Nahleen clasped light brown hands to her chest as wind whipped her dark brown curls and stained blue dress. Rumbling thunder jarred the grass under her bare feet. Clouds boiled in the iron sky.
“She stood on the faraway hill,” said Nahleen, “gazing upon him whom she loved. But he didn’t see her, only the woman who’d taken everything from her.”
“Nahleen,” a snippy voice shouted, “what are you doing?”
Nahleen jumped, knocking over a bucket of filthy water. It bounced down the hill and crashed among the jungle of trees. The woman who’d called her yelped.
“Oh dear.” Nahleen scratched her head as if she’d accidentally stepped on a bug. Scampering into the trees, she found Aunt Ellita lying in a heap with the bucket on her head. Her stringy feet kicked like a beetle on its back. Nahleen pulled the bucket free and the sixty-year-old woman sat up. Black and white hair stuck out of her bun like she’d been electrocuted.
“You almost killed me!” The words sounded squeaky.
Nahleen smiled absently. “But you’re still alive.”
Ellita snatched at Nahleen, but the fifteen-year-old hopped back and scurried down the hill like water in a brook.
“Come back here!” Ellita stumbled after her in frenzy. She didn’t know what she’d do if she caught Nahleen, but she’d do something.
At the bottom of the hill, Nahleen reached a round grass shack as green as the tropical foliage around it. It was a purifying place for the guardian line. They’d participate in special training that would identify their weapon to destroy the many Bengadriss that plagued them.
A round three-year-old boy with poky black hair greeted her from a watering hole where he played with toy animals. He was too young to train, but their great uncle, the Elder Trenir, insisted he come.
“Are you playing with Ellita?” he said.
Nahleen chuckled and skipped around. “I guess so.”
Ellita stumbled out of the trees. “Your dad always knew what he was doing.” She pulled twigs out of her bun. “Where’s your head?”
Nahleen rubbed her eye. “I left it in the bucket.”
“Only worthy Keepers and Keepresses get to use this shack. It’s not for someone like you! Your father killed fifteen of the Bengadriss in his day. What do you expect to do if you can’t even carry a bucket? He’d be so ashamed of you!”
Nahleen cocked an eyebrow. Aunt Ellita certainly had some yellow teeth, and where did she get that extra pupil?
BONG! BONG! BONG! The bells in the village echoed through the forest. Ellita fell silent, and Nahleen jerked back to reality. BONG! BONG! BONG! Chirping birds quieted, even the wind stopped rustling the trees.
“Hintar,” Ellita hissed, sweeping the small boy into her arms. She led the way down the green path overhung with creepers and gnarled trees. The bells continued on, and then, quiet. Ellita halted, face paling. “It’s close.”
Chills prickled Nahleen’s frame. Leaves rustled behind them, twigs snapped, grass crunched. Ellita’s arms tightened around Hintar as Nahleen’s knees buckled, but somehow didn’t give out. The girl looked back, waiting for the Bengadriss to appear. How did it feel to be ripped apart?
Ellita seized her hand and yanked her up the path. If they made too much noise, it would hear. If they didn’t go fast enough, it would discover them. She trusted Hintar’s silence more than Nahleen’s.
Their little town winding up a green mountain poked above the trees. Each building looked like a blue glass marble wearing a peaked hat. The usually bustling streets were deserted. Each window was shut, and the curtains drawn. Elder Trenir’s house stood at the top of the mountain. It looked like a pile of marbles with pointed hats. The lone warning bell in its tower above it still swung from the last gong. The Bengadriss was too close for the bell ringer to remain.
Ellita and Nahleen dashed up the mountain. They lived somewhere in the middle of town. Nahleen glanced back, expecting to see the Bengadriss rushing towards her. Where was it? There was no way it hadn’t entered the town yet. It could be watching her right now.
Somehow they made it inside their marble house without mishap. Locking the door, Ellita pressed a trembling hand to her heart, and then noticed Nahleen standing in the middle of the room like a lost puppy.
Ellita’s lips pinched. “What are you doing? Check the windows!”
“Oh.” Nahleen plopped Hintar by the trap door in the floor. Darting from window to window, she and Ellita checked the locks and closed the curtains.
An earsplitting shriek shook the walls.
Nahleen dove under a table and pressed against the wall. Had she closed all the windows? She hadn’t checked Hintar’s bedroom. The screech ripped the air again. Something heavy slid across the roof and sniffed at the door.
“Daddy,” Nahleen whispered.
A shaft of light touching the wooden floor from a crack in the curtain darkened. Nahleen stiffened. It knew she lived here. It wanted to finish what it had started on her arm. She glanced at the white scar reaching from her shoulder to her elbow. It had healed better than her heart ever would. The creature outside suddenly howled and dashed away.
Someone far up the street screamed and then cut off. Nahleen clapped her hands over her mouth. The awful cry stilled too quickly. The following silence pressed the sides of her head as she imagined the sound of ripping flesh.
Ding-ding-ding! The safety bell sounded. The very air took a breath, and Nahleen crawled out from under the table.
Ellita’s feet pounded across the floor and soon appeared. “Why did you leave Hintar alone?”
Nahleen batted at her skirt. “I didn’t.”
“You were supposed to watch him.”
Nahleen waved the woman away. “Hintar’s fine.” Ellita acted like Nahleen was the only one who should watch anybody.
“What if he went to one of the windows?” Ellita wiggled those bony arms of hers. “You want him to end up like your dad? It breaks through windows. Last week it snatched a stupid girl like you out of her house. She didn’t have a dad like yours to save her.”
Pain pierced Nahleen’s bosom and she looked around as her aunt jabbered on. The woman was too uptight, now where was she in her story? Oh yes, the tragic heroine turned to run from the spot forever, never to see her lover again. Nahleen fanned her face.
“Aunt Ellita, your perfume makes animals think no human beings are around. We’re safe.”
“Thank goodness you’re not in line to be the next guardian,” said Ellita. “We’d all be dead. You can’t even keep your room clean.” She examined the floor under a couch. “I told you to sweep. I feel crumbs on the floor. Nahleen, are you listening?” Ellita threw up her hands. “There’s nothing in your head! Did you feed Hintar today? Now I have to do it!” And she stomped off.
Nahleen rolled her eyes. “For once.”
“You should have gone to live with your uncle,” said Ellita from the other room. “Instead, you came to live with me. The least you could do is help keep this house clean. I don’t want bugs coming in. Nahleen, there are bugs. Elder Trenir actually wanted you—I guess I saved him the trouble. But he doesn’t mind bugs. Did you even wash these curtains correctly? I see a stain.”
Nahleen danced in a circle.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
Ellita squeaked, realized it was the door, and pressed her pattering heart. “Nahleen, answer it. And be civil! Last time, you insulted the whole neighborhood because you couldn’t say anything right. And don’t go hiding again if it’s Elder Trenir. I can’t believe you did that. I was so embarrassed. Everyone was talking about it for a month!”
Nahleen glided to the door and opened it on a nine-year-old boy with wide black eyes. Red and yellow shorts went past his knees; other than that, his light brown skin was bare. Nahleen eyed him a moment. Hadn’t she seen him before?
“Who is it?” said Ellita, her voice suddenly gentle and cheerful.
“I don’t know.” She looked at the boy. “Who are you?”
The boy stared at her as if she were insane. “Refrin. You know, your cousin. Uncle wants to see you.” Fifth in line, he actually lived with Uncle Trenir in that marble glob on the mountaintop. The old man’s voice rumbled in her head: “How did it happen? Why was he without his mantle?” Great tears had glistened in his eyes.
Nahleen blanched. “Oh, I’m not Nahleen.” She turned to run, but the boy grabbed her wrist and yanked her up the mountain.
Ellita stuck her head out in horror. “Uncle, what?” All the answer she got was Nahleen waving goodbye in that absentminded way of hers.
In a few minutes, they reached a large wall, made more for decoration than defense. Passing through a sweet-scented garden with a trickling fountain, they entered. The floor was made of some sort of yellow striated wood, while shiny red wood made the walls. These had been rounded like the outside of the house. Big circle windows let in floods of light.
“How lovely,” said Nahleen.
“Uncle Trenir,” the boy shouted, “I brought the Keepress!”
Nahleen looked around in great curiosity. “Keepress? Where?”
Refrin stared at her with open mouth, and then a muscular old man with a ramrod straight back strode into view with hands behind him. He wore baggy dark green pants and a white shirt with long, wide arms. Nahleen arched her neck to look up at him and he had to press his beard down to see her. She hadn’t seen him since the funeral and still remembered how he wept over his nephew’s funeral pyre. At least they had called it a funeral pyre. It had smell liked Daddy was cooking. All the pieces of Daddy. Elder Trenir looked just like him.
Nahleen suddenly reached out and stroked his beard. “My, that’s soft.”
The old man’s eye twitched. “This is the Keepress?” He said it more to himself, for he too hadn’t seen Nahleen in awhile. Whenever he came to visit, she’d disappear for some unaccountable reason.
Nahleen chuckled. “Of course not. My cousin’s next in line.”
“Didn’t you hear that scream in the street?” said Trenir.
Nahleen blinked in disbelief. “My cousin? But what was he doing out? He wasn’t a Keeper yet.”
The old man yanked at his beard. “Spider sacks, girl! Don’t you know what’s going on?”
Nahleen had to think about that one.
Trenir didn’t wait for an answer. “We’ll take you to the cabana and I’ll explain everything to you.”
“The cabana?” Nahleen laughed. “Only my…the guardian’s allowed there.” She couldn’t look her uncle in the face.
Gardenia reigned over the small island where a red wooded cabana lay sequestered among thick trees at the edge of a white sand beach.
“My goodness.” Nahleen stepped from the little boat that Trenir and Refrin used to get her there. “How quaint.” Daddy had taught her to swim here. Her mind wandered to more fantasies about tall, dark and handsome men wandering the forest on this island, waiting to fall in love with a broken-hearted girl. Yes, that was where her heroine would end up! She would run away to sea. A great storm rose up—Refrin opened the door and Nahleen’s thoughts hit a mental wall.
Inside were soft white chairs, a striated topaz floor and a fat bed before a bright picture window. There was a coral dresser, a double-door closet and the ugliest metal circlet lying in the middle of the floor.
“Gross,” said Nahleen.
Trenir’s face screwed up. “What do you mean ‘gross’?”
“Why would anyone keep that around?” She pointed at the circlet.
Refrin picked it up. “This is the mantle. It unlocks your powers. It comes here when its owner dies.”
A spasm ran through Nahleen’s breast, but her next words sounded flippant. “Can it go anywhere else?”
“No, just here.”
Nahleen folded her arms. “What kind of a stupid circlet is that? Why’s it called a mantle?”
Trenir sighed impatiently. “Because it places the responsibility of guardian on you and goes on your head.”
Refrin tried to put it on her but Nahleen shoved him away. “Don’t you dare put that thing on me. It might make my hair fall out.” When her dad put it on his head, the rusty thing changed into a thick steel band round his forehead. The middle of it was shaped to his nose as a guard. It had looked marvelous on him and was not meant for a creature like her.
Trenir twisted his beard. “You’re the Keepress, you have to wear it.”
“No wonder my cousin died.”
Trenir reached his hands around her head as if he would crush it, but pulled back and stuffed his fists into his pockets. “It’s ceremonial for you to stay one night alone in your cabana before you are officially crowned the Keepress. Tomorrow, Refrin will retrieve you and bring you to my house.” He looked closely at her. “Nahleen, did you hear me?”
She snapped out of a reverie. “Yes.”
“Don’t forget the mantle.”
“I see you survived yourself,” said Elder Trenir the next morning as Nahleen, clad in a green cotton dress, walked in with Refrin. Hintar dangled on her hand in ecstasy. “Why’d you bring your brother?”
“Aunt Ellita said he bit her last night.” She had said a bunch of other things, too.
Hintar made a face. “She didn’t taste good.”
The old man grunted; his beard frowned. “Give me the mantle.” He opened a hard, lined hand.
Nahleen stared at it. “What mantle?”
The old man stiffened. “The rusty circlet, girl!”
“I left it.”
The old man nearly ripped the beard out of his face. “Why?”
“It was gross.”
“But it forms a weapon for you. It’s the only thing that will kill the Bengadriss. Take your duties seriously. You’ll get somebody killed.”
Nahleen paled as if he had struck her. “I already did!” Tears glassed her eyes. “It’s not meant for me! It’s only for my dad…” She covered her face and sobbed. “I killed him, I killed him, I killed him!” She gulped a shuddering breath. “I wasn’t supposed to go to the waterfall, but I did anyway. The Bengadriss came…” Nahleen broke down for a few seconds. “She wrote a…a message to my dad with my b-blood. She wanted his mantle.” Her voice almost drowned in tears. “She wanted a-a trade. That’s why he took it off, and she r-ripped…” Nahleen shrieked, collapsing on the floor. She gripped her hair as if to rip it out.
Elder Trenir’s arms suddenly pressed her into his soft beard. A salty, woody smell came off him—like her dad’s scent. He was tall and strong—like daddy. For a moment, Elder Trenir was that precious one. He stroked her hair.
“Your dad loved you,” he said. “He’ll be there when I put the mantle on you. I promise you he’ll be proud.”
Nahleen shook her head, unable to reaffirm her worthlessness. He would still be here if she hadn’t been so dumb. What comfort was it to know that he’d loved her when he wasn’t there? He would never know how she loved him, or how sorry she was.
An inhuman wail rattled the air. Nahleen gripped her uncle around the middle. Trenir stood, pulling Nahleen to her feet at the same time. He pushed her to Refrin’s side and snatched up a pole with a curved blade on the end.
“Why didn’t the bells ring?” said Refrin. “Didn’t the bell ringer see it?”
“It’s a queen.” Elder Trenir looked at Nahleen. “She’s hunting. Put the mantle on Nahleen. If the Bengadriss catches her without her weapon, she’ll kill her.”
Chills rushed under Nahleen’s skin. “Hintar, come here!” Picking him up, she raced after Refrin through the back door. Almost immediately, those banshee wails filled the house; Elder Trenir had engaged it. Nahleen’s legs wobbled in terror and renewed shame. Her old uncle had to fight the thing for her. Like Daddy.
They made it to the beach, where Refrin shoved the boat into the surf. “Get in.”
Nahleen plopped inside, eyes glued on the mountain. “Can she see us?” She hugged Hintar closer. Suppose it got him? Her stomach twisted as Ellita’s accusing words pierced her memory: “You’re going to get someone killed.”
“If she looks this way, she might,” said Refrin.
From the marble house, a giant black form with a thousand wormy legs rolled down the mountain, legs flopping like boneless noodles. Nahleen clenched the edge of the boat until her knuckles turned white. “It’s coming.”
The monster dove into the water and streaked after them. It seemed like the boat wasn’t moving at all. Nahleen could see individual tentacles writhing out of the water by the time they reached her island. Dashing into the cabana, Nahleen pushed Hintar under the bed; the fiend gained the white sand. The writhing legs coiled around a tall humanoid figure with a pale, pointed face and wide, empty eye sockets. The legs weren’t flesh at all, but hair cascading from its own head.
Nahleen’s mouth fell open. Flashes of it ripping her dad apart loomed in her mind. It sprinted towards the glass, Refrin seized the mantle and the flimsy barrier shattered. Rough, black tendrils filled the house, coiling around Nahleen’s body. Every vein inflamed. Piercing shrieks tore her throat. Something pressed hard against her head.
In the growing darkness, Refrin’s despairing cry and Hintar’s terrified yells echoed until silence smothered them out of existence. Nahleen could only think: I killed them. I killed them just like Daddy.
Nahleen jerked awake with a gasp. Empty moonlight gleamed through the broken door creaking in the breeze. An odd odor permeated the gloom, not so much a smell as a dark feeling that reached her sixth sense. It entwined with Refrin and Hintar’s scent, which seemed stronger. She didn’t even know that they had scents.
“Hintar?” Nahleen called. “Hintar?”
“Hintar!” Mustering her strength, she crawled for the door. She could keep hold of the floor with exceptional ease. As she pulled herself into the moonlight, it lit her hands in blue. Huge claws had replaced her nails, while armor had grown out of the skin of her arms. “Wha…?”
The boys’ scent led towards the boat. The shadowy carnage of its wooden shards and mangled body shone under the moon. The Bengadriss had Hintar. Cold chills collected in the pit of her stomach. She dragged herself into the warm water, and the current swept her like a piece of driftwood to the mainland’s beach.
“Hurry,” Nahleen whispered, staggering to shore. As she began to run, her head throbbed, like a magnetic field. Unusual speed, strength and stamina flowed through her. She was too anxious to comprehend what was going on. One thought flitted through her head: I’m like Daddy now. Through the forests and mountains she sped. From tree to tree she pounced, rock to crevice, up cliffs and down canyons, until she topped a hill overlooking a sweeping valley.
The now risen sun revealed a black mountain covered in eerie blue mist, jutting from the center like a wound. The darkness at its base bled into the meadow and forest. Nahleen’s pattering heart jumped into her throat. Hintar was down there somewhere.
With a deep breath, she shot into it. The sun darkened into nothing more than a scarlet pinpoint casting a dull red glow. Rotted trees swallowed her up in their murky depths.
“Nahleen,” a voice hissed.
The Keepress skidded to a halt, eyes darting across the blackened trees. Every shadow had a pale face, empty sockets and snaking tentacles. It knew her name. It had heard her dad calling her name.
A whimper escaped her trembling lips, but she could only move on. Something in the deepest shadows kept pace with her. A twig snapped. Nahleen’s hands and feet went cold.
“Hello again, my little crying Nahleen.”
Nahleen spun around. The shadows in the trees slithered; the spider with pale, pointed face and writhing hair lunged into view. Its long black tentacles seized hold of her, searing her down to the bone.
“Get off, get off!” Nahleen screamed.
Like a wild animal she sunk her teeth into the pale flesh, gouged tufts of it from its body. It had no effect. She tore at the rough tentacles, uprooted chunks of them at a time. Only then did gooey purplish-black blood spatter to the ground. The more tentacles that fell, the less the pain boiled. This was all Nahleen cared about right now.
Suddenly, the creature flung her across the rough turf. BAP! Her head struck a rock; fiery sparks scattered through Nahleen’s brain. Hissing and moaning, the monster fled.
The girl remained where she’d fallen. A dull wind hissed through the brittle branches, knocking crunchy leaves loose. They tapped softly around the dazed Keepress. If she could just lie there for a few minutes… hours. She was no more worthy to be Keepress than she was fit to live.
“Come on, my girl, get up.”
The voice was clear, as if it were in her ear. Nahleen opened her eyes.
She pushed herself up and looked around, but she was alone. She faintly remembered what Uncle Trenir had said: “He’ll be there when I crown you.”
Forcing herself to her feet, she continued on and reached a door in the mountain. In she went. Patter-patter-patter flitted her feet over cold stone into a massive room.
The floor was so spacious that one of its dreary purple tiles could crush several marble houses. A pale bluish light shone from tiny windows so high that only birds could reach them. Great pillars as wide as a house supported the vaulted ceiling, while gauzy tapestries wiggled in a slight breeze. Nahleen chewed on one of her claws.
Hintar’s whimper cut the ominous silence from the darkest corner of the great room. Without thinking, Nahleen sprinted into the misty black. There was no Hintar, only a colossal door. Perhaps Hintar was behind it? Nahleen tugged at the heavy brass latch, but it wouldn’t budge. Bracing her feet against the smooth wall, she forced it half an inch at a time until a big enough crack opened.
She squeezed through into a long corridor. The stench of heady paint and rusty blood slammed her senses. Murky murals of carnage and suffering choked the broad walls; devil-faced monsters and soldiers tortured wailing victims. Inside one of them, a man lay shredded on the ground in a pool of shining blood; his dead eyes stared straight at her.
Nahleen shrieked at the top of her lungs, ripping at her hair as she stumbled against the wall. The shriveled trees around him, the murky sky and the tiny hut where she’d been kept prisoner looked exactly as the day he died. Sinking to the floor in despair, she covered her face and wailed into her hands. He wouldn’t have died had she just listened to him. But no, she wanted to prove how independent she could be! He’d just wanted to keep her safe because he loved her. What a fool she’d been! No Keepress was as unworthy of the mantle as she! Over and over the scenario played through her head. Why couldn’t the Bengadriss have ripped her to shreds instead?
As she rubbed her clammy forehead with the back of her hand, something moved with the softest rustle. Her head snapped up. An executioner was looking at her. Setting his ax on his broad shoulder, he stepped out of the mural.
Despair vanished in the wake of stark terror. Nahleen dashed for the end of the corridor. All the monsters and devils leaped from the frescos with their murder weapons raised high.
Nahleen seized the brass latch in cold hands as heavy feet pounded across the hard floor. The stench of death reeked off their bodies. The thick door creaked open inch by inch until there was a space. Could she fit? She would make herself fit! She shoved herself into the crack.
Large fingers raked through her hair as she popped into the next room. Hitting the floor, she turned on her back and kicked the door shut on barking, howling faces. The door shuddered beneath their heavy blows. What would she do if they came in? But then silence fell as if they had vanished.
They went back to the paintings, thought Nahleen. She squeezed her hands together. How am I going to get out? Sucking in a shuddering breath, she turned her gaze to this next chamber. It was similar in appearance to the other, save the ceiling was a giant mirror. It reflected a thin golden headband, with small jewels looping off of it, on her head: the mantle.
Now she knew why she had claws and animal strength and abilities. It was just like her dad, but she couldn’t marvel over it. All around, slumbering people lay side by side like cordwood. Hintar lay next to Refrin.
Nahleen’s shambled nerves twisted in on themselves and she shrieked. She searched wildly for her brother on the floor, but the room was empty. Looking up again, a pale point in the mirror gleamed from a gloomy corner. It was the monster’s pallid visage. Nahleen’s eyes darted over the room, making sure it wasn’t in the room with her. What was going on? She looked at the face in the mirror again. They stared at one another like two frozen statues.
Nahleen’s body seemed to move on its own, inching towards the Bengadriss, until the face floated next to her in the mirror. Chills running down her stiffened spine, Nahleen raked her claws across the pale face. Flesh broke beneath the impact! That same banshee howl burst from its thin lips, shattering the ceiling into a thousand pieces.
Great shards hailed in a sharp, glittering shower. Screaming, Nahleen covered her head and face from the onslaught. A massive slab crashed beside her, followed by another and another. Burning prickles scratched her back and legs.
Before the glass had stopped tinkling, the pale monster struck the mantle with a pan sized hand. Electrical spears cutting through her brain, Nahleen hit the shining floor. The Bengadriss kicked her against a great pillar where she rolled onto her stomach, struggling for air. Glass lacerated her skin, bedazzled her bloody feet.
In a vortex of curling tendrils, the monster swooped down on her. Everything slowed in Nahleen’s mind as she gazed at the oncoming nightmare. Was she to lie down and die? Hintar would suffer for her littleness if she did, and he had already suffered enough.
“Poor little Nahleen,” the Bengadriss hissed. “Do you miss your daddy? Do you want him back?” It laughed. “I thought you wanted to be independent. I saved you from him. You should thank me!”
A half-dead flame in Nahleen’s heart suddenly raged into a blazing inferno. Images of her dad’s bloody pieces scattered around her screaming form flashed through her mind. She sprang into the oncoming mass, ripped through the coiling tendrils until she reached the head. Clenching the hair in her fists close to the scalp, she uprooted chunks upon chunks. They dropped to the floor, writhing like hooked worms. The fiend shrieked, whacked her across the face. Blood filled Nahleen’s mouth, everything tripled, the Bengadriss’s coils multiplied to millions. More of the hated locks snaked around her, burning her blood. But with a savage cry, she lunged for the demon’s throat.
Flesh spread beneath her claws, bone broke, tendons snapped. The monster’s head twisted about on the flap of skin still connected to the body. Shredding the head free, she pitched it across the room where it bounced into a corner. The body dropped dead, but the hair on the head still wriggled and flopped. The banshee scream tolled like a thousand bells against the vast walls. It still lived.
The pieces of hair lifted the eyeless head until it resembled a giant spider with black legs and ashen body. Fury burned the last of Nahleen’s fear and she charged into the jungle of twisting locks. SLCH-SLCH-SLCH! She tore the legs out, yanked the head down to herself and scalped off thick slabs of flesh. SLAP-SLAP-SLAP! The hairy pieces squished to the ground in pools of purple black.
The white skull clunked to the floor, mouth gasping. And then the jaw clacked open, never to move again. Gasping, head spinning, Nahleen staggered from the gaping corpse and collapsed.
Ocean waves whispered Nahleen awake. Red beams sloped across the ceiling while a light curtain waved overhead in a gentle breeze. Something delicious was cooking, but she couldn’t tell what it was. Soft pillows buoyed her up like fluffy clouds. Hintar’s baby babble drew her eyes to the striated floor. Refrin was playing with him, while Elder Trenir watched nearby from a chair. They were in his house. Thank goodness they were safe!
Turning her head to the sunlit door, she saw her dad walk in. Sunshine seemed to spear through her frame with giddy joy. Had she only been dreaming? Had he really been alive all this time?
“Daddy!” Nahleen stumbled from the bed as he bounded towards her. Sweeping her off her feet, he twirled her in a circle like he used to when she was a baby. He kissed her face and squeezed her.
“Come, my little girl,” he said. “It’s time to go home.”
As he carried her through the door, the thin circlet looped with tiny jewels spirited back to the cabana, where it clattered on the floor as a rusty circlet once again.