"Why on ship?" she drew into the ground. What had once been the strangeness of drawing in the soft earth for Elouise had become as natural as breathing. She often asked him simple questions to pass the time and to keep herself as human as she could. "You're an inquisitive one, aren't you?" He replied. His tone was becoming less brusque as the days came and went-yet he dodged her question for some time. It didn't seem necessary to him to divulge his reasoning for traveling in a seemingly aimless way. They plodded on through hilly valleys with hints of sleet for another two miles until they reached a pathway with white foliage on either side. It almost seemed to pulsate with a reddish tinge on its curved leaves. Looking up, Elouise could see the sky was blotted out by the thickness with which the plants grew together. The air was at once thin and the atmosphere deathly silent. No living thing other than themselves stirred.
"It's called 'Acrin,'" he explained, indicating the plant life. "Instead of giving off oxygen, as plants must, it feeds upon it. Nothing else lives where it grows." Elouise involuntarily took in a sharp breath. He laughed. "No, little maid, you won't suffocate. Acrin is only fatal if the subject is enclosed in its branches with no escape. He spread his hand away from his body, indicating the mesh of vines that wound tightly but still left small holes in between. "You will, however, have a pounding headache to show for it once we're through." This did not discourage her from gripping her arms to her body with great intensity.
He was also becoming more aware of how much time she devoted to her weaving. Every instant they paused for a break, in instances where the fire at night had long since died down, and even sometimes as they walked, if she had a clear indication of the path. Nothing could break her from this mission, he noticed.
"Let me see."
Her hands throbbed. She dared not look at them for very long while weaving the fourth shirt. Surely they were a ghastly sight by this time. It was difficult for Elouise to keep her composure when he reached for her hands-his firm grip further exacerbating the pain yet seeming to care little. He examined them for the second time that day, and for the second time did not ask the meaning behind her work.
"You must stop now," he stated quietly after one look. She continued weaving the nettles, however, as though she had not heard. These particular nettles were the stinging variety; how simple, Elouise thought, this made the curse. The plant pricked afresh. Elouise knew he was right: it would be wiser to allow her calloused and bloody hands a day or two to heal before starting again. She forced the tears back-viewing any time lost as precious. It would be embarrassing, she chided herself, to cry in front of a man-especially one she did not know well-yet she longed for the release tears would bring. After several failed attempts, she finally admitted to herself that her hands were of little use at present.
She buried her face in the cold earth and sobbed as a child would. Elouise would have been content to stay there indefinitely had Oren not pulled her up, cupping his hand around her shoulder and motioning her to lie down. It was then she noticed that he, too, was worn through, both physically and mentally. His eyes were cast down to his shuffling feet, as though in pain. Listening closely, she could hear his breath's ragged rhythm. How long had he been like this? She thought of these things along with one last thought before dreaming:
Can't I be brave like Papa?
That next day-when the sun was low in the sky-she found Oren atop the hillside, speaking into the wind. His demeanor was heavier than the previous day, and each word he uttered intoned a melancholy she could only guess at. "It doesn't matter, because they've gone now. You've dishonored them when the memories begin to fade. Life is...not life anymore. They knew you loved them, but love could not shield..."
His final words trailed off as he wiped moisture from his eyes and walked soundlessly toward the dying sunlight. As he moved quickly away to some unknown duty, Elouise felt a pressing sensation in her throat. She wanted to-yes, she wanted to call out to him. It was her voice she felt, forcing her to choke it back. Elouise, her hair whipping wildly as she shivered in the icy wind, watched his departure with questioning eyes. She had never been quite sure of the right way to comfort. He did not know it, but he had spoken her misery, too. Love hadn't shielded her own family from being pulled apart, string by string. It plagued her that he might never reveal his own reason behind those words.
He might always stay silent in his mind, as she stayed silent in her speech.
An animal's shrill cry echoed behind and slightly to her left, causing her to jolt. It didn't take long for her to find the source: a red fox caught in a metal trap. Instead of lunging at her, as she expected, it merely ignored her presence. She knelt down at a safe distance to inspect the hunter's work. The trap had not made a clean sweep of the animal, only pulling at its tail in a way that, given enough force, would free it-yet the fox had given up almost at once in fear of the pain. Its side heaved in and out as it lazily closed its eyes in sleep. Before she could decide what to do next, Elouise heard the tramping of many boot heels on the ground in the thicket in front of her, and a deep man's voice cursed at the foliage entangling him. Within a few moments, three men had broken through the brush for their prize. At the sight of Elouise, the one she guessed to be the leader cried, "Not only a treasure for the little princess, but for her brother also!"
She was a prisoner. After kicking and squirming against her assailants and being thrown haphazardly into a dimly lit chamber, her dazed mind attempted to piece together what had taken place in between. The sole window in the room afforded little information of her new location, other than that it was an outpost of sorts. She had remembered that much, at least. The door to her room flung open and in walked a burly man who reminded her vaguely of dwarves in fairy stories. He even had a short red beard to enhance the image. At the sight of Elouise, he was obviously taken aback.
"Who let you in here, girl?"
She shook her head and touched her throat, hoping he would understand.
Forgive the shortness of this chapter; I do have more done, but it didn't mesh well and is needing to be refined quite a bit. I thought you guys might appreciate a little tidbit of a chapter since it's been so long. Thank you again for reading!
p.s. Today's my birthday!