Shreya supposed it was a good thing Stockbrunn kept their dogs pathetic. Had Sunflower been any less so, she would have revealed her secret by now. She was limited to tantrums and babblings, neither of which Ellie paid attention to.
That did little to dull the edge Sunflower’s presence put her on, though. They were one sudden attack away from her hat being knocked off or the back of her shirt being torn. Just one slip-up, and Ellie would know the truth.
“I’ve got a botany book in my bag,” Ellie said. Her arm was snaked around Sunflower in an appeasing half-hug. The hold tamed her protective instinct. “It may help us with clues. Plants have their own language, y’know?”
While she was willing to grant her that plants were alive, cognition was a stretch. Having a language would require thought. “Have you ever heard a flower speak?”
“Trees can talk! That’s totally a thing. Put your ear to that one over there. You’ll hear it say something.”
As impossible as she knew that was, she still went over to the tree. It was as tall as the others that surrounded the outside of their house in the woods. Nothing about it struck her as particularly conversational. The bark was rough on her hands as she leaned in.
“You have to say it with more conviction than that!” Ellie urged. “And you have to close your eyes or it’ll get too self-conscious and not say anything.”
“Hello, tree,” Shreya said. She shut her eyes. “I am Shreya. Do you have a name?”
“Hey, beautiful,” the tree spoke back. Its voice suspiciously came from Ellie’s direction, and sounded an awful lot like her if she was deepening her voice. How strange. “I’m Treeno. What brings you to me?”
“Who’s the girl?”
Shreya played along. “Her name is Ellie. She is an interesting girl.”
“Is that the best thing you can say about her?”
“Creative girl. She is making me compliment her through a tree,” she said. “Is she not tired of me saying good things about her?”
“She’ll never get tired.”
“Flowers are watered once a day. The sun takes care of the rest.” Stockbrunnian flowers called for floods while ignoring the sun’s strength. They were demanding in ways that Marjani ones weren’t. Ellie’s insatiable need for verbal reassurance baffled her.
“Huh? Where’d that come from?”
“It is an expression. You are the flower. These words I keep saying, they are the water. How I feel about you, that is the sun. My presence. You need to trust the sun,” Shreya explained.
“That’s cute and all, but I’m a tree, not a flower.”
“You know what I mean.” Shreya stepped away from the tree. “This tree is not going to help us. Do you have any other ideas?”
“I’d pop open the book but I’m kinda worried about what’ll happen if I release this beast,” Ellie said. Sunflower’s expression had evened out, but her eyes stayed trained on Shreya. “Let’s try walking. There might be more houses up ahead. She could’ve left something in one.”
“Alright.” For once, she was glad for Ellie’s obliviousness. It caused the other girl to miss the hurt that flashed across Shreya’s face. ‘Beast’ was a disgusting word, no matter the context, and the casual way Ellie had dropped it sickened her.
She trailed after the pair as they walked. They were facing a problem Ellie may not have been aware of. Shreya didn’t know the missing girl’s scent from anyone else’s, and even if she did, her scent would’ve gone cold within weeks. The years erased it.
This aimless wandering wasn’t going to turn up with anything more than brief comfort for Ellie. It was the act of trying that mattered most. When everyone else had given up, there Shreya was, enabling this behavior. If someone had been there for Ellie sooner, then she would’ve had more of a chance. As it was, the odds were against her.
Had she found her, though, they’d never have met. Ellie and her important person would’ve lived out their lives together. They’d grow old together. Raise kids together. Run a society together. In the meantime, Shreya would’ve carried on as she had been, as the person she was before she crossed the border.
That one choice had been powerful enough to derail her life.
“You’d think they would’ve built their homes closer together,” Ellie said over her shoulder, “but these people were reclusive. They liked their privacy.”
“You know them?”
“Nah, just stuff I’ve read. They’re like old people who lived out in the woods before things got too dicey. They never left ’cause they were stubborn, or whatever.”
“It’s another word for risky,” she explained. “It comes from dice games. Six-sided cubes with a number of dots on them, from one to six. When you roll a die, it’s a gamble, because you never know what side it’s going to land on.”
“And that is why it is dicey.”
“Yep! I can bring you some the next time we meet up. It’ll give you something more to do than read,” Ellie said. “Anyway, yeah, these houses were built by people like that. People who wanted to make it out on their own outside of Stockbrunn.”
“Woods dwellers,” Shreya said.
“Not exactly, but kind of. These people leaned on the town at times, so they weren’t really like you guys. They may have been outside, but they didn’t reject us completely. And we didn’t reject them.”
“You sound sad about that.”
“Your people have got a bad reputation, like you’re all murderers and criminals who are out of your minds. So because of that rep, we don’t want anything to do with you. Not we as in me, and you as in you. I’m talking in generalities here. I just don’t think it’s fair Stockbrunn’s abandoned you.”
“It is reasonable.”
They stopped walking in a part of the forest where the tall grass reached their calves. Ellie said, “the problems started with us exiling people from Stockbrunn. You guys had to try and build everything up on your own. No real resources or support. Here’s how it all turned out years later. You’re struggling.”
Shreya wondered if Ellie’s heart could bleed as much for her real people as it did for these woods dwellers. Had she not talked her out of it, the heiress may have actually set up trade routes and communication with them.
From her attempts at talking about the history book, she had a feeling that Ellie would rather wash away in a river than help a wolf. She couldn’t even answer a simple question about them without becoming fitful.
“What did you think of us before you knew me?” Shreya asked.
“I’d only heard bad stories. I dunno. I didn’t think they’d all be truthful,” Ellie answered. “You were the villains, the scary things in horror stories, and, like, the cautionary tales of why we shouldn’t venture into the woods. You’re the first one I saw for myself. How about me? Am I your first?”
“It is hard for me to say.” It’s not like humans wore labels identifying where they’d come from. “You are the first I talked to this often.”
“No one else was this interesting?”
“You could say that,” she said. “Hm, I think you are also the first one I have talked to in many years. There were more of you wandering in the forest in the past. We stay more separated now.”
“Things changed. People became more scared.”
“Would you have ever wanted to help us if you did not know me?”
“Honestly? I’m not sure I would’ve thought about it. I had to see you and know you to know how bad things are for you guys. We’re separate, sure, but is that the best way for things to be? I don’t know about that.”
What if I’d been a wolf? Would you still be this helpful? The questions clung to the roof of her mouth. Shreya scraped it off with her tongue, swallowed it down, and said something else, “it is the best way. I do not think we can combine.”
“We are! We’re proof it can work.”
“You and I, we are unlike our people,” Shreya said, “and have you forgotten that I am estranged? I am a terrible choice for proving there can be a union.”
“No, I didn’t forget, sorry. I shouldn’t have put us on this conversation to begin with. We should probably get moving.”
“It is okay. I like it when we talk.”
“Same here, but I wanna keep things positive for you. If you don’t want to talk about something or it makes you upset in any way, we don’t have to talk about it,” Ellie said. “That talk we had earlier? I don’t wanna go through something like that again, you know? I don’t want to be pushy and weird.”
Ellie dropped her arm from Sunflower, and switched to holding her hand in a tight grip. Sunflower didn’t make a move towards Shreya, not even in the split second where she wasn’t being held onto. Progress.
“It is okay if you are. I am already out of my comfort zone. Push me further if you want to.”
“And you can push back. Talk to me. Tell me when I’m being offensive or whatever, okay? I might not notice it if I don’t hear it from you.”
“I do not have a problem with that,” Shreya said. “I will tell you.”
“See, here’s the part where we’d kiss if my dog wasn’t here.” Ellie smiled. “But we should save the next one for a spectacular moment. It’s gotta be after something amazing happens.”
“If you can hold out until then.”
“I so can! I bet you’re gonna be the one who cracks first.”
“Heh, I do not think so.” Shreya shook her head. “Your resistance is as fragile as glass.”
“I’m as good as brick and you know it.” Ellie beat her free hand against her chest. “Solid.”
“We will see about that. Consider yourself lucky Sunflower’s here.”
“Yep, we will,” Ellie said. “She’ll be here to see you fail. Now, let’s get going. We’ve got an entire forest to cover and only so much daylight to do it in.”
They set off on their hike. Given that Ellie had less control over Sunflower, Shreya kept more distance. She couldn’t let her guard down. Her senses stayed on edge throughout their walk. They strayed away from paths, deciding to act like people who didn’t want to be found. After all, the missing girl had ran off after breaking out of her prison. Someone like that wouldn’t choose the easiest path through the woods.
It wouldn’t have surprised Shreya if the landscape had gone through changes since then, though. What was once difficult could’ve been easier now, and vice versa. She wasn’t aware of the environmental changes that happened around here. One of the rivers had flooded in her part of the woods, had the same thing happened here?
This time when they stopped, it was Sunflower’s fault. Despite the distance Shreya had given her, she snarled at her and snapped out, “bad!”
“Did I do something wrong?” Shreya asked.
“She was doing so well,” Ellie said. She put her arm around her. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Have you thought about teaching her Casternian?”
“Dogs can’t speak Casternian. They’re dogs,” she replied. “I mean, I guess they can pick up some phrases and understand the general tone of what we’re saying. That’s pretty much their limit.”
Shreya looked at the back-and-forth swishing of Sunflower’s tail. “Maybe we should take a break, wait for her to calm down.”
“Good idea. I wouldn’t want her to jump you or anything. There’s a log over there you can sit on if you want. I’ve got jerky in my bag if you’re hungry. Are you good at catching?” Ellie reached into her bag, and pulled out a small wax paper-wrapped bundle. Sunflower’s ears shot up in interest, her tail moving faster.
“She should get one. Throw it over here.” Shreya sat on the overturned log and held out her hands.
“You throw one back for her. It might make her like you more.” Ellie tossed it over. Shreya had to lean forward to make the catch. “Sorry.”
Shreya opened up the bundle, a stack of jerky meat. She peeled off the top orange-brown strip, and threw it to Sunflower. The dog squealed when she caught it. Sunflower shoved it into her mouth, practically inhaling it.
“Is that her favorite food?” Shreya asked.
“Everything’s her favorite food,” Ellie said. “I’m only supposed to feed her lard and grains and stuff, but I can’t help it. I love her too much to subject her to that kind of crappy diet.”
She took off a layer for herself. “What is this?” Shreya popped it into her mouth. She savored the flavor as she slowly chewed.
“It’s chicken. Good stuff, huh? I can’t get enough of it. If you like it, I can get you a whole bag of it. I’ll get you whatever you want, seriously.”
“That would be nice of you, thank you,” Shreya said. Whatever she wanted? She stripped off another piece of jerky. “Can I talk to you about something?”
“That’s what we’ve been doing. Ask me anything.”
“I get if you do not want to talk about it. You do not have to explain it. I just… I was wondering about your reaction to that book.”
“What’s there to wonder about?” Ellie laughed softly. “It’s a history book. It’s boring. I’m allowed to say it’s boring, right?”
“You said you have a personal problem with wolves. Did they do something to you?”
“And I said that you need to read more of the book to find that out.”
“The book would tell me what they have done to Stockbrunn, not what they did to you personally.”
Whatever had made Ellie laugh was long gone. “It’s the same thing.”
“I take it you hate them,” Shreya said. “Do you believe the stories about them? You questioned the woods dweller stories but you don’t question the wolf stories. Why is that?”
“Because they’re not stories. They’re truths.”
“Have you met one?”
Ellie went back to holding Sunflower’s hand. “What difference does that make? Maybe I have; maybe I haven’t. I don’t need to meet one to know what they’re like.”
“It could change your view of them.” Shreya rested her hands on her knees.
“Hmmm…I don’t think so. I’m going to quote one of my favorite people on that one. ‘Do you want to die?'”
“I said that.” Shreya didn’t mean to blurt that out. She meant to keep that inappropriate moment of happiness to herself.
Ellie frowned. “Yeah. We’d have to get past Ianes’ Wall and head into their territory to meet one of ’em. They’d kill us as soon as they saw us.”
“What if you met a nice one?”
“There’s no such thing as a nice one. If I met a nice one, I’d say that it’s biding its time,” Ellie said. “You’re not thinking of going over there, are you? Don’t you dare do it. You look better with your head on than off, and I know that sounds like a joke but I’m not joking at all.”
“I won’t go. I was curious as to your thoughts on them.”
“They’re absolutely vile,” Ellie said. “What else do you want to hear? That they make me sick to my stomach? That they’re beasts? Monsters? They eat people, Shreya. They eat them and rip their bodies up into bits and put heads on pikes and wave ’em around like they’re flags. They’re rotten to the core.”
“Rotten to the core,” Shreya repeated. She was glad she was sitting down. She may have lost her footing otherwise.
“I heard they eat their own babies. Who does that besides monsters?”
“They do not!”
“I know! It’s hard to believe, but they do it. They think it makes them more powerful, to, like, bathe in the blood of their children. It’s disgusting. And before we got them out of this forest, they were attacking and killing people for no reason.”
“You really believe all of this?” Her head hurt.
“You haven’t dealt with them like I’ve had to. Stockbrunn would be a better place if it weren’t for them,” Ellie said. “And you wanna know the real reason why there’s no normal people in the woods anymore?”
“Why?” Shreya breathed out.
“The wolves killed them, and we lost a lot of good people in Stockbrunn trying to get rid of them. All because of what? Because they were selfish, and didn’t want to follow a treaty that they agreed to.”
“That is the one from ten years ago,” she replied. Her vision swirled. It became difficult for her to focus on Ellie, her dog, the forest around them.
“Yeah! They ruined everything. They’re dirty cheating liars. We were nothing but nice to them and they went and—” Ellie cut herself off. “Sorry, I’m ranting. I’m getting out of control here.” She took a deep breath in through her nose and out her mouth in a long sigh. “I told you my problem with them is personal. It’s beyond personal, actually.”
“You would never like a wolf.” Dogs and woods dwellers were fine, but not the person who Shreya truly was.
“No. I would never like one, let alone trust one.”
She would’ve rather been scraped by another arrow than hear that.
Softer, Ellie called her name to get her attention. “Shreya?”
She knew none of this was real, but to have reality confirmed so harshly…
“Shreya? Hello? Are you okay?”
“I think…I think I need to lie down.” Shreya held her head, her hands covering her forehead. “Sorry, I think I am getting sick. I do not feel well.”
“Was it the jerky? Oh, shit, the jerky was bad, wasn’t it? I didn’t think it was!” Ellie moved towards her, then stopped when she realized she still had Sunflower in tow. “Let’s get you back to the house. I’m so sorry!”
“Yeah… I will be okay once I lie down. Sorry for not helping you more today. I wanted to.”
“I know. You helped a lot! We can go out later, if you want. Erm, actually, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just get you back there. Forget about me and my stuff.”
“Later, we can go later.”
“Are you okay to walk on your own?”
Shreya stood up from the log, her legs shakey. She wrapped the jerky back up in the wax paper. Ellie, her hand still in Sunflower’s, watched her to make sure she wouldn’t fall.
“I always am.”
A/N: We had 16 voters last week. 13 voters voted for Shreya to press Ellie further about the history book and her opinion of wolves, and 3 voted for Shreya to shelve the discussion. Voting for this chapter will end Wednesday, July 27th at 11:59 PM EST.
After weeks of being unable to hit my writing deadline, I realize that something has to change. Since I don’t want to throw in the towel on this story, I think the best thing to do is to switch from weekly updates to a 10 day cycle. As such, Chapter 28 will be here on August 3rd, Chapter 29 on August 13th, Chapter 30 on August 23rd, and so on and so forth.
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