Chapter 3. <The Border Forest (3)>
The water roared in her ears.
Theoretically, Cassandra knew how to swim. She once read about the practice in a book, looked over the diagrams, and laughed about how silly it looked. You had to move your arms and legs at the same time, twist your torso so you could come up for air, and float in a level position.
But while diagrams and explanations may have helped in still waters such as a lake, they were near-inapplicable in the river that seemed to be swallowing her whole.
Cassandra struggled to paddle with her limbs, but the force of the water kept pushing her down. She attempted to hoist her head up and gasp for breath, or maybe see if she could find footing, but the waters were too deep.
She would have drowned, then, if it weren’t for the nudging of a thick, long branch near her shoulder. She grasped onto the branch with both hands, and soon, she was pulled out of the river and onto the banks.
Her knees were scratched where they had been dragged along the rocks, and her hands were raw from the friction of the branch’s bark. Cassandra let go as soon as she could.
The ringing in her ears stopped, only to be replaced by a loud noise of another sort. Someone was yelling at her.
Cassandra’s eyes followed the length of the stick until she saw her savior.
A peasant boy with flushed cheeks and light brown hair was gesticulating wildly as he spoke. Gradually, Cassandra began to comprehend his words.
“What in the ancestors’ names were you thinking?” he scolded. “You idiot! You can’t be playing by the river! You shouldn’t even be in the forest! Hasn’t anyone told you to be careful?!”
Cassandra tried to respond, but only a watery cough came out. That made the boy’s expression change into something of worry, and he patted her on the back like he could punch the water out.
“Dumb kids,” he muttered under his breath.
Cassandra was about to take offense when she saw the mushrooms and fruit that lay strewn about them. Many of them were crushed or overrun with insects. The boy must have tossed his gathering bag aside in order to focus on helping her.
She swallowed her ire. Now, she just felt tired.
“Don’t cry now,” said the boy. “There’s a good boy. Come on. Can you stand up?”
“I’m not crying,” said Cassandra.
The boy huffed. “It’s a natural thing to do when you’ve nearly drowned. Don’t act so tough, kid.”
Cassandra wiped her eyes with her hand and was surprised to see that there were tears. Her knees felt weak, but she was able to stand with the boy’s help. He was surprisingly tall, nearly the height of an adult, and she figured that he must have been behind the movement she saw in the trees. The dampness of her clothes and hair got all over the boy’s clothes, but he did not seem to mind.
“Thank you,” Cassandra said, as sincerely as she could.
The boy frowned for a moment before shaking his head. “Anybody would do the same,” he said. “Now go home.”
“I… I don’t know where to go.” The admission rankled on her pride. “I’m lost.”
The boy goggled at her. “Seriously?”
The boy sighed. “Well, then. I guess you’re tagging along with me for now. First, you should take off your clothes and let them dry. It’s chilly, so you might catch a cold.”
Cassandra blushed at the suggestion. The boy seemed to take her appearance at face value and assumed she was also male.
“That’s all right,” Cassandra stammered. “I’ll be colder without it.”
The boy leveled a deadpan look at her, but he only grumbled something about youthful bravado. The irony almost made Cassandra smile.
“We’ll be out here for a while,” the boy warned. “I haven’t finished gathering.”
“I’ll help,” said Cassandra. It was the least she could do after ruining the boy’s haul earlier.
As they walked through the woods, the boy introduced himself as Lizen, no last name, 12 years old. He lived with his older sister and a few other kids in town. He talked about them in a very fond and proud voice.
“My older sister is the most reliable person you’ll ever meet,” Lizen said. “She takes care of all of us. And Poppet! Poppet is the prettiest girl ever, but she’s also vicious to everyone outside our group. She’ll stab anyone with a needle—she’s the seamstress’s apprentice, you see. She’s also my sis’s best friend. We also recently brought in Hilary. He’s a little boy, even littler than you, and he’s a massive scammer.”
Cassandra nodded indulgently to Lizen’s rambles, all the while crafting a background story for herself. She didn’t want to go by Cassandra in case anyone was looking for her, but she could use a shortened version of her name, like Andy. She had family, but she was cast aside by them—truth. She had run away—also the truth. She didn’t want to talk about it—very much the truth.
A small part of her enjoyed the theatrics of being someone else. Casting off her identity gave her the same feeling she felt when she slipped out of the handcuffs the night before, though she didn’t realize it then.
After a while, Andy grew comfortable enough to interrupt Lizen’s monologue. Currently, he was talking about which plants were safe for consumption.
“By the way,” she said, “Is it safe to be in the forest like this? I heard that there were ghosts. And soldiers.”
Lizen looked at her and blinked. “Who told you that?”
Andy felt embarrassed, for some unknown reason. “A girl I know.”
“She was pulling your leg. There hasn’t been fighting in this area for years, since the focus of the battle moved north. So, no soldiers other than a few irregular patrols. As for the ghosts”—Lizen pointed to a thorny bush on the ground—“this plant here causes hallucinations, so there’s probably a lot of rumors because of that.”1
He picked a little pink berry from the bush and popped it into his mouth. “The berries are edible, though. So collect them very carefully.”
Andy was still confused. Even if she had hallucinated the voices, there was no mistaking the sound of gunshots. Thus, she kept a wary eye on their surroundings as they continued to scavenge.
The sun was much lower in the sky when Andy sneezed. Her clothes had dried a while ago, but maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to wear them in the first place. Lizen looked to her in concern.
“The bag is full enough,” he said. “I’ll take you back to town.”
Lizen pointed out the markings, two upside-down triangles, carved into the trees that would show their way to town. Andy knew that the information was important, but she could barely focus with her headache and how cold the air was.
Somehow, she made it into the small house that Lizen said was home. He tucked her into bed, all the while fussing about stupid runaway kids who didn’t know what was good for them.
Without thinking, Andy reached out a hand toward him for comfort, and equally without thinking, Lizen held it.
“I’ll talk to my sister about letting you join the gang,” he said, and he used his free hand to stroke back Andy’s hair. “For now, sleep.”
Andy must have misheard because of her poor condition.
She entered blissful unconsciousness.
1. Miss Juniper Wolet was many things, including Cassandra Hattings’s sworn foe, but she was not a liar. It just happened that the information she gave in the past became outdated, as information tends to become with time.🠘 Return