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It was bright, too bright. The sun shone through the colored leaves, dappling the forest floor with its harsh brilliance. It lit up the cool shadows of the trees, burning Danielle’s eyes and making her wish that she was underground again, safe, secure.
But that was no longer an option. She had seen Dur bleeding in front of her, his eyes widened in fright as he tried to protect her. His body had twitched, seemingly of its own accord as the restless tore into him—the sound of cracking bones and tearing sinew had mingled with his screams. No, there was no going back to the tunnels with them; they were no longer alive. Besides, she owed a debt to the one that had saved her life; she couldn’t leave him until it was repaid.
The blonde surfacer had travelled the entire night with Alicia on his shoulders. Danielle had followed him doggedly through the trees, at times almost slipping and plunging to the ground below. They had finally stopped when the sun had brightened the horizon and when the restless were no longer in sight.
Now, he was sleeping, nestled within the branches of one of the trees. Alicia was tied up below him, her hands and feet knotted together with rope. More binds secured her to the trunk of the tree itself, making it unlikely that she would escape.
Danielle watched her unconscious form. Blood soaked one of Alicia’s arms, caked and dried on her fingertips. More blood smeared one side of her face, probably where she had briefly placed her hand. In the sunlight, Danielle could see that her hair wasn’t exactly brown—it had a reddish tint to it. Danielle carefully lifted a finger and pulled a lock of her own brown hair from beneath her hood. It was darker, the color of muddy water. She carefully tucked it back beneath the layers of cloth.
Danielle dug her fingers into the dirt where she squatted, her eyes flickering from Alicia to her surroundings. A few stray birds called to one another, piercing the morning air with the twitterings of song. Branches swayed, creaking in the wind. Danielle lowered her lashes, wondering how her eyes looked in the light.
Suddenly, Alicia moved. Danielle immediately trained her attention on her, waiting for her to fully wake. The girl moved again and her eyes fluttered open. She moaned once, her head flopping forward as she weakly tugged at the binds that held her. Danielle waited.
Slowly, Alicia lifted her head. It took her a moment before she looked at Danielle, her mouth pulled into a grimace of pain, “He knocked me out, didn’t he.”
Danielle didn’t respond. Instead, she lifted a leaf, examining it closely. Red merged into orange and yellow, a sunset of colors. A few spots of brown marred its surface, freckling the perfect leaf. Danielle began to shred it with her fingers.
Alicia spoke again, slightly louder. Perhaps she didn’t think that Danielle had heard her the first time, “You know, I was the one that told him to go back for you. He would have left you otherwise.”
Danielle didn’t look up from her leaf. It was now in tatters, a crumpled piece of beautiful ruin, “Robin told me that you lie about almost everything…that I shouldn’t listen to what you say.”
“You shouldn’t do everything that Robin says.”
She blew the leftover pieces of leaf off of her fingers, watching them spiral downward toward the ground, mingling with all of its other fallen companions. She carefully selected another leaf; this one was mostly brown, a few stains of yellow merging into it, “He also told me not to kill you.”
That gave Alicia pause; Danielle could tell. She was silent for a moment before chuckling nervously, “Well perhaps you should listen to some things. But if he wants me alive, I should probably get my arm looked at. You wouldn’t want infection to set in, after all. I hear that can be deadly.”
Danielle didn’t respond. Instead, she set the brown leaf gently on the ground. She slowly turned her head and squinted at Alicia. Blue eyes looked back at hers before looking downward, “I’m sorry about your companions…were you very close with them?”
Her face may have been spattered with blood, but it was pretty. Her eyebrows arched gently over thick lashes, her nose was straight, her mouth well-formed. Danielle reached for another colorful leaf, shredding it to pieces, “They were my brothers.”
“I see.” Alicia glanced up at her again, arching one of those perfect eyebrows, “I thought…well…I didn’t think they were…”
“It’s because of my eyes, isn’t it?”
Alicia glanced to the side, wriggling her wrists against the ropes that bound them, “Yes, actually. You’re not the same as they are, even though you act like it.”
“We shared the same father.”
“I understand.” Alicia looked toward her again, a face that was meant to melt hearts, a face of regret, “I’m so sorry. If you’d like to talk, know that I’m here.”
Danielle began to tear the leaf into tinier pieces, so small that they wouldn’t exist anymore. She nodded briefly and Alicia continued, “I lost my own parents when I was young. It’s hard, I know.” She wriggled her fingers, perhaps to get some circulation flowing in them, “Do you think you could loosen these? It’s just that it’s very painful with the arm…”
Alicia shrugged as if it didn’t matter, her eyes roving across the landscape, “Where’s Robin, anyway? Is he around?”
Danielle opened her mouth to respond, but there was a quiet thump behind the tree, the sound of someone landing on leaves. Alicia craned her neck as Robin walked around the side of the tree, “Right here, Ms. Heart.”
Alicia flashed him a dazzling smile, “Ah, Robin! So good to see you. You slept well, I hope? No bad dreams? Danielle and I were just…”
“I know what you were doing.” Robin crouched down next to Alicia, peering at her bloody arm. His forehead creased slightly as he examined it. He then glanced toward Danielle, “Thank you for watching her. You can sleep now, if you want.”
Danielle shook her head firmly, “I can keep watch still, if you need me to.”
Robin’s green eyes narrowed as he turned his attention back to Alicia’s arm, “No. I need to deal with this. Go get some sleep.”
Danielle slumped her shoulders and stood, brushing the last of the fallen bits of leaves from her fingertips. They fell to the ground: crimson, gold, mahogany. She set her foot down on top of them, pushing the pieces further into the mud.
Danielle glanced over her shoulder one more time before seeking out a tree that was close enough so that she would wake if Robin decided to move. She wasn’t going to be left behind: not this time.