“You don’t have to do this.”
My eyes flicker toward the clockwork detailing of Damon’s mechanical legs, at rest in his wheelchair. Though I remind myself quickly to bring my gaze back to his face, the misstep has already registered in his taut mouth.
“It’s not about me, Fauna.”
How do I tell my brother, who has already lost half his natural body in the WOLF War, that sorry as I am for the way it has crumpled his body and soul, it really isn’t about him?
“It’s about the book, Damon.”
I don’t explain further. As I tighten my bootstraps, my entire person constricts. There is no room for excess clothing, excess baggage, and so my words naturally limit themselves. Besides, he already knows. In fact, he holds the book gingerly on his lap, its frail binding flaking at his touch.
Neither of us opens the book anymore. We haven’t in years, since Papa passed away, leaving Damon and me alone. Even in our youth, we knew the day would come that we would fight to defend the book. Papa spent every spare moment teaching us language, movement, how to listen, when to strike. We are well prepared to carry on the battle in his absence.
These are my last words to him. He nods as I pull the red cape across my shoulders. It is much like the one in the book, the one meant to help a watchful mother keep an eye on her playful child as she wandered the forest. It is with grim irony that I fasten mine as camouflage.
I step out of the cottage, knowing that I will not see Damon again. I close my eyes and press my fingertips upon the lids, in part to imprint his face into my memory, and in part a natural reaction to the smoke. I push the door shut, tense fingers gripping the latch until it fastens soundlessly. I back away and survey the cottage, satisfied that it is completely hidden by thatch. Thatch that will burn if the fires come. We’ve been over this. He knows where to hide the book in the metal storage box so that it won’t be consumed along with him.
The soles of my boots are made of soft leather, but the dryness of the forest assures that every twig I step upon snaps like bone. Although I’ve practiced this, my eyes still tear at the smoke and the nearness of flame. Lovers’
Forest burns around me, the scarlets and crimsons, bricks and burgundies of my clothing hide me well.
I travel for an hour, my throat singed, my back wet with perspiration. In the book, these woods were green. Princes and princesses held secret rendezvous here while animals masked their footprints with leaves and acorn tops. Alliances were formed here, witches betrayed, poisoned apples shined to seduce foolish girls. Wombs were filled on moss carpets, dragons slain by petite princes. There was evil in the world, to be sure. But there was respite. There was balance. There were wolves, but today’s WOLFs, Watchers Over Lovers’
Forest, were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were already here, waiting. Perhaps not.
I stop against a tree. The WOLFs will find me if I linger, their tiny metal scanners gathering as much information as they can before tearing me to shreds. My head is spinning, dehydration setting in. I cannot carry water, Damon has warned. I must be as light as possible. He has told me where flasks are stashed, but I can’t remember. I wanted him to draw maps on me, but he said that if the WOLFs find me, they will get too much information. If I die, any resistance knowledge must die with me. I know this, but thirst scrambles my senses. Although he has detailed it for me night after night, I cannot imagine how he survived nine days in the forest.
Nine days. The number nine materializes behind my eyelids, a circle and a slant. I focus on the shape, the simplicity of its form, and remember that I must not allow the haze of thirst to cloud my senses. I begin to count slowly. One. Two…
Four days later, I stumble toward the large tree. I think it is the one in Damon’s stories. The one in the book. The one with the hidden door. I cannot remember the code words. I cannot remember my name. I know only the numbers that I have repeated in my head to keep out the smoke. I reach seven, as I have countless times, and I cannot remember the next. I fall to the ground without the smallest idea how to open the tree. So close.
It is only moments before the WOLFs arrive. I hear their scuttling across barren leaves. They poke, prod. I cannot remember what they are looking for. If I want them to find it. I feel a sudden tearing pain as my leg is sliced neatly from hip to knee. Warmth pours out and I wonder if it is water, if they will let me drink.
Moments before the world goes black, the spiderlike creatures are ripped from my limbs. Voices pierce the blur.
“Is it Fauna? Is it her?”
“It is her. Can you hear me?”
My eyes open but my vision is so blurred by pain and waves of heat from the encroaching flames, I cannot see. I feel my arm being lifted, my hand spread, my fingers straightened, and a burst of clarity graces my mind. Under the third fingernail, the chip is embedded. Only Grandmother would know to look there immediately. Grandmother, the one Papa told stories about. I have found her. I have delivered Damon’s message about where the book is hidden to the leader of the resistance. I wonder for a moment if my brother is still alive. I close my parched eyes to the smoldering forest and join him if he is not.