Peter swung to another tree and silently landed on the branch. Sure, he could have waited back at the village for the unicorn knights like the others were—but then he’d have to listen to the other villagers talk about how useless he was. He scowled at nothing as he perched on the branch, automatically listening for prey.
They said he was a needy little orphan. Which—while harsh was technically true. He was an orphan. He did need things; usually more along the lines of sympathy and empathy rather than clothes and food. He had his own shelter, that his family had left him. He was the best hunter in the village. He was so good, in fact, that his prey usually fed a good third of them. And he could process his food and make his own clothes! Which, he needed to do since none of them would help him. He didn’t understand why they hated him so much.
They know you’re different.
He was. He knew he was. When he’d been a child, when it had first started to—well, show, Uncle Ben had taken him aside and explained, as kindly and as bluntly as he could, why Peter was different from the others. Why he had to hide it. Who his parents had been.
He rubbed his face wearily as he listened to the sounds of the forest. He didn’t know whether to be happy he looked so much like a human his parents had dumped him off with his aunt and uncle, or to wish that he’d looked more like his father’s side of the family and stayed with his parents.
He looked down to see Uncle Ben, great sorcerer of the village, staring up at the tree, hands on his hips. There was no way for the old man to see him there, in the foliage of the tree, but he knew where Peter was. He always knew; Peter sometimes wondered if the man had placed a tracking spell on him.
“Peter! I need to talk to you!” Peter sighed. There was no arguing with that tone of voice. He quickly climbed down the tree and dropped to the ground next to his uncle. The old man pierced him with a stern look from under the huge brim of his hat. “Peter,” he said warningly.
Peter flung his arms out in defense. “I am careful!” he protested. “Everyone else is at the village, waiting for the knights!”
Uncle Ben sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, Peter,” he said slowly. “Everyone else is there.” He waited and sighed when Peter just stared at him. “Come on,” he said gently as he put an arm on his nephew’s shoulder, “we need to talk.”
Peter stopped when he uncle led him to the Grove. Even Peter, unable to use magic as he was, could feel the power in the Grove, and he turned an accusing stare at his uncle, who sighed. “I know,” Uncle Ben said, “but I want to make absolutely certain we won’t be overheard.
Peter grimaced. Uncle Ben—had a point. The power of the Grove was so strong that it could distort sound coming from inside of it to make a small rabbit looking for food sound like a huge bear or vice versa. Hunters, himself included, gave the Grove as wide a berth as possible. It was impossible to tell what was inside and besides, nothing could die as long as it was in the Grove.
The Grove itself was a small circle of trees around a pond, their branches intertwining to create a roof-like structure above and walls around it. They were like no other trees in the forest with overlapping hand shaped leaves that never turned, never fell. The pond, no matter the time of day, was a deep, vibrant blue that almost glowed. The pond seemed to be devoid of life—but the life in the Grove seemed to flourish. Around the pond were large, clear rocks, big enough for people to sit on. Uncle Ben had no hesitation about claiming one of those rocks as his own and gesturing Peter towards another.
The power of the magic residing within the space danced along Peter’s skin, making him itch uncontrollably. He didn’t bother scratching; he knew it wouldn't help. The itching wouldn't stop until he left the Grove and besides, if he scratched his arms to ribbons in the Grove he was almost certain to get an infection when he left the Grove.
“All right,” Uncle Ben said when he knew Peter was as settled as he could be. “I happen to know the captain of this squadron of Unicorn Knights, and I asked him for a favor.”
Peter frowned. His uncle was always preaching self-reliability, when possible. “What kind of favor?” he asked with curiosity.
“I want you go to back with them to the Capital.”
Peter stared at his uncle dumbfounded. Was he—was he being thrown away? Again? “Why?” he whispered. A knot formed in his throat and he swallowed it down. “I’m a good hunter,” he added quickly.
Uncle Ben sighed. “Peter, can you look me in the eyes and tell me that you’re happy?”
Peter met his uncle’s brown eyes—the same color as his own—and tried to speak but memories boiled to the surface of his mind, of his brain. Memories of being mocked, derided. Scolded for things he couldn't control; for things that weren’t his fault. His gaze was drawn to the lush green grass by the pond.
“And that’s why. Peter, you are not happy here. As long as you stay here you won’t be happy.” Uncle Ben reached out and gently clenched Peter’s shoulder. “You deserve better than that. There’s a whole world out there beyond the idiocy of bigoted people who are only still alive because His Majesty said he can’t afford to lose the taxes they represent.” Peter huffed a quiet laugh.
“What if,” Peter asked, “I can’t?” He stared at his hands, clasped in his lap as he remembered taunts, jeers, and insults. Why would the people outside of the village be any different?
Uncle Ben heaved another sigh. “And that,” he said bitterly, “is another reason why you should. These idiots have done nothing but chip away at your self-esteem since they met you. And you’re strong Peter.”
“Not really,” Peter protested.
“You once stopped a century-old tree from falling on the house and then tossed it aside—in a lightning storm,” Uncle Ben said flatly.
Peter flushed. He’d always known that he was stronger than the others his age. His first lessons had been in controlling his strength, not building it. “That’s not what I meant,” he mumbled.
“I know.” He looked up into his uncle’s kind eyes. “You’re a wonderful person Peter. You need to go out into the world and meet people who will appreciate it instead of criticizing you for something you couldn’t possibly have done while feasting on food you caught and you prepared.” Peter winced. “No, it is not your fault,” Uncle Ben said firmly, anger vibrating through his voice. “You have done nothing wrong!”
“But—” protested Peter.
Uncle Ben pinned him with a look and he squirmed under more than the itching of the inherent power around them. “Peter, I know what happened with the bear.”
Peter winced. He remembered the bear far too well; he had encountered it out hunting. It had the foaming disease, and he’d had to put it down. Then he’d gone to ask his uncle if the corpse was safe enough to touch or if he needed to burn it where it was only for Flash to pick the thing up and take it to the village claiming he’d killed it. Peter had had nightmares for weeks about Flash suddenly developing the disease.
Uncle Ben sighed. “Your urge to protect the people around you is a good thing. A great thing, no matter what these small-minded morons think. But it’s become your only thing. You need to grow Peter. Meet new people, fall in love, watch a sunset together. I met May on a journey.” The old man chuckled. “I had gotten injured in a battle and listened as she both cared for the injured and yelled at them for being stupid.”
Despite his discomfort, Peter smiled too. He’d seen Aunt May do the same with the villagers when they got injured. She treated the injuries, oh yes, but she also let the injured know how stupid they’d been to get the injury—if they’d been doing something stupid.
Uncle Ben kindly put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “It’s time boy,” he said, “for you to go on your own journey, to find your own love.” He gently ruffled Peter’s hair making the young man duck and grin, like he had back when he’d been a child.
Peter chuckled softly, nervously. He’d never been farther from home than the spider encampment before. “If—if you say so, Uncle Ben,” he said.
“Yeah, you might want to watch that attitude with Tony,” Uncle Ben said firmly as they got up and walked out of the grove. “He’ll take advantage of it.”