After a while of calling, a pair of ravens flew past me, cawing. They landed on a branch and pecked at it until I looked up at them.
“Are you trying to get my attention, or am I misinterpreting?”
One of them flew further into the trees, and the other waited a few seconds before following suit.
“Yeah… I guess you were. Maybe I shouldn’t expect Chopin to be the only one helping me. She’s asleep right now, after all.”
One of the ravens circled back to caw at me again.
“Okay, okay. I’m coming!”
I followed the ravens between the trees until they landed in the branches of an immense huge oak tree.
“Stefan?” I called out when I still couldn’t see anyone.
“Dammit, Leila,” I heard a voice grumble, “will you follow any animal?”
“I followed you, didn’t I?” I teased, hoping to lighten the mood. He’d referred to himself as animalistic plenty of times over the years, so I had faith that he wouldn’t misunderstand. I started climbing over roots in an effort to circle the tree to wherever he was. I really was huge.
I heard him scoff. “I get it… I’m enough of a beast that something with horns doesn’t bother you.”
Well, I could tell what the first thing I had to put a stop to was. “Listen to me Stefan: I’m not dating Evander… or courting him… or whatever you’re thinking. He’s older than he looks– and he’s married. He was with his wife last night.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and I have no reason to question that.” I climbed over another giant root. “Geez, how did you climb over these things?”
“I was focused on getting away from your lies.”
“Okay… Fair enough. But I can tell that there’s more to it tha–” I had just gotten to the top of a more tangled, moss-covered root when I lost my footing. I felt my body falling and wondered how soft the ground below was. “Whoah!”
I didn’t fall far. I felt strong arms cradle my body, and a grunt from Stefan. I realized then that I’d closed my eyes, and I opened them to see him gazing down at me with concern.
“Leila…” he sighed, “You can’t follow me everywhere. I can get into places that aren’t safe for you.”
“Well, you’ll just have to stop going into dangerous places,” I replied matter-of-factly. “Or help train me to be more like you, because I’m not going to stop following you.”
He shook his head and set me down on a pile of dried oak leaves. “Why are you so impossible?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I have to be in order to have an imagination like mine… or to come to Tierney Ríocht.”
He closed his eyes, clearly trying to regain his patience. I tugged on his hands to get him to sit down with me, then scooted in close, so that our arms and hips and shoulders were touching. He didn’t move away, but he was still frowning deeply.
“So… Stefan… first thing’s first. I’m sorry. You’re my best friend; I’ve said that I trust you with my life, and I should have trusted you to know abut this place.”
He gave me a sidelong glance, still frowning, still not saying anything.
“I’m sorry for lying to you… and for not answering your questions right away. I’ve been trying to figure out why I even did that.”
“What have you come up with so far?” His voice was monotone, and he was looking down, letting his long hair cover most of his face.
“I guess it’s a combination of things,” I admitted. “At first, I thought it was just a dream. Then you were mad about the owl. Even when I knew it wasn’t a dream, how was I going to tell you about it?”
He raised his head just a little to peer at me. “You could have invited me over sooner and just showed me. Instead you came here without me again. And again you didn’t take the advice of the people looking our for you.”
I nodded. “Yeah… I’m sorry. I’m still trying to explain it to myself. I keep thinking I would have told you more once I understood it better, but… I’m not sure if that would have been me making excuses or fooling myself or just outright bullshitting again.”
I felt his hand on mine. It was warm and firm.
“Thank you, Leila,” he murmured.
“You’re being honest with me. You’re admitting that you don’t know, but you’re still trying to figure it out.”
“Yeah… I kind of panicked last night. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
He squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back.
“I still want a lot more explanations,” he said, keeping his voice low.
“So do I.”
Stefan moved his arm to wrap it around my shoulders. Then he must have decided that that wasn’t good enough, because he pulled me onto his lap and held me tightly.
“I hope you never feel the need to lie to me again, Leila.” His voice sounded deeper, strained, like he was trying to keep me from hearing it shake. But I could still tell. I nestled further into his arms. “Can we figure this place out together?”
“Yes,” I told him. I could feel my own emotions welling up. “I… Stefan, I don’t know if I could have kept this up without you by my side.”
“You’re stuck with me now,” he said, trying to sound a little more cheerful. He placed his fingers under my chin to get me to look up into his eyes. “I’ve got you right where I want you, and I’m not going to let anything here– or on Earth– hurt you.”
“My hero,” I giggled. But I knew he meant it. His eyes told me that he meant everything he said. And also…
I had to stop myself before I read any further into the way he was looking at me. I laid my head back down on his chest; I wanted to listen to his heartbeat for a little while before we got up and went out to meet Sleipnir. I wanted to feel more of his warmth and strength.