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Fire Princess and the Outcasts chapter 1
The wine glass offered Morvon little solace as he peered at the wanted poster on his lap. Though it was dim, the cocky smirk on the hand-drawn portrait stood out like the flickering candles in the room. The days where he could sport such levels of confidence were long gone; dead. He wished to rewrite that history, wished to undo it. Maybe then the reward money wouldn't amount to a fortune.
Morvon brushed his scraggly beard, the rustling strands disturbing the quiet. He took the glass of wine and downed what remained of the beverage. A wet fire scorched his throat. “Nothing I can do now,” he said not to himself, but the other person in the room. “Might as well take what's coming like a man. The same way all those people did by my own hands.” Those same hands trembled as he set the glass back on the table with a thump. “If you're gonna be upset at someone, be upset at me for slaying the innocent. They're the ones who deserve pity. Not this old man. Wouldn't be in this position had I chosen a more honorable path in life.”
Morvon paused and glided his grey eyes to the left wall, where beneath the glow of candles sat a dark figure in fetal position, long object clutched between their legs and chest. Hopefully his words were getting through, even though there was no answer, just like it had been for gods know how long. Burping the alcohol took some much needed stress off his shoulders.
“Think I'll be around forever?,” he started, voice raspy. “That even when you make it to my age, I'll still be on my feet like I am right now, or thirty years ago? In that case, give it up. I taught you how to take care of yourself. You should be fine on your own from here on.”
Was he being too harsh? Probably. But what else should he say? Morvon had to get through to her somehow, and that immature behavior wasn't helping, either. Foolish girl. Had to be a crybaby when the times called for firm resolve. He licked the residual booze off his lips and fiddled with his beard. Each individual strand sounded like strings on a lute in this unmoving quietness. Not a foreign sound disturbed the air. Even the birds outside would be chirping this early in the day, as if the tension seeped through the cottage and into the forest.
Still, it was unclear whether he'd get a fair trial or sent to the gallows or a dungeon. He had heard many former mercenaries end up receiving the latter, gallows or dungeon, both making him sweat cold. With the exception of one man, also having taken numerous lives, walk free because he had turned a new leaf. Morvon entertained the idea.
“Then again, nothing’s carved in stone,” he said frowning at the wanted poster. “I might be able to get off with a minimum sentence. The legal system may’ve been modernized… reformed with more logical methods to judge the defendant. Who knows. It may not turn out so bad in the end.”
A pair of long ears flickered out from underneath the figure's black hair. So she was still listening. For all he knew, she could've been asleep this whole time since their arguing erupted when he broke the news. Morvon felt an incoming smile, giving it the boot before it reshaped his expectations. Getting carried away by a potential false hope would only lead to disappointment. He probably shouldn't have said that.
“Just be ready for anything. Whatever happens, happens.”
Having said and done all he could, Morvon placed his right elbow on the table and plopped his head in his hand. A deafening calm choked the room. The type that if hushed for too long, would test the limits of one's sanity. He grew tired of waiting, anxious for the moment to arrive he foresaw that morning. Many times his precognition had gotten him out of tough situations, or helped him avoid them all together. That magic skill was a blessing in more ways than one, but in rare instances it was nothing but a rotten curse. He damned his younger self for learning it.
As if reading his mind, a knocking shattered the silence, pulling their attention to the front door. Finally, they had come for him. The man's vision seemed to blur and sway side to side out of nowhere. Not from the alcohol though. It was the knocking that shook him up, what he had been waiting for: the end of days. A call from the past he'd rather forget ever happened. Morvon gripped the table's edge with all his strength. He was going to be honest: he wanted nothing more but to leap out of the window, and break for the safety of the deep forest. Except he wouldn't. Not while she was here, or else he had no right to call himself a reformed man. On both feet and on his way to the door, every step Morvon took weighed a ton heavier than the last. It had taken all his will power merely to get off the chair. Sweat trickled down his left cheekbone, tracing a path on his square jaw and to the chin. The big talk he spouted moments earlier watched his every move, judging how he conducted himself down to the way every wrinkle curved on his face.
He arrived at the door, and reluctance turned the knob. The person sitting in fetal position poked an eye out.
To his surprise, there wasn’t a tall, broad shouldered man armed to the teeth, ready to fight when he opened the door. Nor a band of rowdy thugs brandishing their swords. It was but a young woman, five or six inches shorter than him dressed in a maroon cloak with gold trimming at arm's length away, bearing a fun smile without a care in the world. Morvon’s back muscles loosened, and his shoulders slumped. What was this? A salesperson? They had no business here in the forest. The young woman was delicate in appearance, like a flower, soothing to admire its charm. She had fiery red hair cut short down to the neck, with longer bangs to the right side suggesting a free spirited touch. But what stood out the most was her emerald colored irises. Morvon thought he peered into another realm, a cave of lavish jewels.
The young woman spoke. “Good evening, sir! Pardon me for interrupting your busy schedule. But allow me a few minutes of your time to answer some very important questions. Would that be all right with you?” Her eyelashes, so long and detailed, fluttered up and down. Without realizing, Morvon tilted his head and an eyebrow climbing his forehead. A muttered sound like that of granting permission escaped through his teeth. She caught on and continued.
“My name is Rosella, and might you be the one who goes by the name of Mor… M-Mor-on?” They shared a look caught between polite and awkward facial expressions as the word lingered over their heads. Anything else she was going to say next she put on hold. Rosella raised her left index finger as though asking for patience. She reached into her cloak and pulled out a sheet of paper, unrolling and reading from it after clearing her throat. “‘Mor-von Es-ta-pol’, is what I meant to say. Pardon me,” she said amidst embarrassed giggles. “Are you Morvon Estapol, sir?” She smiled.
“Y-yes. That's me.”
“And you've been living in this forest for approximately twenty years? Is that correct?”
Rosella nodded. “You're six feet tall, greyish eyes, blond short hair, have pronounced cheekbones, are of a tough build, and have a full beard.”
He nodded back to her description but insisted on making a correction. “Well, not really. My hair’s at my shoulders now, and it's greyed considerably. But the rest is fine.”
She giggled. “I can see it is. And o~ne more thing. You served in lord Einrich’s personal army during the Decade’s War almost thirty years ago as a mage mercenary. This means you helped in the destruction of towns and villages inside the kingdom’s borders, and killed thousands of innocent civilians while doing so. You should also be a bearer of the mark of magic on the nape of your neck. Or so it says… Am I correct?,” She asked gleefully, pulling the sheet down.
Morvon let his guard down the moment he set eyes on a young woman instead of a ruffian looking to make easy money off his hide, like he expected. He had forgotten about his vision from that morning in an instant. The reason why wasn't because of the girl's beauty, either.
When she asked for permission to question him briefly he didn’t challenge her motives-- rather-- he forgot to. But when she started listing out the crimes of his past, her words became claws and reached out to undress him of his clothes, exposing him shamelessly bare. The caress of a slight breeze felt more akin to thorns on his skin, which made Morvon want to retreat under the covers of his bed.
Rosella’s innocent smile evolved into a smirk that still did not distort her beauty. “What’s wrong, Mr. Estapol? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
No, I-I… uuh…” Sweat spewed from every pore on Morvon’s body as he struggled through an obstacle course of stuttering. The tree trunks he had as legs trembled at the knees like twigs reaching their breaking point. “Can I uh, j-just… I mean…” he said motioning inside the house with his thumb.
There was no going back now. Morvon was convinced nothing would change her mind, no matter what he said to save his skin. Scaring her off with magic seemed like a good option. If he did though, that would only reinforce the bad guy label already attached to him. And worst case scenario: he could hurt her in the process. The days where he attacked the weak had no place in his heart anymore. Convincing her would require something of value to rival the bounty on his head, which he didn't have. He saw no other choice. His insides swelled, popped. The screams of his victims suddenly at his ears.
W-wait a moment, please. I need to--”
“No, no. You must answer my questions, mister Estapol.” Rosella snagged Morvon by the wrist with the grip of a hawk’s talons. “If you will not cooperate, then I will have no choice but to take you to the guild house by force,” she warned with a smile.
Morvon pulled against her but without using his full strength. He was caught in a bind of doing the right thing or getting out of it by whatever means necessary. His mind raced faster than he could think, making him nauseous.
“Gertrude!,” he reached out desperately to the person in the house, voice on the verge of collapse. “I need you to take the medicine to the village within two days. Apologise to everyone for me. Take care of yourself from now on. Goodbye.”
Great! Splendid! Marvelous! This was their biggest bounty yet! With the amount of money this man was worth, Rosella and Anneth could afford to take a break from hunting criminals, and maybe rent a house in a small town somewhere. And to think she was going to cancel the quest because of its “high caution level”. Nonsense. Though she had to admit, she had her doubts at the beginning. But in the end it turned out in their favor. Rosella would burst out in laughter right here if it meant she could still be taken seriously. She was overjoyed to not have listened to her friend.
They'd still be going after petty criminals worth pocket change right now. The fun was always short lived with those, unfortunately. That wasn't to say this Morvon guy put up a fight, she'd gladly spar with him to see what skills he had up his sleeve since that caution level wasn't just for show. Morvon stopped resisting, and Rosella flashed her teeth like a champion. Perfect.
The scent of ashes flooded her nostrils, and a thick cloud of smoke rained overhead, obscuring her vision. Was the house on fire? She stiffened when a sharpness slowly traced up the curvature of her back, nestling in the middle of both shoulder blades as if to subdue her. It did the trick. “Leave now before your blood runs down the shaft of my spear.” The voice was soft spoken, feminine, yet cold like the blade digging into Rosella’s skin. She stopped breathing, afraid it would trigger the assailant. Another pair of sharp objects poked at the back of her head. But these came in the form of glaring eyes.
This had to be an illusion. Where did this smoke and ash come from? The roof? This Morvon guy was a hermit after all, and hermits were known for being untidy. So, would that mean only the assailant was an illusion?
Morvon snatched Rosella by the wrist, and yanked her towards him away from danger. “What do you think you’re doing? Stop!,” he shouted.
Now was a good time to test her assumptions. From the corner of her eye, Rosella saw the aggressor shrouded behind a cloud of smoke. Only the spear jutted out of the smoke screen like a claw from the underworld. It caught the glint of the sun's rays along its razor sharp edge, hungry to impale her body. The world moved in slow motion by this point, stretching seconds into minutes. Rosella wasn't going to waste the opportunity.
Rosella summoned all the strength to her right leg and launched it upward heel first at the spear, knocking it out of the assailant’s hands and flying away to the forest floor. She pushed off Morvon’s chest, unsheathed a dagger from under her cloak, and charged in for the counter attack. A warcry burst out as she leaped forward.
Out of nowhere, the aggressor exploded into a cloud of smoke. Rosella stumbled through as her dagger met no stop, rolling like a ball. When she came to a stop, she surveyed the area frantically knowing the attacker would spare no time in retrieving their spear. But it was too late. Several feet away hovered more smoke above the ground where the spear had landed. The silhouette of a girl strutted out. “Gertrude! What the hell do you think you're doing?”, Morvon hollered from the front door. The man shook with anger. “Stupid girl! Keep your nose out of my business and get back inside the house!”
The smoke cleared away gradually to reveal Gertrude’s more defining physical features. She grasped the spear and yanked it out of the ground, locking her amber colored eyes onto her target. She took a step closer and drew the word “elf” from Rosella’s lips.
Gertrude spun the spear with grace around her left hand in a show of hardened skill. The message came across loud and clear to Rosella as a declaration of war. It was intimidating, but she accepted.
“There's no way I can do that,” the elf whispered under her breath.
She darted for Rosella at breakneck speed. Rosella hurried to a defensive stance, and brandished her weapon to deflect the incoming attack. But once again, smoke and ashes. Rosella sucked her breath back in. Where did she go? Gertrude emerged from her right flank with a quick thrust, to which Rosella cut back a step, dodging, then dragged her dagger across the spear’s shaft, igniting sparks as she tried to land a hit.
Gertrude ducked in time and let the attack’s momentum put some distance between them. The girls bended at the knees and took the defensive, circling one another. Rosella flaunted a cocky smile while Gertrude laid low glaring in focus. That last attack was too close. I ought to heed my surroundings immediately next time she does that. She examined the elf for any openings, tightening the grip on her dagger.
“Girls!,” Morvon hollered. “Listen to me! Put away your weapons and stop fighting! Going any further and one of you will end up dead!” He slammed a fist on the wall.
To his dismay, begging had the opposite effect on them as neither minded him. Morvon’s call might as well have fallen on deaf ears.
This wasn’t all true, because Rosella found a savvy way to use him to her advantage. Standing her ground, she readied her blade close to where sunlight penetrated through the trees. She scanned the distance between her and Gertrude, and braced for what she hoped would happen.
Gertrude seemed to note something.
“Pardon me but, Gertrude is your name, correct?”
Not really a talker, huh? “Do me a favor, and please tell Mr. Moron not to butt in.” She intentionally mispronounced it to get under her skin. “I find it quite rude, really, even disrespectful to distract us when our bout is at its height. You two seem well acquainted, so he might comply if you request it.” Rosella ended with a wink. As she predicted, Gertrude’s face twisted in disgust for that. The hairs on her head stood up in rage, and the space between her eyes wrinkled uglier. She growled like a four-legged animal, sprinting to return the insult for pain. It worked. A numbing pulse ran through Rosella’s muscles, and disturbed her bones as their weapons clashed. This girl was fiercer than before. Rosella had underestimated her, but so had she. “Gotcha!,” she exclaimed, and angled the dagger’s surface to reflect the falling sunlight onto the elf’s face.
She cried out in discomfort and fell back. Moaning and rubbing her eyes on her forearm, Gertrude swung the spear aimlessly at the air, hoping it would keep Rosella at bay while she recovered. A range of cursing ensued for the dirty tactic, and Rosella bellowed out in witty laughter.
“Forgive me for using such an underhanded method,” Rosella said twirling her dagger. “I was testing your patience.” The elf glared back with one eye.
“Testing?,” she asked, offended. “Only a barbarian would call that a test. That's cheating!”
Gertrude was right, but Rosella didn't have plans to argue. “Ehem. Call me crazy, but this is the first time I have ever laid eyes on an elf. Let alone crossed arms with one. I have only heard mention of your kind from others and in books. To my surprise, however, you are unlike those from the history books. What is an elf to gain from coexisting with a human?” Gertrude did not answer. She seemed confused, as if they suddenly spoke in different tongues. Not even Morvon said a word to that. That felt like a waste of time. Rosella encircled her opponent, dagger ready and mind focused. “I must admit, there is a wild throbbing in my heart of pure joy. And it is telling me this could be the best decision in all my life.” The skin around the elven girl's eyes tightened. “For once in these twenty years of mine do I feel a sense of accomplishment. I could even say it is addictive, honestly. When you live your entire life missing out on adventures you see how stale it is to live off the success of others. I do not know how I survived for so long. I consider it a miracle not going mad couped up in my room all day.” She came to a halt, then extended her arm out and unfolded her fingers from the palm. “Gertrude, never will I forget this day. Thank you for granting me this rare opportunity.”
It sounded tacky and scripted like the fairytale puppet plays for kids in festivals, even though she meant every word. Still, that did not take away from her desires to dig a hole and crawl in it. With the spear at her side and crouching, Gertrude grimaced at Rosella. The stream of platitudes had no effect on the elf’s opinion of her. “What are you getting at?,” she demanded through clenched teeth. “Is this some sort of mind game you're setting up to throw me off guard?”
“Nothing of the sort. I admit the attempt to blind you was of poor taste. It is not something a prideful warrior utilizes in battle.” Rosella tossed the dagger in mid air, making it spin and catching it as it came down. “But I am neither prideful, nor is this about ideals.” She dashed for Gertrude as quick as lightning. Their blades met and the sound of clashing metal rippled throughout the forest. Rosella followed through with a heel kick, but Gertrude blocked it with the shaft and shoved her away, chasing after her.
They scurried in a straight line without direction. When she looked over her shoulder, Gertrude was taking longer strides, leaping. Surely she was preparing for an attack. The elf swung her spear as she twirled in mid air like a dancer. Rosella ducked before it could land a strike, then jumped away when it drove down at her feet. She needed more space --urgently, so she resorted to somersaults. Gertrude yanked the spear out of the ground, leaving a deep pit and chunks of earth scattered around it. They circled each other to catch their breaths.
Rosella wanted to ask if it was hard to keep a scowl for so long. Not once had she seen her crack a smile during their fun fight, unlike her. It must be an elf thing. Gertrude twirled her spear some more. With every revolution, the bladed end would make a swift cutting sound as it sliced the air.
“Girls! I beg you. Seize this meaningless violence at once.” Morvon was still at it. What made him think they would stop this late into the fight? Regardless, the girls ignored his plea.
This time Gertrude charged in head-on. Their fight played out like a choreographed performance, testing their body's limits in terms of athleticism and skill. They bent and moved like the wind in all directions. Rosella pushed Gertrude back on the defensive as she wielded her dagger like a brush painting broad strokes on a large canvas. Every slash came closer and closer, until one managed to land on Gertrude’s left thigh, cutting through the elf’s stocking. The cut wasn't deadly, but it drew sufficient blood to rain down on the grass below her.
“Gertrude!,” Morvon yelled her name in desperation. She toughed out the pain and catapulted over Rosella using her spear. She wouldn't let her escape that easy. Not when she had just gotten the upper hand. But the taste of victory was short lived. Gertrude whacked her on the right shoulder with the shaft so hard, it forced the wind out of her lungs as if it had been sucked out. Rosella staggered, coughing, but wouldn't allow herself to falter amidst the heat of the battle. She switched the dagger to her left hand and lunged at the elf. They slashed at one another, dodging attacks and blocking whichever way possible.
The effects of their scuffle were starting to weigh down on Rosella’s stamina. She knew Gertrude felt the same. The elf’s movements were getting slower, just like hers. Something had to be done sooner than later to end this battle.
Sweat speckled her forehead underneath her bangs, and the heaviness weighing down her legs felt like she carried sand bags. Gertrude’s last jab punctured only the air, missing by a half foot. What a lousy attempt at delivering the finishing blow. Rosella sought the opportunity again to kick away the spear, but she held on firmly. The only effect it had was pushing her back from a loss of balance. She regained her footing shortly, keeping a safe distance away. The only other person to ever get her to these levels of exhaustion was Morvon on training days. Speaking of which… she knew he was distressed to see her fighting, upset he couldn't do a thing to prevent her from continuing on until someone surrendered.
Still, he had to be proud of her skills, right? It was him who had taught her from an early age to handle tools designed to kill. Most children wouldn't touch a kitchen knife until a few years later than when she started. That smirk Rosella had on since the beginning was getting old. If only she could hit her again… Maybe then she'd be less irritated. Her opponent, started to creep backwards while keeping an eye on her, widening the gap. Did she intend to retreat? In which case, should Gertrude give chase and hunt her down to prevent another visit? Or let her go? No. She had to be preparing for an attack.
Only time would tell. Gertrude stood her ground for whatever came next. Finally, Rosella rushed at her but with the dagger trailing behind, its end pointing the opposite direction. What was she thinking? The technique was amateurish because it left the entire front vulnerable to attacks. But if it meant Gertrude would win, she had no reason to argue against it.
This was the opening she was waiting for. Gertrude one-handed her spear and grabbed it near the end, thrusting it once the distance had trimmed back within her striking range. But something she didn't expect happened. Rosella took off her cloak and used it as a whip to snatch away the spear. Gertrude’s eyes widened as she lost her grip, pulling her body away. Rosella then chucked the cloak at her face and blinded her. Her world went black the same time she lost the spear. It meant Gertrude had lost and was about to pay with her life in front of Morvon of all people, and in her territory of all places. Was it a blessing or a curse to go out this way?
Don't panic. You have magic. That's right!
The blood in her veins flowed in reverse. She became light like a feather and became ashes. Footsteps. They came fast. Gertrude imagined the space behind them, then saw the world again but from a different physical perspective in slow motion. Rosella crashed into her own cloak, smoke exploding out from the impact Gertrude left in her wake. This was a good spot to return to. Blinking again, the elf came out of an ash cloud and promptly retrieved her fallen spear while Rosella struggled.
Gertrude drove a booted foot to her bottom to knock her down, and glided the spear at her neck when Rosella emerged from the cloak. The look of humiliation suited the redhead more than that pretentious smirk. Gertrude blew out her adrenaline in the form of a “tough girl” exhale. “I win,” she said in a low tone.
Rosella swallowed and allowed the smirk to come back. She was a sore loser, to say the least. “Out of all the jobs I have taken thus far over the past six months, this is the first that will go unaccomplished. If I could... warn the guild masters to cancel this one forever, the future might look good for you and Mr. Estapol. You would not have to worry about this happening again. What do you think? A good idea, is it not?” The quiver in her voice was too obvious to ignore, but Gertrude only found it irritating for someone who’d come unsolicited for their own selfish gain. A selfish gain she wished to never relate to especially if it meant taking people away from others. She couldn’t describe it well even if given the chance. What better scenario than this one when it would be justified to stain her hands of blood?
“You make for a sorry excuse of a bounty hunter, adventurer, whatever you are, I don’t care.” She prepared her spear, racking up power in her arm. “I'll make an example out of you so no one else will dare step foot in our forest.” Gertrude casted the most threatening stare she could muster. An ensuing silence layered the atmosphere thick in hostility. The sounds of animals had died down, their instincts alerting them of killing intent. Rosella huddled into herself, expecting the spear to fall any moment.
“Stop, stop, stop, stop, stooooop!!” Morvon threw himself over Rosella, shielding her as he waved his arms. “Stop for a second and think about what you're doing.”
Gertrude flashed her canines.“Get out of the way, Morvon!,” she demanded. “You have to be crazy to protect the person that came here to kill you!”
“That doesn't matter,” he argued. “What I’m trying to say is no one needs to come out of this losing their life.”
“Then what are you suggesting we do? Buy into her lies?” It set her innards on fire to see him protect someone else. Morvon gave her a glare like that of father and child, one that Gertrude had become familiar with growing up. Even though his skin had wrinkled and he'd traded some muscle mass for fat, he became an immovable rock when he set his foot down authoritatively. She readied for what came next, keeping a bravado to not lose face in front of Rosella: the enemy.
“I did not put in the effort all these years raising you to set another cold blooded murderer on this world run free. We already have one too many of those good for nothing, greedy bastards running around starting wars to elevate their egos and fill their pockets. Or tell me, when have I told you it’s okay to take the life of another, huh?” Gertrude scowled, diverting her eyes away. What Morvon said was true, except he had taught her to kill, but only when hunting for food. And when she found herself in a life or death predicament, Morvon drilled it into her head to incapacitate the enemy instead. Even if it meant breaking their legs so long as she didn’t kill, and then make a run for it.
Gertrude lowered her spear, choking it to quench her anger. She never had a problem adhering to those morals, going so far as putting them to practice the first time two years ago when she was unlucky to cross paths with bandits. It was a part of Morvon’s nature she held in high regard. Still, she found no flaw bending the rules when it came to protecting someone she loved. Her silence translated as an unspoken agreement. Rosella pressed her lips together, loosening the grip on her dagger.
“Princess!... Princess!... Are you there!?” A weary voice suddenly echoed nearby in the forest. Its feminine pitch made it clear it was another young woman. Everyone turned their heads to the stirring bushes on the edge of the clearing as the owner of that voice stepped into view. “There you are! I thought I heard your voice somewhere in this direction.” Rosella sighed and hunched over. “Thank goodness I found you, princess,” she said bending over to catch her breath.
“Just when will you drop the ‘princess’ thing?,” Rosella muttered under her breath. The girl was of short stature and dressed in a similar cloak to Rosella’s, but in green. Her long, yellow tunic extended above her exposed knees, and was fitted at the waist by a brown corset.
She brushed aside locks of brown hair behind an ear. The young woman spoke again, offended. “How cruel of you... to abandon me at the pond after getting me drunk. I could have drowned for crying out loud! And to top it off, you went so far as to throw all my clothes in the trees. Do you… have any idea how embarrassing it was for me to climb while being completely naked? The tears I shed... because I thought I would have to go look for you, exhibiting my body to the forest animals? No, you do not! Because it has never been done to you!”
Her shoulders bobbed up and down, and her round glasses fogged from her pouring body heat. Gertrude had no clue who this person was, but judging by the conversation, it was meant for no one but Rosella. She peered down at the redhead, still on the ground, as she achingly rubbed her temples. “For goodness sakes, Anneth,” she whispered loud enough to hear, “think before you speak. We have company.”
Hearing the tip, the young woman rubbed the fog off her glasses, and promptly covered her mouth from gasping with both hands. To be honest, even Gertrude felt embarrassed for her. Clearing her throat, the young woman went on to introduce herself.
P-pardon me for my shameless behavior. My name is Anneth Lisbon. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” She bowed.
“Likewise… I’m Morvon Estapol and this here is Gertrude.”
Gertrude and Anneth lowered their heads at each other in a show of respect. She continued speaking. “I beg for your understanding, Mr. Estapol, as I can tell that my friend here has caused quite the commotion on your property,” she apologized in a polite fashion.
“N-not at all. You see, young lady, my life has had many attempts on it before for the crimes I committed during the Ten Year's War. I, uhh... believe she came here for that same reason. Something like this isn’t new to me, unfortunately.” Morvon took a knee next to Rosella and recited an incantation. It manifested a greenish, glowing orb in his right palm. They gawked at it in awe, probably their first time seeing this magic. He slowly guided the orb to her shoulder where it sunk into her clothes and even further down until her body had absorbed it.
Once that was done, Morvon offered his hand to Rosella which she accepted without hesitation. He helped her stand. “Are you better now?,” he asked.
Rosella avoided eye contact, blushing lightly. “Yes. Thank you. The pain is gone.”
“Was that some sort of healing magic?,” Anneth asked pushing her glasses up. Morvon nodded. “H-how unexpected. Never would I have imagined mage mercenaries learning anything other than offensive magic.”
“Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but, they don't,” he interjected. “Mage mercenaries are too fixated on earning coins, they focus solely on faster ways to kill. That’s how they've been fostered to think. Besides, healing magic is a discipline that takes twice as long to master than most other magic. To them, it's no more than a waste of time.” As he revealed this information, Rosella and Anneth shared a look of bafflement. Gertrude suppressed a haughty smile, proving the wanted poster was nothing but an outdated parchment. Anneth approached them as she surveyed the messy surroundings. She pursed her lips in a way that spelled guilt at the bloody cut on Gertrude’s thigh. Gertrude hadn't thought much of it until now that her adrenaline rush was waning. She'd patch it up later with magic when this was over.
Anneth stopped at Rosella’s side and voiced her thoughts. “I think it would be best if we took our leave now.” She lay a hand on her chest. “My intentions from the beginning were to persuade my friend to cancel the mission. I had deemed it too risky for someone as inexperienced as us to pursue someone with such a dangerous history, despite the generous reward.” Morvon showed a smile of sympathy and half shrugged, as if unsure of how to adequately respond. “But the Morvon Estapol we saw today is someone vastly different from the wanted posters. So rest assured that we will not take you into custody.”
“You don't know how much that makes me happy. Thank you.”
Gertrude wanted to thank them as well, but she couldn't find the strength for it. It still didn't change what had happened, the stress they fought through to come to terms with what could have resulted in a tragic day.
Anneth continued. “No need to thank us, Mister Estapol. Now, please excuse us and we will be on our way. Farewell.” The girls bowed politely and headed back the way Anneth came.
Finally! They could return to their normal lives. Gertrude felt a huge burden lifted off her shoulders. Her stress blew away like sand in the wind. Hopefully they wouldn't have to deal with anymore bounty hunters… ever, though it seemed unlikely given this wasn't the first time someone tried to profit off of Morvon’s hide. It was the first time this had happened since she started living with him, however. An experience she'd never want to repeat. So for that, Gertrude would have to hone her combat skills even more. Maybe studying another magic skill would prove useful. She already knew ash teleportation and healing, and lately she'd become interested in reinforcement magic, as well. With that idea entertained in her mind, Gertrude turned for the cottage. There was nothing more to see out here.
“Hold on,” Morvon said, voice tinged in doubt. He hadn't budged an inch from where he helped the redhead to her feet. “Something isn't right here.”
Gertrude stopped, looked at him from behind. “...? What's wrong?”
“That girl Anneth called Rosella ‘princess’.” His observation shined a light on a detail that had gone over Gertrude’s head. “The redhead said she'd only been bounty hunting for six months. What's more, they don't look like your typical bounty hunter either with their clothes and equipment in good shape. That dagger as well. It's too fancy.”
“I don't get it,” Gertrude said squinting. “So what if they have nice looking clothes? It just means they have the money to afford it.”
“True, but…” He bit his thumb in deep thought. “They speak too formal. Almost as if they were brought up in a higher class environment.” What he said didn't make any sense. How was any of that relevant, or of importance to them? It seemed like Morvon was digging for clues where there were none. Clues for what? Only he knew. Sighing, Gertrude stomped over to take his hand, but he hollered for their attention. “Wait a second! Don't leave just yet.” The girls came to a halt with one foot already out of the clearing. They turned towards him. In the span of a few silent seconds, Morvon ruminated some more. “How fares Scarlet Vermillion: Princess of Ponderossa? Is she well taken care of?”
Rosella and Anneth became wide eyed and stood on their toes as if walking on thin ice over a frozen lake. Morvon kept calm and earnest in contrast, standing firm like the trees. Gertrude glanced up at his rough profile, not knowing where he wanted to go with such an aimless question.
“You!...” Trembling, Rosella reached for her dagger in response, but Anneth denied her the luxury and pushed her back with an arm. She stepped out to mimic the same stance as Morvon.
“After we let you be you dare try to make fools out of us? I did not take you to be an ingrate in regards to our conversation.”
“Don't be alarmed, ladies.” He raised both hands and shook his head slowly. “You’re mistaken if you think I will turn against my own words. As you can tell, I've been able to put the pieces together thanks to your carelessness.”
“Morvon?” Gertrude tilted her head to get a better read on his face. She found no signs of malice, only the same old mug she had grown up with. It did put her mind at ease to an extent. Morvon wasn't the type to taunt others.
“What are you playing at? What pieces are you talking about?,” asked Rosella, bothered by his vagueness.
Yeah. What pieces? Gertrude held off on speaking her mind.
“I guess this confirms it.” He cleared his throat. “Take it as you will, but one day I overheard a couple of bounty hunters in the nearest town gossiping about an escaped princess while I shopped for groceries. ‘An easy path to riches if she's captured,’ said one of them. There's only so many ways you can interpret that line, which leads me to believe a certain princess has run away from her castle, and they want her back.
Anneth spoke. “So, what you're saying is--”
“You don't need me to say more than what I already have. We all know now what the situation is. Though, I suspect the reason why you're unaware is because the information might be declassified to a select few. Not only that, but you've most likely gone all this time unrecognized because you've altered your identities in one way or another…” he trailed off into a murmur at the end.
Anneth and the redhead, Rosella, fixed hard stares at Morvon. Stares Gertrude wasn't particularly fond of. She mentally prepared herself for another brawl to break out.
“A-anyway,” he continued, shaking his head from out of a daze. “Do not worry. I have no interest in money or getting involved in political scandals. But in exchange for keeping this secret, I'd appreciate it if you would consider a selfish request of mine that’s been on my mind.” Morvon turned to Gertrude, placing a hand on her left shoulder and making eye contact. A shock of electricity ran through her body. “Since you girls are all on your own, would you mind taking Gertrude here with you along on your journey? I'm sure she'll be ecstatic to make her dreams come true of traveling the world.”
“Morvon? What are you saying all of a sudden? Are you cra--”
“You think I haven't noticed? Gertrude, you were brought up by a hermit, someone who barely makes contact with the outside world. I don't plan on changing my lifestyle either because there's always the chance I might be attacked. Just like today.” This came out of nowhere for her. To suddenly have Morvon ask for her to be taken along, to people who had attacked them no less, was the last thing she expected to hear from him. “Tell me, how old are you now?”
“We celebrated my eighteenth birthday yesterday…”
He nodded. “Exactly. And why not make your adulthood debut by setting out into the real world? I'm I’m entering my sixties now and might as well already have a foot in the grave. Be it by illness, accident, natural cause, or by someone else.” Morvon took her in his embrace. “The day I found you alone in the forest is one I'll never forget. You're the child I was never given a chance to have. A family member who accepted me unconditionally despite having no blood connecting us. I'm a human and you're an elf for goodness sakes. If this isn’t true love then I don’t know what is.” A light pat hit the top of Gertrude’s head, then a second and a third, moistening her scalp. Morvon’s voice broke only slightly as he continued talking. “Whenever you were a child and I brought you along with me to cure the sick villagers, I remember you always stared off into the mountains, and with your little fingers pretended to climb them as you waited for me to finish. Even when playing with the other kids you played at being explorers. You should've seen your face the first time you heard about the beach from the elder.”
That’s right. Those were Gertrude’s genuine desires. Flashbacks of her childhood came in short instances. The days where she longed to walk on a beach persisted to this day. The yearning to swim in an infinite tub of salty water that met with the sky above was still present. What was that thing called “sand” made of, and how would it feel under her bare feet? Those dreams had survived inside her as she conformed to living in one place. Gertrude dug her face in his vest and it soaked up the tears. “Why would you bring that up now? Morvon… you’re so cruel.” She cried in silent wimpers, letting the spear fall.
Rosella and Anneth watched the events unfold between an old man and a young female elf that had defied conventional norms among species. A lighter mood blew in the area, sweeping away the tension. Anneth eyed Rosella, extending her hand out. She did so too and held on. As if communicating telepathically, both nodded at one another to confirm the deal.
“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Rosella.
“Mhmm. Or better yet, I say we would love to get to know her better. Gertrude seems like a reliable traveling partner too. I bet our travels will be a little more interesting if she were to tag along.” Anneth winked at her.
“Absolutely. We can start over from zero.”
Gertrude tugged at Morvon’s clothes. “Can I really make it all on my own out there?” She asked beneath a cover of shade obscuring her eyes as her head hung low. “I don’t mind staying with you until the very end.”
Don’t be silly. Everything I’ve taught you is more than enough to keep you going for the rest of your life. Have I not been a good teacher as well?” He had been more than a good teacher: a guardian, a father. She could go on until next morning giving examples of what she thought of Morvon. Yet, words alone had little power to describe her feelings. “What I said applies to you too. No one knows when their time will come. All the more reason for you to see the world while you still can. The girls here are letting you join them. Go on and say yes.”
It was easier said than done, however, Gertrude mustered the fortitude to let go of what held her back from achieving her dreams. Her chest expanded, then dragged out an exhale.
“If you'll allow me to join your party,” she said in the shyest of manners, arms tucked close to her body, “then… I look forward to traveling together.” She could feel everyone's eyes on her skin. It had put her on the spot and in a vulnerable emotional position. Something fluttered inside her stomach. As if it were a cage filled with birds.
“Likewise, we are glad to have you on board, Gertrude.” Anneth extended an arm for a handshake. It was delicate and warm. She felt a sense of safety.
After a brief reintroduction everyone met each other again as if to rewrite the bad paragraph that had gotten them started off on the wrong foot. Rosella and Anneth bowed like cultured ladies and group hugged Gertrude. The bowing was a new concept to her so she stood there not knowing how to react. But she came out of it okay. Morvon responded in kind since he knew more about those customs.
He met them with hugs and words of gratitude for taking on his selfish request. The girls reminded him they felt the same, ensuring his adoptive daughter would be like family to them in no time. Morvon also had some words of advice for the new trio: to trust no one from the get go, and keep away from the kingdom's capital at all costs. Rosella and Anneth had already followed the second warning from the start, agreeing regardless.
With everything said and done, Gertrude prepared for the new life ahead. She had no idea what adventures awaited her outside the forest.