The voice, stern yet gentle, murmured in my ear.
I opened my bleary eyes and found myself wrapped in warm comforters. I looked up to see Tarquin, who was on his knees beside my pallet, his hand on my arm. Concern shone through his intense dark eyes. When he saw I was awake, he removed his hand. Strangely, I missed the warmth of his fingers.
I quivered inside, my body feeling like a block of ice despite the pile of blankets on top of me and the fire that flickered steadily nearby. “W-where are we?”
A woman appeared, with wrinkled skin and beautiful white hair cut short at her shoulders. She smiled at me. “I am Tiana, and this is my home. Welcome.”
She had seen everything. The truth poured into me, and I was amazed. These old folks had lived full lives, in all four lands.
I gazed at my surroundings. Everything was white, just like it had been minutes before I’d fallen asleep in the glade with Hollis in my arms. We were enclosed by sheer whiteness, as pure and flawless as the Summer clouds.
“Thank you, Tiana. But I… I don’t see a home.”
Amused, the old woman tapped the whiteness, and I realized it was a solid. I looked up and around me, as I realized the walls and ceiling were made of ice. An ice home. I had never imagined such a thing.
“Dahlia, I have to go,” Tarquin said hoarsely. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay before I left.”
He turned away, but I grabbed his hand to stop him. “Where are you going?”
“Dahlia, you can’t come with me, you’re too sick…” He looked away, but didn’t let go of my hand. “We need…” He shook his head, as if I wouldn’t be able to bear the news.
“What do we need, Tarquin?” I asked, exasperated at his silence.
“We need Gesu’s blood,” he said slowly. “His body is on Medfuna island. I have to go there.”
I sat up in bed, ignoring the sharp pain in my back. “I have to come with you.”
He sank to his knees and massaged my fingers, looking gently in my eyes. “Dahlia, the plague has affected you.”
“But not yourself?” I observed his spotless skin in amazement. How had he avoided the sickness?
“Long ago Gesu gave me the power to resist certain poison spells,” Tarquin said. “Then, I didn’t know how it would help me, but now it’s all clear.” He grinned, his eyes searching my face in earnest. “I’m going to be King, Dahlia. As soon as Queen Hazina’s out of the way, I’m going to rule Istagun.”
I stared at him steadily, taking in his confident words. I fingered his ragged beard, deciding to not take him seriously, at least for now. “A King, eh?” I smiled. “That doesn’t mean you can order me around, you know.”
“Dahlia, how could you feel well enough to do anything?”
As his eyes flickered with unease, I let my hand fall from his chin.
“I don’t…” The pain still gripped me, and nausea filled my stomach. “I’m just determined, that’s all. Will you carry me across the sea?”
As soon as he laughed, I realized how flirtatious I must have sounded. Oops. I folded my hands together in my lap.
“Turns out I won’t have to get my fancy miner pants wet in that ocean,” he said, a glint of mirth in his eyes. “Prima and the healthy Summer people sailed here in my boat. Don’t know how they got the thing out of my basement, but, hey—it’s here!”
Relief flooded through me. “And Kari is here, too?”
“Yeah, somewhere. Probably finding his brothers. Prima’s taking good care of him—even soothed a deer and fed venison to him along with the whole village while she was at it.”
“Good,” I said thoughtfully. “So we will sail to Midfuna island on that boat of yours?”
Tarquin nodded. “So it’s ‘we’ now, eh?”
I just laughed, but I hoped desperately he’d get the thought of us-together-forever out of his head this minute. It was ridiculous. If only he’d understand that I could never have children!
Yet, somehow, his calm nature and good humor had filled me with a peace I’d not felt in a long time.
After I drank a hot bowl of Tiana’s soup, Tarquin carried me out into the village, his strong arms easily bearing my weight. Soon he rounded up the Gesu-following fairies. I bade farewell to Prima who had to stay and take care of Kari. Midfuna Island was where every human and fairy alike was buried, and it was no place for children.
But Hollis is there.
The realization spread through me as horrifically as the plague inside me. Tarquin had informed me that all the dead sick ones in the glade were gone by the time he found me and took me to Tiana’s house. Hollis would be buried along with Gesu, with no funeral to celebrate her little life.
The boat did indeed float. Tarquin and the fairies pushed through the water with wooden sticks that were flat at the end, which somehow heaved the vessel forward into the enormous sea. I watched in amazement at the steady pattern of motion and listened attentively to the rhythm of the waves.
Dolphins shot out of the water now and then, showing of their beautiful figures that gleamed in the sunlight. Yet it was cold out here, and I wrapped Tiana’s blankets around me, thankful for the warmth they provided.
We steadily approached the island that sat faintly in the distance.
I watched Tarquin paddle with the wooden stick. Hollis was dead. I could hardly believe it. I was too shocked to cry again, at least for now.
“How are you doing?” Tarquin asked as he strained against the waves.
His earnest words revealed his genuine concern for me, but I wanted to hide away my scarred soul, too overcome by pain to know how to express it.
Hollis was the sweetest sister, always smiling, and wise beyond her years. She couldn’t be gone. How had I let her just die like that? I could have done something—if only I’d listened to Prima when we hadn’t found my sister in Spring and believed her when she insisted Hollis was in Winter. If we’d gone straight to Winter instead of back to Summer, I could have saved her.
“Dahlia,” Tarquin said firmly. “It’s okay to cry.”
I hugged my knees to my chest. “I’m fine.”
“Just fine?” He searched my eyes, then paddled again, his face worn and full of sorrow. He must be exhausted. He cared about me. Did he understand my pain?
“Fairies are awful,” I moaned.
At that, he hushed me, for we were surrounded by kind, Gesu-following fairies.
“Yeah,” I laughed shortly. “Prima would be offended.”
Tarquin chuckled. “Well, yeah, I get what you mean. Queen Hazina is awful. She had us fooled for a long time, except for me. The docile spells didn’t work on me, so I had to live knowing full well how mistreated we all were. No one believed me. I guess when Gesu gives you the power to rule Istagun, you have to face some hardship along the way.”
My eyes widened. “Tarquin… are you really going to be King?”
“Gesu said I’d be, and his word hasn’t failed thus far.”
I ached at the mention of Gesu. He was gone: his love, his healing, his redeeming the bad for the good, as he had done to the fairies who now followed him. “How is his blood going to meet all our needs?”
Tarquin gripped the paddle tightly, staring out at the horizon. “The fairies say we’ll have to drink it.”
“What!?” The thought was sickening, to say the least.
He shrugged. “Without intaking his mercy, how will we breathe in new life and health?”
I narrowed my eyes, yet I believed him nonetheless. Gesu had power beyond the queen. Last night his love had spoken to my heart in unbelievable ways. It didn’t make sense until you experienced it. His power was real, more real than anything I’d known before.
As we approached the shore, we saw the Hazina-following fairies ready to sail back to Istagun in their own ship after their day’s work of burying the dead. The boat bumped into the sand and we scrambled out, making sure to curve in the opposite direction of the grave-digging pixies.
Yet a sharp yell erupted. Tarquin, holding me in his arms, ran with the fairies deep into the forest, away from the chaos. But the Hazina-followers were chasing us. Our fairy friends were soon out of sight, for their wings were faster than Tarquin’s legs.
“Can you run any faster?” I clung to him, fear racing through my heart.
He quickened his pace, without speaking a word. I felt his heart pounding as I leaned my head against his broad chest. It only comforted me that his arms held me secure.
We reached the open glade where stones marked the deaths of thousands. Fresh sadness washed over me. Hollis was here, under the ground, with not a breath left in her lungs.
I shuddered as Tarquin rushed to the Gesu-following fairies who had found a stone. It was only a pebble, but it marked Gesu’s grave, according to a pixie who had a spell that found what was lost.
The Hazina-following fairies were nowhere in sight. We could only hope they too didn’t have a finding spell in one of their pockets.
The fairies dug through the fertile earth quickly. Soon they revealed Gesu’s corpse, the smell reeking through the air. A smile played on the man’s lips, yet his eyes looked full of a deep sorrow.
“Here he is!” one exclaimed in wonder.
“Hurry, everyone!” another declared.
I looked away, hurt knotting a rope inside my stomach. “Why, Tarquin? If he’s so powerful, why didn’t he just save himself?”
Tarquin lowered me to the ground to let me rest. “He loved us more than his own life.” His voice choked with emotion. “And his blood was our only cure.”
One of the fairies had brought a glass bottle, which they proceeded to fill with Gesu’s blood. I closed my eyes and lay on the dirt ground, straining against the nauseous feeling in my stomach.
“Who goes there!?” a voice roared in the distance, but it quickly approached, along with the sound of rapid fluttering wings.
“It is only us!” cried a fairy. “We are making sure Gesu is dead.”
I cringed at the stupid lie.
“What do you mean—making sure?” The Hazina follower smirked. “Of course we’re sure! We stabbed him three times to be doubly sure!”
“But Gesu claimed to have untold power—greater than even Hazina!” Tarquin declared, and I was both amazed and terrified at his bold words. “What if he is undefeatable?”
The angry fairy yelled to the surrounding throng of Hazina followers. “Charge!”
Soon a battle erupted. Pain flooded through me as I lay there while Tarquin covering me with his body to protect me from the spells. At first I smelled his soiled shirt against my nose, but then the pungent odor of blood grew stronger, permeating the forest air. I tried not to vomit. Shouts rang out as spells were cast one after another.
I imagined the Gesu-follower fairies falling one after another in the face of Hazina’s more powerful fairies. It was no secret that Hazina collected the strongest spells in existence. Could Gesu save us now?
“Dahlia, I have to leave you for a moment—don’t be afraid.”
As soon as Tarquin rose to his feet, his voice bellowed through the air: “Stop, in the name of Gesu!”
All heads turn toward him in astonishment.
“No more of this, I tell you! I will be the new King, and you all must obey me now or you’ll regret it when I sit upon that throne.”
“Ha! The new king? You think you’re more powerful than—”
Silence fell, and I knew Tarquin caused it. Gesu must have truly given him more powers than just being immune to poison.
Soon Tarquin and the Gesu-following fairies returned to the boat. We set off, rushing back to Winter with our precious bottle of Gesu’s blood.
The Hazina-following fairies on Midfuna Island were all dead, and not a single one was buried with the humans.
Tarquin paddled against the current, his arms straining harder than ever. Yet he was calm, his eyes gazing out at the vast ocean as if his thoughts wandered across the sea.
“You did nothing,” I said simply. “It was all Gesu.”
He smiled thoughtfully. “Isn’t he amazing?”
As we approached Winter, shouts filled the air. Fairies were overwhelming humans one by one with their various spells.
Tarquin ordered everyone to paddle faster, desperation in his voice. I wrapped the blanket around me, as the temperature of Winter grew its hold on me. How would we ever defeat Hazina?
I was tormented at the thought of Prima and Kari dying. I almost screamed at Tarquin to hurry up, but then I realized that he was doing all he could. He was trying with all the strength he had and more… Gesu’s strength.
I found a passion deep within me for love and for truth. We didn’t need to be afraid. So instead of complaining to Tarquin, I yelled above the splash of the paddles in the sea, “Let’s fight for Gesu!”
And I knew I would never be the same again.