or shy smiles being shared between her and Theodore. Instead his head was cast down to the ground like everybody else, his hands bound in front of him.
Droplets of water coated the grass she had just stepped onto, the moisture flicking up onto Maia's bare calves. A silent sigh of relief slipped past her lips when the dry hard dirt from the Sun court faded into plush green grass, the damp coolness cushioning her sore feet as she kept walking forward. Lowering her gaze to her feet, Maia grimaced at the dust that had coated the tops of her feet, the dry layer now a swirling decoration on her skin from where the grass had clung to her feet momentarily as she walked.
Maia studied her surroundings, the mysteries and wanders of a different court made her heart rate pick up despite her situation, her senses flooded with new sights and smells. She had spent all twenty summers of her life confined within the Sun Court, the stories of lands more beautiful than the horizon had been nothing more that stories.
She was surrounded by life; thick trunks of tall trees housed lush green leaves and singing birds, the grass she was now walking across was soft under her worn feet, the crisp smell it emitted refreshing her. The branches high above her head swayed in the hushed wind, the trees seeming to have parted over the centuries to mark an unofficial path ahead of her.
The Fae at the head of the slow-moving chain of humans was leading his horse down the centre of the grassy path. Maia didn't dare to peer around the line to peek at what may lay ahead of him, fear still laced in her gut.
A periwinkle bird no bigger than her thumb hummed past her, its small body settling on the ground amongst a patch of small yellow flowers, pecking at the bugs hidden amongst the grass. She couldn't recall if she had ever seen a flower so bright in colour or even in full bloom. They were beautiful in comparison to the dried-up weeds that rarely dusted the forest by her home. Astrid would have snatched them up in an instant and tie them together to make a silly little crown. They would have looked beautiful wrapped in her hair.
A single tear slipped free, the salty droplet dripping from her chin and onto the wet grass. She wouldn't be weak, she would find Astrid one day, either in life or death but she knew deep in her gut that her and her sister will cross paths again.
The clouds parted long enough for a beam of sun to warm the back of her neck, a comforting embrace that reminded her of home. The warmth didn't last long when a looming shadow engulfed her. Looking at the back of the boy ahead of her, Maia's shadow melted into the shadow of a looming Fae male: pointed ears and wide shoulders. If she occupied her mind enough Maia forgot that there was a Warrior Fae brooding behind her atop a large black stallion. However, on occasion the horse would nicker and trot beside her, the warmth that radiated off of the large animal protecting her during the cool night.
During the night, Lowlight Sprites floated around the Warriors to enlighten their path. Maia had been mesmerised with the bright balls that gently bobbed in the air, different Sprites glowing in an array of colours. There was a particular Sprite, a gentle shade of lavender, that sat on the hilt of the Fae's sword that caught her attention. The Fae grinned from time to time when the Sprite whispered into his ear, the only emotion she had seen grace his sharp features. The Sprite's short legs swung as she lazily grinned at Maia when she was caught staring.
It was like the Sprite was mocking her, sat atop a lethal weapon grinning whilst Maia remained helpless and tied up.
She tugged on the rope attaching her to the whiny boy in front of her, an annoyed cry coming from him. Maia glared down at her tied wrists; the Fae had done a brilliant job at stringing her up like an animal. The rope wasn't so tight it cut off her circulation, but gentle tugs weren't going to allow her to escape. Maia grumbled to herself. Even if she were able to slip free from the restraints she would have to deal with the Warrior Fae directly behind her.
And his horse. And his Sword.