[b Chapter One [i “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” – William Shakespeare]]
Walking was beginning to grow tiresome, running even more so. It had been some time since Krista had seen a town; whether it had been three days or a week was in the air. It was a moot point regardless; she just knew she was beginning to feel dirty, worn-down, and hungry. The young priestess would settle for a campsite with Dwarves if it got her off her feet, though she hadn’t even stumbled upon one of those.
Krista had been quite lucky, regardless of how she felt. Her white top, black skirt, and navy-blue cloak – while growing rather filthy – had remained in good repair. Her moccasins, however, had not met the same fate. The leather had begun growing thin two towns ago and was now beginning to tear. The shoes themselves had been soaked and were caked in dry mud, making them stiff and uncomfortable to walk in. She would have to purchase new ones when she was in a safe place.
The moonlight shining through the thick tree cover and her dimly-lit lantern were the only sources of light in the forest – The Forest of Silva, if she remembered correctly. Tetsu, an old monk she’d chatted with in Viribus, had warned her against traveling through the wooded area on her own. “Silva’s Forest is a natural-grown maze!” he’d said. Krista hadn’t listened. She hadn’t the time.
She had to avoid being found by him. She couldn’t go back.
It was unlikely that her pursuer would look this far for her; the Kingdom of Vitae was two weeks’ travel from Viribus, and Krista was not known for her fighting skills. It was likely that he would assume the elements, or a creature, would get to her before she’d escape Vitae’s mountainous peaks, which were already dangerous. He never believed her spells or her prayers would be of any benefit to her.
Luckily, neither the Moon Goddess, nor her blossoming magical abilities, had failed her to this point. Though she was still learning, she was surviving. She’d prove herself worthy. She’d show him who she was one day.
With the wind at a standstill, the forest was eerily silent. She stilled her footsteps and listened to the creatures of the night. The gentle chirping of crickets and woodland frogs was followed by the distant howling of wolves – and likely werewolves – that resided in the mountainous regions of Vitae and the surrounding areas. She had seen a herd of behemoth a few miles back, though they tended to travel during the day and were docile unless threatened. Other than that, she was surrounded by miles of trees.
What had the old monk worried himself for? She was doing just fine.
The sharp crack of a branch brought Krista to attention, her brown eyes sharp and alert. She raised the lantern but said nothing, instead focusing nervously on the trees in front of her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Relax, Krista. You’re doing fine. She opened her eyes and stared out into the forest again. Who would dare to venture out into the forest this late?
Doing her best to keep silent, she stepped forward slowly, trying not to alert whatever was lurking in the tree line. She just needed to make it to the next town and she’d be-
“I’m actually over here, ma’am.”
Surprised by the suddenness of the voice, Krista whipped around, casting a wind spell on the flames in her lantern. The flames then projected out of the small, glassless box like a flamethrower in the direction of the voice. In response, with surprisingly nimble reflexes, they quickly rolled out of the way. “Who are you?” Her heavily accented words were laced with fear and anxiety.
“Woah, hey. Settle down, I’m not going to hurt you” He raised his arms in surrender. “Don’t fry me and leave me for the wolves.” Though their face looked steady, their voice – male, by the sound – was quivering. “That was quite the impressive reflexive attack, ma’am. Almost had me.”
“Well if you’d not [i snuck up behind me] in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t have tried to kill you!” Krista felt her anxiety be replaced with annoyance.
He laughed. “Maybe not, but most folks you meet ‘round here don’t instantly try to set fire to someone when they’ve been startled.” He then shrugged. “What’re you running from?”
“What makes you assume I’m running from anything?”
Krista froze. He wasn’t wrong, and yet… Was she so easy to read? She couldn’t give him the satisfaction. “What business is it of yours, anyway? You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.”
“Right, of course. How rude of me, my Lady.” He bowed – she was surprised the gesture lacked a feeling of sarcasm. “The name is Simon. Simon Jacquard. I’m just a small-town alchemist, nothing more. I’m on the hunt for supplies – its easier to find what I’m looking for at night when the day-dwelling creatures are at rest.”
“Simon Jacquard.” The name rolled off her tongue easily. It suited him – it was a simple name, a mask for the complex person she could sense that Simon truly was. He had immaculately-kept brunet hair and a short-cut, curly beard. His eyes were a sparkling hazelnut color that were shrouded in mystery. A forest-dweller, then.
He wore a brown cloak – it was slightly worn out, giving her the impression that it was a favorite – and simple commoner’s drags beneath it. The confident, mysterious aura that he gave off intrigued her. Though she was loathe to trust him immediately, she felt oddly safe around him. She was compelled to learn more about him.
The brunet waved a hand in front of her face, startling her. “Hello? Ma’am? Are you still in there?”
She shook her head, using her empty hand to swat his arm away. “Sorry, I was thinking. And stop calling me ‘ma’am’.”
“Well sorry, I don’t quite know what else to call you. Did I scare your name away while we were talking?”
“Oh come off it!” She spat. Simon laughed at her retaliation. “My name is Krista. I’m sorry – that’s all I feel comfortable telling you right now.”
Simon simply nodded. “Of course. I’m assuming it has something to do with what you’re running from?”
“It might, if I were running from something.” She rolled her eyes. “Look, Simon… There’s a lot about my situation to go over… and if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I’m ready to spill any of it to a stranger who prances the forest at the rise of the moon.”
“Wait, I wasn’t prancing.”
Krista bit her lip. “I promise you this, however… if I stay around long enough for my history to become relevant, I will explain everything to you. I’d just rather not get into it right now, if that’s okay.”
“Of course. You can tell me whenever you’re ready.” Simon smiled. “So, Krista, huh? Has anyone ever called you Kris?”
“Can’t say they have.”
“Can I be the first?”
Krista began to feel more lost than before as she followed the forest-dweller, though she was sure the fatigue was starting to catch up to her. “Simon,” she said between breaths. “Where exactly are we going?”
“Back to my home!” His eyes shone with delight. “I live on my own, so you won’t bother anyone. You look like you could use a bath and some clean clothes. I could loan you some old clothes of one while you wash and dry yours, if you want.”
She screeched to a halt, glaring defensively at Simon. “Why are you doing this for me? I’ve done nothing to make you trust me.”
“Well, maybe you haven’t.” Simon shrugged. “You’ve also done nothing to hurt me on purpose, and you’ve proven you’re fully capable of doing so under the right circumstances. Isn’t that enough?”
“Not really. I’m a terrible fighter.”
“Kris.” Simon glared back at her, a look of disdain on his face. “First of all, that spell was rather advanced for being a terrible fighter. Second, stop being stubborn. I don’t know what has you so terrified, but I promise, if anyone even asks about you, I’ll pretend I’ve never heard of you. I can even help you blend in, if you want.”
The priestess frowned. “I told you not to call me Kris.”
“And I told you to stop being stubborn, but we’re stuck at a crossroads, aren’t we?”
The blonde female wanted to scream; she’d never met someone who could argue back with her this long – was Simon a blessing or a curse? She couldn’t help but admit – albeit silently – that his persistence was admirable. He seemed as if he genuinely wanted to help her. He didn’t seem like the type that would turn on her. “Where are you from?”
“Silva, the forests’ namesake.” He smiled softly, the tension leaving his shoulders. “It’s a small forest town on the outskirts of the forest, and all the forest-dwellers that live there are friendly. I keep to myself often, but they’re always willing to greet me like we’re best of friends. It’s a nice place.”
Krista nodded. “Fine. I will trust you – for now – and go with you.” She silenced herself as the alchemist skipped forward, following slowly behind.
The walk was comfortably silent as the mouth of the forest transitioned slowly into a grassy plain. The plains were surrounded by tall, thick oak trees, acting as a protective barriers. The trees kept strong winds out of the area and made it hard to approach without warning.
“Is Silva’s stronghold down that way?” She asked, stepping along a neat cobblestone path. The middle of the path lead to a small congregation of homes and shops, lined with street lamps that were lit for nighttime.
“It is. Like I said before, it’s quiet and small, but the townsfolk are rather smart and competently skilled. They can’t call us ‘backwater boonies’ out here.” Simon glanced ahead. There were sections of wall as they drew closer to town; Krista guessed they were a secondary defense or a boundary measure.
Krista could hear a few folk still moseying about as they neared the town center – she drew her hood up to keep herself concealed. The few townsfolk she’d seen – Simon included – had dark red, light brown, or dark brown hair – typical of forest-dwellers. Her blonde hair would stick out easily.
“Kris? Are you all right?”
Once again, Simon’s voice brought her back to the present. “Oh. Yes, I’m sorry. I was just lost in my thoughts.”
Simon frowned, clearly in disbelief, but chose to remain silent for now. “Anyway, my home is just ahead.” He pointed toward a neat dirt path that led toward a small, neatly built stone house. The roof had a wood lining, and there was a small, unlit lantern on the wall next to the door. It didn’t look like anything she’d seen in Vitae, but it was beautiful.
“It’s such a cute little house!” Krista said with a smile.
“I know it’s not much to look at, but she’s sturdy and keeps me warm in the winter.” The alchemist lead her down the remainder of the path and stopped at the front door, unlocking it and stepping out of the way. “Please, ladies first.”
Though she felt strange about entering someone else’s home first, she wouldn’t deny him his kind gesture and stepped into the small house. Moving aside so she wouldn’t block Simon’s path, she looked around the main room. The walls on the inside were lined with oak wood – likely to help keep heat in – and had a glossy finish. There were three small windows in the downstairs area; one in the kitchen, and two in the main living area.
The kitchen consisted of a cast-iron wood stove, a stone sink basin with a wooden bucket inside of it, a storage shelf that stretched to reach the ceiling, and two barrels that sat in the corner. There was a small table with two chairs that sat in between the living area and the kitchen area – she guessed that Simon didn’t keep much company.
The living area had a blue, worn-down two-seater sofa and a brown armchair that adorned a green patch on the left arm. The wooden floor that spanned across both rooms was worn-looking but weak-kept and sturdy. She could see a small, steep flight of stairs on the right hand side, which she assumed lead to his sleeping quarters and the washroom. Though the space was unlike any she’d ever seen, it made her feel warm and safe.
“Your home is lovely, Simon.”
Simon huffed, looking at the floor. His ears held a light shade of red. “It’s a little embarrassing, don’t lie. I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to tidy up first. It’s a bit-”
“Nonsense. It really is nice.” She smiled. “My home was far too… cold in comparison. Too many things and not enough love. Your walls tell a story; one I’d love to learn when we have the time.”
“You must’ve been upper-middle class by the sounds of it.” He smirked. “I don’t envy the coldness you speak of, but at least you didn’t have to fetch your own water.” Simon rolled his shoulders. “It’s fine in the warmer months, but once a blizzard hits…” He shuddered. “Thank the Gods I get a few days with my water barrels.”
“Goodness. I hope you don’t travel far.”
“Not anymore, thank goodness. I have a well in the field behind the house. I was finally able to dig one out last summer. Before that, I used one of the shared wells in the town square.” Simon looked tired just thinking about it. “It isn’t terribly far, but as I’ve said, winters can be cruel.”
Krista knew all too well how true Simon’s words were – she was just lucky enough to have never dealt with them firsthand. “They sure can be.”
There was a brief silence before Simon stretched, placing his cloak on the coatrack by the door. “I’m heading upstairs to draw you a hot bath. I won’t be long – make yourself comfortable until I get back.”
“Surely you’d like some help?” She offered. “Surely it’ll be a hassle to bring the heated water upstairs several times?”
He waved her off as he ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. “I’ve got a small fireplace upstairs and a few water barrels as well. I’ll be fine. Just relax – I’ll come and get you when its ready.”
Krista simply bowed. “Very well. Thank you.”
“If you need anything, don’t hesitate to shout!” Simon yelled, his voice muffled by the thin wooden door. “I laid a set of clothes out for you on the drying rack. I’ll just be downstairs should you need me.”
“Thank you!” The priestess sighed happily as she sank into the tub of heated water, the warmth relaxing her sore, tired muscles near instantaneously. Krista hadn’t been able to fully relax – or at all, really – since she’d fled Vitae. She cracked her honey-golden orbs open and relaxed her face, looking at the patterns on the old wooden ceiling. The light from the single iron-caged lantern hanging on the wall cast a faint shadow, showing the simple floral design that had been hand-painted onto the lantern’s protective glass.
[i It’s so beautiful…] Krista lifted her arm out of the water and traced the shadow of the flower’s vines with her finger. Water from her hand dripped off, landing back in the tub with quiet, soothing noises.
[i Drip. Drop. Drip]. It was nearly hypnotizing.
The water felt like a snug security blanket that had been thrown around her shoulders, capable of covering her entire body. She relaxed even further, the water now touching the bottom of her chin.
The haze from the heated water hung gently around the room and wafted around her, as if urging her to let her guard down. It reminded her of a time long forgotten a; time when her pain could be soothed…
[i “Time to wash, Krissy.”
“Could you tell me a story, mam?”
The red-haired woman nodded, her honey-golden eyes warm. “Of course, my little dandelion. Which one?”
The child smiled in delight. “The one where the Star Queen saves the Starbelt from the Poachers!”]
Her mother, her native language, and a story nearly lost to time. Three things Krista did not expect to remember. Her mother, an elf/human halfling and forest-dweller who was not supposed to be her mother, was a sweet woman who was said to be lost to the elements of the Vitaean mountains. The Elven language, something long forgotten to her now, but a fond, distant memory. The only remnants of her Elven heritage were slightly-pointed ears, if one cared to notice. The story of the Star Poachers, a Vitaean children’s favorite. She hadn’t heard it in many years, and yet… she could remember each word as if her mother was whispering it to her.
[i Oh, sweet Mam…]
Krista’s mind did not register that she was beginning to feel fatigued, and thus did not realize her head was slowly submerging under the water’s surface. As her body went to inhale, expecting air and receiving water, a sharp tingling sensation was sent down her nasal passages, though it went unnoticed. The liquid started to make its way to her lungs, her thoughts sluggish and muted. She could sense a signal being sent to her brain, but the voice was too muted. She could not hear the cries of danger.
Once she fully inhaled the water, her eyes flung upon in a panic.
Taking another sharp breath out of sheer anxiety, Krista felt a pang of pain and dizziness, and saw black spots began to invade her vision. She could hear blood rushing to her ears, and her heart was pounding wildly. She attempted to flail, to escape, but her body was too warn down to grab anything.
Her left arm was trying desperately to push her body upward, but her body was shaking too hard to keep her steady. Though she tried, her arm continued to buckle and she slipped over and over again, and her head ducked under the surface continually. Krista tried once more to reach the side of the tub, feeling the last of her energy fleeing her, and panicked when her fingers slipped just out of reach. She then gave in, realizing she wasn’t going to make it, and allowed her body to sink.
Just before her hand sunk under the surface, another hand wrapped around hers, pulling her out of the tub.
Krista could do nothing but gasp for air and try to cough the water out of her lungs. The blood pumping through her ears was still loud and deafening, though she could hear a faint voice in the background. She felt firm pats on her back as she coughed, the water in her throat rising. After the fourth ‘thump’, she felt a violent wave of nausea and vomited harshly, the tub water expelled on the floor. Krista barely got a breath in before she vomited once more, coughing as the last bit of water was removed from her system.
She could hear the voice again, but still could not not make out what it was saying. Her legs buckled as her body gave into fatigue, and her body was moved from the floor to a soft surface. Forcing herself to open her eyes, she saw a very blurry-looking Simon leaning over her. He must’ve helped her.
“Si-simon?” She started.
“Yeah, its me.” His voice was gentle. “You’re okay. You’re going to be okay. Just relax, everything is all right.”
Krista wanted to say something, anything, even thank him, but she felt heavy and weak. Her eyes slipped closed as she gave in to her fatigue completely, Simon’s voice fading into the background until it was silenced.
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