The following is a short story prequel to my Synchronicity series. It tells the story of Drake, the Elf who came to Eladi a century before Jack, and Josephine, the Cherokee woman who was the first to open the portal to Ayeli in centuries. I hope you enjoy “Strange Path”, and if you want more, check out the link to Out of Time at the bottom or look for it at your favorite online book retailer. –Michelle Garren Flye
Josephine stood in the meadow, evening sunlight warm on her bare arms, fragrant spring grass brushing her calves. Six months ago, her mother, perhaps sensing the end of her time approaching, had brought her to this spot and told her about the ancient obligation their people carried. The obligation Josephine would have to take on now that her mother was dead.
Can you feel it? Her mother asked.
Yes. I feel it.
She had always known about the portal. It was called Galohisdi, the Cherokee word for doorway, but Josephine felt it like a river. Even dormant, it was a living, moving thing. She couldn’t see it exactly, but she sensed it in that space. Anyone else could walk right through the area occupied by Galohisdi, but Josephine had always gone around. Even when she was too young to be told about Galohisdi, she walked around it.
What is on the other side?
Her mother was silent for a moment, and when she replied it was with the heaviness of great thought. Our people can choose two paths. The path of the owl, who guards, or the path of the hawk, who explores. I chose the path of the owl. You will one day decide if you are a guardian who stays on this side of Galohisdi…or an explorer who opens it and finds out what is on the other side.
But it has always been closed before. Why would I open it now?
Her mother had not answered, and Josephine knew it was because she did not feel the portal in the same way Josephine did. She could ignore its call, but Josephine knew that was not something she could do. And now she realized her mother had given her a greater gift than just the legacy of Galohisdi. She’d given Josephine permission to choose her own path.
Josephine raised her hand, drawn by an instinct as undeniable as the sap running through a tree. She felt the invisible, immaterial, running power of Galohisdi and waited to find out what was on the other side…but in the instant that it woke beneath her touch she was thrown backward into blackness by the force of something exploding against her.
Hunter Drake couldn’t pause to figure out where the woman had come from. He’d felt something—an indefinable, crackling something—and then she’d been there. In the middle of his flight path, and he’d crashed into her, pretty damn hard, too. He caught her as she fell, unable to take the moment needed to make certain she was all right as he whirled to face the castle guardsman chasing him, sword drawn, intent on bringing him back to the king they’d both served until that very evening…
But Garth was gone. Vanished as neatly as the woman had appeared. Drake looked at her unconscious body in his arms and back to the spot where the seven-foot, muscly Elf had been, confused. If the gods had decided to reward his virtue, that might explain this, but he’d never really believed the gods interfered in the lives of men…or Elves.
What the hell, I’ll take her over him, anyway. Drake looked around, hoisting the woman in his arms. Her dusky complexion and long braid of dark hair were very unusual, almost exotic, even in his vast experience, but she was slight in stature. Barely a hundred pounds, if that. If she’s an enemy, I should be able to defend myself. His mouth quirked in amusement. Inconvenient as it was to find himself saddled with an unconscious woman while in the act of fleeing a tyrant king, Drake had no intention of leaving her behind. Besides, maybe she was a gift from the gods.
If she isn’t, where did she come from? Drake shoved his way through the bushes. There were Yundi Tsundi—Little People—in these woods, but he didn’t want to waste too much time. If they took offense, they might attack, but he doubted it. He’d had enough contact with the Little People in the past to know they respected power, and he had power. Human women normally didn’t, though. He frowned as he pushed his way through the underbrush. The woman was a puzzle. She didn’t belong there. Humans didn’t mess with Little People, and there wasn’t a human village for twenty miles. She’d literally appeared out of nowhere.
He pressed on for a few more minutes, pausing at one point to get his bearings. He frowned. He knew these mountains better than any other Elf. The woods seemed…odd. Off, somehow. The same in most ways. But different, too. He looked at the unconscious woman. Maybe she wasn’t the only mystery of that evening. What happened to me back there?
Making a decision, he found a little glade, big enough to make a small fire, but with enough cover to provide camouflage from Garth, should he make another appearance. The woman should regain consciousness soon. She could answer his questions then. And in the meantime, it felt safer to sit tight than to roam suddenly unfamiliar woods without a clue as to what possible magic had affected him.
He laid her gently on a mossy patch of grass, leaving to find fuel for the fire. When he returned, she was conscious, rubbing her temple in a confused way. She looked at him, and her gaze was cautious, but she didn’t appear immediately afraid. “Who are you?”
“My name is Drake.” He squatted and dropped the load of wood into a neat pile. He didn’t waste time with flint rocks and dried grass to light it. What was the use of being a sorcerer if you couldn’t use magic from time to time? He did so now, flicking a quick spell from his fingertips. He heard her gasp behind him and glanced over his shoulder to see her flinch away from him. Of course, like most humans she feared sorcery. With good reason, he thought drily. Magic in the wrong hands was very dangerous to humans.
Her dark eyes sparkled in the light of the fire, her body tight in a defensive posture. He held up his hands, palms out to display he meant her no harm. “What is your name?”
“I am Josephine.” Her voice was low and musical. “Where am I?” Her gaze flickered over him. “Are you from town? I don’t recognize you.”
“Town?” He raised his eyebrows. “I come from the palace.”
“Palace?” She shook her head, confused. “There is no palace.”
“Selwyn’s palace. The Elf king?” He paused, thinking of how she had appeared in his path so suddenly. And how Garth had disappeared.
“Did I cross over, then?” She sat up straighter, her eyes widening. “I thought I’d know. I can’t remember, though.”
He didn’t answer immediately, thinking of the moment she’d appeared and Garth had vanished. The subtle differences in the woods around him. And the strange, soft tingling he’d felt just before she appeared. “I think…maybe I am the one who crossed over.”
“Oh.” She stared at him, her expression frozen for a moment. Then she shook her head. “Oh no.”
He chuckled. “You seem quite horrified at that particular prospect.”
“Horrified?” She surged to her feet. “Yes! I wasn’t supposed to—” She wavered, her hand going to her head, and he stood quickly, catching her before she could crumple.
He lowered her carefully to the ground and pulled a blanket from his pack to wrap around her shoulders. “You need to take it easy. I ran right into you and I’d have to guess I’m roughly twice your size and weight. You took a pretty hard knock.”
“That doesn’t matter.” She shook her head, her voice low. “You have to go back. Now.”
“Back?” He snorted. “There are several reasons why that isn’t going to happen.”
“But you must!” She jerked her head up, fixing him with a fiery gaze. “If you don’t, the implications… Do you have any idea?”
“I do, actually.” He smiled. “I know the lore better than any other Elf. The portal I went through brought me to Eladi—the home of humans, am I right?”
“And you came from the home of…Elves?” She sounded uncertain.
“Not exactly. The home of the Elves is Gadusi, the third world, which legend says is poisoned and destroyed. I come from Ayeli, the middle world. Adopted home of Elves and humans, and the mixed race Meti.” He poked at the fire with a long stick, glaring moodily. “And I cannot return. Ever.”
He pulled the stick from the fire, studying its glowing end before cracking it in half. “Because if I do, the humans of Ayeli will be destroyed.”
Josephine watched as he threw the stick into the fire and stood, pacing restlessly to the side of the little glade. “Be careful. There are Yundi Tsundi in the woods here.” She spoke without thinking, the caution rising to her lips as naturally as it would if she were speaking to a child from her village.
He glanced at her with a half smile. “And that is the first thing you have said that makes sense.”
“You have Little People, too?” She hesitated. “In…Ayeli?”
“We do.” He returned to her, sitting on his haunches, looking like a warrior from her village except for the blonde hair and blue eyes. “And we also call them Yundi Tsundi.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. He didn’t have to tell her the significance of that. How was it that they not only had the same magical beings in their different worlds, but they also called them by the same name? “Yundi Tsundi is from the language of the Cherokee.”
“Is it?” He raised his eyebrows and for the first time, she wondered.
A million questions rose in her mind, begging to be answered. She wanted to ask them all. She didn’t even think he’d mind. He seemed as interested in her world as she was in his— This man had magic, though, and that concerned her, especially considering what he’d said about the humans of Ayeli being in danger if he returned.
“You want to ask how I could destroy the humans.”
She sat up a little straighter, a jolt of surprise running down her spine. Could he read minds, too? “Well, yes. Is that why you left? How many humans are there on Ayeli?”
“Tens of thousands. Hundreds, perhaps. I am not sure.” He looked into the distance, his eyes far away. “Not as many as there are here, perhaps. But nonetheless, a great many. And I left because I did not wish to do it, but my king is very powerful. He would find a way to force my hand.”
“And?” She prodded when it seemed he would not continue.
“And the destruction of an entire race is easier than you might think. Easier even than ending just one life. You find the one thing that race needs that you do not…and you destroy it. Eliminate it entirely. You survive and the others…die.”
Her breath caught in her throat at the absolute certainty she saw in his eyes that he could accomplish such a thing. He could take what the humans needed that Elves did not. He could destroy them.
She had been right. He was dangerous.
“What…what is it you’d take from them?” She barely breathed as she asked the question.
“Hope. Humans can’t live without hope. And Elves don’t really believe in it.” His eyes darkened. “Don’t ask me how I’d take it away from them. It is not something you wish to know.”
She’d been on the verge of doing that exact thing but she bit back the question. Instead she said, “Why would I let you stay here knowing you’re capable of destroying humans? And how do I know you’re really that powerful, anyway?”
He smiled a little as if her questions amused him. “If I’m as powerful as I say, why would I worry about what you want?”
She snorted, tossing her head. “I have an entire village of warriors who can force you back through the portal at my request.”
“Indeed?” He placed his hands in a tented position in front of his lips, his expression thoughtful, but as he did the wind rose around them. Where he squatted near the fire, the air remained still, the flames barely flickering. She felt it as a light breeze, but behind her, she heard creaking and saw the grass and brush flattening out as if in a gale. She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head, pressing a single finger against his lips. And then he slid his other hand through the air, palm down, and the wind stopped. The message was clear. Anyone coming for him would have a difficult time convincing him to do anything he did not wish to do.
And yet… She couldn’t very well leave an Elf capable of destroying the human race roaming around in her world. “You…you have to go back, though. There’s no place for you here.” As she spoke, her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten dinner. Her father was asleep already when the time came, and she hadn’t felt like cooking for herself.
He pulled his pack toward him, opening it to rummage through its contents. “There’s nothing for me there, either. But you should lock the portal as soon as possible. I’ll take you back there when you are well enough. It’s in danger of discovery.”
“It already has been discovered.” She gave him a pointed look, which had the unfortunate side effect of allowing her to admire his broad shoulders and slim waist. His shoulder-length blonde mane of hair, chiseled jawline and blue eyes were so different from the men in her life, he might as well be an alien.
No, he’s just an Elf. The thought made her giggle a little, and he looked up only long enough to frown at her. “The men following me are very dangerous.”
“Anyone coming from your world is potentially dangerous to this one.” She looked around. “You included. In fact, especially you from what you’ve told me.”
He ignored her words, still pulling things from his bag. His attitude irritated her, as if he were not obligated to listen to anything she said. Because I’m a girl? Or a human? She opened her mouth to ask him, but he interrupted. “There must be someone I can appeal to for permission to stay. Who is your leader?”
“My leader?” She blinked.
“Leader. King. Or Queen. The one who makes the laws in this world. I will pledge my allegiance to him or her in exchange for asylum.”
Josephine stared for a moment, imagining this strange man making an “appeal” to one of the leaders she knew of. Her own father, the tribal chief. The mayor of Asheville? The governor? Or surely the President of the United States should be consulted if an Elf from another world wanted to join the general population. She shook her head. “No. It doesn’t work that way here.”
“Then I must appeal to you. You are in charge of the portal?” His smile looked a little playful, but she suspected that was just how he looked. Nonetheless, she frowned at him, and he sobered. “I have no intention of harming anyone.” As if to validate the claim, he passed her a napkin holding dried fruit and meat. She hesitated, but she was hungry enough to accept it. And it was delicious. He watched her curiously as she ate. “When did you last eat? Do you not have anyone to take care of you?”
Take care of her? She almost laughed. Her mother had been good at that. Her father, on the other hand… She thought of him alone in their dark house in the little village. He hadn’t taken much care of anything since her mother died, preferring to be alone with his sorrow. Still, he needed her. She swallowed a mouthful of food. “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“I intended no offense. I only meant that a woman such as yourself is worth taking care of.” He made a sweeping gesture from her head to her feet, his eyes tracing the same path with an appreciative glimmer.
She blushed. Not that she’d never been looked at in such a way. The men in her own village paid her attention, and white men watched her as well, when she was in the town. She was aware of her outer beauty, but his gaze seemed to penetrate more than just skin deep, expressing an appreciation for more than her outward appearance. Absurdly flattered and frightened at the same time, she fought the urge to run away from this stranger, this powerful and handsome Elf who might be dangerous to her entire world.
She still hadn’t made up her mind how to react when he brushed an errant lock of hair from her eyes as if it were something he did all the time, and a tingle ran through her body, a pleasant chill that paradoxically left her feeling warmer than before. She pulled away. “Please…don’t.”
His hand dropped. “I apologize. You are…very different from the human women I know.”
“You know many human women?”
He crossed his arms casually over his long legs, his expression matter-of-fact. “Human, Meti, Elf. I have known many from all the races.”
The way he said “known” made her blush again. “I should…” She trailed off. What was she going to say? Leave? She couldn’t leave him there. And she couldn’t leave the portal unlocked and unguarded. What if another Elf found it and came through? She jumped to her feet. “I have to lock Galohisdi.”
“That would be advisable.” He stood also, reaching for his pack and kicking dirt over the small fire. “I’ll come with you.”
“I really…you must go back.” The words tasted weak. She wanted to spit them out and say something stronger. “I should never have opened the portal. My mother…” She hesitated and then plunged on. “My mother said I would have to decide whether to be a guardian or an explorer. I chose wrong.”
“I am not so certain of that. I might be dead if you had not opened the portal.” He paused, taking a step closer to her. “I wonder…” His voice trailed off, his gaze fixed on hers. Abruptly, he leaned forward and brushed her lips with his, a light, tasting touch that set her body afire with a rush of unexpected feelings. She reached up to push him away, but her hands stopped at his shoulders, holding tight to him as if entreating him not to let go. He obliged by circling her waist with one arm and pulling her closer to him, deepening the kiss, and her lips parted beneath his.
He stepped away, a look of satisfaction on his face. “Yes. I believe you were born to explore.”
She opened her mouth to—what? Curse him? Ask for another kiss? She didn’t know, but none of it mattered anyway because, even as he spoke, she felt Galohisdi’s cry in her soul and knew her problems had just doubled. Someone else had discovered the portal.
Drake saw her face go pale in the evening light and was glad his arm was already around her waist because she sagged a little. He dropped his pack and caught her with the other arm. “What is it?”
The moment he asked, he felt it, too. A surging alarm within his very being. He swallowed hard. “Garth.” No one else could have followed him so adeptly. Garth had been close behind when he went through the portal. Garth must have found his way, too. He released her. “Stay here.”
“Stay?” She stared. “You’re kidding right?”
“You may be harmed if you follow.” He couldn’t stop to explain further. He turned in the direction of the portal.
“You are conceited.” She pushed her way through the brush to confront him, putting out a hand to stop him. “And misled. I am the one who must lock the portal. And you must be on the other side of it when I do.”
Bemused, he paused in his forward journey, folding his arms over his chest. “Do I have to point out to you that there is an Elf warrior—one who is not as friendly as me—on this side of your Galohisdi, and I am the only one who can put him back on the other side?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Humans in your world aren’t considered equal to Elves, are they?”
He froze for a second. “I…This has nothing to do with that.”
She looked triumphant. “Then I’m right. And it has everything to do with that. Are you certain you’ve brought no such prejudices to this world?”
How could he put it into words? The anger and shame he felt for his race, the…was it pity? Yes, in spite of himself, it was…the pity he felt for the humans in the face of Selwyn’s hatred and the other Elves’ indifference. He scrubbed an impatient hand over his face, knowing he needed to address this with her if he hoped she would accept him into her world. “Elves are faster, stronger on the battlefield, longer lived. Humans…are not. And Elves have no pity, no…ability to empathize or admire what is beautiful about the other races.”
He could see dismay on her face, but she nodded. “Go on. Tell me why you left your king if humans are so useless to your world.”
“Humans are… They live such short lives but those lives can mean so much more than that of an Elf. Sometimes I wonder if most Elves live for anything but battle. But humans are much more emotionally connected to their world.”
She stood with her arms crossed over her chest for a moment longer, then—just as he wondered how she’d distracted him from going alone to kill Garth—she nodded. “Very well. I will trust you because I have no other choice. If you can put him on the other side of the portal, I will lock it. And we will talk about your request.”
“Fair enough.” He decided not to mention that she could not force him through the portal on her own. “Where can we find the Little People?”
“The Yundi Tsundi?” She looked startled. “You wish to find them? Most only want to stay out of their way.”
“A good policy for most.” He shrugged. “I am not most.”
“That I am certain of.” Her words were reluctant. “The Little People are scattered throughout the woods. I only know of them through stories. Warriors found frozen in the cold or wandering the forest without direction or memory—”
“I am aware of what they can do. I am also aware that they do not always do it. You, for instance, seem unafraid of them.”
“I—” She paused, as if realizing he was right. But then she shook off the comment. “I am the keeper of Galohisdi.”
“And therefore immune?” He cocked an eyebrow at her, then turned to continue down the path. “The Little People might help us, if we can find them.”
She didn’t answer, and after a few moments of silence, he glanced over his shoulder. “What does Galohisdi mean, anyway?”
“It’s the Cherokee—my people’s language—word for doorway.”
“Appropriate. Elegant, even.”
“It’s the obligation of my family. The eldest female of our line. My mother was the keeper before me. When she died…” She gulped and continued, “When she died, it fell to me to take the responsibility. And I have failed. My father said I was too young and too silly to take her place. I suppose I proved him right.”
“I would not say you have done any such thing.” He paused to hold a branch out of her way. “Your mother said you’d have to choose a path, right? Explorer or guardian? You made that choice. No one can fault you.”
She smiled gratitude for his words as she passed him. “And yet I find myself on a different, much stranger path than either of the ones my mother imagined for me, don’t I?”
He couldn’t suppress a wry answering smile. “A strange path indeed. But one thing at a time, what do you say? First we find the Little People. I believe they will help us.”
She shook her head, her expression doubtful, but she followed him and they made their way through the forest. He paused from time to time, checking the air. The Little People left a sort of electrified, almost metallic scent in the air—something like the smell after lightning strikes but does not burn.
He’d dealt with the Little People of Ayeli many times. He thought—especially since she seemed to know about them and regard them with the same sort of cautious respect they were awarded on Ayeli—that the Little People must be very similar in Eladi as they were in Ayeli. If he could strike a bargain with them, they might aid him in finding Garth.
He paused at a fork in the path. “We could wander these woods for the rest of the night and not find Garth on our own. In the meantime, he could be doing a much better job of tracking us. Do you have any specific idea where we might find the Yundi Tsundi?”
She bit her lip as though thinking, then she raised her large brown eyes to his and he found himself wondering how many shades of gold and brown there could possibly be in the world. In that moment, he felt he could happily spend the rest of his life finding out. Then she motioned to the right. “This way.”
Whatever it was she’d woken in him, he’d have to explore that happy feeling later on. When it was all over and her world was safe again.
Josephine led the way through the woods, at times through thick underbrush. She wasn’t afraid, but she did hope she wasn’t making a mistake. The site she had in mind was of special significance to her people, second only to the site of Galohisdi. It was said that any other than the most holy of their holy men who approached this area of the forest would be found wandering witlessly—if they were found at all.
What would happen to her when she brought this stranger—this Elf—to a holy site, she did not know.
She risked a quick look behind her and accidentally caught his eye. “It’s not far from here. But I should warn you, this could be dangerous.” Her face felt hot. Why could she still feel the exact pressure and taste of his lips against hers? And even more…why did she so want to repeat the experience?
Wrenching her gaze from his, she faced resolutely forward, pushed aside a branch…and stumbled into the clearing. She had overestimated how far there was to go. She froze and he bumped into her, his hand coming up to her waist as if to balance them, then lingering there. He spoke close to her ear. “Is this the place?”
“This is it.” She breathed the words, afraid to speak louder lest the spirits realize how traitorous she was. She stepped slowly forward into the large clear area on top of the hill. Legend had it that this had been the home of giants. The Nunnehi. Beautiful gods of the Cherokee who had both served and guarded the tribe for centuries. They’d disappeared a long time ago, leaving behind these odd hillocks which legend said were the remains of their great houses that looked out over the lake below.
She walked slowly through the tall grass to the first hill, bending to place her palm reverently against it, wondering where the giant Nunnehi had gone and why they had left. I could use your help now.
But it wasn’t the giants of Nunnehi they sought. It was the mischievous, sometimes downright wicked, Little People. Josephine had never seen them, never been the victim of their pranks, but she’d heard of those who had. The Little People seldom let themselves be seen, though they were described as tiny warriors with a malicious sense of humor. She would never have thought she’d actually be seeking them out…yet here she was.
Drake had followed her, and he squatted down beside one of the little hills. “This is a sacred site?”
“It is believed a great race of men—giants or gods—lived here. They fought with the Cherokee at many battles, helped us defend our homeland against many threats. But one day they disappeared. No one was left to help us defend ourselves against the threat of the white men when they invaded. And then when the white men forced my people to move west, we stayed behind, hidden in the mountains, to guard places like this and Galohisdi.” Josephine fell silent. Her father had been a boy when the Army came to remove the Cherokee from their land, but he had heard the stories of murder and disease and frozen men, women and children, and he had passed them down to her.
“If your people were removed by these ‘white men’, how is it you no longer hide yourselves?” Drake stood.
“We purchased the land almost twenty years ago. I was just a child, so I don’t remember it, and though it is only a small portion of what our tribe once held, it is enough and it includes many of our sacred places. Like this one.” Josephine stood, too, but she still had to look up at him. Even standing downhill from her, he was still taller than she by nearly a foot.
Maybe the Nunnehi have returned. Josephine felt a shiver run through her. The Nunnehi were only described as very tall, beautiful and strong—this surely described the man standing next to her. And now he’d caught her looking at him with admiration and a little smile played across his lips. Her breath caught in her throat. Was this what it felt like to have a god look at you with desire? And if I am in the presence of a god, won’t I know it?
He slid his hands along her arms, leaving a pleasant goosepimply feeling in their wake. Her heart pounded, and she felt both hot and cold as he stepped closer, his eyes on her lips…but then his gaze shifted to the side and he stopped. Confused, she turned her head to see what he was looking at and froze.
The tiny warrior standing on the laurel branch beside her bowed his head when she turned to him. He stood no more than three inches high, but she could see him clearly. He seemed to shine with some internal light. She admired the nobility of his appearance and features in dumb silence for a full five seconds. Then Drake’s hand tightened on her arm and she flinched, realizing what he was saying. This was a show of respect from a mighty race. To her.
How should she address the warrior? He wore his hair in the old way, a single scalp lock with a tiny eagle feather. He must be a chief. There was no way to tell for sure, but she decided to address him with the respect he’d already shown her. “Father, we have come to ask for your help.”
When she raised her gaze, her heart seized in her chest, her breath freezing as it passed her lips in a gasp of shock. The tiny warrior dropped to his knees, and as he did, all around her, little lighted beings sprang into view. She turned slowly to take them all in, watching as they followed their chief’s lead.
Our spears are yours, Daughter. The words came to her from all around. How will you have us serve you?
Josephine opened her mouth and realized she had no clue. She was no strategist. She only knew she had to find the other invading Elf and send him back through Galohisdi. And lock it. And do something about this other Elf whose presence troubled her in other ways. Her heart still pounded near her throat. She swallowed around it. “There is a stranger in the woods. From another world.”
“We know.” The warrior’s gaze fixed on Drake, who bowed acknowledgment.
“Not him.” Josephine spoke quickly. “There is another. Can you…can you find him? Just find him. And let me know where he is.”
“Another Elf?” The warrior’s words were echoed by a fluttering restlessness from the others.
“Yes.” She took a step forward, glad the warrior stood on a laurel branch near her height. “Can you help me?”
The warrior nodded. “Stay here. We will find him and report back to you.”
She blinked and he was gone, and she noted that about half of the lights had gone with him. Those that remained fanned out in a loose circle in the woods around her, and then they faded into shadow again. We are here. If you need us.
Josephine sat, her knees too weak to hold her. Drake squatted down in front of her, peering into her eyes. “You didn’t know, did you?”
“Know?” She shrugged, confused. “Know what?”
The smile in his eyes traveled slowly to his lips, turning them up. “How worthy you are of their protection.”
Humility. Drake had never realized how attractive it could be. He’d certainly never been subject to it. He’d always thought it a weakness in others. But then, he’d never seen someone so lovely display the trait, either.
She didn’t deny his words, either, in some sort of display of false modesty. “I…never thought of it that way. My father…he never thought I’d be able to…he thought I wasn’t up to the task of being the key. The keeper of Galohisdi. After mother died, he tried to tell me I must stay away so I wouldn’t mess it up.” She lay back on the hill, looking up at the stars.
He lay back next to her. After a few moments of silence, she said, “They knew what you are.”
“Pardon?” He studied the stars, not looking at her.
“Elf. The…the Little People. The chief called you ‘Elf’. How did he know?”
“I’m not certain.” He paused, thinking, still studying the stars and realized what had struck him about them. “The stars are the same here.”
“Really?” She turned her head, her dark eyes sparkling in spite of the lack of light.
“Really.” He pointed. “Do you see that small group of stars there?”
She moved a little closer to see the sky from his point of view. “Yes.”
“That’s the tip of The Arrow. A constellation.”
“It’s the tail of our Snake.”
He was silent for a long time, then said quietly, “It is odd that so much of our worlds are alike. Even some of the language. You also call the Little People Yundi Tsundi.”
She took her turn for silence before replying in a soft voice, “Except the people.”
For answer, he raised his hand so it was outlined black against the stars, creating all new constellations for them both. She raised her hand to touch his and he smiled. “Maybe we’re not so different.”
Did she say it, or did he? It didn’t seem to matter when she sat up and turned to face him. He watched fascinated, as she unbraided her hair into a shimmering curtain. She raised her head, her eyes meeting his. “Did you…were you the reason I opened Galohisdi, do you think? Did you…call to me?”
“I don’t—” He shook his head, but he couldn’t deny it. Maybe he had been calling to her all his life. He touched her face, his fingers tracing the delicate line of her cheek. She leaned a little into the light touch and the small action obliterated his last restraint. Sitting up on one elbow, he dipped his head to touch his lips against hers, and in a moment she had slipped her arms around his neck and he lost himself in the sweet taste of her lips, the even sweeter surrender of her mouth when it opened to him.
They might have kissed for minutes or hours, he couldn’t be certain. Every second with her was so precious, he wanted to cling to it, but they kept slipping away. He broke the kiss slowly, lips lingering for the lightest of butterfly kisses before he pulled away, planting one last kiss on her forehead. “You should sleep, my love.”
“My love?” She lay her head on his chest. “I like the sound of that.” He felt her yawn and then she said sleepily, “Will you be able to sleep like this?”
He doubted he would sleep at all that night, but he stroked her hair and assured her he’d never slept better than he expected to that night. And then he listened as her breath deepened, felt her body totally relaxed next to him. She trusted him. And he felt like a man holding something infinitely precious and exquisitely fragile.
In spite of himself, he’d always considered the brevity of a human life as a serious handicap to love between the races. Less than a hundredth that of an Elf. Over in the blink of an eye.
Yet here he lay with his arms around her and love in his heart. Surely any time at all he could spend in this woman’s company would stay with him, guiding him through the rest of his long Elf life.
A low whistle caught his attention. He stiffened, listening. The whistle came again, soft and unmistakable. The sound of an Elf in distress. Garth. So his old comrade had found him before the Little People could find him.
Very carefully, he slid out from under Josephine, carefully cushioning her against a blanket from his pack. Garth did not require assistance. He was trying to lure Drake out of hiding. Still, if he could take care of Garth on his own, all the better. Peacefully, if possible. But if Garth had figured out he’d passed through a portal and was determined to give Selwyn a full report, that might not be possible. He checked that his sword was belted firmly around his waist and glanced at Josephine’s sleeping form. Every second he must be away from her felt like an eternity. But if he could take care of Garth, she could lock the portal and he could convince her…somehow…to let him stay.
Drake followed the sound of the whistle a short distance to another clearing and stopped. A fire crackled merrily and Garth leaned against a boulder, his feet crossed, his sword lying across his thighs. He did not appear surprised when Drake appeared alone. “Where’s the woman?” He laughed. “I saw you with her. You do work fast, Drake. I’ll give you that much. Although your taste for humans I will never understand.”
“Go home, Garth.” Drake made a dismissive motion. “I’ll show you the way. Forget about seeing me.”
Garth snorted. “Don’t play me for a fool, Drake. I know there’s some sort of …gate between our world and this one. And your girlfriend knows how to open it. You realize of course that this sort of treason is punishable by death? We can take care of that sentence here, if you like.”
Drake kept his temper with difficulty. Losing it would be a mistake. If Garth eliminated him, there would be nothing to stop him from taking Josephine back as a prize for Selwyn. No doubt what he had planned, anyway. Drake’s fingertips tingled to reach for his sword. Better to dispatch Garth immediately and alleviate that danger.
Instead, he took a cautious step into the clearing. Garth remained still, watching him. Drake motioned toward a rock across the fire from Garth. “May I sit?”
Garth shrugged. “Sure. Sit. Maybe you can tell me how sweet she is. Better than Ayeli humans?”
Refusing to be baited, Drake assumed his spot, making certain his sword was easily reachable. “We’ve known each other for a long time, Garth. You are a brave warrior. I respect that. I do not wish to kill you.”
Garth stiffened. “I do not wish to be killed. But your treachery cannot be abided.”
Drake shook his head. “There is no treachery. I left so I would not have to betray Selwyn.”
“And fled here, to the home of humans. Our enemy, or have you forgotten?” Garth’s lip curled in distaste. “A whole world of humans. How long have they been aiding Ayeli humans?”
“That hasn’t happened…and won’t. The gate was locked and will be locked again when you are on the other side of it.”
“You’re so sure of that?”
“I am. You know what he wishes me to do, don’t you?” Drake narrowed his eyes. “And you see no problem with it?”
For just a second, his friend looked uncomfortable. But Garth was a loyalist, an Elf who would follow his king no matter what hell he led his followers to. And I am not.
“Eventually someone must win the war.” Garth’s voice evened out and he straightened a little. “Why should it not be us?”
“Winning a war is one thing. Slaughtering an entire race of innocent people is another.” Drake watched the other man closely. “And when did we declare war on the humans, anyway?”
“Are you a fool or just blind?” Garth snorted. “We’ve been at war with humans for most of my life. I can’t remember a day my father did not curse their arrogance and their demands.” He shook his head. “They are inferior in every way. Their destruction is inevitable.”
Drake drew his sword slowly. “Maybe. But I won’t be a part of it.”
“And you won’t let me go back to Ayeli because you fear we’ll find our way back here. To the human world we all thought was mythology.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Does that mean Gadusi exists as well?”
Instead of answering, Drake lunged forward and his sword clashed against his opponent’s. He shoved Garth back. “Pity you’ll never have a chance to find out.”
Garth grinned. “Let’s go, then.” And he wheeled around to bring his sword to meet Drake’s.
For a long moment, Josephine couldn’t figure what had woken her. She remembered kissing Drake and how right it had felt. And she remembered falling asleep in his arms, warm and safe and loved. And she sat up.
Where was Drake now?
As if in answer, the unfamiliar but disquieting sound of metal clashing against metal rang through the woods. She leapt to her feet. He wouldn’t have gone in search of Garth and left her asleep and defenseless. Somehow he’d known Garth was nearby. However it had happened, the sound of battle was not far away and would be easy to follow. She started toward the edge of the clearing, reached for a branch to push it out of her way and drew back in startled surprise when the leaves on the branch whirred into flight.
The Little People of Cherokee legend surrounded her, green leaves flapping from their shoulders, expressions fierce. She drew back, startled, holding up her hands. “Don’t.”
She held her breath. Why would they want to stop her? Very slowly, she lowered her hands, preparing herself for an attack. They didn’t attack, however. Instead, they hovered nearby, surprisingly peaceful for tiny warriors. She smiled. “Thank you. But I must go to Drake.” A sliver of moonlight shone through the trees, sparking glimmers of light along ethereal wings. She sucked in her breath. “You are really very beautiful.”
No one had ever mentioned the beauty of the Little People, only the danger. Not that she should be surprised by that. Poison sumac could be quite beautiful, but its less desirable properties outweighed that beauty so few ever saw it.
A metallic crash jerked her from her reverie. Without waiting to see if they’d allow it, she ducked around them and raced through the forest, branches catching at her hair and clothing as if trying to hold her back. She burst into a circle of firelight to see the two struggling men and she gasped in horror, clapping her hand over her mouth. She ducked back behind the bushes to watch.
Drake moved with a graceful ferociousness that took her breath away, but his dark-haired opponent was equally skilled and possibly larger than Drake. Both men bore scars from previous battles, probably fought side by side. They might even regard each other as brothers…and now they sought to kill the other. Because she’d opened the portal.
I have to stop them. Her heart squeezed with guilty responsibility at the events she’d unwittingly put into motion in two worlds. How could she keep them from killing each other, though? To come between two such warriors would surely result in her own peril. If she died, would the portal remain open forever?
A soft rustling in the bush beside her caught her attention. They’d followed her, then. She glanced over at the shadowy creatures in the bush. And like a flash of lightning on a dark night, she knew the Little People hadn’t started protecting her last night. They’d done it all along. But why?
Because you are the guardian of the portal. One of the Yundi Tsundi came to rest on the branch nearest her face. A tiny, shadowy warrior with glistening but almost invisible wings. His expression was sober, but a light of fondness shone in his eyes. He held a spear in one hand, and she knew it was laced with the poison of the Yundi Tsundi. The poison that could make you forget what was happening, what was important in your life…even what you were doing.
She glanced over her shoulder at the battle. No matter how it ended, she could not be happy with its outcome. If Drake killed Garth, she was responsible. It wasn’t Garth’s fault she’d opened the portal. But the alternative left her with a yearning, anguished feeling. How had he become so essential to her so quickly?
As the two combatants parted for a moment, she made a decision and leapt between them, her arms stretched, palms out, toward their chests. “Stop!”
Everything seemed to slow down. She saw Drake’s look of horror as he deflected his already launched attack to the side, stumbling and falling in the process. And she saw Garth with no intention of stopping, sword above his head, ready to slice down and through her to get to Drake—
She flung herself to the side, knowing she was already too late, closed her eyes and waited for the killing blow, wondering if her mother waited for her just on the other side of the veiled spirit world.
As she hit the ground and rolled away, coming to rest in Drake’s waiting arms, she heard a soft thud on the ground behind her. She turned in surprise and for a moment thought perhaps the blow had landed after all and she looked at the living world through a shimmering veil of darkness. But then the darkness parted and she saw clearly that Garth sat in a clump of grass, his expression vague as though he’d hit his head very hard against something. His sword lay unnoticed beside him. He scrubbed his hands over his face like a man who’d been asleep a long time and wanted to cast aside the cobwebs of dreams. Josephine stared in surprise, half rising to go to him, but Drake caught her by the waist, holding her back as he stood cautiously. He glanced at her, shaking his head and holding his sword ready but lowered.
Garth looked up. “Drake? What happened? What am I doing here?”
Drake tilted his head, suspicious. “You don’t remember?”
“No clue.” Garth looked around, his eyes lighting on Josephine. His lips curled in amusement but without the ugly enmity and derision that had been there before. “Did I interrupt something?” He started to stand and faltered. “Sorry. I just… Did I hit my head on something?” He looked around as if trying to establish what had happened. “I feel like I was in a fight. Am I bleeding?” He eyed Drake’s sword. “Did you hit me? Gods, man, if I interrupted something, I’m sure it wasn’t intentional.”
Josephine approached with caution and Drake sheathed his sword. When she reached his side, he caught her arm to keep her from going closer. That was when she saw the two thorn-like black stingers (spears) protruding from the other man’s neck and she knew for certain how much she owed her protectors.
Drake met her startled gaze with a nod. He pulled her aside. “Go. Be ready to lock the portal. I’ll take him back through it. In the state he’s in, he’ll never know he was in another world.” He lowered his gaze, and she felt his hand tighten on hers, then relax. “And then you can lock it back. With everyone on the right side of it.”
She closed her own eyes against the sorrow his words brought to her. She wanted to say, No, I won’t lock it, you can come back…but she knew what her response had to be. “Yes.” Her heart rose up and prevented anything further from coming out. Standing on tiptoes, she kissed him, felt his hand on her back between her shoulder blades pulling her closer as if he could hold all the sweetness of that moment, but then he released her and she turned, racing back through the woods toward the portal’s clearing.
“How much further?”
The question irritated Drake, fighting anger and disappointment as he supported Garth’s weight. He half wished the Little People hadn’t stepped in to prevent him killing Garth. They didn’t. They prevented Garth killing Josephine.
Irritation faded into gratitude. Though circumstance and the division between their worlds and races would keep him from being with her, at least he could know she was alive. At least she hadn’t been struck down by Garth’s sword, as he’d thought she surely would be in that split second interval before the Little People had swarmed the other Elf and pressed him back, dosing him with their poison as they did so.
And that gave him a perverse satisfaction, too. Had Garth not followed him, there’d be no urgency to return. At least he could have stayed in her company another too brief moment. But maybe he owed his old comrade a thank you for preventing that, after all. As much as it now pained him to leave her, might it not hurt worse still if he held her again?
And it did hurt—with a pain both sweet and sharp—knowing he’d walk through that portal and she would close it behind him, never to open again. He would never again hold her asleep and dreaming in his arms as he had last night. But she would be safe. She would live and love and eventually marry and have children to pass along the burden/privilege of guarding Galohisdi. Perhaps it was best. In fifty years, he would still be in his prime, but she would be aged or even dead.
But he knew in his heart, he could have lived off those fifty years for however many hundreds he had yet to live. Holding her, even for a brief time, would have made up for the loss of her in a way that living without her never could. He heaved a sigh and continued the trek forward.
“Where we going, man?” Garth’s speech slurred against Drake’s ear. He hoisted his friend’s weight further onto his shoulders. The Elf shouldn’t have been such a burden, but weighed down as he was by his own reluctance, Drake felt as if he were slogging through quicksand.
Reluctant or not, however, they were nearly to the clearing. Drake gritted his teeth. “Home.”
Never had the word seemed less welcoming or desirable. Especially since Drake knew he didn’t really have a home in Ayeli. He’d get Garth back there, knock him out and pull the Yundi Tsundi spears from his neck. And then he’d make his way into the mountains to hide for the rest of his—or Selwyn’s—life.
He knew when he passed her though he couldn’t see her where she hid in the bushes. He smelled her skin, could feel her presence. But he didn’t falter. He kept going. Only when he stood just a few steps from the portal did he turn his head.
She stood just outside the tree line, her back straight, her hands clasped before her as if in prayer. His eyes met hers and he opened his mouth but he couldn’t say goodbye, so he walked resolutely through the portal without looking back.
Josephine stood for a long moment after he had disappeared. She had to lock Galohisdi. Every moment it remained open was a danger to her world. She stepped forward with determination, raising her hand to do what had to be done…
Her body couldn’t stop remembering how his had felt next to her. And her heart misgave her at the dread she’d seen in his eyes at the prospect of returning to his world. A world with a king who wanted something he could never deliver.
There is always a way.
But was there? This time, was there a way to get what they both wanted? My love. A love that spanned two worlds, two races, two ways of life? His magic—what place did it have in her world? Her people would never trust him. Her father might never accept him if she did not put things right.
She covered her face with her hands and knelt in the tall grass before the portal. She could smell it, like roses in a river, enticing, calling. She raised her right hand and held it before the live portal, felt its energy reach out to her, closed her eyes and thought of Drake on the other side.
She saw him then, as if he were just in front of her, as if the portal didn’t separate them at all. And he turned to look back, just as he had before stepping through the portal. But then he squared his shoulders and continued, determined to carry on with his mission.
And as he walked away from her, she knew what she had to do.
Drake approached the castle wall carefully in the dawn’s light. He knew exactly when the patrols would pass and where he could leave Garth so he’d be discovered quickly. Then he’d return to the mountains, stay out of sight. Maybe he’d even travel, discover what more of the world there was besides Selwyn’s kingdom.
“You’re going back to her, aren’t you?” Garth’s sudden reanimation startled Drake enough so he nearly released the other Elf. Garth took that as an invitation to move away from him. He stumbled a little, righted himself on a tree, and looked blearily at his old friend. “You should, you know. Sometimes I think that’d be the right thing to do.”
“What’s that?” Drake remained alert. He hadn’t anticipated Garth regaining consciousness and if he exhibited any signs of remembering passing through the portal, he’d have to act. Striking down his friend in such a state didn’t appeal to him, but he couldn’t risk that knowledge passing on to Selwyn.
The other man settled his back against the trunk of the tree and slowly slid down it, wincing a little. “A woman. Find a woman, someone warm and willing, and settle down. Make my life a peaceful one.”
“There’ll be no peace while Selwyn is in power.” Drake straightened, folding his arms crosswise over his chest.
“You may be right about that.” Garth’s chin slowly floated down to rest on his chest. “Won’t last…forever…”
He was unconscious again. Drake bent and carefully pulled one of the Yundi Tsundi spears from Garth’s neck. Despite the fact that the other would still be pumping poison into the Elf, he needed to leave it so those who found him would know how to treat him. “Go find your peace, old friend.”
And then he turned and began walking with purpose back the way he’d come.
The clearing appeared deserted. He approached the portal, but the formerly living, wavering, inviting air now felt dormant when he placed his hand on it. He nodded to himself. So she’d done as he told her. She’d locked it. For a moment, he could almost see her on the other side, her hand on the other side of the portal—a thin barrier between worlds separating them—but then it was gone along with whatever hope he’d had for something more to his life than exile. He let his hand fall from the veil and turned slowly away.
“I locked it. Just like you said.” She stepped out of the shadows.
For an instant, he couldn’t let himself believe it was her standing there. And then he stepped forward, pulling her into his arms and breathing the only words that mattered. “You came.”
She laughed but silenced, her arms going around his neck as he kissed her. Breathless, she pulled a little away. “I did. I’m here. I don’t want to live without you. There or here. It doesn’t matter.”
He kissed her again, thinking of all she’d left behind. Her home and family. Her tribe. His life here in Ayeli was lost to him. He turned them both toward the portal and she glanced at him before raising her hand and allowing the light of Galohisdi to bathe them. One last time.
No sooner had they stepped through Galohisdi than she was assailed by doubts again. What if he wasn’t supposed to be with her? What if his world needed him still? What if her earlier certainty had been born only of her own selfishness and desire? And could she truly make her life work with his—could he be content with a human woman whose life would not only end before his but would wane perceptibly during his own prime? She hesitated, Galohisdi’s energy prickling her palm.
“Lock it.” His tone held enough certainty for both of them—didn’t it? His arm wound around her waist, his chest firm against her back. “Lock it, my love.”
She closed her eyes and curled her fingers into her palm at the same time. She turned to face him but found herself too close to breathe more than a few words against his lips. “But what if—”
He shook his head, placing one hand against her lips. “You know what I think?” When she shook her head, he bent and kissed her forehead and then her nose. “I think you were sent to me. To rescue me from a doom I could never face. I think what we feel seems right because it is.”
Yes. Her spirit whispered the confirmation and she reached back, hand finding the location of the portal by instinct as she leaned into his kiss, done with all doubt at last. And as the portal locked behind her, going dormant beneath her hand, she felt herself awaken beneath his.
If you liked “Strange Path”, continue your adventure in the worlds of Eladi, Ayeli and Gadusi…