“I see it!”
Amber stood on the seat next to the carriage driver as the horses clopped along the winding dirt road. Her hands grasped the small lip on the edge of the seat that prevented the driver from simply sliding out if the horse made too sharp a turn. Sunlight sparkled off her brown eyes as she gazed over the farmland. It spread out before her like a sheet of green and brown, ending in the tall stone walls of the city in the distance.
“That don’t mean much,” the driver quipped as he kept the horses on track. “It’ll be another two hours, then we have to wait to be checked in before we’re let into the city. That could take another hour if it’s busy.”
Amber pouted as she turned to see his nonplussed expression. “Why? It’s right there, can’t we just…”
“Just what?” Sirrus’ dark eyes shaded under the wide brim of his hat didn’t spare her a glance, keeping focus on the compacted road ahead. “Cut across the fields? If we were on foot maybe, but this carriage would tear up the harvest. Wouldn’t want to do something like that. Even if you went on foot, they wouldn’t let you in anywhere but the gate anyway.”
“I could probably find another way in if I needed to,” the girl scoffed.
“What with? Your familiar? Oh wait…” The young man tilted his head just enough to give his passenger the side eye. “You don’t got one, do you now, Missy Amber?”
“That’s not my fault and you know it.” She crossed her arms. “You were there, Sirrus.”
“I was. It was right funny too.” He swiveled his head back to the road. “That beast master was so pissy when you took out that cub’s eye.”
“It’s his fault for bringing cats.” She stamped a booted foot on the seat. Whether the motion caused unbalance to the carriage or if the shaking was the result of its continued movement was hard to tell. “My aunt warned him not to bring any cats. Wolves at least can be reasonable, but cats are just monsters that folks fawn over ‘cause they happen to have big eyes and make rumbling sounds that they think are signs of affection.” Her pale hands in orange sleeves were wrapped around her as she bounced on her heels. “It would have been much better if he’d brought some mice or rats. They’re much smarter.”
“Don’t matter how smart they are. The only reason a beast master would have rats is to feed his birds,” Sirrus retorted. “Still don’t see why you didn’t get one of those. Figured you might want one of them for their practical uses.”
“Birds are almost as bad as cats are!” Amber waved her hands. “Especially the ones he had for bonding. No nice nectar drinking birds like hummingbirds, no! He had falcons and hawks, both of which bite, hard,” she said, drawing out the last word.
“Suppose that’s a good point. Still, the point of a ranger’s familiar is that they can go into battle with you. Rats can’t do that. You said wolves are alright, why didn’t you get one of those?”
“All the wolf cubs were taken.” Amber finally sat back down, tucking her hands under her armpits, continuing to pout. “I think the other rangers bribed him or something to let them get first pick.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me, though what does surprise me is why you didn’t do the same.” He gave another side-eye gazed down at the girl. “Surely your parents could have put forth some money to get you a good wolf cub.”
She looked away from him and down at the passing fields. He was right of course, her parents could have definitely afforded such a thing, just like they could have afforded her coming here in a private carriage. Instead she was riding with the son of one of their business associates, who happened to be driving their stock to the city. Her lips pressed into a thin line.
“They already did so much though. I was supposed to choose a familiar, or have one choose me. Not have one purchased beforehand just to make the process a little easier.”
“We all saw how that went though.” Sirrus snorted. “If you look at it another way, you were the most popular ranger at the showing. All those animals following you around.”
“Because they were all trying to bite me,” Amber spat.
Sirrus chuckled. “Yeah, I don’t think the beast master actually expected that. Since your folk all seem to have such a way with animals.”
“My aunt has a way with animals because nature is her highest affinity,” Amber said, with a squeaky sulk, trying to convey her annoyance. “Not all of us are liked by animals.”
“You’re living proof of that, ain’t ya.”
Amber just huffed and lay down on the seat. Her legs spread out onto the smooth, slightly sloping wooden bench and she lay her head onto her arms to look up at the sky.
Amber came back around to the point. “So, three hours.”
“Yep, though you could always try to make a run for it. With your tiny legs I’m sure you’d make it there in about three days’ time.” He chuckled.
“I can move faster than that.” Though she left out the fact that on such a long stretch of flat open ground, it would take a while, even if his prediction was an exaggeration. Especially if there was no gate and she had to try and scale the walls, which would take even longer.
She rolled over to the side. “I think I’ll nap in the meantime. You think you can keep an eye out without me?”
“This close to the city, I doubt there’d be any trouble from thieves or animals.”
“They aren’t the only threats.” Amber set her head down and closed her eyes.
“True, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for whatever ruckus comes about.”
Amber didn’t fall asleep immediately, at some point Sirrus was kind enough to set his hat to block her from the sun. In the nice shady space she doozed off as the horse slowly made its way to the gates of the city of Pondril.
The fog had dissipated before morning prayer finished. Arabella was glad of that as she hurried to her next task. There was an odd scent in the air that followed the fog which clung to the flagstones after she’d gotten ready. It was a pungent aroma, acrid and heavy, like the incense used in some of the religious ceremonies held on holidays. It was the only thing she could compare it to, even though it wasn’t strong enough to make her eyes tear up like the incense had. A fresh breeze coming off the lake helped to push the smell away as she moved on.
The air was less heavy now as well, which was fine with her since she hadn’t been able to find Cyril this morning to help her with her hair. It lay tucked into her collar as she hadn’t been able to locate any of her ties. Thankfully, it was hidden by the veil that trailed down her back from the hat she wore traditionally for prayer. Until she found a new tie, that’s likely where it’d stay, otherwise it might get in her way.
Her light jog brought her closer to her favorite place in the priory. Warm dry air and the scent of freshly ground flour hit her as she opened the door. Peering inside, she greeted the prioress, who was fanning the flames of the oven. Somehow the aged woman always made it to each of her daily tasks before anyone else, even when it was abundantly clear that she had still been in the prayer hall when Arabella had left. She always wondered if it was some sort of magic the woman possessed, but never actually got up the nerve to ask.
Arabella’s eyes met the prioress’, who tilted her head slightly towards the basin. Berating herself slightly for getting lost in her ponderings, Arabella headed over to it. Pulling up the grey sleeves of her long robes, she put her hands into the wash basin and scrubbed for a good minute before she shook them dry, lightly floured them, and started making dough.
She enjoyed the familiar squish of dough as she formed a ball. Once all the dry mix formed into the proper shape, she flattened it onto the powdered table, and started to work it back and forth. Humming to herself, she let her fingers dig into the supple mass, stretching it out, pulling it back, over and over again until the consistency was just right. By the time she was done with the first batch of dough, the other apprentice priestesses had filled the room, and she handed it off to another before starting on the next one.
It was a simple yet arduous task, but one of the most rewarding ones she had in the priory. Cleaning the priory, sweeping the stairs, doing daily prayers, all of that was nice, but this was making something, something for everyone. All the morning bread became alms distributed to the poor or the sick. They made other goods to sell, but the bread was her favorite. She loved the smell, so nice and crisp in the morning air as it baked.
When she finished kneading the dough that would be set to rise, she sat down to rest, when one of the other girls stared at her.
“Ara, your hair? Did you not tie it up?”
Arabella blinked and looked over. The gesture made her notice that some of her hair had slipped out of her collar and hung forward, the tips still tucked in but the long strand hung outward. Luckily, the prioress was out getting some salt from the stores. “No, I couldn’t find one this morning.”
The other girl looked exasperatedly at her. “Well, hurry out. If the prioress notices you were making bread with your hair down she’ll have your head.” She glanced around. “Does anyone have an extra tie?” The other girls exchanged quick looks, but then shook their heads. “Run to your room and tie it back. We don’t want to get splashed.”
Arabella winced but ran out, pulling up her skirts. They were always punished in a group if any one of them did something out of line. Was it her fault if she couldn’t find her tie?
On her way out she passed her friend holding a stack of books, then spun around and grabbed his shoulder. He adjusted with the motion, only taking a moment to confirm his hold on the books before peering past them.
“Oh, hello, Ara.” Cyril adjusted a pair of glasses he used mostly for reading.
“Do you have a moment?” Arabella asked. “I need to do my hair.”
“I see.” He reaffirmed his hold on his books and looked around. “We’re just cleaning out the library today, but I don’t think they’ll miss me for a few minutes.” The two of them walked into an empty prayer room and sat down on the pews. Cyril put down the books as Arabella took off her hat and pulled her long yellow hair out of her collar.
Cyril did have a tie on him. He usually had several. His hair was almost as long as hers, but it was so curly that it came out as an uncontrolled poof on his head if he didn’t oil it then tie it back. He also sometimes braided it, though how he managed to control it well enough to get it into strands she didn’t know. His long fingers moved through her hair quickly, straightening out tangles, separating them out and pulling it back into a hasty braid that went down her back before he tied the end. It was neater than anything she could manage on her own, and wouldn’t come undone.
“Thanks,” she said as she adjusted her hat and turned to look at Cyril. His brown eyes were only a shade darker than his skin, which was like the cocoa they occasionally got as imports from the south. She ran her hand along the braid, as neat as new rope just like Cyril always did it. “What was this about the library? Is that why you weren’t here this morning?”
“Yeah, we got a big import from Flaron. The boys’ side were all pulled to do it.” He glanced over towards the door. “I’ll need to get going soon.”
“Alright.” Arabella grabbed the books and handed them over. “We’re almost done with the bread. Will the boys be coming for breakfast?”
“I think so.” He held the books against his chest and adjusted them to make sure they didn’t fall. “I’ll ask when I get back, though we still have a lot of work to do. They’re having us sort through them for any redundant volumes that can be donated to other branches.”
“Well, I’ll bring you some if you’re late, alright?” Arabella straightened her skirt and patted her hair to make sure it wasn’t too puffy. “Does it look okay?”
“It looks wonderful.” Cyril smiled. “See you at breakfast?”
“Hopefully.” She smiled, then jogged back to the kitchen.
The smoke made Amber wince as she climbed past a chimney belting out black clouds. Given that was most of the chimneys she’d passed so far, one would think it was winter and not early autumn with how much wood the city was burning. It wasn’t only wood either. Passing one chimney, she wrinkled her nose at the acrid smell of overly charred meat. She wanted to press a hand to her mouth but couldn’t spare one; the slick clay tiles that lined the slanted roof garnered her full attention.
Pulling herself up to a nice flat area, she took stock of the area. It wasn’t the highest point in the city by a long shot, but it was plenty high enough for her to get her bearings. Pondril was less colorful than she was used to. She understood that the walls were all made of the same type of grey stone, probably something cut from the local mountains and brought down the river. It was the same for the streets, grey stone set in blocks that lined up like a monochrome chessboard. Despite that, most of the buildings near the wall were made of wood. Somehow the wood looked all washed out, like it’d been left in the rain to rot for several days. Where it wasn’t faded, it was blackened by some sort of thick, oily substance that smelled like burning.
It was much the same with the people here. If there was a popular color among the people she’d seen, she’d say it was a tie between brown and beige. Her own clothing was downright flamboyant in comparison. It shouldn’t have been; it was only a pair of dark pants and an orange blouse, perfect for moving through autumn forests. But in this city, against the monotony of the streets, she might have caught people’s eyes, and she really didn’t need people looking at her too closely. Still, she couldn’t help it. None of the clothing she had brought with her would have helped her blend in with just grey, brown, or beige. It wasn’t customary in her home to wear such a subdued color palette.
She still had to marvel at the sheer scale of the city. From up high she could really appreciate the thought put into the design. The main road was large and cut through the entire city from the front gate all the way to the most prominent structure: the castle gates. The planner had thought to make it easy to get goods through the city to the castle. Besides that, there was a road she could see in the large gap between buildings that led to the port. That road also bisected the city, creating a slightly awkward cross shape. Everything else seemed to branch out from those two roads, without much rhyme or reason. The city looked more neatly structured the closer it got to the castle. Maybe all this clutter was because the city hadn’t been built all at once? From what her uncle told her, lots of settlements started small and then grew outwards, though in this case the growth was just more downhill rather than outwards in all directions.
Amber had more ground to cover if she wanted to get to the Adventurers’ Guild by nightfall. She was still fairly close to the wall, and the directions she’d gotten from Sirrus said that the hall was somewhere on the western side of the city, on the road that went to the docks. He’d expected her to walk along the street below, until she had pointed out the obvious problems with that idea. The road was much too crowded. Even with an open path, she might well have gotten lost in the press of bodies.
Still, she needed to…
A faint thumping resonated through the roof beneath her hands. A deep shiver went up her spine as well-honed senses reflexively made her pull her feet under her. She glanced around. Crouched low, she held her breath as she listened for the direction of the—there! She saw a figure skulk out from the shadows of an overhang on a nearby building. The creature seemed no longer concerned with stealth, as it had been detected. Amber stared into the yellow eyes of a predator.
The house cat meowed, blinking slowly as it walked toward Amber. She stepped backward, her hand shakily reaching for the bow on her back. She pulled out an arrow, though she didn’t notch it. “No closer,” she said, her voice a little more frail than she wanted it to be as she backed away from the cat.
It padded lightly forward, tail up as it walked easily along the rooftop. Amber pulled up the arrow, her hand steady with the weapon pulled back.
“I’ll shoot! Don’t think I won’t.” Still, the cat moved closer. Amber aimed the bow directly at it.
There were two more thumps, barely audible but enough to make Amber’s head turn: two more cats, one on the other side of the peak, and one on the roof tiles on the southern side. All advancing, tails flicking as Amber turned her bow up. She stared at them, assessing her options. Options which were rapidly dwindling as the first one continued to close in.
She needed to act, and act quickly. With this many, it was reasonable—more than justified to do so. She could handle this situation.
With a quick turn to confirm the others’ location, Amber then leaped off the top ledge, sliding down the roof’s slope, jumping the small gap over to the next building. She took off at a full sprint.
The city streets were as crowded as they usually were at this time of day. It was well past lunchtime, so businesses were bustling, especially as more people entered the city. Carts came one by one through the gates to bring in their goods. It was always like that during harvest season, and Arabella loved to watch all the new people move through the streets.
Arabella stared at the walls overhead as she held her broom, wondering exactly how tall they were. They towered over the city, looking as though if one were to climb the stairs, they might be able to reach up and touch the clouds. She gazed at it until her view was blocked by a passerby before continuing her sweeping.
It wasn’t exactly the best time of day to sweep, but it needed to be done. A clean city was a healthy city and a healthy city was a happy city. Her work was just part of the many tasks she completed as part of her service to the church, which offered its services to the city.
She hummed to herself as she swept, though she saw something gross lying in the street, a dropping, probably from a carriage. Looking back and forth, she grabbed a dirty cloth from the stall and moved out to grab it before someone could do something unfortunate like…
Arabella tumbled backwards on the stone, her back hitting the side of a street stall. Pain arced through her shoulder and back where she’d hit, sharp enough to make her clench her fist. Her hand felt warm and awkward as something not fully digested dripped down her wrist. Wincing, she opened her fist and stared at the mess of cloth and other things before glancing up to see Priestess Pam glaring at her.
“Look what you’ve done, girl.”
“I was just…” She glanced around. “What hit me? Is everyone alright?”
“T’was a courier I think. You’re lucky they didn’t stop to scold you. Though now look at you. Made a mess all over your robes.” Grabbing her by the shoulders, Pam pulled Arabella up and looked her over. “We’re too far from the priory. Guess we’ll have to do a quick cleanse. Can’t have people seeing you like this.”
“But I…” Arabella met Pam gaze and shut her mouth at the scolding. She knew that Pam was doing her a favor; she hadn’t wanted to get so dirty. Still, she bit her lip and spoke softly. “I could maybe change instead. We don’t have to…”
“Just get back here,” Pam said to her as he moved her to the back part of an alley. The priestess looked around for a few seconds and held out both her hands. “By the sea and the moon, by the rivers and the tides, bring forth your holy water to rinse away all that stains this world.” As she recited the prayer, water condensed in her hands. It was a common sight but Arabella recoiled as she braced for what was about to happen. “By our goddess, Aoiria, be cleansed.” The holy spell splashed and Arabella shivered as the ball of water hit her.
It soaked her from head to toe, dripping down and taking all the dirt and grime of the day with it—but it was so cold!
She clutched her arms as she shivered in the evening air. In the shade between the buildings, a cold wind made her brace even more. The priestess scoffed. “Come on, girl, it’s not as if this is the first time you’ve been splashed.” Pam faced her as she lowered and rolled up her sleeves to get the wet fabric off her skin. The priestess glanced downwards, then immediately back up before turning away and coughing. “Do keep your arms in front of you while you dry off. No point in being shameless as well as careless.”
Arabella was confused for all of three seconds before looking down and crossing her arms tightly over her chest. Her chest should have been bound enough. Darn cold water. Darn splashing. Pam’s the one who…
She breathed in, then out, walking back toward the store. “I don’t think I can sweep like this.”
“No,” the priestess said as she walked to the door. “I have an order I need picked up from the tannery. I’ll write you a note to give them.”
“The one by the lake?” That was clear across town.
“Yes, hopefully a good pace will dry you off. You’ll definitely need one if you want to get back to the priory before nightfall.”
The Adventurers’ Guild, either as a show of wealth or just to differentiate itself from its neighbors, was made almost entirely of thick dark wood not native to this region. It had large, heavy double doors that were engraved with the adventurer’s crest: a staff, a bow, and a sword, all crossed against each other like an odd flowerlike arrangement in the center of a diamond.
Dropping from the low-hanging edge of a roof to a store that, from the look of its sign, sold armor, Amber landed with a very soft thud and took in her surroundings. She glanced at the amount of people before sprinting across the street. Thankfully, there was much less foot traffic here than on the larger main street, so she managed to get through unscathed. In a stroke of luck, the door opened and a man in leather armor stepped out. She dashed right by him, giving a soft thanks.
She leaned forward to steady herself, looking down at the rich green rug. She gazed up, wide-eyed at the interior. The front room was two stories high with the second story visible over a banister, behind which were rows of tables with people cheerfully eating and drinking. She’d known the building was three stories from the outside, but it didn’t really show how grand it truly was. The first level was composed of the same dark wood, but the floors were almost wall to wall with deep green rugs, the only exception being the area right in front of the door. Looking back, she saw a mat made of dried woven weeds on which an entering adventurer could rub the grime off their boots before stepping into the room. Oh, what a practical idea. Not one someone at Silverleaf would ever use. Her eyes roamed back over the tapestries set in different colors against the wall, covered in emblems she didn’t recognize all the way to the stairs and to the next level.
“Oh, hello there, are you here to post a request?” Turning, Amber met eyes with a receptionist holding a stack of papers.
“No, I’m here to register as an adventurer,” Amber said.
The woman smiled. “Alright, one moment.” She walked past Amber to the far side of the room, which was dominated by a large board covered with papers. Amber gazed up at the board as she trailed behind. Some of the papers had pictures of monsters on them with the rewards listed in large text. Most of them were text only, though she couldn’t read any of them from this angle. The woman called, “Do you want me to get you a chair for you to work on?”
“Sure, thank you,” Amber replied. The woman pulled out a stool by the front desk, gave her a few papers, and offered her a pen. “No thank you, I have my own.”
Bearing down on the stool, Amber quickly went to work filling out the information as she went through the form.
Name: Amber Doxle
Main Weapon: Bow
Skills: Scouting, Stealth, Tracking, Foraging, Ranged Combat
She paused as she came to a part she didn’t recognize. “Party registration?”
“For people who come in groups,” the receptionist said from her place behind the desk as she went through some papers. “We make sure they register so we have it on file that they’re working together. If you happen to find someone you want to form a party with, just list their name on the paperwork and have them list you.”
“I see,” Amber said as she skipped that section entirely and continued down the page, finding another question: city of origin. “Do I have to fill out all of this?”
“No, mostly we just need your name, age, and general skill set so we can direct you to a group looking for someone with more specialized skills.”
“Alright, I think I’m d—”
She was cut off by the slamming of the front door as a party of three entered the hall. It looked like a lizardkin in leather armor, a human in a robe, and at the front a dwarf in plate armor. “Oi! We just finished out that quest. Can we get our reward now?”
“Just one moment,” the receptionist said. “I have to finish signing up this new adventurer.”
“Which one is that?” The dwarf’s gaze fell onto Amber, who was looking at the trio, particularly the dwarf’s armor. It was well made and reeked of magic. When their eyes met, the dwarf let out a belly laugh. “This a joke here?”
“Excuse me?” Amber said, her body rising as her voice did.
“Ya heard me, didn’t ya?” The dwarf turned to look at their party. “This one an adventurer?”
“Yeah, I’m applying to be an adventurer. I’m trained. Why? Do you have some sort of problem with that?”
The lizardkin mumbled something to the human that Amber couldn’t hear before the dwarf turned back to her and said, “I don’t have the problem, but don’t you think you’re a wee bit underqualified there, lass?”
Amber’s eye twitched.
A large man sitting behind his desk looked over the pair of them. Neither Amber nor the dwarf met his eyes. Amber was looking down, biting her lip and clenching and unclenching her hands.
“I know as the guild master it is often my responsibility to break up brawls between adventurers in this hall, but I must say this is my first time breaking up a brawl between an adventurer and someone who had yet to even sign up. Now, I’m a fair man, so I’ll let you both off, though why don’t we go through this from the beginning. Let’s see, as Elgor tells it, you, Glenn, taunted Miss Amber here about the legitimacy of her becoming an adventurer. Is this correct?”
“Aye.” Glenn the dwarf nodded.
“And in response, Miss Amber jumped off a chair and, let’s see … bit Glenn here in the face? Is that correct?”
“It is.” Amber reached up and wiped away the tiny bit of blood that still remained on her lips.
“Then you, Glenn, grabbed Amber and threw her with such force that she ended up flying across the guild faster than Marcus whenever the debt collectors were on his tail?”
“I doubt any of us can move that fast,” Glenn chuckled.
“Which just so happened to be when I opened the door from the back room and had to sidestep while she flew past me and into one of the bookshelves,” the guild master said.
Amber winced, stretching her back and reflexively feeling what was no doubt a gigantic bruise forming from her shoulders to her bum.
“So do you have anything to say about what happened?” the guild master asked.
Both Amber and Glenn began speaking at the same time. The guild master held up a hand. “I meant one at a time. Glenn, you first.”
“I don’t think you can really blame me as I didn’t throw the first punch.”
“Like it would matter,” Amber said. “I bet you punch like a woman.”
“Well, that would be quite appropriate as Glenn is a woman,” the guild master said.
Amber blinked and looked at the dwarf. “They have a beard!”
“Aye.” Reaching up, Glen took off her helmet to reveal neatly braided raven-black hair, though only coming from the top of her head.
Amber looked from Glenn to the helmet, which as it turned out had a beard attached to it. “Why does your helmet have a beard?”
“T’was my grandfather’s. He couldn’t grow one after an unfortunate encounter with a dragon. So he had one added to his helm as a way to show off his dwarven pride.”
“Oh, but wouldn’t that be really easy to light up?” Amber said.
“Would be, if it weren’t made of yeti hair,” Glenn said.
“How many times has someone tried?”
“In general or daily?”
“Daily?” Amber said, confused.
“You’ve been here long enough. Haven’t you seen Solmon the Drake?”
“Been here long enough? I just got here.”
“You got into a brawl, didn’t ya? That means you’ve been here long enough.”
“While this was a nice little history lesson, is this issue considered resolved?” asked the guild master. “I wouldn’t want this bad blood to scare away our new applicant.”
“I suppose so. Lass here at least has the guts to throw herself into the fray. That’s most of what ya need to be an adventurer.” Glenn reached out to Amber with a gauntleted hand but thought better of it. After removing the metal glove she reached out her hand again. “It’s good to see new blood in this guild.”
Amber grabbed the hand, which swallowed hers completely. The hardy shake Glenn gave her nearly pulled her off the chair.
“Thanks, I guess.” She shook her arm, which tingled from the rough treatment as she turned toward the guild leader. “I didn’t mean to lose my temper, I just…”
The guild master waved her off. “Just don’t cause too many problems in the future. Can’t have adventurers causing problems all the time.”
Amber nodded as she jumped off her chair and looked at the female dwarf, who opened the door for her out of the office. “So you’ve been here for a while, then?”
“A little bit, aye, did you have any questions?”
“Yes, what do you suggest? I don’t really have a party. So what do you think I should take for some requests I can do on my own?”
The streetlights on the main roads were being lit as Arabella passed. She shopkeeper a wave as she jogged along the waterfront, clutching a bundle to her chest as the last vestiges of sunset continued to darken from deep purple into the black of night. Priestess Pam had either underestimated how long it’d take to get to the tannery and back, or overestimated how fast she could run. If it’d been early morning when she went she might have made good time, both because she would have been fresh and rested and because of the lack of foot traffic so early. Late in the day during harvest season, the streets were congested with traveling peddlers, slow-moving shoppers, and natives just trying to go about their business. It wasn’t like she could just knock people aside like a courier.
At least the jogging warmed her up considerably. Her robes were only a touch damp now, and not clinging in any embarrassing places. Slowing her pace to a walk, she started to feel the soreness from the day’s work catching up to her. Peering along the curve of the waterfront, she could see the priory from here; everyone could. It wasn’t far from the castle walls, having been built next to one of the rivers that flowed into the lake when this settlement was expanded. It was where the priory went to clean their clothing, but also where they took the apprentices to punish them for any misbehavior. The river came from snowmelt up the mountain, and it was always so cold.
Her head started to hurt now that she wasn’t focusing on a task, and a hollow feeling grew in her stomach. Lunch had been ages ago; they’d already started serving dinner at the priory. By the time she got there she’d be lucky if they had any stale bread left for her to take to bed. She sighed as she walked down the waterfront. It was not as if she had any coin to buy food. Apprentices weren’t given such things.
Her eyes moved down the water’s edge to see someone—no, multiple someones—lying among the rocks. Their clothes were soaked through, and some of them were even missing parts of it. Had they fallen in the lake and drowned? Had a current dragged their bodies to shore?
“Hello?” she called out. At the sound of her voice she saw one of them move their head and reach out an arm. They were alive! Setting her bundle down, she stepped off the path and hurried down the rocky slope. If she left them alone too long they might get sick in that wet clothing. She just needed to help them up to the path, then she could call for someone to help.
“Hold on!” she said as she moved down the rocks. There were about four of them she could see, and as she got closer she saw the pallor on their skin. The cold must have drained them of color. She had to get them up and warm as soon as possible.
They moved up the rocks as well, more quickly as they pulled themselves out of the water. That was great; if they had the energy to move, maybe they weren’t that bad off. Just a little bit farther.
She was only a meter away when she reached out to them. The person in front, a man from his build, reached out and grabbed on to her arm. Arabella knew something was wrong the moment the water from his hand sank into her sleeve.
The hand wrapping around her arm was cold and slick, the fingertips swollen with water, his chipped nails digging into her skin. A thought occurred to her subconscious mind before it could bring itself to the forefront, and she started to shake. That thought was still slow coming as she tried to speak. “Are … are you…?”
A long breath of air—no, not air, water—poured from the mouth of the man holding her. His head tilted up. Patches of flesh hung off his cheeks like torn fabric, revealing the white bone underneath. Milky white eyes stared up at her, the skin bunched around them bulbous and waterlogged as more and more water spewed from his mouth. Then the thought finally crystalized and her breath escaped her in two words, barely above a whisper.