The Lost Path 5
A few days ago, I was just Brook, the tallest girl in Centre Valley. Now I feel the smallest as I greet the dark skinned newcomer to our land. Seeing Droth Karn in my home, sat next to a fire that has burnt to the last of its embers feels like an invasion. He casually pokes the embers with a stick, but when he notices me he drops it and stands tall and proud.
“Ah, the most beautiful flower in the valley,” he says in his soft words. He bows slightly to me and flashes a perfect set of white teeth as a broad smile crosses his face. This does not seem like a man who laid claim on our lands. Everything about him is charming and polite, the opposite of what I want him to be so that I can hate him.
And yet, I cannot help but blush. “You have not seen every flower we have to offer,” I mumble, half asleep and wondering if I am dreaming this.
My mother hurries forward and stands at my side. “What is it you want with my daughter?” she asks, hostility unmasked and free to curl around Droth’s Karn’s throat. “Do not think you can demand her, too.”
Droth Karn laughs gently, warming our house. “I can see where she gets her fire,” he says, the smile fading from his face. “But all I demand from your daughter is a walk around your lush valley. If she tells me to leave, then I shall and be a sadder man for the rest of the day.” He looks to me, his eyebrow raised expectantly.
Part of me wants him to go and never come back, but there is a curious part of me that yearns for him to stay. Last night there had been talk of killing them to protect our lands and my stomach had knotted at the thought. I have the chance to learn about him and his lands, to seek out what it is they plan. It would be wrong for me to turn that chance down, I justify to myself.
“It is just a walk,” I mutter. “Wait here while I wash and change,” I quickly add, running my hands through my knotted hair. I would have liked the chance to really bathe, but I would have to be quick. Leaving him with Mother, I hurry away and scrub myself in the last of the water that Mother had brought in from the lake. It has not been warmed, and the cold water wakes me fully. As I comb my hair, I ask myself if I know what I am doing. This is a dangerous game that I play. I quickly change out of my dirty forest clothes and my transformation is complete.
When I return to Droth Karn, he is amiably talking to Mother who laughs at something he says. “Am I interrupting something?” I ask brightly.
Droth Karn comes over to me, looking me over approvingly. “Ah, but you are the cool breeze across the desert,” he whispers in my ear.
I shiver as his breath tickles me. “Where did you want to walk?”
“I would love to wander the forest,” he says. “I have never been in one before.”
Mother and I look at each other with bemused faces. I turn to Droth Karn. “Do you not have forests where you come from?”
He shrugs. “We have endless desert and rocks.”
Mother asks, “What is a desert?”
Droth Karn thinks for a moment. “There is a small bank of dryness around your lake. Imagine that stretching across your entire valley in great rolling hills and you will imagine a desert.”
In my mind I see a desolate, hard place to live. Looking at Droth Karn, I find it hard to believe that he is from such a place, for he seems cut from stone yet finely groomed. His black hair is short cut and his beard is shaved into a thin line. But looks can deceive, I tell myself.
We bid Mother goodbye and leave, walking slowly through the village. People gather in large groups as we pass, staring coldly. I hear whispers and the occasional curse at Droth Karn.
“I do not think they like me,” he mutters as we leave the village and begin the trek across the open meadow towards the forest. If this makes him nervous, I cannot tell as his face remains guarded.
“They are afraid of you.”
“That is a good thing,” Droth Karn says. “We are greatly outnumbered here and yet we are the feared ones.”
Unable to tell if he is joking, I squint at him. “You do not fear us then?”
Droth Karn shrugs. “A Droth Draili does not fear. A Droth Draili simply is. We live in the moment.”
We continue on through the long grass of the meadow and the edge of the forest looms before us. I can tell that Droth Karn is overwhelmed. His eyes widen as he stares across the tree line. “What is it with all this Droth before your name?” I ask, unable to take my eyes from him as he looks on in wonder.
Droth Karn looks at me thoughtfully. “Droth is the birth title given to all Droth Draili. Karn is my given name.”
“Then can I just call you Karn?” For a moment I think I have insulted him as his face forms a frown.
“If it bridges the gap between us, then call me Karn.”
I smile, and before Karn can respond I race away from him across the meadow towards the forest. I stop at the edge in the cool shade and pant breathlessly. It is too warm a day to be running, but I feel playful and free away from the village and prying eyes. Karn runs the final stretch, but stops short of the tree line, looking up into the green leaves above.
“Your land is so fertile,” he says. He looks at me, and I can see a child like wonder in his face.
We enter the forest and are greeted with the sound of Hymming birds. As we enter deeper, it becomes cooler and darker. Feydeer run from the bushes, leading us on. We do not speak and I find that my hand is holding onto Karn’s. A Whipping Tale scurries up a tree and Karn jumps back, startled. Enjoying seeing this vulnerable side to him, I laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” Karn asks, irritation in his voice. This makes me laugh harder and he is unable to resist laughing with me. Pulling him by the hand, we move on through the undergrowth, weaving through the trees. We are running faster and I am desperate to get away from everything. When I am here there is no Droth Draili, no doubts about the Maze; it is just Karn. Handsome Karn who always gets what he desires.
We finally dive out of the forest and into the clearing where I had sat with Rek. The grass is up to our knees here and the trees circle us like Great Wall. Moving into the centre with Karn, I let go of his hand and spin around and around, watching the trees blur as my head becomes dizzy. I stumble, but Karn gently grabs me.
We look each other in the eyes for a moment and before I know it, our lips are pressed together. We kiss hungrily and I enjoy the moment as my entire body tingles and shivers. We lay down in the grass, hidden away from everyone. Clothes are cast away and I let myself go as we wrap ourselves around each other. The sounds of the forest fade away and there is just Karn, whispering into my ear how beautiful I am. This special moment feels stolen and I do not want it to end. Yet I realise that all things must eventually end and when we are finished, we lay silently on our backs exhausted, looking up into the blue of Outer Maze. Unsure if Karn has fallen asleep, I tell him I have never bumped before.
“Bumping?” Karn asks with amusement, his eyes still closed against the bright light of Blazing Ball. “Such a harsh word. In my land we call it loving.”
Sitting up, I grab my dress and wrap it loosely around my naked body. “Would you love me again?” I ask.
I shake my head. “Not now. But maybe soon...” My head falls into my hands and I hide my face from him in embarrassment, not sure what I am talking about. This partly feels like a mistake, that I have betrayed Centre Valley. Thinking of Rek, I feel guilt creeping through me. We had never bumped before, neither of us really having the courage to ask the other. This just happened and it felt... Good, I suppose.
Karn sits up, sweat glistening on his muscular body. “I did not expect myself to fall for anyone here, but I have. You will come back with me to Droth Draili where you shall become Droth Brook.”
“I do not like your demands; this is my home,” I remind Karn. “I’ll never leave.”
Karn sighs. “It belongs to the Droth Draili now; we will make it our own. When this is under our rule, I want you with me.”
Dressing, I turn his words over in my head. “What do you mean by that?”
Karn is silent and instead lays back down in the grass and stares up at Outer Maze. Finally, he says, “I shall return to my people and tell them of this fertile valley. They will send back an army with me to take your land by force if you are unwilling.”
The moment of wonder has left me and is replaced by horror. My loyalties are suddenly divided and I stand at a pass the way I did at Crossing Path a few days ago. “I like you, Karn, but my path will always be with my family and friends of Centre Valley.”
Karn nods sadly. “I was worried you might say that, but you cannot stop that which is already in motion.” There is anguish in his face and I think that he questions his own loyalties as I do mine. "Things cannot stay the same forever."
Getting to my feet, I make a decision. "This, what happened between us, cannot continue. You will leave me alone." Waiting for a response, I fold my arms.
Karn smiles. "You do not really mean that."
Huffing, I turn and leave, but inside I know that he is right. Even as we walk from the forest, my desire for him has returned and I want to feel my hand in his. It cannot be, I remind myself.