Ok, so I can't get this uncentered so just plz bear with me- bare with me?? Anywho. This is the first part of the novel i am working on. I just want someone to read it and let me know what they think. Plz, tell me the truth, but also spare me the harshness if you hate it LOL. I started working on this about a year or two ago-- its taken quite a while because I'm still in highschool haha and I've got homework and such. So yeah. Just give me some tips. Thanks! Hope y'all like it =]
~ Chapter 1 ~
I leapt nimbly over the porch steps, landing perfectly balanced on the balls of my feet, and trotted down the dusty road. My eyes scanned for my absent brother, but I saw no sign of him.
I turned my head to the left to look through the woods, carefully peering between the brilliant trees. I yearned to leap into the forestry and undergrowth, but I knew my brother would not be in there. He claimed any wild territory was dangerous.
Someone bumped into my shoulder, yanking me from my search, and I yelped in surprise, fear rising in my stomach as I wished desperately to just disappear.
You see, here was the thing: I was different.
I looked different; I talked different; I acted different. All around, I didn’t fit in.
The people here had distinct features, ones that I lacked. Dark skin, thin but muscular—even the girls and women—dark hair, dark eyes. But not I. No, I had long, blond-copper curls and jade green eyes. My limbs were thin and long, my flesh pale porcelain, except for my which was splashed with freckles. Even my shoulder blades were weird, jutting out like miniature wings.
Anywhere else, I’d be considered stunning. Beautiful, even. If I wasn’t an Outsider, that is.
Oh, and the main reason I wasn’t accepted? I had magick. Being an Outsider, simply put, meant I had no civil rights. I was the mangy mongrel in the streets that everyone shooed and hit because he was disgusting. Vile. Vermin. My mere existence was a disgrace.
To them, I was a witch.
The only reason I was still living here—or living at all—was because someone had made up this absurd rumor that whoever threw me out would bear a horrid curse.
I could guess who that person was.
Alex, my older brother, the only person who truly loved me. We weren’t blood-related, but he was a more legitimate family than whatever woman decided to abandon me, a seven-year-old, on the streets. The streets where Alex found me ten years ago.
He knew that I would have been exiled long ago if the people didn’t fear me and, therefore, hate me full-heartedly. Especially if I started showing signs of magick. No one had actually seen it besides Alex. But they had suspicions. Witch. That’s what they called me. And it didn’t help that I was left-handed.
Alex and my magick. That was it. There was no one else that cared, no one else to be kind.
So I didn’t expect this stranger to be.
But as I swiveled around, bracing myself for a blow and stammering out an apology, I found far from what I expected.
A dark-chocolate-haired woman stared at me, slender hand cupped around her mouth, eyes wide. “Oh,” she whispered. “You’re—”
“Yes, the witch. I know,” I finished. I fought to keep my temper down.
The woman shook her head, but only minimally so she could keep her eyes trained on my face. “No. That’s not what I meant…” she trailed off, still staring at me. I grew fidgety under her gaze, and jumped when a strong, but smooth hand landed firmly on my shoulder. I whirled.
I knew that an involuntary smile was edging its way onto my face but I didn’t mind. Anytime I saw him, the whole world seemed to fade into the background. Sometimes, I wondered whether it was because he was the one who saved me or whether it was because of something more. That thought always brought the rosy color to my cheeks. He was my brother so I knew I shouldn’t feel anything romantic towards him.
Then, again, we weren’t related by blood.
I blinked a few times to clear my head so I could focus on Alex’s face. He wasn’t looking at me but at the woman—who still seemed to be fascinated with me—his face straight and serious. I thought with some amusement that it was like a triangle. Me looking to Alex, Alex looking to the woman, and the woman looking to me.
“Sorry for my sister, ma’am. She can be such a klutz.” His eyes flicked to my face briefly. “I’m Alex Hawthorne,” he said, sticking out his hand.
The lady didn’t seem to notice but she responded. “Hazel. Pleasure to meet you,” she said to Alex. Then she turned to me. “And you are?”
I was startled for a moment. Why would a stranger be talking to me as if they cared about being polite to me? Then, remembering my manners, I answered, “Lacey. Lacey Hawthorne.”
A frown drew Hazel’s eyebrows together like she was confused. “Are you sure? You look very familiar. It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence…”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Alex pale. The pulse at the base of his throat was unusually fast. Fear. But what did Alex have to fear? This woman was small, gentle. “It probably is. I don’t believe either me or my sister have met you before. Maybe you’ve seen us around town.”
Hazel eyed him carefully. “Maybe.”
I opened my mouth to speak but Alex interrupted. “We really must get going. Have a good day.” He smiled pleasantly and grasped my shoulders steering me away down the cobbled stone road, in the direction of our house.
Once we arrived at our cottage, Alex unloaded, stripping off his boots and T-shirt and sitting at the small wooden island in the middle of the kitchen. I walked in after him, combing my hair back into a ponytail and pulling a pot from above my head. I set to work, silently preparing a meal for the two of us with Alex watching me keenly.
As I was chopping up onions to toss them into the sizzling pot, I ventured, “What was that about? With the woman, I mean.” I didn’t look at him for fear of slicing off a finger.
“I don’t know. She looked old enough to have grown up when the Walls weren’t up. You know, before the Feyrie attack, when there was a lot of diversity in the country. She might’ve known someone in her childhood that looked like you.” He ran his fingers through his sun-lightened brown hair.
“Or, you know,” I said with a grin, “she could’ve been feyrie-struck. She could be crazy now.”
“How do you know what feyrie-struck is? I don’t think I ever taught you that.”
I shook my head lightly. “You didn’t. Remember that fantasy book you got me two weeks ago? From the second-hand bookshop? It mentioned a girl being feyrie-struck. She wanted the feyrie world so badly she didn’t eat or drink. She only ever tried to sleep and dream of the Fey.” I sighed. “I couldn’t imagine being so stupid to venture beyond the Walls. Everyone knows that the Wastelands are dangerous. Everyone that goes out there dies.”
“Not everyone. The Fey. They live out there.” Alex wasn’t looking at me anymore. He was staring off at something only he could see.
“Yeah, but they have magick.”
His neck snapped up so his eyes were trained on me. “You do, too.”
I gasped and the knife I was holding clattered noisily to the wooden floor, just narrowly missing my foot. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing. I’m not saying you’re a changeling, if that’s what you mean. The Walls have been up for twenty-five years, before you were born. So you couldn’t be. It’s just that the Wastelands wouldn’t be as dangerous for you as some people.”
“Oh,” was all I said.
Where was Alex getting this? Why was he talking about me in the Wastelands? This was my home. I might be curious about what lies behind the Walls that reach as high as I could see but I would never dream of going beyond them. They were called the Wastelands for a reason.
Once upon a time, the Wastelands had been ruled by humans. Everyone knew there were multiple plains in this universe, and one belonged to the mortals and another belonged to the infamous Fey. The two worlds mixed freely, with enchanting elves and feyries appearing from theirs to offer aid and mortals would be charmed and willingly follow them to Feyrie. Despite their bad reputation of seducing mortals by feyrie-striking them, they were widely loved. But then out of nowhere, the mortal world came under the attack of the beautiful creatures and the human race was forced to shut itself off from everything just to escape the wrath of Feyrie.
Nothing was left outside the walls. The whole world had been obliterated. Survivors say that the sky was gray for weeks, months because the land smoldered for so long. That the smell of fire, death, and decay had been in the air for such a long time that no matter how much they scrubbed their hair, it stunk with the same scent.
And now everyone knew that land beyond the boundaries of our country that branched out about two-hundred miles was overrun with feral creatures and the malicious Fey. No one could last ten minutes out there.
“Let’s just drop it,” Alex said.
Twenty minutes later, I finished cooking the stew and dished it out into two bowls and joined Alex at the island. I saw through the tiny window above the sink that the sun was beginning to set, lowering itself in the sky, like a sinking ship in the ocean. Vibrant leaves of orange, russet, and yellow blew lazily in a breeze, some floating to the browning grass.
Without thinking, I twirled my finger, lighting all the lamps in the small living room. I froze, my finger still pointed upwards, and looked at Alex. He didn’t even seem fazed by it. In fact, he looked distracted. Dark. For the first time, I noticed the purple-gray circles under his eyes, the sagging of his eyelids like he hadn’t slept in days. His nails were bitten down to the nub and his lips glistened with blood from chewing them.
I slid my hand over his, gently. “Are you okay? You look sick.”
Alex swallowed, his throat straining for a moment, and then ripped his hand from underneath mine. “Yeah. I didn’t sleep too well last night. Nightmares.” He sighed. His breath sounded shaky. “I think I’m gonna go to bed.” He stood without another word to me and disappeared into his bedroom. I heard the door click into place.
I muffled a loud sigh that wanted to escape my lips and began to clean the kitchen, deep in thought. Something was bothering Alex. I knew him well enough to notice when something wasn’t quite right with him, when his mind didn’t seem so sound. And the encounter with that strange woman, Hazel, didn’t help him apparently, either.
After a while I grew bored of no company and prepared for bed. I threw on one of Alex’s old t-shirts, which hung loosely on my slight figure and smelled of earth, and walked toward my room. I don’t know why, but I hesitated at Alex’s door. Impulsively, I pushed it open.
His room wasn’t too spacious. It had just enough room for a small bed with pale blue sheets, a chestnut dresser and extra floor space covered with a rug. Dirty clothes were strewn around the floor and he had artfully displayed about ten pictures of me and him on the wall above his bed. There was one of me reading, my head bent so that my bangs spilled across the left side of my face, hiding it in shadow while the sun caught the other side, making my cheekbone’s pale skin shimmer. I wondered if maybe he loved me the way I loved him.
My eyes locked on his bed. He was there, sleeping, his face serene and his chest rising and falling with even breaths. I smiled affectionately and turned to go when his eyes cracked open. “Lacey?” he murmured as if he’d been sleeping for hours.
“Go to sleep, Alex,” I shivered when my tongue formed his name. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” His eyes closed again but his hand patted the mattress. The movement was so small, so weak I almost missed it. I hesitated only for a minute before I crawled up beside him, closing my eyes.
His arm curled around me, resting easily over my arm, and scooped me up close to his chest. In his arms, I felt reassured; there was nothing wrong with him. He was just tired. For a moment, I wondered with alarm what his nightmares had been about. Alex wasn’t afraid of much. He was never scared of the dark when he was younger, he said. He wasn’t even afraid of dying.
He’d told me the worst thing he could imagine was losing me.
But when he whispered, “I love you, Lacey,” my mind relaxed until I was overwhelmed by the dark waves of sleep.
“I love you, too, Alex.”
I squirmed closer to the warm body next to me—and frowned. I sat up expecting Alex to be next to me in a deep slumber but it was just a soft blue pillow. I blinked a few times to clear the sleep from my eyes and took in the room. Alex was nowhere in sight.
I wandered around the house and came to a stop in the kitchen at the island. A yellow piece of paper that had been hurriedly ripped out of something was lying on the surface with letters scrawled neatly on it.
I need you meet me in the woods by the river at eleven. Don’t get there too early, though, because I don’t want you wandering around in there too long. I know this is an odd request, but I need you to do this for me. Please be there. And bring a jacket.
I stared at the note for a while, trying to understand it. The woods? What was he doing in the woods? And why did he want me to meet him there? I shrugged in answer to my own question, folding the note and stuffing it into the pocket of my pants.
I looked out the window, and judging from the sun’s position, it was about ten. It didn’t take long to get to the woods from here—maybe a little more than five minutes—so I had time to clean up. Alex obviously had a surprise for me if he was requesting something so out of the ordinary. I wanted to look good for a special occasion.
When I was done cleaning up, a thick, black coat of kohl surrounded my eyes, and my lips were shiny with gloss. My fingernails were perfectly clean, clear of the dust that gathered under them from spending days within the Walls. I looked in an old mirror that was warped and spotted with age, trying to decide if Alex would find me pretty or not. My eyes were round, my lips plump, but was that enough?
It didn’t matter. It’s not like I could ever be with him. He was my… foster brother, I guess, and everyone in town would treat me even worse if they found out I had something going on with him. Or even if they found out I liked him. So there was no sense in thinking such things.
I turned away, my stomach quivering with excitement, and gathered my cloak, tying it loosely around my shoulders. It was my favorite piece of clothing. And, surprisingly, Alex had nothing to do with it. I’d seen it in a shop window while strolling along with Alex. Any time I went out, Alex had to escort me, because while no one messed with him, they wouldn’t hesitate to try to kill me if I was alone. Anyway, he had been bartering with a slender, mouse-like female baker and I was looking around and caught sight of it.
It was meant for a tall person, but one that was also slender and was pure white with dark red ribbon to tie at the neck and a hood of the same shade. In a way, it reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood. Something about it made me instantly want it. So I left Alex with the woman and bought it with my birthday money.
I could tell Alex loved it when I first showed it to him. Whenever I wore it, neither he nor anyone in town could take their eyes off of me. There had even been a time that a village boy with uncommonly blond hair and a stunning, perfect smile had approached me after his friends around the fountain had shoved him in my direction.
With one last look at myself in the mirror, I pranced through the door and ran quickly to the woods.
I was halfway to the safest entrance to the woods when I realized I’d left my knife at home. I cursed my own foolishness and glanced at the town clock, a gorgeous black and white thing atop a gray and black stone tower. Five ‘til. I would be late if I went back to get it. Hopefully, Alex wouldn’t question me about it because otherwise he’d be furious I’d forgotten it. He told me to always carry a knife on me if he wasn’t with me since I refused to use magick to defend myself against those who wanted to harm me.
And along with no knife, I had to go through the heart of town to get to my destination. Past the fountain, where every boy hung out during the weekends. It was the prime spot in town to waste time, perfectly centered in the warm sun. But one never grew too hot for the water from the fountain produced a fine mist that instantly cooled them. I convinced myself they wouldn’t mess with me since they knew I had magick and continued on my way.
As I walked by, though, one of them whistled loudly which was, of course, rewarded by a glare from me in his general direction and encouraging hoots and nudges from the others. I turned to leave but he stood up and approached me so that now I could get a good look at him. He was sort of handsome with his black hair and his olive skin and light blue, almost gray, eyes. His nose was ever so slightly crooked like it had been broken, and recently, I gathered, from the faded bruise on top of his cheekbone.
He looked me up and down, taking me in and sizing me up, which I gladly returned for I was not about to be outdone in the show of boldness. That prompted a small smirk from the boy.
“It seems you’ve forgotten your knife today, Lady,” he said smoothly, drawing a little too close for my liking, his eyes fixed on my hip where I typically kept my knife though I knew it was not his reason for looking. At first I was surprised by the title for it usually referred to a woman of higher rank or importance. But then I realized it was directed at my looks.
I quickly gathered my wits and retorted, “And it seems you’ve forgotten your manners, sir.” That brought on a chorus of laughs from the boys behind him and a wry smile that twisted its way onto my face, though I wiped it clean and angled myself to get past him. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere to be and I’m late as it is.”
He caught my arm, determination hardening his eyes. “Where do you think you’re going, love?” Oh, great. He was one of those guys. The kind that didn’t let me go without getting what he wanted, whether it was me or me lying in the dirt, crying. It usually ended up with Alex threatening to slit their throats if they laid another hand on me.
I tested his grip and tugged away lightly. His hold on me was firm; he wasn’t letting me go anywhere. I looked over his shoulder to see the others crowding in around us, grinning like fools. Which they were if they thought I was merely some helpless damsel. I fixed my eyes directly on the boy in front of me. The effect was immediate. His eyes went wide and his breath came in quick bursts.
He was completely mesmerized by me. My eyes, my beauty, my very essence rooted him to the spot.
When I spoke, my voice was even, controlled, and deadly, and the words came slowly. “I would let go if I were you.” Because, I finished in my head, either Alex will show up and beat you to a pulp or I might just use some of my magick on you.
My words were lost on him though. Looking him in the eye had been a mistake; it only made him want me even more. “The only reason you hesitate is because you look to that brother of yours,” he hissed, yanking me closer. I didn’t even resist, for fury exploded inside of me that I fought to pat down.
“I’m telling you to let me go,” I tried once again, growling through my teeth.
Finally, he released my arm as though I’d burnt his fingers, leaving behind red circles where he’d held me. “Fine. You’re just a changeling, anyway.”
Then my anger flared up so fast, I couldn’t stop it, and I slapped his face, only lessening my force after remembering my strength. Nonetheless, his head jerked roughly to the side and the red welt on his cheek was rapidly turning purple, like a flower blossoming in spring. He clutched his face and choked out a sob and I tried not to feel sorry for him because he was lowly and disgusting. I recollected myself in a hurry and stepped away.
“Now, will anyone try to stop me?” They were all too dumbfounded to speak. “Good. And remember,” I hissed at the injured boy whose biggest worry was probably his pretty face, “that blow could’ve easily snapped your neck.”
Then I was racing into the woods.
I was in shock as I ran. Numb and incredulous. I’d never done something like that before. Ever. If someone hit me, called me a witch, I let them and never raised a finger. It was something I’d promised Alex I would never do because it only made me as bad as them. But I couldn’t help thinking.
Thinking how good it’d felt.
I ran through the woods with excitement, relishing the serenity and peace of nature, the fresh, wild smells, how the plants and everything dared to be abstract and imperfect. The water of the river refusing to be still and locked in place, the constant murmuring of life hidden beneath the foliage. The colors, textures, sizes. I could feel the life in anything and all.
I ran wildly, gracefully avoiding fallen trees and rocks that might twist my ankle and spider webs that hung from trees and sparkled with dew. I was leaping and dancing and I felt so good—I tripped on something unexpectedly at the edge of the river. I landed awkwardly on top of it, my arm pressed beneath me in something wet and sticky. I looked down and a flock of birds erupted into the sky as someone’s scream pierced the air. Wait—it’d come from me. I’d screamed.
I was on top of a body.
The wetness was blood.
My whole front was red, save for my cloak which had avoided the pool of blood. I was thankful for that at least, somewhere in the far back of my brain. I hurried to stand and choked down the bile and puke that rose in my throat. For some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the body.
It was a girl—she was a girl, of maybe twelve or thirteen with flaming red hair and watchful eyes.
She was still alive.
I knelt beside her, practically falling to my knees, carefully untied my cloak from my neck to keep it clean, and searched through the blood with my hands to find the source of it.
Her eyes suddenly focused on me, hard hatred and distrust plain in them. “Get… away… from me,” she gurgled, amazingly ferocious for her state.
“What?” I asked, incredulous. “I’m keeping you alive.” My hands were bright red and the liquid was so thick I felt like I was wearing gloves. Her stomach and chest were fine, I saw, and all the blood was stemming from her throat. There was a large deep slash across it, just missing the major artery. The blood around the cut was clotting but not nearly enough to stop the bleeding.
“I told you… to… get away. Don’t… touch me… witch.” The blood bubbled in her mouth as she spoke with effort, obscuring her words.
“You’re dying. I’m helping you, and you can’t stop me,” I snarled. Ungrateful brat. Stubborn. Stupid. Did she want to die just so I wouldn’t touch her? I should think not.
I began tearing cloth from my shirt and pressing it to her neck but remembered magick. I hesitated for a moment but made my decision fast. “I’m going to use magick to heal you, okay?”
A sneer contorted her face and she began to writhe, squirming to get away from me. “Like… hell… you are,” she gasped. Her breathing grew more rapid and every movement released a gush of blood from her throat. Okay, this was going nowhere. She would rather bleed to death, kill herself, than subject herself to my magick. It looked as though I’d have to stop the bleeding long enough to get her to help. I glanced around. Trees unending in all directions.
Which way had I come?
I was aware the girl was watching me so I tried to hide my panic as I lifted away a soaked strip but my hands were shaking so hard I couldn’t tear new pieces from my shirt. Because the flow of her blood was slowing which meant her heart was too. Because her eyes kept going out of focus which meant she was bleeding out. Because this girl was going to die in my arms alone, with only a creature she hated and feared to hold her hand as life seeped slowly from her body.
“I’m not letting you die!” I growled when her eyes closed. She didn’t respond, didn’t move. My shoulders were shaking and it took me a moment to recognize that I was crying. Mourning for a girl I didn’t even know.
“Lacey?” Only one person called me by my name so I instantly knew who the voice belonged to but I didn’t say anything, didn’t look at him. Just sat there with my blood covered hands held in fists in front of me, my tears mixing with the blood in my lap. “Oh my God, Lacey. What are you doing?”
And then he was in front of me, right there, watching me, and I found I could speak through my sobs.
“I—I didn’t kill her, Alex. Someone… someone else did. I tried to save her but I couldn’t without magick because she wanted to die if it meant I didn’t use it. She hated me so much but I was the only person here so she died with me, the thing she loathed so much and I’m the last person she saw, Alex, and, oh, God, it is my fault. I killed her because I couldn’t save her. I’m disgusting and worthless; she was right. All of them were. You should just tell everyone I did it. I killed her, slit her throat. Let them lock me up! It’d do everyone a favor!” I screamed, growing louder the closer Alex came to me. “You shouldn’t love me.” The last part was barely even a whisper.
Alex was silent for a moment, stroking my hair quietly. Then: “I suppose you’re right.” Voice calm and level and quiet as though he was discussing the weather.
My head whipped to look at him, my eyes squinting at him to see through the tears. “What?” My voice was raw and hurt.
He continued to pet my hair smoothly like it was the most important thing in the world and his face was emotionless when he spoke to me. “Everything you just said is right. You’re disgusting and worthless. No one wants you. I shouldn’t – don’t—love you. Not anymore anyway. I suppose all these years I was just blinded by your beauty and power to realize how much of a monster you are.” Calm. Serene. It was in every fiber of him.
And in every fiber of me was disbelief. Alex loved me. He’s said so thousands of times. Every day. “No,” I said, slowly, painstakingly slowly, beginning to understand the words spurting from his mouth. “No! I didn’t kill her! You have to believe I didn’t, Alex! I swear I didn’t.” And then I began hitting him, punching his chest as hard as I could, and swearing like a sailor. He seemed to be taking it pretty well. Didn’t even lift a finger against me. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” My shrieks turned into sobs and I shrank away from him, pressed myself against a tree, with the only thing separating us being the girl’s body.
And I looked at him, scrutinized him with loathing eyes for the first time. Hurt, loathing eyes. And I saw him for real. He didn’t quite look like the others, though his hair and skin were dark and his eyes were the lightest caramel brown I’d ever seen. The structure of his face was softer, more attractive and his skin was perfectly smooth.
I got the sense that somehow he was revealing this to me rather than I was just finally realizing it.
I saw his hands and his shirt, both covered in red from being near me and his ruffled hair and tired looking eyes.
But he never touched the blood, not on you or the girl, my subconscious whispered, thrusting the idea forcefully into my head. His hands and his shirt were like that before, when he first came. And look at the knife, the one next to her, bathed in her blood.
My eyes flicked to it and Alex’s followed mine. The hilt was ebony and beautiful, the blade as long as my hand. I recognized it, too.
My brain felt muddled. Clouded. Like a fog had floated into my head and obscured everything. What was the connection? I felt stupid like the mongrel I was thought to be. The fog confused me but I fought through it.
It became hard to breathe once the truth dawned on me. I struggled to speak. “I’m not the monster; you are, Alex. You killed her, didn’t you?”
The knife was in his hands now, which twirled it around and around on the dead girl’s chest. “Yes,” he began, leaning to set the blade at my feet, “but they’ll think you did it.” In a mixture of horror and confusion, I glanced at the knife.
The blood on it was drying, thick and dark, but the hilt was clear and I could read the single word now engraved on it.
Alex had murdered a girl and was framing me. Despair took hold of me, paralyzed me, my breathing, my heart. Especially my heart. It ached and wailed and cried, ripped into tiny pieces, for the only person to ever love me had just betrayed me.
Shouts of anger sounded off to my right that brought on such a surge of fear that I had to force myself not to cry or start hitting Alex again.
“They’re coming for you, love. They’re going to Outcast you. Don’t resist, okay?” He didn’t look at me when the angry mob appeared but instead stood and calmly told them how I killed the girl and he discovered me with her body, how I’d attacked him when I’d seem him. He showed them the bruises on his chest from my hits. Explained so coolly, in such great detail what he’d seen, what I’d done.
I was staring at him so intensely I didn’t hear the footsteps behind me. Strong arms grabbed hold of me around my arms and stomach, and began dragging me away.
I couldn’t see Alex as I disappeared into the trees but his words echoed in my ears, quiet, just a hiss, like a breeze traveling between the trees of a forest.
They’re coming for you, love. They’re going to Outcast you. Don’t resist, okay?
I wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Because now I had nothing to lose. It didn’t matter anymore. I had nothing left here. Let them believe I really was a witch. Let them believe I really was a monster, a murderer.
Fury rose up in my chest but this time I allowed it to well up and overflow like a dam breaking to release a gush of pure destruction. Except that it was everything I’d ever felt before and never been able to do anything about. Pain, anger, fear. Before, I could’ve lost Alex. Now, I already had.
I thrashed fiercely, kicking one of my captors—a woman, I guessed, from her scream—in the shin. There was a sickening splintering sound and I knew my inhuman strength had just shattered her bone. She fell to the ground, holding so tight to her mangled leg that the skin bled. In the distraction, I easily slipped out of the grasp of the second, a burly man, and sprinted away, running the fastest I’d ever run before. I’d always been able to beat even the fastest boys at school—when I’d still gone to school—with little effort but this was amazing. I could feel the muscles in my legs flexing powerfully, propelling me forward at an almost impossible speed, even though my shoes had fallen off and forest debris dug into the soles of my feet. I ignored the pain, shoving it back and refusing to let it stop me. The trees whizzed by in a blur and I had only one focus: Run. And run I did.
Until I came to the Wall.
My panic rose, snuffing out the anger and adrenaline. The Wall stretched as far as I could see and seemed to meld with the sky. I assessed my options, my eyes scanning the area around me. Turning around wasn’t an option for the mob was behind me, waiting to capture me again. And it didn’t matter how strong I was because there was no way I could ever fight off fifty-something men.
The trees. I could climb the trees.
The branches were low and sturdy, the best kind for climbing. Even the top branches would probably support my weight while they would collapse immediately under the villagers’. I thanked my lucky stars that I was so agile as I made my way up a tree, coming to a stop at a fork near the top. The russet and yellow leaves hid me from view but still allowed me to see what was happening beneath me. I wasn’t sure what my plan was, but I knew I wasn’t going to give Alex what he wanted which was my exile.
The thudding of my heart was loud in my ears as I waited apprehensively for Alex to show up with his new brainless followers behind him. But after a while, they still hadn’t shown up. I couldn’t even hear them when I cast my hearing out as far as it would go. Maybe they’ve given up. Maybe they’ve decided that as long as I don’t come out of the woods I’m not a danger, I thought hopefully.
And after a few hours, when the sun had started to bleed across the horizon, I let my guard down and dozed off to a dreamless sleep.
My eyes snapped open, my senses on alert at once. Something had aroused me, I was sure of it. Something familiar that provoked fear I didn’t understand.
It’d been my name. Someone had called my name from somewhere below me. Careful not to fall, I leaned to peer over a branch and down to the forest floor. It was Alex. He was alone with his back to me, twirling a white wildflower between his fingers.
A gust of wind, singing of the coming winter, blew through the trees, sounding like the howls of a pack of wolves. A yellow and red mottled leaf trembled in the breeze and broke away from its branch, dancing and swirling downwards, coming to a rest on Alex’s hair, which gleamed in a patch of light. As if it had been a messenger, whispering of my presence, he spun slowly on his heels, looking up into the brilliant foliage, and his eyes locked directly on mine.
He absentmindedly removed the leaf from its spot just behind his ear, letting it float to the ground, rocking lightly back and forth. He spoke my name again, “Lacey.”
An icy shiver slithered down my spine like a cold finger sliding down my back. His lips had formed my name, sweet and intoxicating. Like he wanted me. Like I’d just woken from a nightmare and he wanted to comfort me. He was so beautiful, more beautiful than any of the boys in the Walls. And he’d loved me. Of all the girls, he’d chosen me.
“Lacey.” Another shiver. “Lacey, come here. I won’t hurt you. You know I wouldn’t do that.” He still wanted me. He wanted me to come down so he could hug me, hold me. Breathe my scent, stroke my hair, trace the shadows of my face. My foot slid to a lower branch. He wasn’t going to hurt me. Why would I ever think he would hurt me? Because he killed a girl, a child. To frame me. He hated me.
“Lacey, I promise I won’t hurt you if you come down from there.” The more he spoke my name, the more muddled my memory became. I couldn’t remember why I thought Alex would hurt me. But he said he wasn’t going to if I went to him. Alex wouldn’t lie to me. Remember, something in my head whispered. Remember. The image of a body flashed behind my eyes and was gone before I knew it. The body… What did that have to do with Alex?
Nothing, I reminded myself quickly, shoving the image away. Alex was going to help me.
“Just come here, Lacey. I love you.” All of my restraint and hesitation shattered at that moment, disappearing like smoke into air. Heedless of the branches’ bark that rubbed the soft skin of my palms raw, I wound downwards through the boughs of the tree, as though I’d spent my entire life living in and hopping through trees. At the last branch, I stopped, weirdly uneasy. I couldn’t explain the reason I didn’t feel quite right, why I thought I should pause at the last branch, the one just above Alex’s head. “Lacey, what are you doing?”
I sat down, my legs dangling over Alex’s head. He was so incredibly gorgeous but something about him wasn’t right. He’d been acting all funny the night before. “You said you weren’t going to hurt me.”
“Yes, I won’t hurt you. You just need to come here so I can take care of you.” He was smiling slightly when he reached up to run the back of his hand down the exposed skin of my leg.
I closed my eyes in bliss, trying to steady my breath. Give in, give in to me. You know you want to. Give in and I can make everything better. He could make everything better. “I just need to come to you. You love me,” I said quietly. He nodded, tickling his fingers along the bloodied and bruised bottom of my foot. A third chill crawled through me, leaving goose bumps in its wake. “You love me,” I repeated and dropped from the tree to land right in front of him.
“Thank you,” he murmured and curled his left arm around my waist, pulling me into the curve of his body until our foreheads touched. His body, hard with muscle, was warm, radiating heat where my skin touched his. I couldn’t breathe with his proximity. Couldn’t think or even look away from his liquid caramel eyes that burned into mine. “I got your cloak for you,” he whispered, his soft breath ruffling the bangs on my forehead. He pressed his hand to my stomach with my cloak wadded up in it. He glanced down at it, breaking the spell. I followed his gaze and stared at it in confusion. Where had he found it? I remembered I’d lost it but I couldn’t think of why or where.
“Let me tie it for you.” Alex lightly turned me around so that my back was to him and draped it carefully over my shoulders. He brushed my hair aside, his fingers grazing the curve of my neck, and tied a bow of crimson along my collarbone that reminded me eerily of blood dripping from my throat.
He stroked the edge of my jawbone with a single finger. I shut my eyes, soaking in the feeling of him, somehow knowing it would be the last time he was ever so close, so gentle. I breathed in his scent, smelling of soap and the woods and something sweet and fantastical I’d never smelled before. I listened to his breaths, how they sped up the closer he got. I recalled the way he talked, the patterns and inflections of his voice that rumbled deep in his chest. He was so familiar, everything I wanted. He was perfect. His hand slid down my arm.
And he loved me—
His grip suddenly tightened on my flesh, and my eyes flew open, my memory rushing back like a tsunami crashing down onto a city. It chased away any pretense that this was right, that it was okay to let Alex be so close to me.
“Lacey,” he whispered, directly into my ear. His breath was hot but it wasn’t pleasant anymore. I stiffened, my fingers curling into fists at my side. I wanted to hurt him, beat him like I had before. I hated him.
“Don’t touch me!” I tried to growl, but it came out as more of a half-choke, half-shriek. I jerked my arm away from him but his fingers bit into my skin firmly and he whirled me to face him.
“You know you can’t hurt me, Lacey. You never could because you’re too in love with me,” he growled at me, for the first time since I could remember. Tears welled up in my eyes. I was hurt because somehow he knew of my feelings and was mocking them, using them against me. But he was right, completely and totally right.
He was a murderer and he now had me in his grasp and there was no way I could hurt him because it was him. It was Alex.
He whipped me forward again, and I had to bite my lip to halt the cry of pain at his roughness. As he half pushed, half dragged me along with him, his grip ever tight, the stones began digging into my feet, allowing a free flow of blood from the wounds. I hardly even noticed the physical pain compared to the hurt I felt from Alex’s betrayal.
I focused on my breathing as I stumbled along beside him. In through my nose, out through my mouth. It was all I could do to control my anger. His grip, I noticed, was firm but not tight, like he knew that he didn’t have to worry about me putting up a fight. God, he was so clever. The best way to get me to cooperate was by using himself. I’d listen to anything he told me, and I wouldn’t hurt him.
Tears were blurring my vision and I didn’t know where we were headed until Alex stopped in front of the black metal gate that separated the city from the Wastelands. It seemed as though the whole town had come to watch. Watch the exile of the mangy mongrel. They filled the streets and crammed against each other, desperate to get a view. I looked back at them with sad eyes, understanding that they were enjoying this.
Alex shoved me forward so that I was facing the crowd, and cleverly slid himself behind me so that my only escape was past him. My hands folded into fists and let silver and green strands of light stream down my arm, flickering and thrashing like lightning. The wall of men in front of me took a hasty step backwards and pushed me in the direction of Alex. Their eyes were round with fear. Fear of me.
“What? Can’t you handle a stupid little girl that’s half the size of you?” Alex taunted, standing just inches behind me.
A tawny haired man of about twenty or so said, “We ain’t taking no chances with that curse, sir.”
Alex threw his head back and laughed heartily, though I heard the undertone of cruelty in it. “The curse? There’s no such thing, gents. That curse was something it made up to protect itself.”
Liar, I thought. You just keep lying, Alex. Hope you can keep them all straight in that pretty little head of yours and still live with yourself afterwards, love. I thought the words fiercely, almost hoping that if I thrust them hard enough against his conscious, he’d hear them and wonder where the heck they’d come from. But it didn’t happen and he still stood behind me, confidently spewing lies.
The men didn’t move, just stared at Alex with terrified eyes. I fought the urge to smile wryly, knowing that Alex’s previous lie was getting in his way, coming back to bite him. Like an adder hidden in the grass, fangs sharp and streaming with venom. I fantasized about that image. Just yesterday, if he’d been bitten, I’d have taken him into the cottage, tender with my love for him. He’d lay on his bed while I released a steady trickle of bluish-white light that slowly drew out the poison and stitched the skin back together. Now, I’d watch him uncaringly as he twisted and writhed with sweat pouring from his blood-drained face while the venom took effect.
“Fine,” Alex said, seeing that not one of the men was willing to be the one to exile me. “I’ll do it myself. Open the Gate.” He stepped forward and grasped my arm lightly. I stared straight ahead, carefully controlling my breathing and trying to harden my face and erase all emotion from it. I wouldn’t let him think it was hurting— killing— me, wouldn’t let him think I cared what he did. I wouldn’t let him think it was working. He wasn’t winning. He had nothing to gain.
I didn’t hear the sound of the Gate opening, the only thing separating me and the Wastelands. I couldn’t even remember the last time it had been opened. Alex whipped his head around to glare at the man operating the complicated machinery of the Gate. “I said open the Gate!” he snapped, his face contorted with anger. This wasn’t my Alex. This wasn’t the Alex I loved. But it was same person, the same body and face, and that’s why it hurt so much.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the creaking sound of the Gate grated against my ears, inciting an overwhelming amount of fear in me. This was as good as a death sentence. I’d rather that. A rather fast death at the gallows was much more preferable than a slow, torturous murder in the Wastelands.
Alex turned me around, keeping my left arm pinned behind my back. It hurt. Tears sprang to my eyes, but I bit my lip to keep the yelp contained inside my mouth. He swept my hair from the curve of my neck and bent his head so that his whispered words met my ear. “Are you ready, love?”
My back stiffened at love, the hair on my arms standing on end, like rows of tiny little soldiers alert for any sign of danger, and cutting words tipped my tongue. “You know that as soon as I’m out of that Gate, they’ll send you after me because they’ll think you’re cursed. And don’t you dare call me love. You’re a liar, Alex. I hate you.”
“Well then, so be it,” he whispered darkly, ignoring the last part of my statement, and walked me through the Gate. It clanged shut quickly behind us, a wall of black, twisted metal, blocking the Wastelands from the city.
I whirled on him immediately, slamming my knuckles into his pretty face. His head jerked to the side, fingers springing away from my arm, and he stumbled to the ground. A sliver of panic wormed its way into my heart as I realized there was blood dripping from the split skin on his cheekbone but I shoved it away, allowing it to be enveloped by hatred. Alex righted himself, a hand laid across the cut. He retaliated, clipping my face, and sent me flying to the ground. Blood poured from the cut as my finger probed it. It was remarkably bigger than the one I’d given him. Wiping away the wetness, I scrambled to my feet and swung again. Miss. He’d darted behind me and spun me before I could react, his grip like iron.
“Lacey,” he gasped. “I want to explain—”
“No! I don’t wanna hear what you have to say! Let me go, Alex!” I wailed. I struggled against him. His knee nailed me in the stomach. I coughed, my senses panicking as I sucked desperately for air and fell on the uneven forest floor. Regaining my breath, I kicked out at him. My foot connected weakly with his shin, but it did no good. Now, he had the upper hand. He landed on top of me, knees next to either hip, hands pinning mine beside my head.
“Lacey! I just want to talk to you!” he shrieked in my face. “I don’t want to fight you! Please don’t make me.”
I didn’t say anything, and instead planted my foot in his chest, sending him sprawling three feet away. Before I lost my opportunity, I stumbled forward, clawing for his foot, mind whirling. He had hit me. I had hit him. What was happening to us? I was supposed to love him. My life was out of control. Everything was so out of control.
He shrank away, shuffling frantically away from me, his eyes round and disbelieving, but I kept coming after him, a fierceness burning in my brain. He got to his feet and clumsily began running away. I stopped, slumping to the ground, tears leaking down my face in tiny rivulets. Hatred evaporated out of me, mutating into despair. “I’ll kill you, Alex!” I sobbed. “If I ever see you again, I swear to God, I’ll kill you!” And then he was gone, leaving me crumpled up and hurt. Within minutes the Wastelands were quiet, except for my heart-wrenching wails.