by L.D. Blackwell
Mabel ran her tongue along her teeth, sweeping the layer of fuzz that had accumulated there over the past forty-eight hours. She sucked it off her teeth and swallowed, gagging slightly. Her stomach growled and she tried to remember the last time she ate. It had to have been when she was still in the village- was that three, four days ago? No, she’d had a crust of bread she found along the River Road, right before the rains had begun. So two days, she guessed it was.
She hoisted her satchel over her shoulder, readjusting the strap so it wouldn’t dig so viciously into her tender flesh. She transferred the worn rope she was using as a leash from one hand to the other, opening and closing her fists to encourage blood to return to her fingers. Her whole body ached, but she knew she couldn’t stop yet. A few more days on the road and she’d be to the castle. A few more hours of walking now could mean the difference between survival and death.
She tugged the leash now, picking up her knees higher as she made her way through the mud. They needed to pick up their pace if they were to make the next checkpoint by nightfall. The creature snarled at her, either resentful of Mabel’s control over it or just simply tired, she couldn’t tell. She didn’t speak his language, nor he hers, so their communication was mostly physical- a tug here, a slap on the rump there, the language of master to beast. She glanced back to make sure he was following her. He blinked at her, large violet eyes gleaming in his silver head, and tossed his shaggy mane defiantly, as if to say “Yes, I’m coming, but not willingly.” This had been the extent of their nonverbal communication for most of the trip.
Mabel had taken on this mission like she did most things- impulsively. She had heard the lore of these creatures, the chimeraquella, as a child, just as she’d heard tales of dragons, unicorns, and faeries. When this particular chimeraquella had landed in her village less than a week ago though, it had been her first face-to-face interaction with one. The hunters of her village had all been out on a weeks-long excursion, so the task fell to her, seeing as she was willing and able. The creature needed to be returned to the capital in a timely fashion, so the village elders had taken a chance and decided to send her when she volunteered. The fact that the chimeraquella’s left wing was injured to the point of being useless helped her case. With the proper tools and her fiery temper, she’d be able to hold her own against him.
The wind shifted and the fine hairs on Mabel’s arm pricked to attention. Even at the age of seventeen, she had years enough of experience in these woods to know when destruction- whether manmade or natural- was near at hand. She increased her speed to a trot, tightening her grip on the rope lead to urge the creature to do the same. She glanced off the bunny trail they followed and peered into the dark woods surrounding them, training her sights on the bluffs beyond. If she could make it there, she knew of a cave they could hide in until morning.
She tugged again at the leash, a makeshift Morse-code meant to convey her message: Hurry up, stop dragging your feet. The wind picked up again, thrashing the delicate leaves of the stardew trees that created the canopy in this part of the forest. She felt a rumble underfoot and then a torrent of rain unleashed from the sky. Oh no, she thought, a circle storm. She used the language of her childhood when describing it, even though now she was practically grown, because it was the best description. She remembered her first, when Isaac and Rayla had been her guardians. They had protected her as much as they could, but a circle storm doesn’t care how young or frail you are. A circle simply exists, and unfortunately its existence is what is dangerous to humans.
The wind began to swirl around her, lifting her hair from her shoulders and whipping it into her eyes. The creature inched closer to her covertly, baring his teeth to keep up his façade of ferocity, but Mabel could sense his fear. She knew her own was palpable, she could feel it emanating from her skin and did nothing to hide it. Why waste energy on a futile endeavor?
She glanced around frantically, knowing they wouldn’t have time to make it to the cave before the storm fully struck. They were in the middle of the forest, surrounded by trees, with no solid hiding place in sight. Nothing of stone, or brick, and no body of water they could try to escape to. They were encircled by the most dangerous, and vengeful, part of a circle storm- the trees.
“Get down!” Mabel shouted at the creature as she pointed to the ground. She crouched low, tucking her knees to her chest and pulling her cloak over her back. She motioned for the creature to join her beneath the heavy cloth. He stared at her, wide-eyed and growling.
“Come ON!” Mabel shrieked as the raindrops pelted her back and the wind whipped her hair. She knew they didn’t speak the same language, but the chimeraquella had to realize the urgency with which she spoke. His mane was heavy with precipitation, and he lifted his head with great effort to meet her gaze. Defiance flashed through his beautiful eyes, but it was gone with another blink as the trees started roaring. Mabel saw the façade fall away, and she could sense his fear, akin to her own.
“Come close, we’ll be safer together,” Mabel raised her voice over the storm but tried to keep her tone gentle and inviting. It was true, her safety depended on the creature’s cooperation. He grunted and tossed his mane back from his eyes, then slunk over to her, belly close to the ground. She lifted the cloak and waved the creature under it in the same hurried motion. The cacophony of the trees grew to a wild howl, punctuated with flashes of lightning and booms of thunder. The ground shook with the effort of the trees to form their connection. Another rumble shocked through Mabel’s system, and she knew the trees had succeeded. She took a deep breath and tightened her muscles, bracing for what came next.
The chimeraquella huddled so close to her that she could feel his breath rise and fall in his furry, muscled chest. She held her cloak tightly, but the frenzied wind rushed beneath it and lifted the world beyond them into view. The trees had joined, intertwining leaves and branches, and their roots buckled under the ground, softened from days of rain. Big, gushing raindrops still fell, but the storm had taken a more violent turn. High-speed winds tossed animals as if they were mere toys. Mabel watched a giant buck be picked up from the ground by a growing cyclone and carried off deeper into the circle the trees had formed as they joined together. Every muscle in Mabel’s body tensed with the effort of staying still and flattening herself to the ground. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself to disappear into the ground until it was safe to come out.
A high-pitched whine split through the madness. Mabel had survived one circle storm as a child, and though she tried so hard to forget it, she remembered every detail. The prickle of fear as the storm began, the mayhem as it swirled around her, and her helplessness in the wake of its devastation. But she did not remember a sound like she heard now. It tore through her ears- no, it seared through her brain- with such violence and force that she thought she was going to vomit. She clasped her hands to her ears without thinking. As she did, the cloak flew from her hands and into the nearest tree, becoming entangled in its gnarled branches. She reached her arms out toward it and let out a desperate yelp.
The whine grew to a frenetic cry as Mabel realized it was coming from the chimeraquella. He was on all fours now, with his wings spread. The injured wing was crumpled at a ninety-degree angle, but Mabel could see the effort with which he tried to unfurl it completely. His cry was unbroken, he did not stop to take even a breath, and it grew in volume and intensity. As it became a powerful ululation, Mabel could first sense its strength as it cut through the dense air around them, and then she could see it. The vibrations hit the trees closest to them first, slicing through branches and leaves. Then the sound escalated into a battle cry as it burrowed into the ground, uprooting the trees and severing their connection. Mabel heard a loud crack and then a mournful moan as the trees slumped to the ground, defeated. The circle storm was over.
As the humid air thinned and a gentle breeze tickled the nape of her neck, Mabel blinked back tears. They’d made it through the storm! An almost imperceptible smile twitched across her lips as she rose to her feet. She spotted her cloak twisted among the broken leaves of a nearby stardew tree, and she walked over to it. She gently untangled it, careful not to damage the tree or her cloak any further, then she flung the damp cloth over her back. She readjusted her cloak and brushed a few wayward leaves from her shoulder. She looked down at the rope she still held so tightly that it burned her palm. The creature looked up at her with flashing violet eyes from where it was attached to the other end of the rope. She sighed, knowing the only reason she had made it through the storm was because of the creature’s selflessness.
“Hey, thanks,” she said softly, eyes darting from side to side but avoiding contact with the creature. He snorted in response, tossing his silvery mane.
“I mean it,” Mabel said, more forcefully this time. While locking eyes with him, she continued, “You saved my life.”
The creature nodded abruptly, bobbing his pointed chin up and down quickly. Mabel knelt to one knee and gently untied the rope from around his neck. She stood and stuffed the frayed cord into her satchel and then brushed her hands on the front of her tunic, signaling that their sentimental moment had come to an end. She turned toward the bluffs, ready to reengage on her mission.
“Well, let’s head back on our way. I believe we can still make it to the cave before nightfall if we hurry.” She grunted and began walking quickly on the lightly worn path. After several paces, she looked over her shoulder and waved her hand toward the chimeraquella, beckoning him.
“Come on, then…ugh, I hate not having a name to call you! It makes me feel like I’m talking to myself,” she trailed off.
The creature cleared his throat.
Mabel’s eyes widened as she stared incredulously at the chimeraquella.
“You just…but how? I thought your species couldn’t speak my language,” Mabel said.
“My name is Amaranthine. And there are many things you think that are less than true,” his voice danced over the soft breeze, lilting in a way that was effortlessly musical.
Mabel’s mouth snapped closed, and she rolled her shoulders back, attempting to make her lanky frame a bit taller. A look of concern flickered across her face, but she quickly disguised it with an eye roll.
“Well okay, Amaranthine, I’m Mabel. Now that the introductions are over, we’ve got ground to cover. Let’s go.”
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L.D. Blackwell lives in St. Louis, Missouri where she tends chickens, cats, and children. She is a fitness professional who enjoys writing, reading, hiking, and camping when she’s not lifting heavy things up and putting them back down. She is active in her local public library’s creative writing groups.