She gripped the basket in her left hand and held her coat closed with the other. The wind always picked up on her way home, she could hear it rustling through the trees. The path beneath her feet was overgrown, created only by her feet. No one traveled through the forest, especially these days. Rumors of angry beasts and cruel men who lived in the wood tended to keep young children from straying too far. Nayeli didn't know if those rumors were true or not, she simply knew that it was getting dark. She was normally home by now, her father would be worried. He always fretted when she came home past sundown. It wasn't typical for Nayeli to make deliveries on her own. Her brothers, being stronger and more capable, tended to accompany her on the journey. All three of them, however, had been drafted into the king's war. A silly disruption among two kingdoms that have caused so many grievances amongst her people.
A strangled howling noise broke Nayeli out of her trance. Her eyes widened as she realized the severity of her situation and what that noise meant. Keeping as quiet as possible, she picked up her pace and rushed along the path. Not many things could frighten the potter's daughter, but the sound of a dying wolf terrified her. A wolf was the biggest animal in this forest, only taken down by a bow and arrow to the throat. Those who practiced archery were incredibly precise. They were also gone from the town, off by the king's command to fight in the war. Each of her brothers were well trained in this field, though Aadhan, her eldest brother, was the most proficient. Before he left for the war, he was determined to teach Nayeli how to defend herself. Each morning, before the birds were awake, they would meet in the field by their house and practice. A target had been nailed to a large oak tree, she would release the arrow over and over until her mark was found. Her brother accepted nothing less than perfection. As frustrating as those lessons had been, she was thankful for them now.
She could see her home in the distance through the trees, she was almost there. Her heart pulsed erratically, and there was a rustling in the bushes. More than the darkness of night and the silence of the trees, she feared the noise of what was unseen. Her empty basket dropped to the ground, her other hand lowering the coat from around her shoulders. She grabbed the bow and arrows hidden underneath her cloak and aimed the weapon at the figure that appeared in front of her. The woman chuckled, a low, deep laugh that sent shivers down Nayeli's spine. This woman was no stranger to the dark wood. Twigs were tangled in her untamed hair, rips littered her thin clothing. She wore no shoes. Nayeli would feel compassion for the ancestor if she wasn't aware of her reputation and the curse placed upon the woman.
Beasts and angry men are not the only rumored things to be trapped in these woods. When a child was especially bad, his mother would tell him the story of a once kind witch. Millicent, a woman who guarded the village by order of the king, part of an elite group deemed the watchers. But this woman, driven by her need for more power, murdered many of the watchers in cold blood. She stole their ability and sought to conquer the king himself. A watcher from the Northern part of the kingdom was ordered by the king to confront Millicent and, ultimately, kill her. There's only one way for a watcher to gain more power than what they're born with, and that's by killing another watcher. The male and female watchers fought to near-death. The man knew he couldn't win; he had not killed as many as she, and he did not have that kind of hate in his heart. Before he took his last breath, he managed to cast a curse on the old witch. Rumor has it they fought in these woods, and rumor has it she was never allowed to leave.
"What's in your basket, child?" Her tongue darted out of her mouth like she was starving for food and didn't care where it came from. Dried blood clung to the tips of her fingers.
"Only a few coins, given to me by my father's patrons."
"You're the potter's daughter? The one who runs in the fields with her brothers, frolicking about with nothing to tie her down." She began pacing back and forth, her breath quickening. Nayeli sat in silence, her arm aching from holding the arrow back. The woman in front of her began muttering under her breath, sending herself into a panic.
"Do you want some of my money? Perhaps some food? I can come back with some bread if you'd like." Though Nayeli had no intention of retaking this path, she was desperate to leave the old woman's presence.
"No!" The woman shrieked and threw her hands into the air, the wind stilled. The trees and bushes ceased their swaying, there was no noise. Nayeli no longer questioned who stood in front of her. "You cannot give me what I want. No one can! I crave freedom from this wood, freedom from my body."
Nayeli backed up a few paces, fear creeping up her spine. Millicent wandered towards Nayeli, a greedy look in her eye. In the story, greed was Millicent's sin and her downfall. She took whatever she had access to, and right now, the woman in the forest had access to Nayeli and to her own freedom.
"Such a young soul. Not yet tied down by life's struggles. By work or children or men. You do not deserve such pleasures, not when you treat it so flippantly." Nayeli was indignant to Millicent's words, she knew they were false, the accusations of someone who knew no freedom.
"By the power given to me by my ancestors, I bind you to whichever man you first lay eyes on. You will be enslaved to your infatuations, and man will rule over you! This I declare by the power of Yum Kaax and Yum Cimil!"
A mighty wind whirled around Nayeli. Her hair tangled around her face and neck, the coat that lay at her feet was swept away. Pain and pressure pressed against her eyes, and she saw a bright light. A loud scream sounded around her, even as the wind calmed down. She opened her eyes to find the woman gone. Nayeli was still screaming. When she got control of herself, she retrieved her coat from the forest floor and adjusted the bow and arrow in her hand. She rushed out of the woods, anxious to get home.
When she saw her family cottage in the distance, she began to sprint. The basket laid forgotten on the grown, her cloak flying around her shoulders. If she could reach Kiriana Kilner, all would be well.
"Mother! Ma!" Tears were streaming down her face when her mother came rushing out of the house. An apron was tied around her waist, her brown hair thrown into a braid. When Nayeli reached her mother, she could barely hold herself up. She collapsed onto the grass, her mother wrapping Nayeli up into her arms and asking what was wrong. And so, Nayeli told her everything that had happened. She told her mother of her fright and of the curse the witch cast upon her. Both Nayeli and her mother cried for a short while before they each stood. Nayeli was led into the small kitchen. Her mother tore strips of cloth from her dress and tied them around Nayeli's eyes. Being rendered blind was better than a life of enslavement to a stranger.
The war continued for two more years before a truce was finally called. Hundreds of men were killed in battle, but those who were left alive began the return to their towns. Nayeli sat in her room, the shutters locked, and the small door closed. This was the day her brothers would return home. In the years they were at war, Nayeli could not bring herself to tell them of the curse in her letters. She spent her days wearing a cloth around her eyes. The first few months of blindness sent Nayeli into depression, for she had to learn to do everything differently. When she made pottery, her mother had to check for mistakes. When she practiced archery, her father had to tell her if she missed the mark. Her pride, however, would not let her depend on her mother and father for too long. After the first year, she could make pottery without mistakes, and she could release a bow without missing. She depended not on people, but on her hearing, touch, and smell. She was not the same frightened girl left in the woods by Millicent.
Nevertheless, nerves sickened her stomach when she heard her mother shout. Her brothers were home. She tied the cloth around her face and stood from her pallet. When she opened the door, she could hear Merek, the youngest son, asking for her. She heard her father explaining what had happened, and then gasps and shouts of outrage. And when she walked out of her room, three pairs of arms quickly wrapped around her.
"Nayeli, why didn't you tell us?" Rowans whispered words broke Nayeli's heart. Her head was tucked under his chin.
"I'm sorry, I just didn't know what to say." A tear slipped down her cheek as they all stayed in that position, just holding each other.
"Aadhan?" Nayeli called for her eldest brother, he grabbed her shoulders and turned her to face him. She smiled softly and reached her hands up to his face.
"You need to shave, you've let yourself go." Aadhan didn't respond, he let Nayeli run her hands over his nose and around his eyes, seeing him in her own way. She did the same with Rowan and Merek, both of which were also sporting overgrown beards and unkempt hair.
"You've all changed so much, how am I to recognize you when I can see you again?"
"You've changed as well Nayeli, you're no longer a child." Merek shifted, "Do you really believe the curse can be broken?" He sounded hopeful in his request. If she were honest, Nayeli wasn't very confident at all. Her mother and father did not tell many people about Nayeli's affliction, for fear that some would want to take advantage. They had no way of knowing if the curse could be broken.
"No watcher around here is powerful enough to break the curse," a new person spoke, "She needs to travel North if she wishes to be free." His deep voice echoed around the small room.
"Mother, Father, Nayeli, please meet our good friend and comrade, Dallán Ward." Rowan introduced the man, Nayeli heard her father step towards him to shake his hand. He must have slipped through the door during the family reunion. Nayeli held her hand out to him, waiting for him to take it and address her. She learned a lot about people in the past two years of being blind. Many would shy away or become uncomfortable around Nayeli, not knowing how to respond to her. She was surprised, however, when a large hand enveloped her own. His hand was rough and calloused from holding weapons. His grip, firm and confident, not cocky or overbearing.
"And what do you know of watchers, Dallán?" Nayeli's father disliked watchers, purely because of Millicent's curse. She could hear the defensive tone in his voice.
"Father," Aadhan stood beside Dallán, cautious of what might happen, "Dallán is a watcher."
There was silence in the small cottage, a weighted tension filled the room. Just before Nayeli's father could challenge Dallán, she spoke up, "Perfect! Just what I need."
"Excuse me?" Nayeli's mother was two seconds from casting Dallán away. "He is nowhere near what any of us needs. A watcher in this house! They've caused enough grievances on our family."
Merek spoke up, irritation coating his words, "Dallán is one of the greatest men I know. His being a watcher does not constitute your insults. We all understand your aversion to watchers, mother, and you as well, father. But just think about it! Maybe Dallán can help." There was another breath of silence before Dallán spoke again.
"I cannot break the curse, I'm not powerful enough." A sense of hopelessness settled in the room. "However, I know someone who can."
Disbelief flashed across Nayeli's face, the only watcher powerful enough to break the curse was dead. He was killed by Millicent in the great battle.
"How can you be sure? The townspeople, the entire kingdom, believe he is dead." Nayeli was scared to hope and too proud to admit it.
"I know this, he raised me, trained me. He is alive and living in the north. I can take you to him, but we would need to leave immediately. And you would need to leave your blindfold behind."
There was a ringing in Nayeli's ears, and she heard her mother collapse into a chair. This was too much.
"I can't take it off. I'll be infatuated with the first man I see, enslaved to him! I can't do that."
Dallán scoffed, "Then the curse will never be broken. The road to the watcher is treacherous, it is not an easy trip, especially for someone who is blind."
"But I'll fall in love, I'll cling to that person. I don't want that, not when it's fake. I'm free like this."
"Are you really?" Dallán walked closer to Nayeli. "Do you want me to tell you what I see?" Nayeli stood still, dreading his next few words and disdainful tone. "I see a young girl who is afraid of trusting someone else and too prideful to admit it."
Nayeli sneered, "How dare you! You know nothing about me, about what has been done to me!"
"I know enough. This is not really living, not for you. You're the type that wants to see the world, you can't do that with a cloth around your eyes. Listen to me, I promise that I will protect you. This curse will be broken, I swear it."
Nayeli breathed heavily as she thought it over, weighing the pros and cons in her mind. Her family did not speak, they watched as Nayeli struggled to make a decision.
"If I go, if I take off my blindfold, will I fall in love with you Dallán?"
He sighed, "No, you will not love me. You will love the idea of me, but you are aware of the curse. Your mind will know that you are not in love, it is your heart that will need the convincing. But I do promise to keep you safe. As part of the watcher's code, I will do everything in my power to protect you. From yourself, from others, and from me."
"I don't trust you, Dallán, but I have no other options. Position yourself in front of me."
Dallán did as she asked and watched as her thin fingers untied the knot on her blindfold. His hands were shaking, the only sign of his nerves. Truthfully, he did not know what to expect. Millicent was a powerful watcher, would her spells be just as powerful?
Finally, the blindfold was off, but Nayeli held her eyes closed. A few tears slipped down her cheeks, and Dallán moved to wipe them away. It was an intimate moment shared between them, one that demanded trust and understanding. Neither of these things came easy to Nayeli or Dallán.
"Come on, open those eyes," Dallán's calm voice raised goosebumps on Nayelli's arms, "you can do it." And so she did. Dallán looked into a pair of dark eyes, darker than the forest at night. The first thing Nayelli noticed about Dallán was his mouth, how perfectly shaped it was. She took in his cheeks, which held a slight blush. He had a strong chin, a scar curving down his neck. His nose was slightly crooked, but his thick eyebrows made it less noticeable. Then, she looked into his eyes. And she knew in her heart that she was in love with Dallán Ward.
"Well then," Rowan spoke up, "this is going to be quite the adventure."
Dallán chuckled, "You have no idea."