My mother feared my brother, Dragan, was dying, but she didn’t say that. Instead, she saddled the horse, prepared a pallet behind, and appointed me his nurse, only pausing long enough to say we were seeing a friend who could help. She hoped.
“Mother,” I whispered into the night air.
“Be careful what path you take. Dragan has formed many enemies of late. He falsifies. Tells the palace guards our neighbors are spies for the River Kingdom.”
I saw her lay the reins on the side of the horse's neck, guiding him to the left, away from the dwellings we might have approached on our right. “Why does he do such things?”
“To gain the king’s good graces. Dragan plays on the king's paranoia to become his trusted ally.”
“Why did you not tell me this before?”
“Mother, you are strong, but nothing is stronger than Dragan’s will to be accepted in the royal court. He wishes to have a seat beside the king, even if he must sacrifice many to get there. I’m afraid neither of us can stop him.”
“Why is he like this?” But Mother asked the question more to herself than to me, and I had no answers for her anyway.
“How long will it take to get there, Mother?”
“Half a day’s journey. Try to rest now.”
“Your friends will help us?”
“They are the wisest I know. If anyone knows what to do, it will be them.”
I was tired, too tired to fill her in on more of the story--the depth of Dragan’s lies and how they swept lives away in their current. How even when I went to the market with him when I was younger, he told people I was his servant. He made me trail behind him and pay for each item while he walked about with his chest puffed out and his chin tilted upwards so he could stare down anyone of lesser stature. Dragan told me I was just a foundling, really no relation to him at all, and I had better keep quiet and not cause Mother any trouble. She would likely send me to live with another family if I demanded the truth from her. Mother, he told me, only wanted a quiet and solitary life.
I trembled beneath the weight of his words. It was several years before I worked up the courage to ask my mother if I was truly hers, but even after she answered in the affirmative, hugging me close to her solid body, I never told that Dragan was the instigator. He scared me, and I didn’t want to cross him. I had seen too many people shackled and escorted to prison soon after Dragan whispered in the guard’s ear.
A rock beneath the pallet jostled me awake, and I looked over to see Dragan studying me. “Where is she taking me?” he demanded. His words were never soft, but always as hard and sharp as the axe Mother kept hidden behind the door.
“Somewhere you’ll be made well, she hopes.”
“But not you, right, Tristle?” Still to this day, Dragan had never called me Sister.
“I want us all to be well and happy.”
“Little Tristle, always so kind.” I wanted to savor the compliment, let it wash over me, and restore my faith in my brother. Maybe the sickness would cause him to change.
His eyes narrowed. “Precisely why you’ll always be a nobody.” He spat at the ground beside him, but was unsuccessful at reaching his target. A trickle of saliva clung to his face, and he was too weak to wipe it away.
I wiped it with my dress, and he turned his face away in disgust. I felt heat gather in my heart, my words seeking freedom unchecked.
“And who exactly are you, Brother? What have you gained through all your lies, your utter disregard for others? How can you deliver the innocent and watch them hang?”
“Careful, Tristle. Before you find the noose around your own precious neck. There is still much life left in me.”
I heard Mother cluck to the horse, urging him forward at a faster pace. I laid down and turned my back to my brother.
When we finally stopped, Dragan slept on. Mother cautioned me against waking him, and I was soon distracted by the scene before me.
We had arrived at what appeared to be an outcropping with a thick curtain of ivy hanging beneath. I watched my mother approach it and trill out a sound I had never heard before, but which would blend in with the bird song around us unless one happened to be listening for it.
In only a moment, the giant curtain parted and a creature resembling an overgrown groundhog with large, oval eyes emerged.
“A Differden,” I whispered.
I’d heard all my life of the creatures, but I’d never seen one. My mother had often sent Dragan to market to see if he ever heard mention of the Differdens, specifically if the king was sending out yet another hunting party to find them. Everyone wanted to encounter a Differden; many wanted to capture them, hold them up as proof of some kind of divine appointment, then pilfer their great wisdom to gain and hold on to power. Then kill them when the Differden's wisdom did not match with the leader’s "vision". Humans will always destroy any goodness if only given enough time.
The Differden glanced at me and then at Mother. “Come in, Rosamond. You also, Tristle.”
Mother hesitated. “My son . . .”
But the Differden shook his head, and Mother fell silent.
“He cannot enter, I’m afraid. We can talk inside.” He disappeared behind the curtain. Mother took my hand and we followed, but not before she spared a worried glance at Dragan.
Inside the curtain, all was dark. The Differden’s voice rang out to us. “I’m afraid the access tunnel is a bit small for your kind.”
A moment later, I felt Mother place the end of a rope in my hand. “Crawl behind me,” she instructed, and I dropped to my knees.
“Ready,” I said.
The crawl was tedious, but not difficult, and we soon emerged in a cavern where a fire blazed in one corner. The Differden had taken his place on the rock and motioned for us to approach.
“I’m sorry Dragan cannot enter, Rosamond, but his reputation precedes him. You of all creatures know we cannot be too careful. Your diligence over the past years has allowed us to remain here comfortably, only leaving for short times when you alert us of the hunters. We’ve stayed here longer than anywhere before. For that, as always, I thank you.”
Surprised, I looked at Mother, but she kept her eyes trained on the Differden. “Dragan is very sick.”
“And you’d like me to take a look.” The Differden adjusted his weight to a more comfortable position and placed his hands on a staff he lifted from beside the rock.
“I’ll come out when darkness falls. Not from the cave, though. I don’t want Dragan to know our location.”
Mother nodded her agreement, and we crept back out to wait for the cover of darkness and the Differden’s arrival. Mother checked on Dragan, satisfied that he was still sleeping, albeit not very peacefully. She joined me on the fallen log where I had settled to stare up at the stars.
“Mother, what did the Differden mean--your diligence?”
“I am a Protector, Tristle, an enormous honor passed down years ago. Dragan was meant to be next in line. I suspect, however, that the honor will instead fall to you.”
Hours later, the Differden arrived, holding a dimly lit lantern. Dragan awakened when the Differden touched his chest. I saw the surprise register on his face when he realized the touch came from this wisest, most magical of creatures. He struggled to sit up.
“Is it heart sickness?” Mother asked.
“A very serious case, I’m afraid,” the Differden responded.
“Can it be healed?”
“Most of his heart is rotten already. Worms have taken root. It won’t take many more lies to end him completely. He has to stop lying right now. His heart will take many years to heal.”
“Do you hear that, Dragan?” Mother’s voice was laced with frenzy.
“A Differden,” Dragan whispered. It was the only time I’d ever heard reverence in his voice.
The Differden had not moved his paw. “Can you stop lying, Dragan?” He held Dragan’s gaze.
“Yes, of course,” Dragan said, but the Differden looked at Mother and shook his head. I watched Dragan grow paler, and I heard his breath quicken.
The Differden returned his gaze to my brother. “Will you keep it a secret that you have spoken with me?”
Dragan drew in a shaky breath before responding, “Yes, Differden.”
The Differden’s paw still rested on Dragan’s chest, directly over his heart. I heard the sadness in his voice. “Rosamond. Tristle. Turn your eyes away.”
But I couldn’t and neither could Mother. We watched Dragan’s eyes close and his body go still. His rotten heart would beat no more.