Something poked my shoulder. I ignored it, wondering why I had a major the-sky’s-falling kind of depression in my gut.
“Piss off,” I mumbled.
When the poking didn’t stop, I cracked open my eyes to find a real life Greek God towering over me. I leaped to my feet, and the rope tightened around my wrist. I flexed my numb fingers, and the events of the night before crashed into me. Tuggin.
“You sleep long,” he said.
“Untie me,” I said. “My hand is freaking numb.”
“You should not have attempted to untie it.” He worked on the knot.
I had, with my teeth and my free hand. The rope had gotten so tight I’d thought my hand would turn blue. “I didn’t.”
Once free, I backed away from him, rubbing the red ring around my wrist. I sighed, but I wasn’t sure if it was because I’d tumbled through some secret gateway to some God-forsaken place, or because I’d been kidnapped by a hall god that was so painfully out of my pathetic league.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No offense, but I was kind of hoping that last night didn’t really happen.”
“You are absurd.”
Fine, it hadn’t been a dream, and apparently the nightmare lived on.
Tuggin went to huddle over a small fire. He poked the coals with a stick, and the little flames sent snuffs of smoke into the air. It was cool, so I kept the blanket wrapped around me. By daylight, I could see the trees’ dull, wrinkled leaves. Most were brown, though there were some faded colors of red, gold and orange. Occasionally one twisted loose and fluttered like a stray piece of confetti.
Tuggin nodded toward my legs. “Why do you move that way?”
Now that he wasn’t so pissed off, his eyes seemed oddly dull, and I wondered what made them seem so lifeless.
I blinked. “Huh?”
“Your legs move like sticks.”
“My feet hurt. And my legs. And my back.”
“Why is this?”
“From all the walking and tripping and having to sleep tied to a freaking tree.”
“You are not strong,” he declared, handing me a tin plate.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You will eat to keep your strength.” He jammed the plate into my hands. “I have no desire to carry you.”
I had no control over the heat spreading to my cheeks at the thought of Tuggin holding me in his arms. I grabbed the plate. “What’s this?”
Tuggin took his plate to a rock and sat down. “A rare treat,” he said, scooping a forkful of the disgusting-looking glop into his mouth.
“Yeah, okay, but, what is it?” I sniffed. It was probably rare because people were afraid to eat it.
“Did you know they’re orange?”
Tuggin swallowed another mouthful. “They are eggs of the fire bird.”
“Why are they rare?” I asked, hoping they weren’t orange because he’d been carrying them around in his backpack for months.
“The fire bird lays eggs only during Quadralune.”
Whatever a Quadralune was, I didn’t ask, because Tuggin shifted so that his back was toward me. I hunched by the fire, took another sniff, and then a small nibble. They weren’t like normal eggs on Earth, from normal chickens, but good. I stared at the fire, ignoring Tuggin and wishing for ketchup.
When I finished eating, Tuggin ordered, “Pack. It is time to depart.”
I stuck my tongue out at his back. I rinsed my plate with water from my canteen, and then stuffed them into my pack and tied on the blankets.
I kept quiet, glaring at the ground, aware of his footfalls close behind me. I had no idea how long we’d been walking when Tuggin took the lead so he could hack at bushes that had overpowered the path. I noticed that occasional rays of sunshine had a way of turning strands of his hair a gold color. Tuggin stopped and, momentarily lost in thoughts of running my fingers through that silky gold, I bumped into him. I winced when he turned to glare at me.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
One corner of Tuggin’s lip curled. “Are you always so awkward?”
“Are you always so rude?”
Tuggin grunted and sat, leaning against a tree. I slipped the pack off my shoulders and sank to the ground. I kicked off my shoes and checked out my heels. Great. The red spots had turned into blisters.
Tuggin pulled a couple apples out of his backpack and tossed one to me. After raising his eyebrows at my bare feet, he ignored me.
I rubbed the apple on my shirt. “How’d you know who I was when I came through that gateway thing?”
Tuggin hesitated, and then he murmured, “I saw it.”
“You can see the future?”
Tuggin didn’t respond.
Oh, nice, the silent treatment. What was he, like five? “Does your mother know what you’re up to?”
He gave me a withering look.
“What about your family? Are they as shady as you?”
Tuggin gazed at me with no expression.
A funny warmth tickled my stomach and his face, even grumpy looking, stalled my thinking. I needed to say something quick before I forgot how to talk completely. I cleared my throat. “You know, family?” The more he stayed silent, the more I babbled. “Brothers? Sisters? Parents? A dog?”
“Jahme!” A muscle in Tuggin’s jaw moved when he clenched his teeth. “Death has taken them.”
Tuggin studied the trees. Even though he acted like a tool, I felt kind of bad for him.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Enough! Your mouth rattles like nuts in a wooden bowl.”
I rested my head on my knees and pretended I was anywhere but there. I’d rather have the silent treatment than be treated like a useless twit.
“I shall return.” He picked up our canteens, hesitated, and then took out the rope.
I turned my head away. “Don’t bother. I’m not going anywhere.”
After a moment he dropped the rope. “I will hunt you down if you do.”
I stuck my tongue out at his back. Vowing to never make the mistake of feeling sorry for him again, I leaned against a tree. Big fat kidnapping meany. I pressed my palms to my eyes so that I wouldn’t cry.
My eyes snapped open. A small white bird lay by my leg, four colored plumes sticking out of its head.
“Oh!” I scrambled to my knees and bent over it.
I reached out, and then stopped when its tiny chest heaved. I wanted to help it live, not scare it dead. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”
“Are you hurt?”
Its wing flitted up, and then rested against its side.
“Is it your wing?”
The bird struggled to raise its head. With a small “chirp” it flopped back to the ground.
“I can’t leave you here. You’ll die.” I bit my lip. Tuggin for sure would have a snarky fit if I adopted a hurt bird. “I’ll hide you in my backpack.”
“You passed the test.” Its beak clicked when it spoke.
“Freaking shit!” I reeled back, falling onto my butt. I crab-walked backwards until I hit the tree, and then leaped to my feet.
The bird flitted to a branch near my head. “I can help you, if you want.”
I scrambled to the other side of the tree. I rubbed my eyes, and then peeked through my fingers. “You talked!”
“Yes, of course.” It dipped its head, shaking the plumes.
“Birds can’t talk.”
The creepy bird hopped closer. I darted back to the other side and peered around the trunk. “Shoo! Go away!”
“That was rude. Do you want my help or not?” it asked.
It wasn’t like it could hurt me, well, except for its beak. I’d heard stories of birds pecking people’s eyes out and I rather liked the idea of keeping mine. “Help with what?”
“There is a secret. I can tell you what it is.”
“How’s that going to help me?”
The bird shook its plumes. “Do you want to know or not?” It seemed to take my hesitation as agreement and continued. “Sometimes, when woodpeckers build their nests, they use a magic herb.”
“You will see the minds of gods.”
“You will open gates.”
“Gates?” I felt dumb, repeating its words, but—hello!—I was talking to a bird.
“You will gain power if you have this herb.”
My heartbeat drummed in my ears. What kind of power? The power to kick Tuggin’s ass and escape? Maybe I could go home and make Mom remember me. My heart didn’t beat so much as tremble; maybe I could make Ian fall in love with me.
“Power can be deceiving,” it said. “Do you accept this gift?”I nodded. “Lead the way, Birdie.”