Julie woke up as the day dawned and she rolled onto her side, expecting to catch Sammy sleeping. However, she instead found Sammy watching her with a gentle smile, eyes warm.
“Good morning, Lia,” Sammy said.
Feeling like she’d lost, Julie stifled the urge to turn away. “Morning.”
Rather than any of the fancy dresses they’d borrowed, Sammy dressed in her riding habit. That didn’t stop her from asking Julie how she looked, and Julie still responded, “Like a princess.” Then, with the packs split between them, they left; such an early hour, the concierge apologised that Christopher wasn’t around to send them off.
After a bit of a walk to the stables and a bit longer for Julie to check the horses and load them up, they finally carried on their journey. Despite the time, merchants still flooded the city’s exits and kept them to a snail’s pace on the way out. Once they passed the gate, though, the road opened up enough for them to keep the horses moving.
Feeling calm, Julie realised she must have been slightly anxious the last few days, not used to doing nothing for so long. Although Julie didn’t know the exact plan, she guessed they would be following the trunk road all the way to Sonlettier—the country north-west of Schtat. The two countries had a good relationship and a lot of merchants went back-and-forth between the capitals, so it was an easy border to cross.
For the first day, she and Sammy travelled amongst the merchants, stopping for lunch and then for dinner. It surprised Julie just how tired she felt, softened up from the few days lazing. She had no energy for dancing and Sammy didn’t ask as if she knew that. When it came to sleeping, Julie was also surprised by how lonely it felt to lie on the floor by herself, only a glimpse of Sammy’s hand for company. But she wouldn’t join Sammy in the small bed the room had, so she said nothing.
The next day saw them pass through a handful of towns. Unlike the villages and towns on the way to the capital, these ones very much accommodated merchants with plenty of stables and cheap inns, little in the way of luxury. They also passed many stalls selling “regional” trinkets and foods, appealing to the travellers.
After another night’s rest, they carried on along the trunk road until lunchtime, stopping for sausages, bread, dripping, and small beer. Julie had to admit Sammy had a good eye for these things, the food at the out-of-the-way tavern delicious (for what it was). Once finished eating, they wandered around while waiting for the midday heat to soften; it felt cooler since the storm, the wind coming down from the wintry north, but the horses still needed time to eat and rest anyway.
Children played, wives laboured with laundry, a lively place—the sort of place Julie didn’t know and she thought Sammy didn’t know it either. Both of their lives had been so unusual, hidden away at the palace. Neither knew the joy of running about the woods with friends until dusk, nor the ups and downs of growing up with siblings and cousins and neighbours that are like family, nor doing chores and helping around the house. Listless, Julie watched the children have a childhood she could never have. Sammy simply held her hand.
Far from the first time Julie had had such feelings, she moved on quickly, ready to leave once the horses had rested enough. However, Sammy had something to say before they saddled up.
“We shall be taking a road less travelled for the next three days or so. Have we supplies for camping?” she asked.
Taken by surprise, Julie had to take a moment to process the question and then another moment to answer it, running a mental inventory. “We… should be fine,” she mumbled, unsure if Sammy would really be okay with the dried rations. Well, she settled herself knowing that she could make the stuff edible—Sammy hadn’t been a picky eater at all so far.
With that, they mounted up and trotted out the town. Still on the busy trunk road, Julie followed behind Sammy, but they soon turned off onto a feeder road, going through a few small villages. Around them, the country’s breadbasket of farmland gradually turned more wild. Distant mountains loomed, landscape becoming hilly, at times rocky with bracken or heather, other times forested. After the first few villages, there was nothing more than the occasional cluster of houses and the odd cottage spaced along the deteriorating road; their progress slowed as the heavy rains had left these roads a muddy mess. Some pastures had been cleared enough for goats and sheep to graze. Other than that, Julie only saw wilderness.
Eventually, the dirt path thinned to a trail, no more buildings in sight after riding half an hour from the last cottage. Julie thought that Sammy really hadn’t been joking about taking a road less travelled. At the least, the ground wasn’t all churned up in these parts.
Ahead of her, Sammy slowed to a stop. Wondering why, Julie carefully pulled alongside her and looked over, but Sammy didn’t show a face like something was wrong.
“We should set up a camp soon; however, I know little of what is important, so would you take the lead?” Sammy asked.
A reasonable request, Julie agreed. Switching from guard to guide, she scanned the area with fresh eyes as she fell back on her training—a Royal Guard didn’t exactly need to be well-versed in wilderness survival, so she relied on that training rather than experience.
Nowhere suitable in the immediate area, she nudged her horse forward at a pace slow even for a walk. A sparse forest sprawled out ahead, and a steep hill loosely ran north, both of which she wanted. So they continued on. Following the bottom of the hill, she looked out for a flat area where water hadn’t pooled. It took half an hour, but they also found a stream on their way, so Julie didn’t mind, if anything happy that they didn’t have to go look for a water source as well.
With no chance of rain, Julie set up a simple tent. She started with the groundsheet, then ran a rope between two trees and put a canvas sheet over it (treated with oil for water-resistance), and finally tied on a small canvas sheet at both of the open ends. Far from pretty, but it would keep the wind away and hold some heat.
While she’d been focused on that, Sammy had made a loop of their campsite; with Julie finished, Sammy now dragged her over to look at the plants, asking if any of them could be brewed into a tea or added to their dinner.
Already feeling out of her element, Julie couldn’t take much before she confessed. “I really don’t know many plants.” After all, she had grown up at the palace; she only knew (mildly) medicinal plants—and ones that wouldn’t cause irritation if rubbed against sensitive places.
Sammy took it in stride, giggling. “Oh, I’m sorry for putting you on the spot,” she said.
Julie quickly said, “No, no—I just wish I could be more helpful.”
The two of them side-by-side in front of some plant, Sammy reached over and held Julie’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “It is a good thing to want to better oneself, so do not say it like it’s a fault. Besides, we have somewhere to sleep, and there is a fire to make and dinner to cook, so you can show me just how helpful you can be.”
Julie softly smiled to herself.
The tender moment lasted a moment longer before Sammy asked about that mentioned dinner, thus Julie got started on that. In a bit of a clearing close to the tent, they piled up what dry twigs and sticks they could find, snapping off dead bits from trees, and then Julie arranged them for a fire. It fortunately took quickly, mesmerising Sammy. Julie chuckled as she went off to fill their shallow pot with water and had another chuckle when she came back to see Sammy still like that. With the stand up, she hung the pot over the flames. While it heated up, she crumbled the hard tack into the water.
“What is that?” Sammy asked, carefully peering in.
“Well, it’s bread, but not really,” Julie said, and she tapped the pot with a piece, the dull sound speaking of the bread’s toughness. “It’s better as a stew. Just, don’t think it’s gonna be good.”
Sammy laughed, the pretty notes tickling Julie’s ears. “What of the plants we found?”
“Yeah, we can add them,” Julie said.
After an excited clap, Sammy scurried off to the small sack she’d half-filled earlier. In an instant, she reappeared at Julie’s side, clutching the sack in a way that reminded Julie of a child with her dolly; that thought almost made her laugh. She hadn’t really noticed, but, in the nearly two weeks they’d been travelling, she’d smiled and laughed a lot more than she ever had back at the garrison.
“Do we need to prepare them?” Sammy asked.
“Nah. All you gotta do for stews is cut up big or tough stuff,” Julie said.
Sammy nodded and started adding the plants. It didn’t take long. Julie finished crumbling in the rest of the hard tack and then added some dried meat as well. Although those were bigger pieces, they soon fell apart, Julie constantly stirring it.
By dusk, they were sitting on dryish logs around the campfire, slowly eating the stew. Julie rather enjoyed the meal—just not because of the food. No, she couldn’t look away from Sammy, finally seeing the Princess struggle to happily eat a meal.
“How is it?” Julie asked.
With the most forced smile ever, Sammy said, “Delicious.”
Julie wouldn't have taken it personally (there was only so much she could do with hard tack and dried meat and river water), but she found the gesture charming. It reminded her of how Sammy had put up with her poor dancing. However, that Sammy couldn’t hide it this time reinforced just how offensively bland the food was. Julie decided that, next time, they would buy some food to cook and leave the rations as a last resort.
After the meal, the leftovers were put to the side and Julie boiled another small pot of water for bathing. Since she was fine with cold water, she let Sammy go wipe herself down in the tent first, keeping watch. When Sammy finished, Julie had her turn to wipe off the day’s sweat. With that done, she refilled the horses’ water and made sure they’d grazed, taking a minute to look over them.
Then there was silence. It was a thick silence that seemingly stretched forever, no distant sounds of civilisation to Julie’s ears. She heard intermittent birdsong and the heavy chorus of bugs and the odd rustle of a rabbit or squirrel, but not the sing-song of drunks, nor the slamming of doors, nor the creak of floorboards. So the fire crackled and Sammy spoke from time to time, darkness falling.
Julie may not have known what growing up in a normal family was like, but there was a sense of kinship in that moment. It hadn’t occurred to her before that becoming someone’s lover meant that they would become family. She was reminded of that talk they’d had a few nights ago, discussing what they wished for after their journey finished. Sammy’s quaint cottage in the forest really had sounded so very appealing to Julie—a quiet place with just the two of them. She’d only ever known the hustle and bustle of the palace.
More than that, though, she still truly meant the reply she’d given Sammy. The relationship between them was far more complicated than Julie could hope to understand, but she felt at ease in Sammy’s company. With their future uncertain and present ever-changing, that comfort was enough.
Warm and quiet, side-by-side with the young woman who would one day be her lover, Julie felt at peace.
Her idle gaze caught Sammy yawning. “You should sleep,” Julie murmured.
“You aren’t going to join me?” Sammy asked, a hint of humour in her voice.
However, her teasing missed the mark. “I’ll keep watch. We’re so far out, no telling what’s around,” Julie said.
“Then you will wake me later so you may rest, won’t you?” Sammy said, touching Julie’s knee.
The gentle touch pulled Julie’s focus a moment, delaying her reply. “I will.”
“Promise?” Sammy asked, and she held up her pinky.
Julie just stared, caught so entirely unaware by the childish gesture. After a long few seconds, she hooked her pinky around Sammy’s and they shook three times.
With a broad smile, Sammy stood up, brushing off the dirt from her dress; Julie unthinkingly watched. Then Sammy bent down and left a light kiss on top of Julie’s head. “Goodnight, Lia. Wake me if anything happens, and thank you for keeping watch,” she said.
Not yet recovered from the kiss, Julie mumbled, “Okay.”
Letting out a giggle, Sammy walked over to the tent and disappeared from sight. Julie stared at the canvas door, listened to every rustle inside, her heart only settling when silence once again fell. She wondered if Sammy intentionally tried to keep her off-balance all the time or if it was just Sammy’s nature.
Moving on, she focused on the immediate future to start with, gathering more fuel for the fire, but didn’t feed it yet; she wanted to wait until later, worried Sammy would be cold. To keep herself warm when the fire died down, she took out a spare blanket. Then she took a loose inventory, splitting her attention between checking their packs and keeping aware of her surroundings.
With that done, she returned to the fire, nothing else to do but drift in and out of thoughts. Guarding very much an important part of her training, she was good at sitting around and doing nothing while staying alert.
Over the next hours, there was nothing more exciting than a nearby owl hooting—a tawny owl, she thought. And though she had a loose idea of the time, she struggled to decide when exactly to wake Sammy. If she wanted to give Sammy six hours of rest, then that meant changing over at two in the morning or so, but that seemed too short a sleep for a princess. As for herself, she didn’t mind getting less so Sammy could sleep longer.
Disregarding Julie’s struggle, Sammy woke herself up a bit after two anyway, leaving the tent with a yawn. Although a little groggy, she looked none the worse for the shorter-than-usual sleep on a bedroll that offered the barest of comfort.
“What happened to our promise?” Sammy asked, showing a crooked smile in the weak light of the fire.
Julie looked away. “I was going to wake you soon,” she mumbled.
Sammy softly laughed off the excuse, then sat beside Julie, her head lolling over and resting on the shoulder it found there. “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”
Looking up, Julie saw the vivid sight and found herself agreeing. Not just the moon, but the little moonlet and the crescent cremoon all looked so bright, almost arranged like a face; stars shimmering and sky a dark blanket of rich hues, Julie could understand why some people thought of the sight as a glimpse of the divine.
“Yeah, it is,” she whispered.
They stayed like that for a while before Sammy finally ushered Julie to the tent. Alone in there, Julie changed into fresh clothes (not her nightgown in case she had to quickly leave) and left them loose. The bedroll was warm when she lay down. Somehow, she thought she could smell Sammy, even though Sammy hadn’t worn anything like perfume since leaving the Royal Palace. Still, it felt like she was in a familiar place. As she drifted off, that feeling reassured her and sleep came quickly, dream pleasant.
By the time she awoke, the sun had risen, bleeding through the gaps around the door. A little disorientated, she pushed away the sleepiness and gathered her bearings. Too bright for dusk, she thought it to be around eight, and there wasn’t any notable noise in the area. She sat up, fixed her clothes. Leaving the tent, her gaze naturally sought out the sun and she adjusted her sense of time, her guess not far off.
Next, she looked for Sammy by the campfire. To her relief, Sammy was sitting there, tending to the pot while softly humming. Before Julie could greet her, Sammy turned around and burst into a broad smile. “Good morning, Lia,” she said, her voice dancing across the distance.
Julie walked over before replying. “Morning, Sammy,” she softly said.
“Sleep well?” Sammy asked.
Julie picked at her collar, feeling strangely shy from the simple question, a feeling almost like guilt coming to her as she remembered that reassuring smell. It was strange even to her. “Yeah,” Julie mumbled.
“Oh that is good. We have a couple more days in the wild, so good rest is important,” Sammy said.
“Yeah,” Julie said again.
Sammy gently giggled as she went back to stirring. Julie’s attention drawn back to the pot, she glanced around and spotted a pair of gloves out.
“You went picking?” Julie asked, her voice curious rather than accusative.
Sammy nodded. “Just around there,” she said, pointing towards the edge of the clearing. “There was a patch of nettles, so I thought some tea would be nice for when you wake.”
Julie looked at the nettle bush, glad to see it wasn’t flowering and otherwise looked healthy, then told Sammy to avoid using such nettles.
“Really? I probably would have added the flowers,” Sammy said, humour in her voice.
“Yeah, well, if you do, it can end up…” Julie said, trailing off as she didn’t quite know how to put it.
“End up like what? Is it poisonous?” Sammy asked.
Julie shook her head and then pushed through her reluctance. “Hurts when you pee… I was told.”
“That would be unpleasant,” Sammy said, nodding. “Ah, I should be asking about these things in the villages. Foraging is rather common outside of the towns and cities, right?”
Julie felt a spike of uselessness at that. She was the one who was supposed to know about such things, yet Sammy wanted to learn—as if she didn’t trust Julie to actually better herself. It was childish, she knew, but that was how she honestly felt. Stifling it, she gave a half-hearted, “Yeah,” in reply.
If Sammy picked up on anything being wrong, Julie didn’t notice, the silence comfortable as it led into breakfast. Along with the nettle tea, Julie boiled a little water and mashed more of the hard tack into a porridge. After eating, Julie started loading up the horses again, Sammy harvesting another batch of nettles for later.
Before they set off, though, Julie had another of those jarring moments as Sammy politely asked, “Could I have the shovel? And could you keep watch for me?”
At the least, Julie had grown somewhat used to such moments, recovering quickly. However, she still found it horribly embarrassing when it was her own turn to go behind a bush with the shovel.
After their morning routines, they set off. Sammy took the lead again for this, navigating by her mental map of the area she’d never been to before, yet lead she did, picking out the odd landmark—a couple of streams and she named the distant mountains. They stopped by one such stream for lunch, letting the horses graze for a while as they nibbled at the rations. Without hot water to soften the bread or meat, they really could only nibble, careful to avoid breaking their teeth or hurting their jaws.
They then continued travelling. With the terrain growing ever more uneven and going from flat to a modest slope, they eventually dismounted, leading the horses on foot. When dusk neared, Julie asked if she should look for a campsite; however, Sammy simply replied, “There is a suitable place nearby that I know of.”
As always, Julie trusted her and so they continued on. Dusk settled, light waning, they came to the promised place: a hollow in a steep hill. Through an opening a bit bigger than a door, a space the size of a large room hid away from the wind; in front, a clearing showed the remains of many a fire. Not only that, there was a shallow river just beyond, plentiful in fish.
Sammy gathered kindling and sticks, and Julie managed to catch a trout for each of them. It took a while to prepare them and get the fire going, but Julie thought it was entirely worth it, watching Sammy happily eat. They had a cup of nettle tea to go with it.
But as they tidied up, Julie noticed the horses flicking their ears. Adrenalin flooding her senses, she stilled Sammy with one hand while she looked out, listened out. Nothing made a sound and her attention narrowed on that silence. She glanced over, judging how far away the pack with their weapons was; her other hand slipped into her pocket, unhooking the sheath with her dagger in it.
And then someone finally appeared.
Sammy squeezed Julie’s hand before stepping forward, standing at Julie’s side. Julie wanted to panic, her intuition forming a cold sweat down her back, but that squeeze had spoken to her—asking her to trust Sammy. So Julie trusted her. She kept her grip on her dagger, ready to move in front of Sammy in an instant, but she stayed still, silent.
The shadow stepped into the clearing, the fire’s light falling on him. An older man, his coarse beard was speckled grey, hair had streaks of it. His face showed many years under the sun and a pale pink scar ran from his ear to nose; Julie couldn’t tell exactly how old it was, but guessed around a decade. Though his bare arms didn’t bulge with muscle, he hadn’t lived an idle life either.
Further unnerving Julie, he wore an almost jovial expression, mouth pulled so wide that it squashed his eyes into a squint, and he had a relaxed posture. On his shoulder sat a small bird—a nightingale. It seemed tame, nothing tying it into place, as calm as him.
“Good evening,” Sammy said in a warm tone.
The man gestured a tip of his hat though he wasn’t wearing one. “Evenin’ to you ladies,” he said, gruff yet no less warm than Sammy.
Julie squeezed the dagger’s handle tighter.
He looked as if he considered taking a step closer, his body leaning forward, only to change his mind and stay where he was. “Ya know, busybody I am, I gotta say it’s… dangerous for women to be in these parts by themselves.”
There was no malice in his voice, but Julie had to fight the urge to shiver. However, Sammy showed no reaction, still smiling softly and speaking warmly. “Rather, you should wonder why two women are so confident being in such a place.”
He laughed at that—an eerily quiet guffawing, as if choking on something. Then he brought up a hand to stroke his beard. “Aye, you have me there. But, if you’re like that, you won’t mind lending a fellow traveller a spot of feed? My ol’ pal here is fussy”—he pointed at his bird—“and those horses look well-fed.”
“Of course not,” Sammy said. Instead of moving herself, she squeezed Julie’s hand again and then let go of it.
Julie got the message and, without taking her eyes off the man, shuffled over to their packs. Finding a spare money pouch, she filled it with some grain from the horse’s feed. Once it had a generous portion for such a small bird, she pulled it tightly closed and walked back to Sammy. At her side, Julie gauged the distance to the man and carefully threw it so it would land at his side; his hand darted, a blur in the twilight, snatching it out of the air.
“Ta, ladies. G’night to you,” he said, giving a small salute.
“And to you,” Sammy said. Julie said nothing.
As silently and suddenly as he had appeared, he disappeared into the night, one step reducing him to a shadow and another blending him into the darkness beyond the clearing. Still, Sammy and Julie both remained where they were for over a minute before relaxing their vigilance from high to medium.
Julie broke the silence. “Do you know him?” she asked, that feeling coming from how calm Sammy had been in dealing with him.
Tilting her head, Sammy drew out a hum. “Well, given the nightingale, I think I do. He works as a smuggler these days.”
Those last two words echoed in Julie’s ears, making her wonder what his “job” may have been before. But she didn’t ask. Instead, she asked, “Will he come back for us later?”
“While I cannot say for certain, I do not think so. He is not beyond reason and there is no reason for him to return.”
Julie didn’t want to call Sammy naive, but she had to point out something, saying, “We have money and good horses.”
“Is that worth him risking his life? No, he became a smuggler precisely because his life now has value gold cannot buy,” Sammy said, quieting towards the end.
That gave Julie something to mull over as the two of them settled back down by the fire. Although the tension never entirely left them, they found comfort in the warmth and in each other, holding hands while the night deepened.
Near midnight, Sammy went off to sleep with a whispered, “Goodnight, Lia.” Alone, Julie let the fire die down, wrapping herself in a blanket to compensate.
It hadn’t really set in yet for her that they were on an adventure. After the attack on the palace, there’d been no more stirrings of wild beasts so far south from the Corrupted Lands, and they had only travelled the safe road between the Royal Palace and the capital.
That would change, she knew.
Yet she hoped that, somehow, they could still enjoy the journey.