“So, what’ll it be? Yes or no?” Ellie propped her elbows up on the table. Not standing up meant that she had less range to intimidate Shreya with—not that she was trying to force her answer to be one thing or another. Intimidation wasn’t her game. She was just trying to influence her to pick the right answer.
“What is it that you want? Describe more.”
These endless clarification questions must’ve been Shreya’s idea of a stall tactic. Too bad for her that Ellie was more than familiar with that technique.
“Teach me what you know. I want to become the sort of person that wouldn’t be out-of-place here.” When Shreya’s blank look didn’t change, Ellie added, “basically, make me into someone you wouldn’t have to worry about.”
“That could take years,” Zinnia said. “Why don’t you ask your family to do this? You’re putting her on the spot.”
“Who cares? I’ve got years ahead of me. Yeah, there’s people in Stockbrunn that might be able to teach me a thing or two but that’s different from someone who actually lives here,” Ellie said. She shot her a glare. “Nobody asked you, anyway. She can speak for herself.”
“I am not a teacher, but I can do it,” Shreya said, choosing the right answer. Ellie had to stop herself from hugging her. They weren’t at that level yet. They barely knew each other.
“Is there anything you want in return?” She seemed to like the Riesling. Ellie could probably steal some more from the cellar for her.
“Is that not the word? It is something with text and pages.”
“No, I heard what you said. It’s just…I didn’t think you’d ask for something like that,” Ellie said. She made sure to smile so her words wouldn’t be taken the wrong way. Nature girl Shreya with a book in her hands was a funny image.
Zinnia sounded just as surprised. “You’re interested in education? Are you an academic? A scholar? A student?” It wasn’t until the last word she tried that Shreya’s eyes flashed with recognition.
“I don’t think I am any of those things. I am not searching for a learner’s book,” Shreya replied. “It can be a classic Stockbrunn book. Creative.”
“I’m not the most well-read, so…” In a rare showing of weakness, Ellie passed the question off to Zinnia.
“What types of books do you like?” Zinnia asked. “We should figure out something that’s a worthy payment so you can get something good out of this.”
“Most?” Shreya scrunched her eyebrows in thought. “Fantasy. Scary. Romance. Anything. I like the ‘proud’ or ‘pride’ themed books the least.”
She gave Ellie the perfect opening. A mischevious grin on her face, Ellie couldn’t resist asking, “how about two-girl romance? How open are you to that, Shreya, because me and Zinnia are very open to it?”
“It depends on the writer,” Shreya said. The insinuation flew over her head, completely and utterly. No blushing moment. No awkward giggling. Not even a hint of embarrassment, or something shot back at her. Ellie would have to work harder to throw her off-balance next time.
Zinnia hadn’t missed it, and she made Ellie know it by smirking at her. Ellie’d make her pay for that look later. “Why don’t you bring her Cavalier? It’s a story about the consequences of dismissive attitudes. In Cavalier, ignorance is not bliss. It’s the thing that ruins everything and everyone,” she said.
“Isn’t there a term for that? It’s the Something Effect. Gaurin taught us about it.” Ellie snapped her fingers, the phrase out of her reach. “It has to do with realizing how good something is after it’s already gone.”
“I don’t recall.”
“Do you have school where you live, Shreya?”
“School…” Shreya drew the word out longer than necessary. “We build ourselves, our skills, throughout our lives. Our school is that.”
“No four walls? No teacher at a desk?” Ellie rattled off. “No note taking?”
“We do not have those things.”
“School’s more than that,” Zinnia said.
“To you, maybe. But for the rest of us? If Shreya and her people do whatever they want, we should do the same. Look what not-school did for Shreya.”
Zinnia reminded her, “only primary school’s compulsory.”
“Not for me. Secondary’s required.” Ellie got out of her chair. She picked up the hatchet, and tested its weight in her hands. She went over to the hanging cabinets.
“What will you do with that?” Shreya looked ready to jump out of her chair.
“This!” She split the cabinet door open with one mighty swing.
Okay, that may have been overselling it. Ellie made a semi-decent crack in it, that’s all.
“What are you doing?” Zinnia stood up before Shreya did.
“I’m making this our place where we can, like, get outside of ourselves. We don’t have to deal with any requirements or any other stuff we have to do. There’s no have-to here.”
Shreya tilted her head. “Why? Why break it?”
“Because we can’t break things anywhere else. C’mon, Zinnia, you came here for a reason. You wanted get outside of yourself. So, take the hatchet and do some breaking.”
“This isn’t our house,” Zinnia reasoned.
“It’s nobody’s house. The owners left a million years ago.”
“And now we’re going to break perfectly good cabinets.”
“The wood’s practically rotting. Look at those chairs.” Ellie wobbled one for effect. “No one’s coming back for this house. Take the hatchet and go to town.” She held it out to her.
“Alright,” Zinnia snatched it from her grasp. “I’ll do it if it’ll make you stop.” She pressed the blade against the line Ellie had made in the door, brought the hatchet over her shoulder, and then smashed it forward. Wood splintered from the hit. Ellie jumped backward to dodge it. “Is that enough for you?”
Ellie grinned. “That was decent. Shreya, do you want a turn?”
“Ignore me,” Shreya said.
“Okay, so we dealt with the first step. We’re breaking things, and that’s something we can’t do anywhere else. How about having a heart-to-heart? No one’s around so we might as well get some things off of our chests.”
“I don’t think this is the time or place, Ellie,” Zinnia said. She held the hatchet closely. “Did you forget that this is the first time Shreya and I have met? Sorry, but that’s too soon for me to get personal.”
“It’s not like she’s going to tell anyone about anything she hears here. Your secrets are safe with us,” Ellie replied, “but…I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. I’m just trying to say that this is our zone where we can say things that we wouldn’t anyone else to know.”
“We break wood and share secrets,” Shreya said, working through what Ellie was saying.
“No one else is frustrated with their lot in life? Give me the hatchet back, or don’t, since you’re holding on to it so tightly, damn. I’ll start, then. I’m frustrated and you want to know why?”
“I have the feeling that even if we didn’t want to know, you’d tell us, anyway. You’re in one of your bullish moods.”
“Bullish mood?” Shreya repeated.
“She’s being stubborn,” Zinnia explained.
“I’m not stubborn. I’m frustrated, because you, you, and me, we’re not the builders.”
“Do you want to build?” Shreya asked her.
“Not in the wood and construction sense. I mean building our own lives for ourselves. We’re not the ones that they’re going to write about,” Ellie went on. “My mom says I’m inheriting a legacy but what I’m really inheriting is bullshit. It’s something I can’t forfeit. What am I supposed to do with something I don’t want to have? It’s something somebody else built for me.”
Zinnia sighed. “You can do something special with that legacy. You’re not the one who isn’t going to be written about. It’s us. A woods dweller from nowhere and the girl with the sullied last name.” She grimaced. “What is it that they call it? Trotter’s Slaughter?”
“They will write about us, just not in the way we want,” Ellie said. “I’ll become the next Chieftess, sure. A leader. Another horrible and terrible leader in a line of them, because that’s what it takes to be the Chieftess. It doesn’t matter who you hurt as long as you carry out your duty.”
Shreya’s head whipped back and forth from person to person as they talked. “We are not builders.”
“We’re not. You’re right,” Ellie replied.
“We are not builders because someone else does the building,” Shreya continued. “They build for us.”
Zinnia nodded. “To my understanding, that’s what Ellie is trying to say. She’s using a metaphor.”
“We are not builders because that role is reserved for others. It is all done by someone else’s determination,” Shreya continued. “We are not builders. It sounds sad. What do we do?”
“I want to go to Baekstadt,” Zinnia blurted out. “It’s beyond Stockbrunn in so many ways. The research happening there alone… Their technological breakthroughs, the special projects they have going on…. The universities. There’s more people like me there. No offense to Stockbrunn, but I’m not like any of you.”
“I want something better for my people.” Shreya looked off into the distance. All she needed to do was stand on a rock and she would’ve looked like an inspirational photo. “Ellie, what do you want?”
“I want to be something other than an heiress, farmer, or hunter. I want to be more than that,” Ellie said. “I wish my aspirations were as high and beyond as Zinnia’s, or like, more nobly-centered like yours, Shreya’s. It’s just that… It’s hard to be like that for me. I can’t do it now.”
“We are not builders, yes, and we can not change who we are,” Shreya said. “What do we do? We make it better. We become balanced with it—the good and the bad parts. It is difficult. I have cried many times trying.”
“Crying’s part of the process. It’s not something to be ashamed of. I think of it as peeling off the bandage,” Zinnia said, “and facing the reality that there’s nothing you can do except for making peace with what you have.” She set the hatchet down on the table.
Ellie picked it up. “So we lay down and give in? I can’t do that.”
“Do not break more of this place,” Shreya requested. “Do you want this place to be special? You said it was ours. You need to treat it better.”
“I hate to stretch the building metaphor any further than it’s already been stretched, but why don’t we rebuild something here? We can fix this place up and let it be our second home,” Zinnia said. “I can do it.”
“You’d want to?” Ellie asked.
“Yeah,” Zinnia glanced around the room. “It can’t be any harder than making pig shelters. I can make this a nice place for us…what did you call us? Rebels?”
She wondered if they were the only ones doing things like this: taking over abandoned homes, and reclaiming them as something else. Those empty houses were like nets for wayward folks, catching everyone lost and alone. What if they knocked on all of those doors and collected all of those people up? They couldn’t be the only rebels around.
“Can you re-lock the door? This is all moot if you can’t,” Zinnia said.
Ellie had to pause to think about it. “I guess I could. It’d be like working in reverse. Kinda weird, but doable. Shreya, can you use your forest magic and make it look like no one’s been here?”
“It’s not magic. It is tracking in reverse.” Shreya smiled.
“You do that.”
Zinnia peered out the window. “We should start heading back soon. I don’t want to be out here when the sun goes down.”
“Already?” Ellie groaned. “We just got here!”
“Do you want to be out here at night among the wolves and what-have-you? You can take your chances, but I won’t.”
“I don’t have to take my chances. I’ve got Shreya.”
“I have to go home, too,” Shreya said.
No point in fighting. “Fine, Mom, I’ll pack up.” She went to the table and capped all of the jars. “When do you want to do this again? We can do more exploring. We don’t have to only come back here.”
“I’d rather not make a habit out of ditching class.”
“A one week vacation won’t hurt anything.”
“Don’t push your luck too hard.”
Ellie finished packing up. She whistled at the damage they’d done to the cabinet. “You can patch that up too, can’t you? Fill the hole and all?”
“You can’t just patch up wood. Shreya, you have your work cut out for you when it comes to teaching this girl some common sense.”
“I mean…you know what I meant by that.” Ellie pouted.
“Heh, I know.” Zinnia opened the door for them. Shreya left first.
Shreya turned, as if remembering something suddenly. “May I have my knife back?”
“Oh yeah, I almost forgot.” Zinnia undid the strings that kept it against her belt. She passed it over.
“Aww, I was hoping you’d forget it. That was going to be my insurance we’d see each other again, just like with your gourd.”
“You do not need to do that. I will go and meet you,” Shreya said.
Ellie passed her hatchet to Zinnia, then got to work on re-locking the door. She muttered the steps under her breath as she did, making sure she wouldn’t do anything wrong. Thankfully, Zinnia and Shreya stayed silent as she took care of it. Ward locks were strange beasts.
“There we go. That should hold.” Ellie tested the doorknob. “Yeah, that does it. How about tomorrow? Would tomorrow at the same time as today work? We’ll meet at Ianes’ Wall.”
“Yes, that is fine.”
“I’ll bring the book with me and we can get started on our training and stuff. It’ll be awesome. Are you coming again too, Zinnia?”
“I might. I don’t want to make any promises.”
“That’s better than an all-out no…so I’ll take it!”
Poll is still active! Vote now.
A/N: Another late update means you guys win another Interlude chapter on Tuesday. Sorry about that. This chapter wound up taking longer to write than I thought it would. This poll will end Monday at 11:59 PM.
Last week’s vote was 9 (yes for Shreya training Ellie) to 2 (no for Shreya training Ellie). Looks like most of you want Ellie to be “more foresty,” as she would say.
See you on Thursday for our next update. As always, feel free to leave a comment.
Don’t forget you can subscribe to get updates in your mailbox.
Vote for us on Topwebfiction to help us get on and stay on the charts. Every vote counts!