They didn’t know how good they had it.
Plentiful food. Better resources. Tall, healthy trees made strong by their connections to far-off streams. The vibrancy of the leaves and grass. Those vivid greens alone painted the picture of lively difference. The human’s part of the woods had a vigor to it, a whole buzz of life and possibility that the wolves’ side didn’t have.
None of this went shared. Stockbrunn owned it. How they decided that, she didn’t know. If Ellie and Zinnia were any indication, then their average citizen knew nothing about their claimed land. The people of Stockbrunn were tourists. Disrespectful tourists who killed animals in pathetic, sneaky ways. No honor; no justice.
They took what they wanted and made sure there’d be no sharing. Their slice of the forest was theirs to take advantage of. Unable to live among the nature they belittled, they put up their walls and made sure to block it out as much as possible. They’d use it when they felt like it, and that was it.
If Stockbrunn had cared about their land, they wouldn’t have people like Ellie and her friend. Zinnia hadn’t come with any supplies. Ellie never struck her as particularly nature-wise, and this third meeting hadn’t changed her impression of her on that front. She may have brought a weapon with her this time, but there was nothing about the way she held it that hinted she knew how to use it. She’d be useless if they ran into trouble.
“Shreya, do you live far from here?” The question came from Ellie’s friend.
“It’s far,” she said without turning around. They kept walking forward, Ellie setting their pace. “The distance is so great that I promise we won’t run into anyone from there. We are not supposed to leave home.”
“What’s home like for you? It’s not every day that I get to talk to a woods dweller, so I’m sorry in advance if I’m being overly intrusive.”
“My home is the woods, an actual part of the woods,” Shreya said, unsure if she was using the right words. “The best way to explain it is that we walk with the woods, not through the woods. That belief is in everything we do. It is how we live.”
“Do you live with a lot of people?” Zinnia asked.
“Yes, there are many of us, but we keep to ourselves.”
“Is your sister the only dangerous one, or…?”
Shreya hesitated. “…She is. There are more like her, yes. Anyone can be dangerous, but we are not the kind of people who would seek to do harm. Like I said, we keep to ourselves. We are very strict about staying in our own place.”
“If they’re so strict, then what are you doing so far away from home? What’s stopping other people from doing the same thing?”
“Can I say those words about you? Do they fit your circumstance?” Shreya asked. It wasn’t like Stockbrunn liked its people wandering around, either.
“Yeah!” Ellie piped up. “We do what we want because we’re rebels. Tell us what to do and we say screw that.”
Ellie stopped the group. Before them stood a house mid-engulfed in green. The grass was so overgrown that it reached the edges of the house’s first floor windows. Although the glass was smashed, iron bars kept out intruders. Some meager scrapes on the bars showed there’d been some break-in attempts, but whoever had tried hadn’t gotten very far.
“Looks like a prime target for an investigation, huh?” Ellie asked over her shoulder.
“We shouldn’t go anywhere near it. What if someone’s in there?” Zinnia replied.
“No one is in there,” Shreya said, maybe a little too fast and self-assured for someone that wasn’t supposed to have heightened senses. “Do you see any signs of life? Look at the grass. It is not laying down. Look at this dirt. Smooth. No tracks.” She stepped forward and turned around to face them both. “The grass is the most telling, but I can go in first if you want. Someone skilled at hiding their tracks would know to stand the grass up so I can look first for you and make sure no one is there.”
“We’ll look together. There’s some gaps in the bars where we can peek through,” Ellie suggested.
“And get caught?” Zinnia shook her head. “No, what we should do is throw a rock at the house. If there’s someone in there, they might come to the window to investigate or even open the door. We’ll leave if anyone’s there.”
“Let’s just go with what Shreya said. There’s nobody here because of the grass.”
“But she said you can’t always trust that.”
“Go find a rock, then. I’m gonna check the door.” Ellie went up to it, Shreya making sure to stay by her on the off-chance something bad happened. She turned the handle. It didn’t budge on push or pull. Eyes lit up with excitement, she tapped her finger against the hole beneath the handle.
The hole looked like a funny person with a big head and a slim body.
“Ellie… Even if there isn’t anyone inside, this could still be a trap,” Zinnia warned.
“Mind holding this?” She passed her hatchet to Zinnia, then rummaged through her bag. “Why lock a door if you’re going to put a trap on the other side? You’d want anyone to walk in and get taken care of by it.” Her word choice confused Shreya, but she didn’t say anything about it. Ellie took out a couple of metal pieces, one of them with a curved hook at the end.
“We can break it open with that,” Shreya said. A few well-placed strikes with the hatchet would do the trick.
“That’d be too easy,” Ellie said.
“Ellie doesn’t want to pass up a chance to show off,” Zinnia mumbled.
“Hush you. I need to concentrate.” Ellie pressed her ear to the door as if it could whisper to her. She then pulled back, and got to work on the lock. Not being able to see through her, Shreya was blocked from knowing exactly what she was doing. She had to figure it out by sound. A lot of trial and error to find the proper combination of metals to unlock it. Ellie muttering under her breath. Some angry sounds, and then a triumphant cheer of “got it!
“Luckily it was only a warded lock. Nothing too bad,” Ellie said after dropping her tools back into her bag. She hovered her over the door handle.
“Open it slowly. Test it for any odd weight on the other side,” Zinnia said.
“What do you think will happen? Can there be a trap?” Shreya asked her.
“There could be one,” Zinnia answered. “We shouldn’t be so trusting.”
“I will go first. I will make sure it’s safe. Please move to the side.” Shreya held out her hand for the hatchet Zinnia held. “Would this be okay for me to throw or should I find a rock?”
“Throw it. It won’t break,” Ellie said.
“I’ll do it.” Zinnia kept the weapon away from her.
Shreya opened the door inch by inch. When there was enough of a gap, she got out of the way for Zinnia to throw the hatchet inside. Something reminiscent of glass crashed to the floor. If there’d been a trap, the hatchet must’ve set it off.
Not finding any resistance, Shreya pushed the door open the rest of the way.
The first thing she saw was a squat metal box on legs. It had a gated door for a face, burnt coals sitting inside of it. She assumed that that had been some kind of fire cradle for whoever had once lived there.
Broken plates littered the wood floors. The hatchet lay in a pile of them. Zinnia retrieved it. According to the fine dust coating over everything, no one had visited this house for some time. Ellie checked through the cabinets. It’d been ransacked already. Nothing of value had been left. All that stood in the room was a table and some half-rotted chairs.
“It’s like they left in a hurry,” Zinnia said. She streaked her finger along the dusty tabletop. “They may have locked the door out of habit.”
“What do you mean by that?” Shreya asked for clarification.
“There could’ve been an emergency that forced them out of their home.”
Ellie said, “that’s strange. What’s with the plates everywhere? Why does it look like someone smashed things up?”
“It could’ve been an accident or…they were breaking their things down for materials to sell,” Zinnia guessed.
“Ooh, or they could’ve messed this place up because they were hiding something! You don’t lock a door that you never want to return to.”
“People lock doors to keep people out,” Zinnia explained.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ellie said. “So there has to be something valuable here. I’m gonna check upstairs. You guys keep looking around the first floor. Give me the hatchet.”
Zinnia passed it to her. “Be careful when you go up those steps. Check each step for weakness before you put your foot down.”
Ellie left them alone. Shreya pretended to help. She paced around, not sure what they were supposed to be looking for. Zinnia’s search seemed to be just as half-hearted. She crouched down to check under the table.
When she came up empty of anything interesting, she started talking to Shreya. “I’m glad this house is tiny. You never know when it comes to houses outside Stockbrunn’s limits.” She traced her hand over a square on the wall a paler color than the rest of it. “Not having to answer to any Intendants means that anything goes when it comes to construction. The caveat to that is that you’re on your own when it comes to supplies, plus you’re living in the woods.”
“Is it common for people from Stockbrunn to live here like this?” Shreya tested one of the chairs, giving it a firm shake. The leg nearly gave way.
“It was more common 10, 15 years ago, maybe further back than that. People stopped after they realized how much safer they were within Stockbrunn’s walls.”
“They weren’t afraid back then? What changed?”
“The wolves broke the treaty. That was the most major change,” Zinnia said, “but I think the pivotal moment was when a girl named Rowan—”
“Hey, guys! Come up here.” Ellie called from upstairs.
Floorboards squeaking under their feet, Shreya and Zinnia went up to join her. The second floor was as stifling as the first, if not moreso. Having only one room on each floor didn’t offer much space for decoration. The upstairs’ windows were barred like the ones below. Although it was free of broken dinnerware, it was still oddly dirty.
The beds were unmade. Dried mud streaked the floor. Ellie stood by the family portrait leaning against the southernmost wall. Too big to be carried, the former homeowners had left it behind. Mother, father, and two young children in high collars. The paint was fading around the edges.
“Check out what they were wearing. This house has to be way old,” Ellie said. “Do you think this is worth anything?”
“No one wants a random painting of someone else’s family,” Zinnia said.
Shreya moved closer to it. What drove these people out of the woods? Had they wisened up? Did they make it back to Stockbrunn or gone for some other town? Their faces didn’t give any clues away.
“I was kidding. I’m not hauling this home,” Ellie said. “It’s cool, though.”
“I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I’m a little creeped out by it,” Zinnia admitted. “His eyes follow you wherever you go.”
“Let’s go back downstairs. We can have the porridge I made. Shreya, I added some more cinnamon this time because you seemed to like it so much.”
“Yeah, I did like it. Thank you,” Shreya said.
They set their things out on the table downstairs. Fortunately, three of the chairs were in good enough shape for them to sit in. Ellie took out four jars of wheat porridge. She gave out spoons, happy to add that she remembered them this time.
Zinnia spooned some of her share into her mouth and nearly choked. “…I think your wheat to milk ratio was off when you made this, Ellie.”
“It’s the way I like it!”
“Runny and gooey?” Zinnia held her spoon over the jar to demonstrate.
Zinnia muttered, “I think you should stick to cooking for animals. Sorry you have to eat this, Shreya.”
“Hey! It’s not that bad!” Ellie frowned.
“I like it,” Shreya said between bites.
“Well, I’m glad someone appreciates my hard work and labor.”
“You made porridge,” Zinnia said. “It’s not the most elaborate of meals.”
“We don’t get to eat things like this at home. I feel lucky to have this experience,” Shreya said.
“What do you usually eat?” Zinnia asked, ready with another round of questions.
“I eat twice a day. There’s the morning meal and the night meal. Food is collected and then spread out among community members at that time. Redistributed,” she tried to clarify.
“Does everyone eat the same thing? That sounds like it’d be a mess… Gathering everyone up. Forcing everyone to eat next to each other.” Ellie grimaced. “You’d need a gigantic banquet hall to pull that off. How’s there enough food?”
“Sometimes there is not, but you can get something. We put the oldest and youngest first,” Shreya said. “Do you do this in Stockbrunn? Gather food and give it out to everyone to eat? If you have someone in charge of food, then it’s not a problem.”
“I’ve got an uncle who’s the Intendant of Agriculture. I guess food would be his jurisdiction. We don’t do it that way, though,” Ellie said. “Basically, food is gathered and then put into markets where it’s sold. Kill a bear, get it to a butcher willing to pay a nice price for it, and then the butcher sells it to everybody else. We’ve got hunters affiliated with certain shops because of that.”
“We don’t sell anything. We give it out,” Shreya said.
“Is that the only thing that’s free for you guys? Do you pay for anything?”
“I have never paid for anything.”
Zinnia said, “woods dwellers don’t exactly have a society. I’m not surprised they don’t have a commerce system.”
“It’s not true that they don’t have a society,” Ellie said, her eyebrows wrinkling. “If they didn’t, how could Shreya talk to us and everything else? They’ve got a society. It’s just different than ours.”
“I’m sorry for misspeaking. I meant to say something else. I hope I didn’t insult you in any way, shape, or form, Shreya.”
“It is okay. Ellie is right. We are different.” Shreya took another look at Ellie’s hand, the bandaged one. She realized that she hadn’t said anything about it this whole time. “What happened to you?”
“Oh, this? I got hurt working on my aunt’s farm.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It was worse earlier but I’m good now. I bounce back fast!”
“I got hurt the other day, too… I was not paying attention and stepped on a piercing plant without my shoes,” Shreya said. “It was embarassing.”
“It really is,” Ellie said.
“I am happy no one saw my mistake. It would have been worse.”
“I wish I’d been that lucky! My aunt saw the whole thing. Ugh, it was the worst.” Ellie slid her hands over her face. “The worst… It might’ve bought me some time off the farm. That’s the only good part. I’ve probably gotta help out with something else. Hunting?”
Shreya perked up at her last word. She remembered Ellie telling her that hunting was in her blood. “I hunt. Did I tell you that? We can learn from each other.”
Zinnia laughed. “Um, Ellie, when was the last time you hunted?”
“That doesn’t matter,” Ellie said, waving her off. “What’s more important is how good I am at it. I’m good. But…I’ll take you up on that offer, Shreya.”
“Offer? What do you mean?”
“We can learn stuff from each other. You can start teaching me how to fight and defend myself and like, the ways of the woods. All of that.”
“Can you say that in a different way and more slow, please?”
“I want to be a better fighter and more foresty,” Ellie said. She drew out her words. “I have to be one with nature and more like you. I’m going to be here more often and I want to be more prepared in case anything like that bear happens again.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt but this doesn’t sound like a good idea. You’re planning something aren’t you, Ellie? You never do anything without a longterm strategy in mind,” Zinnia said. “You come off like you’re whimsical but I know you’re not like that deep down. So, what are you planning here?”
“I’m not planning anything.” Ellie drummed her fingers against the table. “I just think it’d be a good idea.”
“I thought you had private fighting lessons or something like that. I vaguely remember you complaining about that before.”
“Those lessons aren’t good enough. I have to know the forest. I have to ‘walk with the woods, not through the woods,’ like one of Shreya’s people,” Ellie said. “But yeah, I don’t want to push Shreya into agreeing to do something she doesn’t want to do. We can still hang out without the training part.”
Training her? Something about that felt like it’d be taking things a step too far. It could be the beginning of a slippery slope. Bringing her out of the “darkness” she was in when it came to the woods could present a new set of problems. And she’d be helping her more directly. Training her was different from simply protecting her.
Ellie would expect Shreya to be an expert about this side of the woods, wouldn’t she? She’d be at some risk of losing her cover. She’d been doing a good job of pretending she was from these woods so far, but it was bound to get more difficult from here on out.
But then again…the offer went both ways. Instead of gleaning information about Stockbrunn from Ellie, she could actively get it. That could be her payment for the training. And maybe Ellie had more useful information to give her, something besides those terrible hunting traps.
A/N: Sorry for the delay in getting the full chapter posted. I only had a preview of it up by the deadline. Because of this delay, the voting will end Monday, May 2nd at 11:59 PM EST. Also, you’ll be getting a Bonus or Interlude chapter on Tuesday to further make up for this.
The poll results for if they would be able to unlock the door was 8 votes for yes and 3 votes for no.
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