“Welcome, m’lady,” A voice says. I look up to see a young man about my age, tall and handsome, with deep sea green eyes fringed with dark lashes boring into mine. It is now that I scream. He drops in front of me, his green eyes swimming before mine in worry. He claps a hand firmly over my mouth, and glances furtively around. “Sh!” He exclaims; I realize the worry in his eyes is not for my well-being. “We cannot be found out.”
I’ve stopped screaming, and look up at him with pleading eyes. He slowly removes his hand from my lips, making sure I won’t break out into hysterics. “Who are you? Where am I?” I realize how close he is -almost on top of me -and scramble backwards in the dirt.
He straightens up, “You are the Key-bearer, yes?”
I glance down at the key I still have clutched in my hand, and nod uncertainly, not quite sure what a Key-bearer is.
“Welcome to the Land Between.” He says with a half bow that I find rather disconcerting. “I am Aidan. It is not safe to speak here,” he says, glancing warily around again, then back down at me.
I stare up at him, still confused. This is a dream; I hit my head on a rock and now I’m dreaming! He shifts lightly from foot to foot, getting agitated. “Wha...I..” I stutter, my tongue swollen with surprise. I concentrate hard and manage to gasp “What?”
He drops down to my level, his long hair falling into his green eyes. “Come! We can’t stay here!” I narrow my eyes and put on what I hope is a fearless look tinged with defiance. I probably just look like a healthy mix of scared and ill.
“I won’t go until I’ve had an explanation!” I announce, while trying to pull my skirt down to a more modest level.
“Are you sure?” he asks probingly. “Positive,” I say, a little less sure now.
“Then you’ll have to forgive me for this, m’lady; you’ve left me with no other choice. Without so much as a by-your-leave, he’s picked me up and slung me a little ungracefully across his shoulders, proceeding to walk as hurriedly forward as he can, burdened with my weight.
“Why! Of all the…you fiend! Put me down!” I kick and scream. My exclamations fall on deaf ears. “I’m afraid I can’t.” He says matter-of-factly, “we need to get to the cou…there, and I have to carry you. That is, unless you decide to walk and be compliant.” He adds with a shrug, jostling me even more. I can feel a bruises starting in several places. “You impudent little…” I grumble, “If I promise to behave will you put me down?” He nods jovially, as if the whole thing is a joke. He’s probably enjoying my pain, the wretch. “Alright, then, I’ll behave. Promise.”
He obligingly lifts me down and sets me upright on my feet. “Better?” He asks that teasing note still in his voice.
“As ‘better’ as I can be, seeing I still haven’t a clue as to where I am, what I’m doing, and what is happening!” I huff. Aidan kicks the ground in embarrassment.
“It’s not my place to say. If you come with me and swear to be good, I promise everything will be explained in time.”
I contemplate my choices: I can either go willingly with him into the strange wood, in a strange land that by all rational points probably shouldn’t exist, and maybe have everything explained to me (eventually), saving what is left of my dignity, or I can be slung uncomfortably and unceremoniously over his shoulder, and be dragged into the entire thing without saving an ounce of decorum. Right. I nod my head, and he smiles.
“Good! Follow me, then!” He strides confidently off, and I’m left with no choice but to follow at an ungainly trot.
It’s not too long before I’m out of breath, making speaking possible only in short gasps, and he doesn’t slow down. Not that I would speak to him anyway. Instead, I amuse myself by thinking of insults for him. I’ve decided he is an arrogant, supercilious man- no, boy!- who doesn’t deserve the attentions or time of me, a lady of rank and importance.
I’m so engrossed in my silent name calling that I don’t realize Aidan has stopped until I’ve walked right into him, banging my head rather hard on his strong back. “Ow!” I exclaim, rubbing ruefully at my forehead. I look up to see why we’ve stopped, and find myself staring at the largest felled tree I’ve ever seen. “Oh.” I say, when I realize that it’s right in our path. I look right then left for some way around, but all I can see is tree stretching out both ways. “What now?” I turn to Aidan, but he’s already scaling the tree. I hate to admit it, but he is quite graceful and quick.
He reaches the top and smirks down at me, “Coming?” He gestures to the side of the tree. I look from the tree to my skirt and volumes of petticoats. I hadn’t exactly left the house in large-fallen-tree-climbing gear. “Ah, yes, one minute if you please.” I manage to get a grip on the bark, and holding my skirt in my left hand, grapple with my feet. I get about a foot up before I fall off, landing hard on my bottom. I struggle upward, and glance up at Aidan, who looks quite like he’s holding back peals of laughter. “I’ll show you!” I mutter to him under my breath. I attack the tree again, this time completely ignoring my skirt, and focusing completely on getting to the top with as much dignity.
I’m actually getting somewhere! About four feet from the ground, I start to lose my grip and fall. A strong arm shoots out and grabs my hand, catching me before I fall. Aidan helps me scramble up the tree. “Are all young ladies where you are from this helpless?” He asks, genuinely curious.
I blush in chagrin. “We are not helpless.” Is all I can manage. I survey my dress as a distraction; it’s quite the worse for wear. What was already too short in the hem is now torn and muddied beyond repair.
“Shall we?” He stands up, and walks partway down the length of the tree. I follow him in a bit of surprise. Even though the tree is certainly wide enough to walk comfortably on, I’m the impaired damsel again because of my stupid heeled boots. I stumble and make my way shakily after Aidan, who is just laughing and shaking his head as he strolls down the tree, his leather shoes making no sound. We walk like this for a while, him the calm, cool, cloud of perfect balance and manners, and me, stumbling and ox-like, while muttering a thick stream of nonsense and curses under my breath, behind him. We eventually leave the tree, and make our way through more forest, the greens and browns weaving themselves into a pattern of dappled sunlight and trees. After a while, the silence is just too much. “So,” I begin affably, “This is the Land Between?”
Aidan nods, “That is what we call it,” he says. “And who is ‘we’?” I inquire. “Those who live…and come…here.”
This brings me up a bit, “Are there more people who come here like I am?” I ask, excited; maybe I’m not alone in this!
He shakes his head, “Not like you. But there are some who can come and go. Only a few, though. They aren’t common, and not everyone likes them. They’re afraid of difference.” He spits out the last sentence, making is savor strongly of bitterness. “And…these different ones…do they come and go often?” I probe.
A pained look flits across his face for one moment, but is quickly replaced by a hard look. “It depends.” “On what?” I push.
“I couldn’t say,” he says “I shouldn’t speak of such things yet.” He lapses into silence, and I’m smart enough to take a hint.
Not too long after, we come upon a giant Oak tree, this one still standing. Aidan glances around furtively, and knocks once on it. A door in the side open suddenly, to reveal a few stairs that spiral around and down into darkness. Aidan takes a lighted torch from a sconce on the wall, and half –bows, going down the first few stairs and turning around to look expectantly at me. I take a deep breath and step through the door which closes behind me, cutting off all light, and enclosing us in impenetrable darkness, lit only by Aidan’s single torch which is already bobbing further down the stairs, leaving the darkness to swallow the trail. I breathe deeply and start down the stairs and into the unknown.