“Walk away slowly,” she whispered. Zinnia put a hand on Ellie’s arm to help guide her in walking backwards.
The woods dweller up ahead, the one standing near Ianes’ Wall, hadn’t noticed them yet. As long as they stayed quiet, they could make it out of this intact.
“It’s okay,” Ellie moved out of her grasp. “I know her. We’re friends.”
“Shhh,” Zinnia shushed her. “Whisper.”
“Her name’s Shreya. She lives in the woods.”
“She’s a woods dweller?” Zinnia grabbed Ellie’s arm more forcefully. “We’re going. I am not reenacting Hansel and Gretel with you.”
“You never heard of—nevermind, we have to go.”
Too late. The woods dweller stared straight at her, eyebrows slanted downwards. She wore a long-eared cap on her head, pulled down tight and a fur cape over a weave-patterned top. Her pants were loose, made with an inexpensive-looking fabric. Simple shoes, a sheathed blade on her right hip, and a plain gourd on her left hip completed her look.
She strode towards them.
“We’re dead,” Zinnia mumbled.
Ellie laughed at her misery. “I met her when I was looking for flowers here. She’s a good person.”
“You knew she’d be here…” Zinnia said. She let her go. “That’s why you wanted to come here so badly.”
“I didn’t think you’d come if you knew the whole truth. Woods dwellers can be good people.”
“You don’t think my friends can be good people, but you think woods dwellers can be?” Zinnia couldn’t believe it. Ellie extended more courtesy to a random woods dweller than she did to Noemi, Lucio, Gracja, and everyone in Arntzen that was like them. A woods dweller who, like so many of the others, had probably renounced her humanity and became something worse than an animal. Animals were predictable, at least. Woods dwellers were something else.
Their conversation abruptly ended there, the woods dweller having reached them.
Expression relaxed but with a tone as stiff as a board, the strange girl greeted, “hello. It’s nice to see you. This a new friend?”
“I wouldn’t call her a new friend. We go way back,” Ellie said.
“We’ve known each other for years,” Zinnia explained. “What’s your name and where are you from?”
“My name is Shreya. I’m from the woods,” she replied, lifting her arms to gesture around them. “Are you from Stockbrunn?”
“How do you know about Stockbrunn?”
“It’s the most near town. Ellie’s from it.”
“Ah, she told you where she’s from,” Zinnia looked at her disapprovingly. “What else do you know about her?”
“Hey, what’s with the interrogation?” Ellie asked. “This is, like, the third time we’ve met. She’s not going to be an expert on all things me.”
“It is okay. I have an answer. Ellie is an interesting person who I am learning about,” Shreya said. “I will never hurt her.”
“She gave me water and helped me get home the first time we met. Then the second time was that whole bear thing. She saved me twice when she didn’t have to.”
“You didn’t make the bear up?” Zinnia asked. For someone who almost got mauled by a bear, Ellie sure seemed to have taken the entire incident in stride.
“No way! It happened. Tell her, Shreya.”
“The bear was young and very hurt. We would not have survived a healthy adult bear,” she said. “We were fortunate...lucky?”
“Both of those words work,” Zinnia said. It was a wonder to her that a woods dweller could speak Casternian. She thought that their barbarism meant they had no interest in the common language.
“Thank you. I am usually better at this, but my yesterdays were difficult.”
“Did you get in trouble with your Mom again? That’s what happened to me.” Ellie rolled up her sleeve, revealing a nicely-sized bruise on her arm.
Zinnia peered at it. The mark was about two fingers wide. “Your mother beats you?”
“Nah, this just happened when we were sparring. She got all blegh about me being out here, so we did some staff fighting,” Ellie said. “I’ll have you know I landed a couple of hits on her.”
“Sure you did,” Zinnia said, sarcasm evident in her voice.
“I did! But she doesn’t know anything about the bear or about Shreya. Those are all secrets.”
“You’re a secret to everyone but my sister. She doesn’t know details,” Shreya said. “She wanted to come but I didn’t let her.”
“Your twin! You should’ve let her come,” Ellie said. She nudged Zinnia with her elbow. “Zinnia’s little brother and sister are twins, so you have a twin connection right there. You can talk about twin stuff.”
“I don’t think that counts as a twin connection,” Zinnia said.
Shreya tilted her head. “I would like it very much if you never meet my sister. She’s dangerous.”
“Oh, don’t tell Ellie that. She loves danger.”
“Is that true?”
“I wouldn’t say I love danger, but I guess some people might call me a thrill-seeker.” Ellie grinned.
“Thrill-seeking and danger-loving are basically the same thing,” Zinnia pointed out.
“It’s bad to take risks that you don’t need to take,” Shreya said.
Like heading into the woods, getting lost, fighting a bear, and hanging out with a woods dweller, Zinnia thought to herself.
“I’m lessening my risks. Look, I’ve got a weapon this time.” Ellie waved the hatchet.
“Do you not have a knife?” Shreya asked.
“I don’t have one,” Zinnia said. “Could I borrow yours? I’d be more relaxed if I had one.”
Ellie tsked at her. “You should’ve packed your own.”
“You told me I didn’t have to bring anything.”
“Did I? Oops…”
Shreya loosened her belt and pulled the sheath free from its tie. She held it out to Zinnia. “Here. I will need it back. Do not be like Ellie and run away with it.”
“Hey! I didn’t run away with your water jug thing. Come to think of it, what happened to the cool designs on it?”
“That gourd belonged to my Papa.” She smiled at Zinnia, noticing her hesitation. “I will be okay without it. I’m more familiar with the woods than you are. I will keep all of you safe.”
Zinnia took the scabbard, then fed its strings through her belt loops. She tied it tight against her hip, her fingers shaking the whole time. Either Shreya was genuinely to be trusted, or she was strong enough to overpower them even without her blade.
“Do you have any candy with you?” Zinnia asked her. “Sweet treats?”
“I do not.” Her eyebrows scrunched in confusion.
“Do woods dwellers know what candy is?” Ellie mused out loud. “Ooh, I can bring you some the next time we see each other.”
“I’m pretty sure some woods dwellers do know what candy is,” Zinnia said.
Ellie shrugged. “So what? She doesn’t. What, is there some secret woods dweller candy collective out there?”
“It’s not like she would tell us if there was one. Either way, I’m not interested in it. I just wanted to check what she brought.”
Shreya brightened up, seeming to understand part of what Zinnia was saying. “I brought my knife and my water.”
“And I brought food, water, the hatchet, and my lockpicking stuff. Zinnia brought nothing. Whew, glad we established that. I was scared we’d forget,” Ellie said jokingly.
“What is lockpicking?” Back in the world of confusion, Shreya’s eyes scrunched up again.
“Lockpicking is when you manipulate a lock in order to open it. Ellie can explain it better, but you use tools to make something that’s locked not locked anymore,” Zinnia said. “You break it open.”
“Ideally, you don’t break the lock,” Ellie said. “Sometimes you can’t avoid it, though.”
Since Shreya wasn’t going to ask, Zinnia decided to fill in the blanks for her. “Ellie’s thinking of breaking into some houses, and she wants us to help her.”
“Don’t say it like that. All I’m doing is exploring the woods a little with you guys. I brought my gear just in case we come across something we don’t have easy access to.” Ellie frowned. “I don’t have my whole set so if there’s a lock I can’t crack with these tools we’ll have to try again tomorrow.”
“Why are you exploring the woods?” Shreya asked.
“Because she likes to ‘wander, look for stuff?’” Zinnia answered, mimicking Ellie’s ditzy inflection.
“It’s more fun than us sitting around and chatting. It’s less awkward,” Ellie said. “I think the best way to form friendships is by doing an activity together, and I think you guys might make interesting friends, so let’s get active. Yeah!”
“Okay. Do you know where you want to go?” Shreya asked.
“I don’t know. Do you know any cool spots?”
Zinnia interjected, “let’s go that way.” She wasn’t going to let Shreya lead the trip, even with their interactions being mostly positive so far. “Ellie, you go first. You’re the one that brought us together. Shreya, you can be second because you know the woods the best. I’ll be last.”
Shreya didn’t protest. She got in line.
“I like your energy.” Ellie saluted Zinnia. “EZS Crew, roll out.”
A/N: That's it for Chapter 14! The next update on RRL will be Chapter 15. Voting is still happening for Chapter 25 on the main site.