Author: skyspireskit3 PM
Unable to sleep, Kayley wanders back into the Forbidden Forest...and into a world of trouble.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Fantasy - Chapters: 8 - Words: 15,110 - Reviews: 51 - Favs: 44 - Follows: 43 - Updated: 04-17-12 - Published: 11-11-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5505776
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Kayley couldn't sleep.
She opened her eyes in the weary dark and sat up in her bed, ignoring the night chill as it bit through her thin shift. The moonlight stung her tired eyes. She sighed and tossed back her hair, looking around. The old wooden toys her father had carved for her stared back, and she heard the animals snuffling outside, the wheeling cries of the gulls and the white-noise pulse of the sea.
It amazed her, how everything was the same.
It had been three days. Three days since she had returned, with Garrett at her side and the cheering of Camelot behind her and the murderer of her father dead at last in the dust. Three days, and still she couldn't settle down. Adrenaline still hummed in her veins, smoldering in her day and night and strangling her sleep, refusing to let her back down into the dull grind of farmwork. She had tried to soothe herself, remind herself that she would be going back to Camelot someday. King Arthur had promised, but first, Camelot needed to heal, and so she had gone home. But, it was home to…what? The chores? The wandering boredom? The void in the house where her father had been?
The thought wrung her in its fist.
She ran her hands over her body, feeling every bruise, every ache she'd collected from the journey through the forest, and the struggle against Ruber. She listened hard and, in the graveyard silence of the house, she could hear Garrett snoring faintly from the guest room. But already, it was all starting to feel like a dream she had once had.
Getting up, she stepped out of bed and out of her nightdress, struggling into her clothes. A still-sore knee turned and made her stumble. The hallway floorboards that creaked were easy enough to avoid, and she took only some water, feeling again like a child sneaking out for a late-night horse ride.
Outside, the icy wind chewed through her clothes and stung her hands, moaning over the land like a lost spirit. The hills spread before her, silvered by the cloud-tattered moon. Crickets chirped feverishly. She didn't take a horse. Instead, she began walking.
Nearly an hour passed unnoticed, and Kayley vaguely remembered glimpsing the forked, gnarled sign that pointed the way to the Forbidden Forest before the forest itself was yawning before her, skeletal mist wisping through the trees like tendrils of dragon smoke. Cautiously, as if bidden by enchantment, she stepped over the slippery rocks that guarded its entrance, rocks that only a few days ago she had been running, scrabbling over in hunted fear with the shouts of Ruber's henchmen spearing at her back.
Just a step in, she decided. Just a glimpse, a taste of what had been, and she could go home. She would be back in time for the chores.
She looked back over her shoulder to the countryside, at the little farm on the highest hill. Then she let the forest swallow her up.
She stepped carefully, avoiding the lighter patches of grass that were carnivorous and could close around the ankle like a hunter's trap. Hungry mud sucked at her boots. The bark of the trees quivered at her touch like living flesh. Awe rekindled in her, eclipsing any thoughts of home.
A rustle in the foliage. She froze.
Nothing. Feeling as though she had snapped out of a trance, saw the cage of trees around her and realized what she was doing, how far she had gone. Sense took over, and reluctantly she began to retreat.
Something burst from the bushes and tore past her, and for a fear-blind moment she thought it was a ripple of the forest floor itself, a mirage's shimmer, before her eyes sketched its shape and she saw it was a wolf, its fur mottled in shades of luxuriant green and dusky earth so that it was barely discernable from the woodlands around it. She had seen such a creature before on her previous adventure, a pack of them, but then it had been only the fireflies of their eyes as they circled outside the camp she shared with Garrett. As the wolf disappeared into the trees, she looked at the ground and saw the trail of blood it had left on the grass.
An inhuman shriek rent the air, raising the hair on her neck and chasing itself in ringing echoes through the woods. Adrenaline sparked recklessly and she hesitated only a moment before she ran toward it.
Getting closer, Kayley heard the sounds of a scuffle, tearing dirt and snapping teeth. She ducked behind a tree and gaped at the sight of a pack of the forest wolves as they swarmed together over something in a jade bushfire of fur and bodies, their chorusing snarls sawing through the undergrowth. Another screech sounded, and blood spattered the rocks as one wolf was suddenly sent flying, its body striking a tree with a savage crack and crumpling to the base, still.
A second wolf relinquished its hold and limped back, its chest gashed and streaming, and Kayley's mouth went dry as from the fray reared a huge, ebony head like that of an eagle, giant bat-like ears laid back from a curved scimitar of a beak, green eyes blazing. A griffin.
Another slash of the griffin's claws and three more wolves were sent sprawling. At that, the pack broke, darting away into the forest like storm-scattered leaves, vanishing among the grasses.
The griffin lay they left it, its sides heaving, the mud around it churned with blood. The sandy fur of its hindquarters and ragged patches of its feathers were charred away, the naked skin ravaged with furious dark burns. Its great wings were crumpled and blackened like the branches of a fire-stripped tree, one ear torn nearly in two. As Kayley watched (she remembered Cornwall smirking, "Fried chicken for everybody!" when she'd asked what had become of Ruber's pet), its filmy eyes rolled in its head until they landed on her.
Looking right at her.
Kayley shrank against the bark, not daring to look away. Then, after a long minute, she stepped out from behind the tree.
At her approach, the griffin growled and bristled in warning. Kayley stopped. Even from where she stood she could feel the coiled power of it like heat from a wildfire. Her heart was stuttering, but she kept her voice steady. "Easy. It's okay."
Keeping a safe distance, she knelt into a crouch, trying to make herself as unthreatening as possible. The griffin eyed her balefully and snapped at her, a beak that could devour a man in a man in three bites. The burns on its flesh seemed to seethe in the dim light.
Kayley felt ill. She owed this monster nothing. But her father's voice tolled in her memory: "A true knight shows compassion." And, despite everything, some part of her, the child that had soaked up fairy tales and all the legends of mystical beasts, ached to see such a magnificent, powerful creature brought so low.
Slowly, Kayley reached into her pouch and pulled out the flask of water she had brought. "Easy," she murmured again, and uncorked the flask to hold it out, ready to retract her arm at the first hint of danger.
The griffin flinched at the movement as if from a blow. Kayley was startled, but she tilted the flask so that it dripped its contents onto the griffin's beak. His parched tongue darted out and lapped it up, but she held the flask back before he could get more. Steeling herself against the pain-dulled eyes boring into hers, Kayley spoke firmly, as if she dealt with monsters on a weekly basis, "Listen to me. There's a place here in the forest that can heal you. I can take you there, but in return, you're going to swear to me that as long as you live you will never come near my home, my family, or Camelot ever again. Do you understand?"
The griffin gave her a resigned look, as if it were used to this sort of torment and expected nothing less. It opened its beak, but all it could make was a rasp. Kayley hated herself, but she waited until it managed to croak a "Yes."
Kayley tripped the rest of the water into the griffin's mouth, its throat rippling greedily as it drank. When the flask was dry and Kayley stood and looked ahead into the forest, took a shaky breath and asked, "Can you walk?"
The griffin made a sound like a "hmph," and after two attempts staggered to its feet, putting Kayley in mind of an ancient ship rising from an underwater grave, all creaking timbers and rotted, ghostly resolve. She motioned for him to follow her.
This wasn't the way she had gone with Garrett, but she hoped that by going forward she would eventually come to something familiar. The griffin lumbered behind her, limping, his heavy breathing painful. The forest stretched ahead, alien and bleak. Clusters of eyes glowed from the shadows, watching.
A peal of thunder rolled overhead and rain dripped down through the dense treetops like sap, growing to a deluge. Kayley shielded her head with her arm and spotted a rough cave, its entrance cobwebbed with the overhanging roots of a dead tree. Kayley let the griffin go in first; he settled his injured body down, too tired even to shake the wet from his ears, and pity twisted deeper in Kayley's gut. While he drank from a pool of leaked rainwater, she found some thick, strange moss growing on the rocks of the cave. She touched it gingerly, and when it didn't bite or burn she scraped off a handful and dipped it into a puddle at the cave's mouth. The griffin laid back its ears as she approached.
"It's okay..." Murmuring some soothing nonsense, she touched the damp moss gently to one of his wounds. He jerked and hissed, deadly beak snapping an inch from her shoulder, and she jumped back. "Hey, hey," she said. "I just—"
He hissed at her. She put her hands on her hips, hoping it would transform her into a pillar of authority as it did for her mother. "Those are going to get infected."
He glared at her, but she stood firm, unflinching, until her own eyes began to water, and when no attack came she tried again. He flinched, as if he'd suddenly forgotten he could snap her like a twig. The abrupt turn made Kayley blink. "What kind of behavior is that for a griffin?" she said sternly.
He growled but didn't bite her and she supposed, for all his stubbornness, he knew he needed her. Very gently, she touched the cool moss to his hide, wiping away the thick-caked grit and blood. She felt the huge body quiver as she worked, felt the restrained might in its bulk, but she didn't pull away and neither did he.
After a long time, when the walls were all but bare of moss and her hands were stiff and itchy with dried blood, she'd done all she could and moved away to find a dry place. She listened to the harsh rustling of his burnt feathers as he tried in vain to get comfortable, and saw one of his fierce green eyes close while the other stayed open, fixed on her, burning like a live coal.
She didn't sleep. It was cold, and the griffin growled through his dreams, the sounds lancing off the rock walls all night.