I came to my senses on the border between civilization and the Wild. My stomach ached. Well, everything ached, and I smelled of mud and fouler things. I had enough of my wits to crawl behind a tree, out of site of the path beyond the edge of the forest, and listen for the next Warden patrol to pass. The only sound around me was the forest, sleepy in the heat of a summer afternoon. I waited over an hour, hoping they wouldn’t be long or I would doze off again, and finally heard them come by. Three Wardens strolled by heading west. Another patrol should pass in two hours. That gave me plenty of time to find the pack I had buried and make myself presentable.
Two weeks ago I had buried my things under an old oak surrounded by skinny trees and then gave myself over to the Wild. It took almost an hour to find the spot again. I usually woke close to where I entered, but not at the exact spot. I rested again before digging it up. It was my usual Midsummer survival pack: a clean set of clothes, some food, and my illusion powders. I devoured nuts and cheese while I wandered to a stream that gurgled nearby. As I washed up, a few nymphs floated past, drifting lazily in the current, their hair splayed out like sea grass. Any other time I would have worried that they would start some game at my expense, but after Midsummer every Wild thing was as worn out as I was, and not in the mood for tricks. Not even with a half-blood Changeling like me. Once I felt less disgusting I changed clothes and got to work on my illusion.
If had emerged from the forest as my real self, glowing amber skin and glimmering green eyes, the Wardens would kill me on sight. It was their job to make sure the Wild stayed in the Wild. But I couldn’t don my usual face either, the one everyone knew as Glade Balladeer. She was supposed to be visiting her frail old mother back in Guowtan. Instead I recreated the look I had worn just before losing myself in the woods. My hair grew long and blond, I lightened my skin to a creamy shade of pink, and added freckles across my nose for good measure. I kept the dirty, worn look. If the Wardens out on patrol today couldn’t take pity on that face they didn’t have hearts.
The next patrol came by shortly, this one had someone in a good enough mood to be singing. They were following the footpath just outside the woods, not an official road but something worn into the grass from years of Wardens walking back and forth. So far the Wild had kept its side of the bargain and not grown out over the border, so even though there was no fence or wall, there was a clear end to the forest all around Drakir.
I waited until they came into view and then threw myself out of the forest, shouting at the top of my voice, and half-stumbled, half-ran in their direction. I didn’t have to put much effort into falling faint in their path.
“Is she all right?”
Their voices muddied together as they gathered around me. There were four of them.
One grumbling voice rose above the others. “I said careful, she’s probably some Wild thing!”
“She’s not Wild,” another argued. “Looks, she’s got a Warden’s badge.”
That was another wise touch on my part, making sure my Warden badge was prominent on my belt. That was no illusion either, I was an official Warden, licensed and registered, just like them. A woman crouched beside me, lifted my head and started checking me over for wounds. I blinked my eyes open and gasped, and she smiled down at me.
“It’s all right, you’re out now. What’s your name?”
“Amalia,” I answered. I had always liked that name. I struggled to sit up, but she held me firm. “I have to get away.”
“You’re safe now, just rest. Stop scowling, Ricard, and give us a potion. She must be the Warden that went missing from the South Tower two weeks ago.”
Ricard, a dark-haired human with a sour expression, came into view over the woman’s shoulder and handed her a small glass vial.
“Seems like she should be a mite worse off for being in the Wild a full two weeks,” he said.
She huffed. “She’s bad off enough.” The woman pressed the bottle to my lips and made me drink, and didn’t let me sit up until she had checked me over again. “Shaky and wobbly all over. You haven’t eaten in a good bit, have you?”
“I couldn’t very well eat while I was in there,” I said, glad I had thought to rinse my mouth after munching my cheese. She helped me to my feet and I got a look at the others, two red-haired dwarves that looked enough alike I guessed they were siblings.
“Good girl,” the woman answered. “Well I’m Danny, and these two are Riln and Rian. And you’ve met Ricard. We’ll get you back to the South Tower and fix you right up.”
“Thank you, thank you so much.”
The journey to the South Tower wasn’t a long one, but I was weak from my time in the Wild and slowed the group considerably. I kept tripping over my own feet and falling behind. Danny would stop the group, and Ricard would complain that we would miss supper if we didn’t keep moving.
Rian eventually began singing again. She had a strong deep voice. I didn’t know much about dwarvish music, it always sounded jarring and unresolved to me, but her singing made it sound hearty. At least it drowned out Ricard’s complaining.
We arrived at the South Tower just as dusk fell. Warden towers were simple structures, tall, round stone towers with thin slits for windows. The top level was made of wide panes of glass and contained a large pile of wood, so if a signal were lit the neighboring towers would see and send help. Several floors inside housed supplies and sleeping quarters for the Wardens.
We were welcomed in, and space was cleared for us at one of the long tables on the first floor. They refilled the supper bowls and we began passing them around and spooning large helpings onto the plates set out for us.
“You made it back, and without a mark on you,” an older elf said, stopping by our table. I had stayed at the tower a few days before disappearing into the Wild, and this was one of the Wardens I had made a point of talking to. One of many steps I took to ensure no one discovered why I really disappeared every year. I couldn’t remember his name, only that he was an elf and a fighter, with a notable scar on his chin.
“Yes, thank the Flames,” I said.
“So what lured you in? You didn’t go chasing a satyr, did you?” He nudged Ricard who grunted and rolled his eyes.
“Of course not.” I made a face and the others laughed. “I’m not that new.”
“Get dazzled by the lights then?” Riln asked around a mouthful of food.
“No.” I lowered my face and made myself blush. “It was flowers.” They laughed at me again and I shrugged. “Poppies, I think. They were so beautiful, and I remembered if you can get the Wild ones they are good for so many things. I thought I could just grab a few and get out.”
That sobered them some. It would not be the first time a new Warden was lured into the Wild, but few of those stories ended as well as mine.
“As soon as I stepped in among the poppies I fell asleep,” I continued. “When I woke I was in a different part of the forest and had to find my way back.”
“Just be thankful it was Midsummer and all the Wild creatures were somewhere else,” Danny said, patting my shoulder. “Now eat up. Once you get a good night’s sleep you’ll feel worlds better.”
It felt so good to spend a night in a bed, with a fire in the room, and walls surrounding me, even if I had to suffer through the nightmares. Faint memories of whatever I had been doing in the last two weeks always haunted me just after Midsummer. I was glad I never fully remembered what it was. The weariness and the filth afterward were enough.
I woke the next morning feeling rested, if not completely refreshed. I emerged from the stairs into the main foyer, crowded with Wardens exchanging reports with the night shift just coming in from patrol. Still hungry as a new kitten I pushed through them to the dining hall. Breakfast was busy. Long tables laden with food and pitchers, and rough wooden chairs laden with Wardens filled the hall. I found an out-of-the-way table so I could gulp down some eggs without interfering with their business. They all assumed I had survived an ordeal in the Wild, so I was considered off duty, ready to head home as soon as I was strong enough to travel.
While I watched them bustle around I felt a familiar humming, something that buzzed like getting a shock through a carpet on a cold day. I hadn’t felt it in a while, but I could think of only one reason it would be showing up now.
I hoped to make it outside before they found me, but as I stood up I saw brown-skinned human with an array of wands strung at his belt, and a short, round woman, her fair hair wound up in ornate braids. They hovered in the doorway searching the faces of the Wardens gathered for breakfast. They glanced right over me. I didn’t look like myself, like the Glade they knew. I waved to get their attention, and they wove through the crowd to my table.
“Glade?” Otosa asked when they reached me. Josie peered at me, a deep frown on her face. She was my best friend, and knew me better than anyone, but even she couldn’t tell it was me beneath my disguise.
“It’s Amalia for now,” I said. “Had you fooled, didn’t I?”
He didn’t return my plucky grin. “All right, Amalia. We’ve come to take you home,” Otsoa said.
“Otsoa, is that you?” Ricard swung by our table on his way to meet his party. He seemed much more cheerful this morning. Maybe he had been missing some sleep as well. “Haven’t seen you in a while. You were the only Warden that was at the towers more than Danny and me. And who’s this?”
“Hello, Ricard, this is Josie. Sweetheart, this is Ricard. He’s a bit gruff, but a good fighter to have in a scrap.”
Josie smiled shyly up at Ricard. I wondered if Otsoa had introduced her as sweetheart before.
“Pleased to meet you,” Ricard said.
“Lovely reason to be home more,” Danny commented. She had come up behind Ricard and nudged him. “When do we get to settle down?”
“When you stop your heart from bleeding for every wounded traveler we find out there.” Ricard shook his head. “Woman keeps me traipsing around Drakir like we’re the flaming healer brigade. I’d like a few quiet months, yah know?”
“Sure, and after two weeks you’d be starting brawls at the bar you’d be so antsy for a fight. Come on, let’s get some breakfast before we’re due out again.” Danny dragged Ricard toward the buffet.
“You haven’t been avoiding tower duty, have you?” I asked Otsoa.
“No, just haven’t been going out as much. I was practically living in the towers before,” Otsoa admitted. “Most towns didn’t want to admit a non-licensed wizard.”
“But you’re licensed now,” Josie said, slipping her arm under his.
“Yes, and you have that nice comfy inn. You ever sleep in a tower bed?” They chuckled together, and I turned my face down to my meal. Part of me was so happy for Josie, she deserved this. Part of me dreaded being the third wheel all the way back to Casavera, where Josie’s inn was, and where Otsoa was now staying. It was only a few hours north from there to Cyfar, the city I considered home.
“So what happened?” Otsoa asked me, his voice growing serious.
I cringed. “Can we talk about it on the way back?” I looked around at the Wardens to see if any had overheard.
“Right.” Otsoa’s voice was clipped. Josie sighed and took a seat across from me at the table.
A few other Wardens stopped by to see how I was doing. I drank three more cups of coffee and had two heaping plates of food before I felt well enough to head out. As good as the night’s sleep had been, I couldn’t completely relax. That would mean losing the illusion I was wearing. It always took a little more concentration than usual to keep it going when it wasn’t my usual face. I just needed to get home and back to my old self.
I walked out with Otsoa and Josie, and found a large, ornate coach waiting for us by the doors. Josie’s family crest, three white balls floating over a simplified picture of an erupting volcano, was painted on the side. Four shining black horses in white harness were pulling the massive thing. The driver was in full livery, and it smelled like new leather inside.
“What haven’t we always traveled like this?” I asked her.
Josie rolled her eyes and looked away. “My family gave me charge of a second inn, so I have access to this so I can keep tabs on it. You’re just lucky no one else needed it today.” I wasn’t sure if she was upset with me or with her family.
“That’s great, Josie. Sounds like you’re doing really well. Must keep you pretty busy thought.”
“What happened, Glade? Where have you been?” Otsoa asked, his voice like a bucket of ice water down my back. I looked from him and back to Josie, who wouldn’t meet my eyes, then looked down at the floor.
“I don’t remember.”
Otsoa groaned and sat back, exasperated.
Josie crossed her arms and turned to stare at me. “You don’t have to keep things from us any more. Just tell us what happened.”
I tried to hide how much her words stung. It wasn’t as though she was the only person I had kept my true nature from. I hadn’t told anyone. Then I had lost control at her inn and they had both found out.
“I’m not keeping things from you,” I mumbled. “I really don’t remember. I never remember.” I blinked my eyes tightly a few times to be sure they wouldn’t look misty when I looked up again. “I thought I explained this to you guys.”
“You were gone for two weeks,” Josie said. She pushed forward on the seat so she was looking up into my face. “Two weeks. Without a word. And Otsoa-”
Otsoa put his hand on her arm and she stopped.
“What’s wrong? What happened to you?” I asked.
Otsoa took a deep breath and shrugged. “I felt it. All of it. And it made things . . . Difficult.” He pointed to the necklace he was wearing. It looked out of place with his otherwise rough clothing, a delicate silver necklace pendant shaped like a sword. A rose formed from a garnet hung from the tip. “I think we need to figure out exactly what this does.”
“Did anyone get hurt?” I asked quietly. They both shook their heads. That was something at least. “It made you want to change?” I swallowed hard. Being born Wild as I was had many downsides. Getting a good job was impossible and most people considered me bad luck to have around. But Otsoa had learned Wild human magic, and could turn into a jaguar. Or would turn into a jaguar if he became to agitated. If he was caught using this magic again he’d have more than his license revoked.
“I did change, twice,” he said. “Both times at night, thankfully. Josie managed to keep me hidden.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” It was a weak excuse, but it was all I could think to say. The necklace connected us. I could feel when he was near, and if he was trying to change into a jaguar, it would make me incredibly queasy. It was easy for him to change, but not so easy to come back. Somehow this necklace, gifted to us by a very strong Wild One, let me help him return to human form. I hadn’t known it would work the other way, and drag him into being a jaguar if I was Wild.
“We weren’t prepared for it,” Josie said. “Is this going to happen again?”
“Every Midsummer,” I said. “Every time. If the Queen calls I have to go. Most times of the year she doesn’t know I exist. But Midsummer she calls us all.” I shrugged. “I don’t have a choice.”
“And you don’t remember anything?” Otsoa asked again.
“Just bits and pieces. Flashes of images and feelings.” I bit my lower lip. “Why, what do you remember?”
“Nothing much, just how it felt.” He shifted in his seat. “Is it always like that? So . . .”
“Exhilarating?” I said. “Intoxicating?” I had thought he would look away but he met my gaze with his large brown eyes. He felt sorry for me. I just nodded and looked away again.
It was an awkward ride. I know they had more questions, but I didn’t have any answers. They had tasted what the Wild felt like, Otsoa during Midsummer and Josie at her inn when I had lost control, but I was sure they didn’t understand all of what I was up against. It was one thing to desire something, and quite another to be ruled by it.