Cress had learnt long ago not to be enticed by a mermaid’s song. How the notes twisted and tangled as it floated into the ear, filling the mind with nothing but a bliss of wonder and insatiable desire. Large aqua eyes fluttered with the shimmer of glittery lashes; silver ringlets swathed an ivory torso.
“You faerie, are no fun,” she hummed, brushing her hand against his; her skin was soft, a few water droplets slid onto Cress’s knuckles. “Although you don’t quite look like a faerie, even though you are. It’s the air about you.”
Cress didn’t answer her, focusing his eyes on a blue Everblossom, whose stem bent over with the heaviness of the petals. All flowers wilted eventually; petals curling in on themselves, the edges fading to brown, slowly shrivelling.
All flowers… except for Everblossoms. Once they bloomed, they remained that way – so beautiful and bright. In death the petals became rigid, but never once would they lose their colour.
Was that not the dream of so many? To remain forever young… forever beautiful.
Cress looked at the mermaid, what so many regarded as the most beautiful. “Do mermaids ever age?”
“Why would you ask that?” the mermaid said.
The mermaid twirled a lock of silver hair. “Yes, we age,” she said. “Now, answer my question, truthfully this time.”
“I know someone who never aged,” Cress replied.
Cress had only witnessed it once. When a hunter committed a serious offence – oftentimes a betrayal; they were tied to a tree with no means of escape, left alone in the dark woods at the mercy of hungry wolves.
Cress had only been eleven, trailing behind Lizin, leader of the hunters, as they went back for the body; it hung limp, barely a body anymore – only a mass of bloody flesh and torn muscle. Cress had taken a look at it and thrown up his breakfast.
He knew that Lizin would be expecting to see the same sight when he came to check on Cress in a few days-time. In his eyes, Cress was a traitor. What he had neglected to consider was Cress’s sky-horse, Xaotan’s, sharp teeth, and that Cress’s eyes were made for seeing in the dark.
He had grown up in the section of the forest that barely got any sunlight, the faeries there were known as the ‘dark faeries’, who had adapted their various habits towards their environment.
Darkness didn’t scare Cress, but he knew the wolves were getting closer.
He looked to Xaotan beside him; though people called him a sky-horse, his appearance matched those of a white dog, with a black head and a snowy lion-mane. His size matched a wolf’s, but with him still shaking off the herbs Lizin had used to put him to sleep, there was not a chance he could fight a whole pack of them.
Cress pushed himself off the ground, tearing the rope from his wrist. Thanks to Xaotan’s teeth, Cress wouldn’t be eaten by wolves while tied to a tree, he would most likely be chased by them while stumbling through a forest that no longer belonged to him.
Xaotan gave a low grumble, his head drooping as he attempted to walk straight, but his legs, like Cress’s, were betraying him. Cress’s cracked ribs grinded like an unhinged door, making every breath a betrayal to his aching chest.
Cress needed to wash that stale taste of blood out of his mouth.
He knew the howls of the wolves were getting closer, but there was no strength left in him to run or to fight. There was no strength left in him…
Cress collapsed, shoulder ramming into a tree trunk. He sunk to its roots, vision blurring. He knew that it was summer from the warm stickiness in the air. But there was a strange chill hovering beneath the façade.
He looked to the sky, and saw flecks of white beginning to fall. Snow? It couldn’t be. It was summer…
The snowball crumbled as it hit Cress’s back. He turned to find his twin brother, Linden, with another snowball in hand. People were always determined to pinpoint which one was the good twin and which one was the evil twin.
Linden may have had the appearance and nature of an angel, but Cress knew never to underestimate his ‘evilness’ when it came to snowball fights. Cress dodged the next snowball, bending to the ground to gather his own. He moulded it between his palms, the snow numbing his fingers. Cress turned to throw it, but found that Linden had disappeared.
“Lin!” Cress called. “Lin, where are you?” He trudged through the snow, his footprints made tracks in the vast array of white. He couldn’t find Linden though. “Lin, come on.” It felt like the snow was swallowing his legs, every step forwards harder and harder. “Ugh, it’s so cold out here.”
Cress pushed away the leaves. Hold on, why wasn’t it snowing anymore? Instead, a fat raindrop dripped onto his forehead. The fresh smell of rain was plagued with the overpowering stench of blood.
“Linden!” Cress called again.
“Cress…” Linden’s weak voice gently rippled through the air. It was how he always spoke. Cress knew it to be soothing, but now, it was just unnerving. He looked up, seeing Linden before him, drenched in rain. Blood was soaking his entire front, the rain made it run across the fabric of his tunic, like a mistake on a watercolour painting.
“Lin… what happened?”
“You don’t remember? Humans killed me,” Linden said.
“I know, it was hunters.”
“Exactly.” Linden’s face twisted into one of contempt – it was wrong, Linden didn’t have a single hateful bone in him. “And you are wearing their clothing.”
Cress had tried not to think about Linden all these years. Except for when he dreamed about it. Always that same dream. It somehow felt like it was snowing and raining at the same time. Xaotan was barking, but Cress’s eyes refused to open.
Beside his ear was the hot breath of a wolf. It grumbled, low and hungry. Cress was cursing profusely in his mind, but he knew it was too late.
He was dead.
“Whenever I think of him, he is always that ten-year-old kid,” Cress said. The mermaid seemed more interested in the fishes leaping across the water than his story. He exhaled, the hot air was suffocating him. He had come to the lake to avoid it, but the hotness refused to back off.
“So, you are a hunter,” the mermaid said, finally looking up from the fishes. “That’s why you stink like a human.”
Cress swallowed. He was surrounded by trees – nature, greenery, everything a faerie needed to feel just at home. Except, this wasn’t his home anymore. Home was where you were comfortable and safe – that was why hunters had no homes. He had been told to leave his old home behind, to accept the fact that he was never going to return.
Just as Cress had accepted that fact, here he was, talking to a mermaid.
“I’m so afraid to see him,” Cress said, he could feel his heart beating at the back of his throat.
“See who?” the mermaid asked.
Cress didn’t care that she hadn’t listened. It was something he had needed to get off his chest. “Linden,” he replied.
“I thought he was dead,” the mermaid said.
“I thought that too,” Cress said. “Sometimes, thoughts can be wrong.”
He thought that wolf was going to devour him whole. All Cress could hope was that it would be fast. Perhaps one quick bite into the carotid artery to stop his heart.
Xaotan barked, baring his teeth and holding his head high, but the wolf wasn’t backing down.
Cress let his body relax, the fear was immobilising his limbs. The wolf growled again – that was the last thing that Cress was going to hear.
However, his thoughts, and the wolf’s growl was quickly cut off by the piercing of an arrow through the air. It whizzed past his ear, the end just scraping his cheek. The wolf’s body thudded beside him, blood making the snow red.
“Cress?” someone was shaking his shoulder. Cress opened his eyes, only able to make narrow slits. “Cress, moons above, is it really you?”
He could only make out blurry features. “Linden?” Cress muttered, because it was the first name on his lips.
“No, it’s Cypress,” he replied. Cypress, his mischievous little brother; he sounded so serious.
“Cy?” Cress said. “You sound different.”
“I woke up with my older brother next to me,” Cress said. He picked up a pebble lying in the grass.
“What’s his name?” the mermaid asked, tail swishing lazily in the water, her elbows rested against the bank. “How many brother do you have anyway?”
“Four,” Cress replied. “Aelfdene is the oldest. He makes the finest weapons. I used to sneak into his workshop at night and watch him. He worked until so late, only catching a few hours of sleep before he got up to make us all breakfast.”
“What about Cypress?”
“He’s younger than me by two years,” Cress said. “He had a talent for troublemaking. He always found it awfully amusing when we fell for his tricks.”
“So, Aelfdene, Linden, Cypress, who’s the last one?”
“Asherlin,” Cress said. “He’s quite a bit younger, only a toddler the last I remember. His memories of me are vague.”
“Why are you here with me instead of with them?” the mermaid said. “Didn’t you miss them after all these years?”
“So much,” Cress said. “Too much. That’s why I’m afraid that if I see them everything is going to fall apart.”
“The others want to see you,” Aelfdene said, wringing the washcloth. His older brother didn’t look that different from how he remembered; his hair was shorter, and he had gained quite a few more worry lines – he hadn’t even reached thirty yet.
Cress stared out the window, watching a barely-formed white bud fall from the branch of the pear tree. He was familiar with that tree. The white flowers were gathered together like snow. The oppressive heat was sure making him miss winter.
“I’ve already seen Cypress,” Cress said. “And I doubt Asherlin remembers me.”
“Cypress would be reassured when he sees that you are well,” Aelfdene said. “You were dehydrated, beaten and delirious when he found you.” He paused, moving a little closer to Cress. “Asherlin does remember you. In the beginning, he asked for you every day, then when he was old enough we explained it to him. It was difficult, Cress, really difficult.”
“What, explaining it to him?” Cress said. “Your brother was taken by hunters, your other brother was killed by hunters. The end.”
“No, Cress,” Aelfdene said, disbelief in his voice. “It was difficult having you taken from us, and Linden… well, Linden is alive.”
Cress almost wanted to laugh. “Impossible. I saw that sword go through him, no one survives a wound like that.”
“We were all so afraid, but he lived,” Aelfdene said. “He lost the ability to walk and fly, but I think what hurt him more was that he lost you. He tried to hide it as best he could, always smiling, but I could feel how much pain he was in, couldn’t you?”
Cress stood, feeling the need to drive his fist into something. “No, Aelfdene,” he said, voice dangerously low. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel any of you. I lost my connection with nature, half the time my wings don’t let me fly. I’m more human than faerie.”
His mind was swirling. All this time he thought Linden was dead. Now, he wasn’t. “I need some air.”
“Did the hunters not teach you how to handle fear?” the mermaid asked. “You’re always such a stern-looking bunch.”
Cress looked at how those water currents rippled against each other. “We’re not taught how to handle fear,” Cress said. “We’re taught to push it down, to ignore it.”
“Is that what you are doing now?” the mermaid said. “Ignoring it?”
Cress didn’t answer, choosing instead to stare at the Everblossom. “Remember when we found one just underneath our tree?” Cress froze. That voice. Linden’s voice. The one that came into his head from time to time.
Except, this time it was different. It was deeper, more weathered.
He turned around, and just beside the berry bush, was a face that resembled his own. They used to look exactly the same, but now not so much. Cress’s features had been hardened like water into ice. Linden’s still maintained the softness of a flower bud, but that look in his eyes told Cress that he was anything but a delicate flower.
“I brought a friend.” Linden gestured beside him, where Xaotan was wagging his tail.
Cress looked back at the mermaid. “What are you looking at me for?” she said. “Go to him.”
“I… thank you,” he said.
Her eyes sparkled. “I hope I see you around.” With a wave, and two shimmers of her tail, she was gone. Cress hadn’t even asked for her name.
Linden smiled as he approached, bringing out those old smile lines. Cress sat down awkwardly beside Linden’s wheelchair, letting Xaotan lick at his face. “I always knew you would come back, and if you didn’t, then I would search for you.”
Two lines of tears ran down Cress’s cheek. “I thought you were dead.”
Linden was silent for a moment. “Is that so?” he said. “I suppose I should have died.” He leaned over the side of his wheelchair, eyes on Cress. “You want to know how I didn’t?”
Linden pointed at the blue Everblossom by the lake. “Because of that flower. Asherlin had stuffed it into my satchel that day. As I lay on that path, bleeding, the rain beating down on me, I knew I was going to die. But I didn’t want to. I so desperately wanted to live. I was fumbling blindly in my satchel for something, anything, and I found the Everblossom.”
Cress remembered what Linden had told him once. For those in dire need, an Everblossom could grant a single wish.
“I made my wish,” Linden said. “I looked up at the stars, and I whispered, ‘please, let me live’.”
That night, Cress had been looking up at the same stars among hunters in a place so far from home.
He had been put in a cage for the hunters’ amusement, wishing himself dead.
“I killed that man,” Cress said. “The one who hurt you.”
Linden grasped Cress’s hand, sweaty from the heat. “You’ve changed,” he said.
“I know. I look like them,” Cress said. “It was either I become them, or get killed.” It hadn’t been a will or a desire to live like Linden, it was more a raw, primal, animalistic need to survive.
“But you’re not like them,” Linden said. “I can still feel your warmth, your kindness, even if it is buried deep.”
“There was a little girl that I raised. Feisty, tough as nails, not so little anymore. It’s a long story, but she’s the reason I’m here right now,” Cress said.
Kalana had been hovering at the back of his mind the whole time. He wondered if she had enough to eat, whether she was keeping herself out of trouble.
“Then I should meet her sometime,” Linden said. “For now, Asherlin and Cypress are waiting for you.” Cress nodded. Linden’s hand was still in his – he hadn’t faded away or shattered like fragile glass.
He was real.
Asherlin was the one who stunned Cress the most. He had immortalised his youngest brother as the three-year-old child he had last seen him as. Except now, he was a tall, willowy adolescent, if it wasn’t for those crisp-green doe-eyes, Cress would not have recognised him.
He immediately raced to Cress, throwing his arms around his neck. “Brother,” Asherlin exhaled, his tears soaking Cress’s shirt. “I have missed you.”
Cress looked up at his brothers before him. They were all different from how he remembered, yet, that feeling of love – that was never going to change.
“I have missed you too,” he said. “So, so much.”
Through the window, Cress could still see the pear tree, those white flowers blooming like the glistening of snow.