Light filtered through Julia’s closed eyelids.
She threw a hand up to block the sunlight pouring into her room through the broken slats in the blinds. Her heart beat rapidly and she took several deep breaths to calm herself.
Julia sighed and shifted her weight to a shadowed spot on her bed. She lay there for a few moments, then exhaled in what sounded almost like a moan. Another day on the farm. The thought made her sad, deepening her already dour mood.
Somewhere in her memory, impressions of happier times lingered. Reds, blues, greens, and yellows colored every view. The sound of laughter accompanied an image of a man and a woman. Their faces were blurred, but she somehow knew they were beautiful.
Normally they dressed in flowing robes, but sometimes they both wore armor of gold. The man had shoulder-length blond hair, and the woman had fiery ginger locks that draped over her shoulders and fell to her waist, hair a little longer than Julia’s, but the color was the same. The vision always faded as quickly as it came, leaving Julia hungering for more.
The idea that they might be her parents excited her, even as it brought back the feelings of desertion that she tried not to focus on.
“Julia!” her aunt’s voice rose up the stairs like a murky mist. “Your chores won’t do themselves.”
Julia shook her arms and legs the same way a dog flings off water. She dressed and went downstairs to eat a quick breakfast. It was Saturday, so no school, but this didn’t mean Julia had the day off. Her aunt declared Julia was to go to the store after her morning chores, with more tasks for her when she returned. Julia only nodded, grabbed a heavy coat hung by the back door, fetched an empty basket from the pantry and headed out to the field to pick some of the late-ripening berries.
The sun hadn’t been up long, and dew still sat like small, glittering diamonds upon the high grass. As she trudged toward the field and the bushes on the other side, her jeans became damp halfway up her calves.
She put the large basket on the ground and started to pluck the berries, occasionally popping one into her mouth. The fruit’s tartness was a nice change from her aunt’s bland cooking, and she enjoyed the way they burst, flooding her mouth with flavor when she bit into them. Berry-picking was a mindless task and she gazed behind her at the farm and the flat lands that spread out to the horizon. She turned back to the bush, but stopped, a berry halfway to her mouth.
Beyond the bush was a dense tree line. A forest now stood where more fields and farms had been a moment ago. Immense oak trees and smaller beech mixed with lesser trees. Tightly packed undergrowth of strange bushes and untouched forest debris filled in between. The term ‘old-growth forest’ filled her head. Just like in school, a series of facts dashed through her mind like tickertape.
An ancient virgin forest with a diverse variety of trees.
Straight across from her was the largest oak she had ever seen. Its upper branches spread out over the canopy of the forest. The tree’s trunk had to be at least twelve feet in diameter. Over a thousand years old, she calculated. Moving closer to the forest, Julia stared at the lobed leaves of the giant oak as if they were an illusion. Still not believing her own eyes, she reached out to touch one of the boughs.
A few inches from the branch, her forefinger pushed through something that felt like a puff of warm, thick gas. The air shimmered where she touched it. She yanked her hand back and studied her finger as if it had been burnt, but it was unmarked.
Julia couldn’t see anything between her and the oak. Her hand trembled as she reached for the tree again. When she encountered the barrier this time, she pushed harder until her hand passed through. A ripple was created in the air, like the little waves when a stone is dropped into a pond. She could feel the heat as her hand passed through. The other side was warm, in contrast to the cool-dry winter weather on her side of the barrier.
How can this be?
She stayed for several moments, even though an incandescent light glowed around her wrist. It felt like a ring of hot metal. Determined, Julia inhaled deeply and stepped forward. The heat struck her face. It engulfed her as she went through. Julia fought to calm her rapid breathing as the searing sensation fell away and the temperature dropped to merely warm, like a spring day.
Damp. The first thing she noticed when she could breathe normally was the heaviness of the air and how it hung on her body, along with the moldy smell of decaying leaves.
Silence surrounded her. The distant sound of traffic on the highway had disappeared as if a curtain had dropped between the forest and the busy route. Julia turned around and was shocked to see that the fields, her aunt’s farm, and the road had vanished…replaced by thick forest. Julia panicked and forced her way through the dense undergrowth, branches slapping at her, stinging her face and hands. After several paces she stopped: her heart beat briskly.
Julia’s world was gone.
Everything around her felt different—not just the warmer weather, but an essence in the air and ground itself. She found her way back to the prominent oak. Walking around it in a slow circle, she spotted a path. The track looked as if it had been used often. Probably an animal trail. It wasn’t her first choice, but she didn’t relish tramping through the thorny brush.
Well, I can’t just sit here. Julia pushed aside branches as she worked her way down the path. Fresh droppings confirmed her guess, but the size of the piles put her on guard. She continued for over an hour, the canopy overhead thinning slightly as blotches of sunlight fell across her and the trail. The sweet, smoky, sometimes musky scents of the woods mingled with the earthy odors.
Suddenly a hoarse screech from above made her crouch.
She tried to make herself as small as possible. The shriek repeated twice, but it came from two different directions as if creatures were calling to each other. When it sounded again right overhead, she peered up through the forest’s umbrella. A huge bird flew past. Its sharp talons grazed the tree tops. It was one of the hawks from her dreams. But that’s impossible!
Julia moved quickly, but quietly, along the path. Less than half an hour later she came out into a clearing that was covered in waist-high grass and brush. Thin stalks shaded from green to light yellow wavered in a light breeze, a sweet smell seemed to fill the meadow. A glance around the open space didn’t expose another trail. She turned to the right, resigned to finding some way through the woods, when she heard a groan to her left.
“Who’s there?” she asked softly trying to keep her voice from trembling.
She hesitated, familiar with how dangerous a wounded animal could be.
Another long low moan came from whatever was hidden in the high grass.
It definitely sounded human.
Damn. She turned back and moved toward the distressed sound, keeping low. Julia felt like she was wading through water.
When Julia reached the area, she thought the sound had come from, there was only silence—nothing to give her a clue where to look. She pushed the tall grass back to either side trying to find the source of the sound. As she pressed down the long shoots, she nearly stumbled over the body.
It was the silver-armored dragon rider.