Not Alone, Chapter 8

Preface: Greetings, all! This is the eighth chapter of the tale that began with “Not Alone – Chapter 1,” comes immediately after “Not Alone – Chapter 7,” and is the second story in a series that began with “What You Don’t Know,” also located on this site, although it features a mostly-different cast of characters.

As always, my standard disclaimer: The monster girls featured in this tale, and many elements of the setting, are based off of the works of Kenkou Cross, and as such this work is intended to be a tribute to his creativity. The characters, however, are my own. Pray neither sue nor steal; I have very little to take, but I love that which is mine.

Not Alone 

Chapter 8 – First Winds of Winter

     Dust billowed into the sky behind the trail of knights as they rode hard for Goslar.  The armored column was making swift progress across the plain before them, riding with the midmorning sun at their flanks as they hastened northwest.  They were still far from their destination, but had left the heavier portions of their entourage behind, determined to arrive all the sooner at their journey’s end.  Even in their haste, the riders kept their weapons close at hand, even if they had left their destriers’ heavy barding with the supply train.  They were ready to fight, though there were few nearby foolish enough to challenge two hundred mounted knights.

     A figure atop a distant hilltop watched the procession through a tinkered spyglass, a trophy she had taken long ago from a conquered bandit gang.  Lacerta Steelscale ran her gaze over the force that covered the plain before her, her concern unhidden on her face.  She had known the Orders to be capriciously cruel, but was disappointed to see her fears had been proven right: after the confrontation in the town square nearly a week before, the leaders of this force had been angered enough to push to arrive sooner, all the better to punish those who had defied them.  Thus, they had elected to split their force, leaving a third of their warriors behind to protect their supplies, while the bulk of their strength raced forward to conquer the obstinate town that had rebuked their herald. 

     This revelation was especially concerning to Lacerta as she considered their course.  It was likely they would approach Goslar from the north, the easiest access to the town.  Most of the refugees leaving the town took that exit, instead of traversing the more difficult roads through the southern mountains.  Either way, those fleeing the town would be heading east, which made it more likely that they would cross paths with the army marching on Goslar.  At this point, she feared, she would have to tell the refugees to take the slower southern route, and to hide in the mountains until the knights had arrived in Goslar.  That would work, except for a specific threat: the bandits that made their homes in those mountains.

     Most of the citizens had already fled Goslar, either following Ceann’s suggestion and traveling east, or dispersing to other towns hopefully removed enough from the mountains the knights were aiming to seize to spare them the misfortunes of a hostile occupation.  A few remained, however; stragglers slow to pack up their lives, or those too stubborn to leave their homes.  Of the latter, almost all were humans, though some monsters had voyaged into the northern forest in the hopes of finding succor amongst the tree-dwellers, many of whom refused to abandon their woods to the hungry depredations of the Holy Orders.

     Lacerta would have hoped that Roger would be among those who had already left, but she knew better.  Priscilla was still making trips back and forth, protecting the caravan trains and returning once they were safely clear of any route the Order’s men would follow.  Her orc friend had told Lacerta that Roger had taken on a responsibility from Ceann’s partner, the man-knight that had proposed this relocation, and that the chemist wouldn’t be leaving until it was done.  That decision had left the lizardwoman’s stomach in knots, and now she watched the knights’ approach with grim dread, hoping her own swift horse would be able to take her back to Goslar in time to see him and the others clear of the town before this force, weighted down by their armor and equipment, could arrive.

     “They draw near more quickly than expected,” expressed a soft voice inches from Lacerta’s ear.  The lizardwoman rolled away, climbing to her feet and drawing her blades in an instant, her instincts firing before she could even begin to wonder who had spoken to her and how they had managed to sneak up on her.  As she faced the intruder, however, her guard slackened only somewhat; she knew the costume the other woman wore, as well as the spade-tipped tail that danced behind her, were marks of the foreign servants of the Demon Queen, the kunoichi.  Certainly enough, the woman bore the mark of the lord of monsters upon her clothing, but she was also heavily-albeit-subtly armed, which was of more immediate importance to Lacerta. 

     “My apologies,” the other woman bowed, though her eyes looked to show the smile hidden behind her veil. “I seem to do that to people quite often.”

     “No, that’s alright, as long as you’re on my side,” Lacerta replied, still eyeing the woman as though the final part of her statement had been intended as a question.

     “Indeed.  I also come to take note of our enemy’s progress; the man I have been ordered to obey has plans for them, and he wishes to know more about them beforehand.” She glanced at the distant procession, her eyes squinting as she tried to see despite the miles that separated them.  She glanced down to see the spyglass that the mercenary captain had extended to her, and accepted it with a nod of gratitude.

     “It’s not good, I’ll tell you that.  That part of their army is mostly Crusaders; presumably out of Vindobona City, judging the direction they are traveling and the style of their banners.  There is a sizable force of Purifiers, as well, with around thirty of them riding together at the fringes.  That in particular worries me.  Beyond that, I see a few Inquisitors and Warders, and enough Protectors to guard their garrison.” She shook her head, concerned. “They also seem to have a lot of higher-ranked members. Many of them have banners with family crests beneath the sign of their order; that means they are of the highest normal rank, Lords.  The rest are a mix of Knights and Errants, typical for an army of this size.  I’d bet the lower-ranking Squires were left with the wagon trains.”

     “Even more of them come, beyond those?” The kunoichi stared at them through her spyglass. “Such a force will not be easy to dislodge.”

     “No, and that’s why we won’t be worrying about coming back to Goslar for a while.  Now, all that matters is getting everyone to safety.” Lacerta accepted the spyglass back from the other woman, securing it at her waist alongside one of her sheathed swords. “I’m leaving now to make sure everyone clears out immediately.  If we take the roads through the southern mountains, we can probably evade them, but only if we leave now.”

     “Yes, well, the man I obey has a few ideas to keep them from pursuing us immediately.” The kunoichi stared at the knights still, her concern obvious despite her masked face. “I only hope his plans are good.  Such men seek only blood.”

     “Well, they can’t have mine,” Lacerta said, moving to the side of her horse and checking the tack.  With the straps secured, she vaulted into the saddle, not hearing the other woman’s low response.  Taking up the reins, she wheeled her horse about, facing in the same direction of the knights.  Unburdened by armor, she hoped her mount could carry her back to Goslar with hours to spare before the arrival of the Orders, but she knew better than to rely on expectations. “Travel safe and swiftly, and take care that they do not see you,” she warned the kunoichi.

     “If they see me, then they will be the ones to regret it,” the other woman promised darkly.  When Lacerta glanced back towards her, the assassin was gone, disappeared into the high grass.  Chuckling to herself, the mercenary captain spurred her horse on, aiming for the fastest route back to Goslar, and those still left there.  She could only hope she returned in time to warn them.

 

******

 

     Roger sighed as he looked over the boxes that held all the garnishings of his life in Goslar, and wondered how much of it would survive the trip to his new home, wherever that would be.  It had surprised him how few boxes it had taken to contain all he owned, even considering the delicate glassware that he had packed in with hay.  He tried not to think about how those instruments would fare on the rough roads outside of town, but such couldn’t be helped.

     He had only just finished his packing, having been kept busy over the past few days on the task the strange armor-clad man had assigned him.  His packing had also taken longer due to Priscilla’s absence; after the night of the town hall meeting, she had been gone all but constantly, escorting caravans out of the town to a safer distance before returning for the next departures.  She had barely had time to rest, and certainly hadn’t had time to help him, let alone spend any time in his arms. 

     Still, part of him was glad Priscilla had been away so much.  He wouldn’t have wanted her to be there if something went wrong.  After all, he had spent nearly a week making nothing else but explosives.

     The armored man that had commissioned those same explosives had accepted the last of them the previous evening, after Roger had utterly exhausted his supply of materials for crafting any more of them.  He wasn’t certain what the man had in mind, but the amount Roger had made for him would probably be enough to turn half of Goslar into a smoking crater.  He had actually asked the knight several times if that had been his intent, and after the mysterious man’s denials, had gone on to ask again several times more, just to be certain.  Roger was all for hampering the Orders, but was not willing to burn down his own home to do so.

     Instead, the man had taken them, packed carefully in hay, on a road that led out of town towards the south.  Roger wasn’t certain why he had chosen that way, since he doubted the Orders would take the rougher mountain roads in that direction to come into town, but the matter was out of his hands now.  Instead, he had only to prepare his own cart for departure, and hope for the best.

     Unfortunately, even that last step of packing was out of his hands at the moment.  He had been promised a cart by the strange knight, but a problem with its axle had kept it from being delivered.  The wrights working on it had sworn it would be ready by noon, and that they would deliver it to his store, but until then he had nothing to do.  That sudden silence gave him a moment to think, but those thoughts only caused his stomach to churn, as he feared for Priscilla’s safety, their future, and the fate of all of his friends.

     He was immensely relieved, then, to hear the door open behind him, and he turned to see Priscilla enter the shop.  Her face was painted with exhaustion, dark rings under her eyes and a pale thinness to her cheeks, but the smile she gave him was bright, and he rushed to her, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tightly to him.  She resisted feebly, “Stop, I stink, I haven’t even rinsed off in days,” but quickly returned his embrace when he didn’t relent, instead nuzzling his cheek against hers.  They were both slow to let go, but finally fell back to arm’s reach, looking at each other’s faces. “Sorry, I can’t stay long,” she apologized. “I told Bronda I would help load the last of the things she’s taking.  Do you have everything packed?” She glanced at the crates all around them, regret clear on her face.

     “I have everything ready.  I just left a few of your things out, to see if you would need them.” He nodded to the main counter, where a couple of her tunics lay atop a few of Priscilla’s other belongings. “Oh, and there was something else, a glass container of some fluid I didn’t recognize; I left that out as well.” He pointed to the tall carafe of golden nectar, before glancing back to her, alarmed at the paleness of her face. “Are you okay?”

     Priscilla’s response was slow in coming.  Finally, after long moments, she met his gaze, regret weighing down her eyes. “Roger… I have a confession to make.” Roger listened, alarmed, as she explained the story behind the alraune nectar: where she had gotten it, and why she had taken it from Rosa. “I thought that maybe, if I used it, then you might… see me as worth keeping around.  That we would be happy, if we could just get past that first step.  But I promise I didn’t use it!  That’s exactly as much as she gave me, down to the last drop!” she insisted desperately, trying to read his face.

     Roger nodded blankly, his head lost in his own thoughts, struggling to understand what Priscilla was saying.  He could accept what she had considered doing, especially since he had known early on that she had also resisted the urge to force herself onto him.  He appreciated that she hadn’t used the alraune nectar; it was better that what they had shared came from their feelings, instead of an aphrodisiac.  Priss had given in to temptation, but not so much as to use the nectar on him.  Even as he wondered if she ever would have, even if things had not gone so well between them, another pressing thought rose to his mind. “Priss… what did you give her in return for this?  Why would she give this to you?”

     His lover’s head sank lower, and she gazed at the floor. “She wanted… she wanted you.  I wouldn’t- that’s not something I could agree to, because that is your choice… so she asked for something else.” Priscilla paused, taking a breath.  “She wanted my permission.”

     Roger shook his head, dumbfounded by what he was hearing as he deciphered her words. “What do you mean, permission?  Do you mean…?” He sighed, his hand coming to his brow, rubbing against his aching temples. “Listen, that’s not important right now.  We have to get out of here.  We can figure all of this out later, once we’re all safe.”

     Priscilla glanced up at him, her head still lowered, biting her lip nervously. “Will you forgive me?” she asked hesitantly, watching him closely.

     Roger glanced away for a moment, frustrated by his own warring emotions.  He took a deep breath before turning back to Priscilla, ignoring the fear in her eyes.  Instead, he drew closer to her, lifting her chin to plant a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll forgive you.  I love you, Priss, and this doesn’t matter to that.” Another nagging worry ate at him, though. “I’m going to go check on a few people before we leave: Mithal, for one.  And Rosa.  I haven’t spoken to her, but I want to be sure that she has a way to leave.”

     Priscilla nodded, her eyes still locked on his. “If… if you wanted to give her what she wanted, then-” She cut off as she saw the look he was giving her, his eyebrow arched. “I’ll go help Bronda.  I’ll see you soon,” she amended, wrapping her arms around him.  Their embrace was short, and their lips barely brushed against each other in a farewell kiss, before she left out the door she had entered minutes ago.

     Roger sat alone for a long moment, still digesting what she had just told him.  He had known orcs were more open with relationships, but he was still adjusting to the idea.  He wondered if Priscilla missed her tribe so much that it left her open to suggestions like the alraune’s, though he shook off that idea quickly.  He also wondered what he was going to say to about this to Rosa, though he wouldn’t let that dread keep him from checking on her.  After all, he didn’t know if anyone else in Goslar would.

     With that thought in mind, he headed for his door, taking a moment to lock it despite himself; at this point, the town was all but deserted, and he doubted anyone would have time to go looting emptied houses before the forces of the Orders arrived.  As he proceeded down the familiar streets, the atypical silence grated at him; he could hear only the creak of departing wagons and a few souls shouting to each other to hurry.  He saw almost no one before he arrived at his destination, the place he had chosen to visit one final time to savor memories just as he had savored its meals, but the Randy Stallion Tavern was closed, the windows dark.

     “My apologies, my friend,” offered a voice from nearby, and Roger jumped despite himself.  He turned to see someone leaning against the corner of the building, a sack at his feet.  It took Roger a moment to recognize his close friend in more casual clothing; he’d almost come to believe Mithal’s apron and white cap had grown from him like a second skin. “Had we ingredients, I would cook you a farewell feast.  Sadly, they took those too.”

     “Why are you still here, then?” asked Roger, concerned.  He could see the timid despair on his friend’s face, but had believed that Mithal would have already left with the rest of the refugees days before.  A pang of guilt plagued him as he regretted not checking on his friend sooner.

     “It seems the owners of the tavern decided last night they would have better luck to the west, so they took their belongings that way.  They thought they would be better off in territory held more by man than monster, and when I disagreed they left me here with the remainder of my pay.” Mithal’s shoulders raised, then flopped. “I don’t blame them, of course.”

     Roger walked over to his friend with a reassuring smile, clapping the chef on the shoulder. “Well, lucky for you I have an extra seat on the cart they’ve promised me, if you want a ride.  You’ll just owe me a good meal whenever we get to wherever we are going.”

     Mithal smiled at him, and as he responded, he raised his voice over the clatter of a wagon that was drawing near them. “I won’t turn you down; it sounds to be a rather long walk.  Perhaps there will be a new tavern at our destination that I could get work at; I’m sure they will need someone to put uncooked boar meat on a plate.” He grinned at his friend, chuckling in self-deprecation, not noticing the nearby wagon slowing to a stop.

     “What are you talking about?” exclaimed a shrill voice from the seat of that wagon.  Roger and Mithal turned to see a quintet of familiar faces grinning at them from that height.  From the side closest, the red-haired goblin wagged a finger at the chef. “You’re going to start up your restaurant when we get there!”

     Roger nudged his friend in the ribs with his elbow, but Mithal shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, girls, but I certainly won’t have enough to start a restaurant when we arrive.  I’ve barely saved enough to find a place to stay at, let alone start a new business there.” To punctuate his point, he lifted up his coinpouch, revealing his savings were far from sizable.

     “Wow, that is terrible,” mused Mori the grocer, shaking her head.

     “You’re unemployed and homeless,” added Muri the smith, rubbing salt into the mix.

     “You’re going to need a place to sleep,” leered Mari the potter.

     “But if you found some people, beautiful and kind and attractive and generous, that were willing to invest in you…” mused Meri the former tavern maid.

     The brown-haired girl sitting in the middle said nothing.  Roger recognized her as the hobgoblin bailiff from the town hall meeting, and she was far more generously endowed than her sisters, and far stronger as well, judging by the way she hefted the large bag of coins from the footboard of their cart.

     “Then we can start the restaurant together!” chimed all of the goblin sisters together.

     A battle of emotions raged on Mithal’s face, and Roger saw shock struggling with relief, fear grappling with gratitude.  His friend’s eyes were misty as he shook his head, but there was suspicion in his voice as he spoke to them. “You all just want me to owe you one, don’t you?”              

     “A lot more than one,” chuckled Mori darkly.

     “Maybe one a night,” added Mari, sharing a grin with her sister.

     “Each,” insisted the hobgoblin, who Roger presumed was named Miri.

     “I don’t know about that,” Mithal paled, glancing for support to his friend, who merely shrugged. “Still, in terms of business, if you all are serious about starting the restaurant together-”

     “We’ve been saving up for months!  This is the profit from all our work, and that is how we’ve been planning to spend it!” Meri answered.

     “I was done with owning my own store,” Mari explained. “Too much hassle.  But I can make plates and bowls for you now!”

     “And I know how to make silverware,” chimed in Muri proudly.

     “You’ll need someone to procure ingredients,” reminded Mori.

     “And you’ll always need me, ‘cause I give the very best service!” bragged Meri, winking to Roger.

     “Well, I can play the violin, to help set the mood,” suggested the hobgoblin in her huskier voice, pulling a wooden case from the back of the wagon and holding it up.  Mithal blinked in surprise at this, then nodded appreciatively, already imagining what this setup would look like.    

     Despite himself, the chef shook his head, laughing at himself for going along with this madness.  He glanced back to his friend with a smile. “It seems I should maybe ride with them instead, if they have the room.”

     “Yeah!  We can just push Mori out.”

     “Hey!  You take that back!”

     Roger nodded, slapping the other man on the back. “Good luck with them, my friend.  I’ll see you when we arrive.” Roger watched as Mithal approached the wagon, hesitantly hoisting himself onto the side wall of the wagon instead of climbing onto the seat teeming with goblin girls.  The chemist’s eyes widened, however, as he noticed a tall clay jar looming next to the place Mithal had chosen to try to climb over, but couldn’t voice his warning in time.  Before anyone could speak, Mithal lifted himself up over the sidewall of the wagon, only to come face-to-face with the dark-skinned girl that had emerged out of the jar.  For a long moment, his wide blue eyes stared into her amber ones, and he was far too surprised to react as she lurched forward, pressing her mouth against his.  Roger winced at the shrill goblin shriek as the jinn’s mouth worked against Mithal’s, before she pulled back with a gasp, ducking into her jar just in time to dodge a hammer thrown by Muri.  Mithal was still frozen in place, his mouth still open as he blinked in confusion, while the goblin girls cursed Djennifer and threatened to break every jar in the wagon until they found her.

     The hobgoblin relaxed the reins, and the drafthorses began to pull the wagon onward.  Mithal promptly fell into the cart, but soon came back up holding a large clay bird.  Confused, he looked to Mari, who beamed at him. “I made it for our restaurant!” she explained cheerily. “It’s a swan!”

     Mithal’s face fell, and he inspected it again with a critic’s gaze. “It looks like a long-necked duck to me.”

     “Exactly!  Oh, hey, that reminds me: do we need to go back to get the statue I made you?”

     Mithal paled, shaking his head. “Oh, I’m sorry, but there was an accident…”

     “He hated it, I told you!” Mori gloated.

     “No, he told me it was great!” Mari defended herself, looking to Mithal for confirmation, which he gave her with a rictus grin. “Just you wait, then.  I’ll make you an even better one!  And then we can put it out in front of the restaurant…”

     Roger laughed as his friends rolled away from him.  He wished them all luck, though Mithal most of all.  His human friend was definitely destined for a chaotic new life, although far be it for Roger to scoff at such, considering his own situation.  He waved to them until they rounded a corner, disappearing from sight.  With that, Roger turned back to his final task.  Bracing himself for the long, quiet walk, he began his course north, treading the now-silent streets of Goslar like a ghost as the sun crested its course and began to fall.  He had a long way yet to go, and not much time.

 

******

 

     Even as the shadows of the northern forest greeted him, Roger could tell something was very different on this visit.  A chill wind gusted from the branches towards him, and even with the warmth of the midday sun Roger shivered as he looked into the darkness of the woods, shades that once felt warm and mysterious now instead imposing and forbidding.  Even with all the warmth of late summer heating the fields behind him, these trees had taken on the faded greyness of winter, and despite himself Roger hesitated to step into their domain.  Pressing on, he found the paths that he had committed to memory, dirt trails that showed they knew the feet of men, were all but disappearing beneath sprawling underbrush that grasped at his ankles.  Several times he thought himself lost, and choked down instant panic, only to glimpse sight of salvation in a familiar landmark moments later.  The forest whispered ominously under its cloak of shadows, and it felt to Roger that hours passed before he found the ring of trees he had been searching for, though the beam of sunlight that pierced its center was barely angled through the branches above.

     Roger strode without hesitation into that grove, even as he swallowed his concerns about the conversation to come.  Rosa’s bloom was slow to open this time, but he hardly stopped to wait until he drew closer than ever, his jaw set stubbornly as the bud that cradled her began to blossom open.  As she emerged from its confines, Rosa was stretching languorously, her considerable chest thrust forward towards him.  Roger didn’t look away, but even with the determination he felt he kept his eyes locked on her face as his cheeks heated to a dull glow.  Her carnation-pink lips parted in a lethargic yawn that closed only as her violet eyes slid open, focusing on his with an intensity that brought a fully-bloomed smile to her mouth.  Her arms slid down her form, across her stomach and hips, to clasp each other behind her back, and her shoulders swayed in a motion that dragged his eyes southward with a dreadful gravity. “Well, my dearest Roger!  I would have believed you long gone, by now.” Despite her smile, he could see something in her eyes he could not recognize, though it was replaced soon with suspicion. “Wait…” She scrunched her nose, grimacing. “Well, it seems Priscilla was bolder than I gave her credit for, after all.  It seems she has been enjoying you.”

     Wondering how she could possibly know, Roger refused to be shaken. “That’s not what I’m here to discuss, Rosa.”

     “Oh?” The expression the alraune wore was markedly jaded, and her eyebrow raised sharply. “Then it seems our piggy princess didn’t live up to her promise after all.”

     “She did.  I know about the nectar, and what she gave you in return.” Rosa’s eyes opened wide at that, and her jaw dropped at his frankness. “And we all can talk about that later.  Again, that’s not why I am here.”

     “Are you certain?” Rosa leaned closer to him, and he stood close enough that she could reach out and brush her fingers against his cheek gently. “Could you be convinced to consider it now?”

     Finally, Roger could recognize what had been in her eyes earlier: fear.  He could sense her anxiety in the way she bit her lip, pinching down its nervous trembling, and he knew she was afraid he would reject her. “No, I wouldn’t.” Immediately she winced minutely, and started to withdraw, but he shook his head, stepping even closer. “Because we can talk about that later, after you come with us.”

     The pain on her face was washed away by confusion. “What do you mean?” She glanced at his hand as it came up to gently grip her wrist.

    “I won’t leave you here.  The Orders are coming, Rosa, and they will burn this forest.  Once they figure out that monsters live here, they will hunt all of you down.  They won’t stop until they think you are all dead, because they won’t tolerate anyone who stands against them.” He stared into her eyes grimly. “I know this too well.  It’s not something I like to talk about, but… my parents served the Church faithfully, enthusiastically.  They weren’t the nicest people, but they did speak out against the Church, once, after the priests raised taxes even higher to build their army more and more.  It wasn’t a week later that they died in a ‘carriage accident’ at the coastal cliffs.  My eldest brothers took over our estate, and they were nothing but even more loyal to the Orders and the priests.”  He swallowed through a tight throat.  He hadn’t even told Priscilla about his parents yet, but if it would convince Rosa to leave with them, then he didn’t regret saying it now. “The Church takes what it wants, no matter who is in the way, and that’s why you have to come with me.”

     “Oh, Roger.” The way Rosa touched him now was very different; there was no seduction in the way she brushed against his hair, nor in the way she looked at him.  Still, the pity in her eyes made him almost as uncomfortable as her usual sultry attitude. “I’m sorry for what happened.” She pulled back from him, shaking her head as her face fell further. “But I can’t come with you.  I have to stay here, to help protect this forest.”

     “You can’t,” Roger insisted, but she placed a finger against his lips, silencing him.

    “This forest is more powerful than you know.  What you have seen is only a single leaf on a great tree.  Those men will find no monsters when they step among the trees, nor will they find a path through that will take them anywhere they know.  The woods will leave them lost and alone and very far from home.  Darling, if you only knew how many leagues we are from that little town you den in, it would frighten you.” She smiled at him, but he didn’t relax. “You only think the path to my grove is short because I always want you to get here as soon as possible.  They will find no such courtesy.”

     “Then they will cut down the trees until they find you.” Roger shook his head sadly. “Please, Rosa.”

     “I can’t.  If I leave, then we will lose even more of this forest to them.” Roger met her gaze, distracted only by the tear that rolled down her cheek. “But I promise you, I will be alright.  At the least, until you come back.  You… will come back?”

     “I will.  I promise.” Roger found that his chest was tight, and his free hand was gripped in grieving frustration.  He hadn’t known this would bother him as much as it was, but it felt like his heart was being crushed in his chest. “We will come back for you.”

      “I’ll hold you to that promise.” The smile Rosa gave him was as bright as the sunlight she bathed in, and she ran her hand over his cheek, as if she thrilled at touching him with her hands instead of teasing him with her vines.  This was the first time he had gotten so close to her, and only now did he notice how vulnerable she seemed.  She leaned back, glancing away with a deeper green darkening her cheeks, but she still kept her hand against his face. “Will you let me be selfish once more, then, if I have to wait for you to return?”

     Roger paused, not responding.  He was afraid he knew what she would ask, considering her deal with Priscilla.  He didn’t know what he would say if she did.

     “After all, Priss gave you her permission for so much…” Roger swallowed against his tight throat. “Surely something less wouldn’t hurt?” She wouldn’t meet his gaze now, uncharacteristically shy, as if she feared she was asking for more than she had bargained for. “Just… a kiss?”

     Roger froze in place.  This was going to be trouble.

     His silence was too much for her, and she laughed awkwardly, waving her hand dismissively. “Oh, listen to me.  I’m just teasing you again, don’t-” She stopped still as his hand extended to brush against her cheek.  Her violet eyes were wide in wonder at the wry smile he gave her, but he couldn’t completely hide his nervousness either.  Instead, his hand curled into her hair, cupping her head, pulling her towards him, and she bent closer, like a sunflower chasing the light.  Their kiss was gentle, like a rosebud trailing against skin, and did not end soon.  Roger breathed in her sweet scent, but no haze settled over him, her pollen held just as was her breath as she caressed his face.  Finally, they both pulled back, their eyes wide, and both fought down the urge to resume, to press on.  The clouds only returned to his heart when Roger realized that it was time for him to leave, before he stayed to convince her, before he brought Priscilla here with him to help fight the Orders, before whatever impossibility his mind could conjure. 

     Rosa met the sadness in his expression with an ephemeral smile. “Oh, don’t look so sad, my prince.  We plants sleep every winter, and you will be my spring when you return.”

     Roger nodded to her, putting on his bravest face. “I’ll be back, as soon as I can.”

     Her fingers trailed away from his cheek as she straightened. “I know.”  She said nothing further; her true last words to him had been hidden in her kiss.  Instead, she stood boldly in front of him, completely bare to his eyes and rejoicing as they discovered her beauty.  The petals of her flower began to close around her, the one between them the last to move.  As it finally closed, sealing her from his sight, his final glimpse of her was her face relaxed in a tender smile, as if she slept in the midst of a pleasant dream.

     His heart conflicted, Roger turned to leave Rosa’s grove.  After their kiss, he vaguely felt like a hole had opened under his feet, and he had stepped into it willingly, but there would be plenty of time later to worry about that, too.  He hated to leave her here, still not able to believe she would be safe, tortured by the thought that he wouldn’t even know whether she was or not.  At that thought, he noticed a strange feeling against his hair, and reached up to discover a flower tucked behind his ear, just where Rosa had caressed him during their kiss.  As he held the flower, he could have sworn he felt Rosa’s presence, hazy and dreamlike, and he nodded down at the gift she had given him, a memento of his promise.

     As he left the grove, he stepped into the forest, no longer bothered by its cold silence.  He saw it now as an animal cornered, fangs bared at a predator, and he saluted it and wished it luck in its fight.  In that conflict, they were allies, and despite himself he wanted to stay and help resist those who would soon come.  Still, he hastened his pace, hurrying to return to his shop, where a cart should be awaiting him and Priscilla, their last chance to flee before the Holy Orders arrived.         

     It was time to leave Goslar.  They would be back.

Continued in “Not Alone, Chapter 9

Author’s Note: I return once more, with another chapter in tow.  Only two remain until this story is concluded!  I intend to maintain the usual pace until the end, so 9 will be posted Tuesday, and the finale on Thursday, assuming all goes as planned.

I am still in the process of preparing for the next work, although I did allow myself to get distracted by the Speedwriting Contest last night.  I encourage everyone to read the works that I and the others threw ourselves at, and would strongly encourage everyone to participate in the next one; it was a lot of fun, speaking personally.  I’ll not reveal which work I myself composed, though I may re-release it under my name once voting is completed.

Anyways, thank you all once more for reading, and I especially thank those of you who comment for cheering me on.  I shall return soon enough with more of this tale, the climatic chapter at last, but first… well, you know.

I must sleep…

~Wynn Pendragon

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