On the way back from the police station, Zinnia Trotter strongly contemplated cutting her ears off. Marietta’s complaints practically grated them into nubs. She wanted stop talking, even with all of the hints Zinnia kept throwing at her. Since when was nodding and total eye contact avoidance a welcome sign for conversation?
According to Marietta, the poor treatment she received from Stockbrunn’s police force was the worst thing in all of Casterne. All of them, she said, deserved to be locked in a cramped room. Oh, the indignity of having to wait hours to see someone. And on and on she went.
Maybe if they offered Marietta in exchange for Shreya’s sister, Marietta could annoy her kidnappers so much that they’d end their kidnapping ways. They would rethink the direction their lives were going.
In some ways, though, that last sentence applied to Zinnia, as well. Right now, she was on her way to the start of a rescue mission she knew very little about. Zinnia was fresh off the heels of other problems in her life, ignoring them and jumping into someone else’s. With the way Ellie begged her to help, Zinnia didn’t have much room to disagree. Desperation and foolhardiness (especially the fool part) would’ve made Ellie charge headfirst into the fiery wall of danger that was rescuing Shreya’s sister.
Cleaning up her messes, time after time…
When they arrived back at Marietta’s house, Zinnia was surprised to find Shreya alone. Well, that wasn’t fair to say. Sunflower was there, too, lounging on the grass. For some reason, the dog was dressed like a person—suspenders and shorts and a shirt. It was a downright ridiculous practical joke.
“She did it,” Marietta said. “Looking good, Sunflower.”
Sunflower cheered at the positive mention of her name.
Shreya’s frown stood out in contrast.
“How are you?” Zinnia asked. “Are you ready for…whatever this is? Ellie’s probably still talking to her mother. She was on her way to catch up to her when she left the station.”
“They were here. They talked.” Shreya toyed with one of the strings dangling from her hat. “Ellie returns soon. Needed to pack.”
“Here, here?” Zinnia’s eyebrows rose.
“We met. It was not good.” Shreya rubbed her arm.
“So she knows that you’re…?”
Zinnia wouldn’t be lying if she said she was disappointed that Shreya didn’t let her identity slip on that answer. Not to the Chieftess, of course, but to her. “Oh. That must’ve been awkward. How did that even come out? I would’ve thought that you guys would want to keep things secret. It’s not like Ellie can invite you over for dinner.”
“I did not know who she was. I feel tricked. Shocked.”
Marietta burst out laughing. “Seriously? That happened and I missed it?”
“Laughing at her isn’t nice. She must be under a lot of stress. Let’s not pick on her, okay?” Zinnia glared at Marietta.
“Hey, she wasn’t the one locked up in a cell all night. I could use some laughter my life,” Marietta said, pointing to her chest.
“But she’s the one who—never mind. There’s no point in arguing with you.” Zinnia didn’t have the time nor the patience to enter into a one-upping battle. “Shreya, can you please tell me a little bit more about what’s going on? Your sister needs help. I understand that part.”
“Is there more to know?” Shreya asked.
“How dangerous are the people that took your sister? At the first sign of bad trouble, I’m going to have to pull Ellie out of this. I know she’ll be kicking and screaming when I do it, but I’ll do what I have to,” Zinnia said.
“Do it when you need to. I won’t stop you.” Shreya nodded.
“Isn’t Zinnia the greatest? She’s rushing in to help when she doesn’t even have half of the picture,” Marietta said. “Casterne needs more girls like her.”
Zinnia stood up a little straighter. “And you’re helping, too, or else I’m doing something to your house.”
“You really need to find new ways of threatening me. Isn’t this like the 100th time you held my house over me?”
“I will burn every ribbon in your collection one by one.”
“All right, you’ve got me. Hm, my trusty snout is telling me that Ellie’s almost here. Anyone else is now ready to confirm that?” Marietta threw glances around their group.
Sunflower bounced up to her feet. Her tail wagged furiously.
“There is your confirmation,” Shreya said. She stretched her arms over her head.
“Hey! I just noticed something. You ate my food.” Marietta produced a grunt, deep from her throat.
“I was hungry and you were away. Someone had to eat it.” Shreya shrugged.
“You’ll pay for that.”
“Guys, pull yourselves together,” Zinnia reprimanded. She took a step back when Ellie came into view. “…Why is she carrying a spear?”
That wasn’t all that Ellie had with her. She wore what looked like a knife and a hatchet on her belt and a small messenger bag strapped across her chest. How she walked out of Stockbrunn like that without triggering any alarm bells, Zinnia really wanted to know. Given the high alerts that the town was currently on, who is a mystery how Ellie strolled out of there unnoticed.
“You don’t need all of that,” Shreya said. “I would like to not fight.”
“This is just in case.” Ellie leaned against her spear like it was a walking stick. “Here, Zinnia. I brought you a knife. You seem like you’re good at stabbing things.”
“In self-defense. It’s not like it’s something I’ve trained to do. I’m with Shreya on this. If we can avoid fighting, that would be great.” Zinnia’s stomach flipped. What was she getting herself into? This was another instance of Ellie failing to take a serious situation seriously. “How did you leave Stockbrunn looking like that?”
“I just walked out.” She unlatched the knife holster from her belt, the blade securely housed within it.
Heiress privilege coming into play, Zinnia supposed. People probably thought that Ellie was on her way to do some training in the woods. That wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to anyone who knew her well, but that weak explanation worked for the common citizen.
“Where’d you get the weapons from?” Zinnia took the knife and secured it to her belt. She hoped she’d never have to use it.
“My mom’s collection. She has no idea.”
“Of course she doesn’t,” Zinnia said with a sigh.
“All right, is everyone ready for our grand rescue mission thingy?” Ellie pumped her free hand through the air.
Sunflower ran in circles around her. “Ellie!”
“I guess.” Marietta didn’t sound too enthusiastic.
“Everything is okay with your mother?” Shreya asked Ellie. Her voice was quiet.
“She’s angry, like, really angry. We’re just going to talk about it later. Nothing to worry about right now. Let’s just…” Ellie started to walk, then stopped. “Well, Shreya, I guess you’re leading the way. We’re the army you asked for. There may not be many of us, but we have heart.”
“Delicious hearts that these people might want to eat,” Marietta added.
“We will be okay,” Ellie assured them.
Zinnia held on to that statement as they started their journey into the woods. Her nervousness caused her to keep fiddling with the holster’s attachments. Ellie kept talking, trying to get everyone energized and excited. Zinnia blocked her out. She didn’t buy into Ellie’s false bravado. The girl had a tendency to talk a lot of nonsense when she was feeling anxious.
You and me both.
She was on edge and they’d hardly gotten started. Shreya and Ellie led their procession. Sunflower stayed behind Ellie, taking up the middle position in their group. That left Marietta and Zinnia for the back. Zinnia remained mindful of their pace, not wanting to trail the pack. Staying shoulder-to-shoulder with Marietta offered a minor comfort.
“Shreya,” Marietta called. “Can you tell us a little bit more about the people that took your sister?”
“Why do you keep saying it like that?” Zinnia asked.
“It’s just funny to me. It’s a funny word and I like to say in a funny way.” Marietta smirked.
Shreya answered Marietta’s question, “They think they are forest guardians. They watch the balance, the equalness. When it is wrong, they make it right. This time, they are doing it the wrong way. They came to my people and made strong demands.”
“So your sister was a way of paying them?” Zinnia assumed. Her hand hadn’t left the knife handle.
“They did not ask for her. They wanted food and to hurt us. We needed to suffer,” Shreya said. “Our leaders decided to hand Shanti to the guardians. Everyone at home was okay with their choice. Everyone but me. Why take Shanti when we need to fight?”
“That’s where we come in,” Ellie said, slamming the butt of her spear against the ground.
“Not fighting anyone,” Shreya corrected. “Only saving her.”
“Oops, yeah, that’s what I meant. There won’t be any fighting of any kind.”
“Zinnia and I may wicker a bit,” Marietta said. “I’m just being honest.”
“It’s bicker, not wicker,” Zinnia said.
“See? It’s starting already,” Marietta replied.
“No fighting, no bickering, and above all else, no wickering,” Ellie announced with a grin. She wiped her face to remove her smile, her expression turning more serious.
The oncoming cold of the forest had Zinnia wishing she’d worn a thicker jacket. Shrouds of tree leaves above blocked what little warmth she could borrow from the sun. She shivered, thankful that Marietta didn’t notice her reaction. Her boots squished in the softness of mud along the path.
Their momentary silence allowed her to listen to the woodsy soundscape. A constant hum of bugs played in the distance. Movements from unseen creatures unnerved her. Zinnia derived strength in the calmness of her friends. If they weren’t freaking out, then she wouldn’t, either.
It helped that they had Marietta and Sunflower with them. The animals would notice terrible things before she, Ellie, and Shreya could. Shreya had a slight leg up, being that she was from this area, but knowledge didn’t always beat natural instincts.
They traveled in a strange direction. The group made a right where they should’ve made a left if they were heading towards Ianes’ wall. Since no one else seemed disturbed, Zinnia kept her mouth shut. It was possible that they would going a round-about way. She didn’t need to air her worries and get herself stuck in the middle of a heckling match with Marietta.
Her hyper-awareness of her surroundings gave her a rare glimpse into the way the grass and dirt transitioned as they walked. The overgrowth yellowed, high to her knees. It tickled her legs through her pants. Something touched her ankle.
Whatever it was, it curled.
Zinnia jumped. “Snake!”
Sunflower barked at Zinnia sudden surprise.
Marietta didn’t bother holding in her laughter. “There aren’t any snakes in the grass. Calm yourself down.”
“Good thing,” Ellie said. She moved her hand away from her heart. “You scared me.”
“Sorry,” Zinnia mumbled.
Marietta reached into the grass and pulled out Zinnia’s tormentor. “It was a stick.”
“With a hooked end,” Zinnia said.
“Hook or not, it’s just a stick.” Marietta tossed it away.
Sunflower bolted after it.
“Sunflower, stop it!” Ellie shouted after her.
The dog obeyed. She let out a low whine, seemingly torn between listening to her owner and pursuing the stick’s trajectory.
“Be careful when you do things like that,” Ellie said to Marietta. “You know how playful Sunflower gets. Here, Sunflower, come back to us, girl. Come here.” She patted her thigh.
Once Sunflower returned, the group continued wading through the grass. Zinnia repeated herself that anything that scraped against her foot or ankle was simply a stick. No snakes. No terrifying creatures. Nothing but sticks and stones underfoot, neither of which could hurt her. She tried not to think about the very real possibility of tripping, painfully landing on her face, and thoroughly embarrassing herself.
“Where are these people located?” Zinnia asked. Her anxiety wouldn’t let her stay silent for any longer. “Are we going to loop back at some point?” So far, it seemed like they were moving further and further away from Ianes’ Wall, the territorial dividing line.
“Um…” Ellie began. “They don’t live on our side of the forest.”
“We’re heading into wolf territory?” Zinnia had to say it out loud in order to believe it.
“Well… It’s not like woods dwellers are included in our pact. It’s smarter for them not to live where the wolves live, but some of them do.”
“This keeps getting better and better,” Marietta said, her usual amusement lacking.
“She wasn’t kidnapped by wolves, was she? Because if she was, I’m bring you back home with me right now.” Zinnia stopped walking. Her refusal to move stopped everyone else, too.
“No, she wasn’t,” Ellie said.
“I’m having a hard time believing you,” Zinnia said.
“I promise,” Shreya said.
“Okay. I can believe you.”
“You believe her over me? What’s with that?” Ellie pouted.
“I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with you bringing that spear,” Zinnia replied.
“It’s a precaution.” Ellie waved her hand dismissively. “You know anyone living on this side of the woods has to have problems.”
“I wonder why they don’t leave, then,” Zinnia said.
“Do you see the life in these plants? They struggle. Everyone struggles here,” Shreya said. “But there are people who cannot leave. Sometimes trying to leave means running into worse people or getting other problems. Life is difficult. Leaving…yes, that would be nice.”
“I guess you are lucky to be from the other side of the wall.” Zinnia imagined the hardships.
“You know, maybe we should talk about something more positive,” Ellie interjected.
“Like the Chieftess learning about your relationship,” Marietta said. “I want to hear that story.”
Ellie groaned. “I’m not looking forward to going home after this. She’s probably coming up with a list of a million questions to ask me.”
“Sorry,” Shreya said. “If I had been quiet, it would not be like this. I tried to run. She did not like that.” She grimaced at the memory.
“Do you think there’s a chance she’ll lock you up, Ellie?” Marietta asked.
“If she does, I know my way around locks—literally and figuratively. She might hold me up for a while, but I’ll find a way to get out. She’s probably way too busy with the whole fire thing in town, anyway. There’s no way she will be able to keep a constant eye on me.”
“I hope so. We went through a lot to get you to back together. You better not mess that up. Hey, Zinnia, isn’t it hilarious how you’re helping us find the girl you brutally stabbed?”
“Self-defense.” Zinnia would maintain that truth for as long as she lived. “And calling it brutal is an over-exaggeration. She didn’t have any lasting damage.”
“A bad walk,” Shreya said. She paused to find the right word. “A limp for a short time. It was not the worst.”
“That proves that it wasn’t a brutal stabbing,” Zinnia said.
“Keep your brutal stabbing skills at the ready. We might be needing them,” Marietta said.
Hopefully, they wouldn’t. If the situation became that dire… Well, Zinnia planned on running away with Ellie in tow before it reached that point. She just had to trust that Shreya was resolute in her “no fighting” plans.
A/N: Happy Thanksgiving for those who celebrate it! Enjoy all your turkey on Thursday.
Voting for this chapter will end Sunday, the 26th at 11:59 PM EST. I’m not 100% sure that there will be a new chapter on the 28th. I may have to use my RWC writing time on workity work. Big deadline to hit. Fun.
10 voters on the last chapter. 4 votes for Hildegarde taking Ellie home and delaying Ellie in joining the others. This would inadvertently keep her out of harm’s way. 6 votes for Hildegarde talking to Ellie at a later time, no delaying Ellie joining the group, and the likelihood of harm coming her way increasing.
Again, sorry for any dictation errors. Thanks for reading.