Read Princess between Worlds Online
Authors: E. D. Baker
“Good!” said Liam. “We'll have to take our coats. On the way out we can borrow some boots and gloves from that room we found. And I should probably borrow a bow and some arrows. You never know what we might encounter outside the palace walls.”
“Do you mean something like a rock dodger?” asked Annie.
“Precisely,” Liam said with a grin. “They might be very dangerous.”
Both Annie and Liam were surprised by how easily they were able to take the items they needed and leave the palace. They found a door with a simple bolt in the wall surrounding the palace and opened it easily. “Where are all the guards?” Liam wondered. They had yet to see a single one.
As Liam closed the door behind them, Annie glanced up. The mountains rose high above, giants in a frozen world. They made Annie feel so small and insignificant that she took Liam's hand for reassurance. The mountains didn't seem to bother him at all. Squeezing her hand, he let it go and took an arrow from the quiver he'd borrowed before starting toward the meadow.
The snow was firmly packed, so they didn't have any problem making their way up the pass. When they finally caught sight of the meadow, Annie cried out in delight. Twists and turns in the mountainside sheltered
the meadow from the wind, allowing plants that could stand the cold to flourish. Annie recognized the bobbing white heads of snowdrops, but the rest were all strange to her. She knelt down to examine some pale yellow flowers while Liam searched for rock dodger tracks.
“I found some!” he said after a minute or so. “They're huge! Rock dodgers may be like rabbits, but they're rabbits the size of goats! I'll be right back. These tracks look fresh. I'm going to follow them. I won't go far, so I'll be only a few minutes. Will you be all right?”
“Hmm?” said Annie. “Oh, yes. I'll be fine. I'll be right here when you come back.”
The fur coat's hood muffled sounds, so Annie didn't hear Liam leave. She lost all track of time while she examined the flowers, going from one patch to another. Although the air was cold, the heavy fur coat along with the borrowed boots and gloves kept her warm and comfortable. She tried pushing the hood back because it limited her vision, but her ears became painfully cold right away.
Better to have tunnel vision than to have my ears freeze
, she thought, and pulled the hood up again.
Annie was bending over a tiny blue flower when she heard a high-pitched yowl behind her. She turned quickly just as two enormous, furry white arms snatched her off the ground. Annie squirmed, shouting, as whatever held her straightened up and started walking. She beat at the
arms and tried to pry them off her, but the only response was a gentle squeeze and a muffled grunt.
When her captor turned enough that Annie could look behind her, she saw a group of tall, white-furred beings who looked like oversize, fuzzy humans crossing through the meadow. One that was well over eight feet tall had a snow leopard in its arms and was squeezing it into submission. Spitting and snarling, the leopard fought the embrace. Suddenly it went limp and the creature dropped it on the ground, where it lay still. Annie stopped struggling then, afraid she'd receive the same treatment. Thinking that the creature holding her might put her down if she went limp, she relaxed and closed her eyes like the leopard. Instead of putting her down, however, the creature changed its grip so that it was cradling Annie like a baby and started walking.
After a few minutes, Annie opened her eyes just enough that she could see her captor's face. Its features were coarse and covered with fur, but it had kind eyes when it glanced down and saw Annie looking up at it. The creature began to hum and rock Annie in its arms. Although she was terrified and worried about what might have happened to Liam, Annie felt herself growing drowsy. Before she knew it, she had drifted off to sleep.
When Annie woke, she was lying on a bed of soft, dried
grass. One of the creatures was seated beside her with its back to her. Annie had no way of knowing if it was the same creature that had carried her or not. More frightened that she'd ever been in her life, Annie didn't move. It wasn't long, however, before her curiosity grew too strong to ignore. Without sitting up or letting on that she was awake, Annie looked around. She discovered that they were in a cave filled with furry, white creatures, all of whom seemed to be waiting for something. When she glanced at the cave opening, she saw that it was snowing, but still daylight.
Perhaps they're waiting for the snow to stop
, thought Annie.
It occurred to her that Liam might have been captured, too, but she didn't hear him and couldn't see much as long as she was lying down. She grew more anxious as time passed and finally couldn't stand it any longer. As soon as she sat up, the creature beside her turned her way and smiled. Making soft sounds in its throat, the creature handed her a hollowed-out gourd filled with water. Annie was too thirsty to turn it down. She took a big sip, then another, trying not to think about who or what had used the gourd before her. When she was finished, she handed the gourd back to the creature, who patted Annie's head and smiled again.
Now the other creatures were aware that Annie was awake. They came by one at a time to look at her and make quizzical grunts at their friend sitting beside her.
Some of them made sounds that sounded like “Mara,” so Annie began to consider that her captor's name. She wondered if Mara was a female; her movements were more graceful than some of the bigger adults and her gestures more refined.
While Mara was occupied, Annie looked around for Liam. As far as she could tell, he wasn't there.
Annie turned back when a different creature brought a bit of brown fur and handed it to Mara. After examining it, she gave it to Annie, smiling. It was a crude doll made of scraps of fur. Another creature brought something small and white. Mara examined it as well before handing Annie a ring made of bone. Although other creatures brought other gifts, Mara rejected most of them; the only other one she passed on to Annie was a pretty blue stone shot with gold.
Annie accepted all the gifts, examining them out of curiosity. She was looking at the stone when another creature gave something to Mara. Annie's captor sniffed it and handed it to Annie. It was raw meat, still warm and steaming in the cold air.
Shaking her head, she handed it back to Mara, who looked worried and tried to give it to her again. Annie refused to take it. She shrank back when other creatures came to stare at her and make soft grunts at Mara. Although they didn't seem to mean any harm, it worried
Annie. If so many were watching her, how would she ever get away?
When Mara called out, a smaller creature came to see her, looking at her with bright, expectant eyes. It was eager to accept the piece of meat that Annie had turned down, and it gave Annie a quizzical look as it chewed. Annie noticed that the small one was about her own size and was covered with cream-colored fur, the same color as Annie's coat. Its face was nearly as bare as Annie's, with only a slight dusting of fur on the cheeks, forehead, and chin. Although its nose was flatter, its eyes were set farther apart, and its lips were very narrow, without the fur it might have passed for human. Annie couldn't be sure, but she had a feeling that the little creature was a girl.
When Annie looked around, she saw other smaller creatures. A thought occurred to her, and suddenly she knew it was true.
The smaller ones with cream-colored fur are children. The creatures think that I'm a child as well!
But why would they carry off a strange child like this?
Perhaps they thought they were rescuing one that was abandoned or orphaned.
Watching the adults with the children, she saw how much the creatures treasured the little ones. Mara didn't consider herself Annie's captor; she was her protector! She'd been
making sure her friends were giving Annie only the choicest of toys and best piece of meat.
Annie wondered if she could use this to her advantage. Holding up the fur doll, she showed it to the little girl. The little girl smiled and ran off, grabbed something from where she'd been sitting before, and brought it back to show Annie. It was a doll, just like the one Annie was holding. Mara looked on indulgently when the little girl plopped down beside Annie and made soft sounds while wiggling the doll, as if her doll were talking to Annie's. They played like that for a few minutes, then the child jumped up and pulled Annie to her feet. They chased each other around the cave while Mara watched anxiously from the side. When Annie was in the lead, she ran toward the cave entrance, turning back just before she reached it when she heard Mara call out. She did this again and again, until finally Mara wasn't looking and she was able to run out the opening while the only one watching was the little girl.
Annie ran through the still-falling snow, not having any idea where she was or where she was going. The snow was getting deeper, however, and her feet sank in a few inches with every step. When she left the shelter of the rocks that surrounded the cave, she found that the snow was so thick that she had to slog through it. Running was no longer possible. She had stopped, trying to decide what to do next, when Mara picked her up
once again and hugged her. Escaping wasn't going to be easy with a watchful protector and no idea where to go even if she could get away.
Once again, Mara carried her to the cave and sat down beside her. Annie was frustrated and close to tears. She couldn't stay here any longer, not knowing where Liam was or if he was all right. But how could she get away? Mara wasn't going to let her go as long as she thought Annie was a little one who needed her protection. Somehow, Annie was going to have to let them know that she wasn't a child of their species. But how? They didn't talk the way she did, so she couldn't really tell them. Maybe she could show them instead.
Annie tapped Mara on the shoulder to get her attention. When Mara was looking directly at her, Annie reached up and pulled off her hood. The reaction she got wasn't at all what she'd expected.
Mara screamed! It was a horrible, horrifying scream like one would make if a monster appeared in the dead of night.
, thought Annie,
like a person who had just seen a loved one pull off the top of her head.
Suddenly, the other creatures were screaming and Annie had to cover her ears because it was so loud. When a deeper voice roared, they all stopped and the silence was almost as awful.
Annie was already wishing she'd thought of another way to tell Mara when one of the largest creatures
came to where she was sitting. The creature glared at her, poked at her hood with its furry hand, and grunted at Mara. Making noises deep in their throats, they had a conversation that Annie couldn't follow. When they stopped and the bigger creature stalked away, Mara got to her feet with tears welling from her eyes.
Annie didn't move as Mara gently pulled the hood over her hair. She looked so sad that Annie felt awful. The creatures in the cave watched as Mara picked up Annie and carried her from the cave, but not one of them offered to go with her. The wind was fierce when they got out into the open, and Annie was forced to bury her face in Mara's fur as they made their way down the mountain.
Annie lost track of time as they struggled through the storm. When Mara finally set her down, Annie found herself back in the meadow where she had been looking at the flowers. It was dusk, and although she had half hoped that Liam would be there waiting for her, she hadn't really expected it. No one was there, however, and she couldn't help but feel disappointed.
Annie looked up when she felt Mara pat her on the back. The creature was already walking away when Annie ran after her and threw her arms around her. Mara wasn't human, but she had shown Annie more affection in one day than her mother had for most of Annie's life.
When the creature returned the hug, neither one was in a hurry to let go.
The wind was dying down and the snow had finally stopped falling when Mara stepped back. Before she left, she handed Annie the doll, the bone ring, and the stone. Annie wanted to give her something in return, so she took off a bracelet that she'd had for years and handed it to her new friend. They stood for a moment, looking into each other's eyes, before Mara turned and walked away.