Sunday, December 31, 2017


Five days left of the twelve days of giving. Say that five times fast. LOL

It's crazy that I've been able to stick with this given how tired the holidays makes me. It could be all the extra carbs and candy. What goes up (my blood sugar) must come down. The cold weather is not helping, either. I want to live in my furry jammies 24/7. Yes, I said cold even though this is Florida. Next week it will be in the thirties at night. What? That's cray! Cray!

Anyway. (Not trying to rhyme) Here is the next chapter. It is long so I cut it in half, a little more than half. If it is a little less than clean, I apologize. It was either proof it, again, even though my eyes water everytime I focus on my laptop's glowing screen, or post it. The alternative--miss a day. Would you forgive me?  


"Hope?" I ask and twist on the floor until my body faces the sound of his voice.

"Let's take a walk," he says.

"Where? The cottage isn't that big."


"Outside of the cottage?"


"Outside in the woods?" I ask in disbelief.

He laughs softly. "Yes, Praya, in the woods."

I sit taller. "Can we do that? I thought it was against the rules."

"I told you, there are some things I can control. Now remember, no peeking." Long fingers curl around my hands and pull me to my feet. "Get dressed. I'll meet you by the front door."

The new lightness to his tone fills me with warmth.

I suspect I'm the reason for his happiness, but I don't know if the pride running through me is warranted. For all I know, this new emotion of his could work against me and go against his mother's rules. The curse’s rules. I don't want to take it away from him, though. To have never laughed is such a sad thing. I want to hear him do it again, harder and louder, so he can experience one of the best feelings in the world.

The bedroom door closes with a soft thud. I open my eyes. As soon as my vision clears, I spy my white dress on the hook. It's freshly laundered, the butterfly brooch clean and safe in the pocket. The cottage is clean, too, the ragged condition it changed to now gone.

The wonders of the place. "Thank you," I murmur to the cottage.

I slip into my dress, put on my beaded slippers, also clean, and hurry to the bedroom door. Before opening it, I bow my head, staring only at the wood floors. 

Dacian's boots are visible when I approach the front door. "You look lovely," he says.

I touch my hair, aware of how messy it is and wonder if he's teasing me. But Dacian doesn’t tease.

"I forgot to pull it back." The strands hang loosely around my face, the curls at my waist, frizzing at the ends.

"I like it," he says, a soft smile in his voice.

"Is this allowed, us leaving?" My muscles twitch.

"We won't be long." Now his tone is deep and direct, so different from a moment ago. He takes my hand and opens the door.

"We don't have to go for a walk," I say. "I'm fine with staying here."

"I wasn’t talking to you. I was telling Amus, so he doesn't worry or act out while we're gone. He can be quite loud."

"Who?" Is there another person with us? Should I be concerned?

"The plant." Dacian says.

We step outside. Soft grass cushions my feet and a cool breeze caresses my skin. The day is picnic-perfect. I want to take in the surrounding woods. Instead, I keep my head down and focus on my slippers as he leads me to a narrow trail on our right.

"The plant has a name?" This is bizarre, but then so is everything about this situation.

"I gave it to him. He's the closest thing to a pet I've ever had, no matter how annoying he can be."

I can't help but laugh. "He annoys you, too?"

"Only when he lets out that obnoxious squawk. Since it's his job, it might be unfair of me to hold it against him."

"What do you mean, his job?"

Fallen leaves and twigs crunch beneath our steps.

"Rousing my mother's attention. It's why I first made friends with him. I trained him to report only to me. It's worked for years, though I still get nervous, knowing he can alert her."

I stop. "We should go back. I don't want you to get in trouble—or me."

He gives my hand a gentle squeeze. "We won't. There are things I want to say that should not be spoken in his presence. It's why I suggested the walk. That and I wanted to show you something, which reminds me you don't have to avert your eyes. We're outside. You may look where you please." The smile returns to his voice.

I lift my head. His misty hand clutches mine, the outline of his dark form cloaked in fog like a cloud. I wish I could see his face, to know the curve of his lips and the glint in his eyes. I suspect he has both features, though I also suspect they are not normal, hence his need to keep them hidden.

"You choose to look at me when there is a beautiful forest around you," he says. "It is quite lovely in the daytime. I would think you'd want to see it with all the darkness around you lately."

An unfamiliar and incredibly delightful feeling stirs inside me. I smile at his hazy face and then glance around. Sunlight filters through the tall trees, glinting off the different shades of green like gold. The breeze sets everything a flutter, like the wings of a butterfly. Birds chirp from somewhere to my left, and twigs snap to my right. Is it a bunny, a squirrel?

The forest is most lovely during the day. I feel I've been away from it for too long. Was it just the other day I had been taken? It seems much longer.

"Thank you." I sigh, so grateful for this.

"Don't thank me yet. You haven't seen the best part."

Dacian and I walk farther down the trail. At some point, he got ahead of me by a few steps. I use the opportunity to study him.

Sunlight filters through the trees and shines directly on him. It makes the mist hugging his body near transparent. His shoulders aren't too wide, just enough so that his torso tapers into a trim waist, creating a nice "V" shape. His legs seem strong and in proportion with his body. Nothing appears deformed or unusual. Perhaps, his skin is disfigured. The back of his head is dark with about half of his neck visible. Either he's wearing a bulky hat or his hair is black and grown out.

"What was it you wanted to tell me?" I ask, assuming we're far enough away from the cottage for anyone, even a plant, to hear us. Maybe he's going to tell me why he hides himself from me.

"Have you read more of the book?" He brushes a low branch out of the way.

"Not since the other day. Why?"

He glances back at me. The fog shifts ahead, leaving a trail. "The book has answers to questions you've yet to ask." 

"What kind of questions?"

"I am not permitted to say. When you learn information from the book, you can ask me about it. I can't open the dialogue to you."

So he follows rules, too. Interesting. "How would that have worked if I were still bound to the rule of not speaking unless directly spoken to?"

"It wouldn't have. It's taken me decades to learn what I can and can't get away with, even longer to try them for fear of retribution."

I'm about to say from your mother but change it to, "From the curse?" 

He stops and looks at me. "You're finally understanding."

"Not as much as I'd like to." I catch up to him, hoping to glimpse the mask or something of his features through the mist. Other than a blurry outline of his head, I can't see much.

He doesn't turn away. Is he studying me the same way I’m examining him? Heat crawls across my cheeks.

A bird swoops low, close enough to touch my hair. I flinch and watch as it soars toward the sky. It's small with bright yellow feathers, Mother’s favorite color. Most of her dresses and skirts were of that shade. It was bright and cheery like her personality.

A deep ache fills my chest, as if a dark cloud were swallowing my heart. How are Calyssa, Carys, and Father handling things? Are they angry with me?  Does Father hate me? When we lost Mother, Father drowned his sorrows in jugs of ale. It took the staff and me weeks to sober him up. Is he back to drinking, and if so, how are the twins holding up? Surely, they blame me. I didn't get to explain what happened. I didn't even say goodbye.

"What's the matter?" Dacian asks.

"Nothing." I lower my head.

This is why I don't think about them. It's too painful.

He places a misty hand under my chin and lifts my face. "You don't need to keep your feelings from showing."

"That's not what I'm doing." I turn away.

"It wouldn’t be the first time I've seen a girl cry. I have experience in comforting maidens."

My head swings back to him. "You comforted them?"

What is that stirring in my stomach? It's dark and deep, and I don't like it.

A tiny chuckle escapes him.

I glare. "Are you laughing at me?"

"I’m surprised." A smile is evident in his voice. "I’m always surprised by you, Praya, who is stronger than anyone I've ever met and doesn't need comforting when she's sad."

He means it as a compliment, but instead of lifting my spirits, it has the opposite effect. For the first time, I feel wrong for the way I protect my emotions.

"You are like your mother in that way," he says, tone soft and reassuring.

My breath freezes. "How would you know?"

"I was there when she was chosen. I always accompany the Messenger."

It's as if the world disappears. My heart pounds in my ears, and a few moments pass before I find my voice.

"You saw her?" It comes out in a shocked whisper. "All this time I could have asked you what happened, if she was scared, if she felt pain, why she was chosen?" I step back. "You should have told me when we first met."

"That would not have been a good first day for you. The first day is hard, the second day even harder. I wasn’t sure what to make of you, either." He lifts his face to the sky and murmurs, "The girl with eyes of the grass and sky will end the curse before she dies."

 "That's an odd saying." I tense a teeny bit. "What does it mean?" 

"It's a rhyme I learned long ago." He picks up a fat leaf, green with yellow veins, and twirls it in his fingers. "I thought it was about your mother, and I thought it died with her. I'd only glimpsed her eyes a moment before she touched her clothing. I would have saved her if I could have, despite the consequences, whatever they would have been. I would have done it to be free. So we  could all be free." He pauses. "I thought it was over. But then you were chosen as Messenger, and I realized you could be the girl in the rhyme."

Ending the curse, now that I hear it might be possible, must be my focus on so I can get back to my family.
But for me to do that, I need to know one thing about the death of my mother. Hopefully, it will pacify my aching heart. For now, anyway.

"Is she at peace? My mother. After they go, are they all at peace?"

He's quiet for a moment, as if he's searching for the right answer, or perhaps, he doesn't know. Please let him know.

Finally, with a confident nod, he says, "I believe they are at peace."

I smile, and my eyes fill with tears. Even though his answer isn't the yes, they're in a better place I hoped for, it's enough. Dacian may be many things, but a liar isn't one of them. If he believes those who have been Fated to Die are at peace, then I will, too.

"Thank you." I let out a shaky breath, the pain in my heart easing a tiny bit. Then I do what I do best, tuck the emotions away and focus on what is important. "Tell me about the rhyme. Is there more to it?"

He shakes his head. "Not that I'm aware of."

"What about the book in the cottage? Could it have information?"

"I don't know. I'm forbidden to read it. I leave it for the maidens, hoping they'll come across something of importance, but I've never been able to talk to one of them like I do you. They feared me, blamed me, or wanted nothing to do with me."

"Sounds familiar," I murmur, reminded of how the kids in the village always treated me. I give his hand—the leaf still in it—a squeeze. "Now you have me. We'll figure this out. Together. All right?"

He sighs with a hint of awe. "You really are something."

I can't stop my lips from turning up. "We should head back and get started."

"But we're here." He uses the leaf to point out white bushels of wisteria, cascading toward the ground. One of the full branches curves, creating a shadowed archway.

"It won't take long," he adds. Quiet excitement hums in his words. "I really want you to see it. I've never been able to share it with anyone."

It'd be cruel to deny him this, and I suppose I am a little curious. "Show me then," I say.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

6 Days Left of Fated Giving

Today is my youngest son's birthday. He is now 15. I can't believe it! We are heading to Top Golf and Andretti's indoor karting and games to celebrate. Living in Orlando is never lacking in fun stuff to do.

Only 6 days left of giving and FATED TO DIE. Posting the chapters is reminding me of how much I love this story. It was so fun to write. Enjoy!

I wake up groggy and weak. My body is warm and at peace. There's no pain, no ice under my skin, just warmth, like I’m resting in bath water.

Moist fingers brush hair from my face. "You truly are beautiful," someone murmurs. "And you have no idea who you are."

"Dacian?" I crack open my eyes.

He's close, really close. My cheek is nestled against his misty chest like he's cradling me. I try to lift my head. Water splashes and my hair feels weighed down.

"Where are we?" I whisper.

"A hot spring. You passed out when I was carrying you here. How are you feeling?" He slides his fingers through my hair.

"Better." I let my eyes close, too exhausted to keep them open.  "What was that? I felt like I was freezing to death."

"You would have had I not brought you here in time."

Despite the warm water, a chill shoots through me. "I would have died?"

"No. Not exactly." His gentle tone is almost as soothing as the water. "You would have thawed when my mother called for you, so you could deliver another garment."

I stiffen, and my eyes spring open to his misty form, visible in the moonlight. "I broke a rule, didn't I? I spoke to him."

"Relax." Dacian brushes the back of his fingers across my cheek. "You're not enslaved to return under the river with her. The freezing was punishment. It will be your punishment every time you speak to the victims."

"Mrs. Potterfield," I gasp, my heart squeezing with pain. "She's dead because of me."

"She is dead because of the curse."

Tears of shame fill my eyes. I close them before any can escape. "She was innocent, kind." The sweetest lady I knew. "Why would your mother choose her?"

"Death chose her. It does not pardon those who are kind. It simply takes those whose time has come."

"It isn't fair." I turn my face toward his chest, seeking what … Comfort? Peace? Do I deserve, either?

"Life isn't fair," he says. "Why would death be any different?"

I shake my head. This is too much to think about right now. My brain hurts. My body is still too weak to move, but I don't feel like I’ve earned the right to rest.

"The next time I break the rules," I say because I surely will, "and am punished, let me freeze."

Dacian exhales, and I feel his body tense. He's disappointed in me. For some reason, he thinks I'm special. I’m not. I’m stubborn, desperate, and now a murderer, or at the very least a murderer's accomplice. By the end of this week, I might want to return under the river with the Hag. Then I think of my sisters and father and know I can't let that happen.

"Sleep," Dacian says.  "Things will be better in the morning. I promise."

"Why are you being so nice?" I slur, as sleep starts to creep over me. "You're supposed to be cruel."

"I am cruel," he murmurs, but I'm too far gone to care.

This time when I wake, I'm in the pretty bed with lavender flowers on the canopy. The cottage is light and cozy. I'm dry and in a nightgown. My muscles are soft, my body revived.

Dacian springs to mind and his final words before I passed out. I am cruel, he'd said.
How can he think that? I don't. He saved me from that horrid pain. He brought me back, tucked me into bed, and made everything better for me. Better, when I didn't deserve it.

I killed a person last night. A kind loving person. A woman who didn’t turn me away when others in the village did.

She gave me a discount, too. She’d never admit it, but I know she did. And now she’s gone. Who will run her bakery, the only bakery in town? Will it close and life go on as if it had never existed? Will people forget her like they do all the maidens who have been sacrificed to the curse?

The families of the Messengers mourn them by walking around in black for days or months. No one dares to challenge the rules or complain about who is sacrificed to the Council, though. 

Mr. Winthrop, the Head Councilman, holds service every Sunday in the castle's great hall. He tells horrific stories of past families and Fathers who went after their daughters and the Hag, and how the moment they entered the woods they were never seen again. 

He says during the week the Washer Woman rises, the curse wraps the woods in its cold claws, taking aim at anyone who enters in challenge. 

There will be no one to save me, not that Father would try. Once strong and proud, he’s withered mentally and physically since losing Mother. He was more like his old self than he's ever been on the day of the Choosing Ceremony, but I ruined that for him, too.

Maybe, I have withered along with him. The younger me, the girl angry at the world for losing her mother, would have risked her life for any chance to destroy the Washer Woman. Last night, I stood before and coward. 

Dacian is wrong. I’m no different from the other maidens. I’m not strong and brave. 

Time has changed me into a girl who spends her days caring for the manor and Father, making sure he remembers to tend the sheep so we can trade the wool and milk for coins. When I’m not giving lessons to the twins and loving them as Mother would have wanted, I care for the gardens she adored, preserving them the best I can so the girls can know the beauty their mother had created. 

A sharp pain stabs my chest. I bury my head in a pillow. I miss the girls so much. I miss their soft curls, golden like mother’s hair had been. The way they laughed and begged me to play chase in the maze as mother had done with me so many times. If they lose me, who will care for them? Who will care for the manor and Father? 
I shouldn’t have lied to them about Tristin. I should have done as Father asked, begged. I should have—wetness touches my cheek.

I sit up and feel the pillow case. It’s damp. I rub my eyes. I’m crying? I don't cry. I survive. I push through. I fight.

I didn't last night, though. I killed an innocent person.

No. Don't go there. I need to be strong. I know strong. I’m good at it. I need to get through this for the girls. For Father and memory of Mother, I've worked to honor for years.

Besides, I have support. Dacian helped me last night. He stopped the pained and cared for me in a way no one ever has. It may be his duty, something he's done for other maidens, as well. I suspect otherwise, though, and need to ask him about it—after I thank him, of course. He deserves a huge thank you.

I shove back my hair, climb from the bed, and open the sheer curtains the way I do at home when I need an extra boost before starting the day. 

To my surprise, the woods are lovely and alive, glinting with morning light. Like rain drops, sunrays sprinkle the shrubbery and leafy ground. Trees with moss-covered trunks stand tall, their bushy green leaves appearing yellow.

Such a beautiful day after such a tragic night.
Sadness weighs on me and my shoulders sag.

"Fight it," I whisper to myself. This is what comes of being the Messenger. I’m not the first or the last. 

A bird flies by the window and lands on a sunlit branch near the cottage. Its feathered body is gray while its wings are a shimmering blue. How rare.

The bird chirps in a rhythmic way as if it’s singing. 

If I were home, I’d open the window and welcome him inside like I did the little Sparrows that used to visit me.

I touch the glass. "Hello, little birdy. Good morning." 

It looks my way. 

"Are you enjoying the warmth of the rays?"

The bird springs from the branch and swoops toward me.

"Slow down." I tap the glass. Can it not tell the window is closed?

It keeps coming.

"No. Don't." I smack the glass pane.

The bird crashes into the window and bounces off, falling to a bed of leaves on the ground.

 I gasp and jump back in shock. No. The whimper rattles from my chest. I creep closer and stare down at the lifeless bird. This is my fault. 

Without thought, I grip the bottom of the window and lift. A breeze wafts through cooling my skin. Realization hits, and I freeze. I opened the window.

My gaze shoots to the closed bedroom door. Why isn’t the plant squawking? Does it not know, or is this his allowed? It can't be. A maiden could escape.

Perhaps, a protective barrier blocks the way. And lets a breeze pass through? Not likely.

I bend and inspect the opening, then I chance it, and stick my hand outside. It passes through with ease. I snatch it back, and wait for the plant to react. 


I do it again. Cool air and warm sunrays caress my skin. Could it be this easy, a glitch in the curse? A determined maiden would take advantage of situation.

The thought of seeing my sisters and father sends excitement whirling through me. Has no maiden ever discovered this?

No stories tell of Messengers trying to escape the Washer Woman, but then there is so little we know about their enslavement. No one knows about Dacian or the cottage, and the week of the reaping is never consistent.

In the beginning, tales say the Washer Woman killed for seven straight days. In my lifetime, my parents and grandparents as well, the Messengers can reap five lives in one summer and only three the next.

The Council likes to recall a summer, decades ago, when only one life was claimed. One life. They say we had sent a worthy maiden that week, and she must have served the Washer Woman well for the village to have been so blessed.

If she were so worthy, why didn’t she earn her freedom and return home? The Council was wrong about only losing one life that week. We lost two, the maiden and the fated victim, but no one speaks of it in that way. 

I take in the poor bird still on its side. Its furry chest puffs with a short breath. He's alive? 

Anger and guilt coil inside me. I might not have been able to save Mrs. Potterfield, or whoever else I’ll be forced to claim, but I will save this innocent bird. 

I push the window open all the way.

The plant doesn't squawk. 

Again, I consider climbing out and making a run for it, just to see what happens. What if I make it home? What if I discover a new way for maidens to break free? What if I die? I’d never see the girls again. I may never still.

Get the bird, think about escaping later.

I send my legs through the opening and try to reach the ground with my foot. It's further down than I thought. Turning, I rest my belly on the wooden sill, my upper body still in the room, and ease myself down slowly so I don't land on the bird.

The inside of the cottage darkens, the dinginess returning. Oh no. I freeze, unsure of what to do. Climb back in—will it matter—or save the bird. Had I truly believed I could do this without being penalized?

Before pulling myself back inside, I glance over my shoulder. The bird no longer lies on the ground, because the ground is gone. Blackness swirls beneath me. Bony fingers made of dark fog clasp my ankle and pull.

I shriek and slip further outside.

The bird, trees, woods, breeze, everything is black. My heart thunders. Fear sends me scrambling to get back into the cottage. I tighten my grasp on the window sill.

The hand yanks harder on my leg, drawing me closer to the darkness. It twirls faster with the center spiraling inward, like a throat opening up to swallow me.

My arm muscles burn, straining against my weight and the force pulling on me. Sweat moistens my palms and my fingers slip. One of my hands loses its grip.

I scream and call out for help. "Dacian! Please, help me!"

A second bony hand clasps my other ankle and jerks me down.  

I slide further down, my body completely outside as I struggle to hang onto the windowsill with only my left hand. One more tug, and I'll be gone, sucked into the dark abyss.

What have I done? I'm didn't mean to. I didn't know. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Tears choke my words. I don't know who I'm apologizing too. The cottage? Dacian? My family?

A loud bang sounds from inside the room. A strong hand clamps onto my wrist. Hair covers my face, blocking my view to who is helping me.

"Dacian?" I ask, assuming it's him.

My body jerks upward and I'm pulled through the window. My chest slides over the windowsill. My waist, my hips, my thighs. The fingers on my ankles tighten, keeping me from going further.

Wind whips through the window, sending leaves and dirt over my body and into the room. Everything turns black like the darkness is following me inside.

The person holding me roars and wrenches me so hard the force lets go. I shoot across the room and slam onto the wood floor. Face down, I stay that way, working to catch my breath. 

Panting from the other person sounds to the right of my head, like he's on the floor too.

"Dacian?" I roll onto my back, too weak to do more. Hair covers my face like a blanket. I leave it.

"You were trying to escape?" he says, his voice a mix of shock and sadness.

"I ... I wasn't. I swear. I thought about it, but I didn't try." 

"Then why were you out the window?" Anger deepens his tone.

"The window opened. I saw a bird. It hit the wall and fell. I tried to help it. I didn't think, and then the ground disappeared, and something tried to pull me down." I shiver with a bout of panic and fear. "I wouldn't have left. I thought about it, but I wasn't going to do it. I-I don't know what happened. I’m sorry."

"The curse happened." He sighs, sounding both weary and annoyed. "Like the cottage, it punishes and rewards. It also lures you to do wrong when the opportunity presents itself. Earn the cottages trust and it will protect you."

"The cottage tried to kill me?"

"It was teaching you a lesson. You wouldn't have died, but you could have suffered more. Treat the cottage with respect and it will do the same to you."

"You're mad. I can hear it in your tone, and I hate that I put it there." I turn my head toward him. Hair falls away from eyes, and a gloved hand is shoved in my face.

"Don't look at me," he snaps.

I flinch and squeeze my eyes shut. "Sorry. I didn't see you. I swear. I'm not … I don't mean to mess up, I just—" I clamp my mouth shut cutting off further excuses. That's all they are.

For a few moments, we both lie in silence. I focus on his breathing and notice it's slower than it was before when he was mad at me. Does that mean I’m forgiven? 

"Dacian?" I ask, curious of his response. Will he huff, or has he calmed?

"Hmm?" His tone is soft with a hint of sadness that is so often there.

"Why am I not allowed to look at you?"

He sighs. "I can't say."

"You can't say, or you don't want to?"

No response.

"Is it for the same reason I can't see your Mother?"


"Is it because you're disfigured?"

"I can't say." His words are tight, like he's frustrated, but I don't think his upset is directed at me.

Is he ashamed of how he looks? Bothered by something that might be different? Could he have an anomaly, like I do with my eyes? 

"Dacian?" I start again.

"Yes," his draws out, his tone emotional in a way I can't place. Agitation and a mix of something else … humor? Doubtful.

I don't let it deter me from what I have to say. It's important. "I want you to know your appearance, no matter how different it might be, won't bother me. How you look cannot and will not change the way I feel about you. I know you too well for that. I even consider you … a friend, no matter how warped that may be. I don't have many, any really unless you count my horse, Daisy. My point is, as my friend, I'd like to be able to put a face to your name. It's incredibly challenging not being able to look upon the person I spend all my time with. Can you understand that and understand that I would never judge based on your appearance?"

He's quiet for a while. Considering my request? Finally, he says, "Yes. I can understand your needs. But I can't show you myself. Not yet."

Yet? Hope blooms inside me, along with ideas I should squash at once. Have I learned nothing.

Still, I ask, "Are the rules I break to you different than the rules I break to your mother?"

"You know they are." Movement stirs around me like he's sitting up. "But don't get any ideas. There is only so much I can control."

"Can control." I shoot upright, keeping my eyes closed. "What does that mean?"

"It means no more breaking the rules," he says, his tone reprimanding in a way that almost makes me laugh.

"I don't mean to break the rules. I truly don't." I explain, wanting him to understand me better. "I've always done things my own way. It's not an excuse. It's a habit. I wasn't raised to think my defiant nature is bad. If anything, my mother praised me for it. Passionate and fearless, is how she described me. And when kids in the village ridiculed me for my unusual eyes, she me the difference made me special. I am sorry for the trouble I've caused you, and I am thankful for your help. You saved me last night from agonizing pain and you saved me again today. I will try to be more like the other maidens."
I cross my legs under my dress and fold my hands together in my lap, my head high and my eyes sealed.

"I never asked you to do that." He whispers in my ear, suddenly at my side.

My breath hitches, and I fight the urge to open my eyes out of surprise. "You're so quiet."

"When I want to be."

"But you don't want me to be like other maidens?"

"I want you to be like you." His warm breath flutters my hair.

"I don't understand."

He slides away, his presence gone from my side. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm sorry I did."

"You don't have to apologize to me. You had every reason to yell. I keep messing up. I promise I'll try harder. I'll be better. A better me. Not like the other maidens." He said he didn't want that. "But better than I was."

He makes a soft noise, similar to a chuckle.

I turn my cheek toward the sound. "Did you just laugh?"

"I think I did."

"You think?" He doesn't know?

"Laughter has never been a part of my life." His tone dips to something somber. "Most maidens are filled with sorrow, always crying and begging me to free them. When they're not sad, they're terrified of breaking a rule and becoming enslaved for a year, which always results in death." He pauses. "You are different in so many ways. It gives me hope."

Friday, December 29, 2017

7 Fated Days to Go!

Your nightly reading has arrived! This chapter gets to me everytime a read it. Waterworks galore. Read it and weep ... or cringe ... or laugh--if you're into that kind of thing. 


Outside the cottage, Dacian takes my arm by the crook of my elbow and leads me through the woods.

I keep my head lowered and my eyes on the dark ground. We follow a narrow path. The glow of dusk turns the shrubbery we pass to a vibrant green. The beauty of the woods at sunset and sunrise used to take my breath away. Now, I fear I'll never view them in the same way.

The further we walk, the quicker my heart beats. With each step, my muscles wind tighter and the hold I have on my nerves slips.

As if Dacian feels my tension, he says, "Remember who you are doing this for. Your family. Your freedom. Do as she says without question. Follow the rules, and all will go well."

Like a mantra, I repeat the rules in my head.
Do not look at her.
Do not speak.
Follow her instruction.
Do not run away in fear.
The last one I add myself.

Sloshing sounds ahead. Is the river that close? Tremors jolt through me.

Dacian leans toward my ear. His breath flutters my hair. His hands slide up and down my forearms, warming the chill from my skin. "I must leave you now, but I won't be far away. I'll rejoin you as soon as you're on the path of deliverance."

"The what?"

"The path of the one Fated to Die," Dacian explains. "The clothing will lead you where you need to go."

We stop at the edge of the woods. Moss-covered rocks and pebbles meet my slippered-feet. I can't see the river, but I know it's only steps away by the mineral scent in the air and the sound of the moving current.

More sloshing sounds. It's loud, close. Is it her, washing the clothes, or wading to me? I shiver. Blessed Ones, watch over me. 

"Be brave," Dacian says. His hand slips from my arms, and his steps crunch the ground as he walks away.

I cling to his words. Be brave. Mother used to say I was brave. Could she have known this would be my fate, or was she just complimenting me the way she often did? Regardless, the memory offers a sense of peace. I hold onto it, imagining her by my side. "Come closer," a female says.

Her voice is mature with a regal air, nothing like the monstrous sound I expected to hear. The urge to see what she looks like builds inside me. I bow my head lower.

It's darker now. I can barely see in front of me. My slippers sink into mushy dirt and the hem of my white dress darkens with the mud. At the edge of the river, I stop and wait for more instructions.

The water looks as black as night. It ripples in my direction, and my mind conjures a different color, blood red.

A putrid scent taints the air. My stomach pitches and I fight the urge to gag.

I lift my hand to cover my nose before realizing my action and forcing it back to my side. Please don't let me have broken a rule.

My eyes and throat burn. Breathing becomes painful. Each inhale draws bile up my throat.  
The water swills and ripples in my direction. Dizziness joins my churning stomach. It's a struggle to stay upright. How much longer before I pass out or get sick?

The air grows frigid and thick as if it's turning to ice. My body quivers with such force I fear my bones will shatter. More swilling. Are those flecks of snow floating on the surface? I want to hug myself, to curl up in a ball in the mud and try to get warm. How is it so cold?

I draw in a sharp breath. It's like inhaling frost. A new scent fills the air, a floral one I recognize. Mother taught me about all the flowers in the gardens. The fragrance is strong and sweet. It belongs to hyacinths. The flower is used in the village when burying the dead.  

The air grows warmer, and my muscles relax from their shivering state.

"Reach out your hand, child," the Washer Woman says, agony ringing in her tone. "Take the garment and deliver it to its owner. Do as you are told and you shall be free come the seventh day."

Squeezing my eyes closed, I lift a shaky arm and reach for the garment, even though I want nothing to do with it.

Wet material touches my hand. I almost jerk away and have to force my fingers to grip the clothing. What is it? A dress? Shirt? Pants? Is it bloody? Am I touching blood?

I fight a shriek and keep my arm extended, not wanting the garment close to me. The material suddenly tugs, lurching me to the side. It jerks again, whirling me toward the woods, I think. I stumble and risk opening my eyes a tiny bit. Fear has me slamming them shut. Will it count as breaking a rule? I didn't see anything.

The garment draws me forward until crunching sounds under my shoes. I'm in the woods. Does that mean I can look where I’m going?

When I stumble again, almost going down, I decide it's safe to stare at my feet. I should be far enough away from the river, from her.   

The garment pulls me forward so fast I can barely keep up. Where's Dacian? He said he wouldn't be far. I want to look for him, to cry out his name. I'm unsure of what to do next, of what I can or can't do. The rules for this part haven't been said, and I’m scared. What if the garment takes me to someone I know? Someone I care about? What if it takes me to my house? Will I be able to deliver the it then?

Absolutely not. If it is between me becoming a slave or someone I love dying, I will break every rule necessary to keep them safe.

"Slow down," Dacian calls out from behind me.

"I can't."

"You can. You're strong and brave. Calm yourself. Take control." His calm, confident tone grounds me like an anchor.

I draw in a breath and another, easing the bounding of my heart. My steps slow and the garment begins guiding me rather than wrenching me along.

"See?" Dacian says, drawing closer. "By controlling your emotions, your fears, you control the task."

"I wish I could look where I’m going."

"You can." He appears at my side, mist swirling his boots.

Right. Outside he's cloaked. Inside he's not. I lift my head and focus on the trees, not the garment in my hand. Seeing what it is, whose it could be, will make this harder. Like a cut or bruise that doesn't hurt that much until you glimpse how bad it is and the pain is suddenly worse.

The woods are dark. I can barely see where the clothing is leading me. Is it glinting? My gaze darts there before I can stop it. No! Copper light outlines a blouse. The victim is a woman.

The night of my mother's claiming breaks free in my mind. The heartache of her loss. The fear and regret. I shove it back, knowing I can't do this with that nightmare circling my thoughts.

Doing what I do best, I harden myself against my emotions and imagine I’m made of stone. For once, the nickname Stone Beauty will serve me well.

"How are you doing?" Dacian asks, making me aware of our faster pace.

Oh no. I focus on slowing my breathing and therefore slowing my steps. "I'm fine."

I glance at him with a double take. I'd forgotten about the mist. 

Tall, dark, and swift, he moves through the woods like a creature of the night, graceful and agile as if he can see in the dark.

Maybe he can.

I stumble out of the trees and onto the bridge that leads to the village. I knew I'd end up here, but seeing it makes it that more real.

Fear chills my skin. I shudder.

The garment tugs me toward the quiet village. The only sound comes from the patter of my slippers on the cobblestone. The street lamps burn low, giving the village a haunted look. All the windows on all the tightly packed homes are closed, as if that will keep the curse out. It won't. I know because my arm aches from being extended, and although my steps have grown sloppy, the blouse hasn't eased one bit. It has a destination and won't stop until it's with its owner. Victim.

The garment swings right and drags me forward for a few blocks. I've never seen the village so empty of life, but then I've never visited it during the week she comes. I'd only heard about how families lock themselves inside their homes, too afraid to go outside.

My arm jerks to the right again. Four blocks this time.

"I'm tired, Dacian," I whisper.

Immediately, I feel bad. Someone is about to die, and I'm complaining about being tired.

"It's almost done. You're doing quite well. If you keep it up, things should go smoothly."

Before I can ask what he means, the blouse veers left and stops in front of a blue door. There’s only one royal blue door in town, and I know who waits on the other side.
I try to step back, but my feet feel glued to the front step.

"No." I shake my head. "I can't do this."

I glance behind me to see if Dacian is still here. He is.

"I know her."

He shushes me. "You are not to speak. Not even to me. Not in this moment."

His tone is urgent in a way that frightens me more.

I stare at the door, the brass knocker at my eye level, unsure of what to do. The rules didn't cover this part.

"Open." The voice that called to me at the ceremony slithers through the air.

I cringe.

The doorknob twists on its own.

A male inside shouts, "Don't open it." His deep voice grates with horror.

The door cracks open.

"I'll always love you." Mrs. Potterfield say over her shoulder, her voice the sweetest sound. The scent of sugar wafts from her reminding me of the bakery she owns.

It's the only shop in town that allows me to enter despite my anomalies. Mrs. Potterfield adored my mother and therefore adores me. She knows my sisters favorite treat, raspberry buns, and that I get two for them during the last week of every month.

Her sad blue eyes meet mine, the crinkles around them deepening. Her round cheeks, no longer puffed with a smile, sag with a frown.

My heart clenches. No! Not her! Not the kindest woman in the village. I won't do it. Tears flood my eyes as I try to jerk my arm away. To move my legs. Nothing works. The shirt is like a magnet pointed at its match, and I’m not strong enough to stop it.

"It's all right, dear." Mrs. Potterfield steps toward the garment. "It's not your fault." She lifts a shaky hand.

"No!" Her husband lurches forward and embraces his little round wife. "She's all I have left. Please, don't take her from me."

His plea sends me over the edge, that and the forgiveness in her eyes.

A scream wrenches from me as I use all my strength to throw myself backward. Nothing. I don't even budge.

"No!" I sob, hating myself, hating my weakness, hating this horrid curse. "Please no." I don't know who I’m crying to. The Blessed Ones. The curse. Dacian, hoping he can help me save her.

My knees shake. I wish they'd give out. No matter how hard I try to push away, to move my arm, to turn around, nothing works. 

I twist my head, the only part of me able to move, and search for Dacian, desperate for his help. He's gone. Where? Why?

"It'll be all right, my love." Mrs. Potterfield's voice jerks my head back to her. She cups her husband's cheek and kisses him. "This is how it has to be. For now. We'll meet again someday." She glances at the stars and manages a small smile.

I don't miss the deep swallow in her throat.

Mr. Potterfield shakes his head, tears sliding down his red cheeks. "If you go, I'll follow you. I can't live without you. I won't."

More sobs rip from me, choking my throat and stealing my breath. Is this how Father reacted the night Mother was taken? Is this how he felt? Helpless. Powerless. No wonder he never recovered from her loss.

If ever I wanted to destroy the Washer Woman, it's now. If I had an ax, I’d swing at her the next time we meet. I’d slice her in half and not even blink. I hate her. I hate Princess Bretta for what she did. I hate the Mystic. I hate them all!

Fingernails dig into my palm as I tighten the hold I have on the shirt. If I don’t let go, maybe she'll live. Again, I try to wrench myself down the step, away from the door, from sweet Mrs. Potterfield.

Without breaking eye contact with her husband, Mrs. Potterfield reaches for the blouse. He doesn't seem to notice she's doing it, too busy planting kisses on her cheeks, and forehead.
I open my mouth to warn him, but no sound comes out, like my vocal chords are frozen now too.

Her fingers touch the copper glinting shirt and she disappears. There's no sound. No coppery dust. No whoosh of air. Nothing, as if she and the shirt were never here. 

Her husband stays bent over, kissing the air before realizing his wife is gone from his arms. His gaze slides to me. Aguish flashes in his eyes, then his skin reddens as rage sets over his face.

I stumble back, surprised I can move.

"You!" He points at me as he stalks down the step. "I will never forgive you. Never!"

I flinch and trip, falling onto my tailbone. "I'm s-sorry," I cry. "I didn't want her to die. I loved her. I never would have—"

"Silence!" Dacian appears in a whirl of mist.

Mr. Potterfield jumps back into his house, his features wide with fear. He slams his door.

A second later, pain stabs my skin like a thousand shards of ice. I scream and collapse onto the cobblestone road.

"I told you not to speak," Dacian scolds. He shoves his hands under my back and knees.
The pain grows stronger, like the shards of ice are penetrating my bones. My muscles clamp tighter. My blood burns like it's freezing in my veins. Violent tremors wrack my body.

A whimper escapes my chattering teeth.
Help me. Help me.

"Hang on." Dacian's voice breaks through the haze of pain. "We're almost there."

The coldness reaches my head, tightening around it like an icy crown.  
Too much. It's too much.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

8 Days Left of FATED TO DIE

Yollo. Ollo. Ello. Hello. Yes, I'm losing it but only slightly. I promise to be better after this weekend. I hope you're liking the story and questions are starting to fill your mind. Not confusing ones, the good kind. The kind that make you want to read more. 

As promised, another chapter. Finally, we're getting closer to the Washer Woman and her big reveal. Hopefully big. LOL. Enjoy!



Curious and maybe a little angry that Dacian left, I try the door. As soon as I clutch the handle, the plant on the shelf comes to life. The leaves flap, and two in the center part like a mouth opening. High-pitched squawking blasts throughout the cottage.

I cover my ears and cringe. The room darkens back to its dismal, grungy appearance.

"I’m sorry," I shout over the squawking, apologizing to the plant and the cottage. "I didn't know. I'm sorry."

I back up across the room and huddle in the corner, my hands still pressed to my ears.

The plant finally calms down. The leaves fall, curving in a natural way.  

Slowly, I straighten and lower my hands from my ears. Ahh. The silence.

Deciding never to do that again, I take slow steps to the chair and ease onto the lumpy cushion. The title on the book twinkles in gold. The Royal Family. Does the cottage want me to read it? The book is the only constant in this ever-changing space. With nothing else to do but wait for Dacian to return, I pull the heavy book onto my lap and begin reading.

The story is about the monarchy that ended a century ago. I learned about it in history lessons. Queen Alys and her sister Princess Bretta were rare beauties, though different in every way. Alys was fair skinned with strawberry blond hair, which is common among our people. Bretta's skin was olive and her hair as dark as night. Their personalities were opposites too. While Alys was kind and gentle, Bretta was jealous and hot-tempered.

Tired of being second to her sister, Bretta sought a Mystic who had been exiled from the village by the late king for practicing dark magic. She made a deal with him, promising to welcome him back to the village as her private Seer if he would curse the queen to lose the throne to Bretta.
The Mystic agreed, but only if the princess made him her Royal Commander, a position Bretta had already promised to her lover. When she countered with the offer of Royal Seer or nothing at all, the Mystic cursed the village instead, causing us all to suffer.

Every Summer Solstice when the Washer Woman rises, it's a harsh reminder of Bretta's betrayal to her sister, the crown, the village, and the scorned Mystic.

Some people believe the Washer Woman is courteous, often choosing elders or the sickly as her victims. I know otherwise. If she were kind, she wouldn't have chosen my mother, a woman whose sole existence was to please and care for her family. There wasn’t a selfish bone in my mother's body. She wasn't ill nor was she old when the Messenger delivered Mother's blood-stained blouse to our manor.

If I had been the one to answer the door, I would have burned the blouse and knocked the Messenger unconscious. Maybe I would’ve kept her prisoner in the barn until the Washer Woman returned to her home under the river.

My muscles clench with a potent mix of anger and guilt. If only I'd been stronger, back then. Wiser.

A thought crosses my mind. I close the book and sit taller in the chair.
I can't change the past, but maybe I can change the future. Fate chose me as Messenger for a reason. Mother always said I was special. Could my destiny be to seek vengeance for my mother's death by destroying the Washer Woman? I've never thought of myself as a violent person, but perhaps I could do it to save my sisters and innocents in the village who are Fated to Die.

No one has ever broken a rule with the Washer Woman and survived, but has anyone tried to destroy her? Is it even possible?

The leaves on the plant point at me, as if it knows what I’m thinking.
Tensing, I wait to see what it does. Release that deafening squawk? Spit poison at me?

The big leaf at the top moves up and down like it's nodding.

I gulp. It can hear my thoughts.

A moment later, the leaves soften to their restful position.

I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. Such a strange place.

Clearing my mind, I set the book on the table and stand to stretch my stiff legs.

A knock sounds on the door, two quick raps.

I turn away and close my eyes.

The door creaks open and footsteps fall onto the wood floors.

"Dacian?" I ask.

"You're not wearing your blindfold," he says, shuffling closer to me.

"Should I be?"

"You turned around. You're learning. Whether you are ready to face my mother remains to be seen. We are out of time to train you, and you cannot wear the mask in her presence."

I lift my head but keep my eyes closed. "Why is that? So I'm more likely to break a rule?"

"Are your eyes closed?" he asks instea, spuring my frustration.

I smash my lips together and give a curt nod.

"Good. Keep them closed. I'm coming around to the front of you."

A shadow blocks the small amount of light shining behind my closed eyelids. The scent of cloves hits me next. I lift my face to where his would be before realizing what I’m doing.

Hands brush my long hair behind my shoulders.  "Do you never wear your hair up?"

"Does it bother you down?" I ask, hopeful. It'd be nice to have something over him since he has so many things over me.

"No." His voice is soft. "If it were up, I couldn't enjoy the pale shade and soft curls as much as I do. It is lovely, though uncustomary. Proper maidens don't wear their hair down. Not the ones I've known."

My back stiffens. It's a compliment yet it feels like an insult. The kids in the village used to say similar things.  Maybe not in such a nice way. Still, it sits wrong with me. That and the idea of him with other maidens. His job is to care for them. It shouldn't bother me. Still, I can't keep from saying, "I bet you've known many maidens in your lifetime." Bitterness laces my tone. Goodness. What is my problem?  

"Sadly, yes. More than I care to have known. They didn't deserve to be here any more than you do." He tugs the sleeves to my dress, startling me.

I lean away. "What are you doing?"

"Making sure you look your best for when you greet—"

"Your mother," I mutter chest tight with fear.

"I was going to say the Washer Woman." The skirt to my dress pulls like he's straightening wrinkles.

I almost open my eyes to make sure he gets them all.  To ensure I don't, I lift my face to the ceiling.

A puff of air brushes my skin, alerting me that he's close, looming over me. I can feel his gaze on my face. It makes me wonder what his eyes are like. Big? Slanted? Animallike? Human? When I first met him, they glowed silver. Are they like that all the time or do they change? Father says my eyes get darker when I'm angry and that Mother's did the same.
The logical part of my brain says I should be afraid of him, but I’m not. Perhaps, it's his gentle nature or the sadness in his tone. He seems lonely. Is his face, human or not, as expressive as his voice? I may never know.

He tucks a stray hair behind my ear, his thumb brushing my cheek with a touch so light it could have been a butterfly wing. Had he meant to do it, or was it an accident? Why do I care?

My skin tingles where he touched it in the most pleasant way. I stop myself from cupping my cheek. I don't want him to know what I’m thinking or feeling. Helpful or not, I have no reason to trust him, even if he did give me permission to speak.

"Have you ever cared for one of the maidens in your keep?" I'm only asking to get a better feel for his character and see if he's capable of deeper emotions. It's harmless.

"It is my job to care for them while they stay in the cottage."

"But have you ever cared for one of them in here?" In a bold move, I place my hand on his chest, hoping it's near his heart.  

He makes a small gasp but doesn't back away or remove my hand.

Light thumping pulses under my palm. My lips part with a smile. "Your heart beats like mine."

"That's because I am human, regardless of the curse. And no. I have not held affection for any of the maidens in my keep. I am forbidden to care for them beyond my duties." Sorrow and frustration ring in his tone, and I find myself wanting to soothe him.

"How are you young? The curse has been around for a century."

His hand slips from mine. "What makes you think I'm young?"

"You sound it, and you sound a little torn. Most people my—our?—age are. It's hard to always do what is expected of you. I imagine it'd be more fun to go where the moment takes you once in a while."

Air brushes my cheek. Is he about to touch my face again?

"I am seventeen," he says to my surprise, not because of his age, but because he answered my question directly. "I have never opened my heart to another. Never courted a girl. Never kissed one." Soft fingers glide across my cheek down to my chin, that pleasant tingle following his touch.

"Would you like to try a kiss on me?" I ask. The offer is to win him over, If I can get him to fall for me, to trust me, I can use him to help me carry out my plan of ridding the village of the curse.

"Yes." He answers in a whisper, the yearning in his voice making him sound grateful for the offer.

My heart flutters against my will. I should not be excited. I should be scared. He says he's human, but that doesn't mean he looks like one. He could be part animal with sharp teeth. I didn't think this through.

I open my mouth to take back the offer.

 "But I won't," he says before I can speak. " Not now. Perhaps not ever." Would you like me to repeat the rules before I take you to meet her?" His voice sounds distant like he's moved away.

I nod and try my hardest to focus on his words, but my emotions keep budding in. Why did he refuse my kiss? I've been told I'm pleasing in appearance. Tristin thought so, and I've caught boys in the village staring at me when they think no one is looking. I might be able to tempt one of them to kiss me despite the jaunts, but not Dacian. Not the boy whose soft voice is like a song I long to hear, whose touch is as gentle as a whisper, whose calm demeanor makes me want to scream at him until he's as angry as I am. Maybe then he'll understand how frustrating it is to be held captive, and by someone you can't look at, or how heart-wrenching it is not to tell your family you're all right, when you know they fear the worst.

I don’t even know I’m shaking my head until Dacian's hands cup my cheeks. "You need to rid yourself of that inner fire before meeting her. She will not turn a blind eye to it."

Inner fire. The comment bites at me, bringing back old memories. "My grandmother used to talk about me in that way. She said, I have too much fire in my soul. My mother always disagreed, calling it passion, but Grandmother never saw it that way. To her, I was unacceptable.  To the village and Council, I'm unacceptable, yet it's fine for them to ridicule me for my differences, as well as sacrifice innocent maidens to the curse. How is that fair?"

Hurt and anger claw at my throat, threatening to break my composure. I swallow them down.

He lifts my face and his clove scent brushes my nose. I squeeze my lashes tight fighting the urge to open my eyes.

"You are unlike anyone I've ever met," he murmurs. "Strong-willed and fierce. While admirable, both traits will get you killed. Do as I say, and perhaps you will be the first girl to live through this and reclaim her freedom. I'd so hate one as special as you to lose the battle before it even begins."

His words seem genuine. I wish I could believe him.

"I'm not special. If I were, I wouldn't be here." Isn't that what Tristin said?

His hands leave my face. "Have you read the book?"

"Book?" It takes me a second to catch up. "The Royal family. Yes. I did a little. It's nothing I don't already know."

"I promise you there is a lot more in it than what you think you know. Special things a girl with two different colored eyes should want to know."

My head snaps in the direction of the table, my gaze wide on the book.
"Do not move," Dacian says, tone grave. The wood floor creaks with his footsteps.

"What happened?" I whisper.

From a fair distance behind me, he says, "Your eyes are open. That you are unaware of it is most concerning. One mistake, one rule broken, and you will not be the special girl I believe you to be."

From my peripheral, I spy his tall dark form in the corner. So tempting. I force my eyes close and curse myself for the stupid mistake. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. Be focused. It's time to go."

He's right. I need to be strong, stronger than I've ever had to be, so I can get through this and do what must be done. Fear dances at the edge of my mind, threatening to take over. I breathe through my nerves and harden my emotions the way I do before entering town. I can do this. I must.

Drawing on every ounce of courage inside me, I straighten my spine and say, "Take me to her."

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

9 Days Left of FATED TO DIE

Gah! Keeping up with this is harder than I had thought. Who plans this during the holidays? Clearly, I do. I love it, don't get me wrong, but I don't want to flake-out and miss a post.

I should have considered my two sons are off school and my hubs has lots of free time, which means lots of outings. Disney Springs, favorite restaurants, and planning Cole's (my youngest) fifteenth birthday this weekend. Yep. That little guy came into the world on December 30th. So close to being a New Years baby.  

Anywho. The show must go on, so as promised, please enjoy day 9 of FATED TO DIE.  Hope you're ready for more, because you're getting it! Tee,hee.


I stare at the closed door, waiting to hear a key turn, locking me in.

Nothing sounds.

Does that mean there is no lock, or does he trust me not to leave? Maybe he doesn't have to trust me because pain will be my punishment should I attempt any escape.

Curious, I step to the door and reach for the handle. The leaves of the plant straighten toward the ceiling.

I freeze. How does it know what I’m doing? It doesn't have eyes. Maybe it heard the floor creak under my shoes. But plants don’t have ears.

"Hello?" I ask in a timid voice.

It doesn't respond.

Laughter bubbles up in me. Silly girl.

Exhaustion hits me with a heavy yawn. I touch my forehead and close my eyes for a moment. The events of the day are finally catching up to me. I should sleep.

I shuffle to the door at the back of the cottage. Grit and gravel scrape the floor as I pull it open. It leads to another small room with only a cot and lantern. A coarse blanket covers a thin mattress. When I fluff it, dust puffs around my face, making me cough and sneeze. I hustle into the other room and breathe in less dusty air. The chair beside the fireplace catches my eye. Seems like a good enough place to sleep.

I hope there are no rules against spending the night in the chair versus the bedroom—if you can it that. The plant doesn't seem to mind. Its leaves hang in a natural way, like it's content or sleeping. Maybe it is. Maybe I could….

My gaze lands on the front door—the unlocked front door—and then back on the peaceful plant. Adrenaline surges through me with the thought of escaping.

I could try to get away, run home and see my family. If I can find my way back to the village. I don't know where I am, and I have no means of protection against the night creatures in the woods.

Another yawn claims me, draining the rush of energy from my body. My shoulders sag and every part of begs for sleep. Even if I could make it outside, I wouldn't get far. My body needs to rest.

Escape will have to wait until tomorrow.

Muscles aching, I lower onto the chair. The cushion is lumpy, but at least I'm not choking on dust. A sigh leaves me. It feels good to be off my feet. I prop them on the footstool and let my head rest against the high back of the chair. Only then do I let my thoughts drift to my family.

The look of hurt and betrayal in Father's eyes—I'll never forget. I should have told him I couldn't mate with Tristin. I owed him the truth, to prepare him in case I was chosen. At the time, I didn't think it was a possibility. I still can't believe this is my fate.

A shutter of sadness rips through me at the thought of my sisters. I can only imagine how they reacted when Father showed up home without me. They must be so confused, so scared, and hurt that I led them to believe everything would be fine. I didn't even tell them goodbye. They were still in the barn with Daisy when Father and I left.

Tears burn my eyes. I bury my head in the corner of the chair, hating myself. I have to fix this. I have to get back to Father and the twins if only to apologize and promise them I will survive. I will not be like the other girls. I'm not like other girls now. The situation will be different for me. I have to believe that.


I wake with a stretch and groan. The soft mattress bends under my weight, and warm blankets twist with my body. I can't remember the last time I slept this well. Since the twins are not jumping on my bed, they must still be sleeping.

Morning light shines behind my closed eyelids. Time to greet the day. I blink my eyes open. A sheer white canopy with light purple flowers hangs above me. The scent of lavender fills the air.

This isn't my bed. Thin, smooth branches twisted together act as the posters holding the canopy. A white lush blanket covers the bed with thin white linen underneath.

The room is smaller than mine, with white wood panels on the walls. To the right, sunlight filters through a window draped in sheer fabric. The dresser and nightstand are made of the same smooth wood as the bed.

Whose room is this, and why am I here?

I sit up. In the corner, a small dingy lantern catches my gaze.

Memories bombard me. The boy surrounded in mist. The ceremony. The look in Father's eyes when I was chosen as Messenger.

My chest tightens, and my heart races. I spring from the bed, vaguely noting the white nightgown covering my body. Last night, I was in that battered cottage. I fell asleep in that old chair by the fireplace.

I stumble from the bedroom and freeze. The area is the same but different. Like in the bedroom, wood panels in white line the walls. The sheer drapes over the windows weren't here last night. They flank either side of the stone fireplace, which looks restored.

Light green fabric with white flowers covers plush cushions on the chair beside the fireplace. The small wooden table shines like it's newly polished. The same book sits on top. I trace a finger over the gold etchings, and a tingle sizzles on my skin.

It's like a spell is cast over the cottage. The only spells I know of are dark, like the one in our village. How else could all of this have changed? How else could I have fallen asleep in the chair and end up in the other room, in a beautiful bed, dressed in the softest nightgown I've ever worn?

I draw in a breath and inhale a sweet, warm scent. The dining table is set for one with a bowl of creamed oats, a side of mixed berries, and a glass of milk. The food wasn't here when I came out of the room.

"Who did this?" I search of the small room for the source. "Did you?" I ask the plant that looks as relaxed as last night.

It doesn't even twitch a leaf in response.  

My stomach rumbles. I pluck a blackberry from the top of the creamed oats. The fruit looks fresh, the texture good, the scent normal. My mouth waters. One blackberry can't hurt. I eat it. Mmm. It tastes perfect.

The front door opens. I whip around, expecting to see the mist-covered boy, but no one enters.

"Hello?" I step in that direction.

"Turn around." The boy's voice sounds from outside.

"Why?" I take another step.

"Do it," he commands.

Humph. I twist away and cross my arms.

Footsteps creak over the wood floors. I don't remember him making sounds yesterday.

"Close your eyes and straighten your head," he orders from close behind me, making me wonder if I should be afraid. A cool soft material covers my eyes.

"What are you doing?" I reach up to feel a satin mask.

"It's for your own good, considering you've already forgotten the rules." He ties it snuggly at the back of my head. "I presume you'd prefer a verbal reminder not to speak instead of a painful reminder."

I open my mouth to thank him but nod instead. This no talking thing will be my greatest challenge yet.

Something he said last night pierces my thoughts. "Do not speak unless I ask you a direct question." Perhaps a few more words won't result in pain.

"Will you do me the favor of asking me questions? There is so much I want to know."

When he doesn't respond, I face him and point at my mask.

He sigh as as if annoyed, but I detect a note of humor. "Very well. The mask is to train you to remember you are not to look at me or my mother when in our presence. You will keep your head and eyes down, so you can see where you're walking, but only where you're walking."
Why? I shrug and shake my head to convey my confusion. Is she as hideous as the rumors say? Is he? His eyes are silver, I know that, but everything else about him seems normal—what I could see through the mist. Maybe he has scars or burns or is disfigured in some way. I want to tell him it wouldn't bother me if he is. I've been considered flawed my whole life because of my eyes. Again, I shrug and shake my head like I’m confused.

He takes my arm and steers me forward. "Eat. You'll need your strength tonight."

Tonight? When I meet her? That sends a chill through my bones.

When I don't move, he guides me onto the chair. "Eat."

I don't want to, even though my stomach is grumbling like a hungry animal in the woods.
He flips my hand upside down and places cold metal on my palm. A spoon? Feeling around, I find the bowl and lean close to the table. Then I attempt to scoop oats onto my spoon and feed myself.

I aim for my parted lips. The spoon hits the corner of my mouth. Half of the warm oats make it onto my tongue, while the other half drips down my chin. I pat the table for a napkin. My thumb ends up in the bowl. I let out a frustrated squeal and almost rip off the mask.

A napkin lands on my hand. After wiping my chin and thumb clean, I sit back and fold my hands on my lap. I will not be trying that again.

"You need to eat," he stresses.

I can't. I gesture to the mask, my jaw pressed tight.

"Am I to feed you, then?" he asks as if the task is beneath him.

Frustrated, I push away from the table and cross my arms. I can't see. I can't speak. How am I supposed to do anything?

He exhales with the same annoyance as before. "I will leave you to eat and dress for the day. You will find everything you need in the cottage. Do not remove your mask until you know I am gone. When I return, I will knock. You are to secure the mask before I enter.


I nod.

A moment later, the door opens and closes. I tear off the mask and blink my vision clear.

"So stupid," I hiss before realizing I've spoken out loud. When my focus returns, I can't believe my eyes. The cottage is the same dirty, decrepit space from last night.

Did I imagine the beautiful transformation, or did he do something when he left?

At least the food is still here, smelling as delicious as it did before.

I devour the oatmeal, hungrier than I thought, and head to the bedroom to get dressed. The canopy bed is replaced with the ragged cot. Gray torn fabric blocks most of the sunlight from the window. My white dress hangs from a hook on the adjacent wall. Dirt no longer coats the hem. I sniff the fabric. Freshly laundered. How?

Fear shoots down my spine. I dig in the pocket for Mother's butterfly brooch. Thank the Blessed Ones it's there. I don't know what I would do if I lost it. It also appears to have been cleaned. I kiss the stones and pat the cottage wall, grateful for the kind deed. After placing it back in the pocket, I turn to find a claw-foot tub filled with water.


The water is warm to the touch, the perfect temperature. I smile in thanks. The bath is exactly what I need. Feeling a thousand times better, I drain the tub and dress. Then I shake out the dusty bed cover and place it neatly on the lumpy cot.

Just because I have to stay here doesn't mean I have to live in a mess. I have a tub with water, soap, and a towel. I can tidy up the cottage and make it better.

As soon as I grab the towel, the place changes back to the white cozy cottage, canopy bed and all. The tub has vanished, the window covered with white sheers.

I race to the other room. It's restored, as well.

In awe, I spin in a circle, taking it in.

 Two knocks rap on the door.

I stiffen and scramble to the table to get the mask. Quickly, I tie it around my head.

The door creaks open. "I'm entering."

I nod. It's all I can do.

"I see you are relaxed again," he says.

How would he know? I lift my palm in question.

"The cottage rewards kindness and good behavior." Shoes shuffle in my direction. "But only to the pure of heart. It's one of the reasons why the Messenger must be a virgin."

I swallow. Talking about my virginity with my father was bad enough. Talking about it with a stranger who's holding me captive is even worse.

A new scent touches my nose. Cloves. Mmm. Mother used to make clove-flavored tea. It's my favorite, especially when paired with molasses cookies. I sniff the air, trying to determine its source. Is it coming from him? He's so close I can feel heat from his body.

"What are you doing?" he asks, giving me permission to speak.

I could clap with joy. "Smelling you and reliving a memory of my mother." I lean closer, breathing him in. "Delicious."

It sounds like he's stumbling away from me.

I reach out to help him, grabbing only air. "Are you all right?"

He clears his throat. "I'm fine. Save your words before you're punished for them," he scolds.

"You shouldn't be talking or sniffing me. You should be frightened. You are to meet her tonight. You are to deliver an item of clothing to a person who's Fated to Die. Doesn't that bother you?"

"Of course, it bothers me." My blood heats. "Everything about this bothers me. I can't see. I can't speak. I have no idea what to expect tonight, if I can pass all that is required without breaking any rules, or if I can survive to see my family again. I betrayed their trust in the worst way, and I can't even apologize or explain myself to them. I may never be able to."
The truth of that crashes over me, and my heart cries out in pain. I can't let that happen. I can't.

Hands rest on my shoulders. "You have a chance to survive this. I will help you."

My head lifts with a gasp. I mouth the word, "Why?"

His hands move away. "It is my job to keep you well so you can do your tasks as Messenger."

I'm no better off than a cow or pig being prepped to be slaughtered. How unfortunate. If I'm to get through this I need to be numb. Tucking away my emotions, I straighten my spine, ready for what awaits me.

"I thought you could practice walking around without the blindfold," he says.

Despite my surprise, I nod.

With gentle fingers, he unties the mask at the back of my head. "Keep your head and gaze down. That will help."

I blink until I can see. The first thing in my line of sight besides the light wood floor is a pair of black boots. His boots. They are shiny and large, but then he is tall, almost a head taller than me. The temptation to follow those boots upward and take in the boy before me is agonizing.

Even if I weren't curious by nature, I'd want to know who is caring for me. Wait. That's not right. He's not caring for me. He's holding me captive. Or is he just his mother's puppet? A prisoner like me, forced to do her bidding? Perhaps he can help me get word to my family that I'm all right and so very sorry for deceiving them. Perhaps he can truly help me survive this, and I can return to my family in the end.

I need to dedicate myself to doing everything right. To being as perfect as I can be.
First, though, I need to know one thing. Keeping my head down, I pretend to hold a quill and scroll on paper.

"You would like to write a letter?" he asks.

Clever boy. "I would like to communicate with you, and since speaking isn't possible without being asked a direct question, I thought it could help me learn things. Like your name."
He steps back.

"You know mine," I add. "It's only fair I know yours."

He backs away more.  "I am to direct you, and you are to follow my instructions. There is no need for you to know my name."

Not a question. Darn. No pen, either.

Again, I lift my hand and fake scrolling on paper.

When he doesn't respond or move from his spot, I close my eyes and lift my face. I touch my palms together like I'm pleading for him to do this for me.

"I don't know if I'm permitted to provide paper and pen for you. No one has ever asked for such things." His shoes tap toward the fireplace, and I can sense his frustration. "But then again you are not the typical Messenger. Praya with two different colored eyes." His voice drops to a whisper.

Never has my name sounded so pretty.

I turn my face to him, wondering something and daring to ask it. Maybe my defiance will convince him to help me, as he so states is his duty. "Do you fear the two different colors are a mark of darkness?"

He clears his throat, seeming unsettled, and takes a moment to respond. "Not a mark of darkness, but a symbol no less."

Drawing in a breath, I brace myself for the pain that could come with these very words. When nothing happens, I open my mouth to ask another question.

"Wait!" he calls out. Seconds tick by. "You may ask me anything you wish until I tell you otherwise."

My bottom lip drops, and my eyelashes flutter to open without thought.
"Do not look at me," he barks.

I drop my head and squeeze my eyes closed. He grants me a wish, and I ruin it by almost looking at him. I need to focus. "I'm sorry. I don't want to fail you or my family."
A small gasp sounds from him. "Fail me?"

"I assume my ability to serve your mother reflects on you as you are my teacher. Therefore, if I do well for you, I will do well for her, and we both will be rewarded in the end. I'll get my freedom, and you'll get ... what would you get?" Eyes closed, I lift my face to him. "What would you want?"

"You ask a lot of questions." His tone deepens.

"You gave me permission to."

"Not those kinds of questions." His boots shuffle toward the door.

"Forgive me, sir," I add, not knowing what else to call him. Boy feels too disrespectful, and I can't have him angry with me. "I did not mean to offend you. Please don't go, sir."

"Dacian," he says with an ounce of anger. "My name is Dacian. I prefer it to sir."

Dacian. What a lovely name.

"Thank you for sharing that with me." I smile. "Will you please stay, Dacian?"

His hesitation has me bowing my head and opening my eyes so I can move toward him. His black boots come into to focus. They're turned sideways as if he's about to open the door and leave.

"Please," I murmur, so curious as to what he looks like.

"I'll be back before dawn to collect you." The door opens and he disappears outside.