It was more than the changes in fauna color gradation that differed between their sides of the forest. Darkness draped over the foliage, like rot and decay. It snaked through every branch above and root underfoot. Dry moss, the kind that crumbles to the touch, sloughed off of the rocks they passed.
An eerie stillness settled in the further they wandered away from what Stockbrunn owned. Ellie had received hints of what to expect. Bleakness, relative inferiority, and a struggle that Shreya continued to allude to. All of that was certainly present, but she never sat down and pieced all of the descriptive crumbles Shreya had given her together. Maybe if she had, she would’ve been a little less shocked.
But, she reminded herself, this place was what the worst of the wolves deserved. They brought it upon themselves, what with their pact breaking and ruin making. Stockbrunn and the wolves could have coexisted if it wasn’t for the latter’s proneness to betrayal. Trickery was inherent to them. Unfortunately, Shreya had been poisoned by the blood in her veins, as well. Her upbringing affected her, both good (in that she was getting away from it) and bad (in that she couldn’t).
Reconciling all of that—the who and what of Shreya—still troubled her. She hoped their mission would ease some of that burden. Going through these lengths for Shanti had to prove something. Accepting Shreya was one thing or rather, it was the start of something akin to a new beginning. Maybe it was their second act. But this…
You wouldn’t have hesitated to help me before, would you have? Shreya’s words from earlier said. Nothing about it sounded right. It was risky, but they needed to set caution aside.
I’m going to need your help, Ellie. Please, another girl from even earlier had said. I know this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but I need you to trust me. We have to do this. They didn’t think of the long-term consequences.
The begging and pleading of one: We have to save her.
The begging and pleading of the other: We have to save them.
The spear kept her from stumbling as they traversed the overgrowth.
“Could we slow down a little bit?” Marietta asked from the back of the group. “This pace isn’t good for my hooves.”
“I’m surprised we’re not going faster,” Zinnia said.
“We’ve still got tracking to do,” Ellie said. “If we rush, we might miss out on some important information or something.”
“I have to take you a longer way. We are avoiding my community,” Shreya explained.
“Let’s all be thankful for that.” Marietta huffed as she walked.
Ellie slipped back into her thoughts. Her mind drifted back to a time when…
…When Freesia and her, age 13, were in Freesia’s room. Clothes littered the floor, the casualties of Freesia’s indecisiveness for what to wear that morning. Freesia shared the room with her slightly younger sister Zinnia. Back then, Zinnia had been on the shyer side. Soft-spoken. Somewhat withdrawn, but still willing to accompany them when asked. Freesia liked including her sister when she could, even though Zinnia didn’t seem like she had any trouble making friends.
“I like your house so much better than mine!” Ellie fell back onto Freesia’s unmade bed. She patted the floof of her skirt down.
“But, your house is huge,” Freesia said, “and it doesn’t have a bunch of annoying babies running around. I’m so glad Father came home and took them to the farm.”
“Yours is better. Your mother makes the best cookies. My mother badly wants her recipe. She might seriously kill someone for it.”
“Family secret. You have to be a Trotter to know it.” Freesia grinned. She snatched a clothing heap off of the floor, then toss them into the closet.
“What sounds better, Navarrete-Trotter or Trotter-Navarrete?”
“That’s so unwieldy.”
“That’s what my uncles did. Wilhelm’s got two last names. It works for them.”
“Ellie Trotter sounds really nice. Picture it, Chieftess and Chieftess Trotter.”
“Chieftess and Chieftess sounds nice no matter what our last names are.” Ellie sat up.
Freesia grabbed her botany book from off of her desk. An envelope stuffed inside acted as a bookmark.
Ellie covered her ears. “No more flower talk! You promised we wouldn’t talk about them anymore.”
“They might not be as rare as we thought. I was talking to Theres’ older brother —”
“That’s your first mistake. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“He says,” Freesia continued, making a point to ignore Ellie’s protests. “He says that you can find them according to where these ones are pointing.” Freesia tapped the leven-tinte flower’s page. “We just have to find these ones first.”
“And where are those supposed to be?”
“Somewhere in the woods. I think they like the cold. When they bloom, they’ll point us in the right direction.”
“They all just magically happen to do that? So I could plant a leven-tinte or whatever it is in a pot here, and it could show you where your special little flower is. That’s weird.” Ellie’s skepticism rose.
“They wouldn’t survive in a pot over here,” Freesia said with a sigh. “They wouldn’t survive this environment.”
“And yet they survive in the woods? I’ve never even heard of a leven-tinte.” Not that she was that well-versed in flowers beyond violets and lavenders.
“Because they’re rare and they’re only out there in the words. C’mon, Ellie, you have to keep up. This flower is the first step to everything. We find this one and we’ll be well on our way. Think about what we could do with a healing flower. We’ll be the Chieftesses who came up with a cure-all for so many problems. This might even heal your father.”
Ellie’s stomach dropped. “I don’t know about all that.”
“It could do so many things. Stockbrunn will forever have the respect of the rest of Casterne. We’ll be more than just a dinky little farmer’s town in the middle of a forest. You and me, we can really change things for Stockbrunn.” Excitement sparkled like lights in Freesia’s eyes.
“I mean… Yeah, if it’s not something a bunch of bored old ladies made up. So, we find the leven-tintes and then we’ve got your flower.”
“Not quite.” Freesia lowered the book. “That’ll just begin the flower to flower scavenger hunt. You think something this rare would be that easy to find?”
To find the inky blue petals of a leven-tinte here and now out of all times and places — didn’t make much sense. And yet, there they were, a cluster of them at the base of the tree. The first time they met, Shreya had told her that the flowers were out of season. She’d have to wait months to see them bloom. And yet (there were those two delicate words again), they existed in defiance of what Shreya had said.
The group had been walking for some time. The dead colors of their surroundings blurred together. Ellie’s attention moved in and out of focus. To their credit, Marietta and Zinnia avoided getting into arguments.
They filled the time with a semi-tense conversation about Sunflower and the clothes she was wearing. Semi-tense only because Zinnia sounded like she was struggling not to ring Marietta’s neck. It was the line “even a dog is a better dresser than you” that really got to her.
Ellie missed an opening in that conversation, so she let it go. She didn’t want to exacerbate the situation further. Besides, the flowers, down a hill a little bit ways off, were calling to her. She had to know if they were real.
They definitely looked like they were. She wouldn’t know for sure until she held one in her hands.
“I’ll be right back!” Ellie took off running towards the flowers. She threw her spear aside.
“Wait!” Shreya yelled after her.
“There’s no waiting.” Ellie skidded to a stop. Her boots slipped a smidge. “These are the flowers I was looking for. I’ll only be a minute. You guys can keep walking if you want. Don’t let me delay you.”
“We will wait.” Shreya crossed her arms.
Sunflower bumped shoulders with Shreya. “Yes.”
Zinnia shrugged. It wasn’t like she could go anywhere if they weren’t moving. Marietta looked relieved that she had an excuse to take a break, however short it was.
“Thanks.” Ellie hurried down the hill, crossing the short distance to the flowers. Up close, they almost took her breath away, not from their beauty but from their reality. Years of searching and hoping, and it turned out that the flowers were on this side of the forest this whole time.
Their faces pointed towards where the group had come from. Back to the beginning, huh?
She’d initially confused it for a twist in the bark, but there was a symbol etched in the wood. It almost look like a series of letter B’s. Someone crudely carved it out with a knife. The exposed, pale “flesh” of the tree contrasted the bark.
Someone’s been here. The symbol was probably a tag. That made sense. Surely, there are other people interested in this flower myth. Ellie leaned forward, placing her hand against the etchings.
Her foot hit something taught—a string of some kind. It snapped.
She didn’t have time to scream before she was hoisted up into the air. Caught in a snare, she was hanging upside down and staring at her friends from a flipped viewpoint. The rope cinched her ankle. Struggling caused her to bump into the tree that the rest of the trap was hanging from.
Marietta cracked up, her laughter loud and serving to humiliate Ellie further. Ellie’s ears burned red.
“Is someone going to help me down or what?” she asked.
“Stockbrunn’s heiress, everybody,” Marietta said. She did a slow clap.
“Hopefully whoever set that trap doesn’t come back here anytime soon,” Zinnia said. “Shreya, I can use her spear to slice the rope. Do you mind catching her?”
“I’ll make myself as light as I possibly can,” Ellie said. “I’ll just believe that I’m a bird and become as light as a feather.”
“Things don’t work like that, but okay.” Zinnia met her at the tree with the spear. She leaned on her tippy toes, pointing it at the rope.
“You better not hit me or you’ll be sorry!” She swung to avoid it.
“You’re not helping! Stop moving!”
Shreya held up her fingers to judge the distance. “She is right, Ellie. Zinnia, move more to the left. There. You have it.” She held out her arms.
“Can I have a warning before—aaaaghhh!!”
The rope broken, she dropped like an anvil (no better way to put it) on top of Shreya. Shreya had every intention to catch her, she was sure, but catching someone like that was much harder than it looked. It didn’t help that as soon as she was freed, Ellie flailed.
She grabbed onto Shreya when she fell, her hand scrambling for any part of her she could get. Ellie took her down to the ground with her. The clash of limbs and other body parts stung. Ellie ached horribly. The one thing she was thankful for was that her head wasn’t spinning. No concussion this time…possibly.
Marietta’s second bout of uproarious laughter only worsened the situation.
“It’s not that funny,” Ellie said, getting onto her feet with a groan. “How about you get caught in a trap next and we’ll see how much I’ll laugh? We’ll make a game of it.”
“You falling isn’t what’s funny,” Marietta said. “That’s what’s funny.” She lifted her chin.
Ellie followed the gesture.
Spear clenched in her hands, Zinnia bug-eyed stared downwards, towards Ellie’s waist.
Ellie followed her stare.
Shreya sat, not moving.
Not moving and very, very hatless. Shreya’s ears twitched, practically standing on end.
Zinnia lifted the spear.
“Oh, shit,” Ellie said. Oh, shit, and then some.
A/N: You got it! Last chapter’s question was “when will Zinnia find out Shreya’s wolf identity?” 7 voted for before they meet any foxes and 5 voted for when they get to the foxes.
Special thanks to everyone who has taken the survey so far. This chapter was mainly prompted by a question someone had in their survey. If you haven’t taken the survey, please take it here. It’ll take around 5 minutes, and includes skippable demographic questions.
Bit of a headache at the moment. Please excuse any dictation errors you may have found.
Voting ends Sunday, December 10th at 11:59 PM EST. Next chapter will be Tuesday, December 12th.