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It was odd, Annette thought, to be dragged into the room of a large, lonely fireplace she’d cleaned hundreds of times and find it now surrounded by more people than she’d seen for years. It was odd that someone would hurt the Telling Tree, and even more odd that the youth next to adult-Steven, her childhood friend, proclaimed himself the run-away prince of the vile Poldar.
Yet nothing surpassed the oddness of finding herself next to that prince, bearing a pack laden with provisions provided by the king and queen themselves, with the king’s hand on her and the prince’s shoulders.
“May all speed be with you,” the king said, “and may the Golden Fern’s blessing guard you.”
It seemed like the wrong time to ask why, exactly, they needed provisions, speed, and the Fern’s blessing. Then she was walking alongside the prince, the castle behind and a mystery before her. A look at her companion’s grim face made her think it was still the wrong time to ask what they were doing. Perhaps it would be better to start first with introductions. That was the usual course of action when interacting with other people, right?
“Hello,” she spoke into the silence.
The prince started at her voice and looked at her for the first time. “Hi.”
“I’m Annette Mason,” she offered.
He opened his mouth and shut it, and a haunted look crossed his brown eyes and aquiline nose.
Interacting with humans was unusual, after so long cleaning fireplaces in the shadows of the castle, but Annette was fairly certain the prince was supposed to tell her his name now. It was like an exchange: Words for words, information for information. Wasn’t that how conversations worked? Maybe he, too, was unused to other people.
“It’s your turn,” she prompted. “What’s your name?
His throat twitched as he swallowed. “I…which name do you want?”
There, that was how it worked. Conversation.
“How many do you have?” she asked.
He shrugged. “There’s the one my parents gave me and the one I chose.”
She pursed her lips in contemplation. “I think I want both, please.”
She didn’t miss the way his mouth puckered at the first name like it had a foul taste. “My parents call me Bill Kangraff,” he supplied. “I chose Will Scriber.”
“Bill? That name doesn’t fit you at all,” she disapproved. It seemed too abrupt a name for the boy beside her, who seemed gentle and thoughtful. “I’m going to call you Will.” The “W” made its beginning softer, she thought.
To that, he said nothing. After he failed to uphold his part of the conversation at Annette’s net few attempts, she gave up until later.
They crossed the Ferngold-Poldar order in silence. Annette noticed Will’s shoulders tense when the air became suddenly oppressive. “Be careful,” he said the first words either had spoken in hours. “Anyone we meet here will be dangerous.”
Annette swallowed and nodded.
If the scenery was any indication of the people of Poldar, Will was certainly right. The trees creaked ominously overhead, and every so often a branch would tumble down, narrowly missing their heads. Big green flies buzzed around them. Each time one landed on her skin, it gave a sharp, painful bite. She had to constantly watch her step. Sharp twigs and shattered stones threatened to slice her bare feet, and sometimes the ground felt less than firm.
Will paused when night grew near. “We should make camp.”
“But there’s people nearby,” she pointed at the remains of a campfire a few feet away.
He shrugged. “It’s old. They’re probably long gone.”
She quirked her eyebrows. “Have you seen the color of that ash? It can’t be more than a day old.” Tentatively, she put her toes in the outermost ring of soot. “Still warm. I’m surprised there’s no smoke coming out.”
“Why don’t you have shoes on?” Will pointed with a frown.
“I was born of the dirt and live among the ashes. What need have I for shoes? Besides, aren’t there more important questions to ask right now?”
A rush of heavy steps proved her right. Three meaty heads covered in scabs and scars burst out of the thorny shrubs just beyond the fire. To her embarrassment, Annette shrieked. Then Will’s hand closed around her wrist and yanked her sideways. “Run!” he shouted.
And run she did. With the big brutes chasing after them, Annette ran as fast as she could make her legs go.
Bright color flashed through the trees. “There!” she shouted to Will.
“No!” he sounded panicked. “That’s Clachan.”
Clachan. A name she had heard before. Voices of the king’s advisors talking warmly of the kingdom came from her memory. Ally, they always said.
“Come on!” she grabbed his sleeve and pulled him after her.
The brutes behind them let out a shout of dismay. It spurred Annette on faster. Will fought against her hold, but she dragged him forward until her toes met spring grass, the air in her gasping lungs was sweet, and she dropped to her knees, certain the rogues from Poldar wouldn’t dare follow them here.
Will’s cry of alarm made her heart jump again. Was she wrong? Did she stop too soon? She whirled in time to see the terror on Will’s face just before a tree completely engulfed him in its branches and all signs of the boy disappeared.
Please let me know what you think! Look for Chapter 6 on Friday.