Even in his dreams, Emyr was running.
At first, he wasn’t aware it was a dream; in fact, he believed that over the years he’d forgotten how to even sleep. All he ever did when awake was run, having covered town after town, country after country, always looking over his shoulder but never looking back. The only constant was the paranoia embedded deep within his stomach. It was the absence of this dread that prompted Emyr to realise he was asleep.
Emyr’s dream-self ran without a sense of urgency. He crossed through a dark forest and into an unfamiliar town; his movement lacked caution, his heart didn’t thud frantically, there was no pressure for him to escape. Freedom enveloped this dream and safety ran with its hand in Emyr’s, something so unobtainable that Emyr forced himself awake. Witnessing the impossible led only to hope and hurt feelings, both of which Emyr couldn’t afford.
“Good.” Emyr blinked up to his mother as she spoke. “I was just about to wake you.”
The car had stopped. The two were parked in what Emyr on a slight slant, close to a large body of water; likely a lake, though Emyr struggled to see it through his tired gaze and the darkening sky.
“We’re changing cars. Grab our bags and get out.”
Emyr knew better than to ask questions, instead following his mother’s orders with perfected silence. Stood with a duffel bag in each hand, Emyr watched his mother lean into the car and release the handbrake. The car rolled down the slight hill they were on and sank into the dark lake.
Wherever Emyr’s mother intended to take them next, she didn’t share. Sometimes Emyr felt she took her ‘trust no one’ policy a little too far, as she only updated him in dire circumstances. Asking questions would only lead to a hissed lecture, so Emyr simply followed his mother into the forest.
The two walked, contributing to the quiet only by the sound of their gentle footsteps. Each step was accompanied by a wary glance around their surroundings, though neither conferred with each other. They didn’t need to – their silence maintained their safety. Emyr didn’t know any specifics, his mother’s warnings having been vague yet chilling, but he knew lots of people were after him already. Word was hush but it’d somehow spread; there were at least ten individuals aware of Emyr’s existence, and the appeal of his auburn curls, currently braided and bundled as not to get in the way.
After walking for what seemed like an hour, Emyr’s mother led him through a wall of leaves that draped over the entrance of a tunnel. They reached a clearing, in the centre of which stood a cottage, enveloped in nature’s green. Inside, the cottage was dusty and dark, but it didn’t matter; Emyr and his mother curled up, back to back, and slept lightly, twitching awake at the slightest sound.
The following morning, Emyr awoke to his mother’s movement; she opened her bag and tossed him a cereal bar.
“I’m going to get us some more food,” she whispered. “Don’t move from here. Don’t make a sound. And don’t forget – you can’t trust anyone but me.” Emyr nodded. His mother stepped to the door, knocking it gently in four rhythmic taps. “I’ll use this knock to let you know when I’m back. Stay hidden. Do you understand me?”
With that, Emyr was left alone. He sat in the cottage with nothing to do other than twiddle his thumbs and let his thoughts run wild. He itched to wander but feared the punishment he’d be met with. While Emyr understood his mother was just trying to protect him, he despised having to constantly run with such caution and haste.
To pass the time, he brushed his hair; he brushed, and brushed, and brushed. His arms grew tired as he worked through the long locks, ridding it of knots and braiding it again to make his hair more manageable. Before his auburn hair could be securely tied up and out of his way, heavy footsteps protruded into the air; Emyr wanted them to be his mother’s, but they were too loud. Even if the situation were dire enough to warrant her running, Emyr knew his mother would never let her footsteps betray her presence.
Emyr moved as quickly and quietly as he could. The bags were fruitless, his mother took their defence when she left. With his hair down, Emyr struggled to act; he had no weapon to defend himself and hiding meant having to conceal all his hair as well. He had managed to scoop it up and make it to the kitchen before he heard to door fly open and slam shut. Heavy breathing hung in the air as Emyr held his own breath.
As the intruder attempted to calm down, Emyr glanced around the room, desperate for anything that could protect him. He settled for one of the dusty pots that dangled above the oven. Despite the care Emyr put into making his movement silent, the pot cried out with a clang as he took it, resulting with a sharp inhale from the intruder in the living room.
Footsteps attempting to be discreet approached the door and Emyr hurried into the shadows, lurking in the corner closest to the door’s hinges. A deep breath came from outside and the door swung open, but no one stepped into the room immediately. Instead, Emyr saw red shoes step cautiously in, and a head leaned forward to survey the area.
Emyr crept towards the girl studying the kitchen. She seemed to be making quick, half-hearted checks, too worried to truly see where Emyr was hiding. When her gaze lingered on the oven, noticing the disruption of the pans, Emyr seized his opportunity to strike.
Metal was supposed to meet her skull however instead struck her forearm; the girl swiped at Emyr and attempted to wrestle the pan from him. She realised it was fruitless and led only to bruises on her arms, opting to retreat towards the other pans free for the taking. Emyr followed suit, attempting another blow to the back of her head which was once again defected, this time by a pan of larger size.
The two continued to swipe at each other, Emyr forcing her backwards with each turn. It wasn’t until the girl opened the back door he’d backed her into and leapt into a roll past him that Emyr realised he hadn’t forced her backwards: he had been led forward.
Before he could even turn around to face her again, the ivy that wrapped around the house snatched his wrist, making the pan fall with a heavy clang. More vines reached into the kitchen and rooted Emyr in place; he could only glare at the girl who stood before him. She stared back at him with her hands on her knees, breathing heavily again.
“Are you one of Brobbin’s Worms?” Emyr asked, his voice heavy with hostility.
Furrowing her brows, the girl tilted her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she answered. “Who are you?” Her gaze followed the length of his hair; at nineteen feet, it trailed across the dusty floor, contrasting against the dull grey with its gleaming auburn shine. Brown eyes flicked back up to meet Emyr’s. “Why is your hair so long?”
Emyr struggled to comprehend whether the girl was feigning ignorance. “I’m not going to answer your questions if you don’t tell me who you are and what you’re doing here,” he said.
The girl frowned back at him. “You’re awfully arrogant for someone trapped in ivy.”
“You did this, didn’t you? Let me go. I promise I won’t fight you.”
She complied and wafted her hand; Emyr was released immediately. He rubbed his wrists and stared at the girl, studying her. She was sweaty and dirty, with her blonde hair dishevelled, shoved carelessly into a messy bun.
“Who are you?” Emyr asked. “What are you doing here?”
Shaking her head, the girl replied, “I’m the keeper of this forest, bud. Ergo, you answer my questions first. My questions are the same as yours.” When Emyr failed to meet her expectations, she pursed her lips. “What if we answer at the same time?”
He quirked an eyebrow up at her. “What would that achieve? We wouldn’t hear each other properly.”
“All right, fine. I’m Merui.” She nodded to him, as if to encourage him to speak.
With perfected practice, he lied, “Erid.”
Merui sighed and shook her head. “You shouldn’t lie to me, you know?” At that response, Emyr’s blood froze over, his heart somehow both stopped and sped out of control at the same time.
Noting his reaction, Merui held up her hands, though he was too panicked to understand whether this was an attempt of reassurance or surrender. “No, no, I don’t know you,” she said. “But I was chased in here by mini-McGreavy’s men. They said they were looking for people, but they were too scared to go more than four steps into the forest. You did great to find this place, by the way. Nobody else has ever made it this far.”
Emyr’s mouth ran dry as he processed the information. “My mum,” he whispered, eyes wide as his heart tried to crawl out of his throat. “Have you seen my mum? She left, she left to get supplies.” He was breaking rules, indirectly confirming Merui’s implications and suspicions, but anxiety was nestled too deep into his bones.
“It’s a wonder you reached this place,” Merui repeated, shaking her head with a sombre expression. “But no one can best this forest twice. So, no, your mother wasn’t captured, but she also won’t be coming back.”
The world threatened to pull from under Emyr’s feet. He stumbled, placing his hands on his trembling knees as he stared at the kitchen tiles; they swam before him, blurred by tears, and he retched and cried. The sobs seemed to never end. As he cried, Merui approached his side and patted his back.
“What do I do?” he eventually croaked.
“I’ll lead you out,” Merui promised. “We can go to the king, he’ll keep you safe.”
All the ambiguous names and titles were scattered in Emyr’s mind; he didn’t remember whether the king was someone his mother insisted couldn’t be trusted. At a loss, Emyr nodded.
Softly, Merui tried again. “What’s your real name?”
Merui’s gentle hands guided Emyr out of the cottage. “Right. Well, Emyr, just stay with me. I promise I’ll keep you safe. Though you can clearly hold your own in a fight.”
The rest of Merui’s soft praise went unheard as Emyr wandered, in too much shock to truly register anything. He wasn’t sure if he was saddened by the loss or just surprised, he didn’t know whether this meant he could stop running or if he had to now run faster. His mother had warned him of Brobbin’s Worms, but he didn’t even know who Brobbin was. The more Emyr tried to recall who specifically he was and wasn’t to trust, the more lost he became. His mother had been too vague, but he couldn’t even remember why she never elaborated anyway. Emyr had always just trusted her and ran.
With Merui, his steps were slow and dazed. They left the forest with precision, careful not to run into any of the men that were searching for Emyr. Merui had associated them with the name McGreavy, but Emyr wasn’t sure whether that was a name his mother had warned him of.
“Who’s McGreavy?” Emyr finally asked quietly.
Merui raised her eyebrows, surprised. “He’s the one who’s going to marry Princess Rowan. He’s a nasty piece of work and is clearly only after the crown, but this place has been sombre ever since the prince went missing seventeen years ago. A wedding gives everyone a reason to be happy for the royals, though some people will insist it won’t feel right without Prince Leander.”
Pretending to understand, Emyr nodded. “Why was McGreavy chasing you, then?”
“McGreavy knows I’m onto him.” She shrugged. “I bet he’s told his men to stage a tragic accident, so he can wash his hands of me. You’d think by now he’d know the forest is my domain.”
They fell into silence as they continued to walk. Miraculously, Merui led Emyr to the town centre without any confrontation or hassle, however the pair quickly found the bustling marketplace was troublesome in itself.
Merui commented that there were a lot more people out today, slapping her hand to her forehead with realisation. “It’s Leander’s birthday,” she informed Emyr. “We’re going to need to tie your hair up, unless you want it to get trod on. Speaking of, are you going to tell me what’s up with that?”
With a short ‘no’ Emyr got to work tying his hair. Once it was braided and bundled away, the two continued their journey. They’d almost reached the clearing before the palace, which was surrounded by a crowd as people danced there. Among them was one girl with ginger curls bouncing on her shoulders. She wore a white dress and red shoes and danced with everyone who approached her.
“That’s Rowan!” Merui whispered, tugging Emyr’s wrist as she elbowed through the crowd. Before he could follow, Emyr’s vision went black, and a hand clamped over his mouth. Despite his struggling, he was dragged backwards, away from Merui and deep into the crowd.
He cursed mentally to himself as he continued to resist and fight the iron grip that held him; he’d grown careless within a matter of hours, he’d let his guard down despite his mother’s constant warnings. A lick of freedom and Emyr forgot the basis of survival; he hissed as a fist met his stomach.
When Emyr’s blindfold was released, he found he was sat in an empty room, arms bound to his chair. A man stood in front of him, looking barely older than Emyr, and he grinned as his icy blue eyes met Emyr’s. Light came into the room through a dusty window, which was opened enough to welcome a slight, cold draft.
“You’ve been quite the nuisance to find,” the man drawled. “Not surprising that once Cecelia was out of the picture, you immediately entered arms reach. Where is she, then?”
It meant Emyr’s mother wasn’t captured by the men, but Marui’s prediction of her being lost to the forest held more credibility. Instead of answering, Emyr spat at the man. It earned him a punch to the cheek.
“You don’t know?” the man guessed, seizing a hold of Emyr’s hair. “I guess this is all mine, then. Maybe I can turn your hair into extensions, it’s the exact same shade of Rowan’s. But you haven’t figured that out yet, have you?” When Emyr glared back in silence, the man snarled, “What does the hair do, kid?”
Raising an eyebrow, Emyr answered, “Grow.”
Internally, his heart was racing. This man knew of Emyr and his mother, but not of the hair – it didn’t make sense. His mother had warned him of the people that knew his hair had healing properties, yet his captures are feigning ignorance despite having the upper hand. Emyr refused to let his confusion show; not that his attempt to mask it mattered, as the man slapped Emyr’s expression clean for being sarcastic.
“Maybe your hair does nothing,” the man wondered aloud. “Cecelia would’ve told you anything just to get you to run, probably. I mean, isn’t it just the easiest way to get the child you stole to trust nobody but you?”
“Am I?” The man cocked his head. “Go on, then. Prove me wrong. Oh, no, regardless of whether the hair’s magic or not, Cecelia’s not your mother. You were kidnapped. Stolen.”
Emyr clenched his jaw, his nose twitched as he tried to contain his anger. Before the man could continue his taunts, a door opened, with a muscular man entering the room. In front of him stood Merui, whose hands were bound together and eyes heavy on Emyr.
“What a lucky day!” the man exclaimed with an unsettling smile. “Nice of you to join us, Elwood. Given up on wooing my fiancée yet?”
“You wish, Gravy.”
The man scowled. “We’ve been over this, Elwood. You can’t make fun of the name McGreavy, not when your precious Rowan will be taking the name, too.” McGreavy gestured to Emyr. “What were you doing with him?”
“Getting him away from you.”
“What do you know about him?”
Merui rolled her head to look at Emyr. “That he shouldn’t be anywhere near you. I know that about everyone, though.” Her words were cutting into McGreavy slowly but surely; his jaw was clenched, as were his fists, and he glanced up to meet the eyes of the man holding Merui.
With a nod from McGreavy, the other man threw Merui hard onto the floor. She hissed and wriggled, but McGreavy pinned her down before she could even attempt getting up.
“Tell me what you know,” he commanded.
“That you’re a pathetic excuse of a man,” she answered.
They squabbled aimlessly, McGreavy making fruitless threats while Merui growled back scathing comments and sarcastic retorts. While they snapped at one another, the man who’d brought Merui in approached Emyr. He picked up the chair Emyr was tied to and began walking away with him, something that went unnoticed for a handful of seconds.
Realising Emyr was being moved, McGreavy whipped his head around. “Brobbin, what are you doing?!”
Emyr’s heart sank. The one name that was burnt into his memory relit at its mention; Emyr looked up at the man with eyes drowned in fear. “Put me down,” he tried to order, but his voice was shaky and feeble. Out of the corner of his eye, Emyr saw Merui buck the distracted McGreavy off her and struggled quickly to her feet.
She charged at Brobbin and rammed her shoulder into him, despite their incredible size difference. Predictably, her attack was futile; she bounced right off Brobbin. McGreavy seemed to be at a loss as to who he should be fighting. Emyr willed him to stop Brobbin, but McGreavy settled on subduing Merui first, likely with her being the easier target.
Once again, McGreavy seized Merui and threw her to the floor. He repeated his question to Brobbin, who was slowly taking a panicking Emyr toward an exit.
“You’re a lot more hassle than you’re worth, kid,” Merui hissed as she wrestled McGreavy.
“You don’t know anything about him, then,” McGreavy breathed as he attempted to push down Merui’s hands and punch her, before returning to Brobbin and tugging on Emyr’s chair.
Emyr didn’t see how healing properties were useful in a dispute without injuries; he found Merui’s comment to make more sense than McGreavy’s retort. Ignoring both remarks, Emyr snapped at Merui, “Can’t you do something, or is it only me you force to stop?”
“The forest is my domain,” Merui reminded him. “Do you really think Gravy over here would be as kind as to let us hash it out where I’m most powerful?”
“Where you’re most powerful, or the only place you’re powerful?” Emyr asked, frustrated. The whole scene was beginning to annoy him – Merui and McGreavy were fighting despite Brobbin’s attempt to kidnap him, except it was a painfully slow kidnapping.
“I can still pack punches,” Merui huffed, furthering her point with a blow to McGreavy’s stomach. She scrambled towards Brobbin as he jiggled open the back door.
Emyr’s chair was dropped as Brobbin fended Merui off. McGreavy hurried to try and steal Emyr back, only to be shoved back by Brobbin. The whole standoff was tedious; Emyr picked at his restraints, despising the tension and anxiety that sat in his stomach as he could do nothing but watch.
“What does the hair do, Brobbin?” McGreavy asked. “We’re partners, remember? He can be all yours as long as you get him out of this kingdom. You know why I don’t want him here.”
Silence swept over them as Brobbin considered McGreavy’s words. Eventually, he responded, “I’ll show you.” A dagger was drawn from his inside pocket and Merui was seized by her neck. Brobbin plunged the dagger into her palm as both she and Emyr screamed; the latter was acknowledged as Brobbin brought the bloodied weapon to cut off the ropes tying Emyr down.
His mind almost blank save for the thought that he had to help her, Emyr rushed to Merui and unravelled her own restraints. He freed his braided hair and wrapped it around the wound, uttering reassurances as Merui hissed.
Emyr shut his eyes as he whispered the statements of healing. All eyes were on him as he spoke in frantic Welsh, but his only concern was Merui’s wellbeing; he hurried through the healing process, an art perfected by the endless number of wounds he’d healed for himself and his mother.
“His hair glows,” McGreavy commented. When Merui examined her palm, McGreavy breathed in sharply. “His hair heals.” He turned to Brobbin, a grin rolling across his face. “Imagine our wars with him at our side. We’re invincible, Brobbin!”
As softly as he could, beneath McGreavy’s excited declarations, Emyr said to Merui, “I need you to summon up all your magic and stop them. Please, don’t let them take me. You can do it, Merui, I know you can.”
He didn’t see any reason why Merui’s magic would be confined solely to the forest; Emyr believed the forest only emphasised it. Merui clenched her fist and furrowed her brows, staring past the door Brobbin had managed to open. The two men ignored her as she stood there, instead seizing Emyr who struggled against them. McGreavy proved to be a feeble opponent, but Brobbin was too big and too strong for Emyr to defeat.
Instead, Emyr settled for ducking and dodging. Having ran all his life, he was no stranger to fleeing now, nor was he unfamiliar with psyching people out by feigning flight as his companion worked on an attack – though his companion had always been his mother.
The thought of his mother made Emyr’s steps falter, and Brobbin seized hold of his loose hair to tug him to a stop. Emyr cried out and tried to resist Brobbin’s pulls, insisting he stopped and let go.
Brobbin complied to Emyr’s orders – but only after Merui had channelled all her magic and manipulated a tree branch to crash through Brobbin’s chest.
McGreavy gasped, shouting to Merui, “You’re a monster! Both of you!” Except his glee couldn’t be hidden. An eerie, vile grin tugged on the corners of his lips as he stared at the two teens, imagining the money he’d profit off them. McGreavy picked up Emyr’s hair that trailed on the floor, tugging it to bring Emyr into his grasps.
Turning to Emyr and breathing heavily, Merui repeated her earlier statement. “More hassle than you’re worth.”
“You’re – an idiot,” McGreavy gasped, shaky hands reaching to touch the branch piercing his stomach. “You really – haven’t realised? Look – at his – face. It’s the – same – as the – face you love – so much.” He hacked and spat onto the floor, his body trembling.
Merui studied Emyr’s face with furrowed brows. After a minute or two of her intense concentration, the brows lifted with surprise.
“You’re the lost Prince,” she remarked. She slapped a hand onto her forehead. “Of course! Why else would McGreavy be so adamant on finding you? Since he didn’t know about the hair thing. Emyr – Leander! We need to take you home, right now!”
Although confused, Emyr allowed Merui to drag him back to the palace. The festival was still going, although the darkening sky had lessened the crowd slightly. Rowan still twirled in the clearing, stopping at the sight of Merui.
Up close, Emyr saw Rowan was incredibly beautiful, yet also familiar. Her hair colour was the same as his, as were her eyes – they were iridescent, flecked with all shades of blue, as well as incorporated traces of green and gold. Upon noticing him, she smiled at Emyr.
“I thought I saw you before, Merui,” Rowan said, “But when I looked again, you’d disappeared! It must’ve been too crowded. Who’s your friend? I feel like I’ve met him before, you know.”
“Princess,” Merui spoke with urgency, something which immediately swallowed all of Rowan’s attention. “You’re not going to believe me, but I swear to you, this isn’t a sick joke – I believe this boy is your lost brother. McGreavy has been searching for him and would’ve killed him if I hadn’t arrived in time, in order to prevent his return.”
“You’ve never given me a reason to doubt you, Merui, and I want nothing more than to believe you – but do you have proof?”
Merui shook her head. “Nothing irrefutable just yet. But I’m certain of it – run a blood test or anything like that.”
Chewing her lips and nodding, Rowan glanced around. She led Merui and Emyr to a stall and pointed to one of the art pieces; on it was a scene depicting a cloaked woman fleeing with a crying baby.
The familiarity of the woman’s face caused a sinking feeling in the pit of Emyr’s stomach.
“She told me she was my mum,” he choked.
Rowan nodded as she wrapped her arms around him, stroking Emyr’s back as he wept onto her shoulder. Glancing over, Rowan whispered, “Thank you, Merui.”
Emyr didn’t have to run anymore. The Prince had finally found home.