Chapter 2. <The Border Forest (2)>
The Border Forest.
Located on Ulra’s eastern front, the forest had long been a source of conflict with Senecy. Truthfully, neither nation had use for the land. It had little resources other than lumber, but years of pride and blood meant that neither side wanted to give it up.
Cassandra thought that they should have. The forest was said to be haunted by soldiers, both dead and alive, and it was easy to see why as she ran through the thicket.
The thin branches looked like skeletal hands trying to drag her to her death. The wind carried faint voices to her, or maybe it was just her imagination, or maybe the soldiers were right beside her—
“Cassandra! Come back!”
“We won’t hurt you. Don’t run away, Cassandra. Stay.”
Cassandra remembered the stories that the girls in her dormitory used to tell each other on hot, summer nights. There wasn’t a point to discussing romance when all but one of them were already engaged, and so they had shared whatever spooky stories they knew.
“Don’t ever enter the woods after dark,” said Miss Juniper Wolet. Her eager face glowed, moonbeams highlighting her cheeks through the sheer curtains. “Everyone in my hometown says so.”
While the other two girls leaned in, hanging onto Miss Wolet’s every word, Cassandra had scoffed.
“I bet your hometown is full of uneducated, countryside bumpkins,” she said. “What would they know?”
Miss Wolet turned red. She looked as if she was going to throw a pillow at Cassandra, but one of their roommates appeased her.
“Come on, Juni. Miss Hattings is just scared. Look at how she’s clutching her nightgown.”
“I’m not scared!” Cassandra squawked. She yanked her hands away from her clothes like they were on fire.
As one, all of the girls shushed her in fear of waking the dorm mother. Cassandra pouted as Miss Wolet laughed and continued.
“Moving on, then. Soldiers from both countries occupy whatever part of the woods they can, but they almost never stay the night. And if one of them falls in battle while they’re there… They leave the body behind.”
Despite herself, Cassandra asked a question. “Isn’t that disrespectful? The soldiers’ families deserve to mourn.”
Miss Wolet shook her head. “The thing is, the bodies don’t stay there.”
The girls gasped.
“What does that mean, Juniper?”
Miss Wolet relished in their shock, and once her audience had calmed, she continued.
“They used to put the bodies on a carriage to bring home. The corpses were stacked on top of each other like toy blocks. I guess it must have been uncomfortable for them because, during the night, the corpses walked off. Nobody saw it happening, but I have it on good authority that there were tracks leading away from the carriage.”
“Where did they go?”
“They must stay in the forest, I assume. Fighting battles over and over, re-enacting their deaths. Sometimes you can hear sounds of battle when there’s no fighting going on, at least not officially.”
Miss Wolet grinned evilly.
“Or maybe they’re searching for something. A nice, juicy kid to eat up—”
There was a knock on the door, and the girls screeched.
The dorm mother entered.
“Shush! Shush, you all! Why, I ought to inform the…”
Boom. Cassandra’s memories were interrupted by more gunshots in the distance, and she nearly tripped over a root in surprise.
“Cassandra! Come back!”
How did the voices know her name? She was tempted to look back. The voices sounded so gentle, so welcoming…
But nobody had ever welcomed Cassandra in her life, so they had to be fake. The wind playing tricks on her ear, nothing more. Cassandra ran on.
Eventually, a bright light made Cassandra stop. It was the sun’s reflection on a river. When Cassandra took the moment to catch her breath, she found that there weren’t any more sounds of gunshots or ghosts.
Her knees collapsed on her as she abruptly registered her exhaustion. Kneeling on the riverbank, she stared into the running water and let out a broken laugh.
The pebbles against her knees were smooth and cool. Encouraged, Cassandra dipped her hand into the water.
The coldness jolted her awake, and she cupped the water in her hands to take a sip.
It was then that she noticed her reflection in the water. Her features were much the same as they always were: startling gold eyes that she inherited from her father and black hair that reflected her Hino heritage. However, her cheeks were plumper than she had become used to, and the bags beneath her eyes were gone.
That blasted magician had stolen about a decade from her. She looked like she was ten.
Cassandra fumed over the indignity as she washed the scratches she had earned on her desperate race. She was supposed to be nineteen! She had only reached her age of majority last year, and then she spent most of the year in one jail cell or another.
She never had the chance to stay out all night drinking at a tavern.
She never got to dance at a festival.
She never got to dress in the clothes that she wanted instead of the stifling school uniform dresses.
She never got to officially move out from her father’s home and find a place for herself in the world.
As a Hattings, Cassandra’s life had been restricted on all fronts.1 From the friends she was allowed and her engagement to Prince Emmett, Cassandra was never allowed a voice.
She jerked up as an epiphany struck her.
All the things that she hadn’t been able to do… She could do them now, except maybe drinking all night. She was free from her family. If she hid well enough, her father wouldn’t even realize she was alive and assume that she died with the wagoneer and knights.
Cassandra would have to disguise herself, maybe trim her hair a bit. She was young enough to pass off as a boy, especially with her current short hair and stolen clothing.
In the morning light, the things that had terrified her last night seemed ridiculous. While the threat of soldiers had been real—there was no imagining a gunshot—there hadn’t been any undead soldiers calling out to her. She had just spooked herself because of a schoolgirl’s stories. Rather, luck had allowed her to rid herself of all imminent threats.
Cassandra smiled, looking into the clear water of the river. She could see little fish darting to and fro between the rocks. Maybe there were bigger fish, too, if she could fashion a spear from the nearby trees. It wouldn’t be good to starve.
She was about to look for a good stick when there was a strange, human-sized movement in the trees.
Frightened, Cassandra stepped back.
The river stones were slippery.
She fell into the rushing water.
1. The history of the Hattings family is an unusual one.
While they became famous in the kingdom as so-called kingmakers, they had started as humble hatmakers—therefore, “Hattings.” Their motto-cum-slogan was “The Right Hat for the Right Man.”
At some point, one of Cassandra’s ancestors had the bright idea to become a priest. Cassander Hattings, our main character’s namesake, climbed higher and higher in the temple until he became the high priest and put the right hat (the crown) on the right man (the first king of Ulra). Thus, the family remained in the illustrious position of kingmakers and temple snobs until Cassandra Hattings, the only daughter of Hector Hattings, tried to poison a member of the royal family and was caught doing so, unlike her wiser and sneakier ancestors.
Cassandra has her reasons. 🠘 Return
Thank you for reading!