It was midday when Ryder finally woke up. The sun blinded her when she blinked her eyes open. Despite how long she had slept, she was still groggy and wanted to turn back over and close her eyes. But she couldn’t. There was a village meeting she had to attend.
She wasn’t looking forward to it. Twice before she had been to one and they consisted of old people arguing in circles. Maybe that wasn’t a fair evaluation. There were a few members under fifty. Elanor who headed the textiles was young. She was pregnant again; her fifth child. Then there was Marco who had come of age three years ago. He was the closest in age to Ryder. She figured there were others, but she couldn’t recall. There wasn’t much time for socialization during meetings.
Despite the rule of having to be overage to be a leader, Ryder had yet to come of age. The age was twenty and she was a few years away from that still. If Harold the previous leader hadn’t passed away so suddenly, she wouldn’t even have been considered. Although she was honored to be a leader so young, she wasn’t fond of the responsibilities. There were many days that she wished Harold was still there. Not only because he could retain his job, but he was a good man and a good friend. She hadn’t worked for anyone besides him.
There was a knock on her door. “Are you awake, dear? Lunch is ready.”
“Yeah, Mary I’ll be right out.”
“Better hurry. The stew is warm and your brother is hungry. Can’t promise he’ll save you any.”
Ryder smiled and gave a soft chuckle. “I’ll be out.”
Mary wasn’t her real mother. Terrance wasn’t her real brother. But she had come to think of them as blood. Seven years ago they took her in when she had nowhere else to go. Having them made life less miserable.
She plucked a raggedy maroon sweater off her chair in the corner and pulled it over her head. The house was cold as they weather outside was changing. Winter was behind them, but the cold wasn’t ready to leave.
When she reached the kitchen, both Mary and Terrance were sitting at the table. Mary gave her smile as she pulled out the chair next to her while Terrance stuffed one spoonful after another into his mouth.
The kitchen was small, but homey. A stove with embers still burning from the seared wood stood next to an ice box. The table sat in the middle of the room with a rose patterned rug beneath. Elanor had designed it specifically for Mary as that was always the flower of choice in Mary’s garden.
Ryder eased her way onto the chair. The wood was old and warping and she didn’t trust a single piece of it. One day she would sit down and it would break.
“Morning, Ryder,” Terrance said, muffled by the bread piled in his mouth. “About time you woke up.”
Ryder slapped his arm. “It was a late night.”
He grinned at her before turning back to his food. He had his mother’s smile. And her eyes. They were a light hazel that reminded Ryder of coffee drowned in milk. Oh how she longed for a cup of the dark drink. It had been a while since the wanderer was able to find coffee beans. They were a delicacy one could only come upon in the street markets of the city.
They a while in silence. It was nice to take in the quiet and listen to the noises around them. The birds squawked outside of the lone window and the wind blew against the curtains. Ryder watched them ripple back and forth. Anxiety left her. A new found feeling surged inside her, spreading to every inch of her body. She closed her eyes and breathed in the moment.
“How was Collection Day?” Mary meant well, but Ryder didn’t want to revisit it.
She stared into the bowl in front of her. “It went okay. Definitely different having to actually be there.”
“Saw the prince looking at you,” Terrance added, a gleam in his eye. “What was that about?”
The prince. She had tried to forget about him, push the memory from her mind. But he lingered there through the night and appeared in strange dreams. She couldn’t remember the details, only the feeling of hopelessness and the panic that surrounded her.
They were dreams she wished she’d never have again.
“I don’t know what to tell you. He might have glanced at me for a moment, but I was too focused on what I was doing.” She would be lying if she said she hadn’t noticed. And the part about being too focused was a bit of a stretch. The prince’s gaze only added to her anxiety. She was left wondering what was going on and if she was in trouble. Her first Collection Day was hard enough.
“Maybe he thinks you’re pretty,” Terrance teased. “He’ll come back next Collection Day and ask to court you.”
“That’s enough, Terrance,” Mary scolded. “Let the girl enjoy her lunch.”
Ryder would’ve thanked Mary if her thoughts hadn’t started swirling. Not in a way she could control either. She was focused on the food in front of her, but endless clouds crept into her mind. She tried to grasp at any of them and when she did they slipped from her grip. A bright light flashed across them, as if a storm was forming. It rattled her brain and caused a pain she had never felt before.
She excused herself quickly and ran back to her room. Mary’s voice trailed off as she left, telling Terrance off for upsetting Ryder. It wasn’t the comment that set her off, it was the thoughts of the prince.
The door slammed behind her and she stumbled to her bed. She couldn’t feel as she fell on top of mattress and buried her head beneath the pillow. When she opened her eyes again, lines or red and purple spun in front of her vision. Desperate, she threw the pillow off of her and sat up. Maybe the change of position would help. But the only thing it brought was confusion.
Ryder’s room was gone. Her bed was still beneath her, but there were no walls surrounding her. Instead, a dark forest spread in each direction. A layer of fog creeped inches from the ground. The smell of sulfur filled the air, clogging her throat and making it hard to breathe. She covered her nose with the hem of her shirt as she stood.
There had to be an explanation for this. It must’ve been her overactive imagination, a side effect from a bad migraine. It was the only logical answer.
Then she saw a figure coming toward her. It was running, crushing leaves and everything in its way. Ryder’s heart raced as it came closer. Her throat tightened even more than it had and she took a quick step back. She tripped over the root of a tree and landed on her tailbone. The pain didn’t register over the fear gripping her.
When the figure reached her, she recognized who it was. The prince. He was breathing almost as heavy as she was and her fear was reflected in his face.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
She gaped up at him, trying to decide what to say. Before she had a chance to even speak, another pain erupted in her head. She clutched her temple and closed her eyes. It was the same pain as before. Only when she opened her eyes this time, she was back in her room.
Mary was knocking at her door, but Ryder didn’t have the strength to open it. She shouted that she was feeling sick and wanted to get some rest. Mary accepted the answer and left her alone.
The pain had left Ryder’s head. There wasn’t anything left. She felt just as normal as she had when she woke up.
Maybe rest would do her some good after all. She had been out late last night and figured she didn’t get as much sleep as she should’ve. A few more hours wouldn’t hurt. The meeting wasn’t until the night anyway.
She went over to the chair and took off her sweater, laying it neatly as to not let it wrinkle. The dresser stood next to her and she searched the top drawer for a suitable shirt. The first one she found was a shirt Terrance had outgrown. It would have to do.
When she pulled it over her head, it snagged on something. She reached down to find the opal necklace her mother gave her around her neck. She had forgotten she even wore it today. When she untangled it and let it fall to her skin, she let out a hiss. A pain spread across her skin when it touched. She touched the spot gingerly and felt something soft and slimy. It churned her stomach.
She rushed to the mirror over top the chair and tore the shirt off. There, where the necklace hung, was a fresh burn.