I grabbed his shoulder, turning him from the altar.
“We need to go”
“No,” he said. “If the god wants me, I will stay here as a sacrifice.”
I rolled my eyes.
“He doesn’t want you, and we need to go. Come on!” I grabbed the young man’s hand, and pulled him out of the alcove. We ran down the tunnel. I could hear the rumbling of the mountain behind me. The mountain deity was waking up and getting ready to release the pressure beneath the mountain. I looked for Patrick as we passed multiple side tunnels. Rocks began to fall from overhead. Suddenly I heard someone calling my name.
“Here!” I cried. Moments later, Patrick came into view, emerging from one of the side tunnels. I was so glad to see him. “Did you get it?”
“Yes,” he replied, showing me the small bag slung over one shoulder. “Who is he?” He gestured to the man behind me, whose hand I was still holding. If I had let go, he would have stopped running, and I wasn’t going to leave him to die.
“A civilian, thinking to sacrifice himself to the god to spare the village.” I told him as we all began to run again.
“Hm. I don’t believe the mountain deity would have cared one way or another if the boy had sacrificed himself. Though it is rather angry now that I’ve taken the figurine right out of his hands. Perhaps we should leave him as a consolation.”
I laughed, happy that Patrick was safe and had gotten the statue, never mind that we were running from an angry deity who was probably trying to bring the mountain down on us.
Nataniel stared at the angel. For that’s all she could be. She had dared the god’s anger to save him from the mountain, and was now pulling her with him along the tunnels, trying to escape the god’s wrath. Surely this meant he was blessed. He had never seemed to be able to find a calling in the village, and so had decided to honor the god, but perhaps there was some other fate planned for him. He continued to stare at the angel as they ran, marveling at her grace, her daring, and her beauty.
We finally exited the tunnels, emerging onto the mountain side. There were the horses, still spelled to keep calm and still even though the ground was shaking and rumbling beneath them. My shoulder ached from pulling Nataniel behind me. When I looked back at him, he just blinked at me, as if he was dazed or something. Maybe Patrick was right…no, I couldn’t leave him to die. Besides, he could prove to be useful. We could give him the idol, and have him lead the village to a new location, out of the mountain’s range. If they had evacuated in time.
We ran to the horses, and quickly mounted them. Patrick pulled Nataniel up behind him, so I could focus on getting us safely down the mountain. I removed the spell on the animals, and they bolted, their eyes rolling with fear.
As we rode, I cast spells, simple ones, to keep the horses from foundering, to keep them from tripping, to keep us on them. But even as we galloped, the lava unleashed by the mountain deity rushed after us at an unnatural speed. The deity was very angry, and knew exactly who to direct its fury at. The village lay below us, directly below us. It was the only human settlement nearby, and so the deity, in its infinite wisdom, knew they had to be responsible for stealing the idol. Ugh. Deities in this storyline were not the smartest of beings.
Patrick glanced behind us, then looked ahead to the village. We were getting closer, but so was the lava. We finally cantered into the village, finding it empty. Good. But we still needed to find a way to escape the lava. I dismounted, looking around. Patrick and Nataniel followed. The horses, no longer effected by my spells, reared and galloped away. Crap. There went one way out of here.
Patrick grabbed my hand, and pulled me along a street, looking at the buildings as we went. Finally he seemed to find what he was looking for. He pulled me into a stone building with high thick walls, and very few windows. Nataniel followed us, still looking dazed. Patrick turned to me, and spread his arms out.
“Can you pull up a protective circle?” He asked, gesturing to the area around us. Thoughtfully, I looked around.
Nataniel watched the angel. She and her companion had ridden down the mountain, Nataniel with them, almost flying, with the lava right on their heels. The god was angry, but the angel must have been blessing the horses, because they ran so fast and never stumbled. Nataniel had ridden behind the companion, which allowed him to gaze upon the angel, watching her grace and beauty. Now they stood in one of the buildings in his village, which was strangely empty. The angel gazed upward, as though pleading with the god to save her and Nataniel. The companion was gesturing around the building, asking the angel something. She looked at Nataniel, and suddenly he felt warmth spreading through his body. Surely he was blessed, and she had come purely to help him.
I looked at Nataniel. He needed to be unconscious, I decided, so that he wouldn’t know about my abilities. If he did, it would mess everything up. I looked at Patrick.
“Knock him out. He can’t see this.” I told him. Patrick nodded, walked up behind the man, and walloped him on the head with the statue. Nataniel crumpled to the ground. I began drawing on the ground with chalk, a great big circle. When I reached the wall, I released the chalk, which continued to draw the circle up the wall. “Pull him inside the circle.” Patrick did, settling the man to one side. I sat down in the middle of the circle, and looked expectantly at Patrick.
“What?” He shrugged, unsure of what I wanted him to do.
“You are a Storyteller now,” I told him. “You have power, same as me. But you don’t know how to use it yet. However, I can channel your power to help me build the circle, and keep it up until the lava is done and cold enough for us to climb over it. Come sit in front of me and hold out your hands.”
Patrick complied, and I took his hands. A thrill ran up both my arms, one that had nothing to do with the transferring of power between us. I blushed, but hoped Patrick wouldn’t notice. He probably did though.
“Here we go,” I said. “Close your eyes, it’s better if you don’t watch what’s going on outside the circle.” I closed my own, and conjured up the barrier. Immediately I felt the drain of power necessary to keep the circle up. I kept it to a minimum, knowing I would need much more in a very short while when the lava finally reached this building. Time seemed to slow down, and speed up. I had no idea how long we sat there. Suddenly I was aware of heat all around us, and adjusted the barrier so that it kept the inside of the circle just cool enough to keep us from roasting. The lava rolled around us, taking the building with it, except for the wall segment that the circle included. Time passed. The lava continued to flow.
Finally, it seemed to be stopping. However, it was still far too hot for us to survive if I dropped the barrier. Pulling more power from myself and Patrick, I cooled the lava near us, and in the direction we needed to go. By the time I was done, I felt light-headed, and was drenched in sweat, although Patrick was too, so I didn’t know if that was from the spell work I was throwing around, or if because we had until very recently been surrounded by boiling lava.
I finally released his hands, and dropped the barrier. I slumped forward, and immediately Patrick put his hand on my shoulder.
“Are you well?” He asked. I nodded.
“We need to get to the clearing where the village is gathered, but we need to take Nataniel with us, and make it look like he rescued the idol and brought it back. He needs to become the new leader, and find a new place for the village to live, out of the mountain’s range.” I inhaled deeply. “Are you okay? That took a lot of power, and I tried not to drain too much from you.”
Patrick’s hand tightened on my shoulder. “Take some more,” he said. “You need energy to make it the rest of the way, and I’m fine, Lauren.”
I nodded, and carefully pulled some more energy from him. Slowly I straightened.
“Ok, let’s go.” I said, and waved my hand at Nataniel. He woke up, and stared in awe at the solidified lava around us. Patrick took him by the arm, and pulled him up the lava, towards the edge of the flow. I followed, and Patrick abandoned Nataniel to find his own footing in order to help me. I felt clumsy, and yet flattered that Patrick gave me help. I did need it. I was still a little dizzy and weak-kneed from pulling that stunt with cooling the lava.
Once we had made it to the edge of the lava flow, and climbed down, we began to make our way through the forest toward the clearing we had told the villagers to flee to.
Nataniel woke up to find the angel standing in a perfect circle of clear ground, while the lava had obviously flowed and solidified all around them. The angel must have asked the god for help, and the god, not wanting to destroy her or his blessed follower, had spared them. Now they were hurrying through the forest, and the angel was telling him that he would need to tell the village that they needed to find a new place to live. Nataniel began to think about this, and then he began to daydream about standing in front of the villagers, explaining this to them, leading them to a new home. Then he began to dream about his life in this new home, and in this new life, the angel was with him. She would stay, and choose to be with him rather than return the god. She would be his wife, cook and clean his house, share his bed, bear his children, and they would be happy. She would be happy to be with such a blessed man.
As Nataniel stumbled along, this vision filled his head, and he could think of nothing else.
I tried explaining to Nataniel what he would need to do and say when we reached the villagers, but he quickly developed a glazed look, and didn’t seem to hear a word I said.
“I hope this works,” I said to Patrick.
“Why shouldn’t it? We have the idol, we’ll give it to him, he’ll show the village, and they’ll follow him. Once they find a place that’s safe, we can leave. I think I’d like a break from running for my life for a few days, wouldn’t you?” Patrick grinned at me. I couldn’t help but grin back.
“Yes, a few days of staying in the same place would be nice.”
We finally reached the clearing where the villagers were milling about, wondering what had happened. Upon seeing us and Nataniel, many began calling out to us, asking what had happened. Just as planned Nataniel began telling his story, though he left out the idol. Patrick and I glanced at each other, unsure of how this was going to play out.
Patrick looked at Lauren. She looked tired, but satisfied that their work was nearly finished. He had been watching her during their trek through the forest, and was worried that she was overdoing it, and expecting too much from herself.
He was also worried, because Nataniel had been giving Lauren strange looks ever since he had woken up after the lava cooled. The looks were almost…obsessive. Patrick moved a little closer to Lauren. If anything, he wanted to protect her from anything Nataniel might do. But he also (a little primitively, perhaps) felt like he was staking his claim by keeping near her. He cared deeply for her, and would be damned if anyone else tried to attract her attention. Though he would first need to let her know of his feelings…he turned his attention back to Nataniel. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going to go wrong.
“The angel has told me that we need to find a new home, away from the mountain.” Nataniel said to the village (who was the angel? Did he mean Lauren? That didn’t bode well, Patrick thought). “When we find our new home, we can begin building our houses, and start new lives. And we will be blessed, because the angel will stay with us. She will stay with us, and be my wife, and bless our village!” The village was silent at Nataniel made this declaration, and turned to Lauren. The look in his eyes was both possessive and obsessive. Yes, this did not bode well at all. Patrick looked at Lauren, the stunned, repulsed look on her face mirroring his own.
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. When had I ever, over the course of the day, given Nataniel any idea that I liked him? If anything, I had pretty much ignored him unless I had to tell him something important. Hell, I had even had Patrick knock him out. And now he wanted me to stay and marry him? What the hell?!
The possible storylines flashed through my mind, none of them turning out well. Nataniel would not be the leader I had thought he would be, nor one that the village needed. He would become petty, obsessive and possessive, not to mention cruel, all in the name of his god. We needed a new plan.
Pulling energy from reservoirs I didn’t even know I had, I froze time.
Patrick looked around. Everyone had stopped moving. Beside him, Lauren groaned and suddenly buckled. He caught her, keeping her steady.
“What happened?” He asked.
“I froze time, just in this immediate area,” she gasped.
“Are you well?” He asked. She was pale, and barely able to stand.
“Holding time still takes a lot of power, and I’m already drained from earlier. We need a new plan. Nataniel obviously is not the leading type. I mean, seriously, he wants me to stay and marry him? What kind of person pulls that conclusion out of a very brief, hectic meeting? And what’s with calling me an angel?” Lauren growled, clearly incensed that Nataniel would do any of this without her knowledge or consent. Patrick glanced around the village. All the people looked scared, not ready to take on leading all the others. Wait…Patrick stepped forward, carrying Lauren with him.
“Patrick, what are you doing?” Lauren asked as she walked with him.
He stopped in front of an older woman. She looked familiar. “Lauren, do you remember her?”
“Ye-es….she lent us her horses when we ran by, and we told her to go evacuate the village. Wait, do you think-“ Lauren said slowly.
“Yes, I do think. She could be the leader.” Patrick mused.
Lauren reached out and touched the woman on the arm. She unfroze, muttering “who does he think he’s fooling?” She glanced around, seeing everyone frozen, and then saw Patrick and Lauren. “Who-“ she began, but Lauren cut her off, explaining everything that had happened, the truth, even about herself and Patrick.
“Yes, I remember you,” the woman, Merot, said. “You were that trader and his wife, passing through town, when the rumbling in the ground started. And you say Nataniel’s gone a bit funny? Well, we all knew that. He was a strange child growing up, and turned into a strange man. Not to be unkind dear, but you really should have left him in the mountain. Well, how will I counter his claim?”
Patrick pulled the idol from his bag. “Nataniel forgot to mention this. We rescued it from the mountain deity, who seemed to think it was pretty. Pull it from one of your packs and claim it as a sign from your god that you were meant to lead. Lauren and I will need to disappear though.”
“I can handle that,” Lauren murmured. The drain from holding time frozen was clearly beginning to be too much. “I can modify everyone’s memories, so that they think Patrick and I fled with you all, and that there was never anyone standing behind Nataniel when he arrived. We can make it seem like he was wandering in the woods and had this thought that he could lead the village.”
Merot nodded. “Yes, and can you alter your looks, subtly?” She pulled a large basket from a pile of packs nearby, overturned it, and guided Lauren down onto it. “You should make yourself pregnant, dear, so that you seem harmless, and Patrick here can play the part of overly anxious husband. He’s already doing a fine job.” Patrick had the grace to look embarrassed. Lauren nodded.
“I will do my best.” She closed her eyes, and a few moments later, everyone began moving again. Nataniel finished his speech, and the villagers began murmuring their uncertainty. It was clear that Nataniel wasn’t very well liked.
“Lies!” cried Merot. “There is no angel, and you’ve been wandering the woods while we all saved what we could and came here to escape the mountain!”
Nataniel blinked, surprised that someone would not believe him. He looked behind him, maybe expecting his ‘angel’ to come support him, but no one was there. His eyes widened.
“Bu-but! She was here! I swear she was!” Nataniel spluttered. His eyes roved the crowd, trying to find her. Patrick and Lauren were beside Merot, but they looked different. Lauren still sat on the basket, one hand on her belly, as if she was pregnant. A simple spell was making a blanket stuffed under her shirt take on the shape of a pregnant stomach. Her features were slightly different, her hair a different color and longer. Patrick assumed the same went for him, since he couldn’t look at himself. Lauren’s reasoning was that if they looked too different, they would stand out, but only a slight difference would make them harder to find among the rest of the villagers. She was right. Nataniel’s eyes slid right over them.
“Lies,” Merot insisted. “I have the god’s idol right here. I found it in one of my packs.” She pulled it out and waved it around, everyone murmuring in astonishment. “Obviously you are not the chosen leader for this village.” Nataniel continued to stammer and grope for words.
Lauren, who was still quite pale, suddenly slumped forward. Patrick caught her, and knelt down beside her, allowing her to lean against his shoulder.
“Are you hurt?” He murmured, worried. She shook her head.
“No. I’m exhausted. I think I’ve done more magic today than I ever have in my whole career as a Storyteller.” She sighed, laying her head on his shoulder. One hand lay on her stomach, seemingly protecting her ‘child’. “I need rest. Even holding two simple spells altering our images is draining.”
Patrick nodded. “Can I give you more power?”
“No,” she whispered. “I’ve already pulled a lot from you already, I don’t know how much more I can take without hurting you.” She lifted her head from his shoulder. He stood up, but then positioned himself behind her so that she could continue to lean against him for support. He laid his hands on her shoulders and gently kneaded them. They both turned their attention back to Merot and Nataniel.
Nataniel had apparently taken all the ridicule he could, for at that moment he ran from the villagers, disappearing into the forest. Merot instantly turned to face the crowd, and began directing people to set up temporary camp.
Merot walked back to Patrick and me after she gave directions for getting everyone some food. She frowned at me, probably thinking that I looked worse than I had a few minutes ago. She turned back to the villagers, and quickly commandeered a blanket, a water jug, and some cold cheese and bread. Indicating that Patrick and I were to follow her, she led us to the edge of the clearing and spread the blanket out beneath a large tree. She came up to me and shifted my weight onto her, and told Patrick to settle himself against the trunk of the tree. She then guided me to sit in front of him, so that I could lean against him. She nodded approvingly.
“There, now you look like an exhausted couple catching a bit of rest.” She said, and proceeded to pass out food. We ate in silence for several minutes.
I broke the silence first. “Merot, this clearing would be as good a place as any to start a new village. There’s water nearby, and you are far enough from the mountain that you will be safe.”
Merot considered this for a moment, looking around her.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “I think you are right. Excuse me.” She dusted off her hands, and went to talk to the villagers, walking from group to group. Soon people began moving about, setting up temporary camp. Merot talked and helped where she could for a bit, organizing someone to watch the children, someone else to take stock of the food supplies, and so on. Finally she wandered back to us.
“We’re setting up temporary homes right now,” she told us. “Then we’ll start replacing them with more permanent structures as we get the materials. No,” she held up her hand as Patrick started to get up. “I don’t want you helping. You need to play the role of anxious husband. Lauren obviously can’t help, since she’s in a delicate condition. You have to stay by her, be protective, and worried. My plan is for you to stay for a day or two, until Lauren recovers enough, and then you will go on your way. If you help, you risk the villagers thinking you will stay, which will make it difficult for you to leave.”
I nodded. It was a good idea. Plus I got the added bonus of keeping my warm human pillow. We all watched the villagers busily turn the clearing into a new home. After several minutes, I began noticing that one or two people in each group seemed to stand out. They directed others in setting up tents or lean-tos, in getting firewood and water. I began turning over the possibilities in my head, feeling for the possible story threads as I did so. Finally I had a rough idea of which storyline would work best.
“Merot,” I murmured. “Watch the group over there, setting up the tents. And the group on the other side, setting up the fires. What do you notice?”
She considered them, then observed a few more groups. “Hmmm, there seems to be a few more leaders in this village.”
I nodded. “Yes. Why not make them part of the leadership. Rather than just one, have a council. Call it…the council of elders, though you don’t have to be old to be on it.”
“That is a good idea, but perhaps another name would be more appropriate. Calling the council members ‘elders’ may one day lead to only elders being on the council, even if they aren’t the most qualified people in the village.” Patrick mused.
“Guild masters? Though I wouldn’t ask every person currently taking charge to be on the council. Not all of them would handle the authority and responsibility too well.” Merot said. She excused herself again, to offer her help, and to speak with some of the self-appointed group leaders.
Patrick and I watched, and I rested, content to lean against Patrick and to feel his arms around me. After a while, he shifted. I opened my eyes, humming a soft inquiry.
“You know, I’ve been thinking…Lauren, I-I like this.” He said softly, hesitating as he tried to find the words.
“Like what? Living in a small village?” I asked.
“No. Well…no. What I mean is, I like…sitting here. With you. Actually being an anxious husband, rather than playing one.”
I sat up, and turned toward him. “What are you saying?”
He looked me in the eyes. “I’m saying, darling, that I love you. I want to be your husband, take you on picnics, have a child, everything. With you.” He waited anxiously, clearly nervous about what my answer would be.
I opened and closed my mouth several times. It would take some time for my brain to catch up. My heart was already there, beating at a million beats a second. Finally, my brain made the connection to my mouth.
“I love you too.”
Patrick smiled, and it made me practically melt, it was so beautiful. He leaned forward and kissed me.
I’d been kissed before, some of it sloppy, all of it not so exciting. Patrick’s kiss sent a jolt of power coursing through me. Literally. We broke apart several seconds later, gasping slightly.
“What was that?” Patrick asked.
“A surge of power. Something is very happy we finally…connected, I guess.” I was already feeling better. That power did a lot to help me recover from all the spells I had been casting. Patrick smiled, and pulled me against him, settling us more firmly against the tree. We continued to watch the villagers set up their new home.
Some time later, I felt a sudden change in the story line.
“Oh crap,” I whispered. I followed the storyline in my mind, watching how it played out if I didn’t do anything, if I did one thing instead of another. I had my answer in seconds.