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Fire Princess and the Outcasts chapter 7

      The tarp was probably the best buy Anneth had made since they fled the capital. Their first few nights out were spent under trees and shrubs that gave some sort of protection against the elements, but still had dreadful experiences they'd rather forget. Anneth nauseated at the idea of waking up to bird droppings on her hair again. On the other end was Rosella helping her spread the square fabric while she anchored stakes on each corner.

      “Princess,” Anneth called as she rammed the heel of her boot down on the last stake. Rosella raised both brows. “Ready the rope so we can get the tarp going, please.”

      “Yes,” she replied, digging into her utility belt pockets. Any objection to calling her “princess” had ceased. She couldn't remember the last time they argued about it either.

      Anneth gestured at the tree behind. “That one will do just fine.” Careful to avoid the flourishing fungus on the trunk, Rosella tip-toed the highest she could to tie the rope at a decent height. She chose a branch dyed in the orange sunset glow as it dipped beyond the horizon. It was strange how much their roles had changed. Anneth had basically taken command, almost like a parental figure. She pursed her lips. Was this alright? Before they became runaways, Anneth worked at the Royal Family's service as a maid taking on a variety of duties. She cooked, cleaned, prepared, tidied everything for the nobility. The only time she ever found herself giving orders to a member of the family was when Rosella griped about the monotony of banquets, and how she'd rather lie in bed all day until it was over.

      Given their repetitive nature, she understood they became stale after a while, but they were mandatory events and sometimes she'd have to drag Rosella by force.

      Even though they were good friends, and even though Rosella wanted to sever ties with that closed off world in favor of adventure, she felt Rosella was still above her. It might be more accurate to say she didn’t want to overstep her boundaries.

      Speaking of the House of Vermillion…

      “Anneth!”

      She straightened at the sound of her name. “Uh, yes?,” she asked coming out of a daze. “What is it?”

      Rosella blew air from her nose. “Is this good enough? The rope, I mean.”

      “Oh, right! Yes, that will do.” Anneth barely assessed the job before she tied the rope and tarp together in a hurry. When she finished, the princess looked in her direction and their gazes interlocked for longer than normal. The sun finally disappeared, leaving streaks of light in its wake that spanned across the evening sky. “W-what is it?,” she stammered, immediately regretting the question. Rosella’s darkened silhouette stood inert.

      “Are you not scared?” Rosella’s tone hit a gloomy pitch that had Anneth wishing she were deaf for the next few minutes. This is what she wanted to avoid.

      “Scared… of what?”

      Rosella kept her focus, then lowered it to the forest floor. “I know I'm the one who wanted out of the castle.” She hugged her arms as if the temperature had dropped. “Father and mother --father especially, wanted me to marry the duke’s son so I could bear a male heir. And instead, I took matters into my own hands.”

      “Princess--” Anneth said, afraid Rosella was on the brink of a mental breakdown.

      “I'm fine,” she managed, chest throbbing from heavy breaths. “I just… I do not regret the decision of leaving the castle. Imagine… I would have given my soul to a man I know nothing of, someone I bear no meaningful connection with so I can probably do what my sister could not. And knowing that I would be missing out on everything life has to offer by staying cooped up in a room until the day I die was… eating at my sanity. That is why--”

      “That is why you took the chance, right?,” Anneth said confidently. She hoped her fixed body language would get across as supportive, reliable to confide in these complicated times. “On that night when you saw the falling star, what did you wish for?”

      “What did I…? I do not remember it word for word, but I wished for a sign of hope. Anything that could drive me forward in the right direction, and that is when I saw it fall to the mountains in the northwest.” Rosella placed a hand on her chest, eyelids shut. “My heart stopped as I could not make sense of reality, and so did everything. I must have thought it a dream, an illusion. How could my prayer have been answered so swiftly? Miracles are a thing of fables. Yet the long white tail flickering behind the star convinced me this was no such fable. It spoke to me, to my wishes of a more exciting way to exist.”

      “Long white tail…,” Anneth repeated. She remembered it like it had happened yesterday. The night of the banquet where Rosella was to be vowed to the duke’s eldest son, Anneth was doing rounds evaluating between the junior maids on laundry duty and the kitchen staff. She was patrolling the halls of the royal chambers when a door swung open and the princess scampered out like she’d been possessed, spouting the words “fate”, “destiny”, and “adventure”. At first she thought someone had broken into the room via the window until Rosella explained the erratic behavior. The next thing Anneth knew she was struggling to fit extra pairs of underwear in her backpack as she fled with Rosella to the stables.

      Thinking back on it, she couldn’t believe how easy she had been persuaded. She blamed the decision on the spur of the moment, swayed by Rosella’s puppy dog eyes.

      Anneth giggled and the dire mood lightened. “Who knew that miracle was actually a man? Are you sure you did not wish for a different husband, princess?”

      Rosella fluttered her lashes as she turned red, lips twitching. “Wh-wh-what?”

      “To be frank, I would have wished for someone much better looking than Hudson. He is indecisive, pessimistic, thinks he knows what is happening when in reality the opposite is true, stubborn, quick to give up, lacks confidence, and gravely immature for an adult. Furthermore, he is too uncultured for you, in my opinion, princess.” Anneth counted each of his bad qualities on her hands. This kind of joking around was the furthest she'd go in terms of teasing. For the record, it was acceptable since it served a good purpose.

      “Please stop!,” Rosella pleaded and stomped the ground with a boot. “I do not regard him that way! He might be the sign I asked for, but, but…” The princess struggled to articulate her words and it brought Anneth a smile she wished could last for eternity.

      “Forgive my rudeness, princess,” she said walking towards her. “I merely jest.” And wrapped her in her arms snuggly tight. “Match your breaths with mine. In… and out. Appreciate the smell of the trees. Let the clean air dwell in your lungs for a while.” Anneth filled her chest with one big inhale, as did Rosella. When she released, the princess released. “Any better?”

      Rosella nodded, still recovering.

      “To answer your question, princess, I am scared. Scared I’ll lose you or Gertrude down the path of our journey.”

      “What about Hudson?”

      Anneth squinted and groaned simultaneously as if forced to smell a sweaty sock. "He might be irresponsible, but he is a grown man after all. Let him fend for himself.”

      Rosella burst into ecstatic laughter, catching Anneth by surprise. “How cruel of you!,” she cried. “Your opinions are contradicting.” Anneth couldn't deny it, not the least bit bothered as she shrugged, and issued a laugh of her own.

      Once the fun passed she sought to continue. "My point being, what we have gone through in the last month is no walk in the park. Our lives are at stake now that we know for sure people are looking for us. And you know what? Crying, worrying, and being afraid is okay. There is not a soul on this earth who will fault us for that, and those who do are not worthy of our attention. We must focus on our task, and our task alone. Do not forget this.” Freeing Rosella from her embrace, Anneth walked to her backpack by the tarp to retrieve the fire starter kit. “I think that is enough reason to keep fighting. We cannot afford to lose footing and trip on these obstacles each time we encounter them. What am I saying? Pretending like I know what it is to have blood on my hands. We made a decision to live our lives in a different fashion than what the royal family dictates. Risks were meant to be taken, princess.” Anneth drew out the flint and steel clump after combing through the backpack. “Let’s start a fire before those two come back from hunting.”

 

      Darkness coated the field of tall grass where she hunted for bitrabs, but Gertrude was more than confident in her skills where light was scarce. Her keen hearing was another lethal weapon apart from her lance that aided in survival situations. The longevity of her elf ears could pick up on noises that humans could not or otherwise interpret for something different. She bent at the knees and stalked through the tall grass, lance ready in her dominant arm and sights locked on the bitrab’s ears ahead.

      It was a battle against a worthy opponent, one with the potential to outclass her in hearing if she wasn’t careful. There was no way she’d let this creature best her. She’d rather take her own life in place of bringing shame to Morvon’s training. The fact she was an elf meant little to her and so felt impartial to disgracing that race for what they stood. For all she knew, Gertrude was human. The bitrab hopped a couple feet forward, and she saw its round figure slow down at the peak of its jump in mid air as it dove back down into the safety of the grass. The blasted creature! It turned its head at her and still didn’t scamper off in terror! Just who did it think it was to underestimate her like that? She’d experienced this many times before back in the forest where she lived. Overly confident animals would oftentimes mock and test her skills by disorienting her, lead her to dead ends, or condescend her in the middle of a chase. As she grew older though, Gertrude learned to not take the bait and steer the hunt in her favor. According to what Morvon taught her, elves are closer to mother nature in mind, body, and spirit than humans and can better comprehend animal body language. The only other race in existence that could surpass them are the Ferals.

      She had never met a Feral, but one might come in handy at the moment to help her capture this cocky little fur ball. Gertrude balanced her frustration. Her face ached from all the scowling. This was no different from any other hunt. She'd made delicious meat skewers out of creatures like him before and soon he would be another kill under her belt. Soft footfalls closed in from behind, and she remembered she was not alone. Limbs shaky and skin pale, Hudson tip-toed as if he walked on eggshells while holding a dead bitrab by the ears far from his body like it were diseased. Gertrude thought he'd pass out, and debated whether it was a good idea to have him tend to their kills.

      His sweaty face and clenched teeth meant a myriad of things she couldn't decipher. Hang on a little longer. Gertrude nodded at him and hoped the message read clear. She steadied her legs, flexed her biceps, and elevated the spear.

      The bitrab leaped; exposing itself entirely for the world. Gertrude jerked up, realizing she’d missed her chance to strike first. She’d have to wing it right then and there and in a split second launched the spear, slicing the tip of the right ear clean off as it vented a foul screech. Gertrude then picked up a swishing sound to the left. The bitrab was headed towards thicker cover.

      “No you don’t!,” Gertrude yelled her words sharp enough to carve them in stone. The tall grass smoothed out the terrain under her feet and made her skid as she dashed to retrieve the weapon. She clutched onto it tight, yanking it out. The bitrab had already put quite the gap between them, but he was still in range. She closed an eye and aimed at the scampering, white ball of fluff. Unleashing every bit of strength in her body, the spear ripped the air to meet its target dead on with expert marksmanship.

      Gertrude threw a fist in the air. “Yeah!” She celebrated, hair swaying. “Thought it could get away? Right, Hudson?”

      Contrary to her high spirits, Hudson was stiffer than a scarecrow in a wheat field but just as silent. He raised his vacant hand and showed her his index and middle fingers simultaneously. He groaned like the sick people she used to tend at the village, too. What kind of response was that? Oh well. With this second bitrab they had enough to feed the four of them. She flashed him her teeth and returned the gesture, chuckling victoriously.

 

      The wood popped and flung a spark at Rosella’s foot as she sneaked it away, Anneth pulled the cloaks they had on for blankets closer to the center. The girls leaned on one another, absorbing their body heat.

      “Fire,” Rosella whispered. The restless flames reflected in her emerald colored irises, glittering as if thousands of tiny mirrors had been implanted inside. Carefully guarding her, Anneth watched the princess’s right arm gravitate toward the campfire. One by one her fingers unfolded from the palm, beckoning the flames forth to climb her arm. She entered a trance, hypnotized suddenly. Rosella allowed some external force guide her body. Anneth decided that was enough.

      Anneth brought down Rosella’s hand with hers and grasped it firm as she said, “Princess, you mustn’t.” Her heartbeat regressed to normal levels. She had prevented a potential disaster.

      “I know,” she replied, dejected. “Father hates that I lack the control.”

      “Which is why we should make the Fire Spirit Temple our next destination,” Anneth suggested. “Maybe we can find the answer to why you cannot manipulate fire there.”

      “You think so?”

      She nodded. “If not the temple, where?”

      “Indeed,” the princess finally said after a brief pause. That’s right. Only the Fire Spirit Temple could help them salvage Rosella’s hereditary ability. Just as the three other world powers had been bestowed with wind, earth, and water manipulation respectively, the fire spirit entrusted the House of Vermillion to protect the planet two millennia ago from the cosmos invaders. This magical power's roots was of benevolent origin, according to sacred texts passed down through the ages. Modern interpretations still acknowledged it this way, but the same couldn't be said for those who wielded its authority.

      Unfortunately, the ancestral bloodlines of each magical element, the Vermillions included, came to regard themselves as higher beings like the ones who had bestowed them power in the first place. But to birth a child without that power was unheard of. Thus it was kept under wraps, wreaking of divine punishment. And such punishment was what Anneth feared the night she accidentally overheard the king and queen quarrel about the potential consequences. To her dismay, the king discovered her when a fellow maid failed to read the mood while on cleaning duty on the same floor, encountering her at the doorway. Since then, both she and the other maid were coerced into keeping silent, or else.

      Having reminisced the past, there was no way Anneth would stand by idle and watch Rosella suffer without acting on it. She was her first true friend, daring to go so far as to call her “best friend”.

      The sound of leaves crunching prompted the girls on alert. Two dark silhouettes emerged from the bushes to the left, one short, the other tall, and the campfire’s light washed off the shadows that enveloped them the closer they got.

      “We’re back!,” Gertrude said clutching a pair of dead bitrabs by the ears. She raised them high, proud of her catches. Hudson followed close behind trudging and hunchbacked as if knee-deep in mud, complexion whitened with grass blades and twigs lodged in his hair. He wheezed, ready to collapse any minute. Rosella rushed to his aide, lending her shoulder for him to lean against.

      “Princess! Don’t burden yourself,” Anneth urged as she tailed after. “Sorry, Gertrude. I’ll help you skin them as soon as I’m done here.”

      “Sure!,” she said cheerfully. “I think he couldn’t handle me killing the bitrabs. You should’ve seen when I asked him to carry the first one while I hunted. When I took it off his hands he started puking buckets.” Anneth rolled her eyes. Why did that not surprise her? She could bet every coin and valuable they owned he’d never killed an animal for food in the past. He would die in this world without them.

      The girls fueled him a tea made of powdered leaves Gertrude had in her utility belt. According to her, it was the same kind Morvon brewed for the villagers when they were dehydrated or dizzy. Hudson recovered shortly after as if nothing had happened thanks to the remedy… and possibly because Rosella had let him use her lap as a pillow for his head, an action Anneth argued was unnecessary. He recoiled to his feet faster than lightning and sat on the next log, apologizing and saving Anneth breath for more important matters. That might have been the smartest thing he’d done for them yet.

      During dinner, he grumbled about how he wouldn't be able eat properly because the bitrab's screams still lingered in his ears, and when he tasted the meat it was too "bland" and needed more “flavor”. Anneth was ready to shove a rock down his throat for criticizing her cooking. See if his taste buds fancied that flavor. It wasn't her fault they weren't in a kitchen with better resources. Whenever he opened his mouth for a bite, she prepared a rebuttal in case he found additional faults.

      How could Hudson have been the miracle Rosella wished for when all he did was complain? Last night he complained about the cooking, and this morning about waking up at daybreak, claiming it was too early and dared to mention he was allowed to wake up at his own leisure at times in the Foridani household. Apparently he’d forgotten he was no longer with his adoptive parents, the ones he wanted independence from...  His grumbles persisted, only now about his feet and sore muscles.

      Rosella being the sweet soul that she was, comforted Hudson by walking at his pace and lending an ear. On occasion she would add her own input and even admit she had muscular pain in her back and arms, which Anneth believed she said only to not make him feel left out. The more she dwelled on it, the more Rosella seemed to be working her way out of the depressive episode. She smiled more often and the dreary slouch she’d taxed on her posture after killing that man in self defense dwindled by the day. By the way, what was his name again? Anneth pushed her glasses upward, eyebrows creased. She remembered him saying he had a daughter: blonde hair, brown eyes, and a mole under the left eye.

      Nonetheless, maybe having Hudson around wasn’t a bad idea. As long as he never pulled an “every man for himself attitude” and desert them again, she would tolerate his immaturity.

      The trail they hiked had a view of giant circular patterns etched into the landscape far into the horizon. Thick patches of grass thrived in areas where the earth had been split apart as if undergoing a massive healing process. Rocky pillars jutted dozens of feet into the air, slabs piled on one another to resemble stairs, rendering the fields uninhabitable. The largest of those pits could rival the width of a mountain at the base. No matter what, Gertrude could not look away as her jaw dropped at the other-worldly scenery, her pace slowing.

      Anneth shot a sidelong glance at the elf and noticed her stupefied reaction. That sense of amazement kindled excitement even in her. To miss the chance at telling her the history behind these formations would be criminal. This was why she had joined them on this journey to begin with. Anneth tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “My grandmother once told me those craters were made during the war with the cosmos invaders,” she said inching closer.

      Gertrude’s nostrils flared and her eyes caught the glint of the midday sun. “War with… cosmos invaders?,” she repeated.

      “Mm-hmm. Precisely.” Anneth couldn't help but see the face of a child portrayed on Gertrude. She must have pictured the epic battles, the ground crunching and cracking from enemy attacks, thousands of brave mages defending their home planet, all happen just a few miles away. Gertrude had her hair in two braids and pulled to the front, exposing the mark of magic on her nape. It brought to question if Morvon had ever told her the origins of the mark. “By the way, Gertrude,” she started. “Did you know the mark of magic was given for the purpose of fending off the invaders?” Gertrude’s eyes almost popped out of the sockets. “It is said that all the spirits banded together and gave a fraction of their divinity to mankind in the form of a symbol. This symbol, the mark of magic, appears on people chosen by the spirits. And to this day is why some people manifest the mark before their fourth birthday.”

      “R-really?,” she awed, breathing in a gasp.

      Anneth fixed her glasses and smirked as she raised her chin. “Of course. Historical records dating back to the war era state as such. You should be proud you bear it as well.”

      Stars sparkled around Gertrude, she had new found appreciation for the magic mark decorating her nape. She ran a hand over the skin as if it let her connect with the spirits and her fellow mages on an intimate level. Gertrude had no idea how cute she looked right now. If it were only the three of them, Anneth would hug her like a younger sister without giving Hudson the luxury to witness her of character.

      “Judging by your reaction, I believe Morvon never told you about the origins?”

      “No,” Gertrude answered watching her feet.

      “Hmmm. Did you ever ask him, perchance?” Anneth tilted forward a bit.

      She shook her head, tone lowering. “Not really. I was always curious, but the only thing he ever said was call it by name. That’s it.”

      “Is that so?”

      “Yeah. Same with his days as a mercenary. He didn’t say much about them. Only taught me about the fighting and magic tactics.”

      Anneth straightened and the contents of her backpack tossed. “It sounds to me like he wished to keep certain things of his past hidden.”

      “Hmm? What do you mean?”

      “The day we met him, for example. Morvon talked about his past like it was replete of memories, horrible visions he would rather burn so they would not agitate his conscience any longer. The shade in his eyes when any mention of it was spoken would suddenly darken. People forced to live hardships at that degree change, Gertrude. Some do not because they enjoy it, and some do because they repent. And Morvon... he repented.”

      The empty expression Gertrude gave said she understood but didn’t know how it fit into the question, better yet, how it applied to her. It reminded Anneth of her childhood how she used to ponder the indirectness from adults to questions she considered deserved a straight yes or no. She always hassled with those explanations, caused her headaches. It’d be best if she rephrased the answer for Gertrude’s sake.

      “Morvon is ashamed of what he did. I think he wanted to shield you from his dark past, hence what he revealed was so limited,” she said while attending the path, then saw her companion deliver a soft smile again.

      Aside from their conversation, Rosella and the good-for-nothing had faded into the background. Anneth looked over her shoulder to check on them. Everything was normal. They were engrossed deep in chatter. The princess waved a hand and smiled at Anneth, and she returned the gesture. When Hudson did it, she scowled.

      If he ever dared put a hand on the princess, Anneth would make sure to deliver the appropriate judgement. Now that she thought about it, back at the mountain top in Livony before they were saved, Hudson shouted someone's name. Due to the distance, his words sounded more akin to loud gibberish, but strangely, the word “Karen” rang louder, clearer than anything.

      Who's name was that? Did it belong to a girl? Anneth pronounced it without opening her mouth and sweets at a candy store came to mind first. There was no doubt, it was definitely a girl. But the question remained: why would he shout that?

      Gertrude rotated on a heel to scan the immediate surroundings. She bent at the hips like a defensive stance and reached for the spear on her back. Everyone went stiff, freezing in place. “What is it? Have you heard something?,” Anneth asked, shaken. The elf’s ears twitched. Had they been spotted by another band of bounty hunters? Shouldn’t they be running instead of standing still? A hole opened in Anneth’s stomach as the ground seemed to quiver.

      To their surprise, a woman carrying a large straw basket on her back crossed the trail. She wore a white apron over a yellow dress and brown hair a few shades lighter than Anneth’s, tied neatly behind. Her mature features indicated she was somewhere in her late thirties and stood near Rosella’s height.

      The woman wiped sweat off the side of her long face as she let out an exhale from between plump lips. She happened to glance at the group and jolted, not expecting to see anyone else.

      “Oh dear,” she broke the silence, heavenly voice soothing their fears. “Who might you friendly people be?”

      Was calling a group of strangers you never met “friendly people”, a smart thing?

 

      “You’re in luck to have bumped into me at this hour,” said Trebena leading the way. “I run a hostel for all sorts of travelers. Would you all care to patron me.”

      That was fast… “How much for two rooms?,” Anneth asked.

      “Forty Kroans a night. And I take it you’re all adults.”

      “We are,” Rosella chimed in.”

      “Well, how about it? Pretty reasonable price, don’tcha think?”

      The price wasn’t bad and Trebena’s outward appearance gave the impression she was a tidy person. The only thing troubling Anneth was their budget. When she and Rosella fled the capital, she took with them all her savings and sellable valuables and recommended the princess do the same. Their lives as bounty hunters helped them in that regard as well, though they primarily targeted petty criminals at the bottom of  barrel. Most of their reward money was spent on food, shelter, and clothing, which came a new mouth to feed with the addition of Gertrude into the group. And even before Gertrude, they were barely getting by due to Anneth’s fear to undertake the more dangerous, higher paying jobs.

      Not to mention they hadn’t had any form of income in almost a month. Now a group of four with an adult male, Anneth saw herself forced to dig into their savings by mid next month. Perhaps they could resume bounty hunting now that another skilled fighter had joined them, and take on the more profitable jobs. They would have to be extra careful when entering guild houses in the near future, however.

      After considering the numbers,she put faith in her calculations. “We'll take you up on the offer.” But it could be at least five kroans cheaper.

      “Splendid!,” Trebena said. “I promise you'll be treated like royalty.” If only she knew.

      “By the way, may I ask what is in that large basket you carry,  Miss Trebena?” Rosella gestured a finger at the large straw-woven basket on her back.

      “Oh, this old thing? The trees in the nearby forest bleed a much useful sap. I collect jar-fulls of it and sell or make use of it myself. Just so you know, the soap you'll use in the bath today is pine tar soap.”

      “Did you say pine tar soap? I was under the impression those went out of style years ago.” Surprised, Anneth’s glasses almost tipped off.

      Trebena nodded and smiled as they crossed a small, stone bridge. “It's true. But I preserve the recipe as a tribute to my beloved grandmother. The smell takes me back to when I was a little girl and visited her house every weekend. I tell you, the bathroom was never complete without one of those large clumps of soap.”

      “It sounds like you two are very  close,” Anneth said. “How is your grandmother as of late, miss Trebena?”

      “Well, my grandmother was an herbalist.” Anneth felt her tongue crack at the past tense. She should have figured sooner. “We were close, indeed, so much so that I got used to calling her mom, believe it or not. My grandmother taught me how to make the soap from scratch, as well, and this recipe is the only tangible keepsake I have to remember her by. I'm proud to continue her legacy and even more when the people that buy the soap tell me I've brought back memories of the old days.”

      “That… Pardon, I had no idea,” Anneth admitted, sinking her head.

      “No need to be so hard on yourself, darling. I get that way too often from newcomers when I’ve engrossed them in my sob stories.” Trebena chuckled. “Perhaps it'd be best I leave out the details so it doesn't look like I'm trying to win’em over?”

      “N-not at all!,” Anneth protested. “In fact, I believe it gives the product more value. Truth be told, I would choose a product with a meaningful story behind it than one merely sold for profit alone.”

      Trebena peered in Anneth’s direction, then returned to the road ahead. Her face showed no sign of being bothered. It remained straight and gleeful all at once, like the smooth contours of her feminine profile. “You think so, too, darling? Then I guess I'll stick to it and let the world know!”

      Now that she examined it closer, the large basket had to have more than a few jars inside, stacks of them. The sound of glass jangled consistently in the basket's interior since they'd met her, too. This woman did this job without the help of anyone, alone on her commute to the forest and back which had to take up a sizeable chunk of her day. There had to be a way she could help. So Anneth elbowed Hudson’s side as she shot him a sharp glare.

      His face twisted. “Ow! What’re you doing?”

      “It's always complaining with you, is it not? What are you doing being so laid back? Hurry, offer Miss Trebena a hand with the basket!”

      “Huh?”

      “Hmph! And you call yourself a man? Can you not see the size of that basket? It must be heavy for her.”

      Hudson wanted to argue back but all he managed were miffed pouts. Of course, because if he did, it'd look unsightly for the whole group. Anneth hid a smirk as he opened his mouth to ask for the carry-on.

      Trebena gasped. “Oh dear. Do I really look that fragile?”

      “By no means, Miss Trebena. It just so happens our male companion lacks the basic manners of a gentleman.”

      She could care less about Hudson's opinion of her as he returned the glare. He had to learn to be serviceable one way or another. Trebena chuckled and faced him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Don't worry, young man. Country women are tough like you wouldn't imagine, or else surviving out here would be hell.” Hudson put on a face that said he didn't expect her to touch him. “I'd show you how well-built my legs are, but that might leave you more stumped than you already are.” She winked.

      Hudson stopped in his tracks and blushed hard enough to rival Rosella’s red hair color. The girls tried their best at hiding their laughs at his dumb expression. Men are simple creatures.

      Not long after, they arrived at a small town guarded by a mansion on a hill. The owner of said mansion was the local lord. Upon entrance, hired knights inspected everyone except Trebena for safety measures. The town had seen many instances of pillaging in its early history and dwindled gradually once the current lord’s ancestors took control to establish peace, so the story went. They followed Trebena to her residence where Anneth noticed a small, green flag outside the door, labeling the building as a hostel. To their surprise, however, the rooms weren’t inside Trebena’s house, rather, it was the barn in the backyard.

      She clarified the misunderstanding, stating her house was the “reception hall” and since the barn wasn’t all that visible from the street, she had no choice but to fly the flag above her doorstep. She assured them it was refurbished and they wouldn’t be sleeping next to animals, saving Anneth and the others a world of hurt.

      Rosella leaped head-first into one of the beds, laughing, giggling like she’d been tickled and jumped on it. Her cloak bounced with her like a curtain on a breezy spring day. It was encouraging to see her put the effort in to conquer the depressive episode. Anneth felt like she had worried for nothing. The only thing out of the ordinary was Gertrude who stood idle as she bit her bottom lip. Anneth raised a brow. Why wasn’t she copying the princess? Gertrude was obviously refraining her actions. Her hands shook as they clutched the leather strap across her chest.

      The first time they encountered snow on the Roheisia Mountains she let loose on the spot, dashing and frolicking about. This was the perfect opportunity for a second round. “Is something the matter, Gertrude?,” Anneth asked. The elf parted her lips, then closed them again. She tightened the hold on the leather strap. “Are you shy because this room is not yours?”

      She murmured a faint “yes”.

      Then, a brilliant idea prompted her to help Gertrude break out of that shy little shell. Though she considered herself a refined woman, there was no reason to hold back in times like these, especially behind closed doors away from the eyes of the snobbish upper class. Anneth let her backpack hit the wooden floor and dove back-first onto the second bed, joining the princess in unabashed high jinks.

      “Gertrude!,” she said between laughs. “Take an extra pillow out of the chest and join us for a pillow fight!”

      “Pillow fight! Pillow fight!,” the princess cried out as she snagged hers.

      That seemed to do the trick.

      As the girls blissfully played the night away, next door, Hudson couldn't help but feel left out while he stuck his ear to the wall.

 

      Warm sunlight leaked from the curtains onto Anneth’s face, waking her up in the process. She rubbed her eyes, groaning, and reached for her glasses on the counter that separated the twin beds. When she looked over her shoulder, the bed across was made a mess with white sheets drooping to the ground like melted cheese on a baked potato. “Princess,” she muttered still half asleep, “where is Gertrude?”

      Anneth surveyed the dim room as the glasses helped adjust her vision. The only light source was the shimmering sunlight bouncing from the polished floor. She traced the line it drew in the vacant air, bed sheets rustling as she sat on the bedside. Suddenly, the bathroom door opened and out came Gertrude drying her hair, dressed in the pink nightgown they’d bought her in Livony.

      “Oh! Good morning Gertrude.”

      “Good morning, Anneth.” She smiled.

      “Were you bathing perchance?,” she asked out of habit though the answer was clear. Gertrude gave a nod and walked to the bed where Rosella lay asleep like a newborn, sat on the corner as the bed squeaked softly. The smell of pine tar soap stroked Anneth’s nose with the aroma of tree bark after downpour. Bolts of energy zapped her muscles.

      “Are you sure you wanna go through the trouble of buying us weapons? I have my lance already…”

      Anneth nodded. “Certainly. Make no mistake as anything can happen. You might be in a situation where you need to fight in tight spaces or cannot use your spear.”

      “Yeah, but... why would you buy Hudson a weapon, too?”

      “Hmmmm, that is true.” She crossed her arms and meditated. “He might be a coward, inexperienced, immature and a poor excuse of a man. But he did take out the bounty hunter leader after all, every limb still in tact. There has to be something he can be of use for.”

      “In that case, you should get one, too. For you.”

      “Pardon?” She blinked.

      “Yeah. A knife will do just fine. One you can strap on your thigh,” Gertrude suggested, brows tightening. “If you do, I’ll buy one, too, and teach you how to fight.”

      “Wha…?” There was no way Anneth could fight, let alone imitate Gertrude’s swift movements step by step.

 

      Not carrying a backpack was always a pleasant sensation. The straps would sometimes grind on her shoulders after a few hours, so these times came like a blessing that should be cherished.

      Even though she had suggested it, browsing at the weapons shop came as a killjoy for Anneth now that it entailed her getting one, too. The swords, knives, scimitars, shields, and armor on display really drew her away. Uninterested, she kept her distance unlike Gertrude and the others who would often ask the shopkeeper to bring down a weapon from the highest racks.

      Hudson seemed apprehensive at first, opened up to holding one in his hands and even jab at the air. He grinned and his eyes took on a grandiose shine. What a child.

      “Have you found any you like?,” Gertrude walked over, hands behind her back.

      “Quite the opposite.” She sighed, running a hand on a glass case that displayed an array of gloves. “The only knife suited for this maid is a kitchen knife for chopping meats and vegetables.”

      “You should’ve said so sooner. Let’s go somewhere where they sell kitchen knives.” She said in a wide smile that showed off her pearly white teeth. Anneth giggled, appreciative of the joke.

      “I was not built for combat or self defense, but I am afraid that in our current situation I really have no choice when we are basically fugitives.” Gertrude pursed her lips. “These gloves look nice, though. They remind me of the red oven mitts I used for cooking in the castle kitchen. They’re both thick and padded. The only distinction is these are fabricated for battle fields while the others for the kitchen.” When Anneth thought about it, there really was no other route to choose. Options that were once plausible continued to close on them as if the king were aware of their every plan. Owning a self defense weapon meant she had the potential and right to kill anyone who sought to inflict her harm, and not owning one meant her chances of surviving an attack were close to zero.

      She frowned at the idea of taking a person’s life, a concept she’d been trying to avoid all these months but failed at recently. Anneth shoved the negativity aside. Any further contemplation and her brain would explode. This called for an emergency breather.

      “I’m gonna step outside for a bit. Catch some fresh air,” Anneth voiced in a lazy tone. Baffled, Gertrude twitched her ears as if unsure she’d just heard Anneth speak with contractions.

      “Uh… okay.”

      Anneth beelined for the door and aimlessly walked down the busy street as it shut behind her. As soon as the environment changed, the weight of all those metals evaporated into thin air. Vendors and merchants looking to make quick money called out to her enthusiastically about their low prices, and how their items were better quality than the shop across the street. Others tried to lure her in by complimenting her beauty. For her, it was another day out. Don’t stray away too far, don’t stray away too far. She repeated this like a mantra as she legged away, developing tunnel vision.

      Down the next corner was a street sign that read “Flower Alley” with a cute carving of a flower etched into the wooden placard. She stopped, looked to the right, and saw a jungle. Outside of every business were plants and flower pots, plants and flower pots. The alleyway was colored as if an artist had taken brush to canvas and rendered an abstract masterpiece.

      Her gasp was slow. She needed time to get her mind straight and not think she’d just walked into a dream. Her legs moved independently and decided where to start as she couldn’t. Anneth wandered into paradise and overdosed on the plethora of fragrances from nearly every flower her nose could reach. There was one peculiar flower that shared her color scheme: brown for the hair, yellow for the tunic, and purple for her favorite color. Everything about it was Anneth down to the last detail. Unfortunately, that also meant its miniature size was spot on with hers. She let out a soft, embarrassed chuckle and moved on. Store to store she frolicked, sniffing every plant, every pretty flower on every shelf, table, counter. She walked out of the last store wearing a flower crown as she hummed a folk song children learned in monasteries. Anneth couldn’t contain her joy. It oozed out of her pores like sweat.

      She exited Flower Alley on the other side and across the street where the road branched out stood a girl who's age still hadn't reached double digits. At first glance Anneth thought the girl's dress was an old potato sack. The hems were frayed and stained with mud that had dried and hardened, chipping off in clumps. Her gold hair, short and its shine removed, could shelter a mother bird's eggs without trouble.

      The girl held out a hand to every passerby, hoping they'd be kind to spare a coin but to no avail. Her little mouth opened in anticipation each time someone happened to meet her hazel eyes. Then they'd move on. Her shoulders slumped.

      Anneth’s smiles flattened. The chimneys of joy she exhumed were snuffed out with dirt. She swallowed and released air from her nostrils, then clenched her fists as she headed to the little girl with lengthy strides. “Hey there, what's your name,” she asked in the friendliest, sweetest way she could muster. The girl blushed, silently minded her as if unaccustomed at handling conversations with adults, and Anneth saw she had dark circles under her eyes. She pushed her begging hand out, a calloused palm. This might be tough. “Umm, where are your parents? Are they working?” She shook her head. “Are they home?” She nodded. Alone on the street and begging for money while her parents were home. A familiar scenario. Considering there was no donation box or bag with coins, not even pockets in her dress, the girl had to be flat out broke. If anything stopped Anneth from pouring out tears, it was the fact she at least had on shoes. She drew a handkerchief and wiped away the grime on the girl’s sullied face. “Whaddya say we go eat something delicious. Something that’ll fill you up good, and you get to choose whatever you want, hmm?”

      As soon as the girl heard those words, she dropped her jaw and goosebumps flared her light skin, gasping. Anneth knew she would have to fight off tears the remainder of the day now.

      Lastly, she removed the flower crown and fit it on the girl's head. “This'll look better on you.”

      The girl stood bemused, speechless.

      “Come on!,” Anneth cheered, grabbing the girl by the hand and heading down the cobblestone street. Was this the right thing to do? She had no responsibility to solve the girl’s temporary problem. No one would have complained, called her cruel if she had turned a blind eye. She only wished someone had done the same when she begged for money all those years ago.

 

      Anneth treated Annabelle to a feast at a local restaurant she always craved of visiting. Before the main course, they had salad and a serving of sugared almonds. That was when Annabelle revealed her name.

      The girls shared a roasted duck plate served with assorted vegetables, honey bread buns, and a side of cheese slices. Whenever Annabelle sunk her teeth into the duck meat, she would moan a little at the surge of flavor seducing her taste buds. No item on the table got rejected as she devoured vegetables kids her age would gag at. Anneth took advantage of the opportunity and pretended to wipe her mouth when in reality she wiped off a tear. For the duration of the meal, they stayed quiet, only their chewing did the talking.