Water and Gold
Ash awoke with a pounding in his head and something wet on his backside. He slowly opened his eyes to see only blackness around him. The smell of dirt and decaying leaves surrounded him. He sat up and felt hard, damp earth beneath him. He rubbed the back of his head to check for injuries, luckily, he seemed to be alright. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark and he couldn’t see much around him no matter how hard he stared into the dark. From the echoing of some water dripping, the hole sounded much larger than it appeared to be. Ash knelt down and dug into his hunting pack that he thankfully managed to not lose. Inside he pulled out his flint and steel set and gathered some dried leaves and twigs from around his feet and fastened himself a small torch. After some time, light was flooding the inside of a cave, dancing delicately across the walls. As Ash walked around, the pads on his paws made a light pat with each step he took. Along the cave walls were strange red markings Ash didn’t recognize. They looked like they had been painted on year ago. There were some old broken pots, play things, and other oddities Ash had never seen before. He wondered who would have lived down here, and why. He went back to the markings on the wall and tried to decipher them, but it was in a language completely unknown to him, he had never seen anything like it. But there was no time to figure this out now, he had to try to rescue Tala, if it wasn’t already too late. He headed for the opening in the ground above him from where he fell in, but before he started to climb, some more markings on the wall caught his eye. He recognized some of them; he could read some of these words. He wasn’t exactly sure, but his best guess was something he must have learned as a child, maybe when he was still in school, when he was Tala’s age. He leaned in closer and lifted the torch to the wall. Light bounced across the wall and its markings
“…A burning era will begin and…thriving will die by the hand...” Ash whispered quietly to himself. He couldn’t make out anything else, and after this bit, giving him the chills, he wasn’t sure he wanted to read the rest. He turned away and put the torch in his teeth and climbed up the stone wall, leaving the forgotten cave behind.
Outside in the cool night air, everything was still and quiet. All the animals were asleep and even the wind seemed to be sleeping because all around him was silence. Ash started backtracking towards his village and when he got there, the fears all boiled up in him again and anxiety rushed through him. Suddenly, he was alert and tense. The tall fence that surrounded his village, to keep the people in served no purpose anymore, there was no one left. He needed to find Tala, he needed to rescue her and he would die trying if he must. Ash stopped by his old home to prepare a better pack for a long journey; Sunrise was days away and he wanted to be more equipped. When he was set to go, he took one last look around at Tala’s play things and tears were fighting again in his eyes. He looked over to a ring of flowers and grass that made a crown and he remembered how in the spring Tala made one for him and how he refused to wear it, now he’d give anything for her to make him a crown of flowers, and oh, how he would walk around so proud with it upon his head. On the floor lay a small blue ribbon, one Tala often wore in her hair or around her wrist. She called it her Wish Ribbon and she had told Ash that someday, she would tie it onto the Wish Tree so that all her deepest wishes would come true. Ash picked up the delicate ribbon and held it close to his heart and he could hear her voice clear in his mind as if it were just earlier this morning they were sitting out in the grassy hill just on the outskirts of their village.
Ash sat with his back against the fence, watching his little sister play in the field of white and yellow flowers. She gathered them up and made a bouquet. She brought them to Ash who smiled at his sister,
“They’re beautiful.” He said and she smiled, pleased that her brother was approving. She pulled out a small blue ribbon she had in her pocket and wrapped it around the stems of the flowers, but it kept falling because she didn’t know how to make a bow yet.
“Ash, it won’t stay.” She said, confused at her error. Ash lead up and reached his hand out,
“Here, let me show you.” He said and she handed him the ribbon. She watched him tie it around the stems,
“The rabbit goes over then under and around and through.” Ash said slowly as he showed Tala how to tie. When he completely the bow Tala got excited,
“Let me try!” she said and Ash undid the bow. She brought the ribbon around and around the stem and crossed the two ends but it fell and Tala was sad,
“What is it little wolf?” he asked,
“I’ll never be able to do it like you. I’m no good.” She said and tears formed in the corner of her eyes. Ash set the ribbon and flowers down and placed his hand gently under her chin to get her to look him in the eye.
“Never say you’re never any good. You are Tala, my little wolf and the most beautiful and smart and fun of all the little wolves in the world! There is no one like you. You are special and wonderful, some things just take practice and eventually you’ll get it.” He said and Tala gave a small smile.
“Now, want to try again?” he asked and she nodded. Ash had brought Tala to sit in front of him and he reached his arms around her to tie the bow around her flowers. After he had shown her a second time, she was ready to try again. This time he guided her with the rhyme and she completely the bow.
“I did it! Look Ash! I made a bow like you!” she squealed with accomplishment.
“Good job, little wolf!” He said proudly and she hugged him,
“You know what?” She said when she pulled away from him and admired her bow around her flowers,
“What?” Ash asked, leaning back on the fence.
“I think that this is a perfect ribbon for my wish ribbon.” She said with a smile,
“What is a wish ribbon?” Ash asked,
“Emilie from school told me about them. It’s a special ribbon that you make a wish on and then you tie it to a wishing tree so your wish will come true.”
“What’s a wishing tree?” Ash asked, genuinely curious.
“It’s a tree that’s covered in all sorts of different colored ribbons that other people put there for their wises.”
“Where can you find one of these trees?”
“I don’t know, but maybe when I’m older, I’ll learn about it in school, or a traveler will come and tell us about one. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, Ash? A tree that can grant your wish?” there was so much enthusiasm and excitement in her voice.
“That would be really wonderful, little wolf. I tell you what, if I ever find a wishing tree, I will take you there so you can tie the ribbon onto the tree.”
“Really?” Tala jumped and looked at him and Ash nodded.
“You’re the best!” She jumped into a hug and wrapped her arms tight around his neck and he hugged her back.
“I will save you, Little Wolf.” He whispered into the cold empty room and then he turned away from his home and left it too behind him.
Out on the road it was quiet and dark, Ash’s torch was long gone at this point, if the Guard came this way, they would capture him or worse, kill him. He was better left in the dark, shadowing himself in the night. It felt like he had walked a long time and he was starting to worry that maybe he had taken the wrong road, but then he saw a sign at a fork and ran up to read,
“Land Nation” with an arrow pointing north and “Sunrise City” with an arrow pointing west and he knew he was on the right track. It had been a long time since he had traveled to Sunrise. As he walked he remembered when he was just a pup and he was traveling with his father to Sunrise for a business trip. Ash’s mother was left at home because she was with child and unable to make the long trip, so while Ash’s aunt was taking care of his mother, he went with his father to learn their trade. He learned how to farm the land already, and now he was learning how to sell their crops to Sunrise City traders for other things they needed back at home. Ash’s father explained to him,
“You see, son. We grow the ground foods, like corn and pumpkins and carrots, but the people in Sunrise don’t have the room or the land to go these things, so we trade our ground foods for something that we don’t have in our village, like meat and fabric and materials for clothing.
“Why don’t we just make our own meat and fabric at home?” the young Ash wondered. He didn’t understand why someone should have to travel so far just for meat.
“Because that’s how the trade works. We don’t have the license to keep our own meat or make our own fabric.” His dad explained. Ash was still confused,
“What is a lie-sense” Ash asked,
“A license is a special paper that lets you do something. Like our village has the license for growing the ground foods as long as we sell them to Sunrise City.”
“Do all villages have a lie-sense?” Ash was amazed at how complicated the outside world was. He would have never guessed that there were so many rules and things to remember outside of his village.
“Yes, they do, and they’re all different. Like the villages in the south have licenses for fishing and selling their catch.”
“What is a fishing?” Ash’s questions just kept coming and he felt like there could never be enough answers in the world for all the questions he had. Ash’s father laughed lightheartedly,
“You’ll learn all of this and more, my son, in time.”
Ash was pulled back into reality when he walked by what looked like what was left of a camp from the previous night. It had to have been the Guards from his village. Finally, the sun began to dawn and it almost seemed as if all of the plants around him woke up with it. The tree limbs seemed to shift and all the leaves swayed and fluttered as if searching for the sun for another day of promised life. What felt like a lifetime later, Ash could see the trees breaking up and becoming more separated in the distance. When he reached the opening, he stood at the beginning of a large clearing of hills and grasslands that stretched for miles and miles. After walking down the small dirt road through the tall grass and over the hills, Ash reached the top of a hill and overlooked the gates of Sunrise City. The Guard was nowhere to be seen, which meant they must have made it back to the city already. There was no chance of him being able to just knock on the door and ask for his sister back. Surely they would capture him as well, if they even let him live. He was helpless on his own, he needed help. Ash sat atop the grassy hill next to a log and thought about where he could get help, and the only place he could think of to ask was the Land nations’ Elder, in Thorn Burrow. Unfortunately, Thorn Burrow was at least eight days away, if not nine; Tala might not even be alive by then. But it was all Ash could think of, and he had to try. While he sat and rested, he ate a quick lunch of something he packed, some berries and nuts he gathered from past the limits. After he finished, he stood up and went about his journey. He backtracked to the fork in the road and this time took the path to the north and it occurred to him that he had never been this way before. He had traveled to Sunrise City only a handful of times throughout his life, but they were never allowed anywhere else, never anywhere off of their trade route, so Ash never even considered taking this path until today. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, it to be lined with the Guard or men patrolling the pathway to keep him from his destination, to tell him that he was out of his territory and to either kill him or arrest him, but none of this happened. The walk was quiet and peaceful, nothing of interest happened and Ash grew restless. By the first days end, he was hungry again, and was out of berries and nuts. He needed real food. He needed meat. He only had a single arrow left and was saving it in case he needed to defend himself. He could make a trap, but that seemed to take too long, he was so hungry now, so his hunger got the best of him and he decided it was worth the potential loss of his arrow. He found himself a rabbit and his arrow survived the kill, it was just a little bloody. Ash made camp far from the trail and made a small fire to cook his catch. After he ate he put out the fire, from fear someone might see the light or smell the smoke and sought him out. He still wasn’t tired and decided it might be wise to make some more arrows with his time. By morning, he had a whole quiver full of arrows and felt much more at ease knowing he could protect himself much better than before. He set off again and so his journey continued.
Days later, Ash came to another fork in the road, one arrow pointing north that read, “Hazelden” and another arrow pointing east that read, “Thorn Burrow”. Ash had never heard of Stone Hills before, and he wondered what they might be like. He continued on the path for Thorn Burrow. Ash’s supply of water was getting very low despite him trying to make it last. He wondered if he could make the rest of the trip with the little he had. Food was easy to find, but water was a completely different matter. He thought there would have been more streams along this path, but so far, he had no such luck finding anything. The next day he had crouched into the bushes and trees off of the pathway. A carriage had broken down on its way to Sunrise City and two men from the Guard were fixing the wheel. The carriage seemed to shine with pure gold and gems, Ash wrinkled his nose at the sight of it. It was more looks than function, which was real necessary for a carriage that was to take you traveling places. Ash waited and overheard one of the guardsmen say that they would need a log to hold up the carriage as they fixed the wheel.
“Then go find one.” The other spat.
“I’m not going out there alone.” Said the other, obviously too afraid to go into the wilderness alone.
“Don’t be such a baby, just go get the thing so we can be on our way.” The argued for a moment longer and finally the one gave in and went with the other to find a proper log. Ash thought now was his chance to slip by. As he slowly and quietly made his way closer to the carriage, he saw a large water pouch hanging from one of the horses pulling the carriage. He eyed it and thought he could take it and no one would ever know. It’s not like the Guard really needed it, they had horses and probably a whole bunch of extra supplies in the carriage itself. He darted around to the horse and it gave a soft whine,
“Shh, it’s okay there buddy.” Ash said soothingly and pet the horse who had calmed down almost immediately. Ash unhooked the water pouch from the leather strap that tied it and before he could make off with it, a voice came from behind him.
“What do you think you are doing?” he turned around to see a girl about his age dressed in a long flowing white dress and a pastel blue cloak with gold trimming at the end. She stood in front of him, her long gazelle antlers stretched to the sky and crossed her arms. Ash was stunned, why didn’t he think someone would be in the carriage? He could run, he should run, but then it was too late. This girl was calling for her guards to come to her and in an instant, they were there. Ash couldn’t outrun them; he was already so tired from the traveling over the last couple days so he did the only thing he could think of. He drew his bow and pulled an arrow from the quiver, and within the span of a few seconds, he had lodged a single arrow in one of the guards and two in the other and both fell to the ground, dead. The gazelle girl stood there staring at Ash in complete horror, shock and fear was overtaking her. Ash knew because not only could he see it, he could smell it.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” He said and returned his bow to his back. Ash stepped closer to her and the girl took a big step back,
“Stay away from me!” she shrieked. Ash leaned down and picked up the water pouch and stood upright again, never taking his eye off of her.
“This is all I wanted. I never wanted to kill anyone.” Ash said and he looked at the two dead bodies on the ground and he felt as though he should feel bad, but he didn’t. When he saw them laying there, he only felt proud. Now there were two less Guards in the world and two less to destroy homes and families; the world was better off. Ash had never thought someone could ever make him so angry and vengeful, but after they took Tala, that changed everything he thought he knew. Ash took another look at the girl who still stood like stone in fear, staring at him with wide golden eyes. He tucked the water pouch into his pack and turned to leave her.
“You’re not going to kill me?” She asked, fear still in her voice.
“No, like I said, I never wanted to kill anyone.” Ash replied without turning to face her or stopping his pace of walking. There was a pause and then he heard the girl cry,
“You can’t just leave me here!” Ash ignored her.
“Please, at least take me with you!” she begged and he could hear her footsteps behind him and Ash kept walking.
“If you leave me here alone I will die. And that’s just the same as you putting an arrow in my heart.” This made Ash stop but he still didn’t turn and face her, her footsteps stopped as well.
“Look, take me back home to Sunrise and I promise you all the food and water you wish for.” She said and Ash thought of this, though food and water would hardly be worth it, maybe something else would,
“Take you back?” he said slowly still without turning,
“Yes, take me back and you will be rewarded.” She said so certainly.
“How do you know this?” Ash could only think of how he would be arrested or killed for entering Sunrise, how could she possibly grant him freedom from either of those fates?
“Because I am Gazania, princess of Sunrise.” She said in a sort of way as though she practiced saying it over and over again, it felt dry and bland, but if it was true, if she truly was the princess of Sunrise, she could promise him freedom, and probably more. Ash turned to look at her,
“How do I know you’re not lying?” he asked, starting to circle her.
“My tiara is in the carriage, I can show you—“ she began but Ash cut her off,
“I think I need more proof than just some silly crown.” Even though Ash knew there probably wasn’t any real proof she could present him with that would make him believe her completely.
“What were you doing in Thorn Burrow?” Ash asked, now curious about what business a princess had with a small element village.
“That is none of your concern.” She said firmly.
“Oh no?” he said, looking at her and raising an eyebrow.
“Isn’t it though? The way I see it, you’re life is in my hands, and though I never wanted to kill anyone, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash to do it again if I sense that you may betray me. So, princess,” he said incredulously.
“Start proving to me who you say you are as if your life depends on it…Because it does very much.” She stared at him at first what looked like a glare, but quickly turned into fear again. She knew she had no other choice.
“I wasn’t in Thorn Burrow, I was coming back home from Brezland” Ash had never heard of that place,
“And what were you doing there?” Ash asked,
“Training.” Gazania said flatly.
“Training? For what?”
“Royalty training.” She sighed
“Why couldn’t you just do that in Sunrise?” Ash asked, more confused and he could see Gazania was losing her patience with these questions.
“Never mind, so how can you prove to me that you really are the princess?” he asked and for a moment she didn’t reply.
“I have nothing. I have my tiara and gold in my carriage, but that is all I have to show you. I really am the princess though, and if you just take me home, you will be the guest of honor at a glorious feast.” Ash couldn’t tell if she was trying to bribe him, or if this was simply the only tactic she knew. He looked into her eyes and they seemed sincere, and he sighed. If he took her back, he wouldn’t need to go to Thorn Burrow at all; instead he could go to Sunrise and trade the princess for his sister and their freedom.
“What about the guards?” he said, eyeing the two dead men on the ground.
“I won’t tell, just promise to take me back and I give you my oath.” She said with desperation in her voice. He still wasn’t sure if he could completely trust her, but if Tala was really in trouble, and if she was still alive, this might be his best and quickest bet. There still was no guarantee that the Land Elder would agree to help him. He thought over it all once again in silence and finally made up his mind. Yes, trading the princess for his sister was the best and quickest option.
“Alright.” He said slowly.
“Alright?” Gazania repeated,
“I will take you back if you swear to me I will be allowed my freedom.”
“Done.” She said without hesitation.
“And,” he started,
“And?” she asked, looking at him through slit eyes,
“I need you to swear on your life, that I can have my sister back from the Guard.” Ash closed his eyes and thought of where Tala might be and he put his hand in his pocket and felt the soft ribbon in his fingers.
“The Guard took your sister?” Gazania asked, honestly sounding concerned. Ash opened his eyes again and looked at her, “Yes. Promise me that her and I will be granted freedom and I will take you home.” He said sternly, staring at her and his eyes not leaving hers as she stood up straight and agreed.