[tw for mild violence and blood]
The most violent thing Cognac had witnessed in her seventeen years was the head of an arrow piercing through the groundskeeper’s throat. It went through the front of her neck and was spit out the back, the force of it jerking the woman backward before she slumped drunkenly to the ground. The sight was something like fifty meters away, so Cognac did not at first see the blood pouring down over the groundskeeper’s chest and stomach—in fact, she did not at first understand at all what she had seen. But as a pool of wine grew and stained the grass that the woman lay in, the arrow still stuck in her, Cognac sobered with realization. She covered her mouth as her own throat began to tighten up, and the longer she stood, the deeper the pit in her stomach grew, fear beginning to coat her skin as she stayed rooted to the stone floor.
A small mob had appeared before the fallen woman, and though Cognac had been looking down at them for a mournful minute, it was a sudden thing when she realized that it was a group of bandits that had come for them.
Quickly, she went to the center of the room to toll the bell, pulling fluidly on the rope. She didn’t know what else to do, so she pulled it two times hard, and she fled. She had been there in the bell tower to toll noon when all this had happened. She only hoped her classmates would feel something amiss by the short tolls, instead of thinking how odd for time to pass so quickly, that it was two o’clock already. They were foolish to not establish an emergency signal, but then again, for twenty years they had never needed one.
She slid down the stone stairs, her grip on the handrail keeping her upright as she forced herself down and out. She didn’t know where to go, but her heart had swelled with the idea that she needed to leave, fast. She burst out the door and continued without stop, her feet pounding the ground. Though she couldn’t see as well without the altitude of the ringing room, it seemed the bandits were already sending arrows up to the academy roof, trying to set fire to the few wooden addendums in the stone while her classmates were herded together.
Her frail heart beat against her school shirt while quick stark breaths ripped out of her throat, fear tingling in her finger tips. She went toward the woods, what she decided would be the easiest place to hide.
She lost her footing in the garden, tripping through a patch of peonies, and ran past a figure that was kneeling in the thicket. Cognac barely looked at her, her legs urging her on.
She craned her neck backward though, taking the face in again, because she knew her.
It was the gardener, Odessa, one of her classmates.
“Run,” Cognac urged, sliding further through the garden, sweeping her arm through the air in a beckon toward the forest. “There are bandits here! They killed the groundskeeper, we have to run!” She heard her voice burst from her body like it was someone else’s, like it was coming out without her control.
Odessa looked at her wide-eyed for a flat moment, unmoving, stuck in the ground like Cognac had been so few moments earlier. And then she surged forward, faster than Cognac ran, faster than Cognac could run. She grasped Cognac’s hand in hers as she rushed forward, pulling her along, the branches of trees stretched out to them in welcome.
She led them straight into the forest with one arm up as a brace around her ducked head, and twigs and things snapped against it as she leapt further and further forward. Their hands were clenched together with the force of a vice, Cognac’s shoulder dipped and pulling fiercely against its socket. She did her best to dodge away from the sprigs that stood against them, tripping against Odessa’s speed, but they pierced her arms and her cheeks and scratched her legs roughly.
It felt like a lifetime that they spent running. The forest barely changed around them, and Cognac hardly knew the direction they went in, save it being forward.
“I know where to go,” Odessa called backward, after they’d cleared a frantic number of miles.
Cognac’s legs ached under her. The sun seemed to be lowering into the sky.
She coughed back a word of question, still tripping forward every few steps, her body a clumsy tangle rooted in Odessa’s squeezing hand. She had never been one for running, and through the obstacle of the forest she spent every moment struggling.
She felt her hand, now clammy with perspiration, slip out of Odessa’s grip, and as she kept herself stumbling forward her breaths heaved heavier and heavier out of her chest. She hadn’t noticed, but her heart was pounding brutally in her ears, the pulsation thick in her head. It was like the sound itself had clogged her throat, and she had to stop, abruptly, her breaths turning acidic on her tongue.
Odessa turned toward her, her pace slowing, a look of worry stuck to her face.
Bile slipped up through Cognac’s throat like a ragged breath and she bent over, a hand wet against a thin tree. Vomit spilled out of her mouth. She wretched there for a long moment, until her stomach was empty, until even water wouldn’t churn out of it anymore. Odessa had stood a meter away, watching silently, her own breaths pushing her chest out and in in a steady rhythm.
She stepped nearer, and quietly asked, “Are you alright?”
Cognac didn’t look up at her, still curved over toward the ground, a line of puke and spit dripping loosely from her open mouth. “Yeah,” she breathed. Her voice was rough and airy, an extension of the gasps she was pulling in. “Yeah, I’m good now.”
Odessa nodded, her head bobbing like she was weighing Cognac’s words, fussing out what they quite meant. She let the motion die down and said, as she had earlier, “Listen—I know where we need to go.”
Cognac straightened, swallowed against her dry tongue. “Where’s that?”
Cognac almost wanted to scoff at that, if only Odessa didn’t look so intimidatingly sure of herself. She shook her head weakly. “No one knows where Lark’s Estate is, it’s one of the secrets of the royal family.”
Odessa stretched out her hand, an offering for Cognac, a link to reestablish the trust between them. Cognac stepped forward and took it, doubt still stiff in her knees.
“I’ve been there, many times,” Odessa said. “I’m the academy messenger. It’s northwest of here, very deep into the wood, and if we can keep good pace and continue through the night, we can make it there before tomorrow.”
Cognac gulped with a bit of difficulty, her mouth dry and heavy from vomit, and she held Odessa’s hand tightly. She was wound with fear even still, the taste of bile on her tongue a sweet sting that pierced through her. She had no faith they would make it such a distance. She saw, over and over again, the arrowhead break through that woman’s esophagus, rooted in her skin to the hilt, the tip a shining ruby against the noon sun. Her legs were weak with the idea that the cover of Loneman’s Wood did nothing to truly hide them.
“I could never run for so long,” she finally said, her cracked voice uneven from the force of her graphic memory. “Even if I had the stamina, the moment someone sees us we have died a second death.”
Odessa tugged her forward, made her keep pace. “What do you mean, second,” she asked plainly, looking pointedly toward their destination, as far off as it was. “We’re alive. We’re surviving.”
Tears began to drip openly down Cognac’s cheeks. “I died back there, with that woman,” she mumbled, roughly smearing her tears away. “We all did. I’m no longer Cognac, first bell ringer of Lark’s Academy for Girls. I’m not anyone anymore.”
Odessa stopped and looked at her with stern pity at first, a frightening expression that looked frozen off to the world, pinched and critical. And then she withered. Her mouth drooped from the tight line it had been drawn in, and her gaze fogged, her eyebrows sliding desolately against her smooth forehead. She looked away from Cognac and quietly pulled her forward. “We’ll find somewhere to sleep tonight, after we’ve made it halfway, and then when the sun rises, we will walk the other half. I assure you, we will make it.”
Cognac didn’t argue. She didn’t have the energy to argue. She just followed sullenly, her heartstrings taught with worry.
Night fell over them as the bubbling trickle of a creek became easier and easier to hear, and after hours of pained silence, Odessa spoke up to tell Cognac that they would rest here. They drank greedily from the clear water, which cut into the earth only a foot deep, but as many as ten meters wide. It was cold, and fresh, and Cognac took a handful of it to her face to scrub at her skin after her dry thirst was sated. Odessa did the same, and ran her wet fingers through her dark hair, pulling it back like a ponytail before dropping it, soggy, against her neck. The strands clung to each other in gleaming chunks, drooping in the space above her shoulders.
“We need to find a spot that we will be hidden, before it gets too dark for us to see,” Odessa said softly.
Cognac nodded, wringing her hands in her lap, slowly. They were sitting a few feet apart, cross legged in the dirt, and the distance between them was like a bridge of ice. They were alone, out here. It was just the two of them. Instinctively, Cognac wanted to grip Odessa’s fingers, to feel that even alone, they were alone together. It was frightening, to not have that tactical reminder. She wondered if Odessa, so stern and tight lipped, felt the same kind of fear that she did.
When she stood again, Cognac let out a sigh against the strain of her muscles, and Odessa gave her a sudden look of concern. It was a jarringly soft expression on her face.
“I forgot you’re probably not used to so much strain,” she murmured. She looked for a moment like she wanted to reach out to Cognac, but she didn’t have it in her to close the distance. She bristled a little, her brow furrowing back up, and rolled her shoulders idly. “We should take some time to stretch our bodies.”
She began immediately to lead her in simple stretches. The pull on Cognac’s muscle was dull and far away. It felt like the days she had had cleaning duties and would run across floors with a bucket and rag until her legs gave out. Odessa pushed her hands flat against the ground, her body bent over in two. It was almost like a performance. Cognac had to strain to catch her ankles. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised by it, by that contrast between them. They sat down and made a diamond between them, their legs straight and the block heels of their school shoes slotted together. The harsh and long stretch of tendons wasn’t pleasant, but Odessa’s hands were warm as she leaned back and forced Cognac forward, their fingers rings against each other’s wrists.
They slept under the arms of a giant pine tree, its lowest branches sweeping out far and low enough to cover their bodies. While they had tried to brush the needles from the ground, the dirt was still unforgiving, full of rocks and nettles, stiff as the earth ought to be. The cover was nice, though. It felt safe under the splayed fingers of the tree. Autumn was beginning its descent, and so the night was cold, and the two girls had nothing but their skirts to lie under. They pressed their bodies delicately against each other and folded their arms into their shirts, and they shivered through the night.
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