Unable to live with their stepmother who didn’t want them around, a brother and sister ventured into the woods to make a new life for themselves. They set off towards one of the neighboring towns. Somewhere along the way, however, they got lost. In their joy, they’d become careless.
Thrown off of the path, they tried to make their way back via the crumbs that had fallen from their bread,, but it was to no avail. Birds had pecked the crumbs away. The brother and sister had no way nor hope of reaching their destination. Unprepared for the night, they huddled together, their teeth chattering from the cold and fear.
Their prayers were answered when a woman stepped before them, wearing a shawl and fur clothing. She explained that she had a house not too far from where they were. It was a house much too big for her. They could stay there for the night.
Although the siblings were apprehensive at first, they realized they couldn’t deny a warm and safe place to sleep, especially not from a woman so kind-seeming. On the way there, she offered them hard candy. Having already eaten through their rations, the siblings were too hungry to resist the stranger’s gift.
They never made it to the woman’s house. Laced with a valerian off-shoot, the candy acted as a sedative powerful enough to make them lose consciousness. It may have been for the best that the drug had more of an effect on the sister than it did her brother. She missed the worst parts of his torture, only catching the end of his life through a half-awake haze.
Chained up and surrounded by a circle of woods dwellers, she watched them spit roast her brother’s limbs over a fire. Wild-eyed, they leered at her. The woman from earlier directed the whole affair, telling her compatriots when to turn the charring flesh for optimal taste.
The woods dwellers had a worse fate in store for the sister. She became their slave, to be used however they wished. Pulled deeper into the woods, the only possible rescue she had was death, and they made sure she wouldn’t have it. She was much too useful for them to discard her like that.
That was the story that swirled around in Zinnia Trotter’s mind as she followed closely behind her friend. Ellie’s adherence to the dirt path had kept Zinnia from voicing her concerns—she was actually surprised at Ellie wasn’t wandering all over the place—but the leeway she’d been given her had worn out.
“What is it that you do here exactly?” Zinnia asked her. Ellie stopped and turned around, hatchet in hand and a smile on her face.
“I don’t know. Wander, look for stuff?”
“…Why are you saying that like you’re not sure?”
“What I do changes every time I’m here,” Ellie said, “but basically I like looking for flowers and plants I can’t find in Stockbrunn. It’s fun.”
“You look for plants with a hatchet and lockpicking supplies?”
Ellie lifted the hatchet. “Yeah! I might need to chop something or defend us. Um, not that we’re going anywhere dangerous. You just never know,” she said. “And about the lockpicking stuff…well, you’re smart, you can figure out why.”
“I’m not helping you break into someone’s house. We can turn around right now if that’s what you’re planning on doing.”
“What? I wouldn’t mess with any places that aren’t abandoned.”
“You shouldn’t mess with any places at all,” Zinnia said. “You don’t know who they belong to.”
“They don’t belong to anybody. They’re old houses nobody lives in anymore.”
“What happens if someone is? Something bad could happen to you…” She couldn’t stomach the thought. The possible tragedies were endless. “Is this what you’ve been doing whenever you sneak off here?”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “You’re getting way too caught up on my gear. All I do is walk around and look for things.”
Zinnia couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something Ellie was hiding from her, but that wasn’t new. Ellie was more tight-lipped than she let on. “Okay.”
“I’m serious! I’ve got this botany guidebook. You’ve heard of leven-tinte flowers, right?”
Even though flowers weren’t her thing, she decided to play along. “Yeah.”
“They grow around where Ianes’ Wall is. They’re special because the direction they face can point you towards a rarer kind of flower, one that’s even harder to find than leven-tinte flowers.”
“Is that where we’re going?” Zinnia narrowed her eyes. Ianes’ Wall marked the border between human and wolven territory.
“Yep! We don’t have too much longer to go until we get there, so let’s get to stepping.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“You’re full of questions today,” Ellie said with a soft sigh.
“You want to go to Ianes’ Wall to look at flowers. Sorry if I’m confused.”
“Why’d you come in the first place if you’re just going to fight me on everything I want to do?”
“I came because I wanted a break from Stockbrunn,” Zinnia said. “I’m sorry for assuming that all we were going to do was walk and talk. I didn’t think you’d want to do something like go to Ianes’ Wall.”
“We can walk and talk in town. We should do something different, like—”
“Put our lives at risk?”
“You put your life at risk all the time with that Arse End stuff.”
“It’s Arntzen. Stop calling it that. And I’m not putting my life at risk. I’m in control of what’s going on with that. You don’t have any control over what happens here.”
“You can’t control people,” Ellie argued. “Anyone could snap and do something to you. Imagine if they didn’t like your prices and decided to hurt you and take all of your stuff. That’s something that could happen!”
“You act like I’m dealing with madmen. They’re normal people. You, on the other hand, are gambling with your life,” Zinnia said. “Your scenario you made up for me can happen to you, too. No one you meet in the woods will care that you’re Stockbrunn’s heiress. Your title won’t save you here.”
“It doesn’t have to. I can save myself just fine without it,” she snapped. “I killed a bear the last time I was here. I know how to handle myself.”
“I don’t think it counts if you killed one with your family.” The Navarretes, Ellie’s paternal family, were known for their hunting prowess. It didn’t surprise Zinnia in the least bit that Ellie may have assisted them in taking down a bear.
“It wasn’t with my family. I was with Marietta and Sunflower. You want to know the real reason why Sunflower’s foot was messed up? She fell in a hole,” Ellie said. On a roll, she continued, “and you know what? Marietta’s not bad. She helped us and didn’t abandon us, so you can stop thinking the worst of her.”
Zinnia should’ve seen it coming. This was a classic Ellie move. Whenever she got cornered, she’d spout lie after lie. “Alright, you killed a bear.”
“Yeah, I did. It was huge.”
“It must’ve been,” Zinnia said. Ellie’s imagination wouldn’t let the bear be anything but monstrous.
“So you’ll shut up and come to Ianes’ Wall with me?”
“This is your chance to see something you’ve never seen before. Haven’t you always wondered about it? It’s not the same as reading about it or looking at paintings of it. You have to see it.”
“It’s a wall,” Zinnia said. Of all things Ellie could entice her with…
“An actual wall, one that’s different from the ones that are keeping us in Stockbrunn. The way I see it, you and me are in the same boat. We’ve got all sorts of people making us stuck in Stockbrunn. Your parents. Mine. So why are we forcing ourselves to stay, too? Aren’t we owed a little escape time? And it’s a tiny escape, a really small one, just a little sightseeing in the woods. This is as much of the outside world as we’re allowed to see, Zinnia. A small glimpse. I think you’re doing yourself a huge disservice by refusing to go.”
“I get what you’re saying, really I do, but I’m saying no because I don’t want us to get killed.”
“You’ve come this far. What’s a little bit longer?”
Zinnia had to admit that the offer was compelling. They didn’t have to linger at the wall or anything like that. They could walk over, check it out, and then they could go right home. The adventure was limited to checking out the landmark. When she phrased it like that, it sounded so simple and easy.
It had been a long while since Zinnia had done something that she didn’t have to do, besides her secondary studies.
Even though she knew the potential risk involved, she agreed to it. She said, “okay.”
~ * ~ * ~
Zinnia regretted everything, all the way back to her childhood when she and her sister first met little Elspeth Navarrete. She should’ve kicked her in the shin and ran away, ruining any shot they had of befriending her. If shin kicking hadn’t been enough, Zinnia would’ve cut off her ponytail. Anything to ensure they’d never know each other, and never reach this point in their lives.
“Walk away slowly,” she whispered. Zinnia put a hand on Ellie’s arm to help guide her in walking backwards.
The woods dweller up ahead, the one standing near Ianes’ Wall, hadn’t noticed them yet. As long as they stayed quiet, they could make it out of this intact.
“It’s okay,” Ellie moved out of her grasp. “I know her. We’re friends.”
“Shhh,” Zinnia shushed her. “Whisper.”
“Her name’s Shreya. She lives in the woods.”
“She’s a woods dweller?” Zinnia grabbed Ellie’s arm more forcefully. “We’re going. I am not becoming the next Hansel and Gretel with you.”
“You never heard of—nevermind, we have to go.”
Too late. The woods dweller stared straight at her, eyebrows slanted downwards. She wore a long-eared cap on her head, pulled down tight and a fur cape over a weave-patterned top. Her pants were loose, made with an inexpensive-looking fabric. Simple shoes, a sheathed blade on her right hip, and a plain gourd on her left hip completed her look.
She strode towards them.
“We’re dead,” Zinnia mumbled.
Ellie laughed at her misery. “I met her when I was looking for flowers here. She’s a good person.”
“You knew she’d be here…” Zinnia said. She let her go. “That’s why you wanted to come here so badly. You wanted to meet up with a woods dweller.” Ellie must’ve made that damn leven-tinte flower up.
“I didn’t think you’d come if you knew the whole truth. Woods dwellers can be good people.”
“You don’t think my friends can be good people, but you think woods dwellers can be?” Zinnia couldn’t believe it. Ellie extended more courtesy to a random woods dweller than she did to Noemi, Lucio, Gracja, and everyone in Arntzen that was like them. A woods dweller who, like so many of the others, had probably renounced her humanity and became something worse than an animal. Animals were predictable, at least. Woods dwellers were something else.
Their conversation abruptly ended there, the woods dweller having reached them.
Expression relaxed but with a tone as stiff as a board, the strange girl greeted, “hello. It’s nice to see you. This a new friend?”
“I wouldn’t call her a new friend. We go way back,” Ellie said.
“We’ve known each other for years,” Zinnia explained. “What’s your name and where are you from?”
“My name is Shreya. I’m from the woods,” she replied, lifting her arms to gesture around them. “Are you from Stockbrunn?”
“How do you know about Stockbrunn?”
“It’s the most near town. Ellie’s from it.”
“Ah, she told you where she’s from.” Zinnia sent Ellie a disapproving glance. “What else do you know about her, Shreya?”
“Hey, what’s with the interrogation?” Ellie asked. “This is, like, the third time we’ve met. She’s not going to be an expert on all things me. Give her some more time.”
“It is okay. I have an answer. Ellie is an interesting person who I am still learning about,” Shreya said. “Are you asking me these questions because you are worried about her? You don’t have to worry. I will never hurt her. You have my promise.”
“She gave me water and helped me get home the first time we met. Then the second time was that whole bear thing. She saved me twice when she didn’t have to.”
“You didn’t make the bear up?” Zinnia asked. For someone who almost got mauled by a bear, Ellie sure seemed to have taken the entire incident in stride.
“No way! It happened. Tell her, Shreya.”
“The bear was young and very hurt. We would not have survived a healthy adult bear,” she said. “We were fortunate…lucky? It could have been much worse.”
“Both of those words work,” Zinnia said. It was a wonder to her that a woods dweller could speak Casternian. She thought that their barbarism meant they had no interest in the common language.
“Thank you. I am usually better at this, but my yesterdays were difficult. I’m not as sharp as I normally am.”
“Did you get in trouble with your Mom again? That’s what happened to me.” Ellie rolled up her sleeve, revealing a nicely-sized bruise on her arm.
Zinnia peered at it. The mark was about two fingers wide. “Your mother beats you?”
“Nah, this just happened when we were sparring. She got all blegh about me being out here, so we did some staff fighting,” Ellie said. “I’ll have you know I landed a couple of hits on her.”
“Sure you did,” Zinnia said, sarcasm evident in her voice.
“I did! But she doesn’t know anything about the bear or about Shreya. Those are all secrets.”
“You’re a secret to everyone but my sister. She doesn’t know details, and I’m keeping it that way,” Shreya said. “She wanted to come but I didn’t let her.”
“Your twin! You should’ve let her come,” Ellie said. She nudged Zinnia with her elbow. “Zinnia’s little brother and sister are twins, so you have a twin connection right there. You can talk about twin stuff.”
“I don’t think that counts as a twin connection,” Zinnia said.
Shreya tilted her head. “I would like it very much if you never meet my sister. She’s dangerous.”
“Oh, don’t tell Ellie that. She loves danger.”
“Is that true?”
“I wouldn’t say I love danger, but I guess some people might call me a thrill-seeker.” Ellie grinned.
“Thrill-seeking and danger-loving are basically the same thing,” Zinnia pointed out.
“It’s bad to take risks that you don’t need to take,” Shreya said.
Like heading into the woods, getting lost, fighting a bear, and hanging out with a woods dweller, Zinnia thought to herself.
“I’m lessening my risks. Look, I’ve got a weapon this time.” Ellie waved the hatchet.
“Do you not have a knife?” Shreya asked.
“I don’t have one,” Zinnia said. “Could I borrow yours? I’d be more relaxed if I had one.”
Ellie tsked at her. “You should’ve packed your own.”
“You told me I didn’t have to bring anything.”
“Did I? Oops…”
Shreya loosened her belt and pulled the sheath free from its tie. She held it out to Zinnia. “Here. I will need it back. Do not be like Ellie and run away with it.”
“Hey! I didn’t run away with your water jug thing. Come to think of it, what happened to the cool designs on it?”
“That gourd belonged to my Papa.” She smiled at Zinnia, noticing her hesitation. “I will be okay without it. I’m more familiar with the woods than you are. I will keep all of you safe.”
Zinnia took the scabbard, then fed its strings through her belt loops. She tied it tight against her hip, her fingers shaking the whole time. Either Shreya was genuinely to be trusted, or she was strong enough to overpower them even without her blade.
“Do you have any candy with you?” Zinnia asked her. “Sweet treats?”
“I do not.” Her eyebrows scrunched in confusion.
“Do woods dwellers know what candy is?” Ellie mused out loud. “Ooh, I can bring you some the next time we see each other.”
“I’m pretty sure some woods dwellers do know what candy is,” Zinnia said.
Ellie shrugged. “So what? She doesn’t. What, is there some secret woods dweller candy collective out there?”
“It’s not like she would tell us if there was one. Either way, I’m not interested in it. I just wanted to check what she brought.”
Shreya brightened up, seeming to understand part of what Zinnia was saying. “I brought my knife and my water.”
“And I brought food, water, the hatchet, and my lockpicking stuff. Zinnia brought nothing. Whew, glad we established that. I was scared we’d forget,” Ellie said jokingly.
“What is lockpicking?” Back in the world of confusion, Shreya’s eyes scrunched up again.
“Lockpicking is when you manipulate a lock in order to open it. Ellie can explain it better, but you use tools to make something that’s locked not locked anymore,” Zinnia said. “You break it open.”
“Ideally, you don’t break the lock,” Ellie said. “Sometimes you can’t avoid it, though.”
Since Shreya wasn’t going to ask, Zinnia decided to fill in the blanks for her. “Ellie’s thinking of breaking into some houses, and she wants us to help her.”
“Don’t say it like that. All I’m doing is exploring the woods a little with you guys. I brought my gear just in case we come across something we don’t have easy access to.” Ellie frowned. “I don’t have my whole set so if there’s a lock I can’t crack with these tools we’ll have to try again tomorrow.”
“Why are you exploring the woods?” Shreya asked.
“Because she likes to ‘wander, look for stuff?’” Zinnia answered, mimicking Ellie’s ditzy inflection.
“It’s more fun than us sitting around and chatting. It’s less awkward,” Ellie said. “I think the best way to form friendships is by doing an activity together, and I think you guys might make interesting friends, so let’s get active. Yeah!”
“Okay. Do you know where you want to go?” Shreya asked.
“I don’t know. Do you know any cool spots?”
Zinnia interjected, “let’s go that way.” She wasn’t going to let Shreya lead the trip, even with their interactions being mostly positive so far. “Ellie, you go first. You’re the one that brought us together. Shreya, you can be second because you know the woods the best. I’ll be last.”
Shreya didn’t protest. She got in line.
“I like your energy.” Ellie saluted Zinnia. “EZS Crew, roll out.”
A/N: We had our first tie when it came to the “will Shreya beg Shanti not to go into the woods with her?” Chapter 12 vote. 4 yes and 4 no. The result was decided by coin flip. We almost tied it up again last week with the Chapter 13 question “will Zinnia be trusting of Shreya?” The results were 5 for yes and 6 for no.
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