"Catch me, Luce!" Annabelle shouted while she ran around the large oak, the ribbons in her ebony locks flying. She jumped over the roots and twigs as Luce gave chase. Annabelle stopped and stuck her head out from behind the tree, attempting to run the opposite way, but Luce caught sight of her. In an instant, Luce reached her hand out and firmly grasped Annabelle's arm.
"Aha, got you!" she yelled. Annabelle stopped and her face contorted slightly, as if she was about to challenge Luce's assessment. But, instead, she relaxed and let out a loud laugh. Luce followed suit, and soon enough, the two girls were rolling in the grass, not caring that they were staining their dresses.
After some time, the two girls had settled down enough to sit up against the oak tree and find shapes in the clouds. In only a few minutes, the two had found a dragon, two mice, a cake, and an entire castle in the white puffs floating in the sky. Annabelle weaved dandelions through Luce's hair, yellow splashes mixed in with mahogany curls. Once she finished, Annabelle gave a slight tug on one of Luce's ringlets.
"How does it look?", Luce asked, "You didn't put any weeds in, did you?"
Annabelle chuckled a little and smiled.
"Luce, dandelions are weeds."
"They are? They're quite pretty. I suppose I like weeds now," Luce responded slowly. The two girls smiled at each other for a moment before a large shadow blocked out the sun. They looked up to see Cecilia Morova, the daughter of the landlord who owned Annabelle's house. She was joined by Vivienne Hart and Abigail Walsh, two girls who could always be found in Cecilia's shadow. The three girls were notorious snobs who always chose to pick on Annabelle whenever the situation arose.
Annabelle's parents earned considerably less than any other courtier. Her father was the head groundskeeper of the land that Cecilia's parents owned, while her mother worked as a seamstress, much of her work going directly to the Morovas themselves. Annabelle's parents weren't even really proper courtiers, but the Morovas paid slightly more than anyone else. It was because of this that they earned just barely enough to be welcomed into higher middle class society, though the welcome was generally a cold one.
"Hello Luce, hello Belly," Cecilia sneered. Out of the corner of her eye, Luce could see Annabelle's rising blush. Weight was always a source of shame for her.
"Go away, Cecilia. We came out here so we wouldn't have to deal with you, In fact, you should be embarrassed that people are trying to escape you at your own birthday party," Luce responded.
"Oh please," she replied, rolling her eyes at the quip, "It's my eleventh birthday party, and I'm a Morova! I can do as I please whenever I want and know without a doubt that I'll have friends waiting for me when I'm finished, unlike you and your little piggy."
Luce felt the heat rise in her cheeks, and she didn't have to see Annabelle to know that she was on the verge of tears.
"The only reason that you're so popular is because of your parents' wealth. It has nothing to do with you or your horrid lackeys," Luce said, looking pointedly towards Vivienne and Abigail. The comment didn't seem to phase Cecilia, but the same could not be said for her two shadows.
"You do know that the more time you spend with Belly detracts from your courtier potential, right?", Vivienne snapped. Luce faltered for a moment; she had always dreamed of being a proper lady of the court, like her late mother had been. Ever since her death only a year ago, Luce had made a silent vow to uphold her mother's honor by becoming the most respected lady of the royal court. She had never considered it a risk to be friends with Annabelle, but what if she was wrong? Would people really look down on her because she had simply befriended someone of lower status? No, no, of course not. After all, Annabelle's parents were considered courtiers, even if it wasn't exactly true.. Yet, Luce couldn't completely convince herself that her friendship with Annabelle wasn't a problem. Even so, she had to pretend it wasn't, especially right now.
"Th-that's not true," Luce countered slowly. She mentally cursed herself for stuttering. She was showing too much weakness; the snobs would see it, and she'd have no choice but to take Annabelle down with her. Luce spared a quick glance to her right where Annabelle was frozen in her spot. Unfortunately, this action did not go unnoticed by Cecilia.
"Ah, there it is," she said, "Look Vivienne, Abby, you can tell she knows we're right."
Some other guests from Cecilia's party were making their way towards the girls. Clearly, they had tired of waiting for her. The children stood behind Cecilia, Vivienne, and Abigail. Luce knew every one of them, and yet, she only saw curiosity in their faces. No one was going to help her or Annabelle. This wasn't good. Luce stood up slowly, and, without thinking, reached her hand out to Annabelle to help her to her feet. They needed to get out of here.
"Oh, girls, where are you going? We were having so much fun!" Cecilia laughed harshly. Vivienne grinned while Abigail snorted. The entire group of children behind them started to rumble with low, nervous giggles.
"Come on, Annabelle," Luce whispered, "Let's go."
Annabelle grabbed Luce's hand and followed her leads. The two girls had almost made it past the snobs and laughing crowd when Cecilia called out after them.
"Yes, yes, run away, Luce, and take your piggy with you! Your mother would be so proud!" she shouted.
In the future, Luce would remember what happened next as nothing more than a blur, but she would give every cent she had for a chance to stop it. Before Luce could stop her, Annabelle whirled around and dove towards Cecilia. The laughter quickly turned into shocked gasps as the loud slap of Annabelle's open-hand on Cecilia's face rang out.
Abigail's piercing scream followed as Vivienne jumped back into the arms of a boy who was standing behind her. The crowd of children grew silent as Annabelle clawed, bit, and kicked Cecilia, who had fallen to the ground. After what seemed like a decade, Luce ran towards the screaming fit that was Annabelle and Cecilia.
"Annabelle, no! Stop it! Please!" Luce cried. She could feel the tension of the crowd rising. If she didn't stop Annabelle soon, Luce feared that they would both pay with their flesh.
"No, Luce! She's always been cruel to us, and she insulted you and your mother!", Annabelle cried between fierce biting and hair pulling. Luce glanced at the children around her, many of whom were starting to look very frightening. She finally forced every ounce of energy she had into pulling Annabelle away. As she finally managed to do so, Cecilia found her voice.
"Get her off of me, get her off of me now!" she cried. Luce pulled Annabelle off of the ground and saw the expression on her face. It was a look she had never seen before, especially on the usually quiet and reserved Annabelle. Luce could only describe it as pure rage and shame. Yet, there was a gleam in her eyes that Luce could not place, but almost looked like...exhilaration. Luce felt ice in the pit of her stomach and realized that she was frightened. No, more than that. She was deeply afraid of her friend. However, as soon as the look appeared on Annabelle's face, it was gone, and Cecilia's voice brought both of the girls back to reality.
"Look what you've done!", she cried. Cecilia had scratches all over her face, her hair was frazzled and out of place, and her dress was torn at the shoulder. For all that had happened, Luce noted that she wasn't hurt very badly. However, she did wonder what kind of damage Annabelle would have done if she hadn't pulled her off.
"I'm bleeding!", Cecilia shouted. Small beads of blood pooled in the scratches that Annabelle had made. Although is wasn't much at all, Luce figured that Cecilia had probably never bled that much in years. It seemed that Cecilia agreed.
"Grab their arms!", she shouted while pointing to Annabelle and Luce. There was a moment's hesitation among the group of children that had surrounded them.
"Well, you heard her!", Vivienne shouted as Abigail looked on in fright. Luce's eyes widened and she grasped Annabelle's hand tightly, preparing to run. Before she could even turn, two boys grabbed Annabelle's shoulders and pulled her away from Luce. She screamed and kicked, but Luce knew that they were too far away from the Morova's estate to be heard. If Cecilia's parents hadn't come running when she was screaming, they certainly wouldn't be coming now.
Suddenly, Luce felt a hand on her shoulder as an arm wrapped around her neck. She fought the boy behind her, but his frame was too big. Tears began to fill her eyes. Through them, she saw Cecilia rush up to her. Luce closed her eyes, expecting a slap, but instead felt a hand yank at the chain around her neck. Luce forced her eyes open.
"No, my mother's locket! Give it back!" she shouted, the tears flowing freely now. Cecilia forced the locket into Abigail's shaking hands.
"If you want it back, you won't cause any problems!" she yelled. At first, Luce didn't understand as Cecilia made a shaking, equally confused Abigail hold the locket up in front of her face. It wasn't until Cecilia turned to a fighting Annabelle that it dawned on her what was happening. Cecilia glared at Annabelle, and then turned to the person next to her, a slightly older boy named Kheelan.
"Kheelan, you're training to be an archer, aren't you?" Cecilia asked. Kheelan nodded slowly.
"Tell me, Kheelan, is it true that it takes a lot of arm strength to use a bow and arrow?" Cecilia asked while glaring at Annabelle, who was still struggling. Kheelan nodded once more. Cecilia smiled.
"Well, why don't you show Annabelle how much strength it really takes?" she said. Kheelan's eyes grew wide as he looked from Cecilia to Annabelle. Fear was shining on his face as he shook his head. It seemed that Cecilia had been expecting this.
"Do it, Kheelan, or I promise you'll regret it as much as Belly," Cecilia growled. Kheelan looked once more to Annabelle, who shook her head pleadingly, and then back to Cecilia. Luce couldn't take it anymore.
"Kheelan, don't do it!" she shouted. Cecilia glared daggers at Abigail, who then pulled at the locket that once belonged to Luce's mother.
"No, don't break it! It's all I have of her!" Luce cried, tears spilling over her cheeks.
"Then you'll stay quiet and still!" Cecilia shouted. Luce broke into sobs as Cecilia turned back to Kheelan. She nodded her head, and a mixture of fear and shame crossed his face as he raised his fist. Luce sobbed louder and Annabelle struggled as hard as she could, but no one did anything to stop the inevitable.
Kheelan pulled his arm back, and in one swift motion, forced his fist into Annabelle's nose. The worst part wasn't Annabelle's scream of pain or the gushing of blood, but the heart wrenching crunch that resounded off of every tree and rock in the surrounding area.
Annabelle fell from the arms that had been holding her up and hit the ground hard. Her head bounced twice before coming to a stop on the dirt. Luce finally wrenched herself free from the hands that were holding her back. She sobbed at Annabelle's side.
"Annabelle! No, no, please be okay! Oh no - Annabelle!" Luce screamed. Silence had fallen over the entire group of children. Kheelan rubbed his fist as he took in sharp breaths. Abigail was shaking and Vivienne had become quiet. Even Cecilia, the instigator, didn't have any sarcastic remark. Instead, she quietly stuck her nose in the air and turned on her heel.
"Come on. I don't want to spend my entire party here," she said. One by one, the other children turned and followed her away from the clearing. Abigail appeared by Luce and gently set her locket down next to her. It seemed like she wanted to say something, but she quickly turned and ran after the Cecilia and her group.
Eventually, the sound of footsteps dwindled, and the clearing was quiet again. Two birds were chirping happily, and the breeze picked up. Luce's crying had died down a little, but she still remained at Annabelle's side. The ten year old girls lay next to each other in the grass, one of whom was still bleeding. Luce choked back sobs.
"Annabelle, can you move? Please say you're okay," Luce whispered. Annabelle's eyes flickered open, and she took in a shallow breath. She gently reached her hand up to touch her nose, flinching in pain. Luce stood and carefully helped Annabelle to her feet. Her stance was shaky, but she eventually regained her balance. After Luce made sure she could stand, she bent down to pick up her mother's locket. In doing so, she saw one of the bright yellow dandelions that had been shaken loose from her curls. She gingerly picked it up and carefully placed it into Annabelle's hand, hoping that, somehow, in some small way, it would help her feel better. Annabelle stared at the flower for a long while, and then turned her gaze to Luce. Her eyes were cold.
"Why didn't you stop them?" Annabelle asked, her voice quiet and strained, as if it hurt her to speak. Luce looked at her in shock.
"Annabelle, I tried! I screamed for them to stop, but="
"But they had your mother's necklace," Annabelle said softly, "I defended your honor, the honor of your mother, and got seriously injured in the process."
Annabelle flinched at every word, and Luce wasn't sure if it was because of her broken nose or her sudden resentment.
"I tried to defend you, and you let them do this to me," Annabelle finished. Luce couldn't speak. She couldn't find any words to explain.
"Annabelle, I'm-I'm sorry, I couldn't...",she trailed off. There was a moment where neither spoke. They only stared at each other, Luce shocked and afraid, Annabelle broken and betrayed. Finally, Annabelle curled her hand into a fist, crushing the dandelion that lay inside. She dropped the flower at Luce's feet, spared one more glance at her, and headed back towards the Morova's estate. Her mother would be there, Luce knew. They would most likely leave immediately, without any confrontation at all. After all, Annabelle's parents needed the work that the Morova's gave them. Cecilia would face no punishment.
Luce opened her mouth to call after Annabelle, but no sound came out. She quietly pulled the locket over her head, and then bent down to pick up the dandelion. Luce looked back up to where Annabelle had been, but she was gone. Another glance at the dandelion would prove that it was forever destroyed.