Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part XXIII

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the twenty-third part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen, Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty, Twenty-One and Twenty-Two. Updates every two days, barring minor mishaps.

The ride to Heltria was five days and six nights. Anne had the best of it - she was, after all, sitting in the back of the cart, surrounded by bushels and bushels of berries. But despite her comfort, and despite her prime position to skim as much from the bulging baskets as possible, she found it more or less impossible to settle down.

"Feeling restless, girl?" came Uncle Matt's voice from the driver's perch. "Should we stop?"

"No," said Anne, shaking her head. That was all.

It was the most dispassionate question she had ever heard, apart from the last two things Uncle Matt had asked. After the perfunctory answers about Heltria - yes, it was the largest city in this part of Raglia, no, it didn't reach to the sky, yes, it was incredibly close to the farm - he had sunk into a deep distant silence, like a statue toppled over the brink of some far chasm.

Anne didn't even try to stir him. She knew exactly what he was thinking about.

He was thinking about her lie. What she'd said about Aunt Mattie. The real one, not her o...

She stood up in her little cul-de-sac, leaned carefully over the first five baskets, rubbed her eyes violently, and stared at the light through the trees. It was still reasonably pristine in this part of the Trevale Woods, but the cart-tracks had cut a swathe through the undergrowth, forming a rudimentary road of sorts. It was safe here. The King's Peace protected this wood, fed by the prayers at the All-Shrine, his powers given to him by the will of all the gods. It was this power that made Raglia the greatest kingdom in the world.

"Do you come this way often, Uncle Matt?"

"Every month."

"Even with your magic?" smiled Anne.

There was no response to this, and after several moments she began to regret asking. She sat back down and bunched her sore haunches to her oily face. It was hard to imagine that there was sorcery in her veins still, half Necristo's power. In this world, she was as good as a milk-sodden book.

They said that brigands simply vanished here, and that witches shriveled and died, choked by the very leaves. There was a new pallor, suddenly, to the brightness of the trees.

#####

Despite what everyone called them, the main export of the Gentilberry farm was not, in fact, gentilberries. In fact, there was no such thing as a gentilberry. They were wynberries, picker's delight, and they bordered on the edges of yellow and orange, like tiny perfect peaches without the fuzz. The skin of each was pert and smooth and bright as a star.

Anne had never really stopped to consider the taste, but now that she thought of it, magic probably really was involved. She couldn't actually recall anything quite as sweet as a homegrown wynberry, with that light spring-water sparkle and sharp clean mouthfeel. She supposed it was part of her by now.

"There's nothing but the usual on here," said Uncle Matt, hidden in the darkness of the early morning. "You were standing guard the last time I came. You know me."

"Nothing for it," said the guard. "All goods off the cart, and your girl too."

"I'm already a day behind schedule," said Uncle Matt, quietly, a slack but unmistakable thread of energy in his voice. "If we have to load and unload, we'll miss our spot for sure. It's chaos out there in the market, and you know it."

He gestured at the long line of carts and steeds ahead of them. Behind them, a disgruntled muttering rose like the buzzing of flies, punctuated with champing, wickering and the stamp of restless hooves.

Anne looked around, suddenly more nervous than she had any right to be. If they missed their chance to sell, and the berries went bad, then the whole clan's labor would be in vain. Even Ma and Da, who handled animals and not the berries specifically, depended in a very real way on the gold that Uncle Matt fetched in Heltria.

"Isn't there anything I can do, Mr. Soldier?" she said. "I mean..."

On a whim, she reached out with her power. His power. The basic elements of this world, it was true, were completely beyond her control, but she could feel something just like soulstuff inside of him. Thoughts and dreams like mother-of-pearl, an iridescent sheen buried in dull lifeless gray...

"I know you're kind," she said. "You have sympathy for the plight of us poor farmers, don't you? Slaving away in the sun all day, just like your old Pa..."

It was a complete fabrication on her part, but when she laid her gaze on his, willing her will through his furrowed brow and dull scratched helmet, she saw the puzzled eyes break into the light of understanding.

"Yes," he said. "I'm sorry for holding you up, sir. And you, young Miss. You're terribly kind. Whoever has you for a husband will be the luckiest man in the world, if I do say so myself."

"You're too kind," smiled Anne.

Without a hint of ceremony, Uncle Matt nudged the horses into motion once more. They moved back into the middle of the line, the farmers behind them gawking in disbelief.

"How did you do that?" he asked.

"Do what?" asked Anne, innocently. "He seemed like he was from farming stock is all. Did you see his hands?"

"No," said Uncle Matt, "and neither did you. He was wearing gauntlets."

"Oh," said Anne, feeling decidedly less innocent. It was a strange feeling, being caught out again. It felt like something she should have expected, something that she should have been even more ashamed of. But she felt better instead of worse.

That was when Uncle Matt turned and fixed her with a straight, eagle-eyed stare.

"So, tell me. When are you going to make a run for it?”

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