Zayne was reading when Red awoke in the morning. He'd used to read nearly all hours in a day, but he hadn't even looked at his book until that morning, and the time he'd lent it to Red, and she'd seemed to enjoy it.
It took him a while as he was reading, but, eventually, he could make out the words and their meanings. It had been so long, and as he read, he could begin to piece the tale back into his memory, albeit slowly.
Red stared at him for a time. Even he had to admit that a two-hundred-some-pound wolf reading literature was a tad odd, but he was enjoying himself. The book had become older; its pages had yellowed with age and its cover was peeling back, and it made him wonder how much time had passed to the humans as opposed to him. How long since he'd tucked his tail between his legs and run? He had lost track of the time long ago, and had lived day-by-day for far too long, it seemed.
"What's your favourite part?" Red asked.
Zayne looked up at her. She'd skipped the pleasantries, and she'd usually go out of her way to say them. Something was on her mind. Something troubling. Regardless, Zayne pointed a clawed finger at a particular paragraph and tapped it for good measure. She leaned closer to him to see properly, and then smiled.
"I like that part too," she admitted.
Zayne closed the book as Red got up to stretch. When had she changed back into her original outfit? He couldn't remember. Perhaps while he slept? It was likely, since he'd gone to sleep and her clothes had still been drying outside in the last rays of the sunlight.
"So, am I going to find breakfast, or are you?" she asked, slipping the strap of the quiver over her shoulder. "Or should we both go?"
He barked at that. He wanted to show her how to tread lightly in the forest, because he'd seen a few rabbits bolt across his line of sight the day previous.
Red smiled, but it seemed forced. That thing was on her mind again. He hoped it would soon leave her worries.
The hunt had yielded fair game. Red was a fast learner, and watched Zayne carefully as he concealed his body behind the thick brush and avoided twigs that would have snapped under his weight. He could feel her impatience as a rabbit neared, but Zayne had managed to get her to wait for a clearer shot. And then she'd drawn her arrow, breathed, and let it fly into the heart of the rabbit. Zayne was glad to see that he could still communicate well, even without his voice.
Once the rabbit had been cooked, Zayne found that he used his hands—paws?—much more rather than just holding the meat down. It was another difficult thing to get used to, but he wanted to do so. Red was doing it, so it was only polite... right?
"Big, I need to tell you something." There it was. He'd wondered if he'd have to wait several more days before Red tried to get anything off of her chest. He watched her with curious eyes that fixated solely on her. "It's very, very important... unfortunately." Zayne sat cross-legged across from her, the fire sifting in-between them.
She couldn't face his eyes though. She buried her face in her hands and shook her head. "Now that I think back on it, I wonder how I could have been so stupid to leave... It was a coward's move that I made. See... two years ago, the prince at the castle died suddenly. Assassins took his life. He was the only child of the king and queen, but..."
But what? She'd trailed off again. Zayne guessed that she probably didn't talk much about it, if at all.
"Well, everyone thought that he was their only child. Lo and behold, a year later, the king and queen themselves show up at my grandmother's doorstep, tell her she's done a dandy job in raising me, and order me to the castle where I can one day assume their throne."
Zayne's ears perked up at this. Red was a royal? Having another child hidden away to take the throne in an emergency was not uncommon for royals (at least, not from Zayne's point of view and from what he remembered), but Red? Of all people? How old was she, even? How long had she lived her life in solitude with her grandmother?
"I hated it, from the moment they stepped onto my grandmother's doormat," Red admitted. "I didn't want to leave. I loved my life, and the thought of the dresses and the dancing and the waving... It scared me beyond belief. So I ran, and I didn't stop until I hit the nearest town that didn't know who the hell I was, and it just so happened to be a town full of thieves. I learned their trade—per se—and joined them. I've been out stealing things to survive for an entire year now... And then I stumbled onto you."
Zayne hung his head slightly. Their circumstances might have been different, and the paths they'd taken even more so, but they'd wound up in the same place after doing the same things. He wished he could tell her about himself, if only for a moment.
Red took a deep breath and looked back up at him. "Big, you helped me to see that I can't run away from this. I've been selfish and only thought of myself. But you helped me without a second thought, and you took care of me when you could have just left me for dead without knowing who I was at all. I... I need to start thinking of others the same way you do." Red's hands fidgeted endlessly. "Big... I need to go back."
He would have lied if he'd barked at her to congratulate her decision. He would have spoken his truth if his ears had drooped and he'd whined. But Zayne remained immobile, shocked and just a little hurt. Of course, he should have realized it sooner and prepared himself. Eventually, Red would have left. He just didn't think it would be so soon.
"I'm sorry," Red murmured, "but I have to go. I'll... I'll leave tomorrow, so we can still have the day together."
Zayne wasn't certain if he should pretend to be happy for her—which he was—or... Or what? There was no other option. It was what she'd decided, and so it would be.
So Zayne gathered his voice and barked happily for her, even though his heart ached at the thought of her leaving. His heart hadn't hurt that much in years, and there had been only one other time when it had been so severe, so sorrowful. But Zayne wouldn't let Red see his sadness. Like she'd said, think for others rather than oneself.
And he would try. He looked forward to the rest of the day, and dreaded the coming night with every fibre of his being.
He couldn't follow her to where she was going.
"Aha!" the witch cried, startling John and Butch from their seats at the table. "We have a location, boys! And earlier than expected, as well!"
John clambered to his feet and hurried to the old woman. Using her wooden ladle, she scooped a pearl-sized object from the pot and gently placed it on the table. It was blue in colour, and reflected the light of the fire, but John could see no signs of the Ghost's location.
"What in blazes is this thing?!" John growled as he picked up the tiny sphere.
"That thing is a past orb, and it will give you the location of your Ghost, wherever she is, and whenever you wish," the witch explained. "Simply utter the name of the person you wish to find, and it will grant you a vision of their location. However, considering we've used your Ghost's blood, it will immediately assume that you are searching for her."
John pushed the sphere around his palm with a finger. "And as for her name?"
"Her name is Victoria Hildegard Oakenmoon, second daughter of Borin and Alys Oakenmoon and heir to the Rhedien throne."
"Quite the mouthful, that..."
The witch scoffed at him. "Victoria Oakenmoon will suffice."
John tossed the past orb into the air and deftly caught it again. "If it's a 'past orb', wouldn't it show me where she was?"
"Ah, but you see, the orb shows you exactly where she is at the moment you ask it. By the time you arrive, she may have left that place behind. It colours itself blue if you aren't close to her, but once it is red, it means that you are near." John opened his mouth to speak the Ghost's true name, but the witch slapped a hand over his mouth. "Tut, tut, my dear John. Let its magic cool and solidify before you ask for her location."
John pulled away from her, his lips twitching in disgust. "How long?" he asked.
"One more day," the witch said. "Just one more day, and you'll have your princess."
Tori felt terrible.
She'd spent the entire day with Big, and he'd happily taken her back to the spring and gone hunting with her—he'd even listened to her read that book!—but she'd left, and without saying good-bye. Tori was afraid that she wouldn't have been able to say it, regardless, and stayed with him rather than face the king and queen; her parents.
She shivered at the thought. She'd grown up believing that her parents had died nineteen years ago, months after she was born! It had been a shock when she'd turned eighteen, to say the least.
It had already been two days since she'd left Big's cave. Was he upset that she hadn't bade him a farewell? Of course he was. How could he not be? Her heart had lurched uncomfortably when she'd reached her hand out to the thick mane of fur around his neck as she thought of having to say good-bye. So she didn't. She simply left, and Tori felt terrible for it.
Was he coming after her? Probably not. He'd stay in his cave and continue doing whatever he was doing long before she'd arrived. Surely he wasn't that upset she was leaving? Perhaps he really was glad for her.
Then again, his eyes had seemed to betray him. He had very rarely made any eye contact that day, and when he did, Big's eyes were saddened. But perhaps she'd just imagined it. Maybe she was looking for her only friend to feel at a loss of what to do without her... which only made her even more of a terrible person.
Tori sighed as she walked through the wide streets of the town just below the castle. She had walked through nearly the entire day and night to reach it, and she was tired beyond belief. Castle Rhedien's white towers loomed above her forebodingly. What would the king and queen say at her sudden appearance? Her wound, which was still not fully healed, ached and was probably bleeding yet.
She passed the guards at the front gate with relative ease and was allowed into the courtyard, where the queen's garden was. It was just her luck that the woman in question, Queen Alys Oakenmoon, was wandering the greenery that her garden provided, flanked by guards draped in the royal red that Rhedien was known for.
Tori stood rigid as she watched her mother. It had been hard for her to believe that, when she'd believed her parents dead for so long, they were only a few steps away. Tori couldn't count the amount of times she'd criticized or applauded a decision made by the ruling king and queen like everyone else in the town, and it made her gut churn when she thought that she'd have to make those decisions one day.
"Y-Your Majesty..." Tori squeaked. She couldn't find the rest of her words. An apology? An explanation? Nothing came.
The queen regarded her daughter with stern eyes, examining every bit of the dirty clothing she stood in, and then regally wrapped an arm around Tori's waist. "Welcome home, child. I trust you're done gallivanting around the kingdom now, yes?"
Tori nodded slowly, hesitantly. Her thoughts still remained with Big. "Yes, your—."
"Do stop calling me that, dear," the queen interjected. "I am your mother, after all."
Again, Tori nodded. "Yes... mother."
"That's better." Queen Alys slowly led Tori around the garden. All Tori wanted was to sit, but at least the flowers tried to get her mind off of Big. "Where have you been, Victoria? And for an entire year..."
Tori sighed. "It's... a long story, your Majes—m-mother," she caught herself.
The queen nodded curtly and began to lead her inside the castle. "I hope to hear all about it, Victoria. Every last detail."
Tori decided to keep a few to herself. Letting her mother know that she had stolen several precious artefacts from Rhedien wasn't very high on her "to-do" list.
Not when leaving to give Big a proper good-bye was higher on that list.