This piece is written by Emilie's in-game player, and is not meant to be distributed as an independent work. No but really, it has so many flaws and would need so much editing if it were to be taken seriously. Enjoy anyway though! '
Note: Pictures from any source would be a welcome addition to this page!!
Although the gnome’s protests arose only from his wounded ego, his pony had more material objections to spending the night in a cave.
“Calm down, now, Shtumblepink! Get out of the rain!”
Stumblepink whinnied and bucked, spraying the small man with droplets from the hair of her matted mane. The wagon behind her pitched dangerously.
“Shtop! Shtoppit right now you shtupid animal! That’s merchandishe ye’r rockin’!”
Stumblepink calmed down slightly at the angry gnome’s reprimand.
“That’sh better,” he said. The gnome waddled further into the cave, holding his lantern aloft with one hand, pulling his pony by a frayed rope with the other – still to no avail. “‘We don’t like traveling shaleshmen,’ they shay. ‘Bad for businesh at home,’ they shay. I tell you, Shtumblepink, it’sh a shad day indeed when a man can’t get shum-fink as shimple ash room and board on account o’ hish profession.”
Emilie watched this transpire from her hiding place behind a thick column of rock. This could be her chance to return to anything resembling a normal life. No more hiding in this awful cave like a wounded animal. She just needed to wait a little longer.
Stumblepink nervously conceded to the pull of the rope and came into the cave. Her worn horseshoes clacked sharply as she set hoof on the cold rock. The scent of the pony’s damp hair reminded Emilie of the best days of her life. It was the smell of a beast’s adrenaline. Matthias’ horse, Phantom, had carried that musk on him whenever he returned from battle; Matthias valiantly astride, presenting to Emilie his blood-encrusted blade. That wasn't even a month ago.
As she watched the gnome make camp and waited for him to fall asleep, Emilie's dreams of the future melded into memories of Olivia's past. To calm her nerves as she lay in silence, she indulged herself in recounting the events of the last two years.
The Whitaker Ranch
She thought of her father, who served as a mail courier for the north-eastern border lands of Enderland. The towns of the region were small and far between - all of them farming communities. Because of this, he was constantly away from home on business, and the girl named Olivia hated these times. She did not get along well with her mother, who always asked her to help out around the house. It wasn’t that she was lazy; Olivia saw herself as an invaluable assistant, and diligently strove to follow all instructions to the letter. However, housework was so dull. She would often sneak away from home before her mother awoke in order to work on the neighbor’s farm.
Every seventh day, when Mr. Whitaker had the day off, Olivia was in high spirits from dawn until dusk. It was these days when her father would help her train. Though her mother tried to laugh it off, it was undeniable that Olivia had an affinity for the grittier side of life, and she would often weave fantastic stories of valiant fighters slaying mighty evils. While Mr. Whitaker never allowed her to use real weapons, once a week he would go out into the field behind the house and help her increase her agility and demand total control of her body. When she grew older he would spar with her using short wooden poles. He also taught her to brush, feed, and care for Maccabee, the beautiful white stallion that Mr. Whitaker used to make his runs. “I won him in a bet!” he claimed whenever asked how he came into possession of the horse, though Olivia had never known him to gamble. It was fun for Mr. Whitaker to spend time with his daughter, but to Olivia he was her mentor, and he was preparing her for an adventurous career. At the end of the day, though, Mrs. Whitaker would always come out and say sternly, “Olivia, you come inside now and help me with the roast!”
Olivia didn’t mind cooking. Fighting was just so much better.
That chapter of Olivia’s life came to an end on her sixteenth birthday. Her father was on his way home from his work week, so she woke up with only her mother in the house. Something smelled wonderful in the kitchen. Olivia found her mother gingerly taking something out of the stone oven. Olivia trod heavily on the wooden plank so as not to startle her.
“Olivia!” Mrs. Whitaker exclaimed, putting an exquisite, flawless cake on the counter. “I didn’t expect you to be up for another hour or so.”
“What’s going on, Mother?” Olivia asked, knowing full well what the answer was.
“Happy Birthday, pumpkin!” her mother said, presenting the undecorated cake.
“Mother!” Olivia feigned surprise, but was genuinely grateful.
“Oh, it’s not finished yet, as you can tell,” Mrs. Whitaker turned away from Olivia and started fussing over the cake with fruits and frostings. “As I said, I thought you would still be asleep for a while!”
“It’s beautiful, Mother,” Olivia said. “Thank you.”
“Oh, don’t thank me yet, honey. It’ll be ready when your father comes home!”
“Let me help you!” Olivia hopped over to her mother’s side. “You shouldn’t have to do this all alone.”
“I’m mostly done, dear!” Mrs. Whitaker pushed her away with her hip. “Besides, I know it’s the last thing on earth you want to do. Why don’t you go help Mr. Flint harvest his carrots for a bit and come back when your father arrives?”
Olivia was out the door before the sentence reached its conclusion. Mrs. Whitaker sighed.
Olivia's father always returned home with a spectacle. While the farmers in the town went to and fro with little sad grey mules, one could always see Maccabee trotting in from a mile away; his silver mane seeming to glitter in the morning sun. When she was younger, Olivia would sprint toward the pair, becoming winded after a fraction of the way and sitting in the grass, waiting for them to join her. Now, of course, she could make it the whole way if she wanted, but that would be childish. One must compose themselves with dignity if they are to be taken seriously. Spotting her father on the horizon, she stood from Mr. Flint’s garden and bid the farmer farewell. Dusting herself off, she walked stoically back to the house to stand by her mother, who had come out onto the porch, having seen the majestic duo through the window. The stallion pulled abreast of the house, and Mr. Whitaker smiled at them both and climbed down from the empty wagon.
“Hello, family!” he said, embracing and kissing them. “Happy birthday, Liv. Letter for you…”
He retrieved a thick envelope from his coat pocket and handed it to Olivia. It had her name written in thin, large letters in deep scarlet ink. She took it wordlessly and glanced at her father’s face. He was looking at her warmly, but his eyebrow was arched with incredulity. She muttered her thanks and made a hasty retreat to her room.
She held the envelope before her, savoring the moment, fearing what she would find inside. Bracing herself, she flipped over the envelope to open it, and in doing so let fly a second envelope, whose wax seal had melted slightly and stuck to this one. Disregarding it, she split the seal on the envelope addressed to her and pulled out a single piece of paper.
“Dear Olivia Whitaker,” she read under her breath. “We at the Crandalwood Crusader College have reviewed your application and have approved your enrollment for the term commencing this—”
That was far as she got, and then she couldn’t contain herself any longer. She let out a scream of excitement and tore down the stairs, where her parents stood, bewildered.
“Father, Mother, I’ve been accepted to the crusader college!” she declared to their astonished faces.
“What?” her mother demanded. “This is the first time I’ve heard of anything like this! Paul, did you—”
Mr. Whitaker broke past his wife, cutting her off, and lifted Olivia off the ground, spinning her. “Oh, Liv, that’s fantastic news! I knew they would take you!”
“Wait!” Mrs. Whitaker exclaimed. Olivia’s feet returned to earth and her father stepped away. “You knew about this, and you never told me? What is going on here?”
“Well, we never talked about it,” Olivia conceded.
“I saw the application when I took out the mail.” Paul explained to Mrs. Whitaker. “I’ve been waiting months on baited breath for a reply, as I’m sure Liv has.”
“Please, Mother,” Olivia turned to the woman she had seen every single day of her life. “I know that this isn’t what you wanted for me. I know that nothing I do with my life will make us both happy. But what it comes down to is that I am the one who has to live with the consequences of my decisions. So I want to live for me.”
Her mother was not appeased. “Well if you want to abandon a domestic livelihood and get an education, that’s one thing, but couldn’t you at least go to a nice four-year college and learn to be an accountant? Rather than go to this… trade school. Why a crusaders’ college? I can do without help around the house, but if you’re going to school you might as well get yourself out of hard labor!”
“Look at me, Mom!” Olivia surprised herself with her own volume. “Did you honestly think there was ever a chance of me staying here with you? I’ve never been happy in the house, or even at Mr. Flint’s farm, and you know that. Even if you never once let yourself know it, even if you always called it a phase in order to protect your sanity, you’ve known that someday I would leave home to become a warrior.”
A weight lifted from her chest as she finished speaking, and she tried to regain her composure in the silence that followed.
“You’re a glutton for punishment, Olivia,” her mother finally said. “You bring upon yourself the constant threat of death, the anonymity of the working class, and the disappointment of your own mother. Why would you choose this path?”
Olivia’s eyes grew steely. “You’re wrong, Mother. I will not be just another face in the throng. I am going to be the greatest crusader in all the land.”
Her mother turned away, tears in her eyes, and hid herself in her room. Quiet sobs could be heard from behind the door. Presently, Olivia turned to her father.
“Is that a yes?” she asked him, growing misty as well from the fever of the discussion.
He pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “I’ll talk to her. You don’t worry about a thing. Go up to your room and tell the college you’ll be there bright and early first day of term.”
She squeezed her father tightly and ascended again to her room, closing the door behind her.
Her birthday cake sat forgotten on the counter, its creamy spires tipped perfectly, the raspberry gems cradled in cool swathes of icing. Mr. Whitaker reached over and popped a candied fruit into his mouth, then went into his study with his trunk to unpack.
Safely in her room, Olivia searched through blank sheets of paper in her drawer until she found one that didn’t have a single fold or crease around the corners. As she placed it on her desk and moved to sit down, something caught her eye. It was the envelope that had been stuck to her acceptance letter. Now able to give her attention to it, she picked it up off the ground. The seal was slightly deformed from being stuck to the other envelope, but there was no mistaking its deep purple hue and majestic pattern—this letter was from the king! Perplexed, she turned it over. It was addressed to Admiral Bartholomew of the Guard. Handling the envelope as though it were made from spiders’ silk, she hurried to her father’s study and raised her hand to knock on the door, then heard scuffling noises from within. It sounded like Mr. Whitaker was searching fervently for something.
“Father?” she asked, unsure.
“Not now, honey,” he responded irritably. “I’m busy.”
“Father, you forgot to deliver a letter. It was stuck to mine.”
The door swung open and Mr. Whitaker looked down at the envelope, relieved.
“It must be very important. It’s from…”
“…the king!” he took the letter from her, not taking his eyes off of it. “Thank you so much, Olivia. You’ve really saved me. Go have some of that wonderful cake your mother made for you. It’s not going to get better with age.”
Olivia wasn’t distracted. “Why did you have a letter from the king in your coat pocket?”
Mr. Whitaker’s expression froze. “Well, you saw, pumpkin,” he said, unable to keep the unease out of his voice. “It stuck to the letter from the college.”
They continued to stare at each other for some time, then Olivia’s eyes darted to the sealed envelope in her father’s hands. She regretted giving him the envelope. She wished that she had stayed in her room – even read the contents. But the way his fingertips pressed themselves into the paper around that mysterious note told Olivia that now there was no hope of ever knowing what was inside that envelope or why her father was coveting it.
Mr. Whitaker hid the envelope behind his back, then retreated behind the door. It locked with a sinister click that imbedded itself in Olivia’s brain. She returned to her room, troubled. Her father was not a secretive man. What could cause him to behave this way? She suddenly felt very alone. She was used to being at odds with her mother, and although the morning’s confrontation had been difficult, it wasn’t unexpected. This, however, seemed to Olivia a deep betrayal. Her father, who had one day a week with his family, was now gone altogether. A stranger now came into her home and sat in that study, sorting envelopes…collecting government mail.
Hours later, a knock sounded on Olivia’s door. Her father came in to see that she had packed a bag that now lay in the middle of the room.
“Going somewhere?” he asked softly.
“Yeah, I am,” she replied strongly, not allowing herself to feel her emotions.
“Liv, I owe you an explanation. But you have to promise me that you won’t tell a soul.”
“What is this really about, father?” Olivia demanded. “You’ve never held anything from me. And if I’m not mistaken, this is quite a big ‘something’ you’re hiding away.”
Mr. Whitaker paused, looking at his daughter. He knew that she had the right to know what he was about to tell her. He also knew that she already had one foot out the door, and this would be a generous nudge in that same direction. Yet he had to set his conscience at ease.
“I’ve been intercepting mail from the king for several years now,” he finally confessed.
Olivia’s heart leapt into her throat. By now she had already guessed this, but it was powerfully disturbing to hear her suspicions affirmed.
“For the last decade or so, King Roy has been severely neglecting his employees – his guards, his scribes, his accountants… his mail couriers. Your mother and I were paying more than I earned each month just to keep food on the table, and we were rapidly running out of money. Then I came into contact with an underground movement that calls themselves Southpaw. Given my line of work, I was very valuable to them. So, I’ve been copying the contents of every one of the king’s outgoing and incoming letters, resealing the envelopes, and giving the copies to this outfit. I don’t know what their motives are, but they’ve been paying me a lot of money to do this. A lot of money. But Olivia, I did this for us. For you, and for your mother, and for me. We’d be starving without these people. I know it’s dangerous, and immoral, but we needed this so badly.”
Olivia sat for a long time after her father finished, saying nothing. She was feeling a large range of emotions, and all of them were bad. Her saliva tasted poisonous in her mouth. Her eyes were fixed on her father’s form, but she looked through him more than at him. Finally, she stood to meet him and spoke in as calm a tone as she could muster.
“When I finish school, I will join King Roy’s Guard. You know this, don’t you?” Mr. Whitaker’s eyes flicked downward. “You stand against all of my ideals. Everything I’ve worked for. You trained me every day we had together so that I could become the soldier that I have yearned to be since the day I was born. And all this time you have lied to me. You sat in your study week after week, sabotaging the very entity that you knew I would someday be a part of. You were my guiding light, Father. You represented everything I hoped to one day be. And now I have no one. And nothing.”
Mr. Whitaker would not look at Olivia. He listened to what she had to say, and when she had said her piece he spoke weakly, as though he did so against his will. “I do not blame you for hating me, Olivia.”
The 16-year-old girl picked up her backpack and walked by her father, out of the room. “Neither do I.”
“Olivia!” her father called out, turning over his shoulder to face her.
She hesitated on the landing, but did not yield.
“Good luck, Liv.” Mr. Whitaker hugged his daughter tightly, and after a moment she returned the embrace. They stayed that way for an eternity, neither one wanting to let go, as if afraid that the other person would fall away if they were to do so.
“Take Maccabee,” Mr. Whitaker said. Then he stepped back and watched as Olivia Whitaker left the cottage and ceased to call it home.
Crandalwood Crusader College
At long last, Olivia found her mark – straight ahead, standing alone in a flat clearing among the cliff walls on either side of her. She looked behind her and motioned for her partner, Menki, to step forward.
“Take a shot when you get it,” she whispered. “Let’s finish up.”
Menki nodded and looked down his sight, notching an arrow in his bow. Just as he was about to peg his target, the cliff face next to him suddenly crumbled apart – and flaming rocks came raining down towards him.
“Look out!” cried Olivia. She pounced on Menki, covering him, and tried to roll them both out of harm’s way, but Menki was still processing the new threat, and he served as little more than dead weight in Olivia’s escape maneuver. A large, fiery boulder slammed down right between her shoulders, knocking the wind out of her. She knew instantly that she was burned, but there was no time for pain. Their cover was blown. She had seconds. Olivia charged at her prey, longsword drawn, and without breaking stride she cleanly sliced off her mark’s head. Straw filled the air as the scarecrow’s cranium took off into the sky, then landed with a bounce between Menki’s splayed legs.
“Congratulations,” a voice echoed enthusiastically, “you’ve completed your exam! We will report your scores to the headmaster. Please see one of the clerics on standby for medical attention! We’ll see you at the graduation ceremony next week with the results of today’s performance.”
Now Olivia felt the extent of the burn. The broad sweep of her coup de grace had torn a large gash in her well-cooked flesh, and the smallest movement of any muscle now triggered immense waves of pain. Somehow she fought through the agony to sit down – her legs were not reliable anymore. Her mind started to fog, and her vision blurred at the edges.
“Hey, Olivia,” Menki called out as he stood. “You don’t look so good.”
A cold shock centered directly in the middle of her back nearly snuffed out the remnants of Olivia’s consciousness – but gods, did it feel good. The chill flowed through her veins and energized every cell of her body, and in seconds her wounds had evaporated. She stood easily and turned to see a cleric from the college standing behind her.
“I don’t think I need to say so, but try not to do that to yourself again,” he smiled from under his white cowl.
“Thanks,” she replied sheepishly.
“Come along then, let’s return to your horses and ride back to the college.”
“Aww man,” Menki said as they walked. “Liv, you broke my bow.” He held up the snapped strip of yew by one of two pieces, letting the other dangle limply by the drawstring.
“I saved your skin, Menki,” Olivia huffed. “If you passed the exam today, it’s because of me. And if I failed, it’s because of you. I could have gotten us both out of there unharmed if you’d been paying attention.”
“Look, I’m grateful and all for what you did,” Menki went on, “but this bow has been in my family for generations, and now it’s ruined!”
“I’m sorry, okay?” Olivia didn’t want to talk to her partner anymore. “I just think you’re being a little whiney, all things considered.”
“And you’re just being kind of a bitch…” Menki muttered under his breath.
Now Olivia burned on the inside, but she decidedly held her tongue. The cleric, accustomed to such bickering after final exams, remained in placid high spirits.
“Here we are, then!” he announced, as the trio came upon their mounts. He climbed atop a tan barb as Menki straddled his sad-looking pinto. Olivia proudly lifted herself onto Maccabee’s back. “And off we go!”
After that, the only sound heard on the journey back to the college was the bright chorus of galloping hooves.
“Was it that nerve-wracking when you took it, Matthias?” Olivia asked, lying face-down on a sofa in the dormitory common room.
Matthias was two years above Olivia. After graduating the previous spring, he had joined the Guard as a footman, but every few months he would come back to visit his old classmates at the college while on leave. He and Olivia had grown close over the year of overlap they’d had at Crandalwood, and now she looked forward to his brief returns.
“What, you mean, do most people have an easier time being taken out to some gorge in the badlands, with nothing except a randomly assigned partner and a loose promise that everything will probably be okay, all in the name of getting your degree?” he walked over to her and tousled her hair playfully. “I don’t know what you’re so worked up about.”
“I should have let him die, Mattie,” Olivia complained, speaking directly into a throw pillow. “I got hurt and it’s his fault. That’s gonna show up on my record, not his.”
“Hey, what’s done is done.” He sat down beside her and picked a pear from a basket on the nearby coffee table. “The evaluators saw what happened. They do very thorough jobs when they grade these tests. And after all, you showed great teamwork and put Menki’s safety ahead of the immediate success of your mission.” He took a bite out of the pear.
Olivia flipped around so that she was reclined against her pillow. “But what if that’s not what they were looking for? What if they wanted me to just leave him and prioritize my objective?”
“You’re overthinking this, Olivia.” Another bite. “Haven’t you had enough stress for one birthday?” It had been exactly two years since she left her parents’ ranch.
“Screw you.” She reached up with her leg and kicked the pear out of his hand. “Pity parties are my favorite kind of party.”
“Miss Whitaker,” – He leaned in closer, narrowing his eyes – “What is it you want out of life? Why do you want to get out of this school so badly? I don’t think I have to remind you that most students take three years to go through the program, and yet you’ve thrown yourself headlong into finishing in two. Why this rush to grow up?”
Why this rush to grow up? Even so far from home, Olivia couldn’t escape her father’s treason. Every expense was covered by his money, all of which was from giving top secret information to this group of – who knew what they were? The safety of the nation could rest on her timely exit from Crandalwood Crusader College. Last year, the very young King Drakesten succeeded his father King Roy, after the latter perished with the queen in a skirmish that mysteriously escalated to an all-out massacre. This ate away at Olivia’s mind every day. Could Southpaw be behind the fateful conflict? Worse still, could they have executed such an operation based on information given to them by her own father? As soon as she was able to sustain herself, she could cut herself off from her father completely, and that day couldn’t come soon enough. But of course, there was another reason for Olivia’s race to complete her training – a lesser one, but still strong. And this one she could tell Matthias.
“I’m going to be the greatest crusader to ever live, haven’t you heard?” she said nonchalantly, with her arm draped lazily over her eyes. “Whoever heard of a legend living to the same standards as everyone else?”
“Liv, can you maybe give that a rest? You’ve got to know how humongous a demand that is to put on yourself.”
“What…” She sat up. “You don’t think I can do it? Someone’s got to be the best. Why can’t it be me?”
“It could be, I don’t know, it’s just—”
“Just that I’m a woman, right? I do a fantastic job – for a woman. I’m a capable warrior and expert tactician – for a woman.”
“I wasn’t going to say that.”
“You don’t have to. Everyone else already has. I hear the students talking. I see the faculty smile down their noses when I volunteer for demonstrations. I have to believe in myself, because it’s very clear that no one else will ever have any faith in me.”
Matthias put his hand on her knee. “At the very least, you’ve got me, Olivia.”
“Sounds like it.”
A silence followed, so thick that Olivia didn’t think she could have said more if she wanted to. Matthias just kept looking at her for a while, and finally he dropped his gaze. He stood and went to the discarded pear, picking it up and throwing it in a wastebasket. Then he made his way to the room he was staying in and closed the door behind him.
Olivia buried her face in the couch once more. How did this always happen? Was it her, or was it the rest of the world? She always ended up alone. She always managed to push everyone away, or else everyone pushed away from her. It just proved she was right. She was her only ally – the only one she could trust. And that’s how it would always be, forever.
Matthias’ door opened again suddenly, and he stepped back into the common room, wearing a cloak and a timid smile.
“Come with me,” he said simply. Then he walked out the front door of the dormitory, into the night.
Confused, but thinking a walk could do her some good, Olivia rose from the couch and got a cloak from her own room, slipped on her fur boots, and followed him out.
The night was exceptionally cold, and a light mist filled the air. Up ahead, she could see Matthias heading for the stables. When she got there, he was leading his jet black stallion, Phantom, out to meet her.
“Climb on. We’re going to go for a little ride,” he said.
Olivia squeezed her knees into Phantom’s sides, bracing herself against the cold as he trotted through the blanket of frost on the grass, away from the college. She didn’t know where Matthias was going, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get there. Presently, he drew Phantom around and they sat looking back at the college, lit picturesquely by thousands of candles placed in windowsills all over the campus.
“This is exactly the view I had when I was coming back from battle, to visit on leave for the first time,” he said.
“It’s beautiful,” Olivia breathed.
“The funny thing is… it looks different to me now. Like I’m just now seeing the whole picture.”
“You were probably just tired and stressed before,” Olivia offered.
“No, it’s not that…” he seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “It was more like I was fixated on some one thing. As I was riding back to the college, I was trying to think of all my old classmates and mentors… all the buildings and vast halls and training areas… but my mind just kept coming back to… well, you, actually.” He turned to face Olivia’s raised eyebrow. “To this amazing girl who came to Crandalwood on a mission that she never let out of sight, no matter how many obstacles stood in her way. It was then I realized how inspired I am by you, and all you push yourself to achieve. You may be the most driven person on campus.” He smiled. “And no, I don’t mean most driven ‘woman.’ Look… I’ve graduated. I’ve got a career going for me. I don’t keep coming back because of the school. I didn’t even know it myself until I saw you again, but… I come back because of you. So don’t you ever tell me that no one has faith in you. Because I see what you think everyone misses. I see you. And you are worth believing in.”
Olivia was speechless. A warmth flowed through her now, and the chill of the night air disappeared. An overwhelming gratitude washed over her, and with it, something else. Something even more powerful. Almost without noticing it was happening, Olivia found herself drawing closer to Matthias. Her arms found their way around him, and she looked into the dark shimmer in his eyes with a sudden appreciation of the beauty there she had never allowed herself to see. Matthias leaned in. Their lips touched… and for the first time, Olivia was home.
“Congratulations to each of you here for coming this far!” the headmaster’s voice boomed with magical amplification. “Every person in this room has proved themselves to be a brave, capable, and valiant fighter, and you should all be very proud. Those who have risen even further than their peers, and attained the immense standards that Crandalwood College expects of its graduates, have passed their final examinations and earned their certificates of training completion.”
Olivia stood in the grand hall among the hundreds of other students who had taken their final exams the previous week, her heart beating in her ears. Matthias stood next to her, but she hardly noticed him. She hadn’t been able to sleep at all the previous night from nervousness, and now the stress of the day was making her eyelids flutter even as she stood. She’d fought hard to get here, but there was this aching fear that despite all the strides she’d taken, it wouldn’t be enough. But no, on one of those certificates by the headmaster’s side, her name was printed in long, proud strokes. She knew. She hoped. She thought. She wasn’t sure.
“Here in my hand is the list of students who have passed the exam, and finished their education with us. When your name is called, please approach me to receive your certificate. Good luck, and let the ceremony commence!”
Obligatory cheers and applause. Olivia was disturbed by the noise. It hammered at her mind. How could everyone be so at ease? Their futures all started today, one way or the other. Didn’t it matter to them which side of the line they fell on?
“Deep breaths, kid,” Matthias said from next to her. “You’ve done great things these past two years.”
“Tristan Abernathy.” Tristan yelped with surprised joy, and pushed through the congratulations of his friends to take the sheet of parchment with his name on it in golden script. Olivia wasn’t going to graduate. She was a woman. How many women were there in the room with her? None that she could see, over the heads of the men immediately around her. What was she thinking, trying to complete the program in two years as a woman? They must all have been laughing at her today, just as they had since the beginning. She shouldn’t even have bothered getting out of bed.
The headmaster was continuing through the list of graduates alphabetically.
“Derek Highstaff.” Derek whooped like an ape and shook his fist. His testosterone-crazed companions lifted him off his feet and carried him to the stage, shouting the whole way. In her irritation, Olivia wished a swift warrior’s end for each of them. If idiots like Derek could pass the test, anyone could. He seemed to think being a crusader was all about getting girls to join him in his bedroom. Olivia thought he probably came here on a whim, funded by his undoubtedly wealthy parents. He was disgusting. Beneath her. Her name had to be in that stack of pages. Meanwhile, more graduates accepted their certificates. The collective nervousness was slowly giving way to the smiles of those who’d passed, and the dignified silence of those whose names had gone unmentioned.
Why, oh why was her last name at the end of the alphabet?
“Menki Piercewood.” Oh no. No, way. That brat? That settled it. She had to have passed. She considered tripping Menki as he anxiously pushed by her through the crowd.
However, as the headmaster approached the “W” names, Olivia began to worry again. And so it went, this awful tug-of-war in her head, on and on, and on, until at long last –
Matthias squeezed her hand. Olivia wasn’t breathing. She wasn’t blinking. She was frozen, and all she was aware of was her pulse threatening to break out of her body as butterflies raged like a maelstrom in the pit of her stomach.
The headmaster looked down at his list as Eric returned to the throng. He adjusted his glasses, and then read out the next name.
The butterflies grew razor sharp and cut Olivia to pieces from inside. Her name hadn’t been called. It was impossible. All she’d worked for. All she’d accomplished. All she’d sacrificed.
Matthias wrapped his arms around her. “Olivia…”
“Don’t.” She pushed him off.
Another year. Maybe more. If she couldn’t pass it now, what would be different later? The way her teachers all looked at her – did they know from the first day that she would never graduate? What had Matthias thought? What did he think now?
Olivia wanted to cry. To be alone. To collapse. To do anything and everything but stand here in this room.
“That concludes this graduation ceremony. Congratulations grads, and to everyone else, we look forward to aiding you in your continuing training at Crandalwood. Thank you.”
She was hardly aware of one of the instructors passing a note to the headmaster, but she heard the headmaster’s voice again loud and clear.
At once the butterflies returned and her heart rose out of her chest as high as ever.
“Please come to the stage, Olivia.”
The exiting students paused, curious.
Olivia was trying to hold back her excitement, but her hopes were getting away from her. The evaluators had reconsidered. They were going to let her through anyway. That was the only explanation! Matthias’ hand on her back brought her back to reality, and she buried her anxiety enough to walk to the stage. The headmaster towered before her, his expression unreadable.
“There’s a man from King Drakeston’s Guard here. He has asked for you, explicitly. He wishes to speak with you.”
Olivia was incredibly confused. The other students lost interest and continued to leave. Matthias stood alone, looking back at her with puzzled anticipation. The room suddenly seemed very cold.
“He asked for me, explicitly?” she repeated. “Why? Where is he? Did I graduate?”
“He will tell you his business when he sees you,” the headmaster replied unhelpfully. “He is waiting in the meeting room down the hall.”
Abandoning all pretenses ofpoliteness, Olivia tore through the double doors and ran to the meeting room. She didn’t even care if she had passed or not anymore. She just wanted answers. For this all to be over. She couldn’t stand to wait another minute.
Coming abreast of the meeting room, she skidded to a halt and opened the door. Inside, sitting by himself in one of many high-backed chairs surrounding an ornate wooden table, was a man in uniform. His stature was intimidating, but he had a kind face, though it was creased with worry.
“Olivia Whitaker?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s me,” she said breathlessly. “What is it, what’s going on?”
“Please, have a seat, Olivia,” he motioned to the chair opposite him.
She entered the room. “Is this about my graduation?”
A blow on the back of her head rocked her. The floor received her as she fell. Mercifully, everything at last was quiet.
Olivia knew she was awake because her skull radiated pain. She slowly pried open her eyes and tried to focus; to remember. She tried to lift her hands to rub her eyes, but found them chained together and attached to the wall behind her back. She was in a dark room with cobblestone walls, lit only by two lanterns. There was a metal door set into the stone wall on one end of the room. Otherwise the room was featureless. But she was not alone. As her eyes adjusted, she took in the most horrible sight she had ever beheld – her mother and father looking back at her, with looks of pure terror and deepest sadness.
"Olivia..." her mother cried.
“Mom? Dad?” she croaked. “Why are you looking at me like that? Where are we?”
“Olivia, I am so sorry,” her father wept. “I am so, so sorry.”
Olivia was fully awake now. “They found you out,” she stated flatly. “They found you out, Dad, didn’t they?” Her parents looked very tired. “Didn’t they?”
With a sudden scraping sound, the deadbolt in the door slid open, and in marched three armed guards and an elderly Halfling dressed in a long white robe with golden trim. One of the guards shut the door behind him and locked it with a key. The Halfling stood in the far corner of the room, unfolded a scroll of paper, and began to read from it.
“The Whitaker family. Accused of treason against His Majesty, the King, and the throne of Enderland. How do you plead?”
Mr. Whitaker lurched forward. “It was just me! My wife and daughter are innocent! They didn’t even know!”
“How do you plead?” the Halfling repeated, unmoved. “Each of you?”
“Innocent!” Olivia immediately shrieked. Her father glanced her way with sadness still hanging in his eyes.
“Innocent,” her mother muttered, staring at the ground.
And then, at last, her father: “Guilty.”
The Halfling continued. “You say your wife and daughter were unaware of your actions. Why, then, did we just hear your daughter asking you if we had, quote, ‘found you out?’”
Mr. Whitaker slumped visibly. Olivia’s mouth went dry.
“No,” she said. “No, I was against him from the start. I knew it would catch up to him. I ran away from home when I found out.”
Mrs. Whitaker gasped. Olivia looked at her. Her expression told Olivia that her father had never shared this with her.
“She went to Crandalwood in hopes of joining King Drakeston’s army,” Mr. Whitaker said. “She wished to fight for him. More than anything.”
“Since she was a little girl,” her mother added.
“How convenient for you that you would have a spy within His Majesty’s regiment,” the Halfling said, scratching notes on the scroll with his quill.
“No!” Olivia and her father said in unison.
“I was fighting what he stood for. I was going to be my own person, free from everything he’s done!” Olivia said.
Her father choked back a sob audibly. Olivia realized that she was clawing so hard to save herself that she had abandoned her father and done nothing but dig him a deeper hole.
“Dad –” she said.
“No,” he cut her off. “You should be safe. You deserve to be.”
“Pardon my intrusion,” the Halfling said somewhat sarcastically. “If you were fighting so valiantly against your father’s crime, why did you never report him?”
Olivia was taken aback. “He’s my father! He only did it so that he would have the money to raise me right and sustain my mother! How could I turn him in?”
“It was your duty to do so. To your country. The one you are so eager to defend.” The Halfling stared at her disparagingly. “And it sounds like you were benefiting considerably from his involvement. Yet you want me to believe that you were racing through Crandalwood’s crusader program with strictly noble intentions?”
Olivia was speechless.
“Please,” Mr. Whitaker breathed. "You mustn’t twist this. She’s just a child.”
“For now.” The Halfling shifted his attention. “And what about you?”
Mrs. Whitaker looked up. “Yes, I knew. I hated it. I was always so afraid of what could be happening to Enderland because of it. But we needed that money. We were starving. We tried to protect Olivia from it, but look where that got us.”
“Mother –” Olivia’s mind was reeling. “You knew too? This whole time? You let him do this?”
“Yes, Olivia. I did. And damn it all, so did you!”
“I’ve heard enough.” The Halfling rolled up his scroll. “I hereby sentence the three of you to death, immediately.”
“No!” Olivia’s father screamed. “Please, they’ve done nothing wrong!”
The Halfling left the room without a second glance, locking the door behind him. Olivia let out a scream as the three guards approached the helpless family. One of them came to her and pulled her away from the stone wall by her shoulders. He wasn’t being cautious with her. She lunged back and threw both feet into his shin as hard as she could. He cursed and stumbled, then drew a knife from his belt. He circled behind her, holding her in place with his left arm. She continued struggling and tried to bite the guard, without success. Her captor kneed her in the back to still her. Next to her, the other two soldiers took up her parents.
“I’ll do anything,” Olivia’s father cried. “Please.”
“Ready,” instructed the guard behind him.
Olivia felt the steel of the knife blade push against the flesh of her neck. It sent icy terror through her veins, all the way down to her feet.
“Olivia. Clare. I’m sorry.” Mr. Whitaker sounded very old. “I’m so sorry. I love you both very much. Now and always.”
The guard behind him hesitated. He was about to kill a good man. And he knew it.
Olivia suppressed a whimper. “I love you too, Dad,” she said.
“Now and always,” her mother added.
The guard took a breath. “Now.”
An intense, stinging pain welled up across Olivia's neck as crimson painted the cobblestones of the cell. Instantly, her thoughts began to lose clarity. She was gasping. But she could fight this. She had to survive. Metal cuffs digging into her wrists. Rattling. She had endured worse pain. The sound of wind entering a severed trachea. Drowning without water. Spasming. Drowning without water. Straining. How can I drown without water...?
No heartbeat... no breath... only stillness. Olivia had never noticed it before – the human body was in constant movement. She had never felt so much peace as she felt right now. To her immense surprise, she heard something – clothes shuffling. There was someone here with her.
Her vision slowly swam into focus. Two green eyes stared at her from two holes in a featureless, black cloth mask. The protruding, pointed ears on the sides marked the owner as an elf.
“Hm,” he said. “All better.”
He walked over to a bag and started putting bizarre instruments into it.
Olivia became aware that she was lying down. She tried to sit up, but couldn’t. However, she could move her head, and with this skill she examined her surroundings. She was in a small room lined with shelves of preserved foods, and seemed to be on a wooden platform, which was covered in runes and other magical markings.
“Am I dead?” she asked.
“Yah.” He continued packing.
She tried again to raise herself up, twisting her torso and using her arms. This time she was able to climb into a sitting position.
“It’s not that bad.” She examined her hands. They were pale and inexplicably waterlogged, but otherwise fine.
“Cool,” he said shortly.
“Is this the afterlife?”
The elf collapsed dramatically over his bag and let out an exasperated sigh.
“Huh, boy. If I had a copper for every time…” He got up, drew the bag shut and slung it over his back.
“Well, is it?” she insisted.
“No.” He turned to face her. “Just the regular kind.”
“But you said I was dead.”
“Well,” he started scrubbing away the burnt out runes next to her with a damp cloth, “if you want to be fancy about it, you’re undead. So don’t hang out near any churches.”
“I’m sorry, what?” The elf ignored her and continued scrubbing. “Did you turn me into a zombie? Why? Who are you? Are my parents here too?”
“No, you’re not a zombie. Zombies are marginally dumber than you.” He tapped her side. “Move your butt.”
She scooted over on the platform and he went to work where she’d been sitting.
“I had other questions,” Olivia said impatiently.
“Okay, look.” He stopped scrubbing, tossed the cloth aside, and sat down. “This is a sticky, gross, awful job, and I hate doing it. You know what doesn’t make it better? Long-winded question-and-answer sessions with my patients. So I’m gonna give this spiel this once, then you’re going to be a good girl and get out of here, and I’ll never see you again.”
“Start talking then.”
“Alright. First off, your parents are dead. Like dead, dead. Sorry.”
Olivia’s stomach twisted horridly.
“Second of all, you’re here thanks to Southpaw.”
“You work for Southpaw?” she asked with fury.
With a roar, she leapt off the platform and clasped her fingers around the arrogant elf’s neck. Or, she tried to. She managed the roar part. And falling over.
“Cute,” he said. “Now let me finish.”
“Why didn’t you protect him better?” she screamed, with her face on the floor.
“What, you mean your dad? Hey, it’s not our fault he got caught. The royal advisor has been on edge ever since King Roy and the queen were killed off, so turns out a few months back he made a slight change to the royal seal to check for mail interception. Hardly noticeable. But since your dad would reseal the letters that he opened for us with the old version of the seal, the official recipients, who of course were in the know about this change to the seal, could tell if the contents had been disturbed. After that it was a simple matter of apprehending their mailman – your dad. The royal advisor decided to keep all this very hushed to prevent uprisings, hence your secluded little death sentence. The three of you were then discretely deposited in the ocean, and then the guys tailing you nabbed ya first chance they got.”
Olivia thrashed about in an attempt to pull herself back up. The elf didn’t help.
“So that’s why I’m all waterlogged?”
“Look out, we’ve got a scientist.”
“Okay, why just me? Why didn’t you save my parents too?”
“Members and affiliates of Southpaw have a sort of life insurance policy. One. If they die, I get called up to bring them back one time – as best as I can. Voila.” He gestured to her carelessly as she fought to get her shoulders out from between her knees. “The spell needs a heap of diamonds to work properly, and I don’t have a heap of diamonds, so this is as close to living as I can get ya. Now, when your pap came on board, he insisted that he would only do work for us if we gave the policy to his daughter. You.”
Olivia was sitting up again now. “He really loved me, didn’t he?” she said, awed.
“Do not get sentimental on me.” He pointed his finger in her face. “Do not. Anyway, you need to hear the rules of being undead. Listen up. There’s a spell on you right now, besides the one that brought you back. It’s keeping your skin from rotting and falling off. It’ll last two weeks, then you’ll need to drink one of these.” He passed her three vials of cloudy liquid, which she put in her damp pockets. “Every two weeks. Don’t forget, or you’re gonna start to fall apart. Your body is dead, and your soul is just hanging out in it. You’ve got enough potions there to keep you pretty for the next two months. After that you’ll have to figure something else out. Also, you have a huge slit in your throat; you might want to cover that up.”
He threw a maroon scarf at her. She caught it, impressed with her recovering coordination. The elf continued. “Holy energy is gonna hurt you bad. Somebody sticks a sword in you and you try to fix it with a cure spell, you’re gonna undo all the work I just put into you. Likewise, wounding magic will actually patch you right up. And lastly, you’ll never get sick or paralyzed or fatigued or anything like that ever again, and you don’t need to eat or sleep or poop anymore, and you can see in the dark. So you’re welcome.” He clapped his hands. “And that pretty much covers it. Go. Be free.”
“Wait!” She tried to stand again, this time succeeding. She wobbled. “I was executed by royal decree! I can’t just walk around, the government wants me dead!”
He shrugged. “Pick a new name. Change your face. It’s gonna fall off after you run out of potions anyway.”
“Aren’t you worried that when I leave here I’ll know where Southpaw’s hideout is?” she asked coyly.
“Oh, no!” he cowered emphatically. “I didn’t think of that!” He recovered and stood again. “Kid, this isn’t a hideout. This isn’t even Southpaw’s. This is some old guy’s cellar. I saw him leave this morning and figured I could borrow it for a couple hours.”
Olivia was disappointed. “Okay, well where am I then?”
“You’re still in Enderland. On the outskirts of a town called Plainsite.” He went to the only door in the room and opened it. The golden light of sunset flooded in, cascading down a stone staircase. He flourished pretentiously. “Welcome to your second chance, my child.” With that, he turned away and ascended the stairs.
Olivia put on the scarf and sat on the wooden platform again, letting the buckets of new information marinate in her undead mind. Every single aspect of her life had changed in under twenty-four hours. Perhaps it was right that she could no longer be Olivia. The girl who had gone to the graduation ceremony yesterday was dead – literally.
As the magic set in further, she felt her strength growing. She was able to take small steps now, though using what, she didn’t know. Assumedly her muscles had nothing to do with it. She reminded herself of a newborn foal, discovering its limbs for the first time. She climbed the stairs gingerly, one at a time. The setting sun felt nice. All her senses seemed to be intact. That was good. She found herself in a grassy patch of land by a dirt road. The elf, of course, had vanished. Behind her was a log cabin; the house built above the pantry she’d just exited. Down the dirt path a ways, she could see what looked like a busy marketplace. As she walked, she tried to think of a name. She’d always liked the name Emilie. It was the name of her favorite character in one of the books her father used to read to her.
Focus. Last name. She looked from side to side, and saw an old, wooden wheelbarrow by the side of the log cabin. Barrowman. Emilie Barrowman. It would do for now.
What next? Might as well head into the marketplace and look for work; something to keep her occupied until she came up with a better idea.
As she approached the marketplace, people began to notice her. It was a mixed bag. Some stared at her shamelessly, and others refused to even look in her direction. One woman, who was trying to handle a chicken she’d just purchased, called out “Get off the streets; you’ll infect us all!” That started a bit of a panic. What on earth must she look like?
“Calm down, I’m not sick!” Emilie called out. “If I was sick, could I do this?”
She hopped up on a trader’s table and jumped up and down. The crowd quieted a little, mostly because they now had no idea what to think.
“Look, I just want work,” she said. “I don’t need much. You don’t even need to feed or house me; I can take care of myself. Anyone?”
An elderly cleric approached from the throng. “You poor child,” he said. “You’re pale as a ghost. Please, come with me and I shall nurse you back to health.”
She inched away from him. “I’m actually fine, but thanks.”
“No, I insist,” the cleric said, pursuing her. “No one should suffer as you do.”
He slowly raised his hand, which began to pulse with energy.
“I can take care of myself.” Emilie got off the table and started backing away. “I don’t want to pay someone to do it. Didn’t you hear me? I’m looking for work. I’m poor.”
The cleric would not stop. His hand was outstretched now, and to her surprise, she thought she spotted fear in his eyes. “There’s no fee. This is out of the goodness of my heart.”
A chill ran up Emilie’s spine as she realized what was happening. The cleric knew she was undead. He thought she was a threat the villagers.
He was going to kill her.
Emilie turned and fled, pushing people out of her way (which wasn’t quite necessary, as they were all too eager to get away from her). She could hear the furious footfalls of the cleric behind her. She remembered what the elf had said. She couldn’t get fatigued. She could keep this up forever.
But what about her physical body? Would the elf’s magic keep it from breaking? She needed to hide. There was a hill up ahead and to her left. If she could get to the other side, maybe she could find some brush to cover herself with until the cleric had gone. She ran as fast as she could, putting as much distance as possible between the hunter and the hunted. As she rounded the hillside, she spotted her first bit of good luck in weeks – the opening to a cave set into the rise in the earth. She dove inside as she passed by, and saw to her immediate dismay that although it was quite large – about the size of Crandalwood’s grand hall – she could see every nook and cranny of it by the light coming from outside. There were, however, thick pillars of stone scattered throughout the space. She heard footsteps approaching and darted behind the nearest one. The cleric entered the cave cautiously. His eyes were intensely wide with fear now. He held out his hand in front of him, still glowing with holy energy.
“Miss? Where have you gone?” The old man began to tremble. “Why do you run from me?” With shaky steps, he entered deeper into the cave. “Miss, are you here?”
Why was he moving so slowly all of a sudden? Why were his eyes so incredibly wide? And then Olivia realized – the cave was pitch black.
The sun had finished setting, and the faint light entering the cave’s mouth was not enough to illuminate more than the first few steps. She remembered another of her new abilities – she could see in the dark.
Emilie was suddenly struck with a horrible idea. Under the rasps of the old man’s frightened breathing, she snuck as quickly as she dared away from him, deeper into the small cave, and whispered in a rattling voice,
“Welcome to our home, human.”
The cleric took a startled step back.
“What do you mean? There are two of you then?” He was trying to keep the fear out of his voice. Emilie crept to a new location.
“Oh, there are plenty more than that, darling,” she shrieked in a high cackle. “So many, in fact, that if we split you between all of us for dinner, it would hardly be worth the effort of killing you.”
The cleric whimpered and fully withdrew from the cave. “I don’t know how you all got here, but you ought to leave with equal haste! I will have the mayor send a team to destroy you otherwise!”
Emilie turned to face the back of the cave so that her voice echoed off the walls. She switched back to the whisper. “Ohhhhh, don’t do that. Let’s try this. We will leave this cave, and your town, on one condition. Tell no one that you met us here.”
“But–” The cleric toyed with the idea.
Emilie smiled and bravely approached the mouth of the cave and spoke in her own voice. “Tell them you caught the girl, and you killed her. Simple as that. No one has to know.”
The cleric hesitated. Emilie decided to push him a little further. “Or else, we could just eat you after all.”
“Alright, you win!” he cried, dispelling his magic and lowering his hand. “But I will come back here just after sunrise, and if even one of you is still here, I’ll have Mayor Ewing send a team over here that very same afternoon to wipe you out!”
Emilie perched on top of a mound of stone. “How brave! Take care now!” she shrieked, and laughed horridly. The cleric ran.
She sank down against the cold rock, emotionally exhausted. She thought she was going to cry, but found that she was no longer able to produce tears. Instead she made ghastly moans that resonated through the cavern and carried out into the night. Her parents were dead. Both of them, in an instant. And the only other person who had ever cared about her, Matthias… who knows what he thought? Had the government staged her death as an accident? Or had she just been reported missing? Or, hauntingly, did the government just expect that people would forget about her? But of course, Matthias wouldn’t forget.
What would he do though? He would probably meet some domestic girl, fall in love with her, and get married. The thought filled her with burning jealousy. She couldn’t lose him. He was the only person she had ever met who hadn’t wronged her in some way. And yet, how had she repaid him? She pushed him away at the graduation ceremony and disappeared forever.
At the ceremony, she felt like things couldn’t get worse. Like nothing in the world could lessen her chances of becoming a crusader. If only she’d known…
Wait. Emilie suddenly smiled. She couldn’t get tired. She didn’t eat, sleep, or drink. She didn’t need air, or even blood. Emilie Barrowman had all the qualities of the perfect soldier. Her dreams hadn’t been crushed at all – she just needed to find a new road to reach them!
That was the problem though. Finding that road. She was pale as a ghost, and had a huge slit across her neck. No one in their right mind would train her, let alone hire her... or do anything other than run away. She continued thinking about this, hoping that if she concentrated hard enough, a light would turn on and show her the way. Hours passed, with nothing to show for it. Before she knew it, a soft glow filled the cave, faintly painting the stone interior with bluish light.
Oh. The withered coward would be here soon.
An hour or two later, she heard his voice calling from some ways off.
“Here I come! There better not be anyone there!”
Emilie rolled her eyes. She crouched in the shadow of the stone mound. She was confident he’d be too afraid to do a thorough search for her.
The cleric entered the cave, holding his hand out in front of him again, swirling with magic. “Hello? I hope you all heeded my warning.”
Goodness, he was skittish. A breeze tossed some leaves by the cave entrance and the sound caused him to leap in the air. He checked behind a column close to the entrance, then moved further back into the cave. While his back was turned, Emilie snuck over to the shadow of the pillar he’d just checked. As she expected, he gave a quick glance here and there and quickly left, having seen exactly enough to be convinced that the cavern had been evacuated. He wouldn’t be back.
That was the last interaction Emilie had with another living being for weeks. Afraid to leave the cavern, she just lay against the stones, replaying the tragedies and mistakes of the last eighteen years over and over and over in her head without cease. She became racked with guilt and overcome with grief. She lost track of time. Had it been two weeks? It could have been less. It could have been more. She drank one of the potions. It tasted like paint smelled. She became possessed by the thought of what would happen when she ran out. She couldn’t stand the thought of decaying – of becoming a skeleton. Her body was the only thing Emilie had left. Devoid of a plan, she started to wish that she had just let the cleric destroy her.
And then, one rainy night, Emilie had a visitor.
After unhitching Stumblepink from the wagon and tying her rope to one of the pillars, the flustered gnome took a burlap sack out of his wagon, walked over to a groove in the cave floor, and set his lantern down. He climbed inside pathetically, curling into a little ball. Soon, he was snoring loudly. Stumblepink snorted and tried to lie down. She scuffled around a bit, but found the floor too hard on her legs. She resorted to sleeping while standing up. Over by the opening to the cavern, the wagon stood alone, filled with miscellaneous junk. Most people would never give it a second look, but to Emilie, it was a royal chariot, ready to carry her away to far-off wonders.
As quietly as she possibly could muster, she slunk from her pillar toward the cart. The gnome was sound asleep, but she was more concerned with waking the pony, who had proved herself to be easy to spook. The gnome’s snores and the rain outside masked her movement. At long last, Emilie reached the wagon, and started to pull herself up into it.
She darted her attention to Stumblepink. The animal’s ear twitched, but she was still, ominously standing frozen in a corner of the cave.
Emilie rolled over the edge, gingerly nestling herself into the worthless wares in the gnome’s cart. If she could just cover herself with a blanket or something, then – Oh, no.
As she wriggled under the merchandise, she nudged a sack of apples with her foot, and the contents all toppled out of the wagon, scattering over the cave floor with impossibly loud thumps that echoed off the walls. Emilie sat up and looked in Stumblepink’s direction. The pony was awake. Silent, but awake. She didn’t see Emilie. But she did see one of the apples, which had rolled right up to the gnome’s sleeping bag. Stumblepink walked toward it. Each time her metal horseshoes touched the stone, they let off a sound that cracked like a whip. Emilie acted impulsively.
“Stumblepink,” she called out in a low whisper. “Hey, girl, don’t do that.”
The pony heard her, and responded by whinnying loudly and bucking. The gnome leapt to his feet, tripped over himself in his bag, and fell flat on his face.
“What’sha matter, Shtumblepink? What’sh gotten into you?” He extricated himself from the bag and tripped over the apple at his feet. Down he went a second time. “Ow! Ah, an apple thief, have we? It’sh not enough that’cha ran me outta town?” The gnome looked from side to side, not having located Emilie, who now lay very still in the wagon. He calmed the panicked pony, then ran past Emilie’s hiding place and peered out into the rain. “Where are ya? Thief! Coward!” He turned back into the cave and started heaving himself onto the wagon. Emilie knew it was over.
“I’m not a thief, I’m sorry!” she cried, sitting up.
“Ahhh!” the gnome started, lost his grip, and toppled onto the cave floor. He climbed to his feet once more. “And what’sh a not-thief doing in my wagon, shpillin my applesh everywhere? Get outta there and let me have a look at you!”
She started to climb out. “I’m sorry. I was – I was trying to stow away. Just until you stopped at another town. I desperately need to get out of here.”
“Hey, you’re a girl!” the gnome realized.
“Why is that so surprising?” she said indignantly. “Can’t girls be stowaways?”
“What’cha stowin’ away fer? You’re not shome short o’ murderer, are ya?” he squinted at her. “I can’t shee a thing, stay here while I get my lantern.” He hobbled off.
“No, I’m not a murderer, but all the same I’d prefer you didn’t see my face.”
“Shweet mother of pickle jooshe, what are you?”
“I just have a bad cold is all. Some soup is all I need and I’ll color right back up.”
“Ish that gash on your neck part o’ your cold?”
“What?” Emilie touched her neck. The scarf was gone. It lay snagged on a splinter at the edge of the cart. She quickly unhooked it and wrapped it around her neck again. “Please. Don’t panic. I’m not going to hurt you. I just need help.”
The gnome trembled violently, but did not move. Whether it was because he was listening to her or was too scared to run, she didn’t know. Whatever worked.
“I’m trying to get out of here and start a new life. I know I can if someone would just give me a chance. Please. I was wrongly executed, and a friend tried to bring me back but he didn’t have the right materials for the spell, and I ended up like this. I just want a fresh start.”
The gnome remained frozen. Presently, he regained his ability to form words. “How doesh a person get themshelves wrongly egg-shukyooted?”
“It’s… a long story.” She looked outside and saw that the rain was coming down harder than ever. “I could really use your help.”
“You could really ushe me ash a shnack, you mean!” He ducked behind the wagon.
She paused. Changed tactics. “If I tell you the entire story of how I got into this mess, and I can convince you it’s true, will you give me a lift?”
He whimpered, still concealed.
“Look, I won’t even move. I’ll stay exactly where I am the whole time.” Emilie sat down, careful not to make any quick movements.
“You better have one whale of a tale up your shleeve, kid,” he said at last.
Emilie thought so. She told him everything – her dad’s involvement with a rebel force, her righteous departure from home, her experiences at the college, her failure to graduate – the sentencing. She even told him of the bizarre rebel elf that had brought her back from the dead in a stranger’s house. Matthias, however, went unmentioned throughout. The thought of him was too precious. Too painful.
It was risky to tell all this information to the petrified little man she’d only just met, but what other choice did she have? Besides, who was going to believe this spastic traveling salesman?
As she continued to tell of the events leading up to this moment, the gnome cautiously crept out from behind the wagon and sat down across from her to listen more comfortably in the light of his lantern, his eyes wide with interest.
At last, she finished her account, ending with how she’d come to live in this cave. They sat in sudden silence. She became aware that the rain had stopped.
“What is your name?” she said at last, concluding that he was not going to speak.
“Poggle,” he said simply. “And yoursh?” She hesitated. “I musht call the owner of this magnificent yarn by shome name.”
She smiled. “Call me Olivia.”
“Well, Olivia.” He stood and smoothed his tunic. “Your tale is certainly a tragic one. But I’m afraid it won’t do me businesh any favorsh to be hauling along an undead human girl ash a traveling companion.”
“Just a few towns over!” she said, standing.
“I can’t do it, missh,” he replied. “It putsh me in a very vulnerable poshition, you undershtand.”
“Poggle, you are my only hope. I am begging you.”
He struggled with himself visibly. "Alright, look. I am shympathetic to your shituation. I’m gonna help you out.”
“Thank you!” Emilie lifted him off the ground and hugged him. He screamed. She put him down again. “Sorry.”
He took a moment to recover. “I’m not takin’ you anywhere wif me though. I can do better than that. For bofe of us!”
Poggle climbed up into his wagon and started digging through the miscellaneous junk scraps he called his merchandise. He pulled out medium-sized leather case and offered it to Emilie. “Here.”
Confused, Emilie opened it. It was a makeup kit, stocked with many different skin tones, some blush, and several horse hair brushes.
“Thoshe lady paintsh should lasht ya a while,” Poggle said. “I’m givin’ them to ya free, which hurtsh me deep, sho I hope you’re grateful.”
“This is exactly what I need to be part of the world again,” Emilie smiled. The paints gave her an idea. “You wouldn’t happen to have a wig that’s a different color hair from mine? And a backpack to hold these?”
He glared at her. “I have no shuch thing.”
She crouched down to meet him eye to eye. “I’m a penniless orphan with no home, Poggle,” she whined pitifully. “And I’m dead.”
“Alright, alright, alright!” he conceded, climbing back up to the wagon. “I’ve got a blonde wig in here shomewhere. Might be a little frazzhled, but hey, sho are you.” He emerged with a shoulder length blonde wig with loose hairs sticking out in every direction, as well as a canvas bag with straps, and handed them both to her. “You want the shirt off my back too? Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”
Emilie put the makeup kit into the bag and slung it over her shoulder. She tried to tame the wig with her fingers a bit, and then placed it on her head. “How do I look?”
“Eesh.” Poggle wrinkled his nose. “Fix the wig, put on the makeup. Then you might have shum-fink to be proud of.”
“Thanks,” she said, half sarcastic, half sincere.
“Hey, if you’re good to go, you mind lettin’ me have thish cave sho I can get shome decent shut-eye?”
Emilie grinned for the first time in ages. “Seeya later, Poggle.”
“Yeah, good luck, Olivia.”
The reborn warrior stepped out of the cave, into the night air, and set a course for the horizon. So it was that Emilie Barrowman began her grand adventure.