Saturday comes at an impossibly slow rate. It must have been more than three days since I made up with Lisa and Milly. By the time Saturday morning comes, I am so excited that I don’t know what to do with myself. Mum and Dad thankfully don’t notice anything but Jack annoyingly remarks that I ‘seem a bit lively’. I’m not overly worried. He would never say anything like that to Mum and Dad. I smile to myself as I imagine that potential conversation:
Dad, Natalie looks lively.
Well, is she annoying you?
Communication between Jack and my parents is practically non-existent. He once forgot to tell my mum about a school residential trip until we were halfway to school on the day. We had to make a frantic trip to the supermarket to buy some cheap pyjamas and toiletries for him. He had no other clothes with him so he could hardly do any of the activities, but he has never learned his lesson.
The evening takes even longer to come. I end up staring at the clock, working out the seconds until I get to see Erenel. Mum and Dad are in bed by ten, giving me plenty of time to beautify myself. I detangle my wavy hair and brush it so that it falls attractively around my face. I quickly dust on some make-up: just a touch of mascara and lip gloss. The lilac silk looks even more perfect in the moonlight, although I seriously regret this choice when it comes to climbing out of the window.
Have you tried crawling across a roof tied into a dressing gown that crushes the air out of you whenever you move? Don’t do it.
It isn’t long before Erenel arrives. He looks exhausted, as though he’s not slept for weeks. He smiles and hugs me when he turns up, but it’s obvious that he’s distracted by something. He sits down and looks at his hands for a long time.
“I have something to tell you.”
I never wanted to hear those words, as I am certain that a piece of bad news will follow them. Thousands of terrible possibilities instantly run through my mind. He’s going to die. He’s in love with someone else. His parents don’t approve of me and we have to break up. He has to leave the country. Eventually, he looks up at me. “Natalie, I’ve broken the law,” he says miserably.
I feel a tiny glimmer of hope. That doesn’t sound too shocking. I sit next to him and take his hand. “How?” I ask gently.
“Leaving the Otherworld is forbidden. It’s worse than murder. I’m on the run.”
“But... But why did you leave?”
“I’ve already told you. Don’t you remember – I’m here to protect you.”
“You broke the law to do that?” I ask, incredulous. “Thanks, but are you crazy? Look, Erenel, everybody else manages without Otherworldly help, right? I’m pretty sure I could have done too.”
Erenel looks unbothered by my protestations. “I care about you, Natalie. I care about you more than anyone else in my world cares for their humans. And for reasons that you don’t yet know, I’ve made a promise to myself that I will never again let anybody I love die.”
“But what’s going to happen to you if... if they find out you’re here?” I ask in a small voice.
“They know. Guards are already searching for me, to take me to the High Court.”
“What’s the High Court?”
His eyebrows twitch into a frown with impatience. I can tell that he isn’t used to having to explain this. “The High Court rules our land. Our royalty, if you like. It is made up of hundreds of people. They’re referred to as the jury, but all they do is carry out Venatorre’s bidding. He’s the Supreme Leader. He is more evil than anything you will ever encounter. When he gets his hands on me, he will murder me.”
All of a sudden he turns to me and grips both my hands. “If you stay with me, then they‘ll want you as well. I’m dangerous to be around, Natalie. I should never have brought you into this. You must stay away from me. Do you understand?”
This is worse than I would have dreamed, all my fears rolled into one. Erenel leaving me, to be captured and killed. Is this a nightmare? I’d better do something anyway, just in case it isn’t.
“No! No, I don’t understand. Why would you want to do this to me? We are going to share this, whether you like it or not. I refuse to stay away from you! You can’t just... discard me when things get a bit tricky. I want to stay with you, don’t you understand?”
He sighs. “Natalie, if you feel the same way about me as I do about you, then I do understand. What you don’t understand is that I’m doing this for your own good. I want to keep you safe.”
“I’d rather be with you and in danger, than without you and safe. Honestly.”
“I’m not going to bring you into this, Natalie, and there’s very little you can do about it.”
“There is a lot I can do about it!” I exclaim. “It’s a free country, and –”
“Not where I come from,” Erenel interrupts.
“Shush. You can’t just jump into my life, charm me until I think of nobody and nothing else, then drop a bombshell like this and disappear!”
“I charm you?”
“Yes, Erenel, and you know it.”
He inhales slowly. “I’m never going to persuade you, am I?”
He frowns thoughtfully. “Listen, Natalie, I want us to stay together too. It probably won’t be your wisest move ever, it’s probably suicidal, actually, but...” Erenel sighs, “OK, we can still see each other. I might have to make myself scarce now and again, but apart from that and the constant threat of murder... I don’t think things will change much.”
I can’t think of anything to say.
“You don’t have to worry, Natalie,” he says, hugging me protectively. “They’ll have to kill me before they can lay a finger on you. And, seriously, I’m very hard to kill. Nobody’s managed it yet.”
“Honestly, I’m not too bothered about me. I’m worried about you.”
“Flattering, Natalie, very flattering, but not at all sensible. Make your own life your priority, please. Indulge me.”
We sit in silence, holding hands, until Erenel stands to leave. He bends down and kisses me on my tear-stained cheek. “I have to go. They will catch up with me if I stay in one place for too long. I’ll see you soon.” The words if I return hang ominously in the air. He leaves so quickly that I hardly see him move. I sit on the ground, and try to think. I end up falling asleep.
I’m woken by a bright light shining into my eyes. I peer around, and realise that I’m still outside. It was the sunrise that woke me. I am damp all over from lying on the grass, and my once-beautiful dressing gown is filthy. There are black smudges on my forearms from where I’ve rested my mascara-stained eyes on them. It must be about five o’ clock now, maybe later. Thank goodness Dad didn’t decide on an early morning bike ride today. I head silently towards the house, my vision blurred by tears. Climbing up the trellis seems to take a lot more effort than usual. Scrambling through the window is nearly impossible. I rip off my dressing gown and sink into bed, praying that this is just a particularly tragic nightmare. What has my subconscious got against me?
This time, it’s a knock on my bedroom door that wakes me. I half hide my face in the pillow and murmur something encouraging. Mum pokes her head around the door. “Morning, love,” she says cheerfully. “I just wondered if you were awake. It’s quarter past eleven.”
I blink and focus on the clock. She’s right. I recreate a look of serene happiness on my face. It must work, because Mum seems completely unconcerned. She breezes into my room and pulls open the curtains, flooding the room with light. My cheeks are starting to hurt from forcing my face unwillingly into a smile, so I’m glad when she leaves. I flop back down onto my pillow and gaze miserably around.
Once I’m bored with lying in bed, I decide that the simplest way to hide my sorrow is to take it elsewhere. A good, long walk out in the fields might be just what I need, as long as I’m back in time for the shopping trip with Lisa and Milly. I change quickly into some old clothes, and shout to Mum through the bathroom door that I’m going out. Whether she hears me or not, I have no idea. I’ll deal with the consequences later.
It’s a very hot day, even for June. The sky is dazzling blue, and there is a beautifully light breeze. I may just be feeling sensitive, but it’s as though the weather is mocking me. By the time I’ve walked about a mile, my head is a lot clearer and I feel ready to start facing Erenel-less life again. I sit on a sun-baked stone on the side of the track, idly watching two sparrows flitting about in the branches of a bush. I close my eyes, enjoying the summer heat and cool breeze. Everything’s fine. Erenel will be fine, I’m going to be fine, and we’re going to have a great time at the shopping centre later. Maybe I could throw a little party for Erenel when he gets back. I’ll wear some gorgeous new clothes, we’ll celebrate and talk and listen to music. I’ll get food, and it will be fun to smuggle it out of my bedroom window at midnight. I wonder what food he likes...
A rustling in the bush behind me causes me to turn, before I am thrown to the floor.
The blow knocks all the breath out of my body, and I can feel a weight on my back. Whoever, or whatever, just attacked me has strength that would rival that of a professional wrestler. My hands are forcefully yanked out from underneath my stomach and held together behind my back. The freshly-healed break in my arm twinges painfully. I can hear someone, I think it’s a woman, muttering, and suddenly my hands are stuck together. I can’t feel anything binding them, but they are most definitely immobile. My captor’s hands seize my shoulders and spin me roughly onto my back, sending clouds of dust in to the air. I clench my teeth in pain. Blinking the dust and tears from my eyes, I focus on the person in front of me.
I can see her face now, above mine. She’s pretty, but in a stunningly terrifying way. Her tall, willowy figure is crouched on the dusty path, and her cherry red lips are curved in a satisfied smile. I’m guessing that she’s in her early twenties, maybe younger. Her hair falls past her shoulders in a straight, jet black sheet, and her eyes are –
Oh. My. Gosh.
Her eyes are purple.