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 dark 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 here right after breakfast." I roll over, still breathless from my dream. "Were you dreaming again?" I nod. The images are in the front of my mind. Maybe I'll see something besides the trees, the something I've been searching for for three months now. "The same dream?" I nod 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 under your eyes!"
I ignore her. I shouldn't be surprised that she's more worried about my appearance than about my mental state of health. She turns back to the mirror, smoothing her perfectly straight hair and pinching her cheeks to bring out a little color through her mocha skin.
She gawks when she sees me braiding my frizzy hair. "What are you doing?" Adisa asks, 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 give her a dirty look and continue braiding.
"Elan likes my hair whatever way I wear it," I think to myself.
"If you loathe him that much, you need to talk to father and mother."
"And say what? It won't change anything. Father won't risk losing those lands and Kitane has to marry soon or he'll lose his inheritance. I'd ruin everything."
"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 leaves to go to breakfast. I shake out my hair and pin half of it up in compromise.
My parents, Nataani and Chayna, as well as Adisa and her husband Troen are already seated. Nataani motions with his hand and the food is brought out. I pay little attention to the conversation, hearing enough to answer at the appropriate times with an appropriate answer, but my mind is elsewhere.
After breakfast, we sit in the great room until the rest of the group arrives. Kitane is first, so perfectly punctual it's disgusting. I stand, stiffening when his hands lay on my shoulders, but I allow him to plant a kiss on my forehead. When we take our seats again, he flows easily into the conversation.
Shortly after Kitane arrives, the third part of our triple picnic date show 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 depart, each of the boys holding a picnic basket. Adisa and Troen hang on each other, ignoring the rest of us while everyone else walks in a lose group, chatting politely. Our conversation doesn't have much substance, but it doesn't seem to bother anyone much. Every now and then, Kitane tries to focus my attention away from the others. He'll point out a pretty flower or an animal or something. I smile courteously as I must.
We stop to eat lunch at noon on a small patch of grass and afterwards,Troen suggests we go home a different route. No one else has an opinion either way, so we follow Troen. An hour later, things begin to look very familiar, but uncomfortably so. My chest tightens and I feel dizzy. These are the woods from my dream.
I recognize the place. We are headed in the same direction I run every night. Maybe in my dreams I was running home, but I didn't want that to be true. What a rotten ending. Shortly after making the connection, I feel we are beginning to go the wrong way. I'm pulled towards… towards…
I scan my surroundings frantically. I have to find an excuse to extend our hike. And then I see it.
"I'm not ready to go home yet. Let's go check out that cave. Come on, it'll be fun," I say to Kitane. He gives me a strange look, but erases it from his face as quick as he can manage. I glance at Elan.
"I'm in," he answers sincerely.
"I'm in no hurry," Nachele agrees.
"Of course, sounds like fun." Kitane sounds as if he's trying to convince himself.
"You two interested?" I ask Adisa and Troen. They smile at each other and disappear off on their own as we all suspected. It takes time for me to do the same, but when I do, I break into a sprint. I'm not concerned about getting lost. I know where I'm going even if I don't know what I'll find when I get there.
Suddenly the cave gets lighter, but the source isn't the sun. The glow is all wrong. The air feels damp and cool, far from the dry heat of Mayatar. I've come too far to be afraid, but I proceed cautiously.
*Author's Note: I've decided I prefer this in present tense so bear with me as I make the revisions. I'd love some constructive criticism.