I urged my body to run faster, but my legs refused to speed up. Branches clawed at my face and bare limbs. They tore at my clothing. My sandaled feet were wet and slippery with blood, sweat, and dirt. My long hair flew behind me in a mass of tangles. The light from the full moon filtered through the dense trees just barely enough for me to see where I was going. I couldn’t slow down though. I had to find it, whatever it was, before time expired yet again. Each time I knew I was getting closer. Closer to what, I wasn’t sure. I was sure however, that I’d know when I saw it: this thing that was driving me to madness.
“Ash, wake up. You have to get ready. The others will be over immediately after breakfast.” I rolled over, still breathless from my dream. “Were you dreaming again?” I nodded. The images were in the front of my mind. I hoped maybe I’d see something besides the trees, the something I’ve been searching for for three months now. “The same dream?” I nodded again. “Maybe you should talk to father or one of the elders. It’s strange, Ash, and definitely not good for you. Look at the circles beneath your eyes!”
I ignored her. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was more worried about my appearance than about my mental state of health. Adisa is my older sister…my older, prettier, more outgoing sister. Though we share a similar deep mocha skin tone and jet black hair, her skin is more even, more smooth, and her hair is shinier, less frizzy. Of course, she spends much more time on her appearance than I do, and she cares much more than I do.
I finished dressing and began to braid my hair. “What are you doing?” Adisa asked, appalled.
“I’m not going hiking with this mess hanging around my head.”
“We’re just taking a walk and having a picnic. Your hair will not be a bother. Besides, Kitane said he likes your hair down.” I gave her a dirty look and continued braiding. “Elan likes my hair whatever way I wear it,” I thought to myself.
“If you loathe him that much, you need to talk to father and mother.”
“And say what? That I’ve been faking it this whole time? Not to mention how happy father is to finally be aligned with another of the most powerful tribes in the land. I can’t ruin that for him.”
“I still think you need to talk to someone and quit braiding your hair. Mother will tell you to take it down. Just you watch.” With that she left to go to breakfast. I shook out my hair and pinned half of it up in compromise. My parents, Nataani and Chayna, as well as Adisa and her husband Troen were already seated. Nataani made a motion with his hand and the food was brought out. I wasn’t paying much attention to the conversation. I heard enough to answer at the appropriate times with an appropriate answer, but my mind was elsewhere.
After breakfast, we sat in the great room until the rest of the group arrived. Kitane was first, so perfectly punctual it was disgusting. I stood and hugged him without emotion and he sat down next to me, flowing easily into the conversation. Now don’t get me wrong, Kitane is a great guy, but he’s not my type. Well, the problem is more me than him, I suppose. He should be my type. We are the equivalent of prince and princess around here. Our fathers are tribal leaders. I’m not much of a princess though, and he’s too much of a prince.
Shortly after Kitane arrived, the third part of our triple picnic date showed up: Elan, my childhood friend and still my best friend, and his friend Nachele. Their situation is similar to that of Kitane and I’s. Their parents are pushing the relationship, but they aren’t as against it as I am against my relationship with Kitane.
The six of us left, each of the boys holding a picnic basket. Adisa and Troen hung on each other and talked just the two of them. The rest of us walked in a lose group, chatting politely. Our conversation didn’t have much substance, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone much. Every now and then, Kitane would try to focus my attention away from the others. He’d point out a pretty flower or an animal or something. Elan didn’t have to try with Nachele. They did actually like each other. I can admit I was a bit jealous.
We stopped to eat lunch at noon on a small patch of grass. It was amazing. The kitchen staff had outdone themselves. Who knew you could fit so much in a few picnic baskets? Troen suggested we go home a different way. No one else had an opinion either way, so we followed Troen. We had walked for about an hour when things began to look very familiar, but it was an uncomfortable kind of familiar. My chest felt tight and I was dizzy. These were the woods from my dream.
Well that’s not strange because these are the only woods I’ve ever been in, but this was the part of the woods from my dream. I recognized it. We were headed in the same direction I run every night. Maybe in my dreams I was running home. I didn’t want that to be true. What a rotten ending. Not half an hour later, I felt we were beginning to go the wrong way. To everyone else it may have been the right way, but I was ready to solve the mystery. I felt pulled in a different direction. Then I saw it: a cave. That’s where I was being pulled. It had to be.
“I’m not ready to go home yet. Let’s go check out that cave. Come on, it’ll be fun,” I said to Kitane. He gave me a strange look, but erased it from his face as quick as he could manage. I glanced at Elan.
“I’m in,” he answered sincerely.
“I’m in no hurry,” Nachele agreed.
“Of course, sounds like fun.” Kitane sounded as if he were trying to convince himself.
“You two interested?” I asked Adisa and Troen. They smiled at each other. It was obvious they planned on getting some alone time in the cave. I tried not to appear excited. I walked as casually as I could even though my insides were practically bursting. Adisa and Troen disappeared quickly. The others casually explored the cave. I was on a mission. I was more afraid of not finding what I was looking for than I was of getting lost. I’m not sure how much time passed.
As soon as I was separated, I took off. I was so excited and nervous and so many other emotions at once. My hands shook as I felt my way through the cave. The area ahead of me looked lighter. It wasn’t sunlight or artificial light though. It wasn’t much lighter than the cave itself.