Not for the first time that morning did Liyara wish she had thought before she had acted. Then, perhaps she wouldn’t have stolen the charm. And then the guards that were currently pursing her through the woods would be about their business somewhere else.
Hindsight was a blessed thing.
What had possessed her to grab for the small crystal sphere, she had no idea, but she had done it and was now fleeing for her life. Thievery was a capital offence in Taria (as were most things). If the soldiers caught her, she could expect to be executed there and then, with no trial – if they were feeling merciful. If they were not and she was taken back to town, things would be far worse and ultimately end the same way. So, Liyara was doing her best to make sure that she stayed ahead of them.
Darting in and out of bushes that ripped at her skin, jumping over fallen logs in the path and ducking beneath low branches that would have taken her head off had she not seen them in time, were all beginning to tire her. Although only nineteen years old, slight and swift, she knew she couldn’t maintain the pace much longer. Her chest ached with exhaustion, and as she leapt over a fairly wide stream, she stumbled on the far bank, cutting her hands and knees on the sharp, angular stones as she fell.
As she tried to get back on her feet, the stolen charm rolled out of her pocket and across the short grass. Suddenly a burst of light blinded Liyara, forcing her to shield her eyes and look away.
The next thing she knew, a hand was tightly gripping her shoulder and pulling her to her feet.
With what strength she had left, she prepared to fight for her life. A sharp elbow behind her struck the firm abdomen of her attacker. But it didn’t change anything. In fact, there was nothing to suggest that they had felt anything at all.
Kicking and wriggling, she did her best to break free, but the vice-like hold remained. Finally, all she could do was slip out of her coat. This time, it was enough. She fell to the floor once more, landing hard on the open wounds on her knees, causing her to cry out.
‘Stupid girl!’ a man’s voice exclaimed. ‘I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to help you.’
As Liyara rolled over she came face-to-face with a man only a few years older than herself. She took one look at him and noticed that he wasn’t wearing a liveried uniform so could not be a soldier, but that didn’t mean he was her friend. She watched as he took a step to the side to pick up her fallen coat, and by so doing revealed what had been hidden behind him.
A doorway that hadn’t been there moments before.
‘Stupid girl!’ he said again. Making the most of her confused, stunned silence, he picked her up and threw her over his shoulder as if she weighed no more than a feather pillow.
‘Hey! Put me down!’
But he was already halfway through the doorway before Liyara had opened her mouth. Then, without warning, it was closing behind them before vanishing entirely with a loud “pop”.
The sunlight hurt her eyes.
‘What in the name of the Wood-Shades did you just do?’ Liyara shouted as soon as the man put her back down on solid ground.
‘What? No “thank you”? I just saved your life and you invoke the name of the Wood-Shades.’ He shook his head sadly.
Liyara had the good grace to look remorseful. ‘I’m sorry. Thank you. Now could you explain what’s going on? What just happened? Where are we? And who are you? How did you know I needed help?’
‘You have a lot of questions.’
‘I need a lot of answers.’
The man waved his hand dismissively in her direction and the cuts to her hands and knees closed up and healed over. He gave her a lop-sided grin. ‘Then I will do my best to give them to you. My name’s Evhan. We entered a portal. We’re where we always were. I go where the charm guides me.’
Liyara’s brow furrowed. ‘None of that made sense.’ She turned her hands over trying to find even a hint of damage to them but there was none.
Evhan burst out laughing.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘You. Which parts are you having trouble with?’
Liyara put her hands on hips. She didn’t enjoy being laughed at. ‘All of it. I got your name but the rest was nonsense.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, still laughing. ‘Let’s begin again, shall we?’ He opened his palm. ‘This charm summons me to a place where my presence is required. I came through the portal to find you and bring you back with me.’
‘What are you?’
‘A forest mage. But the most important question you should be asking is, “Who are you?”’
‘I know who I am. Liyara.’
He smiled again. ‘No. You’re my new apprentice.’ Evhan began to walk along the path.
‘No. Wait!’ Liyara called out behind him. ‘I want to go home. You still haven’t explained where we are yet.’
‘You are home.’
‘That’s not possible. And I don’t want to be an apprentice. To you or anyone else.’
‘Well, that’s too bad. The decision’s already been made. And now things have been set in motion that cannot be halted.’
They both stopped. Liyara rubbed her face in frustration. ‘Stop speaking in riddles.’
‘What made you take the charm this morning?’
Liyara looked at the ground, embarrassed that he knew she had stolen it. She had never stolen anything in her life. ‘I don’t know,’ she finally mumbled.
‘Exactly. There was no conscious reason for you to do it. Yet you did, even knowing the penalty that awaited you should you have been caught. It’s magic, Liyara. Magic was behind you taking the charm. Magic you unleashed because you were supposed to.’
‘I don’t believe you. It was a coincidence.’
‘There are no such things as coincidences. Everything unfolds exactly as it is meant to, whether we like it or not. You are exactly where you are meant to be, about to start something that you are meant to do. There is a reason these little things are known as destiny charms.
‘You asked where we are. This is the Inner Forest.’ He noted the look of confusion on her face. ‘Earlier I told you that we were where we had always been. In the Tarian Forest. And that is true, in a sense. Only, the Inner Forest though part of the Tarian Forest is a separate place entirely. Another world, you could say. A world within a world. Once one enters the Inner Forest, they must complete their training and fulfill their destiny. Then, and only then, can they leave.’
‘So I’m stuck here?’
‘I’m afraid so.’ He paused. Raising his arms, he pointed at the forest. Take a look around you. What do you see?’
‘Look closer. What’s different about these trees compared to the ones you saw on the other side of the portal?’
Liyara stared at the trees. They looked the same. They were big, towering specimens of bark and branches, covered in leaves… then it struck her. ‘The leaves. They were green in Taria. Here they are red, gold and orange. You said we were in the same place but how can we be in different seasons?’
Evhan nodded, impressed. ‘Autumn is only just beginning in Taria but here the seasons take hold faster and each one is associated with certain types of magic. Autumn is a time of change and transformation. A time when the veil between the worlds – between the Tarian Forest and the Inner Forest – is at its thinnest allowing those of us who are able to travel between them with ease. But it’s deeper than that. It signifies a time of a transition in each of us. You will change from Liyara the Destiny Charm Thief to Liyara the Apprentice. Instead of being Evhan the Quester, I will become Evhan the Teacher. We all have destinies to fulfill, and autumn is destiny’s season.
‘But that is a conversation for another time. We need to turn our attention now towards your training.’
‘Training? What training?’
‘For an apprentice, you are really quite slow. But have no fear. With a system of rewards and punishments in place, I think we can fix that.’
As Evhan saw the alarmed look on Liyara’s face, he burst out laughing once more. The girl really did have a lot to learn. It was clear she was going to be a handful to teach. He couldn’t help but wonder what destiny had in store.
For both of them.