I I step out of the forest. Before me lies a broad clearing gently lit by morning light with a smallish grove of chestnuts, oaks, and pines in the center. I stop. A half-eagle, half-lion creature crouches behind the trees. I blink and see a white-clad, grey-eyed man.
“I am Ascharem,” he says.
I’m about to ask, “Bedwyrian or Valeotellan?” but I don’t. Something happened inside me the moment he spoke. The same feeling of warmth and security I had years ago when my parents tucked me in at night saturates me again.
II My horse collapses, hit by a musket ball. I tumble. Yelling, a Valeotellan foot soldier aims his bayonet at me and charges, then falls under a stallion’s heavy hooves. The rider, dressed in ragged Bedwyrian reds, slides from his saddle on my left. “Are you all right?”
“Mostly. Thanks.” I struggle to sit up and stand, but my throbbing swollen ankle won’t cooperate.
“Don’t.” He easily lifts and rests me on the horses back. “William Loch.”
“Miss Rebecca Bainbridge.”
I nod giddily. Will swings me up on his stallion. Again I admire his strength. He’s his real self, not a hypocrite like the rest of the faeries who hide their non-human forms. He’s a malthrovian—a wolf, noble, lethal, daring, a guardian of the malthrovian citadel. Yet he would never harm me. He says, “You are my life.” He must flee, so I flee. I would rather die than stay away from him.
Within moments, we gallop southwards across a field of red lilies.
IV Dead weeds crunch beneath my feet. Will kneels in front of me in the gloaming, begging me to speak what I know. His fellow guardians—a leopard and a lion—flank him. “Please, Becky.” He strokes my hand. “We need to know. He’s evil.”
“He’s not evil. I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true, Becky. The Griffin will annihilate the malthrovians and become a wicked tyrant, just as the prophets foretold. We must act.”
Everything I’ve been taught could be lies. I’ve learned so much from Will: he’s erased my prejudices, challenged my dogma, and stretched my trust. I know what I want. If only my soul reproves me, I pay but a paltry price to obtain my desire.
“Ascharem,” I say. “Not Everard. Ascharem’s the Griffin.”
V Deep in the earth, everything is frozen. Before me, the ice-bound Dragon continually beats his wings, rebelling against his incarceration, generating a dark, bitter whirlwind.
“Rebecca,” breathes the dragon.
I shiver even more.
“You know what you want. I alone can give it to you. You need only bow to me.”
I stand, unmoving. The cold seeps into my bones, into my soul, which suddenly I consider. I do know what I want: to be a malthrovian like Will, to be with him forever. But I feel nauseous, shrunken, and heavy as I breathe in the swarthy mist. My whole body screams within me. I repeatedly gasp for air.
A tremor rips the icy floor. Flames sear through the ice on my right as the Griffin breaks through. A visceral sense of joy and shame surges in me.
Screaming, the Dragon whips his wings, but the Griffin’s already thawed wounds drip blood. Ascharem snatches my coat in his beak and launches us both upward through the frozen spiral into the warm, clear air of summer.
We land on a mountain top minutes later. “Becky,” Ascharem says.
I can’t look at him—not yet—but I step towards him into the white lilies.