Ellie Navarrete supposed it could’ve been worse.
Her mother could’ve actually killed her. She certainly looked like she was a split second away from doing so, what with her bulging eyes and spit spraying all over the place. The vein in her neck pulsed, her face tomato-red. She paused to suck in a deep breath before launching into what Ellie guessed would be another round of screaming at her.
“What’s wrong with you?” Hilda had Sunflower’s leash wound tightly around her fist. The dog in question was elsewhere, forbidden from being in the house. “I told you to never, ever go anywhere without her. What were you doing?”
“She was getting a haircut and I couldn’t wait.”
“Couldn’t wait for what? It couldn’t have been school because you weren’t there.”
“Yes, I was.” Ellie reached for the easy lie. “Ask Zinnia. She’ll back me up.”
Unlike Ellie, Zinnia was pursuing secondary studies out of her own free will and interest. She was a sit-at-the-front-of-the-class-and-jot-down-every-word-the-teacher-said kind of girl, you know, just in case any of his ramblings proved useful.
Zinnia dreamed of going to a northern university, in a town twice as advanced as Stockbrunn. Ellie didn’t see the point in dreaming of something that’d never happen. Zinnia wasn’t going anywhere. Her family obligations kept her rooted to Stockbrunn.
Neither of them were ever going to be free enough to leave.
“I asked her. She told me that you haven’t been to any of Guarin’s lessons in weeks. Weeks, Ellie!!”
That traitor was too honest for her own good.
Ellie flinched. She needed a new game plan. “Okay, I haven’t been going. I’ve been getting notes from her. I study them on my own time.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“You know what our agreement was. I’d give you space, all the space you’d need to grieve, and you’d study like you’re supposed to.” Hilda said. “I don’t make you do any fieldwork. I don’t make you join me for deliberations. I don’t make you help the townspeople with their tasks. I’m not making you apprentice with anyone.
“And yet, you have the audacity to skip off into the woods instead of doing the one thing you told me you’d be able to do. You said you could handle it.” Her voice, hoarse from all the yelling she’d been doing, dropped to a whisper. “No, it’s not audacity that you have. It’s stupidity. It was stupid of you to do what you did, and you know it.”
“Who cares about Gaurin’s lessons? They’re for people who want to go to university. I made it through primary school.” If knowing more than the basics was so important, then why wasn’t secondary school compulsory?
“How are you supposed to correspond with other villages in Casterne if you can’t read and write at an advanced level? How can you deal with village-to-village economics if you don’t have a deeper understanding of history?”
“I can hire someone to do all that stuff for me,” she said.
Hilda crossed her arms. She exhaled slowly. “What is it that you want me to do, Ellie? You’ve put me in a lose/lose situation here. If I give you space, you lie to me. If I pressure you, you get upset. What do you think I should do?”
This line-of-questioning had to be a trap. “Keep doing what you’re doing? Give me more time.” Ellie tried.
“No.” Hilda said. “I’ve let you use her as an excuse for long enough.”
“An excuse?!” Ellie’s voice rose sharply. She stood up out of her chair, the legs streaking the floor. Standing up made her more conscious of how much her mother dwarfed her, in both size and demeanor.
“That’s enough. You’re going to Gaurin’s lessons. You’ll help your aunt and uncle in the field in the morning, then go in the afternoon.”
“This isn’t fair. I’m not ready!” Why was her mom doing this to her? Hilda didn’t understand. She didn’t know what it was like. She didn’t know what they’d gone through.
“You keep saying that, but you’re ready enough to charge into the forest all alone. Look at your dress. You ruined it.”
Ellie wiped at the dirt to no avail. “How am I supposed to focus in Gaurin’s class when he hates my guts?”
“He doesn’t hate you.”
“Oh, right, sure, he doesn’t hate me, just like the Diallos and the Glockners don’t hate me, either.” All of those families, with their bitter, beady little eyes. They were the reason why she avoided certain parts of Stockbrunn entirely. She couldn’t go down Kuefer Street without worrying that she’d run into one of them. “And Zinnia’s the only Trotter that even looks at me. Need me to go on?”
“No one hates you. You’re the heiress apparent. That means something to these people. Don’t confuse their jealousy for hatred.”
“You don’t get it.”
“I do get it. I was in your shoes before,” Hilda said. She left out the part where she successfully competed against her siblings for the position. She wasn’t heiress by default, like Ellie was. She earned their love. Stockbrunn was happy to have her as their leader. “I wasn’t that much older than you when I became the Chieftess. You have to start commanding their respect now so they’ll be ready for the transition.”
“It’s not like you’re dying any time soon.” Grandpa Osgar Dietrich, the former Chief, had died when Ellie was a baby. She only knew him through portraits and stories of his warring days.
“You can’t spend all of your time moping and crying, Ellie. You have to put Stockbrunn first. They need you.”
“As if you don’t mope and cry about Dad.”
“…What did you just say?”
Just then, the front door opened. In walked Henrik Stenberg, a boy about Ellie’s age who worked as her father’s nighttime attendant. Dr. Cuthberht had recommended him to them after his older sister Johanna had left them for medical school.
He was tall, gawky, and awkward in his height and long limbs, much like a baby horse that didn’t have its footing yet. His posture suffered from having to lean down too much to get on other people’s level. He had a pair of round silver glasses perched on his nose that threatened to fall.
His throat bobbed when he swallowed. “I’m so sorry for being late, Chieftess Hildegard.” They’d gotten on a first name basis in the months since he’d started working in their home.
Hilda made sure her glare lingered on her daughter before she turned to him. “It’s not a problem. Bodil’s finishing up with him. Why don’t you take Ellie up with you? She hasn’t gotten a chance to say hello.” Conversation over.
“Yes, ma’am.” He hung his coat and scarf on the rack by the door. “Shall we?”
Ellie went up the steps without waiting for him. She heard the door shut, signalling that her mother had left. Good for her, then. She probably realized she was going to lose. They’d finish their fight at a later time.
She spoke over her shoulder. “What made you so late?”
“Agatha lost a tooth.”
“My little sister.”
“Right, cute little Agatha! I remember her now. She’s adorable.” She didn’t remember her in the slightest. Ellie had too many things to juggle to remember something that minor. Her mother acted like she had to keep tabs on everyone in town, right down to memorizing their birthdays, favorite colors, and who their second and third cousins were. It was ridiculous.
On top of that, she had to learn a whole bunch of other irrelevant stuff. The last Territorial War had been…maybe 24 years ago, if she wasn’t mixing up the dates. They weren’t planning on fighting the Erzyans again—the people in Casterne’s neighboring territory, so why did she have to practice spear fighting? They had a treaty. The spear stuff was useless. Not that she was keeping up with those lessons, either. Spear fighting occupied her time even less than Guarin’s lessons did.
Old Gaurin with his peg leg. Apparently, his family had originally come from Nystad, the coastal town where Stockbrunn imported its dried fish from. He’d been a teacher there, too, specializing in political affairs. For whatever stupid reason (bankruptcy?), he moved down to Stockbrunn and became one of their only secondary studies teachers.
Ellie knocked on her father’s door. Bodil Olsson, his daytime attendant, opened it. Even though she was older than Ellie’s mother, Bodil’s eyes weren’t rimmed with the same shadows and tired lines that Hilda had. They held onto a youthfulness normally reserved for women half her age. Her forehead had permanent wrinkles, and the edges of her red hair were turning gray. She was built sturdy, which was helpful in her line of work.
She’d been working for them since Ellie was 7. If circumstances had been different, Ellie might have thought of her as a second mother. She’d make a better one than her real one, in any case.
Bodil stepped aside so they could enter the room. “You’re right on time. Vicente’s almost ready for his nap.”
Vicente’s room was minimally furnished for safety reasons rather than style ones. A dresser of spare clothing stood across from his bed. His wheelchair sat near the window, the blinds still open despite the sun having gone down. The wall sconces around the room were lit, providing light. The wood floor was bare of any rugs.
A couple of paintings hung on the wall, one of them a portrait of the Navarrete family a couple of years before the accident. Ellie wished they’d been smiling in it.
Her mother had wanted them to have a stoic pose, and Ellie had fixed on the best serious face her five year old self could muster. She sat on her mother’s lap, held in her powerful arms. Her father looked strong in the portrait, truly worthy of being called Stockbrunn’s Chief. Square jawed with a determined stare. Muscles gained from years of hunting. Broad shoulders that could carry the weight of the town.
The three of them looked off into the distance, towards a future none of them were ready for.
A future that had her father ten years debilitated, a stick-thin shadow of the man in the portrait.
“Hi, Dad.” Ellie announced her presence.
Bodil and Henrik stepped out to discuss his care and give them some privacy. Their hushed whispers filled the hallway of their otherwise empty house. Excessively sized for three people, there were more spare rooms than claimed rooms. The house had been built in hopes of a larger family.
“Ellie!” Vicente raised a frail hand towards her. His feet bounced up and down under his covers with excitement. She took his hand, his fingers feeling so much like bones she would’ve thought his skin was gone if her eyes were closed. If she squeezed too tightly, she was sure he’d break. Vicente smiled, struggling to focus on her. Bodil had been careful to shave his face without cutting him.
He had a line of drool leaking from the corner of his lips. “Tell me about your day,” he said, sounding nothing like her memories of him. His voice was low, hollow, and clumsy. His mouth didn’t close the right way.
Telling him the truth ran the risk of sending him into an episode. His episodes were why his bed had been fitted with straps, buckles at the ready to pin him down. Once, he’d gotten a seizure and flipped himself onto the floor. It took months for those bruises to heal.
They didn’t know what caused his seizures. Dr. Cuthberht suspected it was caused by his brain overexerting itself, but she didn’t know for sure. She didn’t have a ton of research to go off of. Most people that sustained head injuries as serious as Vicente’s died. He was one of the lucky few.
Lucky…what a funny word.
“I had fun with my friends.” Ellie repeated the same bland, safe answer she’d given him yesterday. “We played games.”
“That’s so nice.” He turned his head away from her. Tears clung to the corner of his eyes.
“Don’t cry.” Ellie brushed them away with her thumb.
Vicente mumbled something into his pillow.
“I’ve got to go. Henrik’s here for you.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Good night, Dad.”
He let go of her hand, and she left.
She couldn’t handle that much more of him.
On her way out, she bid both of his attendants farewell, and turned in for the night. Her bedroom was the way she’d left it: blankets kicked to the floor, small unopened lockbox on her nightstand, and various tiny tools spread across her desk. A couple of them needed reworking, the metal bent out of place from jimmying stubborn locks. Until she made up with a certain person, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to get her wrenches fixed.
Her closet had been left open from this morning when she’d hurriedly put something on to go into the woods in. She’d grabbed the first thing she laid her hands on, an impractical dress.
Ellie unlaced her boots and kicked them free of her feet. It had been a long day. If the rest of her didn’t know it, her toes sure did for how beat they looked. She planned on giving them a good soak later.
She’d stashed the borrowed gourd beneath a bush outside of the house. Walking in with it would’ve required too much explanation. Who gave that to you? Where did you find it? Were they alone? Did you tell them who you are? All her mother needed to know was that she’d been in the woods, that’s all.
It wasn’t like that was the first time she’d ever been there.
And it wouldn’t be the last time, either.
A/N: Thanks for reading. Welcome to the second choice in our story. Will the gourd be discovered: yes or no? We have to wait a bit to see the outcome of last week’s choice. The outcome for this one should be revealed during next week’s chapter.
Voting will end this Sunday at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 3 will be posted next Thursday, the 28th. Comments are encouraged.
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