To Ellie’s great relief, Hildegard wasn’t around the next morning to resume her ranting. She figured that her mother spent the night in the Town Hall, buried up to her neck in work. And denial, too, if she thought she won!
Deep down, Hilda had to know Ellie was right. Putting a time limit on grief was just…all kinds of wrong.
Ellie set a pot of water on the gas burner, switched it on, and lit a match to get it started. Any minute now, Bodil would arrive to relieve Henrik of his duties. Sometimes, she showed up with breakfast in tow, carrying big armfuls of fresh baked bread and jam, but Ellie wasn’t in the mood to talk to her even for a bite of food.
She made four servings of bulgur wheat porridge, dumping each one into a capped jar that she stuffed into her bag. She wanted to be more than prepared for today’s journey. She packed a travel-sized water jug, an apple, a small bundle of jerky wrapped in wax paper, and a blade from her lockpicking kit. Its size made its function as a weapon questionable (and not at all intimidating), but it was better than nothing.
Already in her bag was her main thank-you gift to Shreya, her savior.
Once she was finished, Ellie wiped the counters and put everything away. Leaving behind a mess was bound to trigger another fight, so she did everything she could to avoid that. She swore she had the kitchen glowing by the time she was done cleaning.
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she shut the door behind her.
The sun hung high in the sky, hot enough to make her forget yesterday’s chilliness. Her boots crunched gravel as she walked down the path to their front gate. Having to think fast the night before, she’d shoved the gourd beneath the closest bush to the gate. The way its leaves arched over the dirt provided enough cover for it to be a good hiding spot.
…Supposedly. On second glance, it seemed to be peeking out a lot more than it had when she left it. Anyone with sharp enough eyes could spot it.
If it weren’t for a certain traitor leaning against her wire fence, she would’ve scooped it up immediately and been on her way.
“What do you want?” Ellie kept the gate latched.
Zinnia Trotter blinked, not expecting that. “Nice to see you, too.” Her long hair was free flowing, laying over her shoulders. Before she’d cut it, it had been long enough for her to sit on. The shorter length worked better for her. She wore her work outfit, a pair of coveralls that had been stained to hell over the years. Gloves stuck out of her pocket.
She may have been a scholar, but she was still a farmer through and through. The Trotter family’s pigs were an integral part of the town’s economy. They were bouncing back from a heavy loss of their stock, which meant that the majority of Zinnia’s free time was spent in and around the pig pen.
Zinnia gave off a strong scent of lavender, enough to counteract the pen smell.
“Hurry up. I’m busy.”
“I wanted to warn you about your mom.” Zinnia gripped the wire. It shook, betraying her nerves. “She knows you’re not going to class.”
“Yeah, because you told her. Thanks.” Sarcasm.
“It was better me than Gaurin. He thinks she’s okay with you skipping.” Zinnia mumbled, “I was trying to help you.”
“Next time, don’t. She practically screamed my ear off. I’m holding it on with glue, see?” Ellie said. She kept her tone crossed, despite her joke. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” She shifted the way she stood, the glass in her bag clinking together.
“No. I just got done with the pigs’ morning feed.” Zinnia said. “You’re paying her a visit, aren’t you?” All her nervousness had cleared up, replaced with bitter disapproval.
“Someone has to feed her.”
“She can forage. She can feed herself.”
“And so can you, but no one makes you do that. You’ve got a nice house and all kinds of nice things. Mom and Dad. Food on the table. Warm bed. What if that all went away from you?” She’d barely skimmed the surface of what the situation was like. “Try being exiled on top of all that.”
Zinnia said, “it’s because of me that she has a house. If it were up to my father, she’d be dead.” Calling her shack a house was putting it generously. Zinnia let go of the wire. “Next time, learn all of the facts before you try guilt tripping someone.”
“You never visit her.”
“Why should I? I’m not her keeper.” She yanked her gloves out of her pocket. “And can you really call her exiled if her exile is mostly self-imposed? We don’t want her near our farmland, but she’s free to go anywhere else.”
Ellie held back laughter. “Yeah, sure, if she wants to disappear forever, she’ll get right on that. No one would see her ever again.” She sucked in a sharp breath when she realized the weight of what she’d said. “I’ve got to go check on Sunflower.”
“Yes, yes,” she repeated herself. “I have to return home. I can’t keep my mother waiting.”
“Tell Ianthe I said hi.”
She wouldn’t. They both knew it was better if she didn’t mention Ellie’s name to her. Zinnia hurried away. Ellie counted to sixty twice before finally retrieving the dried gourd. Away from the gate and hidden from view, she poured the thank-you gift into it. She’d found the wine bottle in their cellar, dusty and forgotten on the bottom rack. Someone had made it for her mother and they never got around to drinking it.
Even though she knew Hildegard wouldn’t miss it, Ellie planned on keeping the bottle, filling it with water, and putting it back in its place. She’d gotten away with doing that before.
Ellie rounded the house. They kept their dogs in the back, most of them working as guard dogs or scarecrow dogs to keep birds away from their crops. Her uncle had taken them to the field at the crack of dawn, save for Sunflower. She wasn’t a field dog. Sunflower was her dog, meant to keep her company throughout the day.
Sunflower leapt up from where she’d been laying, her brown eyes shining. She shook the leaves out of her reddish hair, a cluster of them still clinging to her jumper. As was common with dogs, her outfit was simple, a shirt-and-pants combo stitched together from repurposed fabric. With the season changing, Ellie would have to get her something longer than the shorts she had.
Her tail wagged rapidly between her two legs. She wrung her hands to keep from being overwhelmed from her mounting excitement.
She bounded over to Ellie’s outstretched arms, her floppy ears bouncing as she moved. Ellie squeezed her close, only taller than her by a couple of inches. At this point, Sunflower was pretty much done with growing. What she lacked in height, she made up with her strength. Her tug-of-war record was spotless.
Ellie let her go, holding her at arm’s length and brushing the dirt off of her. Sunflower hummed from the attention. “We’re going on a walk today,” Ellie told her. “Stay here.”
Watching her owner leave plummeted her mood. It shot right back up when she returned, harness and leash in hand. Sunflower stood, arms raised, as Ellie fit the torso harness on her. She made sure that none of the straps were too tight, stopping with every pull to check in on Sunflower. Once everything was right, she clipped the leash to the back.
The groomer had put Sunflower’s fluffy hair in a low ponytail, complete with a red bow that was sure to be the cause of envy in other animals. Ellie scratched her behind the ears, earning an esctactic grin from her companion. She then led her to the gate and away from their property.
Elllie tucked the gourd under her arm. She kept her head down as she traversed the dirt and cobblestone-lined streets. Their estate was located in the wealthier end of the residential district, where things were quiet for the most part. Most people were away at work, be it as farmers, merchants, shopkeepers or something else. Agriculture was the beat that kept Stockbrunn moving.
A woman—Ellie didn’t lift her head to figure out who—said hello to her and she muttered a small greeting back. Some kids raced by, nearly crashing into a man hoisting a box over his shoulder. He shouted at them and they scrambled, scurrying off somewhere else to continue their game.
The next street over was busier. Carts of wares were being pulled towards the market. Two bearded men were chatting animatedly about a theater production, their conversation loud enough for Ellie to hear even as she turned in another direction. Popular, upcoming actress this. Great stage design, that. Someone bellowed at them to get back to work.
A painter sat on the edge of the road, calling for attention. A cat lazed next to her, lounging in the shade cast by a street light. Its black and white hair shone from the sunlight. Ellie gave the painter’s art a quick glance: a pianoforte with women’s legs, a melting flower bouquet, and a close-up of a bleeding mouth. Ellie weakly called the paintings nice, and moved on.
She had to duck to avoid getting hit by a ball. A chubby boy and girl were throwing it back and forth, getting more daring with every toss. They kept trying to catch it backwards, failing each time but still having enough fun to make it worth it.
The clay, brick, and wood buildings that surrounded her were clustered close together. They loomed over her, a mix of white and brown. The tight, grid-like system that the town was built on gave them more room for farm land.
They passed an off-leash dog that Sunflower promptly barked at. Ellie waved off its owner’s apology.
After some time, they finally made it to the very edge of the town, the area where Marietta Trotter (more properly known as Marietta of Trotter, but Ellie would lose her head if she corrected her on that) lived. The location offered her just enough protection from wild animals. It was close enough to Stockbrunn to make them wary.
Her shack was no-frills, built out of scrap materials. There was only enough space in it for sleeping, although she’d somehow managed to fit a mirror in there. It was Marietta’s prize possession, second only to her collection of ribbons.
Ellie knocked on her door. Marietta opened it so fast that Ellie nearly got hit with it.
She wore dark pink overalls that went to her knees over a brown striped blouse. Light pink bows adorned it, one on each pocket and shoulder strap, and another on her stomach. She had a red bow clipped to her hair, a coincidental match to Sunflower’s ribbon. Ellie avoided pointing that out. Over her bottom hooves, she wore long yellow socks stuffed into buckled shoes. Her pig ears poked out from her orange hair.
“I brought breakfast.” Ellie had to block Marietta from digging into her bag. “But we’re going to eat it with a friend.”
Marietta grunted. “Who?” Her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Pigs were the only animals in Stockbrunn that had mastered the Common language. It was a point of pride for them, and Marietta was no exception to that rule.
“Her name’s Shreya. She’s a woods dweller.” Ellie said. She backed up to give Marietta space to exit her home. “I’ve gotta return something to her and I don’t wanna go alone, so…”
“So you’re holding my food hostage.” Her hand, two-pronged with a thumb, reached again for her breakfast. Sunflower growled at her, stopping her in her tracks. “Your bodyguard isn’t enough?”
“There’s strength in numbers.” The added benefit was that this time Shreya couldn’t call her foolish and unprepared. She had a pig and a dog with her.
“Why do numbers matter? Don’t tell me you stole something from her.”
“I didn’t! I borrowed it. She gave it to me ’cause I didn’t have enough water,” she explained. Ellie unclipped Sunflower’s leash. Now free, Sunflower ran in circles around Marietta’s tiny house. “She’s a nice person.”
“That’s what they all say.” Her snout wrinkled.
“Hey, you either help me or you don’t get any food. What’s it gonna be?” Ellie didn’t want to do this the hard way, but she had to.
“What kind of help do you want? I’m not fighting anybody for you. That’s what the dog’s for.”
“Just walk with me and be my friend. Do what you usually do…all the way to Ianes’ Wall.”
“Are you nuts?” Marietta put her hooves on her hips. “You might as well paint a sign on yourself that says ‘eat me’ if you’re going there.”
“I was there yesterday. I survived.” Ellie said. “If I can make it there alone, we’ll definitely be fine with the three of us together. C’mon, Marietta. You know you want this great breakfast of—”
“Chicken jerky, apple, and wheat porridge. I can smell it. You spilled some.” She took another sniff. “Yeast smell. Grape smell. Sugar. You’ve got wine in that gourd. Is it for me or for your woods dweller?”
“It’s my thank-you gift to her.”
“Good, then I’ll take the rest.”
“Um, how about one jar, the jerky, and the apple? I kind of made one jar for everybody.” Ellie didn’t know how she got on this end of the negotiation. She should’ve been the one setting the conditions.
Marietta grinned. “And all I have to do is walk with you and make you look good? Okay, I’ll take it.” She produced a key from her pocket, and locked her door. She had ribbons to protect.
“Yeah. C’mon, Sunflower. We’re leaving.”
Excited at the sound of her name, she bounced after them as they made their way into the forest.
A/N: Thanks for reading! The result of last week’s poll has been revealed with this chapter. 5/18 voted for someone to find the gourd, and 13/18 voted for the gourd to go undiscovered. What will it be this week? Will danger befall our trio, or not?
Voting will end this Sunday at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 4 will be posted next Thursday, February 4th. Feel free to leave a comment.
Vote for RWC on TWF to help us get and stay on the charts.