The sun danced on the walls as I was waking up, my eyes clouded still with sleep I stretch and for a moment I forget all that’s happened deluding myself into believing it was an average day. But it comes rushing back to me and I quickly bunch up the covers around me as I remember Rafe sleeping in my room last night but as I glance around it looks as if he’s already left. Feeling slightly disappointed about not seeing him I frown and quickly change into my freshly laundered clothes, breathing in the sweet soapy smell and yank a brush through my sleep tangled hair.
I grab my now dusty back-pack and rifle through it making sure my fresh clothes don’t get too crumpled and that I have enough room to place in supplies and the map. I suddenly remember back at Cherry’s house when going through my bag there was a dress.
Searching right to the bottom I notice it’s still there but I can’t bear to remove it, I suppose you never know when you need a nice dress. Sighing I hoist the bag onto my shoulder and bounce down the stairs to a quiet conversation in the kitchen.
“Ready to go?” Rafe asks quietly as I sit down with some mint tea, inhaling the sweet scent I look up at him, his eyes light gold and I notice he’s got the tourmaline back, this time on a rope hanging around his neck. I smile and he returns it as he notices my gaze drop to the crystal “As ready as I’ll ever be.” I reply as I subconsciously start to play with my own crystal that I have strung around my neck.
Rao sat at the other end of the table shook his shaggy head and leapt down from the chair. “The Oracle will not be seeing us off. So when you are ready we can begin the journey.” Leaving the room without even a backward glance he headed outside, silent communication passed between me and Rafe as we raised our eyebrows at each other and smiled softly at the wolf’s dramatic exit.
Going outside presented a pleasantly bright day with a soft breeze beginning to stir the leaves on the trees showing that some were turning red and orange. Autumn was in full swing and soon would follow winter. Taking a deep breath I hoisted my bag up and stepped down onto the crunching leaves that were beginning to swirl around.
Rafe came up behind me and brushed past my arm, goose bumps rose I shivered and inhaled as he stood next to me. His scent was sweet yet masculine, the sweetness of a summer flower yet musty mixed with the musky smell of masculinity part sweat, part mystery that made my knees tremble with want, with need.
I blush and shake my hair over my face. These thoughts were getting dangerous, nothing was happening between the two of us. Like Pandora’s Box, he was something I knew I could never have. That dark look that crossed his eyes sometimes, the shadows and that note, they all meant something, something that he wasn’t telling me probably anyone and yet I want to open the Box and release that torment just for that last strand of hope to be set free.
A few minutes went by before we had all made a conscious decision to start walking, with one final look at the crooked Arcana house, I turned and walked away Rafe by my side and Rao loping ahead in front setting the path to the future. We headed towards the similar expanse of path that was set out before me on that first day mere weeks ago.
The days progressed slowly, passing through the small trails and barely existent paths. The Otherkin were scattered throughout the woods we’d bumped into vampires and redcaps a plenty by the time we reached the depths of the darker, wilder woods of Wintrem, their toothy smiles sending shivers down my spine as Rao growled and Rafe glared with his sharp metallic gaze.
At one point I was tripped by a wandering vine and Rafe caught me, sending the butterflies that I thought I had under control into a frenzy, he steadied me and held my hand through the toughening terrain making my blood boil and cheeks flare up from my lustful thoughts. Occasionally I caught Rao glimpse back and raise his brow at us.
The past few days meant that Rao barely spoke except a disgruntled direction or he barked an order as to what we needed to avoid. Rafe, however, kept up light conversations, which surprised me when he began asking me about books and my life.
The deeper and further we walked into the older part of the woods meant fewer day-light hours and the constant sense of being watched. At one point camping by an old twisted tree howls began to resonate around us, Rao’s tail bristled and Rafe had begun to instruct me to stay hidden when a very angry, disgruntled gnome appeared out of the twisted bushes. The pressure and intensity of the situation built up and I couldn’t help but laugh. Fits of giggles overcame me and I was gasping for breath as everyone looked at me like I’d grown two heads.
This apparently didn’t calm the gnome down as its bushy grey eyebrows furrowed deep and its beard waggled as it began to rant about how we’d stepped right over his burrow and made half the tunnel cave in over his treasure. I looked up at him my eyes streaming tears of laughter; he was wearing dark overalls covered in dirt and the occasional earthworm wiggled out of his pockets, his grey hair knotted with twigs and his dishevelled appearance made me laugh harder.
“What’s wrong with the thing?” the gnome’s voice was raspy and sounded like something was stuck in his throat as he finished with a hacking cough, his stubby, dirt clogged fingernails pointing in my direction. I sobered slightly sitting up, the occasional giggle bubbling over as I tried to catch my breath. Rao’s hackles were still up and Rafe’s eyebrows were raised in an incredulous expression, folding his arms in an intimidating way, peering over and down at the gnome. “Who’s asking?” he growls, the gnome backs away almost grovelling at Rafe’s feet, though I don’t see his face, I know from his voice that his eyes are turning a cold steel gold enough to freeze you in your tracks.
The gnome suddenly sheepish starts to grovel at his feet, his blackened pointed teeth leering at me as he spoke, “Sorry, your Excellency,” My giggles stop suddenly, I see Rafe visibly shudder at the word, did he just say what I though he said? The gnome waffles off on a tangent at how brilliant Rafe is, my ears are still focussed on that word, Excellency. I look at Rafe, his body shaking, his back taut at the word and the tension roles off his body mixed with fear. Looks like that’s one cat out of the bag, a juicy secret, yet why do I feel so sorry for him, I’m intrigued but all I want to do is comfort him not confront him.
“… I won’t bother you any longer your Excellency have a lovely evening,” the gnome finishes his praises and still Rafe says nothing, the gnome takes this to mean he needs to apologise to me “I’m sorry… have a lovely evening.” He spits out the words and seems to grumble some inconceivable words in-between and as if someone had a knife held to his back he bowed disgruntled towards me and Rao, I offered a low nod of my head and smiled slightly with a feeble wave goodbye. The gnome apparently still didn’t like me as he decided to bare his blackened teeth at me, lovely, in response to this he got a growl for Rao and he coiled ready to spring on the gnome if he didn’t leave any sooner.
Several minutes passed and still Rafe was stood stiff, I walked cautiously towards him when Rao broke the silence with a barking cough “I’m going to hunt.” He looked pointedly at me and loped off. Walking up to Rafe, I gently laid my hand on his shoulder, he flinched and I quickly removed my hand “So… That was fun.” I let the thick air settle between us as I get no reply; again I place a reassuring hand on his shoulder trying to not feel the heat and electricity passing between my hand and his body.
He turns slowly a crooked and embarrassed smile on his face; he brushes his hair back revealing those faint pin point scars across his forehead, letting out a huge sigh and shaking his head as if clearing it. I wait patiently my hand still resting on his shoulder but as he turns my hand comes to rest on his chest, suddenly realising how close we are, the electricity buzzing between us like static in the air before the storm.
He leans his head forward and I can’t handle the proximity, the tension making my bones tingle, constantly building that I have to pass an awkward, shy smile to him. Ducking and stepping away from him my arm idly falling to my side as the residue of the force between us starts to drain. His crooked smile appears though it’s only small and doesn’t reach his eyes, he steps away from me, turning without another word he starts to stoke up the fire and I turn with a sad smile to sit on the log waiting for the return of Raoul.
Night quickly approaches, the fire flaring brightly and Raoul had finally returned carrying himself proudly with dried blood staining the white on his silver flecked muzzle. I scrunched my nose up in disgust and he grunted at me as he sat down wiping his paws against his mouth, licking his lips. I looked at Rafe for the hundredth time since Rao had gone hunting and the awkward silence just kept hanging around.
His golden eyes were molten and I felt lost in them whenever I caught a glimpse across the fluttering flames, he mainly kept his head bent down and I sat poking the fire and biting my lip like it was a bar of chocolate, nerves we’re building up within my stomach, bats instead of butterflies. A snapping, burning branch brought me out of my daydream and my eyes clashed with Rafe’s, his brow furrowed and shoulders shaking, he took a deep breath making his muscles flex under the body hugging shirt. I shivered and for a moment my mind’s eye wandered back to the old Arcana house, the bedroom, his shirt pulled up slightly, his abs… that scar.
My reverie was interrupted again and I think I was drooling slightly as I felt the presence of warm body heat leaning against me. I jumped slightly and I caught a glimpse of a cheeky smile I’d never witnessed before, my cheeks burned as hot as the flames already on my face and I couldn’t help but thank the Gods I was next to the fire so he wouldn’t notice. Rao’s soft snoring interrupted the silence and the crackling flames, I sighed probably too sarcastically for it to be classed as exhaling loudly.
“I- I should probably explain.” His voiced sounded quiet, as if even the crickets were rude to speak over him and the silent breeze was shouting. His body against mine felt just right, not to hot and the trees rustled around us as I peered up at him through my fringe, his eyes caught mine and that electric spark seemed to flash between us I considered a moment before replying. “I don’t mind, it’s your story to tell in your own time.” I smiled inwardly, ironic how I would be using Rao’s own words to beat down my thirst for knowledge and the need for a confession.
He shuffles and I can’t help it, I shiver as I feel his breath move my hair and his body next to mine “I think you deserve to know Dee. I’ve been hiding a lot of things and I can’t keep it from you, especially now.” I glanced up at him quickly his eyes were soft, sweet and honey gold, my breathing quickened. My eyes searching his face I looked from his eyes to his plump lips to the flame highlighted pin pricks on his forehead down to his Adam apple bobbing nervously with each swallow, I look away from him.
“You don’t-” I begin my cheeks burning, I suddenly didn’t want or need to know his mysterious past but he cuts me off with a stare, his eyes hardening for a second before melting into the flames again. From the corner of my eye I see Raoul stir and slope closer, settling down still in the shadows as Rafe begins his tale.
“My name is Raphael Alexander Caecus; I was born in-” he casts a sly glance at me looking mysterious yet sorrowful before continuing “1729, I was cursed on my 19th birthday.” He pauses as I gasp; I didn’t expect that, he looks at me waiting for a sign to carry on and I nod my head slightly pressing my lips together waiting to hear the rest. “My family were well off and quite rich, to be fair we were royalty,” he smiles at a past memory.
“On my 18th birthday I was told I was to be married to the princess in the next kingdom, her name was Lady Renette Blackthorn and her painted picture was beautiful, I loved her instantly, her fair skin and dark flowing hair like the night sky. When the marriage contract had been signed, I was elated. But months past by and we still hadn’t met, we were to be wed on the Winter Solstice, the most powerful and contract binding time of the moon and so the countdown began.” His brow furrowed and it took me a minute to realise that he had stopped talking I was so engrossed into his past, I felt like I was living it with him.
“I finally met her on my wedding day and as she walked down the aisle towards me, my heart swelled, I had fallen in love with her portrait and her charming writing, even the sound of her name on my lips. Our two kingdoms would be united and we were surrounded by our subjects, my parents on one side but hers were not to be seen. That should have been the first sign, the veil distorted her face as she walked down clouded almost by shadows, but when I blinked they were gone.
“Our hands were bound together and we swore our vows under the solstice moon, a shiver ran down my spine when she declared hers and I could of sworn I felt a cold knife almost pierce my heart but I gritted my teeth, I must have imagined the pain. Still her veil was covering her face and I noticed that our hands weren’t actually touching; she wore thin silk woven gloves that felt like skin against skin. There was to be no wedding party after as it turns out the Olde war had its first rendition, I said goodbye to my parents and my siblings, which turned out the be the last time I’d ever see them again and then I was gone with my newly wedded wife, who I still hadn’t seen the face of.
“I was naïve and young, falling head over heels for her before we’d met and now I was whisked away in the midst of a growing war. To a dark, shadowed castle almost a ruin of blackened stones and moss covered windows, I questioned Renette until there were no more questions to ask and still there was no answer from the masked bride.
She glided out of the carriage and walked up the steps, I followed ten paces behind her, noticing unusual shadows were starting to stretch towards me; I stopped at the gigantic heavy oak doors and listened to her start commanding these shadow people around me. They were ghost like and you could hear them whisper and cheer for their queen. Queen Renette Blackthorn…” his voice drifted off as an icy breeze blew around us; his eyes were glazed over stuck in the past.
I noticed how the stars twinkled brightly over head and the fire had dimmed to hot embers. I stoked the fire automatically, still hooked on his life. Of everything I wondered I never expected, even imagined this. Glancing quickly around into the shadowed tree lines I noticed now that Rao was fully awake, his deep set eyes concerned yet judging as he waited for Rafe to continue his story. Glancing at Rafe his eyes began to clear and he looked at me sheepishly, I smiled reassuringly, shivering as another icy breeze swept through the trees, stirring the leaves and encouraging them to begin their fall.
“Nobody would speak to me at first and then I was brought forward to the throne,” he continued, his voice becoming tighter and more panicked. “Facing my bride, she finally removed her veil, I gasped in shock this wasn’t the woman I had so stupidly fallen in love with. This was a shallow eyed, yellow skinned hag. She carried herself proudly and power emanated from her aura, she smiled a pointed toothed smile and told me to sit, that it was time for my coronation and so the shadow people brought the crown.
“Made of thorns and briars it was a torture device the minute it was placed upon my head, it clasped itself to my hairline and gripped as if it was alive, blood began to trickle down my face and I protested and yelled for it to be removed. The next day I woke in a strange bed chamber, the crown had been removed yet the blood was slowly trickling, it wasn’t just a nightmare, I was living the nightmare now.
“Years past and I was forced to reign alongside her Ladyship, until one day news that the Olde war was coming to an end added hope to my dying ember, adding oxygen to my claustrophobic surroundings, my prison. I threatened to leave numerous times until finally I walked away, throwing down my crown of torture and walking away from her poisonous aura. However in punishment for leaving I was cursed, to live eternally 19 and she now owns my soul,” I gasp audibly out loud and nearly shout in protest, she can’t do that! Yet it had been done, Rafe gulps in the cold air like its water after a long hot day.
“Now she barely exists, is merely a dark shadow in the corner, so every half a century she returns to her castle ruins, and sets her growing shadow army out to find me in order to ask me the same question each time. Would you like your soul back my betrothed?,” he visibly shivers at his own imitation of her voice “I answer no every time, but this year I’m worried she is slowly beginning to gain more power and as the winter solstice draws closer and rumours of a strong power being released on that day spreads, she becomes ever more greedy for power.”
He stops talking and I stare into the flames deeply engrossed into the patterns and shapes that had been forming, oblivious to the sly yet panicked glances that pass between Rao and Rafe I stoke the fire some more letting the flame roar into the night sky. I nervously glance around, always checking and having ‘constant vigilance’ as Rao nagged about occasionally. Even though it is dark it seems like the shadows are pressing in on us and I panic internally. I nudge Rafe lightly willing him to read my mind that he and Rao appear to so often do.
He stands up tall and Rao soon follows, stretching his legs and yawning, showing off his glistening teeth. The shadows start to form into one shape, half feminine, half masculine. The shadows seemed to find it difficult to form one consistent shape and so flittered between things of nightmares to creatures that no-one knew existed. Then it spoke.
“Raphael! My angel, the solstice is up on us, will you accept my offer this year my darling?” her, its, voice drawls and sounds like it is transmitting through an old radio. Rafe has become stiff again yet I still feel his body weight against my arm, his warmth spreading through me is reassuring. The shadow monster appears to loom straight through me, as if it can’t focus on me at all.
“I sense great power here. You’re hiding something form me Raphael…” the thing that was supposed to be her nose twitched and all of a sudden a cold sharp pain lashed through my torso “Ah a pathetic girl, easy enough for me to take.” Gasping for air, time seemed to stand still as no-one registered my fall to the floor, Rafe sprang into action against this embodiment of the queen.
Raoul growled and pounced wrapping his jaws around what appeared to be a non-corporal being, protests and screams threatened to burst my ear-drums as the witch-hag queen fired wave after wave of insufferable power. Rafe was standing over me, no kneeling as I registered his proximity. “Are you okay?” his voice was panicked but I nodded, I wasn’t bleeding after all.
“I will have you both now my little king! Then I will exist once more.” The shadow monster’s voice echoed around our little clearing, she threw Rao away from her and he hit a nearby tree with a thump, slumping to the ground with a whimper. Rafe charged after the shadow just as a gust of wind sucked the only light we had away, blowing out the fire we were left in only moonlight, “Dee, don’t move.” Rafe’s voice from in front of me was barely a whisper.
Panicking I felt the temperature drop drastically, taking all the warmth of tonight away with it. The cackling laughter echoed continuously, drilling into my head and I stood up without thinking. Holding my arms out wide, I closed my eyes; my body wasn’t my own, like it was acting of its own accord. A searing flash burned the back of my eyes, dotting my eyelids with a red haze and the laughter stopped.
A piercing scream echoed around our little clearing, I heard Rafe’s voice calling from a distance away, guiding me back, back to control over my body. “Dee?” his voice was closer now and though my eyes were closed I squinted past the bright lights that were like fireworks on my eyelids, “Rafe.” I sigh, feeling complete again as soon as his hands touched my face, tenderly, softly I felt myself blushing. His chuckle made me open my eyes, looking round the clearing the shadow hag appeared to have disappeared, for now.
I focussed on Rafe, a concerned yet amused smile on his face “What happened?” I ask quietly, scared to discover the real answer, did I do this? His brow furrowed as if he were arguing with himself to tell me or not “You did.” He finally says with a small crooked smile. I stare at him, well this escalated quickly I turn away from him breathing fast, I couldn’t of. Could I?
“Wow…” is all I can say when I hear Rao grown from a nearby tree. He stretches out his large frame; fur still bristled and limps over to us, shaking out his shaggy head, angry at his defeat. His goes to speak when a voice from behind us speaks, making us all jump “Well that was interesting.” His accent is unusual; Scottish I think, though I haven’t met many. The three of us slowly turn Rao’s growl is quickly halted; Rafe’s eyebrows raise dramatically as before us stands a bedraggled man.