I get up and extinguish the fire with a bucket of water before spreading the ashes with my foot. I put away the small traveling cooking pot with the leftovers. No matter how much I miss the thrill, what I truly want is to see Leomi.
Yet, my hands and knees are shaking. Some of it is from fatigue but it is mostly out of fear for encountering her as Jessica. She’s regretted us so much, there is a chance she’ll refuse me for some asinine reason like protecting me.
Not to mention all I’ve done to her as Elizabeth. If she does, it means she doesn‘t love us as much as we do her. I startle at the scary thought, swearing under my breath for frightening myself.
I draw my hunting knife and flick it around in a backhanded grip before reversing it again. I’m far from as strong, or as hardy, as I was but I still have my experience and just enough flow for a couple non-lethal lightning constructs in case I run into trouble.
I would wait for a week to gather a decent amount of energy before going out, but the fact is that I don’t have the patience to wait. I need to go and find her or I won’t be able to settle down.
Sheathing my knife, I ponder about where she could have gone once she encountered the small pile of rocks covered in snow on the road. Logically, she would have followed the road all the way back to Buton’s dungeon since it’s in that general direction.
But there’s no need to go there since she would have long reached it and realized Elizabeth wasn’t there and so went searching somewhere else. Whether she went there or not, Leomi would have definitely thought of the Rykz tunnel.
If that’s the case, I should be able to find fresh tracks in the snow. I hesitate for a moment, knowing that there is still some debris to clear out of the house. I decide to clean it all up first before heading out at double pace towards the two fields where it’s located.
It takes a while to find the general area since my memory isn’t very clear but I do find the large rock and the hole in the vegetation that Leomi’s group cleared to reveal the entrance.
The most surprising thing is that the tunnel still seems intact from a distance. I expected that she would have collapsed it. As I approach, I find horse tracks coming from the village, revealing that she went straight here after encountering the kids’ roadblock.
She tied the horse a distance away and then went on foot inside the tunnel, clearly still wearing her plate boots. There is also a set of tracks coming back from the tunnel. It’s odd to me that she’s wearing that kind of heavy armor, why would she? At the same time, who else could it be?
Vikiana couldn’t have returned yet and plate armors are rare. I suppose it could be a Templar that took a ship to Meria since the Izla’s Order had their armors taken but whoever it could be in that case would not be alone or take the road to my house for no reason.
No, it’s Leomi, there is no doubt about it. I walk into the tunnel with a tiny fire construct, knowing that it wouldn’t be wise to jog even if I’m getting impatient since I don’t have the endurance.
My heart is quivering from lingering fear, the memory of the ambush is fresh in my mind even though I understand drones much better now and have a lot more confidence.
After progressing in the dark tunnel for a good hour, finding the occasional boot marks on the ground, I encounter a crumbled section. I add more energy into the fire construct, exposing the fact that the earth blocking the way is much clearer in color than that of the walls.
This collapse is fresh, it happened a week ago at the latest. This isn’t anywhere near the first intersection, if Leomi’s goal was only to collapse the tunnel, she would have done so at the entrance.
I can’t think of any logical reason for Leomi to have progressed to this point if she wasn’t looking for something. Which means that she found it here, otherwise she would have kept going and destroyed the intersection or turned around.
Leomi could have been in a hurry and decided not to waste the days it takes to reach the intersection. An hour of walking is far too short a time for her to lost patience, no, she found something.
I sit down and ponder. Of all the things Leomi told me, the one that fits here is the fact that the entire skirmish from the time we entered the tunnel to when we were captured was plotted by the Rykz.
There is no doubt that Celyz wanted to capture us, meaning that this position is likely to be the crux of the entire trap. I reach into my memories for just after the ambush, when we tried to escape the tunnels.
We stopped at the intersection to rest, and to figure out where the pursuing drones would come from to pick a different tunnel I assume. We heard Rykz coming from this tunnel here, cutting off our retreat.
It’s unlikely that Celyz would have put a patrol of drones outside in the fields because they could have been spotted by anyone and alerted the Izla to their presence.
That means that what Leomi found here is a hidden passage that the Rykz used to cut off our retreat as soon as we progressed far enough in the tunnels that we wouldn’t be able to hear them digging into the tunnel behind us.
So, we were trapped long before we were ambushed, we simply weren’t aware. I sigh, not surprised in the least about the discovery. Leomi has found one more piece of evidence to bolster her resentment towards the Rykz.
Perhaps more so than what happened to Vikiana because it concerns friends of hers who died. I turn around and leave, having no more to do here. If I hadn’t seen her tracks coming back out of the tunnel, I would have been worried about her chasing after the Rykz.
I extinguish my fire construct as I walk out of the tunnel and try to follow the winding tracks through one of the fields. She doesn’t appear to have been really controlling her mount and the terrain isn’t flat so I soon lose the trail.
I stop and throw a look around the horizon, finding no one. There are too many small hills and the vegetation demarcating the fields make it even harder to see very far.
The fact that Leomi is traveling in plate armor bothers me, it gives me a dangerous feeling about the situation. It seems like she’s hunting me, Elizabeth, not searching.
There are too many things she could blame Vil for, and few which would be unjustified considering the degree and amount of lies I told her. She could believe that Elizabeth’s constant threats towards Jessica come from a desire to silence her along with jealousy.
Leomi could also think of Elizabeth as an obstacle to her love life, to her plans, to the peace she plans to use to spread her Hospitaliers. She may also believe that Elizabeth took part in the Rykz plans to capture us.
If I was in her place, I may consider Elizabeth Vil as a threat to control or eliminate as well. With all she has to shoulder, even if she doesn’t want to, she has the responsibility to act. Perhaps the only reason she hasn’t is that she swore to me that she wouldn’t betray me.
I keep going in the general direction the tracks were going, eyes on the horizon. After a while, I spot the mill on a taller hill and realize that I’m approaching the village which means that I completely lost her tracks.
There is a small carriage in front of the entrance with a donkey attached to it, I can hear the millstones crushing grain if I pay close attention. There are already bags of flour on which means the miller has been at it all morning, and likely for a few weeks since there was no grain to process until recently.
I pause for a moment and decide to head there to ask if Ms Gabby saw someone in plate armor, no matter how unlikely it is. She’s pretty sociable and she has a superior status compared to Ms Conner in the village.
The mill is essential to the village’s survival and her husband is a baker which adds to their position. Unfortunately, Father and Mother never got along well with the villagers so it could get awkward.
Not to mention that we rarely made use of the mill because of the portion Gabby takes for herself, we preferred to process the grain ourselves since we only needed small quantities.
The worst part is that their daughter is another one I had a crush on those few years back, yet I never had the guts to come back here until now. Luckily, I heard that, of their five kids, her and two of her brothers left to establish their own households.
If I recall correctly, one of them joined the Phalanxes but I never asked which. Likely the daughter since she’s the youngest and I think that sixteen is the latest to enter one of the Phalanxes.
I try to compose a friendly expression as I make my way uphill, which makes my cheeks hurt. I grunt and give up, feeling that I would look awkward. As I approach, the double doors open and the two Hospitaliers walk out with a bag of flour on their shoulders each.
“Frank, Hale.” I salute, taking the initiative in spite of my surprise.
“Ms Jessica!” The short Frank exclaims with a surprised smile. “How are you doing today?”
“G’day.” Hale grunts, slightly guarded.
“I’m wondering if you saw anyone odd around.” I reply, avoiding the question.
“No one, apart for you.” Frank shakes his head.
The two of them drop their sacks of flour atop the others in the carriage and enter the storeroom with me, closing the door behind to block the wind despite the dust in the air. A violent draft could scatter recently crushed flour and waste a lot of grain even if the millstones are in a different room.
There are several dozen sacks of grain here and even more empty ones, representing at least a few more weeks of work yet to be done. It isn’t surprising that the two Hospitaliers are working for their pittance here since there are few families who could afford to feed two additional mouths until they manage to settle themselves.
“Those were the last two sacks, we’re heading back to the village to deliver them unless you’ve found something suspicious for us to check?” Hale speaks up.
“Nah, just rumors of bandits making me edgy.” I reply offhandedly.
“Alright.” Hale replies, throwing me a clear look of disbelief.
“You can return with us if you want Ms Jessica, and even find lodging in the village.” Frank tells me. “I’m sure everyone will feel safer with another person that has some experience fighting.” He proposes.
The way he says so makes me realize that he’s offering more for my benefit than anyone else’s. The way I acted, I can’t really blame him for trying to draw me in, he likely thinks I’m violent because I’m afraid.
“I’m fine by myself.” I grunt, shaking my head.
I head for the door at the side, very much aware that the two Hospitaliers are staying longer because they don’t trust me. I walk in the room and lock behind myself, finding Gabby Miller watching the gears with her hands on two different metal levers, the brake and the safety release in case there is an accident or there is a sudden burst of wind.
Her eldest son, Edric, is pouring grain onto the grinding millstones while watching the accumulating flour. They both throw me quick greeting nods. It’s rather baffling to me that they’re so polite, but they’ve never actually bullied me, we don’t have many relations.
Gabby a tall and large woman with a square jaw, her son looks a lot like her. They both have dark hair that looks dull because of the flour floating in the air attached to the strands. They’re both wearing thick and rough clothes.
“We’ll be done with this one in a few.” Gabby tells me, almost shouting to be heard over the grinding noise.
“I just want to ask if you saw someone odd recently, might be riding a horse? You would know if you spotted them.” I ask.
“Not that I can recall.” Edric replies loudly as he shakes his head.
“Mhm.” I sigh in disappointment.
“Grab the grease for me and stick some in the gears!” Gabby shouts over, staring over my shoulder.
I turn around, finding a pot of dark yellow grease with a large brush sticking out. I grab the hoop and bring it over to her. She briefly releases the release level to me two gears and a metallic bar that occasionally makes an ear-splitting sound as it turns.
I nod and put the pot down to grab the brush. I apply generous amounts of grease at the spots she indicated under her watchful eyes. It feels pretty good to be asked to help so abruptly, without suspicion or overbearing acceptance.
“Two loaves of bread to replace me for the afternoon.” Gabby abruptly proposes to me when Edric’s sack runs out of grain.
I hesitate because I hoped to find Leomi today, but not for long. This is an important task. I can’t decline just because I’m desperately lonely. I walk over to Gabby and take her position next to the levers.
“Deal.” I tell her.
“Hold the brake tight, the wind is rough today so be careful to control the speed.” She advises me. “Use your foot to kick the release if it gets too hard to hold.” She adds gruffly.
Gabby shifts to the side for me to take hold of the brake and makes sure I’m holding on tight before letting go. She walks over to her son to speak in his ear while pointing at a few sacks containing various sorts of grain to instruct him.
She then leaves directly without throwing me a glance, apparently not worried at all about my ability to handle it. I take my task seriously, following Edric’s hand instructions to either speed up or slow down the millstones.
Now that I think about it, this feels a little like Gabby is giving me work she could do herself to give me a hand. It annoys me a bit but I’m not so prideful that I would resent work given to me.
Especially since it isn’t easy to hold the brake and adjust the speed. It takes mental strength no to lose focus so as to react to Edric’s commands as soon as he gives them and grit to apply consistent strength to the lever.
“The Mihars left.” Edric abruptly tells me.
“Oh.” I blink, understanding instantly why Gabby took the opportunity to hire me for the afternoon.
That large family settled here when the mines closed. They must have found work at a new mine and moved there, which means that their family’s bakery is out of a worker and likely a few other posts in the village.
“What happened to you?” He asks, looking directly at my left side.
“I asked too many questions.” I respond a bit aggressively.
“Unlikely, but okay.” He comments, unconcerned with my tone.
We keep at it in silence. When the flour accumulates too much, I help him store it in a sack and then bring a new batch of grain to grind. The afternoon passes by uneventfully, the most action involves coughing from the dust in the air.
It’s rewarding work but somehow it doesn’t feel right to me, like there’s something lacking. I shake my head, aware that the thrill is what I’m looking for but not what I need.
“Couple more and we’re done.” Edric tells me.
“Okay.” I acknowledge.
I stretch my arm out to smoother my sores and help him move the last two sacks of corn over so we don’t have to pause in between. The sack of flour should be filled with these two.
Once we’re done, we move the flour over to the storeroom and leave together. We run into the two Hospitaliers bringing the carriage back for the last shipment, saluting them briefly.
“What did you do for these past months?” Edric asks curiously.
“Mostly ran away, scared for my life.” I chuckle, feeling a bit friendlier after these few hours working.
“You saw the Rykz up close?” He asks.
“I guess, didn’t you?” I question.
“We saw a few of the insects, they looked made for war and didn’t have any hands. I know there was a Rykz around but it hid and never showed up.” Edric explains.
“Hm.” I ponder his words. “If you see another, don’t call any insects. The Princesses and the drones are both Rykz.”
“Is that so?” He asks. “Aren’t they like, slaves?”
I pause, surprised once more by his insight. It’s surprising that he made a difference between Princesses and the scouts he saw, but also realized that the drones have little in the sense of free will.
“They consider themselves a single species. While there is a difference in the value their society places towards the importance of certain types of Rykz, and prioritize the survival of some, none are slaves.” I explain. “The drones themselves have instincts and emotions, they’re just very different from us.”
“Is that so?” He grunts, looking unconvinced. “So, what are you going to do?” He still asks, moving on.
“Get ready for spring, set a chicken coop and grab a few rabbits if I can.” I reply, finding the future much less engaging than I did a few days ago. “I learned a few things about flow so I also have a few projects I want to work on.”
“Really?” Edric questions, looking interested. “What kind of things?”
“Mostly hunting, for now, I think I can set a few construct traps in the forest for boars.” I reply.
“Ambitious.” He throws me an impressed look. “Dangerous also, these things are territorial.”
I shrug, not finding the project especially praiseworthy. We enter the village together and he leads me to the bakery. I wait outside despite his silent invitation, feeling like returning home.
Edric shrugs and heads inside. I hear a short discussion and then Gabby walks out with two warm, freshly baked, loaves of bread wrapped in a piece of cloth. She puts it in my hand and pats my shoulder in appreciation.
“Keep the napkin.” She tells me in a rough tone.
Her hoarse voice is likely a consequence of breathing through flour dust for the majority of her life. I give her a thankful smile and head out, feeling good about the day but rather gloomy about how different the life of a peasant is to even that of even the lesser Nobles.
The sequela we bear for our lives are harsh enough not to add onto those the fact that even the least of our achievements are considered those of our Lords and Ladies, without even the chance at being recognized because we’re taught from young that it is how the world works so few ever demand their just rewards.