Odette was lost. It was beginning to become embarrassing.
There was a clear path in these woods–she knew, because she’d helped her parents clear it away herself, tending to Sigfried when he began to fuss. There were thin white scars on her fingers from a particularly stubborn mulberry bush, whose roots had sunk deep and whose thorns were sharper than her mother’s dagger. She’d even been following it–but then a butterfly had drifted past, ethereal and delicate as her father’s stories, so she’d looked–just for a moment!–and now Odette found herself lost. Enough sunlight cut through the branches overhead to give her something to see by, but the undergrowth was thick and nearly unyielding against her small weight and smaller knife.
Staying in one place was a worse thought, though, so she pressed on. There had to be an end to the forest eventually, she thought; if she looked down upon it from their camp, she could see the wide flat shining blue expanse of the lake, which stretched across the entire horizon. If she could find the lake, it wouldn’t be so hard to find her family’s path, and if she was very lucky, perhaps her absence wouldn’t be noticed.
And perhaps a dragon would rise up from the lake fully-formed, years after her mother had killed the last one. Odette chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment. At the moment, she almost wished one would: then she’d know which direction to head, and how close she was to the water …
“Well, well,” said someone behind her. “What’s this? Far from home, aren’t you?”
Odette yelped before she could stop herself and spun, slashing out with her little knife–low, as her mother had taught, aiming for the soft part of the lower belly. A shock jolted her wrist for a moment as she connected with something, and then she stumbled as that resistance abruptly vanished. Her head whipped around, seeking, and overhead the same voice said, “Hah! You really are their kid, aren’t you? Hit first, ask questions later–is this what humans will become?”
Anger prickled between Odette’s shoulders. She resisted the urge to stamp her foot and complain like she was a child Sigfried’s age; at ten summers old, she was nearly an adult, and had to conduct herself as such. So instead, she drew herself up to her full height, and said, “It’s unkind for you to sneak up on someone like that. Worse still to hide! Show yourself, whoever you are!”
“Who am I?” said the voice–a man, she thought, though there was something in its deep timbre that made her think man instead of pooka. “That is a question, isn’t it? Who am I? Am I even anything at all, any more?”
“I’m not interested in your riddles,” Odette snapped. She glanced from one side to the other, trying to track where the man’s voice came from. “Either show yourself or begone from my presence. I’ve no time for jokes from woodland spirits!”
“It seems to me you’ve all the time in the world, right now.” There was a wry note in that voice now, something she recognized in her father sometimes–self-deprecation, remembering things lost past. “Where are you even going?”
She raised her chin. “That’s not your business.”
“Ah–” There was a rustle behind her and Odette whirled; this time, her wrist was caught before her knife could connect, and the grip was stronger than anything else. “–That’s where you’re wrong.”
Fear prickled in her belly. She gulped a few times and looked up. It was a man, though he looked nothing like her father or her brother: his skin was gold as the sunlight still filtering through the leaves overhead, and his hair was only a slightly darker shade. His eyes were round and dark as a doe’s–like her mother’s, she thought, though the gaze was more piercing than any prey animal could manage. The cloak he wore only half-covered his bare chest, and as close as she was–with her wrist in his hand–she could tell no warmth came from his exposed skin. He wasn’t cold like the handful of creatures that occasionally crawled free from the wreckage of the Netherworld’s labyrinths, but there was no living heat in him: it was like standing beside a tree more than anything else. Odette squirmed, but the man didn’t let go. He looked her over thoughtfully, and said, “Take after your mother, do you?”
She kicked him in the knee. It felt like striking a tree, and the man hardly seemed upset: the corner of his mouth quirked instead, like an aborted smile. “Same attitude, too. Not bad. In a world like this, that’ll keep you alive.”
Odette set her jaw and glared. The man did smile then, only borderline friendly, and didn’t let go of her wrist. “What are you doing in this part of the forest, girl? There’s no love for humans here.”
“You’re here,” she snapped before she could quite stop herself. “If you can be here, I can too! And my family! All of us!”
His smile never faded, but something in his expression twisted anyway, suddenly hard and unfriendly. “No,” he said. “You can take over the entire world and drive the rest of the races into hiding, but you won’t have this part of the forest.” His fingers tightened on her wrist, and his grip was beginning to hurt. “Especially not your bloodline.”
Odette scowled as best she could, breathing slow and shaky around the pain. “My parents will wonder where I am,” she said. “If they find out you’ve been keeping me here, then–”
The man threw his head back and laughed. Birdsong went silent as it echoed, and something in it made Odette’s ears hurt. “What do you think they’ll be able to do? Your parents might be idiots, but the Pooka they’re sheltering with know better. No one is allowed to enter here. No one,” and he punctuated the last with a shake of her arm, “is allowed to cause trouble in this place. It’s one of the last sacred places left in this reborn world, and it will be respected.”
“I’m not afraid,” Odette said. “I know how to fight, if you’re going to set monsters upon me, I–”
“Monsters?” He laughed again, and this sound was ugly enough to make her stomach twist. “They’re closer than you think, little girl. Look–” He whirled abruptly, dragging her with him; Odette yelped before she could stop herself as her feet left the ground for a split second–then she was being dragged, and even when she dug her heels into the ground, he hardly seemed to notice. They marched a short distance, and there was a tree in front of them: she recognized it at once, though she’d never been so close before. It was the largest tree in the entire forest, whose wide elegant branches towered above even the tallest pines–the top of this particular tree thrust upwards, past even the veil of clouds, and in the spring it bloomed with brilliant white flowers whose scent carried even to their camp, so many miles distant. She gaped helplessly, her heart suddenly going too fast in her chest.
“Look,” the man said again, and his voice was whisper-quiet, but no less intense. “This was never meant for us. She isn’t even there any more, and yet–”
“Oh,” Odette said. Her voice sounded tiny and stupid in her ears, nearly drowned out by the pounding of her heart. This was what it was like to be in the presence of dragons and greater, she thought dizzily; her own parents were uncrowned royalty by Erion prophecy, but they were still simply human–this was magic that had been sealed years ago, the sort that gave life to manticores and unicorns and fairies—
The man shifted his grip on her wrist for a moment; she felt him press something small and hard against her palm before letting go. She wanted to look, but he moved and that drew her attention instead. He walked up the gentle swell of long white-barked roots until he was close enough to touch the wide smooth trunk. He lifted his hands, but didn’t quite connect, and Odette saw his head bow for a whole heartbeat before he turned to her again.
“Take that,” he said. “Use it. It’s a present. If your family is meant to spread across this world, there will need to be more than just you and your brother.”
Odette closed her hand into a fist. She wanted to fling it away, whatever it was, but it weighed in her palm; she wondered for a moment if it would even part from her skin if she tried. “What do you mean?”
“Fresh blood,” the man says. “Change isn’t always a horrible thing, little girl. Remember that.”
She drew herself up to her full height again, staring at him. He seemed to be deflating in the presence of the world-tree, she could see through him now, the sunlight slanting through his body to cast green-gold shadows on the forest floor. Her lip wanted to tremble and she pushed the impulse down. “My name is Odette,” she said.
He ducked his head forward; gold hair tumbled in a messy fringe over his eyes. He smiled, and it was almost kind now.
“Ingway,” he said, then snapped his fingers before she could open her mouth again. Around her the world lurched and spun madly until she was forced to close her eyes.
When she opened them again, she was standing on the forest path. It was the same place where she’d seen the butterfly, she thought, turning in a full circle before opening her fingers and looking at what she’d been given.
It was a nut, so dark brown it was nearly black, whose hard shell gleamed dully in the sunlight. Against her palm, it was pulsing slightly, like the slow steady beats of a heart. She thought again about throwing it away, off into the undergrowth that had trapepd her before. She thought about the breathless presence of the world-tree and its dark-eyed guardian, and the round curve of his eyes that was very nearly familiar.
Someone was calling her name–her mother, she recognized, not quite worried enough yet to be sharp. She was coming closer, her footsteps too light to be heard, but her voice rising and falling, echoing in the woods.
Odette stuffed the nut into the pouch slung at her hip, took a deep breath, and turned to meet her.