Marietta Trotter’s keen sense of smell helped her identify the creature coming their way before she could see it. The problem was that they had to calmly (or as calm as they could appear) wait for it. Running away would trigger its thirst for a hunt, much like a dog chasing after a ball. These things were instinct-driven, and none too bright.
Wild animals were simple in that regard. Predictable, to some degree. They lacked the sophistication and intelligence Marietta possessed. Marietta had her own home, a personal style of ribbons galore, a superior grasp of the Casternian language, and rubbed elbows with the upper echelon of Stockbrunn on a near daily basis.
To think that if those plans from years ago hadn’t failed so spectacularly, her life now would be but a dream… It was a preposterous proposition to begin with. A fool’s tale weaved so strongly that she’d fallen for it like the others of her former pen. Liberation, what a word. Her brethren had called for it and what had it gotten them?
The forest was no home for agrarian swine.
“We have company,” Marietta warned Zinnia.
Zinnia, who had been walking ahead of Marietta with blatant disregard for manners, halted. The lantern swung by its handle, a glass globe imprisoning a red hot plume. It was by this light that they saw by. Although Marietta’s sight may have been better than a hapless human’s, it was her nose that bested the rest of her senses.
She breathed in every note of the night air. The rankness of the nocturnal creatures shuffling about, the stench of wet fur dampened by river water, the sharpness of the dirt and grass. The rot of death, something small and gamey, accompanied by the choral drone of flies. Then there were the putrid markings of territorial claims and dominance vying mixed in.
The collective stink nauseated her. The worst of it belonged to the beast walking towards them along the path. Within that cloud permeating it were streaks of familiarity. Faint, but there, as if they’d been close in passing.
“What is it?” Zinnia asked in whisper-tone.
Marietta relished the sliver of fear she heard. “It’s a person. Smells like a new friend of Ellie’s.”
“What does that mean? Explain yourself,” Zinnia said. Her hand moved to the belt on her skirt, the one that housed a knife.
“Trust this one as much as you trust Shreya. They’ve been together today,” Marietta said. “Her. Ellie. Sunflower dog. All four of them.”
By mislabeling the monster as a human, Marietta was banking on the assumption that wolf number two was as guarded as wolf number one. They seemed like they were running in similar crowds, if their scent signatures were any indication. There wasn’t a whiff of blood coming off of it, either, which meant that it was staying behaved. For now, at least.
Shreya must have been up to something interesting for her to introduce another member of her enclave to Ellie. Further scoping her out? Mining her for more information about Stockbrunn? Possibly gearing up for Stockbrunn’s eventual downfall, with Ellie as their hostage or puppet? If they needed ideas, Marietta surely could provide them. They just needed to ask.
“A woodsdweller,” Zinnia mumbled.
Ah, there was that wretched-sounding word. Why hadn’t they just referred to them as woodsmen?
“That’s it. A woodsdweller,” Marietta confirmed. “It’s a filthy one, alright. I’ll tell you this. I don’t think the woodsdweller has done anything wrong to Ellie, and I don’t think it will dare as long as we properly identify ourselves. After all, we are tangentially related to royalty. Hurting us in any way will lead to widespread devastation of an entire woodsdweller community.”
She punctuated her statement with a threat, knowing that the wolf was likely listening in. Hopefully, its linguistic abilities would be on par with Shreya’s. Still not as good as Marietta’s, of course, but passable enough to understand that Marietta meant every sound bite she strung together. Had Shreya heard that, she would’ve been squirming.
“And you’re basing that on what exactly?” Zinnia asked. Her hand still hadn’t left its position near her knife handle.
Marietta shooed at her. “Stop that. You can’t look scared or like you’re itching for a fight. Calm yourself and allow me to do the talking.”
Zinnia would be the witness to a triumphant besting of pig over wolf. Marietta grinned at the thought, her smile staying on even when the beast reached a stone throw away. It dressed like Shreya, an ear-hiding hat yanked down its head, a bunch of furs draped over its torso, and a dried gourd resting near its hip.
They made eye contact. The wolf’s blue eyes gleamed like it had found its prey. An erroneous judgement on its part. Marietta’s eyes shone just as much, not backing down from the challenge. She wasn’t an ordinary animal. She was something else. That wolf, like its kin, would become Marietta’s next toy.
“Hello there,” Marietta greeted. “We are cohorts of Ellie Navarrete, the Heiress of Stockbrunn. You must know where she and Shreya are residing at present. Take us to them.”
The creature looked back at her in confusion. “Know Shreya?”
“Yes, we are friends,” Zinnia said. “Do you know where they are?”
Marietta wanted to step on her foot. What happened to letting her do all the talking?
“I know where. You friends… From the bear?” The wolf asked, words thick and poorly formed. “My sister told I, but did not say of pig.”
“You’re Shreya’s sister?” Zinnia asked.
The wolf nodded. “Yes, sisters. Born together. You know, pigs are my favorite animal. Years since I saw a pig last.” It flashed its teeth as it talked. “Why is there pig here? Is pig a gift?”
“My name is Marietta Trotter. I am a gift to Casterne, but not in the way you’re thinking of. No one owns me. I go and do as I please.” She tapped the bow on her head, a showing of her luxury. “As I said before, my companion here and I are respected members of the royal court. You dare show us an ounce of disrespect and there will be consequences.”
“Consequences.” The beast scratched its neck, its claws rubbing across its jugular.
“Consequences.” Marietta copied the motion.
“Are they in the house? Has something bad happened to Ellie?” Zinnia cut in the middle of their posturing. “I’m sorry, but we have to bring her home as soon as possible. We were sent here by her family.”
“The Chieftess of Stockbrunn, their highest leader. I would hate to see what would happen to everyone here if her daughter isn’t brought home on time,” Marietta said.
“Ellie is leader’s daughter?” It asked.
“And she will be Stockbrunn’s next leader. Ellie is one of the most important people in Stockbrunn and since we are her trusted friends, so are we by extension. I like to think of us as the Heiress’ Advisors,” she explained. “Now take us to her immediately.”
“Please,” Zinnia added. “I know this is sudden, but I’m afraid of what might happen if she’s not back by morning. I understand if you are suspicious of us. I would be, too, but Shreya and Ellie can verify our identities. They can confirm we are who we say we are. You can trust us.”
“I trust you. Do you trust me?” The beast shifted the way it stood, revealing the peek of a dagger by its waist. A purposeful gesture, Marietta was sure. Something that was supposed to rattle them, but Marietta stayed stony and steadfast. She hoped Zinnia would follow suit.
Zinnia glanced at Marietta, who nodded. “Yes, we do,” she said. “We were heading to the house. Can you help us find it?”
“You are lost. Lost not good,” it replied. “I will take you. Follow. Must bring important leader girl home as soon as you can, yes.” It turned and walked on ahead of them, leading the two Trotters further into the woods.
They trudged along. Marietta looked down at her shoes, horrified. They’d gotten dirty during their hike. She only had so many pairs, and they were each precious to her in their own way. Missions were not without their sacrifices, it seemed.
Their guide wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Marietta was perfectly fine with that. Hearing any more of its butchery of the Casternian language would’ve given Marietta a stomach ache. She softly slapped Zinnia on the side.
“I knew you were going the wrong way,” Marietta whispered, “so much for almost being there.”
Zinnia whispered back, “it was one wrong turn.” She held her lantern out in front of her, its light shining through the darkness. “I caught myself before we got too far off-track.”
“Need I remind you that we don’t have any time to spare for wrong turns? You’re the one who came to me with a heightened sense of divergency about this!” She still stuck to whisper tones, even with the exclamation point flairing her words.
“That’s what I said. You’re urgent and desperate and you had us walking in circles and circles. For a moment there I thought we were going to have to go nomadic in the woods.”
“You’re the desperate one, looking for ways to annoy me about a problem that’s already been solved,” Zinnia said. “We’re with Shreya’s sister. She knows where to go. Blast, I forgot to ask her for her name.”
“Shanti,” the creature tossed back at them. It didn’t break its stride, still leading them to where they needed to be.
“You heard us? Sorry. I think my worry is causing me to be impolite. I am Zinnia. We’ll have to meet again under better circumstances,” she said. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“No questions,” Marietta hissed at her.
“Ask the question,” Shanti said.
“What were you doing today with Ellie?” Zinnia asked.
“Shreya wanted me to learn her. Shreya is much soft for this girl. It is interesting.” Shanti talked without looking behind itself at them. “I have questions. Is Ellie the same? Are you approving of this relationship, of a woodsdweller and a Stockbrunn together? So very interesting.”
“Ellie’s in love with her,” Marietta answered.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Zinnia said, “but only because I don’t think you should throw words like love around so lightly.”
“Could it be anything but love that could rob our Heiress of her senses? She’s acting so much like she did back when—”
“So! So you want to know if we approve?” Zinnia asked, entirely interrupting Marietta. “I am like you in that I find it interesting.”
“She hates it,” Marietta said.
“Hate? Oh no,” Shanti said with a questionable level of sincerity.
“I don’t hate it. I just… I am sure your sister has the best of intentions, but I just want to make sure Ellie isn’t with someone who will break her heart. I don’t want it to turn out that the only reason she’s with her is because she has something to gain.”
Marietta quipped, “kind of like someone we used to know?”
Zinnia swung the lantern in Marietta’s direction. The shadows slid away. “Freesia loved Ellie.”
“No one said Freesia’s name. Goodness me, you sure have a sore spot about that.”
“As soon as we get back, I will tear down that shack you call a home.”
“Over a harmless bout of teasing? This is what friends do, Zinnia, and you’d know that if you had any. Learn to toughen up.”
“You can’t ever resist a chance to get on my nerves, even when it’s at the most inappropriate of times,” Zinnia said. “I am sorry you had to hear all of that, Shanti. Marietta’s an animal. She doesn’t know any better.”
“Who’s really the one who doesn’t know a thing here?” Marietta asked. “Shanti, you must see the humor in this.”
“Yes, humor. Where is joke?” Shanti asked.
“You missed almost everything we said, didn’t you? That’s probably for the best,” Zinnia said.
“The joke is right there.” Marietta pointed at Zinnia.
“Marietta, you’re going to love being homeless,” Zinnia replied.
“Idle threat; idle threat,” Marietta sang. “Hey, Shanti, how much further do we have to go? My hooves are getting tired.”
“Would you stop complaining?” Zinnia shot at her. “We’re not that far. We’re… Actually, I’m not entirely sure. Is this a shortcut?”
They’d been led off of the path without realizing it. Having never been to whatever house they were going to, Marietta had assumed they were going the normal way. She sniffed deeply, a grunty sound pushing out of her in reflex.
Something was off about the semi-clearing they stood in. No, moreso that there was something off about this moment. An increase in sweat. The source of it, Shanti, who had stopped the group in their tracks. Shanti looked up at the trees.
“Zoltjeel berries,” she said. “Do you like them?”
Zinnia may have been human, but even she couldn’t miss the change in atmosphere. The heaviness. The stillness. And the languid tone Shanti used, like it suddenly no longer cared about the emergency they were going through. Airy, lazy, and breezey.
Bugs chattered in the distance. A bird hooted a night song, two long notes sung back to back with a short pause in between.
“I haven’t had them in a long time,” Zinnia said. “Not since I was a child.”
“Ellie gave me some today. Delicious.”
“Listen, we’re not interested in talking about berries with you,” Marietta said. “Can you take us to the house already? We have a deadline to meet.”
“Ellie needs home before morning,” Shanti said. She nodded repeatedly.
“That’s what we’ve been saying.” Marietta stomped her hoof. “Take us to her so we can take her home.”
“I should’ve asked you this first. Why hasn’t Ellie come home?” Zinnia asked. She took a step back as she pulled on Marietta’s arm to get her to do the same.
“Sick,” Shanti answered. “Feeling bad at the head.” It knocked against the side of its hat. “Sleeping for a long time. Here, come along and I will show you.”
“You know, on second thought, I think I have my bearings now. Marietta and I can make it the rest of the way without you. Thank you for your help, Shanti.”
“Ah, but we go the same way to the house. We are close.”
“No, thank you, I think we are fine now.”
Shanti beckoned them over. “Here.”
“We insist that we are fine,” Marietta said. She curtsied to the creature, just for appearance’s sake. “How about you go your way and we’ll go ours and we see who shows up to the house first? That would be fun.” She started walking away with Zinnia.
“We will see you soon,” Zinnia said, her head down. Marietta sensed how tense she was. It was apparent in her rigid movements and the clenching of her teeth. Marietta didn’t let the fear show up as well on her. She hid it.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up when she heard the other animal begin its approach. That was about as visceral she would allow her reaction to be. Stay calm, she told herself. Everything will be alright as long as you don’t run.
It was the runners who made the best targets. They set themselves up to lose the moment they took their first hurried step.
“Where you think you are going?” Shanti asked.
“Whatever you do, don’t run,” Marietta whispered to Zinnia. “You don’t want to taunt it.”
** // ** // *** \\ ** \\ **
As soon as she finished lacing up her boots, Ellie raced down the stairs. Sunflower bumbled after her, moving so fast she nearly crashed into her. She had terribly overshot the amount of time she was supposed to be in the woods. The concussion deserved the majority of the blame, but she knew part of the irresponsibility fell on her.
Her breath caught in her throat, strangled between a scream and a gasp.
“What happened to you?” Ellie asked.
Shreya tended to Shanti at the door, Shanti sat on the ground with her leg stretched out. Shanti’s thigh was stained red, the wound fresh and drip lines going down her pant leg. It looked like someone had torn into her. Shreya pressed her hand over it.
“Your friends…are not nice people,” Shanti winced through her sentence.
“My friends? People from Stockbrunn are already here? Shit!” Ellie snatched the wrist-leash off of the table and fit it to Sunflower with practiced ease.
“Your court advisors,” Shanti said. “Did they lie? I thought they were odd.”
“Huh? I don’t have court advisors. What did they look like?”
Shreya grimaced. “I told you not to go near anyone.” She switched to their private language, and their conversation continued on without Ellie. Whatever they were saying, it sounded more like Shreya was lecturing Shanti.
Ellie moved to the door, trying to get around the sisters. Maybe she could talk down whoever attacked Shanti and work the situation out. An explanation would smooth things over. Court advisors could have been a possible mistranslation for Intendant, meaning… Her aunt? But if Aunt Catalina was out there, Shanti would have had a lot worse done to her.
“Stop. Do not go out there,” Shreya said, back to speaking Casternian. “Someone is after us.”
“Someone is after you, and they’ll keep coming after you if I don’t do something. Hide upstairs if you have to,” Ellie said.
“I am not letting you out there. What if they were lying about being your court advisors? Anyone could be waiting for us. Look what they did to her.”
“Shanti, what did they look like?” She hadn’t answered her the first time she asked.
“A pig and a girl. Demanded to go to you, and then, bam, into my leg.” Shanti motioned a knife stabbing into her. “What is Erzyan? They yelled at me about Erzyan.”
“Marietta and Zinnia,” Ellie said. “It can’t be anyone but them. Ugh, what are they doing? Are they alone?”
“Alone. They need you home before morning. Your family is upset,” Shanti said.
“Wait, did the pig call you an Erzyan?” Shreya asked. She started talking in their home language, but Ellie butt into their conversation.
“Hey, I’m going to go out there and find them. You guys should go home. I’ll take care of everything.” Ellie tugged on Sunflower’s leash to get her to stand closer. “I’ll just… I’m sorry about your leg.” She couldn’t even look at it anymore. “Shreya, go to the Wall the morning after tomorrow. I have a feeling I’m going to need a day to figure out whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into now.”
“I am sorry. I should not have slept that long,” Shreya said. Shanti flinched when she touched her leg. “I thought Shanti would be our alarm. I told her not to stay out for so long.”
Shanti snapped back something Ellie couldn’t decipher.
“What an awful day for everyone involved,” Ellie said. She rubbed her forehead. “We’re dangerous for people.” If they had stayed a secret, none of this mess would have been happening.
“I know,” Shreya said. “I will see you the day after tomorrow.”
“Bye.” Ellie kept her farewell brief. Not knowing what was waiting for her on the other side of the door, she pushed it open and exited into the crisp night air. Chills ran through her, not just over the temperature but for the strangeness of everything.
She placed her hand into Sunflower’s.
Why would her family have sent Marietta and Zinnia to come after her? There were far better choices for a search and rescue mission. She was glad it was them instead of others, but it was hard for her to fathom a scenario where her mother agreed to letting them chase her down.
And the last time she checked, Zinnia wasn’t talking to her anymore. They’d had that awful fight that pretty much spelled the end of their friendship.
“Zinnia? Marietta?” Ellie called out.
The door to the house stayed open a crack. Shreya was likely listening out for anything amiss. Ellie peeked through it, and gave her a wave she hoped she could see. Then, she walked further along the path, stopping every now and then to say their names.
“I’m okay! I swear I’m okay.”
Sunflower pulled on the line. Her head was aimed towards a pile of bushes, lined up near a tree some ways off of the trail. It being so dark made it difficult for Ellie to make out the figures poorly hiding behind said bushes.
“Is that you guys?” Ellie asked. “I’m alone. They’re probably gone by now. I told them to go home.”
“I’m never going into the woods for you for as long as I live.” Marietta popped out of the shrubbery. “Neither of you know a thing about survival! This one over here, especially.”
“I kept us alive. She took out her knife first,” Zinnia said.
“But then you went and dropped your lantern and almost burnt the forest down.”
“It didn’t break. There you go again, creating arguments when we don’t need any. You love to pick and pick at me.” Zinnia brushed herself off, then went over to Ellie. “You. You’re coming with us right now.”
“What’s with you stabbing her for?” Ellie asked. “She’s Shreya’s sister. She’s not an Erzyan. Neither of them are! Wait, let’s back everything up to the beginning. What in the hell are you guys doing here?”
Sunflower strained on her leash, trying to get over to where Marietta stood. Haughty look engaged, Marietta stepped away from the dog.
“Chieftess Navarrete shook me down looking for you. I held her off. If it wasn’t for me, she’d be the one here. I did you a favor,” Zinnia said.
“You didn’t have to stab her! What was with that?”
“These Navarrete-Trotter favors always seem to end in tragedy and bloodshed,” Marietta said. “I thought you’d be aware of that by now.”
“Not another word,” Zinnia warned. “Ellie, she tried to hurt us. She acted normal at first, then she changed. We’re not safe standing here. Erzyan, woodsdweller, whatever she is, there’s something wrong with her.”
“Maybe there’s something wrong with you, seeing the worst out of everyone.” Ellie looked at Zinnia’s hand and the blood that had dried on it. “This can’t be real… Nothing today can be real. I’m going to wake up later and none of this will have happened.”
“Marietta, do you smell her?” Zinnia asked.
Marietta shook her head. “She’s not coming. I’ll tell you as soon as she does.”
“C’mon, Ellie, we’re going to have a lot to talk about later. You’ve got so much explaining to do. You just had to go and not care about anyone but yourself. I told you you needed to be careful and then you went and did something like this!”
“I’m not the one who went and stabbed someone for no good reason! Who are you?”
“Who are you, staying out in the forest when you know you’re the Heiress? You knew people would freak out about that. What is this, a cry for attention?”
“I was sick and overslept!”
“Is that so? It wouldn’t be the first time you used that excuse.”
“You shouldn’t have bothered coming,” Ellie said.
“You’re right. Maybe I should’ve let the Chieftess take care of this. I don’t know why I care so much about you. You don’t deserve it,” Zinnia said. “You never did.”
“Girls,” Marietta said, “as much as I would love to revel in this drama—I’d hate to give up something this poignant, but we really should be getting back to Stockbrunn. We’ve had more than enough excitement for today. Let’s get you your lantern and head off.”
Ellie felt Zinnia’s glare pierce through the darkness. “Yeah, let’s do that.”
A/N: Eeeep. We had 18 voters for the question pertaining to this chapter. 11 voted for Shanti running into Marietta and Zinnia and giving them trouble, and 7 voted for Zinnia and Marietta to have a heart-to-heart. This week, we’re having another double vote. Woohoo!
Be careful to vote on both poll choices. Voting will end January 14th at 11:59 PM EST. THAT’S REDWOOD CROSSING’S ANNIVERSARY!!! I can’t believe a year has already come and gone. Wooooo. We should do something special. I just don’t know what. Umm, comment with ideas if you have any…
Chapter 42 will be on January 21st. Voting for RWC on TWF is a great big help in getting more readers to find us. If everyone who voted on the chapter polls voted on TWF, we would consistently have a decent rank on the charts. Don’t you want more people to get in on these votes? 🙂