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Fire Princess and the Outcasts chapter 9

      No standard rate existed for accepting passengers on a wagon. Anneth was aware of this fact and so was the grain merchant who would take them to the capital. He was twice her size, almost. His sleeves hugged his arms so tight there was no room for wrinkles; they could tear at any second. He had the torso of a triangle balanced on one of its edges like a spinning top. Anneth couldn't see what lay behind him, either. Bushy brown hair circled one end of his square jaw to the next. He belonged on a battlefield where those brauns could be put to better use.

      “Thirty seven, forty two, forty seven, forty eight kroans.” Anneth counted each coin in her palm in a loud enough voice so he could hear. “That's half of it.” The silver coins clanked as they cascaded onto his hefty hands and he did a quick recount to make sure. He rattled them, balling up his hands next to his ear and squinted hard.

      Anneth staved off the urge to claim the coins weren’t forged. She could get on his bad side. This was a common practice among traders and merchants alike, after all, especially in informal situations like the one they were in: surrounded by busy people outside the town entrance, ready to depart. Though it still irked her to be doubted.

      He showed a smile that spanned his blocky face and reached out for a hand shake. “Great!” His deep voice reverberated like a trumpet. “Just to make sure we're on the same page, once we make it past inspection you'll reimburse me the latter half for the entry fee. Correct?”

      “Yes sir. That is our deal.” She returned the gesture.

      Anneth’s hand got lost in his gargantuan palm when they shook, and his raw strength succeeded in knocking off her glasses to the tip of her nose. She braced for a pat on the shoulder, afraid it’d reduce her to rubble, but thankfully it never came. “You all are welcome to get on now. Won't be much longer till the caravan leaves,” the man said as he dropped the coins in a small pouch.

      “Yes.” She adjusted her glasses. “I will inform my party so we may be on our way.” They nodded and Anneth turned on a heel, almost colliding with another merchant. She weaved through the busy crowd to meet with everyone else who waited at the town gates. The knights guarding the entrance stood motionless, except for their vigilant eyes.

      And speaking of eyes, Rosella’s fell heavy on Anneth who could tell she wasn't comfortable with the sudden decision, despite the brave front she had erected since the change of plans that morning. Anneth released a rush of air through her nose and focused on her backpack that sat on a patch of balding grass. She decided to follow the princess’s example and walked confidently with each stride. Everything was going to be fine. There was no way she would allow her best friend to suffer.

      The princess paced towards Anneth and captured both her hands as if wanting to transmit a feeling of safety. It caught her by surprise.

      “Are we clear?,” she asked in a tone that matched her uncertainty.

      Anneth could embrace her on the spot, but that would bring unwanted attention. “Yes. Yes we are, princess. That man was kind enough to let us aboard but not for free of course.” The rest of the gang arrived shorty.

      “I know. Hopefully it was not expensive.”

      Anneth gave a short chuckle. “Expensive or not is not the issue. Our time is limited and we need to join the pilgrimage if we are to visit the Fire Spirit Temple.” She froze when Hudson came close carrying her luggage. Their views crossed for a split second, and both seemed to read the other’s mind so clearly they shifted elsewhere. “Thank you,” she murmured to the point only she could hear it, and grabbed her backpack.

      “Welcome.” Whether he actually heard or responded intuitively was up for debate.

      The princess and the elf exchanged puzzled looks over the awkward atmosphere building up, unaware of the conversation that had taken place between the two last night.

 

      With the mild weather and continuous clacking of wheels and horse hooves, Anneth found it difficult to stay awake any longer, especially when the others were fast asleep and the princess’s faint snoring snaked into her ears with a rhythmic flow. Anneth was like a mother, to say the least; sacrificing precious time for shut-eye to supervise children. Big children, at that.

      She had asked the merchant how long the trip would be to the capital. “The whole weekend,” he said, and the answer pleased her. Only two days total without counting the arrival date and they would be at their starting point again. Yet it seemed meaningless when she sat down and reflected upon the situation. All these months on the loose just so they could return home and go straight to where they should have in the first place. Then again, nothing would've been set in motion had the princess never caught sight of the falling star. And that falling star turned out to be a human adult by the name of Hudson Landon, which by the way was less a grown man and more a thorn in Anneth’s side. Had it not been for Rosella who considered him a ‘miracle’, Anneth would have kicked him out long ago.

      She cocked her foot on a wooden box, and stacked her elbow at the knee and then nestled her chin in her palm. Hudson sat parallel to Anneth but was too busy frolicking in the land of dreams spy up her tunic. She also couldn’t be bothered to sit like a lady, back straight, legs crossed, and hands neatly settled on her lap. It called for too much effort at a time where no one would criticize her for not following proper etiquette. Her formal speech had also slowly dipped since they made it to that small town, too, which she never learned the name of. Her coworkers would gasp if they saw her right now. It’s not like she’d grown up in that fancy environment, either, where even your clothes were inspected for minor imperfections, then you’d be admonished and ordered to redo everything from square one. Sure, Anneth grew accustomed to life in the castle because it was part of the job, but she related more with Annabelle and her pitiful way of living, wondering when her next meal would come.

      The change from yellow to bright orange tinting the wagon’s roof signaled the aging day. She could not see the outside, but the occasional dark shapes casting shadows on the wagon meant the area had changed from the open barley fields at noon, to something more condensed. It was only a matter of time until they stopped and set up camp for dinner. As Anneth finished yawning, Gertrude lifted herself to an upright position and blinked heavily to adjust her eyes, locks of black hair sliding down her shoulders.

      “Hi there, Gertrude,” Anneth greeted fiddling her fingers.

      “Hey,” the elf said softly in a drowsy state. "Are we there yet?”

      Anneth shook her head still in her palm. “I'm sorry, but it hasn't been a full day yet.” Gertrude moaned at what she heard and pursed her lips tight. She went on to survey the wagon and saw Hudson and Rosella on their sides. “Either way, good thing you woke up.” Anneth fixed her posture and stood. “Supper time draws near and I assume we will stop shortly. Are you hungry?”

      “A little. I'm craving stew, actually.”

      “Do not get your hopes up, though. There may not be any on the menu.”

      “Okay.”

      Assumptions were fine and all but she needed to make sure they'd come to a halt soon. Steadying herself by the walls, Anneth stalked to the front where the merchant sat. She crouched and swiped open the cover to poke her head through. The sudden shift in lighting came like a slap to the face, causing the skin on her face to pull to the center.

      “G-good afternoon, mister merchant.”

      “Hey! Good afternoon, missy,” he hollered while keeping focus on the road. “What can I help you with?”

      She swallowed before continuing. “I am aware you are busy, including everyone else on this caravan. But might you know when we will pause for supper? My companions and I have grown hungry over the hours.”

      The man switched the reins to his left hand and brought the other to scratch his bearded chin. He hummed in deep thought as if he hadn’t considered the question until now. “Won’t be much longer, I suppose,” he started. “We didn’t really discuss it before leaving town but it’s usually the unspoken rule to stop moving once you can’t see the road anymore.”

      “And that…”

      “I’m sorry, but as much as I’d love to veer off and grill a steak myself, the caravan’ll keep on without us. Everyone wants to get to the capital as quick as possible.”

      “By no means,” Anneth understandably said as she hid her slumped shoulders behind the covers. “I rather we practice patience than be a burden to the caravan because of our selfishness.”

      The merchant stayed pensive. “In any case, lemme make it up to you.” He motioned at the wagon with a whip of his neck. “There's a box an old friend recently gifted me and it's chock full of pork jerky. Thing is, he forgot I'm allergic to pork and my skin breaks out in a bad case of hives from just a bite of that stuff. You're welcomed to have it on my behalf, and I'm sure he wouldn't mind if he remembered my condition.”

      “R-really? Is it alright?” She cautioned her excitement to keep a low profile.

      “Sure. Dig in. I planned on giving it away from the start, so might as well,” he said with mixed laughter in his voice.

      “I'll let my companions know, and thank you very much.” With a mutual nod, Anneth slipped back inside.

      The princess and Hudson were in the middle of rising from their slumber, and Gertrude looked more alive now. Anneth rung her vocal cords to spread the news, but the wagon came to an abrupt halt and knocked everyone to their knees. Some barrels toppled over and the crates rocked back and forth. Luckily, none of the goods spilled out. What was that just now? That definitely was not intentional. Anneth rubbed her arm as it had collided with cargo amidst the impact.

      “What the--” Gertrude had tripped backwards on a crate and landed with both legs in the air, whimpering. Other than that, she looked fine.

      “Argh! My elbow! Why did we suddenly stop? Does he not know how to drive?,” Hudson griped as he rubbed his elbow joint. It was a wagon, not a carriage. But Anneth put off the correction for later. Rosella seemed to be okay. She was about arm's length away from Anneth --on all fours-- and had no visible injuries.

      Startled voices ran amok outside and quick footfalls raced passed their wagon. The merchant asked the others what the hold up was and hopped off when someone answered. They couldn't hear clearly what the fuss was about, but judging from the intense activity Anneth guessed the caravan had run into trouble.

      Rosella crawled to the rear to peak outside, prompting Anneth to yank at her tunic before she could. “Princess, you mustn’t. We have no clue what lies out there.”

      “But the caravan--”

      “What if someone recognizes you and storms inside?,” she cut Rosella off. “That will be the end of our journey, having accomplished nothing. Our efforts will have been in vain, so allow me.” The elf made it to her feet on the bench and unveiled her spear from its shroud just as Anneth warned about the possibility of an assault. Having said that, she had her doubts they were in any real danger or else there’d be nasty screams filling the air. The princess complied, albeit pouting, and reclined on the bench.

      “Fine. Do as you see fit.  But do not whine if it occurs despite.”

      “I promise,” she said with an impish smirk, brushing stray locks of fiery hair behind Rosella’s right ear. Gradually, she rose to a crouch and turned toward the front in baby steps, pushing a barrel out of the way as she crept through.

      There was a lot of talking going on and crunching of dirt beneath boots, but it was still muffled to her ears as if she listened from a hallway into a room. Anneth pulled the flap by the corner and scanned the area discreetly prior to poking her head out. A pair of bushy horse tails greeted her. She blinked and changed perspectives. The sky was divided into fading blues and whites that dissolved into a golden yellow the further her eyes traveled down the horizon. Cotton-like clouds that mimicked crashing waves populated that same horizon for miles on end, soaking up the warm sunset colors. Birds chirped in the distance and she heard approaching laughter. Anneth ducked, pulling the flap down until it was thin enough to pass a sheet of paper under it. The laughter she heard belonged to a woman donning a light blue corset dress who skipped passed the wagon to the back.

      Friendly vibes caressed her skin, and without noticing, Anneth jutted out her torso.

      “Hmmm. It seems like--”

      A murky shape pranced into her line of sight, robbing her attention. She gripped the edge of the wagon tight, filling her lungs with air as she went numb. It was a person, but one of dark complexion and undulated long hair embellished in a red rag with hanging jewelry. The clothes she wore was of a different region not of Ponderose origin, and very baggy at that, showing various colorful designs similar to stained glass on cathedral windows. Her flat stomach was exposed and Anneth found the red and yellow cascading dress somewhat appealing with its musical undertone. The woman turned to lock eyes with Anneth, bracelets, necklaces, jingling as she bent low for a bow.

      The ends of the woman's lips curved high, her onix colored irises flashing like the diamonds on her fingers. Anneth gave a silent nod as she was at a loss for words. Satisfied, the woman scurried away and before Anneth could count, a flock of children raced after her.

      “Wha…” She barely managed three letters.

 

      The Nahadi women danced in sync with the bonfire flames to the untameable rhythm of the lute and tambourines. Their hips thrusted as if controlled by hidden strings, and their fluid choreography hypnotized the caravan passengers who sat in one big circle. The trio of lute players, all while producing music, sang in an exotic tongue that none but their tribe understood.

      It was unlike anything she'd ever experienced. The scene reflected finely on Anneth’s glasses as she watched from the line alongside Rosella to meet with the Nahadi fortune teller. She’d heard rumors of the Nahadi since childhood; that their barbaric customs rivaled even that of the Ferals. Oh, how wrong those rumors were.

      After they had set up camp and dined like gods with the nomadic tribe, one of the elders who was fluent in Ponderose invited anyone interested to have their fortune told to meet with “Nababa”, which translated to “Honorable Granny”. The service had a price tag of five kroans per person to have their fortune read via a divine crystal. Though Anneth considered herself to be spiritual, she had doubts on whether a separate culture’s beliefs could answer her pleas when the Fire Spirit had been unresponsive since before she was even born.

      The decision came not from Rosella, but her. She wanted to see if anything life threatening awaited the princess as per what the king argued with the queen that one night. Rosella had no idea her inability to control fire was due to divine punishment, and that it carried additional consequences not yet known. Anneth purposefully hid the information, convinced it would kill her from the inside out like a disease. Anxiety would rob Rosella of sleep, of a sound mind, and she would drop dead sooner of that than any divine punishment.

      Anneth balled her hand into a fist. Her fingernails stabbed her palms, but she focused on the pain in an attempt to draw away from her thunderous heartbeat.

      “I must admit, this is pretty exciting.” Rosella bounced. The bonfire’s glint created stars in her emerald eyes. “Which one of us should go first?”

      “Just you, princess.”

      “Huh?”

      Anneth forced a smile. “That ‘huh’ sounded like something Hudson would say. The old you would have said ‘pardon’, or ‘excuse me’.”

      The princess pondered the observation, unsure if to treat it as good or bad. “Well, I admit it is easy to pick up his mannerisms when I talk with him. He has asked me before if speaking so formally all the time is a drag, and I replied with,” she lifted a finger and made a whimsical expression,“‘I was raised this way, there is nothing I can do.’”

      “Hmph, you did well,” she agreed, crossing her arms. “Next time he will think before asking such drivel.”

      Rosella’s cheeks flourished as she giggled. “You are too hard on him, Anneth. Do you not feel sorry?”

      “First and foremost, he should know his place when conversing with you. You are the daughter of this country's royal family, after all. It must be insulting to be directed in such a casual manner by someone so ignorant as Hudson,” she spat.

      “But he does. Hudson is a respectable man. He came back to our rescue.”

      “And second.” The princess had made a good observation, but it was flawed, nonetheless, and she would prove why. “The one who actually saved us was Gertrude and her magic skills,” she said looking smug. “Imagine, Hudson would have been--” Anneth caught herself before carelessly uttering the word “killed”. It might link Rosella’s post trauma with Felker. She reworked her sentence. “--exhausted after the climb to the summit. And... he would be taken prisoner, rendering all that effort useless.”

      The princess hated admitting defeat. Anneth learned that after the first time they bonded playing strategy board games in her bedroom. Rosella wouldn't call it quits until she had at least one more win above Anneth. It happened early on in her first weeks of being hired at the Vermillion castle on a rainy day, and Rosella was bored because she couldn't go out to the palace gardens.

      “Hmph! Hudson bested the leader in the end.” She crossed her arms as she spun back in the line's direction, irked. “If you cannot at least call that a miracle, then I am afraid I cannot help.”

      Anneth smiled softly to save face, voice shaky. “P-princess. You do not have to get upset.”

      The line shortened and they were next.

      The moment of truth had finally come.

      Nababa had chosen a cozy alcove by a tree thicket for her fortune telling booth. Tall candle holders illuminated the passage, and tendrils of incense smoke slithered to the night sky. The booth was made of wood and painted a crimson red like wine drawn with mystical symbols. Fancy linens and jewels dressed the stall and the window that separated the seer from her customers was a curtain of green, sparkling beads. Nababa’s dark silhouette contrasted with the shimmer of candles in the backdrop.

      She spoke with a thick accent, voice dry and scratchy, rolling the R’s. “I request donation first, please,” she urged, directing at the donation box on the counter with a boney finger.

      Anneth drew five kroans from her coin purse and dropped them in.

      Nababa cleared her throat. “Thank you. Now, child whose blood runs like rivers of fire, come forth.” Anneth shook her head thinking she had heard wrong but when she glimpsed at Rosella’s profile, she was wide eyed, as well. From beyond the curtain, the seer studied the princess top to bottom with a hand sprawled on her magic crystal. “Tell me your full name, please.”

      Uh-oh! They hadn't thought of a last name to go with her new alias. The fortune teller would notice her stumble unless she concocted a convincing name on the spot.

      “Rosella Lisbon,” she said with confidence. She glanced from the corner of her eye and Anneth broke out in a hot blush. Just when she was on the verge of stepping to drop a random name, Rosella surprised her with something better, a sweet little detail she never expected.

      Did that mean she considered her as family? A sister, even?

      Nababa hovered both hands over the crystal. She aimed her chin to the heavens and eyelids fluttered like wings of a flying creature. She swayed languidly in a circular pattern, overtaken by an invisible force, humming and chanting in the Nahadi tongue. The crystal glowed a radiant turquoise with a pulse as if it were a heart.

      “Rosella… Lisbon.”

      “Y-yes?”

      “Touch the crystal, my child. It calls for you.” Without further questions, Rosella sprawled her left hand on the crystal’s flat surface. Anneth swallowed as something coiled in her stomach. The glowing died down bit by bit and Nababa came to a halt. “I see you have many obstacles ahead of you to overcome. Far worse than anyone I've seen tonight.”

      “Far... worse?”

      Nababa nodded and eased in on the crystal, earrings jangling. “You have lost something valuable. Something precious passed down for generations any man would kill to obtain. This item is not tangible but a symbol of your roots, a source of great power, and life force.” This woman was the real deal. She read the princess like a book. “It wields immense influence on your body and soul that you must not be apart from it. Truly a godlike essence.”

      In the time the fortune teller raised her chin again and closed her eyes, Anneth grasped Rosella from behind by the hem of her tunic. She knew the princess was looking at her even though she shifted her view elsewhere. Anneth’s voluminous hair blocked the princess from seeing her frown.

      The fortune teller continued. “I am told you are in the middle of restoring your lost item. Your journey has lead you here before me. Can you confirm, child whose blood runs like rivers of blood?”

      “Yes,” she said with a tinge of hesitation.

      “Pay heed to warnings, be cautious of those who claim allegiance. The void is indiscriminate; it gladly welcomes those on the path of abolition. You are oblivious to the world around you and to those who wish ruin upon you and your loved ones. Attribute this weakness to the luxuries and privileged upbringing. It could cost, not only your sanity, but the well-being of millions.” Through the beaded curtain obscured Nababa’s face, the wary pitch she uttered suggested even she was gravely concerned. Anneth loosened the strings of her collar to make it easier to breathe. After this she would go in the wagon and take off the corset as well. “A mare that is robbed of its mother too early in life eventually falls prey to lurking predators. Reflect on this Nahadi proverb, as it will aid you in the search of your lost item. That is all.”

      “Thank y--”

      “Thank you, Nababa,” Anneth interjected with a sharp tone stirred in angst. “Thank you for your precious time. Let’s go, Rosella.” She pulled the princess to the side, head slanting down, and left the booth in long strides.

      “No,” Nababa corrected. “Thank you.”

      Never had pocket change caused Anneth an asphyxiating amount of stress.

 

      Hudson sat casually on a stool removed from the festive bonfire hub with a plate of bones on his lap. The two rounds of yellow Nahadi rice and meat fillets also sat well in his stomach. He couldn't stand, even if he wanted. The added weight felt double what it was, but the taste was worth the discomfort. Being one of the few single men in the caravan, he heard no complaints from a female partner for gazing at the belly dancers a little too ‘intently’. Already a handful of wives had nudged their ogling husbands back to reality, reminding them of their existence. And another dragged her drunk boyfriend back to their wagon for wooing a particular Nahadi girl.

      Not that he was jealous or --god forbid-- envious of being alone. He had rid himself of those unnecessary emotions that did little to help him concentrate on what truly mattered years ago. It was a period of inactivity, of pitying his sorry existence for falling prey to something that he now viewed as tacky teenage drama. Oh how he wished to redo those years.

      But Hudson was still human, and with human emotions and desires. Not a statue. Which is why he couldn’t stop from musing about the girl he left behind in his own world: Karen. He could smell the fragrance of her hair as if she had just gone in for a hug, resting her head in the space between his chin and clavicle, cuddling in bed surrounded by throw pillows. She would immediately go for the stuffed animal dog with a heart in its mouth he gave her when they first got together. She considered it her most prized possession, claiming it was a symbol that Hudson had changed for the better.

      What could she be up to right now? Did she also think of him as much as he did her?. A knot developed in his throat, and he was quick to undo it because he was in public.

      It seemed like an eternity had come and gone since then. There was no way she could still be waiting for his return, no matter how many beautiful memories they shared. An old ex might have appeared to console her, or she could have found someone else.

      He was labeled a dead man back home, he bet. No trace left behind. Not even a single farewell letter. Another number to the statistics of missing people.

      Then why even make an effort to go back? No one said he couldn't start anew in Ponderosa. There were heaps of women here, too. At least one was bound to find him attractive, and willing to make new memories with. With the knowledge from his more technologically advanced world, he could become a start-up and establish a successful business, earning him millions by selling the patents.

      It sounded good on paper, but a concept that should stay in the brainstorming process. Crawling out of the depressive hole he lived in for nearly a decade and into a better life had proven him anything was possible. Anything. Someone dear to him awaited on the other side, and he wasn’t about to throw in the towel yet.

      Gertrude had run off somewhere to play with the children. The Nahadi adults had a field day groping her ears and nearly enshrining her because all humanoid species in their culture were deemed superhuman, regardless of magic abilities or not.

      But even so, that plate of food did a number on him. Hudson wanted to recline and loosen his belt, but this little stool said otherwise. The night was still young, too. Perhaps he should’ve overdone it on the booze to hit the sack faster. He roared a yawn. The music was good at least. The popping sound of the audience’s claps, the vocalist’s romantic pitch, and the instruments all had his blood pumping with passion down to the marrow. His head bobbed to the rhythm, slurring the lyrics. It was strange, however. Not the music nor the festive atmosphere. For a while now he definitely felt his blood pump a bit faster than normal in consecutive intervals. He placed his middle and index finger on his wrist above the artery and confirmed it, yet he felt no shortness of breath, chest pain, or lightheadedness: all symptoms of an increased heart rate. Strange. Perhaps the meal had excessive salt poured in? No, it tasted perfectly fine to him.

      Hudson stood and left the area, thinking the music really was making his blood pump. But on his fifth step he paused. Someone touched him despite not being within anyone’s personal space. This touch was like a shock of electricity, and he spun and spun, looking for this person. How did he know it was a person? He didn’t. His gut yelled it though, because the other person searched for him, too.

      “Where… What are--,” was all he could say.

      He came to a sudden standstill, and concentrated on the bedecked Nahadi wagons huddled like a herd of cattle near a batch of trees about an acre off. There, guards supervised what looked like a giant jewelry box with a rounded top, draped in linens and finely detailed craftsmanship on the grass. In terms of size, it reached the guards’ waists at its highest point and a modest three feet in length, enough room to sit inside for someone of short stature.

      "Have you come for me?” a soft voice echoed in his head, beckoning him. It held a quivering effect, as if a water droplet had disturbed a quiet pond. The owner sounded juvenile, frail, effeminate like the children playing tag with Gertrude.

      Hudson's chest expanded and shrank. What should he respond with? Should he? He marveled at the emerging head of lavender hair that dared poke out of the box, the guards unaware. Though she stared right back, her vision was concealed behind a black cloth with the outline of a jagged knife engraved in blue. Her bronze skin matched that of the tribe, and she was far more adorned than the rest, spewing a divine aura. With short hair that fell no further than the slim jawline, her equally petite build suited the tone of her voice.

      “Why do you not answer?”.

      The girl had an accent when speaking, though not as thick. Hudson stood dumbfounded. He had seen an elf, witnessed first hand what it felt like to teleport, fallen from the sky and survived, was aware of the existence of spirits, but communicating telepathically blew everything else out of the water. No doubt resided within him. The girl before Hudson was the cause of his throbbing pulse. Ironically, however, this had created more questions than answers. There was the possibility she could read his mind, and vice versa, but how could he prove it? And how had this girl succeeded in sending her thoughts? Hudson retraced every step he had taken that night, coming up short on relevant clues. The awe had slapped him silly and he had no idea of the extent. If he could describe the sensation that had taken him by storm, it would be ‘weightlessness’.

      “I see,” she said when no answer came. “Your resolve must not be ready, I predict. Then, may fate intertwine our paths again.” She retreated into her quarters, allowing his pulse a much needed rest.

      Hudson collapsed, landing on his bottom. The girl’s actions commanded no ill will. The lack of fear in him attested to that fact. He was more amused, enthralled with this mystic encounter that whatever poem or diary he wrote recounting the incident, would fail to capture the exact emotion gripping his soul. He could label it a revelation. It felt like one, anyway.

      Daybreak climbed the horizon to spread its rays of light over a pale blue sky absent of clouds, and slowly descended upon the land to awaken its inhabitants. The caravan --made up of a dozen wagons-- traveled a curved road between hilly crevices, headed southeast for the Ponderose capital. Anneth crawled out of the space under the bench where she and Rosella slept on like a bunk bed.

      She fixed her glasses and yawned, stretching what few body parts this cramped space full of barrels and boxes allowed. It was still dark inside the wagon, coated in gloomy shades. The warm temperature inside was like an extra blanket during the middle of summer.

      Her friend and everyone else were still asleep. Everyone was curled into a ball except Hudson who had some limbs pouring out. She could thank the early bird maid routine for the early start, a skill she had trouble appreciating now that those days were in the past. But whining wouldn't get her anywhere, especially not when the most important mission of their lives demanded Anneth keep calm.

      What the seer revealed yesterday was still fresh. Those accurate readings and cryptic messages bugged Anneth to where the dinner she had bubbled in her throat. The moment they left the booth, she came here and loosened up her clothes to wane that choking feeling, taking deep breaths. Suffice to say, it worked. A minute later and she would have fainted out in public, ruining the fun for everyone. The princess was no exception either. Though her reaction wasn't drama worthy, Rosella refrained from any socialising and resigned herself to people watching from afar.

      It was a miracle Anneth slept at all and without any nightmares. Hopefully the worst part of this detour was over with.

      Breakfast was still a ways away, and she had nothing to keep her busy in the meantime. Going back to sleep was out of the question; she was fully rested now. Anneth would have to make do with waiting until the next rest stop. She tapped her head on the wagon wall, bored out of her wits.

      When the expedition cleared the hilly terrain, a higher power seemed to answer Anneth’s cry for help. They entered a forested area where a fork in the road branched off to a small, hidden lake. The grain merchant said it was a popular resting area among travelers and taking baths in the body of water was customary.

      The news came as a breath of fresh air for everyone, not just Anneth. She’d finally be able to scrub off a day’s worth of grime. The women dipped in first according to the “ladies first rule” while the men prepared breakfast. After everyone had their fill, the males washed off and the trip continued its course. Going by the position of the shadows, Anneth guessed the sun was near its peak, so it should be close to noon. Another day and a half and they’d be inside the city walls. She had mixed emotions about the whole plan, unsure of how to react or if her calm demeanor was adequate for the risks involved.

      Bird songs made their way inside as they had opened the wagon covers to prevent the heat build up. Light penetrated the canopies like cracks in a cloudy sky, and the rattle of horse hooves on bare earth drummed with no end in sight. The princess was teaching Gertrude how to play a clapping game popular among little girls, and the elf couldn't be more invested as she had never done anything like it. The endearing scene bestowed a smile upon Anneth.

      A gust of wind pushed hair in her face, prompting her to brush it aside behind an ear. Anneth happened to look in Hudson’s direction and their eyes locked briefly. The speck of emotion he showed gave her the impression of discomfort, but as if he had wonder flowing about in his thoughts. Throughout the expedition, he kept his words to a minimum, and barely spoke anything even at breakfast back at the lakeside. When Rosella approached him that morning his smiling seemed forced and laughs disingenuous, as if humoring the princess. Even now, with both arms on his knees and slanting forward, he looked fit to be in a painting.

      “What?,” he asked in a near whisper. The coat was unbuttoned, and the green tunic he wore underneath showed off his neck region.

      “Nothing,” she snapped, scowling as she crossed her arms and averted her eyes. Unfazed by her show of rudeness, Hudson drew out his cellphone and fiddled with the apparatus. Why did that provoke her? That carefree attitude, that stupid front he put up to pretend everything was okay. It boiled her nerves to a crisp. “Hey!,” she squawked. Hudson minded her and so did the girls. “Put that thing away and listen to others when they're talking to you! Is your level of respect so low you can't even give your undivided attention?”

      “What? What's that all about? Why are you suddenly attacking me?,” he said annoyed.

      “You have no idea what is going on around you, and here you are wasting away nonchalantly.”

      “Huh? You were the one who said there was nothing. How am I supposed to carry a conversation with that?”

      “You don't try hard enough. That's why.” She stomped her boot.

      “A- Anneth?,” Rosella reached out. “Calm do--”

      “I don't try hard enough? How is coming back alive to save you girls not ‘trying hard enough’.”

      “Save us!?” Anneth slammed both hands on the bench, bellowing out a sarcastic laugh. “That's rich coming from the guy who ran off crying into the woods!”

      “I came back either way, didn't I?”

      “But after how long? Huh? You made us wait out in the cold with a bunch of dirty ruffians eyeing us like bags of meat. As a woman who respects her own body, I shouldn't be subject to such lewd conduct.”

      Rosella shuffled closer and cupped Anneth’s hand in hers. “Anneth, what has gotten into you?,” she demanded in a sweet tone but their loud bickering drowned her out. The argument bounced left to right until the merchant decided enough was enough.

      “Hey, you two!,” he roared and disturbed the air. “Fight all you want and rip each other's throats out. But while you're in my wagon, I don't wanna hear any of your cheesy lover's quarrel! Got that!”

      “We're-not-lovers!,” they roared back in unison.

      Then, as if to repeat yesterday, the caravan came to an immediate halt, causing cargo to topple and passengers to fall. The horses neighed and the air filled with the yells of inpatient caravan drivers asking if they’d bumped into more Nahadi people. “What in the? You gotta be kidding me, I’ve got clients waiting on my deliveries. I don’t have time for another party!” the merchant hopped off and dashed to the front along with a mob of angry merchants.

      “P-princess! My dearest apologies, are you unhurt!?” Anneth hoisted herself as soon as she knew she had landed on Rosella. Her vision was slightly blurry without her glasses but she could still distinguish objects and people. She hooked her arm under Rosella’s and brought her up.

      “Do not fret. I am well,” she said in her usual cheery spirits.

      “Oh, thank the Fire Spirit!” Anneth wrapped her in a tight embrace, receiving it back.

      “Everybody, be on alert. We’ve got company.” The shroud of her weapon flapped in the air as it eased to the floor like a feather. Gertrude bent at the knees and hips, spear in hand, taking a stance she was all too familiar with. Not to mention, she had another deadly weapon: her red elven eyes. They glared dead ahead, capable of burning holes through stone.

      “Company? You mean--” She answered Hudson with a nod first.

      “Not for us, specifically. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be nice.”

      “Thieves,” Anneth suggested. “There’s cargo here. Why wouldn’t they target us?” Only thieves or adventurers gone rouge would stoop to levels this low. There was always the possibility they might recognize the princess, too. So just because they came here for loot didn’t exclude a bonus bounty. On the contrary, it made the assault that much more profitable. Anneth would have to treat this incident like the last and be extra cautious where these ruffians stuck their noses.

      “Hey, hey! What do we have here, eh?” A scratchy voice snooped from the back. “That lying bastard said there were no ladies aboa--”

      Gertrude whacked him on the side of the jaw, and the thief crashed into the wagon face first, sliding down unconscious. “Small fry,” she said with a cold tongue. “Put the covers down and protect yourselves! I’m going out there to fight!” Before she could jump off, Rosella yanked on her hood.

      “Wait! A-Allow me to join you.”

      “Princess!,” Anneth protested.

      “I cannot let what happened impede me from helping. The people of this caravan need all the help they can get.”

      “Your safety comes first, though.” Anneth clawed on to the princess with a firm hold, and prayed her desperate tone would yield her.

      “I may have lost the right to the crown. I may never be a ruler while I still breathe. But I cannot sit idly by and let the people of my kingdom do everything for me.”

      Rosella bit down on her lip as she trembled. She was obviously scared and hadn’t unsheathed her blade to anyone since that incident. Brave or naïve, she did an excellent job to not wait out the danger in a corner with her head tucked between her legs. However bad she wanted to believe nothing would happen, that they’d reach the Fire Spirit temple and save her best friend from impending doom, Anneth swayed towards the latter.

      She grit her teeth.

      Gertrude’s ears fluttered and she erected as if someone had stroked the without permission. “Stand back. Someone’s coming,” she alerted, exploding into ash. The next thing they heard was a loud whack and a grunt.

      “Gertrude!,” Anneth said as she covered her mouth and nose. They hopped out and found the elf standing behind a thief lying prone and unconscious, ashes at her feet. She left the group gawking at her expertise, blown away.

      “You there!” Another thief appeared pointing his curved blade. The man had on a red bandana and was shirtless with only a raggedy vest and pair of pants that reached knee level. He looked like a bull more because of his sturdy frame than the ring dangling from his nose. “Whaddya think yer doin’? Hey, boss! We got a couple o’ kids that took down Mav!”

      “Welp, can't hide now,” Gertrude said in a manner that was too comfortable. “Rosella. I'll be your second set of eyes.” She dashed off.

      The brute groaned and stampeded, kicking dirt in the air on a collision course with Gertrude.

      “Right!” Rosella sprinted. She proved too swift for Anneth, distance widening with each passing second. She whimpered like a pup, unable to restrain her. This wasn't going to end well. The stench of disaster wormed into her nostrils.

      With her spear, Gertrude catapulted off the ground and onto the thief’s ugly mug, kicking off as Rosella drove her elbow into his pot belly. They bolted for the next without looking back. “They got this,” Hudson cheered, fist bobbing. “I never imagined Rosella could move like that! Those girls make an awesome combo!” From here on, Anneth’s sole option was to trust in Gertrude that she'd keep watch over the princess. If she joined in, Anneth would only hinder their chances of survival.

      She brought her hands to her chest, suppressing the tears.

      Rapid footfalls came their way, and with it, a warcry. Yet another blade wielding thief! He had crept from their blindspot, using the wagon as cover, and lunged at Anneth. “Die!,” he howled. She gasped, frozen by fear until Hudson pushed her aside.

      What was he thinking? Saving her like that as if he had no regard for his own safety. He was no fearless prince. But she didn't want the blade to pierce his skin, either. Hudson would die in her place.

      A confused sound escaped Hudson's mouth. He and the thief traced a curved line on the road as they wrestled with their bodies stuck together, boots scraping the dirt. The blade had made it to the other side, but because Hudson had successfully locked the thief’s arm at the elbow joint. Anneth’s heart lodged in her throat, cold sweat drenching the backside of her tunic. The idiot was safe!

      “Leggo o’ me!,” the ruffian growled. He thrust his knee at Hudson's flank, however, Hudson endured and countered with repeated pommels to the cheek, eventually putting him to sleep. A few wagons over, a mother yanked her child away from the covers. Men scrambled to the front equipped with cleavers, pitchforks, and sickles as a full on war had broken out. Horses stomped their hooves and neighed frantically. The forest seemed to have come alive.

      “Don’t just stand there! Come on!” Hudson snatched Anneth by the wrist and sought shelter inside. He barricaded the front and rear with the boxes and barrels of grain, closed the covers tight, and huddled in the center where enough space was allotted for the both of them. The sounds of metal striking metal and shouts of men flooded the atmosphere like a bonafide battlefield. To her surprise, there was whistling and whooping that sounded celebratory. That was fine and dandy. Probably Gertrude teaching the band of thieves a lesson. Nonetheless, Anneth couldn’t believe it. Not that close encounter with death... again. Her hands quivered and --try as she might-- she couldn’t get her teeth to quit clattering. They were so loud they could rival the noise outside. She was on the verge of swooning, losing control of her bladder. It was only a matter of time.

      Warmth came onto her. A warmth she only felt when the princess or Gertrude were close by and could offer a safe haven for each other in their arms. It carried the same effect as the blanket Trebena had gifted her: a source of protection. Funnily enough, this was even better, gentler when it wrapped Anneth within sturdy yet comfy limbs that knew how to comfort a despairing girl.

      She floated in heaven where evil was nonexistent. If clouds could be beds, this is how cozy they'd be. Any trace of panic still eating at her crumbled to dust.

      “Stay calm. I'm right here.” The gentle voice caressed her left ear. It belonged to someone she had little faith in, yet right now she felt the opposite. “If they manage to get in, I'll protect you.” Why was he so nice to her?

      Anneth loosened from the embrace and turned to face Hudson directly in the eyes, their clothes rustling.

      She put her thumb on his lips when he was about to ask what she was doing, then removed it when he got the message. There was no way she would let him ruin this. He had to be good at reading the mood, at least. Anneth closed the gap separating them, their heavy breaths mixing as she combed his hair. She moaned a little and witnessed his Adam’s apple vault. Rousing signals shot throughout her body when their noses finally touched. She went ahead and rubbed her tip on his anyway. It was softer than what she expected. Anneth imagined that --because he was a man-- his skin would be rough and hard, almost like leather. A side of her she never thought existed was happy, strangely. To be this close to someone else was a whole nother world. She saw nothing but Hudson, only Hudson, and everything else seemed to dissolve.

      What was this force taking control of her? Anneth had no clue who this girl was, as though she were a prisoner in her own skin. She fought to pull back and regain control, afraid she’d get lost amidst the indecency, but a part of her craved to keep on. It shouldn’t be indecent if passion was involved, said the right side of her brain. The other half screamed, clawed from within her skull so it could be heard loud and clear.

      Then Rosella’s image surfaced, bringing Anneth to her senses. Without delay, she pulled her hand back over her head and swung down, smacking the spit out of Hudson. The force driving the hit nearly twisted his neck. It didn’t stop there. She latched on to him by the collar with all her strength as she unleashed fury. “You say anything about today to anyone, even in a hypothetical question, and I promise... I will kill you,” she threatened, baring her fangs.

      “But you--”

      “No ‘buts’, Hudson,” she cut in. “You have to swear that no mention of what happened here ever sees the light of day. And that it never makes its way into Rosella’s ears. Things will not go smoothly on our journey to the temple if she were to find out. She could give up on me halfway. Then what? How will you take responsibility?”

      By the time she had snapped out of that trance, cheers and singing were all the rage outside, leading her to believe the heist was done and over with. Anneth stood and grimaced as though he was excrement on the sidewalk. She’d never tire of seeing Hudson with that same stupid look of “why me?”.

      “This makes no sense,” he said unable to believe the unfair treatment he received after looking out for Anneth. “I was only trying to--”

      Gertrude swung the covers open. “Anneth! Hudson! We won! We chased the thieves out with zero casualties! Everyone’s waiting on us to celebrate!” She bounced to get a better view over the barricade.

      Anneth inhaled, the corners of her mouth soaring. “Wonderful! Oh, what a relief!,” she expressed with deep gratitude. “Let us go to the princess and celebrate!”

      “Yeah!” Gertrude assisted her off the wagon and they pranced off for the crowd where Rosella was being tossed in the air, leaving Hudson by himself.

      On her way to the celebration, Anneth wondered why Hudson never touched her at least once during that whole incident.

 

      From the horizon emerged a conical shape that aimed towards the sky like an arrowhead. It caught the glint of the sun and shone brighter than a lighthouse. The capital was closer than ever, and Anneth Lisbon prepared mentally for the perilous task ahead. This mission was suicidal in various fashions. Every course of action taken inside those walls would determine whether they lived to see another day, or rot in the castle dungeons, and she had no intention of failing. Anneth furrowed her brows at the Vermillion castle.

      She sat back down close to Gertrude. Anneth had been brainstorming a plan that would allow them entry without having to pass through inspection. This was the capital city, after all, and rumors spoke badly of those stationed at the city's walls. They were said to have the strictest, roughest personalities out of all the royal paramilitary forces, only second to the king's personal guards. Any guard had the potential to recognize Rosella, despite not sporting long hair anymore and have the group arrested on the spot, which is why she wanted to avoid them. The biggest giveaway were her breathtaking, emerald eyes. Anyone who'd met the princess in person would agree she had literal jewels for eyes.

      Luckily, it was a different story when she dressed as the common folk. Like Felker, many people made reference to them and complimented that aspect of her beauty, ignorant of her royal status.

      “Everyone,” Anneth said quietly so her voice wouldn't penetrate the wagon covers. Rosella, Gertrude, and Hudson minded her. “I have an idea to enter the city without raising any red flags.” She faced Gertrude. “You replenished your supply of ashes, correct?” The elf gave a brisk nod of her head. “Splendid. Now, listen…”

 

      Anneth poked out to check on the fur trader's wagon in front. Everything so far had gone smoothly without a ruckus. She gestured Gertrude to change places.

      “They made it in,” Anneth informed.

      Gertrude lifted the cover by the corner and eyeballed their landing spot. “Got it,” she said, closing it.

      Their vehicle started again, and the sound of a loud instrument vibrated into their bones. Only it wasn’t an instrument but the grain merchant’s overly-exaggerated, manly tone. “Missy.

      I’m gonna need you all to step out so they can check the cargo and…” His voice faded into the background.

      “...He scared me half to death,” Anneth said controlling her anger through clenched teeth. Rosella clutched the fist Anneth made and transmitted her calmness. Without fail, the princess was at her side like always. It mattered not whether the times were peaceful or resembled stormy weather, she could always count on her best friend to be there. They shared a loving smile.

      “When you’re ready, Anneth,” said the elf.

      “Yes. Let’s go.” The merchant fulfilled his part of the deal, and so did Anneth by leaving behind the remaining forty eight kroans that would help pay his entry fee.

      With everyone holding on to Gertrude, they burst into a cloud of smoke. Anneth hadn’t gotten used to the feeling of teleporting due it being her second time since they evaded the avalanche. She compared it to sleep, except one would appear somewhere else within the span of a blink. The next thing she knew, they were under the white sheet that protected the fur trader’s merchandise, smoke puffing out. They stuffed their faces into their clothing to prevent coughing, and scrambled to one of the four corners.

      They would have to wait several minutes in order to be at a safe distance from the entrance before disembarking. But the floating cloud of ash in the center made the wait more strenuous than it should. Anneth could only curse it so much. Without it, they never would have been able to sneak in so easily and undetected. She endured it, and so did everyone else.

      The entrance had disappeared behind a barrage of people, and no authorities seemed to be around. The wagon turned a corner to boot. If they were to take a gamble, now would be the best time. Anneth waved, which prompted Rosella, Gertrude, and Hudson to the rear with her. They would get off in accordance to their body weight so as to not rock the vehicle violently in one go. Gertrude being the lightest leapt out first, then Rosella, followed by Anneth, and lastly Hudson.

      Everyone landed without much trouble and only feet of each other.

      “We're in,” Gertrude said as if she were unimpressed, but in reality awed at the metropolitan landscape she had never seen before.

      Anneth and Rosella pulled their hoods over their heads, turned inside out to hide the distinguishing designs of the House of Vermillion. Stimuli hit their five senses. Cascades of talking swamped into their ears, carts rattled as they carried imported goods via the cobblestone streets. Smoke billowed out of chimneys, and vendors called out the quality of their products to potential customers. The congested air ranged from smells of meats and spices, to clay and rusty metals.

      The majority of buildings in the area were made of stone and marble, topped with orange tiled roofs. They were clumped together almost lazily, and stacked with multiple floors with sometimes only narrow alleys to distinguish a start and end of a new street.

      A most nostalgic experience if Anneth ever knew one. But the sightseeing would have to wait; they were in the lion's den. Up above loomed the castle perched on a wave shaped plateau like a throne. It dwarved the entire city, appearing a bluish shade from atop its lofty altitude. She knew there was no way it could be true, but Anneth felt a pair of observant, menacing eyes push her down by the shoulders inches into the ground. Their origin was the castle’s front gates. She knew his look too well. It belonged to the king of Ponderosa himself. She pictured him surrounded by royal subjects, one hand on the pommel of his trusty sword and the other ready to set off fireworks, scowling with the power to force armies to retreat.

      “Everyone follow me,” she said, voice strong. “We have to find a place to stay, for tomorrow will be a long day.”