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Fire Princess and the Outcasts chapter 2
Gertrude couldn’t look away from the mountains on all sides ever since they entered the valleys. The rocky formations ascended higher than any tree back in the forest. Higher than what she'd imagined from always observing them at a distance. It let her know how big the world was outside the comfort zone she called home all these years.
Anneth pulled her back when she began walking up the slope. “Hold on! I know what you're thinking, and trust me, it's a lot harder than it looks.”
Whafts of air blew from Gertrude’s nose as she pouted, saddened for being so close yet so far from clearing her first feat. Her left hand reached out, and from her perspective she could grab a hold on the mountain’s snowy peak.
“Focus on what's in front of you right now or you'll end up tripping on a rock again, okay?”
She grumbled. This was her first time out in the unknown and such a time called for exciting discoveries to be made. What point was there in tagging along if everytime she wanted to explore Anneth was right behind her like a vigilant mother? Just as she grumbled so did her stomach, calling attention from her companions. So far the trio had been hiking northwest for a full day, only stopping to rest and snack on sweet bread rations Rosella and Anneth had bought before the bounty started. Said rations were running low too.
“Speaking of which, we need to hurry before dark and set up camp on higher ground,” Anneth said, tapping a finger to her chin.
“You’re right,” added Rosella. “But it’s going to be difficult to rest well on an empty stomach.” She peered over her shoulder. “What about the bread rations from the other day, hmmm?”
Anneth shook her head, disappointed. “No good. What we have wouldn’t satisfy a child, let alone one of us.”
“Then what will we eat for tonight? Grass?” Rosella frowned at the idea.
“D-don’t say such things. There have to be edible plants we can pick somewhere around here at least. I hope…” The iffy way she ended made Rosella give up instead.
Distant squawking of wild birds rippled throughout the landscape. A bluish gradient covered the sky above until it dissolved into shades of yellow, orange, and purple near the horizon, casting its colors on every cloud. After a moment of hard thinking, Gertrude broke the silence.
“We can have berries.” Everyone came to a halt.
“Berries, you say?” Gertrude nodded at Rosella.
“You can tell which ones are edible?”
“Mm-hmm. You can find the same shrubs here in the forest where I lived. They sprout berries rich in proteins and other nutrients. Good for when we're low on energy.”
Gertrude was a rookie at traveling just as much as the other girls were. She hadn’t the slightest idea of where they were located if given a map, only the direction they were traveling thanks to the sun’s location. But when it came to surviving out in the wilderness, you could call her a trusty know-how. Morvon had prepped her for situations like this in case she ever got lost or separated from him for a prolonged period.
No better time existed than right now to put it to good use. She swiped away the group’s food related headaches and stood proud.
“Then, can you tell us how the shrub looks so we can sta--”
Anneth put a hand over her mouth and sucked in a quick gasp. She threw her finger out in front and Gertrude and Rosella tracked the invisible line it drew to the very end.
“Look everyone!,” she whispered a shout. “A bitrab!”
The bitrab came in a small package of hazel, fluffy fur and long ears with a miniature horn on its head. Its V shaped nose dug through weeds and grass scavenging for food to eat. When it moved about, the creature crawled or covered larger areas by hopping around gleefully.
Rosella’s mouth grew agape with elation but then flattened to a grimace.
“This is our chance to have ourselves some dinner! Princess, quick, chase it down before it runs away.” Anneth curled her hands into fists and shook them at her sides as she bounced in place. Finally, they wouldn’t have to suffer another night with nagging stomachs.
Instead of chasing down the bitrab, Rosella stepped away and angled her body to where the side bangs of her hair would obscure the animal from her eyes. She balled her hands and brought them to her chest, hinging slightly forward at the hips.
“Wait. Don’t tell me... you’re still disturbed by what happened the first time?”
“N-no…” she denied in a shaky tone.
“Of course it is.” Anneth groaned at the memory of that time. “Princess, you have to take action in times like these or else you can forget about surviving. It isn’t like we’re doing it out of malice either. We have to eat.”
“I know that. I-I am fully aware. And I have told you already not to call me ‘princess’ anymore!”
Gertrude reached for her spear on her back and unwrapped it out of its drape in the meantime. She took a step, and then another, building up energy in her arm as she locked on to the bitrab, and hurled the spear.
“You left us pretty speechless there for a second. Throwing your spear when we were busy arguing and all.”
Songs of insects welcomed nightfall as they orchestrated in the grassy vastness of the valley. The atmosphere had turned crisp with the absence of sunlight. Gertrude took the last bite of meat on the thigh she'd been working on for the last few minutes, tossing the boney remains aside. She leaned forward on the log she sat on and carried on with Anneth.
“It noticed us. So I did what I had to do to prevent it from running away. No, wait. Hopping away?”
“What counts is that you took the initiative. If it were not for you, Rosella and I would be starving at this point. I cannot thank you enough.”
What Rosella said earlier came back to Gertrude: that she wouldn't be able to sleep comfortably on an empty stomach. Now that they had feasted on the bitrab, she was out cold sleeping like a newborn.
Something warm enveloped Gertrude as she saw the redhead beauty in deep slumber, and it wasn't the heat emanating from the campfire. The enemy turned friend a day prior could only be this tranquil right now because of her.
This altruistic streak is probably what Morvon felt when he took her in.
“I’m just excited to be fulfilling my childhood dream of traveling the world. When I think about it, just yesterday I was in my house working on making potions. The thought of leaving everything behind like that never crossed my mind even once.” Gertrude turned her attention to the dancing campfire blaze. The burning wood cracked and popped, occasionally ejecting a spark. “But,” she continued, “It’s weird. I haven’t been able to get Morvon off my mind.”
Anneth leaned forward to get a better read on Gertrude over her hair. “You miss him, do you not?” She nodded. To explore had always been her dream. From the day she heard about a place where miles of sand stretched, and both water and sky met, Gertrude’s world grew beyond the reaches of the forest. A childhood dream was born inside her.
But it was inevitable she would end up missing her father figure. The man who donated years of his life for her sake.
Anneth gazed up at the spangled sky above. “Do not take what I’m about to say the wrong way, but people were made to adjust when changes occur in their lives. No matter how drastic at times, they learn to get around one way or the other to suit their new lifestyle, developing different perspectives to help them adapt. I’m not saying you will forget or even disregard Morvon out of your life completely, rather, you will grow to thank him for all he taught you to live independent. That’s what happens when you move forward. Consider it a signal telling you you’re on the right path.”
A signal telling Gertrude she was on the right path. That sounded like something Morvon would say. Fending for herself and helping her companions like she did today was only possible because of her upbringing. She needn’t look far as the results were around her.
Anneth descended from the stars, fixing her glasses. “Take it from me. In due time, you will grow accustomed to living an independent life without the guidance of a parental figure. Look at Rosella and I, for example. We have been on our own for a half year now, surviving on knowledge given to us by our parents. The same goes for you, Gertrude.”
She appreciated Anneth’s encouraging efforts, but the facts still remained. If only she could speed up time to get there and loosen the knot in her throat.
Gertrude changed directions to let her mind wander onto a different subject.
“A-anyways…” She blinked repeatedly, unable to make direct eye contact. “I never would've guessed you knew how to skin a bitrab so well.”
“Hmmm? Why is that?”
“It-it’s just. You don't look like the kind of person who gets their hands dirty like that, is all.” Gertrude grabbed one of her fists and squeezed, afraid she sounded too judgmental. Anneth giggled. Not what she’d expected.
“I see. So that is how you perceive me, hmmm?”
“Nevermind. I'm sorry,” she pleaded with guilt in her voice.
“You are not completely wrong. For instance, when Rosella and I take on a job, she is the one crossing swords while I keep my distance. My role is basically choosing which criminals we go after. But in this last hunt, she went behind my back and tackled a more... ambitious job, which lead us to you.”
That ambitious job was taking out Morvon.
Gertrude dropped the idea of asking again when nothing about skinning bitrabs was explained.
Scanning the campfire’s rim, Gertrude huddled ashes in small mounds with a leaf and scooped them into several glass tubes she took out from her utility belt. Each tube had horizontal markings across the middle and she made sure the amount of ashes met or surpassed the limit.
“May I ask what you’re doing collecting ashes?”
“In case I need to use magic.”
“Magic?” Anneth asked raising her pitch.
She nodded. “You weren’t there to see, but I used it on Rosella when we were fighting back in the forest. I can use ash teleportation as long as I carry a certain amount of ash in each tube. It’s really handy.”
“How fascinating!” Anneth clasped her hands together. “Why did you not say sooner? I guess that means you also have the mark of magic?”
“Yeah. Just like him.”
She filled the fifth and final tube she had, plugging and returning it back to her pouch.
Gertrude, Rosella, and Anneth were hot on another bitrab’s trail. The one from last night barely crossed the threshold of what could be considered a dinner for three. They'd skipped breakfast too.
The fluffy critter lead them into a small, dense grove where daylight struggled to reach the ground. Focused on the prey in front, Gertrude piloted the front, spear in hand while the other two followed suit. Whatever she did, Rosella and Anneth did as well. Whenever she stopped, they stopped. The lower she crouched, the lower they crouched. When she took cover behind a tree, they did the same.
So far the hunt had seen no progress. The only obstacle keeping Gertrude from sending her spear flying at it was it never kept its back unguarded, meaning the bitrab always put a tree between them, shielding its blind spot.
Waves of frustration crashed over Gertrude as she felt every opportunity slip from her fingertips. She could bet an arm it was aware of their presence and scheming to put their patience to the test, which further irated her. She would get sweet revenge once it roasted skinless over a scorching fire.
Tip-toeing to her, Anneth cupped her left hand to whisper at Gertrude. “I do not mean to interrupt, but what if we leave him be and instead look for another one in the valley? Thirty minutes have gone without a kill.”
Refusing, Gertrude shook her head, determined to finish the hunt. “I'm not gonna let an animal win over me that easy. Besides, the last time we ate anything was before midnight. It's already past noon, too. I'm starved.”
“She’s right, Anneth,” Rosella insisted. “There is no reason to turn around when our prey is so close. Forbid we leave to search elsewhere and find nothing. Then what?”
“I was offering a suggestion, princess.” Anneth turned, fixing her palms on her hips. “It is up to Gertrude to decide whether we stay or leave as she is not a scaredy cat when it comes to killing for survival. Unlike other people I am acquainted with.” Her snappiness butted thorns that prickled into Rosella's skin.
“H-how dare you aim so low when all I did was agree with Goddard! And have I not told you to end the princess thing countless times?,” she hissed back.
Anneth swiveled to give her an icy shoulder, crossing her arms. “Well, perhaps if you remembered people’s names correctly I could remember to stop calling you ‘princess’, princess.”
The argument in the background suddenly got to Gertrude as it became a nuisance to her focusing. She was biting her tongue to not get involved and risk losing sight of her prey until the volume reached its peak. Rotating on her heels, Gertrude was going to hush the two girls until the rustling of grass got their attention. The bitrab had noticed them, and it beelined toward a small cave only big enough for its kind.
Gasping, Gertrude straightened up and aimed her spear, quickly throwing it with all her might. A growl rumbled out of her throat when the bladed end landed in the dirt. And then, an arrow flew from the far left to plunge into the bitrab’s belly, stopping a hop short from safety. The creature cried its last shriek. Gertrude needed a break to digest what had happened, given that she-- a good marksman-- had missed an easy target. More importantly though, someone else had claimed the bitrab before their eyes, and with great expertise, leaving the girls scratching their heads.
A man stepped out of the bushes and into the clearing where the creature laid dead. He held a bow in one hand and an arrow pouch strapped to his back. A straw woven hat on his head, a brown vest over a white, long sleeved shirt and black leather boots that reached below the knees.
He stopped two steps short of the bitrab to find the trio hiding behind a tree. Awkward staring ensued and Gertrude’s face burned hot like yesterday’s campfire. The same could be said for Rosella and Anneth. Sinking skin dragged over the edges of his eyes. A thick, white mustache curled above the lips and a face carved old of wrinkles like eroded stone from many years of exposure to the elements. Height short and of a round build. His appearance reminded her of a stuffed animal, soft, cozy, and homey.
Pushing the non threatening vibes aside, Gertrude wouldn’t retire the option of fleeing if he suddenly steered arrows their way. For all she knew, this man had never seen an elf in his life, like Rosella.
Gertrude bended at the knees in case her fears were granted, hoping Rosella and Anneth wouldn’t fall behind.
Instead, the man picked up the bitrab by the ears and studied it briefly as blood dripped down its fur, then faced the girls. “Ya beautiful ladies were hunting this feller too?,” He asked. “Well gosh darn. Looks like we were after the same thing.”
The twang in his campestral accent buzzed like a novelty. Sounding almost like it followed sheet music plus a mellow instrument when it hit vowels.
“How ‘bout y’all say we skin this little rascal and have him for supper tonight? Got more of’em back home if you want seconds. Especially you, little miss redhead. I bet you’re starving to sink your teeth into this one.” Weirdly, he singled out Rosella, pointing at her and the bitrab.
Gertrude and Anneth turned to her, blushing redder than her hair as she also pointed at herself. The next thing they knew, they had followed him to the valley outskirts to a modest, wooden house surrounded by scattered trees. Patches of wild flowers here and there added a touch of brightness to the repetitive shades of greens, browns, greys, and whites dominating the scenery. There was a path of bare earth forcefully etched out of the ground leading to the shabby little house. A meager fence that seemed more suitable as a decoration than for privacy, enclosed the residence.
Now inside, the old man scurried to get dinner ready as he told the girls to sit still while he prepared everything. There was another awkward situation between them as they tried convincing him to let them help out with cooking the bitrab.The back and forth was a hard fought battle but somehow the girls hooked him to the idea.
Much like the old man, a very homey air occupied the house’s interior. It wasn't the best kept in terms of cleanliness, though. Weeds poked out from cracks in the floor. The stonewall above the cooking area had darkened to look like a giant, black bird ready to soar. Various yard work tools and objects lined the wall behind the dinner table to the left.
Still, it held a very lived in feel with various little gizmos on shelves, wine colored curtains with golden trims, a rocking chair, and a flowery tablecloth.
“Young ladies, I haven’t introduced myself yet, have I? Dear me, my apologies,” he said with a shaky voice while reaching for a pot in a cabinet, “the name’s Felker Buntze.”
Cutting vegetables, Anneth replied without taking her eyes off the knife. “No need to hold it against yourself, Mr. Buntze. Like you said earlier, it is uncommon to find people wandering through this side of the valley anymore.” The girls went ahead and introduced themselves, too.
“Like I was saying. The fault lines’ve been getting shakier here in the valley for the past twenty years or so. Unbelievable if ya ask me. As time goes on the quakes get roudier and roudier. So much so, the next town over has seen a drop in population cause of it, believe it or not.”
“Pardon. A town, you say?,” Rosella asked, bewildered to think a settlement could be near despite of no signs.
Felker nodded, carrying the large pot over to the stove and immediately going to Rosella’s side to help pick out ingredients. “Ya heard right, little miss redhead,” he winked. She blushed and chuckled awkwardly.
“Hodenitz ain’t the same as it used to though. Prosperous town of what used to be ten thousand people reduced to nearly half the size. Ya should’a seen it too: the Girl's Festival, that is. Was a festival to celebrate every girl in town by hand making a replica of your daughter at home, beautiful as could be, and taking it to town at night to burn alongside with everyone else's in big piles.”
The burning of a replica of your own daughter seemed almost a superstitious practice to Gertrude. No matter how she looked at it, to her it nearly paralleled a certain prohibited form of magic Morvon had told her never to study. But the enthusiasm this man talked about it raised her curiosity.
As if thinking the same, Anneth questioned the implications, to which he answered, “Burning the doll means purifying your daughter's soul of bad auras she's accumulated over the year. It gives her the chance to be newly reborn with blessings. After that the adults drink a ceremonial beverage and everyone dances to music.” Felker started his spiel about the festival as if he'd gone back in time and were experiencing it in the moment, but when he neared the end, the passion cheering his voice had dwindled considerably.
“The town’s nothing but a stop for adventurers and bounty hunters looking for a place to unwind which is also driving people away. What's left of the festival is the ceremonial beverage they serve at the tavern. ‘S nothing but a bottle o’ cheap booze now.” He spat the words out, disgusted and upset.
When Gertrude set the table, a unique looking chair caught her eye. Its legs were taller, but height-wise was equal to the rest. The sitting part elevated near the table’s rim and was smaller in size too. What was most bizarre was a wooden slab that bridged across it, like a miniature table. She'd never seen a chair like it. Anyone who sat in it wouldn't fit, so why the impractical design? The wooden slab and chair arms had been scratched up and edges rounded. Someone had clearly used it for a while, but who?
Fifty minutes stood and the bitrab simmered for thirty, while the trio and Felker talked to pass time.
“Incredible to hear about ya, Gertrude. The good thing is that elve’s ain’t got a bad rep in Ponderossa these days, unlike other groups the Kingdom’s tried wiping out. Don’t be scared to show’em elf ears around when you get the chance. You might be treated as a local celebrity or something, he-he-he.” Felker took a sip from the wine glass he’d poured himself, releasing a stenchy heave that reached the girls’ noses as he wiped his mouth on his hand.
They hid their distaste under polite smiling.
With all respect, Gertrude chuckled along even though she found his last statement to be demeaning her to an object of amusement. Felker was an old man but unlike Morvon he came across as too honest when choosing his words. It wasn’t the alcohol that made him that way either, she noticed him being a little overly friendly with Rosella from the start.
“So tell me about ya, little miss redhead.” Felker motioned at Rosella with his blimpy chin. “I reckon there's a story under that pretty face you're dying to tell. Ya look like ya belong in a big castle surrounded by servants instead of out hunting bitrabs, eh? Go on and tell me what that’s all about.”
His teasing had Rosella blushing uncomfortably again which drove her gaze to her lap. Anneth pulled on her cloak, her lips flat.
“Uh, ummm. Well, Anneth and I have known each other since childhood. W left our hometown for--”
“What's the name of your hometown?,” he asked suddenly, catching her off guard.
“M-my... hometown?” His nostrils flared. Felker drew his upper body closer to Rosella as a frisky brow bounced over his left eye. “My hometown. That is…” When Gertrude turned to Rosella her fingernails were digging into her lap. Had it not been for the breeches she wore it would've left a deep mark on her clear skin. Further right, Anneth’s hands were busy as well, scrunching up the cloak’s fabric into her fists.
“We're both from Lessena, to the east,” Anneth interjected after several seconds of Rosella stumbling. “Since our town is so small, there was no way we could find suitable husbands anymore given that all the males our age had gone to cities looking for work. Our families thought it best if we did the same, or we might stay single into our later years until the younger generation were of marriageable age.”
Hearing this, Felker crossed his arms and leaned back on the chair, squeaking from the shifting weight.
“Lessena, huh? Lessenans are pretty conservative people. Hmmm, yes. I guess it be natural they let ya girls travel to find a husband if it’s for that.” He sipped on his wine glass again and licked his lips when done. Anneth’s face lightened with a smile. Rosella copied the gesture, her fingers a bundle of nerves.
“So where do ya three ladies plan on going from here?”
“We have heard on our travels that a promising town exists at the foot of the Roheisia Mountains. That is where we intend to go.”
Something about the explanation didn’t sit well with Gertrude, provided there was no mention of finding a spouse since the first day she joined them. Their conversation back in the forest left the specifics out for the most part. Furthermore, from the start it seemed Rosella and Anneth were centered on catching thugs and troublemakers for a living as they explored the country.
Her companions were lying for no good reason. Did that mean they also lied to her and Morvon? The more they spoke the more the seed of doubt broke through the surface of Gertrude’s conscience.
Gertrude contorted her face somewhere between a scowl and a grimace.
“The Rohesia Mountains, ya say?” Felker’s pudgy face brightened at the sound of that name. “Hmmm…”
“Is there something wrong, Mr. Buntze?,” Anneth asked, concerned if she had said something out of place.
“If my memory serves me right, rumors of a star falling somewhere in the Roheisia Mountains surfaced six months ago. People were going crazy, thinking it be a bad omen o’ sorts…” He curled up, crossing his arms again and grunting as he tapped impatiently on the wooden floor. “Nah! Couldn’t be. Forget I brought up the darn topic.”
Rosella and Anneth shared a secretive look.
Excusing himself, Felker pushed off his knees and ambled to the pot where the bitrab soup was cooking. He took a spoon to sample the hearty broth and let out a delighted pitch as it soaked his taste buds. With spoon still in hand, he walked over to Rosella and had her taste from the same spoon. Anneth was inches from stepping in her place but Felker insisted as if it were customary to eat from the same spoon with guests in this side of the country. She submitted in the end and disgusted, but put her best efforts into masking that expression with delight.
“What I tell ya? Delicious, ain’t it, little miss red head?”
Rosella nodded favorably so he wouldn’t persist, putting her hand over her lips and swallowing.
“Just needs a little more spice. Whaddya think?” He lamped at Gertrude now and she froze like an icicle in subzero temperatures, scared he’d have the audacity to pull the same stunt on her. If it came to that, she wouldn’t be so easy. “There's an unlabeled, glassy bottle o’ spice over in that display cabinet over there. Can ya fetch it for me while I get one on this side?,” He asked directing behind him.
“S-sure. No problem.” Gertrude left her seat and walked to the display cabinet to look for the unlabeled spice. She peered over her shoulder halfway there to see what the other girls would do in her brief absence. Anneth was whispering in Rosella’s ear and she nodded at whatever it was. Probably something to do with the spoon feeding.
Gertrude lived much of her life in isolation beside someone of a different species who bypassed many human customs and practices out of her education. He taught her magic, self defense combat, and potion making with little to nothing about human sociology. If asked what one aspect Morvon had done wrong about her upbringing, she'd probably say it was not teaching her more about his culture. Felker’s behaviors, and Anneth’s irresolute objectives could be a facet of said culture never taught to her.
But still, it didn’t click to have such abnormalities as part of a culture. Who could live in a society like that?
Opening the cabinet, on the third shelf was the unlabeled, glass bottle standing next to a bag of salt. Gertrude took it, but she had to do a double take. The contents were tiny green spices that mimicked the shape of grass blades mixed with beady grains resembling pearls. Gertrude squinted hard at the grains trying to figure out what it could be. She mentally flipped through the pages of an herbal medicine book Morvon had back in the forest house. She knew she had seen it before, but the name only appeared as a blur in her memory.
Felker called out, asking if she'd found the bottle to which she confirmed and took it to him. Once there, he thanked her and sprinkled the spice in circles over the soup.
An extra fifteen minutes needed to pass for the bitrab soup to absorb the new flavor. They chatted about miscellaneous subjects in the meantime until Felker deemed it ready for serving. No further troublesome moments were dealt. The girls were awarded a much needed breather from the man’s shenanigans.
“Soup’s still pretty hot,” Felker said. “I’ll wait a bit until it cools down.”
On the contrary, Gertrude, Rosella, and Anneth scarfed down the meat chunks and soup like it were a last meal request. The meat’s texture was fluffy like the fur it was once coated in. It had sponged up plenty of the broth to glaze it in a fine layer of rich juice that exploded when chewed, stimulating every corner of their mouths.
“I guess I don’t need to ask whether you ladies fancied my recipe, he-he-he. Sure makes me proud to know.”
“It is exceptional cooking, Mr. Buntze,” Anneth replied in between spoonfuls. “Might you have been involved professionally at one time?”
“He-he-he-he. That’s a secret.” He winked.
The same thought ran through Gertrude’s head. Comparing the bitrab she cooked last night to this one was equal to comparing rations to lavish cuisine for the elite. A sense of guilt punched her for feeding Rosella and Anneth a mediocre dish.
“As I was saying earlier.” Felker cast a complacent look on Rosella, tapping the wooden floor rhythmically. “Supposedly the second princess of Ponderossa-- Scarlet Vermillion-- is on her way to the Roheisia mountains in search of the fallen star. I think you might be able to tell me more about that, little miss red head.”
What they heard sounded like someone else. Intrusive and pestering.
In an instant, everyone except Felker ceased all movement. Spoons fell on the table, spilling broth and food bits. An explosion of heat grilled Gertrude’s skin. Her eyes drowned in water and everything moved slower as if leaving a hazy after image. A cruel pulse pounded at her nerves, and her mind broke into a blind frenzy. Gertrude reflexively put a hand to her chest, tilting over as the world went vertical. She hit the floor, motionless, numbness devouring her alive.
Seconds later and a loud thud sounded just feet away. Anneth had dropped as well, her green cloak descending with a ghostly flap. She was near motionless but her jerking chest signaled breathing.
“Princess Scarlet doesn't show herself much to the public. Guess it comes with being a princess after all since it be the king's duty to address the people in person.” As if oblivious to Gertrude and Anneth’s suffering, Felker carried forward with talking unaffected, twirling the wine glass in his hand. “From the couple o’ times she’s been seen, people’ve mentioned her long hair and how it holds the soul of the fire spirit’s untamed fire. They say she has sapphire gems in place o’ human eyes that any bandit would risk their lives to loot. Can ya believe such poetry? Not saying it’s a bad thing. Just that people tend t’ exaggerate.” He dunked what remained of the drink down his trap and returned the empty glass sharply on the table.
Rosella sat inert with a spoonful halfway to her mouth. Yet the silverware clutched between her fingers quivered.
“Ya know... I was alive when news spread that the royal family had given birth to a second daughter, little miss red head. That shoulda’ been twenty years ago. Time sure does fly. But I remember like it was just yesterday when all people lipped about was the king’s new baby girl. And since I ain’t ever been to the capital, I haven’t been fortunate to lay eyes on Princess Scarlet Vermillion. But I tell you what. If she ever did ran away from the capital, she’d’ve cut that fire hair short for sure, I reckon.” He stuck out a thick finger at Rosella, voice low and raspy. “And you’d be the spitting image of her.”
Rosella perked her head up. No such thing as conviction or strength pulled her to do so, and saying she “faced” him did not hint at defending herself. Felker’s kind expressions were gone and veiled with a villainous grin tugging both ends of his lips. He seemed bigger, stretched out to fill Rosella’s entire field of view.
In that moment, Anneth called out in a dusty tone muffled with coughing. “Rosel-la… ge-get out… run…” But she didn't. Rosella was immobilized, unsure of what would happen if she did.
On the other side, Gertrude fought against whatever subdued her body even though it felt like her muscles were shriveling. She reached for a pouch on her utility belt next to the ash tubes. The button wouldn't unclip no matter how hard she tried. Her breathing quickened, shorter as time passed by.
Felker moaned in frustration, massaging his temples in circles. “I gotta hand it to ya, princess. I feared this might happen but went ahead with it anyhow... dammit. Ya ain't on the floor yet because you’ve acquired immunity to poison, am I right? And this particular one, no less. Damn. Damn those royal nutcases and their paranoid practices.”
A tipsy cackle erupted from the man’s bulging gut. He then reached under the table, pulling out a nasty curved sickle that might as well have been a poached beast’s claw.
“I keep this bad boy under here just in case any unwelcomed guest barges in while I eat. But today is an exception. Today’s the day I claim that reward money to myself!”
He threw himself at Rosella, sickle first, in a swinging rage. She finally reacted and ducked underneath the swing to leap away. He tripped over Anneth’s legs and lost balance to nearly fall, but he stuck the sickle on the wall to stop it from happening. Scared to death, Rosella knew she couldn’t abandon her friends to elevate her chances of survival. Something had to be done.
“Well, whaddya know? Judging by everything so far I’d say my failed attempt to poison ya actually helped to prove me right.” Rosella took a step back, fingertipping the dagger’s pummel. “You’d be on the floor right now if ya hadn’t been exposed to Backstabber’s Grain before. Why would common folk take it for immunity when there’s no one looking to replace their ranks? Not only that but your age, hair color, and eyes point me to one conclusion.”
Even though Rosella hadn’t said anything concerning her age, she was old enough to fit the bill if anyone gave a blind estimate. She couldn’t belie her hair and eye color either.
Anneth-- still on the floor-- writhed in short intervals like an unearthed worm but wouldn’t let her sights deviate from Rosella.
“P-poison… Run… please… run.” Anneth couldn't speak any louder. Her body was folding and her voice ebbing.
Rosella skimmed her dagger’s handle, withdrew hesitantly, then clenched it and hauled the blade out with a slick note that split the air. She assumed a defensive stance. Felker grinned at her bravery.
He stepped over Anneth, readying the sickle for another attack. “You ain't taking that prize money from me, Princess Scarlet.” Again, he dashed, putting his entire body into the attack. Rosella dodged out of the way in time but failed to measure the distance between her and the front door and clumsily crashed into it.
Felker saw it as a chance and slashed at her. Their weapons collided with force, a metalic din vibrated the room. For an old man of shorter stature he had overpowered her with sheer force. Rosella had her back to the wall and felt it bending from how hard Felker was pressing. To make matters worse, her dagger was losing space. She could end things here fast if only Felker’s groin wasn't shielded by his right leg.
To her surprise, he laid off the pressure momentarily only to rocket his leg at the door. It swung open with a boom, making Rosella fly out and roll as soon as she hit the ground. Nearby birds took flight, terror-stricken from the sound.
“Dear heavens, I smell rainfall a’coming.” He whooped and peered at Rosella as she lifted herself.
Back in the house, Gertrude flashbacked at the unlabeled bottle Felker had her fetch. The green spice was a legitimate flavor enhancer but the pearly grains were another story. They came in tiny sizes-- about the width of a fingernail-- and were easy to confuse with its nonpoisonous counterpart. The differences were in their chemistry where the poisonous would dissolve in hot water after a short period, making it perfect for sabotaging soup.
She remembered reading about how not to mistake the two together in the herbal medicine book that Morvon made her study from. Only in their case, the reminder had come too little too late. The simple act of moving a body part was a brutal undertaking under the poison’s influence. Her muscles were slowly contracting. Still, giving in wasn’t an option she sought. Gertrude would rather engage the odds than die a pathetic death. She wedged a finger as furious as possible until the space between the snap button popped open. The white of her nail had torn down the middle to the sensitive areas and a blood path flowed across her palm. She could care less right now.
Bottles rolled out over the floor and Gertrude jerked out of panic thinking the contents would spill. Luckily, that didn't happen. The only problem now was opening them, and Gertrude was drained of stamina, bathed in sweat. The clashing of blades could be heard from outside and time was scarce. She pinched her eyes tight, praying for a miracle.
From the blackness of her eyelids, a scraping sound brushed against the wooden floor closer and closer. Gertrude lifted an eyelid, vision barely catching light as if she were descending down a sinkhole. Anneth was inches away from her face. The usual orderly hair style she toted was chaotic like threads of cobweb. The upper buttons of her tunic had been unfastened too. Gertrude sucked in a lung full of air, overjoyed, her elf ears flickered.
“Blink your right eye... for ‘yes’. Blink left... for ‘no’.” Anneth’s throat wheezed with every breath. “One of these… is an antidote, correct?” she asked.
Gertrude blinked her right eye.
“How come I’m the only one attacking and ya ain’t, Princess? ‘s your plan to tire out this old man? Your friends won’t make it if that be.”
Just as Felker had said, the fight was currently one sided with only him looking to draw blood. Rosella already had cuts from several close calls to the arms, shoulders, legs, and cheek. Luckily, her breeches and padded tunic did their job in providing some protection. She had the lives of three people balancing on her shoulders, including hers. One wrong move could bring an end to them.
She straightened up, aiming to look imposing. “Why was there poison in the soup? Was that your goal from the beginning?” But her frail tone only served to cripple her guise as if she were on the brink of tears. Rosella grew inpatient when no answer came. “My friends are dying because we trusted you with the food you provided. Does there not exist a drop of empathy inside your heart?”
Felker heaved out a patronizing sigh. “Princess. What I said about the falling star and reward money earlier musta gone unnoticed over your head like the clouds. I'm genuinely surprised you've survived this long outside the Vermillion domain. Ya can't expect others to do the thinking for ya. These ain't the pampered castle walls you've been perched in anymore,” he said, rubbing his scruff.
“What do you mean?,” she insisted.
“Don't take it personally. I have my reasons for getting into this game of cat and mouse.”
“For the money? You want riches, is that it?”
He clicked his tongue. “Nothing someone of your status would understand about the working class. The day to day struggles ya had to cope are beans in the sack compared to my nightmares. And when I’m through with ya, all my problems’ll be gone for good. That much I can say.”
Rosella groaned out of frustration. “Staining your hands in blood is fair to you just to make your life a little easier? Reward or not, what you are doing is unacceptable!”
“Ooh, really? Then answer me this. What’re ya doing with that there dagger in your hand? Don’t tell me ya plan to bring people back from the dead with it.” Rosella’s pupils veered over. She clenched a double edged weapon used for combat, killing even. “You’re a hypocrite if ya say you’d never kill anyone if ya had to. Only people who should be carrying those things are people who walk the line between life and death. Warriors, knights, assassins, pirates, bounty hunters. People who’ve dedicated their lives to slaying others learn this creed from day one and abide by it to the bitter end. Ya live by the sword and die by the sword, Princess. If ya hold that dagger then ya oughta be prepared to kill. Otherwise ya don’t know what you’re doing.”
“No… I am not a killer!,” she bellowed, legs trembling. “My dagger is... merely a means to intimidate criminals.”
“Hah! Nonsense. I’m too old to believe a spoiled brat’s lies.”
“No, Mr. Buntze. Please tell us what we young and foolish let pass over our heads.” Anneth suddenly cut in yakking sarcasm. Her return had Rosella and Felker snapping their necks at the doorway where they saw her helping Gertrude stay on her feet.
Felker’s jaw dropped, stunned to see them alive.
“How… how did you two get--” He pointed the sickle at Anneth, raged.
“Fortunately, we were prepared for such a disastrous event. But please tell us about the falling star and prize money you claim to have heard.”
Though Gertrude and Anneth were on the path to recovery, they couldn’t muster the energy to backup their friend. Gertrude’s legs were caving in, just barely enough to stand languidly with help from Anneth who also looked spent. Their heavy breaths were testament to the poison’s deadly capabilities. Felker clicked his tongue again, seeing his scheme shatter to pieces.
“I dunno how ya brats are still kicking. But fine, you’ll all die either way once I’m done with the princess here. Take it as your last wishes.” He turned over to Rosella again; she jerked at his foul expression. “Four months ago I went into town for a drink at the local tavern after my first good day of fur trading in years. There, I overheard a group o’ adventurers on the next table over blabbing ‘bout how Princess Scarlet had run away, and how the king had privately offered select guild houses a reward.” Felker pushed up his glasses as they were sliding off.
“I couldn't believe what I was hearing at first, thinking I was going senile. But they kept at it. Spitting out reward numbers in the millions. That's when I had to find out for myself what all the fuss was about. That gave me an idea. With my wallet full, I got chummy with them by treating’em fellers drinks. And I gotta say, it worked like a charm. They got drunker than a gambling addict after a losing streak. That’s where the falling star comes in. Supposedly Princess Scarlet said she’d seen a sign in the sky the night she fled the castle, and that star fell northwest o’ here in the mountains where ya ladies are going.”
Felker rode a high horse of arrogance as if he’d single handedly solved a cryptic code. The grandfatherly nature he displayed hours ago seemed to have been a dream.
“And to top it off, the king arranged a body double for ya, princess. Sounds to me like your own family doesn’t care whether you’re brought back alive… or dead.”
She couldn’t think straight. Her family. Her own flesh and blood had placed a price on her. A bounty no less. The kind imposed on criminals: people who’d gone rouge, abandoned their morals, and betrayed the law, none of which she’d ever done in her lifetime. That’s what she’d been doing these past six months to earn a living: catching criminals for money. And what was that about being replaced by a body double? She felt her blade slipping out of her hand, questioning her existence.
Leftover patches of evening sky had darkened and distant thunder boomed in every direction, emitting explosive light shows within the clouds. Droplets of water bombed the earth beneath in small numbers until it slowly grew into a noisy shower.
Felker sprinted toward Rosella and snapped her out of her daze. She was quick to block the incoming attack. She pushed him off and leaped feet away. But he rushed after, swinging down with intent to harm.
“If only I wasn't such a useless maid.”
Gertrude glanced up at Anneth who was whispering those words. She couldn't tell if she intended for her to hear either.
“If only… if only I knew how to fight… I could help her...”
It seemed rare for Anneth to exhibit these levels of emotion. From what Gertrude had seen of her so far, she was always gentle and easy, even when killing animals to survive arose as a topic. Now that it’d come to this, a beast had woken. Witnessing this new side gave Gertrude goosebumps.
“So it all made sense to me the second I laid eyes on ya!” Felker said as his attack was repelled. “I couldn’t believe I’d just hit the bullseye. To find the Princess Scarlet come to me that easily after four months of wishing my brains out for those millions. You’d be a fool thinking I’ll let this opportunity slip away.” Rosella lost her footing on a muddy strip and instinctively jolted forward. Her guard waned due to the loss of rhythm and Felker hacked her left shoulder.
Agony. Spurts of blood erupted when he pulled out the sickle’s point.
“Princess!!” Anneth wailed, voice in shreds.
“That's what I wanna see!” Felker drove a booted foot straight onto Rosella’s belly, sending her tumbling to the ground. Saliva spewed out of her on impact.
Weakened, Rosella could do nothing but cough and turn in pain. “Look at ya, princess. On the ground covered in mud like swine. Too bad ya can't use your fire in this rain, eh?” His boots dug into the sloshy ground as he approached. “Before I end this, lemme just say it won’t matter if you go back now. The king arranged a body double for ya already. You ain’t needed, so the bounty still stands.” Rosella peeled her eyes wide. She pushed with her feet to pivot and see if he had said it as a joke. To her dismay, he showed no signs of banter.
“Sounds to me like your own family don’t care whether you’re brought back alive… or dead.”
Rosella went pale. Her soul crumbled beneath a hail of denial.
“Just goes to show you how far a dynasty’ll go t’ not defile their name.”
The sickle in his hand climbed over his head and caught Rosella’s attention with it. He hinged slightly at the hips to close in. She sucked in a sharp gasp, bracing for it to dive again into her body.
Not a second too late and Anneth latched onto Felker’s waist, swaying with all her might. His girthiness didn’t allow for her hands to interlock but she clung to his vest like her life depended on it. “I will not allow you!” she howled in the midst of a heavy downpour. “Rosella’s my best friend! The only best friend I have ever made in my life! Allowing you to hurt her any more than you have done would make me out to be the biggest hypocrite in history!”
“Anneth!” shouted Rosella.
“Kn-knock it off or you’ll make me fall!” Unable to reach with the sickle, Felker resorted to elbowing her repeatedly in the head. Anneth resisted the blows regardless.
“Anneth… What are you… doing here?”
“What does it look like!? I’m trying to save y--!”
Felker growled savagely and swung his large body in the opposite direction, they slipped on the muddy earth and fell into a puddle. Felker took to his feet first but complained about his back hurting. Anneth struggled to rise as the poisonous residue had still to be quelched entirely.
“Ya musta tried getting immune to poison, too. That’s why you’re recovering faster than that there elf. You’re the maid the princess ran of with, eh? Runty, big-chested foureyes.”
Felker stomped down on her shoulder with his heel. Anneth yelped painfully.
“Ya can rest in peace for all I care.” Felker readied his weapon to deliver the final blow. Meanwhile, Rosella had gotten on her feet, soaked and filthy, dagger in hand when the attention had switched over to Anneth. The dagger’s once ornate frame was just as grimy-- if not-- grimier than Rosella’s outfit; wet, full of mud and grass. With every bit of energy remaining in her, she lunged at Felker in a single, long stride to plunge the dagger deep into his exposed back.
The blade’s menacing point dug into him easily like it were freshly baked bread out of the oven. But a split second existed where the clothes and skin seemed to endure the puncture like rubber. Then, it penetrated.
Rosella was in control of the situation, having saved Anneth in the nick of time before she could get hurt. Felker cried out like the bitrab he arrowed, huffing long breaths in response to the deep stab.
Rosella peered down at the handle portion of the dagger. She wanted to pull it out, expecting what she had done was sufficient to halt his rampage. Yet she stayed put. The link between brain and nerves was cut off for some reason. An earthquake suddenly hit the land. Or she thought so. That shaking originated in her legs and crawled up her hips, torso, shoulders, arms, and finally hands. It became so bad it helped her pull out the dagger from Felker. Blood gushed out suddenly in a stream the same way water from a bucket did when watering garden plants. It stained the ground around them crimson red that exuded an unbearable stench of iron powerful enough to make anyone sick. And sick it was. Her stomach twisted.
Felker tipped over to plop on his back. His belly expanded and compressed on each slow breath.
Everyone remained static for who knows how long. It could have been hours, minutes, or two heart beats. The world seemed to stop.
“My daughter…” Felker spoke in a throaty voice, exhausted down to the bone. “She’s the… only family I have left. She no longer wished to stay here. Saying, it’s impossible… to make a living in such a small town. The earthquakes are... getting worse everyday. Which is why she married that man from the city. He took her… my daughter.”
Tears or rain drops? That was the question Rosella wanted answering when they both shared a look. She settled for rain drops.
“If I had that much money, imagine… my daughter’d be back here living with me. Dont’cha think? I may not’ve been the most supportive father when it came to her dreams. She wanted to join a painting guild to be commissioned by nobles. But I wanted her to stay with me... so I could teach her ‘bout fur trade and keep my father’s... and his father’s father’s occupation alive. Seara rejected my ways. Saying I smelled like a wet bitrab. Tell me… Am I asking too much?”
Felker’s skin started blanching and before Rosella or Anneth knew it, a dark tint blackened the skin below his eyes. It was as though he was fading away and leaving fragments of himself. Every time he conveyed his reasons, they’d exit with the weight of an iron smith's anvil.
Intense thunder shook the heavens. The smell of wet vegetation thickened the air.
“You know something… Princess Scarlet Vermillion?” Rosella was all ears. “When I was your age, I did everything in my power to… earn everything you see around here. The house. The land. My clothes. You’d laugh if I told you all the dreams I had… when my wife gave birth to Seara. As I grew older, I realized some of’em would never see the light of day. With every dream gone unfulfilled... I got scared and gave up. Except for one... dream I couldn’t let go of. I didn’t want to die alone.”
He didn’t want to die alone. Rosella never even gave that thought a chance in the first place. It seemed so simple and not worth consideration because more important things occupied her young mind, like traveling and indulging in life’s pleasures. That all changed as she witnessed someone’s final moments. Instead of Felker, that could be her in his place right now. She had just gotten lucky is all. Death wasn’t a concept anymore, rather, it had joined her from now on on her adventures as a companion.
Blinking ever so slowly, Felker opened his mouth again to talk. “By chance, if you… cross paths with a… blonde haired, brown eyed girl… mole under her left eye.” He stretched out a shaky hand. Without thinking, Rosella grasped it in her’s. “Please tell her I said… be happy.”
The strength in his hand departed, so did the livelihood in his eyes that had clung to the bitter end.
Rosella found herself motionless as a statue throughout the happening and it was only until Anneth had shuffled over to her side to embrace her did she move an inch. Anneth spouted things like “It’s not your fault”, and “You did it in self-defense.”
Did any of that hold up at this point?
Gertrude limped over with help from her spear. She was made a mess just like them.
Going by the messy bed, the girls took Felker’s body inside in what they thought was his bedroom and covered him up in blankets. The girl’s slept together in the room next door, most likely Seara’s. It was a long night to say the least.
The house had lost that homey aspect. It was lived in, yes, but now all it was was a mere pile of neatly stacked wooden boards. An empty shell of walls and a roof. The morning after, Anneth and Gertrude took out the body to bury it in the backyard as Rosella stayed cooped up in bed. They used an old shovel Gertrude found by chance in Felker’s bedroom to dig the grave with.
“Thank you so much for helping out, Gertrude. I will go get Rosella so we can prepare to leave.”
“Mhmm.” Gertrude nodded, unclasping her hands from prayer. “I’ll be right there.”
Anneth smiled and bowed to her before withdrawing from the burial site.
Gertrude watched as she left, then returned to prayer once she had turned the corner. The space dedicated to Felker overlooked swaths of unpopulated countryside, resting under the safeguard of trees.
Gertrude basked in the peppy chirping of songbirds, rustling leaves, and warm sunlight as she prayed again. Adventuring was going to be a little different than what she had initially thought. But that was fine with her.