“We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“No, we’re not.” Ellie waved her hand dismissively. “It’s not much longer from here. We’re close.”
“That’s what you said an hour ago.” Marietta said. They were long past her point of comfort. Her hooves pulsated in her shoes, jolting pain up her ankles with every step. If she’d known they were going to be walking in circles, she would’ve worn a different, although still just as stylish, pair.
She’d forgotten that Ellie wasn’t the most sensible and efficient of girls.
No compass. No sticking to the given path. No doubling back to the last place they saw a signpost. A minor interest in something scratched into a tree, because somehow, scribbles in tree bark are more important than finding landmarks. An insistence that they were going the right way. A dog that kept stopping to sniff the air, the plants, the dirt, everything and anything that could slow them down. Great deal of help she was being.
“Can’t you get Sunflower to find the Wall?” Dogs were supposed to be good at things like that.
Ellie shrugged. Full-on, shoulders to ears, shrugged as if she couldn’t be bothered to check. “She doesn’t know where it is. Do you, Sunflower?”
Sunflower stopped in her tracks. One of her ears visibly twitched.
“See? She knows something.” Marietta followed Sunflower’s gaze. She was staring at a cluster of trees bundled so closely together it was as if they were tied. They were meant to go in that direction, apparently.
“Good job!” Ellie reached out to hug her. Sunflower threw her arm out in front of Ellie, barring her from taking another step. She shot a warning glare at Marietta, then went back to looking at that same spot.
“What’s wrong?” There were trees everywhere. The sun streamed through their leaves, patterning leaf-shaped lights over the shadows. Dirt and grass all over the place, the elevation differing and warning them of a nasty fall if they weren’t mindful. Ellie failed to see what was so disturbing about the trees Sunflower had singled out.
She glanced over at Marietta.
Marietta’s mouth hung open.
Sunflower got down low, one knee to the ground and her other leg stretched out behind her. Her hands were to the dirt, fingers spread out. She kept her eyes on her target.
Still not getting an answer, Ellie repeated herself. “What’s wrong?”
“When she takes off, we run as fast as we can in the opposite direction.” Marietta murmured. “Whatever you do, don’t move until she does.”
“Why? We can’t just leave her.”
Marietta couldn’t believe she had to spell it out for her. “There’s a bear.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” It was a wonder Ellie wasn’t dead yet. Cluelessness was a death sentence she’d somehow managed to avoid. Marietta wished she had her luck. “We’re in its territory.”
“Okay, let’s talk to it and explain we don’t mean any harm.” As soon as Ellie lifted her boot, Marietta pulled on the back of her tunic, hard, to keep her in place. “What the hell?”
“It’s feral,” Marietta hissed between her teeth. Four legged. Covered head to toe in fur. Claws capable of ripping off heads. Powerful jaw ready to swallow them, clothes and all. A brutal, mindless monster whose territory they were encroaching on. Even someone as thick as Ellie had to understand the gravity of the situation they were in.
Marietta could smell the drool on its lips.
A pig, a dog, and an idiot served up on a platter. Why did I agree to go? She eyed Ellie’s bag. Right, the food. The food that made their trio all the more delectable. “New plan. Get rid of your bag. Drop it.”
“I can’t,” she whispered back. “I can’t let it go.”
Sunflower stayed in her stance, ignoring Marietta and Ellie’s back-and-forth arguing.
“You better drop it this instant or I’m dropping it for you.”
“You better not.” Ellie clutched the strap.
“You selfish fool.” What was so important about her damn bag?
“You’re the fool!”
“Keep your voice down.”
Marietta told her, “I’m giving you five seconds. Five…”
She damned the rest of the countdown and went for it. Marietta grasped the bag in her hooves, yanking on it to get it off of Ellie.
The contents inside clacked together, a loud clap of glass striking glass.
That was enough to set off the bear. It roared, spit flying free from its jowls.
Sunflower bolted. Ellie screamed. Marietta grabbed her arm to drag her along. They had to get out of there. Sunflower would only be able to hold the bear off for so long.
Ellie wrestled her arm away. “I’m not leaving her!” She rummaged through her bag. Her knife wouldn’t do anything against a bear. She settled for the empty wine bottle.
“You’re not fighting that thing.”
The bear made its way around the trees that obscured it. Its brown fur bristled around its neck. Both it and Sunflower stopped to glare at each other once more.
“Sunflower needs us.”
“She’s saving us. Ellie, don’t be stupid.” Marietta was tempted to smack the bottle out of Ellie’s hands. “Anyone could’ve heard your scream. We’ve got to go.”
“No!” Ellie had had her since she was a puppy. “I’m going to help her. You run away if you want to.”
Going back to Stockbrunn without Ellie… Marietta might as well be dead, too. Maybe she could play a good little pig and talk her way back into her old home, convince them to take her back and that she won’t say a word. A good, obedient mute.
Sunflower charged for the bear.
She disappeared right into the forest floor, having stepped onto a hunter’s trap. What should’ve been a pile of dirt and leaves had given way to a hole. Sunflower yowled. The bear padded its way over to the edge.
Ellie reached her arm back and snapped it forward. She hurled the wine bottle at the creature. It shattered over its head and shoulders, a shower of glass and blood.
The roar this time was louder than the last.
Marietta ran. She didn’t look back at Ellie, the bear, the hole, none of that. She just kept running in her shoes that weren’t meant for running and her clothes that weren’t meant for dying in, no, no, no.
Today wasn’t supposed to be the day for all this. She was supposed to accompany Ellie to meet her woods dweller friend, and then be treated to a delicious meal. An apple, some jerky, some porridge. That was it. That was all that was supposed to happen. She’d never signed up for a dance with death.
Her lungs burned. Sweat drenched her blouse.
Another explosion of broken glass.
She squealed, hitting a jut in the soil she hadn’t expected. She tumbled head over heels, but didn’t let that deter her. Marietta scrambled to a stand and kept going.
Did the glass mean that Ellie was fighting it? Or did it mean that it had gotten her already and she’d thrown the glass with her last breath? Marietta shook her head to rid herself of those thoughts. She needed to get back on the path.
A rumbling growl.
Marietta turned, and made eye contact with the beast. Everything about its face said that that was the end for her. That was it. Goodbye. No more second try at life.
She squeezed her eyes shut, keeping them that way as she heard something make a heavy impact.
Metal on flesh.
The bear wailed. Another animal snarling. Sounds of struggle. Gnashing of teeth. Paws slashing through the air and not hitting anything. Then, another wet, awful stabbing sound. A low, guttural whine. It took another hit for the whining to subside.
Marietta finally opened her eyes. A wolf stood before her, panting from its fight.
It said something in her own ugly tongue, then switched into a clumsy Casternian Common. “It’s good that it was hurt already. It was bleeding. Lots of pain. We’re lucky.” Its forearms were covered in blood, splashes from when it struggled against the bear. It held a stick with a knife tethered to the end. The makeshift spear had served it well.
“If you’re going to use that thing on me next—”
“No. I’m friendly.” Its blue eyes widened in surprise.
Its kind were the furthest thing from friendly. Wolves not being feral didn’t make them any less dangerous. If anything, it made them ten times worse than things like the bear they’d just faced. They were liars. Con artist. Not to be trusted.
“Did you see a girl here?” The wolf asked. It undid the string, freeing its knife.
“Are you going to threaten to eat me if I don’t tell you?” Marietta crossed her arms. The adrenaline had left her for the most part.
“I’m nice. I’m her friend.”
“Sure you are. I see right through you.”
“See right through me… So do I. You know her.” It said. “I can tell you’ve been with her.”
“And she’s gone now. You can’t have her. Woe is you, wolf.”
“She’s somewhere here.” It wiped its knife on its pant leg. “I don’t want to kill her. And I don’t want to kill you. I would’ve let her do it if I did.” It gestured to the bear, its back riddled with wounds.
“Then what’s your angle? What do you want?”
It mused on that for a moment. “She has something of mine. I need it back.”
Hearing that was all it took for everything to click in Marietta’s mind. This wolf was the woods dweller that Ellie was trying to see. Fooled by its hat and cape get-up, she’d actually believed that it was human. Marietta had to confirm that for herself. “She doesn’t know what you are, does she?”
“No.” Was that a hint of fear? Worry? The wolf had more of a stake in its secret than it was letting on.
“If you want to keep it that way, you’re going to need my help.” Marietta said.
“I’d like my gourd.” It tried a redirection. Marietta was too smart for that tactic.
“Do you want her village to decimate your enclave? If I told them you were messing with her…”
“I’m not. I’ll never see her again after this.”
“You and I both know that’s a lie. If you didn’t want to see her again, you wouldn’t be so concerned about me telling her what you are.” Marietta sighed. “If you’re a spy, you’re doing a poor job.”
That must’ve struck a nerve. The poor creature glanced away. “I’m not a spy.”
“Then what are you? Just curious about how the oh-so-wonderful human species lives?” Marietta asked. “If that’s what it is, then admit it already.”
“Yes, curious. A little.” It said. “But I’m here for my gourd. After this, I’m gone.”
“Stay a while, wolf. You’re in my debt.” Marietta grinned to herself. “And hurting me is as good as hurting her so don’t try anything.”
“Debt? Yes, because if she finds out about you, whatever thing you’re trying to do is over. I don’t know what your actual aim is, wolf, but I’ll figure it out, and, hell, maybe I’ll join you in whatever you’ve got planned.” This opportunity was too good to pass up.
“I’m not planning anything.”
A shout called their attention away.
“That’s Ellie.” The wolf said. The bear hadn’t gotten her after all. “Over here!” It took a couple of more shouts for her to be able to find where they were. Her face, already sweaty and pale from running, turned another shade lighter when she saw the bear.
“Whoa… You guys killed it?” Ellie clutched her collar.
“It was weak.” Marietta explained. “Your friend said it was already bleeding.”
“Thanks, Shreya. I thought…yeah.” She didn’t want to go there, even though she was the same girl that had abandoned Marietta in her time of need. Yeah, Marietta hadn’t failed to notice that. “I thought throwing a jar would distract it. By the time I turned around, you weren’t with me anymore, Marietta.”
Realizing her manners, Ellie glanced from friend to friend. “Oh, and, Marietta, this is Shreya. Shreya, this is Marietta.”
Shreya nodded at Marietta. Marietta put her hands behind her back.
“Where’s the gourd?” Shreya cut to the chase.
“I took it off when I was running, sorry.” Ellie said. She rubbed her forehead. “I’ll get it for you, really, I will, but we’ve got a problem.”
“You’re talking about Sunflower?” Marietta asked her.
“Yeah. She’s in that hole. We’ve got to get her out.”
A/N: Sorry this chapter came out a little later than usual. Here we are at Chapter 4. Last week, “Danger!” won 11 to 5. This time, we’re going to decide what the extent of Sunflower’s injuries in the hole are. Will there be no injury, a mild injury, or a severe injury? And I wonder how they’re going to get her out of that hole in the first place…
Vote for RWC on TWF to help us get and stay on the charts.