Pain ran through Esa’s shoulders, the building tension causing the ache to slowly travel down her back, the summer sun doing nothing to ease the wait. This wasn’t about the journey they were on, or the danger they would face, this was something she couldn’t see or touch. Two years away from the human realm had changed her, made her more suspicious of humans, the place filled her with apprehension and no matter how close Rootu edged toward her, the feeling wasn’t going away.
Standing on the edge of the village she could see people gravitating towards the boundary. Most of them were there to trade, but she noticed a few families hurrying through, huddled together for protection. She watched a young girl twist from her mother’s grip and race to one of the many stalls lining the path to the boundary mark, cooing over a shiny green necklace with not a care in the world. As the queue shuffled forward the houses petered out and the path meandered up the hill to the mark.
Joining the line of people, Esa tried to let the heat of the sun warm her tired body as they moved slowly forward. When it was time to cross she looked down at Rootu, who was shifting from one foot to the other and gave him a worried smile, thinking about how much had happened in her two year absence, and what was waiting for them. Placing her hand on the hilt of a dagger she stepped forward with Rootu glued to her side.
“Pass!” The guard shoved out his hand. “I said pass!” He repeated before Esa had a chance to react. Two other guards pointed their guns directly at her. Showing no emotion, her slender hand reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, which was worthless. Anyone with enough money or influence could get a pass. The black market was thriving on the things. The guard shoved it back in her waiting hand and they walked through.
Stopping moments after crossing, Rootu turned and questioned the sudden halt. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
She placed a finger on his lips and smiled. “Just let me listen.” In the far distance she could hear the gentle movement of wind turbines and breathed a huge sigh. “It’s been a long time.” She said absentmindedly. There was a line of people heading down the dirt track, but Esa held back. As she’d already heard them, she knew she had to watch the blades turning above her, before doing anything else. Rootu was already causing a disturbance showing a family a new pet when she shouted over, “this way.”
How could she have forgotten the peace she felt amongst the turbines? The movement ran through her entire body, filling her with a calm she rarely felt. When she closed her eyes everything came into focus. Hearing children chattering as they walked with their parents, bird’s song became clearer and the water rushed ever faster through the valley.
Rootu stood to one side and watched. He knew it had been a long time and for once he didn’t feel the need to interrupt. It had been hard for Esa, for both of them. They were seen as the returning heroes but at what price? With no one else in their lives they had been together ever since. Living in their friend Flo’s home, an elf that had sacrificed her life to save Esa’s in the final battle. He left her alone as long as he could and finally went to join her.
“I know it’s getting late.” She interrupted his thoughts.
He’d forgotten how her senses were increased in this place. “It’s just that it’ll be dark in a couple of hours and it might be hard to find shelter.” Holding onto her arm he gently tugged and she begrudgingly stood up. Reluctantly she had allowed Rootu to pull her back onto the path, letting the strap across her chest comfort her, knowing it held the sword of Idis firmly on her back. It had become an extension of her and she never went anywhere without it.
“We take a look. Stop it, if it’s getting out of hand, and report back to the Council.” She snapped unnecessarily before placing her hand on Rootu’s shoulder, “sorry.”
He threw her a forgiving smile. “After that, do we have time to play before going home?”
“I suppose it wouldn’t do any harm, but remember I don’t want to stay in this realm any longer than I have to.” The statement was a warning.
“It still gives me a little time.” A wicked grin appeared on his face and she shook her head in response.
Together, they moved quickly, keeping in time, almost able to hear the other’s thoughts, as they constantly checked their surroundings. This had become normal for them and they worked as a perfect little team. Approaching a wood they were welcomed by a field of blue flowers that had been left to thrive and carpeted the start of the forest. Walking through them, Esa could smell their sweet aroma, taking a deep breath her shoulders dropped and her pace slowed, but all too soon they were greeted by darkness as they stepped under the canopy. At this time of year the leaves were full and little light permeated the ground. Inching their way through the tangle of weeds and brambles they found a small patch of grass, which the sun had managed to find, so they stopped to rest and eat. A soft breeze blew against Esa’s neck, but it didn’t bring with it the sweet aroma of flowers and earth she had expected, there was something else out there. Jumping to her feet she drew her dagger from her belt, closely followed by Rootu.
“We’re being watched.” Though she couldn’t see them, she could sense someone close by. Throwing their packs over their shoulders they quickly made their way out of the clearing, getting caught in the open would make them an easier target. Esa gripped the hilt of her blade as they tried to pick up the pace through the undergrowth. No one approached them and for a brief moment she thought she had made a mistake, but as the land opened up once more a man appeared through the trees a few feet in front of them.
“You’re on our land.” The man waited for a response but Esa said nothing. “I said you’re on our land.”
Two more men materialized from the side but Esa knew there were more. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted another two and wondered how many more were hiding under the cover of the trees. Without saying a word they moved into a defensive position, trouble followed them like water gushing down a waterfall so they were always prepared.
“Drop your weapon.” The first man pointed his sword in Esa’s direction. She didn’t move. “Are you deaf or stupid?” He came a little closer. “You’re out numbered and on our land so you need to pay a tax.” A soft smile played on his lips as he stared at her.
Esa stood perfectly still and thought about her options. Here in the human realm magic was her last resort, after the Battle of the Realms no one trusted anyone with power, regardless of whether they were good or bad. There was no doubt in her mind that with Rootu by her side, they could take whatever this lot could throw at them. They were nothing more than a bunch of opportunists, but having the knowledge that she could use her power at any moment helped.
With that thought she smiled back and stated, “You’re getting nothing from us.”
“I don’t think you are in a position to argue.” There was a disbelieving note in his words and something else. An uncertainty had crept into his voice as to why this young woman and spinner were willing to go up against a larger group, unless they were hiding something.
“Let us pass.” At this point she reached over her shoulder and pulled her sword from her back, slowly, for dramatic effect. “I said, let us pass.”
Needing to keep control of the situation and his men, he lunged for her. Esa twisted to one side and used the tip of her blade to kiss his skin. He quickly moved away to find a cut across his hand.
“Come on. I know you’re not stupid so let us pass and leave us alone.” Esa’s voice was one of calm, but the undercurrent behind it pulled the man up short. After a moment or two he made a decision and signaled to the others. Before they could move in, Rootu threw tiny yellow spheres in their direction and they froze, unable to move at all.
“What did you do?”
“They’ll be fine in an hour or so. Now let us go.” Esa stated a little louder this time. It wasn’t hard to see that the man was losing control. With no idea of how many people were out there, she contemplated using her magic, at least a shield to protect them. As ice filled her veins she focused on the man in front of her, black beginning to invade the blue of her eyes. Something was wrong, her shield didn’t materialize, instead pain radiated across her temple as a heavy object smashed into her face and she lurched forward. Before anyone else reacted, Rootu had thrown two more spheres at the unseen men and did his best to protect Esa while she recovered.
Her head throbbed and she shook it trying to clear her mind, but the blood dripping down her face distracted her.
“Esa! Can you stand?” He gently pulled her to her feet but she staggered sideways and fell to her knees.
“Not so tough now, are you?” More stones flew in their direction; Rootu did his best to shield Esa as little stabs of pain scattered across his back.
“What’s going on over there?” A voice called out from the cover of the trees. The men who were left suddenly disappeared into the shadows.