This wasn’t going to be a pleasant night, and Ellie Navarrete was sure of that down to her toes. The brunt of the reason why rested mainly on the shoulders of one Hildegarde Navarrete, an unpleasant woman who seemed to be in an entirely unpleasant mood dressed in an outfit meant only for unpleasantries.
It eluded Ellie as to why her mother saw it fit to wear her military regalia. It wasn’t like they were leading a parade through Stockbrunn or getting ready to charge into battle. Then again, Hildegarde held a far-off look in her eyes and a tension in her eyebrows that looked ready to break her face into two. That was a battle face, alright. She gripped Sunflower’s leash in a calloused fist.
“You’re walking too fast for her,” Ellie said. She had to work hard to keep up with her mother and her dog’s pace. Her head threatened to pound from the effort.
Hildegarde glanced over her shoulder. “Not another word until we get home.”
Ellie resigned to the command, like she was a soldier before a general. She figured she would have to get used to that now. Better to get it out of the way early, the whole giving up on everything, listening & not fighting back, and eye aversion thing.
The woeful and pathetically glum act in the face of whatever tirade her mom was prepared to launch on. Ellie would wear that mask well. She’d be trapped for the next couple of hours or so, until Hildegarde’s anger broke. There was no getting out of this.
Soaking up her owner’s feelings, Sunflower kept her head bowed. Or at least, she was demonstrating what Ellie should have been doing. The injustice she had just witnessed made it difficult for Ellie to properly perform the role of deferential daughter.
Catalina had whisked Zinnia off for groundless reasons. Ellie hoped that her aunt wouldn’t take her warning lightly. If Zinnia came back bruised from their conversation in any way—mentally or physically—Ellie would have Catalina’s head. She’d never be allowed to get away with it. Really, had she forgotten who was in charge of determining Stockbrunn’s next Council? The Intendant of Internal Affairs would be in need of a new job.
The level of care Hildegarde put into not slamming their front gate bordered on frightening. Every other part of her body language screamed caged-in rage. Ellie recognized her wrath leaking out in tiny ways that she wouldn’t have caught on to if she hadn’t been her mother’s daughter. They were signs that she sometimes shared, as well, but Ellie did a far poorer job of concealing them.
“Wait at the front door,” Hildegarde said.
Ellie did as told. She leaned against the door while her mother left to drop Sunflower off in the backyard. Ellie contemplated disappearing into the house and locking herself in her room before her mother could catch her. Knowing her mother, though, Hildegarde would wait until Ellie had to leave for food or restroom reasons. She’d camp out until Ellie gave up.
That must’ve been what the uniform was for—their upcoming bout of Navarrete versus Navarrete.
When Hildegarde returned, Ellie tried to speak, but was soon hushed back into silence. Her mother led the way into their estate. Once inside, she shifted the chain lock into place behind them.
Henrik’s wool coat, the one with the dreadful holes at the elbows, hung on the rack by the door. Upstairs, he was taking care of Ellie’s father. They were well into Henrik’s nightly shift time. And then, in a few hours Bodil Olsson would show up to relieve him of his duties.
Ellie wondered which one of them would have the privilege of overhearing her mother’s shouting match. How long what the fighting last? Knowing Hildegarde, the woman had the stamina to crush her daughter’s spirit one thousand ways into Winter and the months following.
When Ellie wasn’t playing the part of Heiress, Hildegarde’s disappointment scalded her in its rancor. Oh, don’t get Ellie wrong based on the description she chose for it. It wasn’t an outwardly brutal disappointment, or one that inflicted any bodily harm on Ellie, or anything like that. No.
It was worse than that. It was a spur beneath every corrective she was given. It was the liveliness that her mother showed whenever Ellie fell in line. Happiness earned; not happiness unconditional. And everything else was met with blankness or a hesitation that wore itself down to nothingness.
“Get on with it then,” Ellie muttered to herself. Apparently, she hadn’t spoken quietly enough, because Hildegarde turned around on her heels and shot her a glare she knew well, one that had drilled its way into her memories.
Well, maybe the concussion was to blame, but Ellie no longer felt like acquiescing. Why should she pretend to be a carpet all the time? She didn’t want to back down and lose her ability to go into the woods whenever she damn well pleased. If she didn’t stand up for herself, then maybe Hildegarde would make good on her thin threat to assign a Guard to her.
Ellie asked at a confident volume, “you keep marching us around the house. Pick a spot where you’re going to yell at me and get on with it.”
“The basement,” Hildegarde said with finality.
“Need a drink to steady your resolve?”
Hildegarde was unfazed by Ellie’s insolence. “Go.”
Ellie trudged down the stairs. She shivered. They kept the space at a particular temperature for the sake of the many wine bottles resting on the many racks that surrounded the room. The wall sconces were already burning, as if waiting for Ellie’s arrival. They were close to dying, but Hildegarde refreshed them with a lit match once she arrived.
Ellie put her back to one of the empty low-lying shelves. She put a long distance between her and her mother. To make up for her inferior height, Ellie stood as tall as she could. She squared her shoulders, puffed out her chest, and tensed her hands into fists for a fight that wouldn’t be physical.
“What were you thinking?” Hildegarde asked. “We’ve talked about this before. You know not to go there unprepared.”
“I had Sunflower with me. I wasn’t unprepared.”
“No weapon. No lantern. No watch. No sense to know that you should be home before dark. Were you thinking at all?”
Ellie crossed her arms. “I lost track of time, okay? It’s not that big of a deal. I’m back now. I can run this town for you, or whatever. I don’t care. It’s been a long day and I wanna go to bed.”
“Like hell you will without explaining yourself to me. I had to run around Stockbrunn looking for you everywhere. I had to put up with your friend sassing me just so she could rescue you from the woods. Do you know how that made me feel? Do you care about anyone other than yourself?”
“That’s rich coming from you. You can’t stand it when people treat you as anything less than the Chieftess,” Ellie said. “So was it Zinnia’s sass that got her put in jail? That’s low, even for you.”
“Ellie, you will answer my questions,” Hildegarde spoke through her teeth.
Ellie threw up her arms. “I don’t know how it made you feel. I’m not you. Okay, maybe you felt like you were losing your Heiress and your family line. That’s pretty much all I am to you.”
“What, no, you’re my daughter! Is that why you pulled this stunt? You wanted to see if I cared? I do!”
“It wasn’t a stunt. I just… I had to clear my head for a bit and then I took a nap and then when I woke up, it was late. Zinnia and Marietta found me. I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t unsafe. Never, not once. I had Sunflower, remember? So you didn’t have to go roaring around the entire town looking for me, and you didn’t have to hassle Zinnia, either.”
“Stop raising your voice at me. I raised you better than this,” Hildegarde said.
“To be like you? To be okay with putting a girl in a cage dangled somewhere where the wolves could get her?” Ellie banged her fist against the rack behind her. The clang that reverberated up her arm only served her fury. “Because that’s what your duty demanded you to do, is that right?”
Hildegarde stiffened. “You’re… You’re getting away from the point of this. You could’ve gotten yourself killed doing what you did, and this isn’t the first time you’ve done something like this. You keep gambling away your livelihood. When is this going to end? When are you going to grow up and realize that you’re needed here alive?”
“Stockbrunn can burn for all I care.”
“What happened to you? You were doing so well. And then you just… You lash out at me again and again. It’s like you’re trying to hurt me. What am I doing that’s so wrong? When have I never given you everything that you wanted?” Hildegarde started strong, but Ellie noticed a trembling in her shoulders that was unbecoming of her. “Tell me what what you want me to do so you don’t keep running away like this.”
“Leave me alone,” Ellie said.
Hildegarde closed her eyes and looked away. She took a deep breath, so loud that Ellie could hear it from across the basement. Ellie rubbed her arms in pursuit of warmth. She waited for Hildegarde to say something, but when she didn’t, Ellie decided to walk towards the steps.
She’d said her piece, and now Hildegarde could whatever she wanted with it. Hildegarde could let the words sink in, or better yet, she could combine those words with all the others Ellie had ever said to her in her post-Freesia state.
The past Ellie might’ve taken pause at her mother’s silence, but the current Ellie felt nothing. She surged on a wave of anger, and now that it had died down, she was back to fogginess. Tired. Everything wore on her like a ten-ton weight.
Her injury may have been to blame for part of her outburst. It eroded the sorry excuse for a filter she had. The initial spark was born out of something else, though. It was akin to finally lifting the lid off of a pot threatening to boil over. Lift the lid, allow the steam to hiss out, and watch for the rush to froth forth.
Just as Ellie passed, Hildegarde reached out. She grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back. Mid-step, Ellie stumbled backwards. Hildegarde caught her before she could fall, and wrapped her in a motherly embrace.
To Ellie, it was more of a grapple than a hug. “Let go of me!”
She fought to get free. Hildegarde tightened her hold. In her struggle Ellie elbowed Hildegarde in the side, but still Hildegarde wouldn’t relax her grip. Try as she might to win her freedom, Ellie couldn’t compete. Worse tactics were tempting, but she couldn’t fight dirty.
“We used to talk for hours. Now you recoil at my touch,” Hildegarde said. Held close like this, Ellie could feel how it wasn’t just Hildegarde’s shoulders that trembled. It was her entire body. “I keep failing you. Will you ever forgive me?”
And although it was Hildegarde asking for forgiveness, Ellie said, “sorry.”
What else was she supposed to say? A pit formed at the bottom of her stomach at the terrible shakiness that had entered her mother’s voice. Ellie wanted, no, needed to run before the dam fully broke. Hildegarde wasn’t supposed to cry, not in front of Ellie.
“You’ve always been strong-willed, and I’ve always been weak-hearted,” Hildegarde said as if she was an outsider looking in on her life. Lofty and distant. “Here I am, like this, when I should be screaming at you. I should be furious. I should punish you for running away. You should never be allowed to leave this house again, but I can’t…I can’t do that to you. I can’t do anything right when it comes to you.”
Had she still had any feistiness left, Ellie might’ve called this a play for pity. Maybe, she would’ve gloated seeing her mother reduced to this state. But, more than anything at that moment, Ellie wanted to be someplace else. Some place where she didn’t have to witness the collapse of the infallible Hildegarde Navarrete. What had Ellie done to cut her at the knees?
“I’m sorry,” Ellie repeated. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
“I know I should hire guardsmen for you, but I also know that if I did that I would lose you forever. I can’t lose you, Ellie. You’re my flesh and blood. My legacy. You can’t wander off like that again.”
“I hadn’t planned to, I swear. I… The other day, I hit my head. Henrik helped me, and I made him swear not to tell you about it. Please don’t punish him for that,” Ellie admitted. “I was sick and lost track of time, like I said before. I didn’t wander off because I was fed up with you or anything like that.”
“You were so defensive earlier. I find what you’re saying hard to believe,” Hildegarde said. She didn’t loosen up on her hug. “Be honest with me. I know if you had a choice, you wouldn’t want any of this for yourself. You try and you try to accept it, but I know you’re dissatisfied with the hand that you’ve been dealt. You remind me so much of your uncle Kier sometimes.”
Keer Dietrich, the eldest child in the Dietrich sibling set, didn’t want the throne. When it came time for him and his brother and sisters to compete for heirship, he gave up. And not long after that, he left for a neutral country, and came back years later with a foreign bride.
Hildegarde hardly spoke of her older brother with fondness, only with formality like she was saying/doing what wa expected of her as the Chieftess. Whether she was more disappointed in him for not caring about Stockbrunn or for wedding a foreigner, Ellie wasn’t sure. Both were considered outrageous acts.
“But I don’t have anyone else,” Ellie said. She didn’t have a “Hilda,” “Cornelius,” or “Una” that were willing to fight to the death for her position.
Hildegarde choked on her words. “I tried.”
“I know.” Ellie had been the only survivor.
“The only other possibility flies in the face of tradition. I just…” She paused to take a breath. “I want you to be happy, but you’re my heiress. You’re the one to meant to rule this town and no one else.”
Ellie shook her head the best she could manage considering their close proximity. “I’d rather die than see Wilhelm take my place.”
“If that’s the case, then why do you act this way?” Hildegarde let go of her. She took a step back, her arms wrapping around herself to make up for the emptiness. “…Never mind. That isn’t the issue here. This is about you right now, and not the town. You don’t have to tell me where you go, but I’d like to know why you like to disappear. Are you looking for room to breathe? You can have it here where it’s safe.”
Ellie wanted to laugh at that. Safe? In a town that wouldn’t give her peace? She could hardly step out of her house without people claiming clamoring for her attention or going out of their way to be nice on account of her title. She was a walking rank, undeserved other than a lucky placement in the birth lottery.
But, on the other hand, she didn’t run from the perks that she had. She wasn’t selfless enough to dismiss their importance in her life completely. That would be a foolish maneuver. Why deny who she was? She was the eiress and knew it, and often flaunted it, actually, but the weight of the crown bore on her. Its spikes dug into her.
“It’s not just that,” Ellie said.
“What is it that drives you to the woods? Please, help me to understand,” Hildegarde said.
“Stop… You sound like you’re about to cry any second now.”
“Is that a surprise?”
“No, I guess not.” Ellie focused her gaze on the wall beyond her mother, over her shoulder.
“I love you, Ellie.” Softly, she said, “I don’t know what to do with you anymore.”
“You think I do? You keep asking me all these questions and expecting a million answers, but, guess what? I don’t have them! I get sad. I get frustrated. It’s terrible.”
“Without warning or explanation?”
“Yeah, it, like, knocks the wind out of me. It gets so bad. And so I just want to get away from Stockbrunn sometimes. Is that really so tragic and deserving of an inquisition?”
“It is when your actions could lead to getting you killed,” Hildegarde said. “You have better outlets here. I don’t know why you resort to going to the woods, of all places.”
“Because…” Ellie hesitated. This had been happening long before Shreya was in the picture. It wasn’t about her. Not like she would’ve blabbed about her, but she wasn’t at the core of this issue. Someone else had been the catalyst, and she had a feeling that Hildegarde was more than aware of that fact.
It began with innocent trips and times spent journeying the areas of the forest closest to their home, just as a way to experience a world far beyond Stockbrunn. Ellie and Freesia breathed in the exterior elements, ran through the fields, and flirted with trouble that never befell them.
Ellie was thankful that she knew the paths well enough for her body to take her through the motions, even when her mind was elsewhere. She would’ve had something as awful as the bear incident happen to her far sooner if she didn’t have everything mapped out in her subconscious.
“Because, sometimes, I think, I think that, maybe, sometimes…” Ellie couldn’t find the words.
“We searched for a long time. Freesia never turned up,” she said. “It’s been two years. She can’t still be in the forest. You have to stop.”
“Good! That means she got away.” The search party members would’ve killed her if they got their hands on her.
“Is it true that every time you go you’re looking for her? I can give you resources. Guardsmen. Magistrates. Whoever you need to help you. You shouldn’t do it alone.” Hildegarde sighed. “I know it can’t be true every single time. When I spoke to Zinnia, she mentioned something about a hide-out spot.”
Whatta traitor. “It’s not a hide-out, not exactly. It’s a space for me to think. And I don’t want any of your people to help me. You think Freesia would come around if she saw any of them? Not a chance.”
“Then, what am I supposed to do for you?!” Her voice rose.
“You want to help me so bad? Just stay out of my business.” Ellie’s defenses went back up.
“You’ve been like this since you were two years old. You’d puff out your cheeks and hold your breath until you got your way, but I can’t keep letting you do that,” Hildegarde said. “I’m sorry for failing you like this. It’s my fault you’re like this.”
“You cry, and I’m going to leave.”
“What should I do? You feel inexplicably sad and frustrated? Do you want to see a professional?”
“And have them report everything back to you?”
“I’d demand their silence,” Hildegarde said. “It’s their job to help you, not harm you.”
“It’s their job to protect the interests of this town,” Ellie said.
“That includes your well-being.”
“As far as it concerns my fitness to rule, yeah.”
“You’re wrong.” Hildegarde wiped her eyes.
“I’m going to go.”
“Wait.” Hildegardee blocked her path to the stairs. “What if…what if you go on that trip for Aika Fonseca? The one that Wilhelm mentioned at dinner? We can talk it over with Intendant Fonseca and have everything arranged to your liking.”
“What, like, I can take anyone I want along with me?” Ellie asked.
“Some parties may be difficult for you to bring along, but…but yes. Aigner, Theres, Zinnia; anyone you would like. There’d be room for Sunflower, as well, and Wilhelm will be there, too. You’ll have family with you,” Hildegarde said. “Taking a vacation from Stockbrunn may help you to clear your head.”
How woefully out of date her mother was when it came to her friendships. “I don’t know. It depends on what kind of arrangements I’d be allowed to make.”
“Anything you want.” Now she sounded like she was begging. “Or you can stay here and talk to someone, if you feel like you need it.”
“Did Henrik or Zinnia tell you I do?”
“No. I can see that there’s something wrong. I knew it before we had this conversation. I just,” Hildegarde faltered, “I just don’t know how to help you. I should’ve said something before it came to this. What if you had never come home? What if I lost you?”
“Stop. You’re not going to lose me, Mom.”
“You’re not as invincible as you think.”
“Did I ever say I was?”
“Ellie… I want to help you. I can’t stand to see you suffer like this. I know I can’t bring Freesia back for you, but—”
“Please stop bringing her up,” Ellie said. She rocked back on her heels.
“I hope you’ll forgive me one day for the mistakes I made.”
“You acted for Stockbrunn.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand enough. Just drop it. Please,” she said.
“I…fine, if that’s what you’d like.”
Ellie hadn’t noticed when it happened, but Hildegarde’s posture had gone from rigid to drooped. She’d been leaning down to speak to Ellie and never straightened back up, like a weight was dragging her down.
Her father wasn’t supposed to be practically bedridden, and her mother wasn’t supposed to look so defeated. The power Ellie had over her made her feel like…like I’m the bad guy, like I’m a monster.
The strongest woman in Stockbrunn, reduced to this…
I did this to her.
Ellie struggled to swallow. She held out her arms.
Hildegarde couldn’t blink back her tears anymore. She entered her daughter’s embrace. Ellie felt her frame shake against hers, and she clutched her tighter so she wouldn’t fall.
“I’ll tell you what I need in the morning,” Ellie said. “Just give me until I wake up to think it over. And I’ll talk to Dr. Cuthberht about my concussion, no matter decision I make, okay? Everything’s going to be okay.” She swayed her gently. “I love you, too, Mom. I swear you’ll never lose me. I swear on my life.”
Hildegarde continued to cry in her arms.
A/N: 20 voters for the question shown here. We had 7 votes for anger and 13 votes for sadness/worry. Voting will end on the 14th at 11:59 PM EST. The next chapter will be released on 21st.