The supple soft inner bark of the koyolin tree began to peel off into long thick strips as she pulled on them, and using the knife that had been borrowed to her, Saadra carefully sliced off the edible cords.
Placing them into a wooden pail by her side, she proceeded to do the same to another tree, chipping away its outer bark to get at the white innards, then making long slices into the cambium before peeling it back.
Making sure to take just enough so as to not damage the tree too much, she continued for another handful of trees until there was a good bountiful amount of soft edible bark within her bucket.
“Are you almost done there, Saadra?”
A voice inquired from her side and she quickly turned to see an older woman smiling at her. “Just about. How about yourself, Ms. Ebernny?”
“I have enough.” The woman gently held up a wooden bucket of her own, “A few of the others have already gone to wash. I was wondering if you would like to accompany me?”
“Oh, yes please.” She readily replied, seeing that the group of women around them had dwindled. A few were still searching for unharvested koyolin trees, but just like the Ms. before her and herself, many were already pairing up and leaving.
Quickly placing whatever she had in her hands into the bucket, she picked it up and hurried to the woman’s side.
Neither a villager of Esperen nor from the group of refugees led by Captain Biran, the woman was a widow from the village of Vernigale. Ms. Ebernny, as she had wished to be called, had been introduced to their group upon their arrival to the camp, and had been assisting them with how to survive in the forest ever since.
The woman was only in her early-forties, but had lost both her husband and a son to the Countess that used to terrorize the area. Without a husband or the desire to seek one, she was currently living with her second son, who had just become of age.
Beyond being a member of the old lord’s group who all managed to evade the Countess’ constant pursuits, she was also an extremely knowledgeable forager and had been imparting her skills onto them.
“So where is Sarah today? I don’t usually see one of you without the other.” The woman questioned as they made their way through the downtrodden path they had taken to get there.
“She stayed behind to help gather firewood. We were running low after this morning’s breakfast.”
“Oh, did she?”
“Yes. Lady Narissa also volunteered to go with them, so hopefully they’ll have gathered enough to last a couple of days this time.”
“That’s good. With someone like her around, I doubt anything would happen to them.”
The thought of another possible assault against their group flooded her mind, but quickly discarding it, Saadra instead turned her gaze upward beyond the bare and branching trees.
The sky was cloudless again, just like all the other days ever since they settled within the forest. Slowing her steps, “Ms. Ebernny.” She spoke, drawing away from the unsavory thoughts prior and settling onto something else, “How much longer do you think we’ll be living here like this?”
“Hm?” The woman turned to look at her, slowing down to match her pace.
“Hiding in these woods.” Saadra quietly replied, “Scavenging this empty forest for roots and barks while praying for the hunters to bring in meat.”
Joining her in observing the trees, “To be honest, I don’t know either.” The older woman calmly answered, her voice hiding a sense of melancholy.
“Ah, I’m sorry!” She quickly lowered her head apologetically, “You all have been living like this for over a year, and here I am saying such thoughtless things.”
“Heh.” Instead of sorrow, a smile bloomed across the woman’s lips, “There’s no need to apologize. You know, I used to wonder about that myself, but what’s the use? What’s another year or two when it comes to survival? We’ll all continue doing what we must in order to survive. Isn’t that what you have all been doing as well?”
Hearing the optimistic tone of the older woman, “Yes…” She voiced, suppressing her own bitter memories, “It’s just that… until recently we- our group, excluding those from Esperen, were essentially captives living in Karpes. But due to certain fortunate circumstances, we were able to leave that town and move to Esperen. They took us in when we needed a place to stay, and just when we all thought we had found a place to live and learn, the village was attacked. Now with everything that’s happened, I was simply wondering if this is our fate. To continue suffering like this…” She added, staring contemplatively into the distance.
“Of course it isn’t, you silly girl!” A swift declaration of denial, “What that is, is a blessing!”
“I don’t dare to imagine what you and your sisterhood has been through nor can I claim to understand your feelings while making this journey, but what I do know, is that you all arriving here was definitely a blessing.”
“I-…” The hardened and unyielding visage of a young man manifested itself within her thoughts. Standing before Sarah and herself, he had forced opened a different path from the one that had been set in stone for her and her sister.
Alongside him, her thoughts glimpsed the gentle expression of an elderly grandmother who had taken them in, along with the villagers of Esperen. She pictured Vick, who had been nothing but nice and helpful to them. And she saw the faces of those they had met thus far, taking in the trials they had endured together. “A blessing…”
“Of course.” The woman’s smile widened into a grin, “You know… I grew up in a logging village up north where we were surrounded by trees year-round. At this time of the year, the forest would usually be covered in a thick blanket of frost and ice would seal many a home, keeping everyone inside. But here in this forest, ever since you all arrived, it has completely stopped frosting. I daresay it has actually gotten even warmer than when we first got here as well. If that’s not a blessing, then I don’t know what it is.”
“R-really?” She stuttered in confusion upon hearing those words.
Thinking back, ever since they left the Esperen camp, even though there was always a chill or breeze with them, the cold had never gotten to a point where they were freezing. As long as they had a fire going, it was always enough to keep warm. Even the rain during their journey barely ever bothered them and when it did rain, it was never more than a drizzle.
“Really. It has even gotten to the point where people are gossiping about something supernatural being afoot.”
A chill slowly made its way up her back, and Saadra turned to look at the woman. “Supernatural?” She asked, recalling the stories from the other refugees who had joined them not too long ago. Of claims about voices whispering in the darkness, and faces from the trees. Rumors of screaming monsters beckoning children and adult alike into the doom of the forest. Even Vick himself had conveyed to them of a most precarious situation while they were making their way back.
“Folks and their mindless superstitions.”
“Well, some are saying that you were all followed by a Maadrahln, an ancient wood spirit who protects the forest from decay and death. Others believe that we have settled atop the grave of a Suncaster, whose corpse has been buried somewhere in this forest and is still burning to this day, heating the ground from beneath us.” Two very concise answers, “But if you ask me, that’s all bogus. The only truth, is that it got warmer when you all arrived. Which is why I say it’s a blessing.”
“I see… so we’re a blessing.” Taking the woman’s words into consideration, Saadra quickly glanced down at the ground before returning her attention upward, “Thank you.” She added, returning a bright smile.
“There it is.” The older woman suddenly stated with a joyful grin on her face. “The others will be delighted to hear that you have not lost your smile.”
“Eh? What do you mean?” Saadra hastily queried, sensing a tinge of embarrassment rising from within herself.
“You’ve been looking quite down these past few days. You keep that up, and soon those boys you’re so keen to avoid will come knocking. Even Doyle has been pestering me at home, asking if you are unwell.”
“I…” Recalling the amber haired youth who had recently joined the guards and would always greet them whenever they went out foraging, “I’m sorry. There’s just been a lot on my mind lately. Especially with what happened to Kayla and Emerlin.”
“I know. And I’m not telling you to ignore it, but if such a pretty young thing like yourself starts getting all gloomy, the young men here are bound to take notice and will worry. Many of them have been eyeing you, you know?”
The older woman’s joyful grin twisted and, “Pfft- Hahahah!” Ms. Ebernny began chortling giddily.
“Hehehe! That look on your face! Tehehehe!”
“I can’t believe you…” Embarrassed at how flustered she had been upon being complimented, Saadra quickly lowered her eyes to the ground again.
“Sor- sorry, I was just teasing you. Hihihihihe.”
Hearing the infectious laughter, “Hehe… hehehehehe.” She could not help but giggle along, seeing how foolish she probably looked.
“There you go.”
“Yes, yes. There I go, getting teased again.”
“Don’t be mad.” Ms. Ebernny ushered in between breaths, “A woman can only truly be beautiful when she smiles, and yours is a very beautiful smile.”
“Eh?” Taken aback at the sudden statement, she lowered her head again, “Thank you…”
“It’s such a shame though.” Ms. Ebernny softly voiced, coyly snuggling up next to her. “Especially with such a stalwart man in your group. If you don’t do anything, the other girls will steal him for sure.”
“Steal Vick?” She looked up and tilted her brows in confusion.
“Who else? Setting everything straight as soon as he got back. What a reliable man. I heard that the boys and guards who did that to your two sisters got what they deserved, and not even the parents of those boys could go against him. That even the old Lord of Imvera himself did not stand up for the families, and that golden-haired Captain Biran didn’t dare to oppose what was done either. With such a man behind you all, you and those girls are essentially untouchable now.”
“Vick. He was really angry…”
“I heard from Doyle yesterday, but apparently the guards are so terrified of what he might do that they’re all keeping an especially keen eye on your group. If anything happens to any of you, they will surely come running.”
“I… I don’t even know what to make of that. Should I be happy? Because that just sounds troublesome.”
Everyone within their camp had heard about what Vick did, but she had not expected it to have escalated to such a state.
“Hehe. That’s the kind of situation you girls are in now. Savor it. Live like princesses for a bit, and if anyone dares to bother you or yours, just scream.”
Playing with the idea in her head, “I guess that’s true.” Saadra replied, smiling as the reassurance that help would only be a scream away settled within her mind.
“Now if only such a man would back me up too. Then I’d be able to live like a princess as well.”
Hearing the underlying tone within the woman’s words, “… don’t you mean like a ‘Queen’?” Saadra corrected, trying her best to hold herself from chuckling.
“No. I want to be a princess, and he would be my prince consort.” Setting her pail of cambium on her hip, Ms. Ebernny extended a hand outward and began strutting forward.
Unable to contain herself, “Kehehehe… Hahaha!” Saadra burst into laughter.
Stopping to glance back, “Come, my prince. Let us adjourn to the bed-”
Yet as if to disrupt their fun, “KyaaaaaHHH!”, “Help!” Terrified shrieking erupted from the stream ahead, forcing them both to stop in their tracks.
Ms. Ebernny’s previously silly face had shifted into one of worry and, “Call the guards!” The older woman screamed, quickly dropping her bucket onto the side of the path before rushing off.
Setting her own bucket aside, “HELP!! Someone HELP!!” Saadra screamed, hurrying after.
In no time at all, the small stream opened up before her eyes as she hastily stumbled to a halt behind the others.
Without even searching, she quickly spotted what everyone had been shouting about. Her body instantly seized up and from behind her, the voices of the guards slowly began to fade.
In the air and hovering above the shallow stream, was a black beast with three pairs of translucent wings. Weaving and bobbing gracefully in place, its mesmerizing movements made it look as if it was swimming within the air.
Sleek black scales upon its body appear as if they were sucking in sunlight, while a small red gemstone on the center of its forehead glimmered beautifully.
Catching the beast’s two silver eyes, instead of fear, she felt an unexpected sense of familiarity as their dim glows captivated her.
“Shrraaaahhhh!” The beast hissed, and she felt herself stepping back alongside the others as it dove into the deeper part of the stream.
Submerging for the span of two breaths, it quickly emerged back up, hissing happily while snaking against the current.
The voices of the guards finally shook her awake and before she could even move, six men had already rushed forward and formed a wall before them.
“W-what is that thing?!” A woman’s voice exclaimed loudly.
Saadra looked to her side, and saw that Ms. Ebernny was locked in fear with a rock the size of a fist in hand. A few of the women who were there first and had been washing their forage were all wet, with two having fled to the trees.
“Don’t lower your weapons!” One of the guards shouted as they all took turns shaking.
“Shooo! Go away!” Another thrusted their spear forward in an attempt to scare the beast, but without even turning to look at them, the black serpent just continued frolicking in the stream.
“It… it’s bathing…”
Someone else voiced, and they all held their positions as the beast continued its thing.
Dipping one of its wings into the cold water, the serpent quickly raised it back up and shook it before doing the same to another. After doing so to its two pairs of forewings, it then lowered its head and began drinking without a care in the world.
“Hey!” A guard hollered in an attempt to draw the beast’s attention, but it simply continued lapping at the water and completely ignored everything else.
Coming from within the trees on the other side of the stream, a voice like the cooling breeze of Alivai swept along the ground and made its way toward them and beyond. Unlike what it did with the guards, the black beast immediately turned its head to look back at the trees.
Her body trembled as it regained itself and having heard the familiar voice, Saadra quickly hurried forward.
Ms. Ebernny’s voice came from behind, but she did not stop. Instead, she pushed through the curious guards to get a better look at the figure that was coming out of the woods across from them.
With a head of deep black hair even darker than the shadows in which he had emerged from, a young man stopped before the stream and held out an extended arm. Without a single word, the serpent lurched back up into the air and soared over to the youth, coiling around the arm.
Very different from the last time she had seen him, he was no longer wearing any clothes beyond a dried grass skirt covering his lower half. The sword that was always at his side was no longer there either and all that was on his waist, was a pouch made of animal skin.
“My apologies for this unsightly appearance. Might I borrow a shirt from one of you gentlemen?” The youth spoke, and her heart skipped as his voice reverberated through the air with an unshaken dominance.
There was something different about him now. She could not tell what, but his presence itself was vastly overwhelming in comparison to before.
“Y-yessir.” Without question, one of the frozen guards quickly complied and began to undo their outer shirt while trembling.
Taking the chance, “Kaidus?” She called out, and his gaze instantly turned toward her. Catching his eyes, a grin suddenly rippled into life upon the youth’s face.