In the highest room of the tallest tower in a castle far, far away, there is a girl. She sits locked away from the world, and contemplates what her next action should be.
Several weeks of tower-arrest would leave one in no doubt as to how little entertainment one's room can afford, and easily such things of delight and pleasure can become dull in almost no time at all. Several months would prove to be more of a gruelling challenge to overcome yet. Spending so much time away from company and anything that could symbolise freedom could and would drive a girl to the absolute end of her tether. Several years is almost unfathomable, and yet it has happened. There is a girl shut away from the eyes of almost every other person in the kingdom, and she has once again reached the conclusion that there are not many options available to her. Once upon a time, she had had a great many ideas that, if implemented successfully, would have opened up an even greater variety of things to do and places to go. One by one, she has watched those ideas turn into doors in her mind's eye, and slam closed. Day by day, she has sat quiet and thoughtful, helpless and pitiable to those who knew of her. Not for a single moment does she regret the past that has brought her here. Yes, she wants so desperately for entertainment, but speaking her mind freely still seems a small price to pay, and it is not to say she has been deprived of things to do. She has asked for things, and been brought books, and many other things. She requested especially a pair of needles and enough thread to create more garments than she will ever be interested in wearing. Scarf upon purple scarf litter this elevated prison, and she has never donned a single one.
She has not always been kept in such a fashion. There was a time where she too could walk freely, could leave her room unattended and do as she pleased. Those who now stood watch that had known her before her imprisonment would be unable to note much of a change outside of the obvious physical appearance. Even as a child, she had been quiet and calculating, with eyes too sharp for comfort, and a tongue to match. Her hair was now cut short, and she was taller than she had been, and quietly the men that guarded her door remarked that she was going to be a fierce woman no matter what. Quieter still, they feared her. A child unafraid to speak her mind when she knew the consequences was one most would have no dealings with, and seeing her mind remain entirely unchanged for years led them to believe that they were better off out of her way. They were most likely correct. While there would always be a price to pay for highlighting various truths that others would remain hidden, she felt it was one easier paid than keeping one's lips shut for a lifetime and seeing the world crumble around her. At least in this room the decline of her mother's good decisions were less obvious.
Her train of thought is broken by a knock at the door. She looks quickly to the skies outside her window, and notes that the sun is high above the land. It is lunchtime, and she is almost ready to carry her plan out.
"Enter," she answers, and the door is pushed open immediately. One of the men that wait outside her door day and night enters the room bearing a tray of food, and sets it on the table. He hovers for a moment before she turns her gaze on him and nods in dismissal; he salutes and leaves. The guards are nothing but polite to her, but they do not waste time with her. She is thankful for this – were she to engage in too much chatter with them, it is entirely likely the Queen would have them dismissed instantly, and she would not have a man relinquished from his job for the minor crime of idle banter. Her feelings have no sway over the situation as it is; her majesty has already warned those assigned to this role not to become charmed by her daughter's serpent tongue, and there are a great number of rumours that flit about the castle without even her presence to fuel them. None say anything positive, and liken her to a charmer, a spinner of words who uses them to her advantage, who was luckily trapped by the Queen before she had a chance to mature and use her skills for the worse of the kingdom. She gives them no mind.
There is a note set upon the tray, and she holds back a sigh as she reads it. Expect her majesty once you've eaten. She pushes it to one side, reluctantly accepting the information, and eyes the rest of the tray. Her stomach growls, and then she is devouring what has been offered with none of the grace that befits a princess. She has never been underfed, though early in her imprisonment she refused food in a childish display of defiance. She knows much better now, and the idea of facing the one who has forbidden her to leave on a full belly appeals much more than an empty one. Once she is finished, she takes what is left and hides it under a sheet of material. It is nothing extravagant:
two rolls of bread and a leg of chicken, but it is better than nothing, and it is necessary for what she plans. The food hidden, she crosses to the basin and takes care to wash the grease from her face. She would prefer that the frosty reception that awaits her not have a reason to look at her with a critical eye.
Her visitor is not announced with a knock, but she is ready and waiting nonetheless. The Queen sweeps in unaccompanied, and the prisoner averts her eyes so as not to catch the woman's gaze. For all of her sharp wit, she would rather not cross figurative blades with the authority. It is far too much trouble, however tempting it might be. She keeps her head bowed and hands folded, and the older woman stands tall and displeased.
"Will you not greet me, Rose?" she asks, and there is no love in her command. That suits the girl just fine. She is used to being spoken to in such a manner.
"Good afternoon, your majesty."
Silence engulfs the room once more, and not for the first time, she wishes that her mother would stop pretending to care and keep to her business elsewhere. Neither of them want to see each other; there is no point in continuing this charade.
"Are you well? Do you want for anything?"
For you to leave, Rose thinks, but holds her tongue in check. It will do her no favours to anger the Queen. Instead she bobs - the shallowest curtsey she can get away with - and speaks: "I am in as good health as I ever was, and wish for nothing."
"No more books? You have amassed quite the collection- though I rather expected you to immerse yourself in different titles."
She gestures at some of the books that sit on the nearby table, all of which have large titles printed to their spines. They are all fairy tales, and all have the same theme. A princess, locked in a tower, or the victim of some other nefarious plot, awaiting rescue from her knight in shining armour. Rose despises them, but had discovered early on that she was forbidden from requesting grimoires and other tomes of considerably darker content than children's stories. She made do with what she
had, and had learnt from them.
Fact: the one in distress is probably much more likely to find her happy ending if she ceases feeling sorry for herself at once and does something about her situation, rather than rely on the appearance of a prince (who for all she knows might not even turn up).
"They've grown on me," she lies, and still cannot bring herself to meet her elder's eyes. She does not get a reply, and the Queen moves to better inspect the titles. Rose can name the books on the table without needing to look at them or their order - Sleeping Beauty; The Snow Queen; The Frog Prince; Troll Jack and the Beanstalk; Snow White - and knows also the titles of the other books stacked about her room. The Queen stops as she gets further down the pile, and Rose fancies she arches one brow in amusement.
"A troll tale? I did not realise they produced stories as well. Are they not the figures we see in the books? Why, then, do they need their own tales?"
"Documentation. Their stories must be factual accounts of their history. I see those more as truth than the fictional events that our own stories are."
There is silence between the two of them once more, and if such a thing could happen, the girl would swear the air felt heavier. She does not add that the troll's tales are, while fanciful in places, not entirely over-exaggerated. Rose was quick to learn that fairy tales that originated from troll culture were always much more violent than the humans' own peaceful stories. She much preferred reading about children becoming sick of enslavement and murdering their captor to a girl who found love after losing a shoe. Not only was it more satisfying, it was much more feasible, and was all grounded in truth. It gave her hope for the future.
"I suppose if you are learning, there can be nothing bad about them."
Rose almost laughs at that, and must bite her cheek to keep herself composed. How little her mother knows - and how shameful that is. Trolls were a strange race, different in appearance and soul, but that was no reason not to learn about them. From a few scant books, she had picked up so much: that their race followed a blood-caste; that they were violent creatures; that they felt emotions just as humans did and exercised them just as freely; that they loved in a multitude of ways. She knew
that there were those who idolised them for their appearance, though she had never understood the desire to be horned, personally, and there were others who thought them beautiful. There was a certain elegance to a race that had no one set body type, she supposed: there were trolls with limbs like humans, and others that had adapted to their environment as the years had passed. If, a lifetime ago, Rose had drawn herself with a fish's tail instead of legs after seeing one of those strange creatures grin and wave at her from the sea, she would not admit to it now.
She has also learned how to break a man's neck from those tales, but thinks the Queen's mind would be much calmer without that knowledge. She bobs again.
"You are sure you do not wish for anything else?"
"Quite. I am entirely capable of making entertainment for myself with the things that I have around me. I am used to doing so by now."
She cannot help the venom that is injected into her words: it seems that no matter how level-headed one is, there are things that will get under one's skin. She shuts her mouth again and feels a muscle jump in her jaw. The air becomes heavier with resentment, and the Queen lets it sit coolly about them. No doubt she knows that it is Rose who suffers the most of the two of them. No doubt she lets these pauses drag out to see if she squirms, to try and get some kind of reaction against her, and thus claim victory. Rose has never backed down, and now she lifts her gaze to meet the other's. They stare at each other, expressionless, neither any the wiser as to what truly goes on in the other's head - though they both think they have a good idea - until the Queen blinks, and turns to leave.
"Good day to you, then," she says, and then she is gone, all sweeping gown and straight back disappearing behind a heavy wooden door that clicks shut and locked. The girl lets loose a breath she did not fully realise she was holding, and refuses to note that her hands tremble. There are more important things to focus on rather than the inability to control herself: lunch has been served and taken away again, and the Queen has bore down upon her. There are few hours left in the day before the guards bring supper to her tower. It is time for her to leave.
She moves purposefully, sharp and determined, with none of the slow grace that she has practised for months in order to please others and appear as less of a threat. Rose has never intended to stay cooped up. Though she might not have known when she would leave, it was always something that played at the back of her mind. While even the other doors in her mind shut, there was one that had constantly remained open. It had always been her last resort: if the Queen did not change her mind and free her willingly, then she could simply play a role until enough suspicion was removed from her. Her mother's eye pointed elsewhere, she could now begin to act as herself once more. With no thrill pulsing in her veins - she would not allow herself to become giddy, not before she had left - she set about to work. The food hidden from her meal was taken from its place and shoved unceremoniously into a small bag, purple and knitted as so many other things in this tower were. A pair of ivory needles were placed besides them, and on top of them, the least fine clothes Rose owned. There would be no sense in wearing great silken ball gowns whilst on the run - it would be impractical, uncomfortable, and she doubted also of the protective ability of such garments. With the essentials collected, she turns her attention now to the many coils of knitted wool, and begins to tie their unfinished ends together. She has told those who have inspected her handiwork that she leaves each scarf unfinished in case she wishes to change the colour of thread, or pattern the ends, or do any number of things to them, and they have not for a single moment suspected her. Now she uses this to her advantage: nimble fingers work quickly to tie seemingly endless scarves together to create her escape tool, and before long, she is ready to leave.
One end of her makeshift rope is tied around a bedpost, and she pulls hard on it to make sure that it will hold. It does. She crosses the room, bag in one hand, coils of wool in the other, to the window where she can survey the land below. She has watched the view most evenings for the last few months, and knows what the quickest route will be to escape. She knows where the shadows lay at each time of day, and where the guards place themselves. It seems as though it will be too easy, and for a moment she hesitates, mouth dry and mind full of doubt. Surely they will suspect this. I would, were I her. Any moment now, someone will open the door and catch me, and they will throw me into the dungeons.
The longer she waits, the more it becomes apparent that nobody is going to barge in and stop her, and that she wastes time. Her attention shifts back to the world below, and she knows that in a moment the guard will start to swap positions. There will be no-one at the base of her tower, no-one to stop her, and the forest will not take too long to reach. Now.
She checks twice more before she lets her rope fall from the window. It tumbles, seems like it will catch against the stone more than once, and does not stop short of the ground. It lands and begins to coil there: far too long trapped here has given her more than enough time to create a woollen rope that will bring her safely to the ground. She winds one hand around the bag, careful to keep its contents from spilling out, and takes a handful of escape route in the other, gingerly easing herself from floor to windowsill, placing her weight and trust in her creation. Her palms are beginning to dampen, and her heart hammers in her chest, but there is no sense in stopping. She thinks the bed creaks - feels her mouth turn dry again - resists the urge to climb back into her room and await her evening meal - forces herself to turn, place her feet against the outside of the tower, and starts to walk her way down.
Her nerves are on fire the entire time. Her ears are more open than they have ever been before - she keeps thinking she hears cries from below, a call to arms, anything, but each time she risks a glance she sees the way clear and unattended. This seems as though it is too easy, too smooth an operation, and she cannot believe that this is going according to plan. Nothing disproves that this is her reality, and then she is halfway down the tower. It is here that she gains confidence. Rose swallows, takes a deep breath, and accepts that this is happening. She walks downward some more and keeps her eyes trained on the sky. One step. Another. And again.
–And then she feels something that isn't stone against her feet, and jolts back to full cognitions, and she is feeling grass and dirt against her feet for the first time in how long? She almost wastes time marvelling, but the urgency of her situation captures her attention once more. She is out of the tower, but that doesn't mean she is free. Not yet. There are still things to do: creep about without being seen, and find some way of taking a guard's boots - for her own shoes are back in the tower and nothing more than thin slips of material - and then, only then, can she make a run for it. And she must be quick, for there are footsteps not so far from where she stands. Rose darts away, following no particular path, and feels the first shock of satisfaction when she hears a cry go up. The guards will have discovered her knit road to freedom, and she will not have much time. There must be something she can do to hide-
and an idea comes to her. She does not recoil from it, as so many of royal blood undoubtedly would, but there is little else she can do at this moment that would protect her. She prays it works, and crouches down, dropping her bag to grab at handfuls of earth. She does not hesitate to cover her face and hair with the stuff, and her dress - the plainest she could find in her wardrobe, and yet, still too extravagant for her liking - receives the same treatment, until she is good and scruffy and
hopefully unrecognisable at first glance.
Her fevered actions stop suddenly, and she looks up. A man in guardsman's garb is approaching her, but he seems friendly. As though he does not know her. A moment passes wherein Rose wonders how many in the palace remember her face, and then he is next to her, one hand upon her elbow, guiding her to stand. She snatches her bag and follows his movements, keeping her back hunched as she stands once more.
"Is everything well with you, young lady? Goodness, and I was worried for a moment that you had fallen and hurt yourself!"
Rose turns her head to him as much as she dares, and smiles. It makes her face feel strange. "Why thank you, sir. No harm done. I tripped, is all. Not the first time such a thing has happened."
The guardsman lets go her arm, and glances the way she has come from. Oh no, Rose thinks. Not so soon. He'll know it's me, He'll-
"I say!" he interrupts her thoughts as he returns his glance to her. "You've no shoes on! Whatever is a young thing like you doing without such an important item of clothing doing in the palace?"
She opens her mouth to respond, but he reaches a conclusion before she is able to present a case to him. "Could it be-" he lowers his voice and drops his head closer to her. Rose does the best she can not to lean away from the moustache that has suddenly invaded her peripheral vision. "-you are begging?"
Once more, she wonders how everything can be going so smoothly. There must be something that smiles favourably upon her - perhaps the gods of fairy tales, who allow princesses squirrelled away from the world to do as they please and have everything work out for them. The thought makes her smile shrink. She does not want to be a damsel in distress. She is taking matters into her own hands. Luckily, the guardsman thinks that his question has hit a sore spot, and rightfully so. Beggars are not allowed to enter the palace, though the rule does not stop them. For the most part, they are dealt with kindness, often with an old loaf and what must be the least threatening warning ever to slip past a man's lips. Here it is. Here it comes. He is going to be an ass of a guard, and show me up. My luck has run out.
He raises his head once more, and places a hand on her back, pushing her away from the commotion that she barely escaped. "Come with me," he says. "I cannot afford to give you much time, but a lady should not be allowed to wander shoe-less, no matter her station! I have an old pair of boots I can give you, and after that I must ask you to leave."
Rose smiles and nods her head in thanks, allowing herself to be guided elsewhere. The tumult behind them fades, and soon enough they find themselves in what must be this man's office. He lets her hover awkwardly in the doorway, attention on a great cupboard that no doubt holds that last thing she needs to escape, and rummages in silence for a moment.
"I expect they will be rather too big for you, but no matter about that, eh? Slightly too big is better than nothing at all."
"Thank you," she replies, and means it. Despite the disastrous rule of a monarch who takes too well to drink, there were still a great deal of good-natured people in her mother's land. "I will have to repay you someday, even if I can offer little."
"Not at all!" he says, and pulls a pair of worn leather boots out triumphantly. He brings them to her and sets them down with a genuine smile upon his face. "All I ask is that you remember the name of sir English and think well of it from time to time."
She nods her head, and bends to pull the boots on. They are, as he warned, too big for her, but she would rather wear these than tramp about a forest barefoot. She has been far luckier than she should have been, and she is almost there. She is almost free.
"Thank you," she says again. "I am sorry to have taken your time like this. I'd best be on my way."
"That you should, and I'll not breathe a word of your presence, lady!" he winks at her, and gestures to the door. "I've things to be getting on with in here, so I'll have to trust in your ability to get out. A good day and safe journey to you, madam!"
And just like that, she is allowed to go. The guard takes his place at his desk and pulls out a sheaf of papers, a grin still on his face, and she exits. It is strange to walk in footwear too large: her steps become less steady, and she uses the slowed pace to feel her bag. It is still full with the items she packed, though she assumes the food is perhaps a little dustier after its unceremonious descent to the floor. It doesn't bother her: freedom is only a walk away, and every step takes her further from the gathering of guardsmen. She is disguised as best she can- she has received a couple of glances from people going about their business, but she knows that they see her only briefly, and covered in dirt, and heading away from where the most people usually gather. She hopes that this means they think of her as a beggar-lady leaving the palace, and nobody stops her to prove otherwise. It seems far too good to be true.
Rose walks to the forest that has intrigued her for such a large part of her life. Even when she had been free, she had been forbidden from entering it, and that had only fuelled her curiosity further. A great many strange beasts live there, says a voice in her mind that reminds her of her mother's handmaid, one of the few that had cheerfully ignored the girl's stoic nature and talked to her most days. Trolls of all manner of shape and size, and most of them with a hunger for human flesh. I've heard of them with gills as can breathe underwater, and ones that look like animals 'til they take their skins off. It was a vast forest that apparently spanned a great many miles in any direction, and supposedly separated another human civilisation from this side of the world, where Queen Lalonde ruled. Rose had never been certain just how far their land extended, but knew it to be a great area. The idea of ruling it had never appealed to her. Escaping it seemed much better.
"Are you absolutely sure this is the right way?"
"When have I ever been wrong about anything before? That's rhetorical, don't answer that."
"I just think if we stop horsing around and go the other way, we'll get to the castle a lot quicker. Look, this is obviously just where the locals live, it doesn't seem high-brow at all."
The local people watch the men on horseback argue, and wonder just how directionally challenged they must be to ride further and further into the village. If they wanted the castle, they were going in completely the wrong direction. The men are dressed in obvious finery, and it is clear that they have business with her majesty. It is also clear that this is not the first time they have found themselves not entirely in the correct situation: one, clad in armour with a sword resting at his side
and a red cloak that hangs limp behind him, looks utterly exasperated. The other, in different colouring though much the same style, fiddles with the reins and has the good nature to at least look sheepish. His horse shakes her head, and he reaches forward to pet her crest.
"Almost there, girl." he raises his head to glance at the other man, and adopts a long-suffering expression that somehow doesn't suit him. "Okay, Dave. Fine. Lead the way." His companion mutters something, and tugs his reins to pull his horse around. He is followed in suit by the other, and they retrace their steps, leaving the village and heading toward the castle. The closer they get, the more obvious it becomes that they were going completely the wrong way. Dave does not miss this, and mentions it.
"How about you shut your mouth! We're here now, and that's what matters. Look, Casey," he says, talking to his horse again, and his riding partner grins. He knows a victory when he sees one. "We'll get you some water in a while, you won't have to wait much longer now. You and Maplehoof can rest-"
"I told you to stop calling him that. It's a dumb name. He's Cal, got that-"
"Cal is a dumb name. You are the master of dumb names! Perhaps I should retitle you. The Knight of Idiocy works."
"If you do that, you'd only make yourself the Prince of Cretinism. Sure you want to go down that road?"
"That is not what would happen!"
"Stop that! I am the one in charge, not you, and I refuse to be titled anything stupid like that! Look, just shut up, that's not why we came here- good day," he adds, smiling down at the guards who have come to greet them. Dave laughs next to him and knows he will have his foot stamped on later. Totally worth it. "We've travelled a long way to visit her majesty. Could you take our horses?"
"Who are you?" one guardsman asks. Another rolls his eyes visibly.
"You're an idiot if you can't recognize the prince of the neighbouring kingdom. Welcome, sire," he says, and bows. The addressee smiles and waves a hand airily.
"More than alright! It's refreshing, not being stared and pointed at everywhere I go. The Queen is in, right?"
Two of the three men take their horses' reins and help the men dismount. They stretch as best they can in armour, and the slightly shorter one attempts to surreptitiously return blood flow to his buttocks. Their welcoming party turns their eyes away from the motion, and instead salutes to them.
"I am captain of the guard: sir Dirk. If you will follow me, sirs."
He seems a nice enough man, though not eager to start conversation. The prince opens his mouth and glances at his knight, who shakes his head, and conversation is stilled for a while longer. They walk and take in the beauty of the castle – for all the wrongs this kingdom might contribute to the world, it still boasts a magnificent piece of architecture, and it impresses all visitors - and before long, they are ascending a grand staircase to an even grander set of doors. Dirk halts them for a moment to approach the doormen and speak with them, and the newcomers take a moment to breathe deep.
"This is it! It's happening!"
"I am so calm. I am the calmest. It is me."
Their guide returns to them, and announces that the Queen will receive them at once. They nod, straighten, take another breath and nod once more. Dirk turns and leads them forward - the doormen push the doors to the throne room open - they take another deep gulp of air to clear their minds -
"Introducing his majesty King Egbert of Maple Valley's heir, Prince John, and his companion, sir David Strider, a Knight of Egbert's court."
The two men approach the lady that sits upon the throne and kneel. She watches them without expression, a powerful lady waiting for their next move. Dave chances a glance at her, and swears he will never forget the colour of her eyes. They are the pink of clouds at sundown, and they reveal nothing. They are easily the eyes of a Queen, and something that is nearly fear courses through his veins. If these are the eyes of the ruler now, then he dreads to think what colour her daughter's must be: she who has spoken out and is rumoured to be even more calculating and cold than the woman that now receives them.
"It is an honour to meet you, your majesty!" John says from beside him, and he can tell that only excitement runs through his friend's body. "We have travelled for a long time to come here and wish you nothing but good health!"
Dave tries not to roll his eyes. The boy could just get to the point. The queen seems to have this opinion as well, for she lifts one delicate eyebrow, and motions at the maid closest to her, who bobs and skitters off.
"And what is the purpose of this visit?" she asks, voice strong. Her attendant returns with a glass of clear liquid that she takes, and taps a fingernail against it. Her visitors glance at each other, and lift from kneeling. John takes a step forward and tries not to puff himself up too much.
"I have come to, ah, to rescue your daughter and ask for herhandinmarriage!"
He speaks too quickly, and his words slur together into one great mess that the rest of the room can barely understand. Dave can't help twisting his mouth in second-hand embarrassment. Not cool. It takes the Queen a moment to figure out what has just been said, and her expression does not change. She taps her nail against the glass again, still not lifting it to drink, and looks directly at John, who for all his faults, does not waver under her intense stare.
"And what does my daughter need rescuing from? There are no dragons keeping her captive, nor wicked witches that have cursed her. I should think that such endeavours are best suited for other realms, young prince."
It is not unknown that it was this woman that locked the princess away, nor under what conditions the deed was done. Other kingdoms know and have quietly spoken against her: none approve of what she has done, and yet none can speak out. Queen Roxy's rule is tight and can be ruthless, and there is nobody who would risk breaking an alliance with her. It is a good question, and one that requires an answer that cannot be given.
"... Uh, metaphorically speaking, I guess," the prince supplements, and now does look down, away from her unwavering gaze. "It's my duty to save and marry a damsel of royal blood, so- I guess I got carried away with daydreams and the like."
"Hm," the Queen says. There is a heavy silence that fills the throne room. Dave feels a bead of sweat at his neck and ignores it. "Janey, tell them."
The maid that brought the Queen her beverage now steps forward as the drink is lifted and supped, and begins to explain. "Much as we are loathe to admit it, you have come all this way for nothing. The princess is not here."
"Not here? But-"
"Rather than wait for your highness, she found a way to escape and leave undetected. We don't know where she is, or where she plans to go. You have our most sincere apologies."
The Queen finishes her drink, and sets it down on the tray of a second waiting attendant. The action seems final.
Knowing that if she stops even for a moment she is likely to be found, Rose has not stopped since her less than grandiose escape. Once or twice she has glanced over her shoulder at the castle that has slowly been receding into the background, and she stops moving to look at the landscape as she reaches the line of trees that marks her entrance to the troll's land. The sun is sinking and will soon be below the horizon, and it casts a soft red light over the land. The air is cool, and the birds are beginning to nest. She has not been outside in so long, and the world is exactly as she remembers it to be. The similarity between reality and her memories is both soothing and just a touch infuriating. So long had she been cooped up for that she had been thinking of the world as a great sentient being that would rise up in celebration when she finally managed to escape, and would show her so many things that she had never encountered before, and fill her with a great indescribable joy. Instead, the world ignored her as she ran, and she frowned as she realised that she had inadvertently become some ghost of the princesses in books that she had immersed herself in.
How pathetic of me. I shouldn't have expected anything different.
With one last glance at the world, she turns and continues on her way. There is no use in lamenting childish daydreams when there is still a journey to go on.
What first strikes her is the silence that the forest envelopes her in. There is something comforting about the way the trees absorb the noise, though it is remarkably eerier than anything else. Rose stops once she thinks she is well away from the thin entrance and tries to listen for other creatures, but can hear nothing except for her own breathing. She wonders how silently trolls move, and banishes the thought as quickly as she can. She does not need to scare herself. Best to stay aware, though. She makes herself step further, not wanting to stay close to the forest's entrance - there is so much distance to be covered if she is to make it to the other side. She cannot stop for any reason, she must keep going-
Rose stops. Is it that easy for trolls to sneak up on her? This is their natural environment, she supposes, and she cannot fault them for learning how to traverse it with minimal disruption to the rest of the world, but she had thought she would be able to get deeper into the forest before they came across her. Having her flesh eaten is not on her list of things to do. She pulls herself from her thoughts and looks around sharply, trying to find the source of the sound and hoping the troll isn't too ferocious.
"What are you, blind? I'm right in front of you."
There is indeed a figure only a few feet from the runaway girl, and it is shameful to note how lost Rose must have been in her thoughts not to notice her. It is very obviously a troll, and one who is wearing a bright orange cloak over muted and tattered greys. It is also a female, but that does not make Rose feel any better. Any and all trolls are dangerous, and this one seems as though there is something not quite right with her. She is a figure to be wary of. A pair of mismatched horns protrude from her head, likely the cause of the holes in her cloak's hood, and one eye is covered with a black rag. As Rose's eyes are drawn the strange figure's hidden one, she grins, and reveals fangs.
"Not lost, are you?"
"I know where I'm going," Rose returns, and doesn't know how scared she should be right now.
"That doesn't mean you're not lost! You could be going in completely the wrong direction to where you want to go."
Rose has no answer for this, and settles for giving the troll her best unimpressed stare. Back at the palace, it had the effect of putting an end to any conversation a guard might have tried to have with her. Their words would taper off and an uneasy silence would surround them; it was for the most part better than listen to them talk about whatever was going on in their lives. Rose had never been able to muster up the strength of will for her only source of information to be how many times a man's wife had smiled at him across the dinner table. Now, the troll simply grins wider, and nods as though impressed.
"Hey, you've got an attitude. I like that. You sure you aren't lost, girly? Or let me guess- you're scared I'm gonna eat you." She waits for an answer, though it becomes quickly apparent she will get none. She nods again. "You got nothing to worry about! Ain't gonna hurt you. In fact- I'm gonna offer you something instead. Look at me, being all godlusus-like. I'm a fuckin' saint.”
The troll unfolds her arms and claps her hands together, still grinning. She's not only fearsome, but enthusiastic, and Rose knows these qualities most likely do not make the kindest of troll hearts. She wiggles her toes inside her too-large boots, hoping for purchase in the likely event she needs to run, though she isn't too sure how far she'll be able to make it before they come off and she scratches her feet too badly to move. Perhaps she can overpower the figure in front of her and take her footwear instead of wearing something made for a middle-aged guardsman - though that idea is quickly dashed. A glance down reveals that the troll is not wearing shoes of any kind, and has only two fat toes at the end of a slender foot.
"So how's this! I, being the kindest soul in this damn forest, will offer you my services. I'll be your guide, get you from A to B, fight off all the other trolls for you. Keep your pretty pink flesh from getting torn apart. Sounds good, right?"
"I fail to see how I can be sure that you are telling the truth and are a trustworthy source," Rose says, and straightens her back. "I have been warned of trolls enough not to want to trust you, and you have given me no proof as to your credibility. I don't even know your name."
The silence returns. The troll blinks her one visible eye, and Rose's pulse beats hard at her neck in anticipation. Then, as though she has suddenly said something hysterical, the troll throws her head back, narrowly missing scraping one horn against a thick tree trunk, and laughs. She laughs harder than Rose has ever seen anyone laugh before. It is as though the biggest joke of the universe has been revealed to her and she at last gets it.
"Can't trust me!" she says, and howls with laughter again. It takes a moment for her to regain her composure. "You can't trust anyone! Some trolls are less likely to break your neck, but you can't go around putting trust in everyone you meet. You just gotta throw your lot in with the ones willing to help you and pray you're lucky!" she flashes her fangs at Rose again, who remains looking unimpressed. The troll shrugs. "If you're that bothered, my name's Vriska. And what's your name, fussyfangs?"
"I don't have fangs. ... Rose," she adds, and takes a step back as the troll moves forward.
"Think about it. Rose and Vriska! We'd be a kickass team while we were together. No troll would want to come anywhere near us. I can guarantee your safety, and all it'd cost is whatever you've got to spare. Boonies, jewels, a pass through the Condesce's garden- whatever's good."
To a less cynical and well-read person, the offer might have appealed. Rose knew better than to accept, no matter how tempting the idea of a guide was: no doubt she would be taken to a dark corner and slaughtered for whatever reason. Survival on her own seemed a much better option.
"No thank you," she answers, which stops Vriska's smile. "I know where I'm going and I will be able to make it on my own. Thank you for the offer, but I will have to decline. Have a good day."
With that, she turns to the right and continues her journey, leaving the cloaked troll behind her looking almost offended. There seems to be some sort of pathway between the trees that winds a little, but is well-trod and a much more reliable thing to choose than going by memory alone, and as she leaves her would-be guide behind, the silence returns. Rose is content with it this time. She will follow the path until she can do so no longer, and then she will find another way through the forest. Determination makes for a strong will.
Vriska stands alone. She breathes steadily, evenly, slowly. She does not fidget, nor do any of her muscles twitch or jump uncontrollably.
"Mom," she says, and waits. Before long there is a low chittering, a noise that small animals run away from without waiting to see the face of the beast that makes it. From above, a gargantuan spider descends, a little bigger than the troll that called it. Its pincers click, and it waits to be spoken to again. "Didn't think there'd be anything stupid enough to shun me. Not now, not ever. She's gonna learn a lesson, mom. You don't act like a callous cold-blooded reptile of a human in this forest and get away with it. Not toward Vriska Serket. She's gotta pay."
The spider clicks a few more times and all eight of its eyes blink one after the other. There is a moment of inaction, before it retracts its web, and lifts into the air once more. Vriska waits until it is entirely out of sight and hearing before adjusting the rag that covers a good portion of her face, and strides off in the opposite direction that Rose had taken.
Night falls. The forest grows darker and ever more strange. Rose had assumed by her earlier confrontation with another troll that this strange race liked to show their faces as the sun began to set, but that no longer appeared to be the case. She had seen no other troll while walking, or heard anything to suggest that she was not alone in this forest. As the field of her vision became even more limited, she realised that the forest was slowly springing to life. Nothing showed itself, but she heard enough to be disquieted at the very least. Chittering and a murmur that couldn't be just a wind blowing through the leaves above seemed to have followed her for some time now, and at one point she had stopped moving and shut her eyes to listen hard. She had been rewarded with the same eerir silence that she had been met with upon entering the forest, and hoped she wasn't being followed.
There is enough time for a short break, she reasons. Here, there is no place suitable enough to lay her head for the night, and the tree branches that surround her are much too high for her to scale alone and safely. She sits upon a fallen trunk, eats what little she had brought with her and relieves herself - it is here that Rose decides if she ever makes it through the forest alive, she is going to commission a bard to write a truthful tale about her journey, including how difficult it is to squat in the middle of a strange environment and relax oneself enough to go. She is not immobile for too long, and sets off with barely any light to guide her.
It is strange, then, that she sees a very clear and obvious light in the distance. She had not expected to see anything, let alone what looks like a small but comforting light - perhaps it is a fire, a long way off? A fire would be good to rest by, she decides, and walks with more determination. Rose is prepared for most anything. She thinks she might find a group of trolls cooking, who will look at her and hopefully be sated enough by what they are making rather than decide to have her. Perhaps - hopefully - it is abandoned, and she can rest by it easily without worrying too much.
She is not expecting a single troll boy sitting atop an oversized mushroom with a lit stick of what smells like - she isn't sure. It isn't tobacco. He does not notice her, and she keeps still as she watches him, fascinated despite herself: he is similar in figure to her would-be guide, thin and gangly, though he is much more unkempt. His hair seems tangled and wild, and only his lower half is covered. His face is slathered with some kind of white substance - wax, perhaps - and three dark lines mar his nose and forehead. He blows smoke rings lazily into the air and smiles at them. Rose deems him safe, and steps forward.
She had been expecting a much more alert response; the boy should have shoved himself off his elbows and jumped from his perch to stalk forward and be just as menacing as the storybooks had informed her trolls were wont to be, or maybe just as overbearing as Vriska had. He instead ignores her entirely, and licks his upper lip.
"Excuse me," she repeats, and he cuts her off before she can say more.
"I all up and heard you the first time, sister. You're fuckin' excused."
His brashness surprises her, and she is quiet long enough for him to take another drag at his not-quite-tobacco stick. "Could you point me in the direction of a place to rest?" He exhales deeply before answering. Rose does not like the pace of the conversation, and keeps her mouth firmly closed. "Now that I could, but now's not the time for resting. Did your body forget what it fuckin' runs on? We thrive on the fuckin' starshine, sister. Not even a worn out wiggler'd want to sleep now."
"You can't see the stars in here," she interrupts.
There is another extended silence where he very obviously mulls this statement over and scratches his head. Rose rolls her eyes, and makes to keep walking.
"Now you hold your toes there. 'S not manners to run out on a conversation." He pushes himself up and flicks the butt of whatever he's been smoking over the side of the mushroom to get his first glance of the impatient girl. He does not look surprised when he sees her, instead choosing to scratch his chin absently. Rose stares back. "Never thought I'd see a human in here," he comments, and then goes back to tackling the issue at hand. "But see, you can't see the fuckin' stars, but you can hear 'em. Have you let your head get its absolute chill on?"
Of course I haven't. There's a good chance I'm being chased by a psychotic she-troll who likely wants to kill me after her services have been shunned, and I'm miles away from anything I'm used to. It's dark and I know nobody and I just want to find somewhere to sleep.
Rose says nothing. The troll is looking at her expectantly, like she is supposed to be listening. She shuts her eyes to better concentrate, and hears nothing.
"There you go," says the troll, and he sounds satisfied. "They're a-tellin' me that there's a fleshy kid here that's all up and needing a place to stay."
She cannot believe what she is hearing. Or seeing, as she opens her eyes; he is nodding sagely to himself as though he really is hearing some kind of mystical voice and his think pan hasn't just caught up with what she asked for what already feels like years before. However long it might take to stumble across an answer that she can actually used, she thinks it might be worth it. He does not seem unfriendly, or in much of a state to do anything but sit and grin. Rose glances around, spies a
fallen branch, and sits on it, waiting.
"There's a big stone hive somewhere back there," he starts, and waves a hand vaguely in the direction Rose has come from.
"No," she says The troll lifts his eyebrows. "I came from there. I'm looking for a place to stay in the forest."
"You keep your hoofbeasts on a rope and see they calm their glutes!" He sounds much sharper this time, like there's a part of his brain that hasn't been utterly fried. "You're not going back to your hive?"
"No. I'm running away. I'm better off here than I would be there."
He hmms thoughtfully, and drums his fingers against the mushroom. He does not look as though he will speak any time soon, and Rose uncrosses and recrosses her legs. She is beginning to think that perhaps she should have chosen a different route and cut around the forest. At least humans would make more sense than these strange fickle creatures. She waits for likely a shorter time than the eternity it feels like before she convinces herself that this troll boy isn't going to answer. She stands.
"It was clearly a mistake asking you for help," she says, and still does not get a reply. "I presume I am going in the correct direction. Thank you for your time, and have a pleasant evening."
She makes to leave, and the troll moves quicker than she had thought he would be able. He slides off the oversized fungus and lands deftly on his four toes, blocking her way. He is taller than she thought he was, though he is hunched over, and nodding as though he has an answer.
"Before you go making your way and getting into all kinds of trouble, you might as well take a fuckin' potion."
Whatever Rose had been expecting, it wasn't that. His hands slide into hidden trouser pockets, and he extracts them full of small bottles. They are filled with vibrant colours and stoppered with wax. She trusts none of them.
"I'm fine, thank you."
"Naw," he says, and shoves his hands at her. The bottles clink. "S'all a part of being a guide. Gotta help the ones who need it. You're all dead and set on making your way through this fuckin' place, so you gotta take something to help. I gotta stay here in case there's others who crawl on over in need, got it? So these'll just have to do."
"... Very well." It is a reasonable explanation, though she wasn't expecting any actual help. It is a damn sight better than the questionable-at-best offer that Vriska had made, and she decides that if she does not want to use the gifts, she can get rid of them later. "What do they do?"
He merely shakes the bottles at her in lieu of an answer. Rose is about to make some snappy comment, patience pushed to its utmost furthest limit, before she notices the labels. That keeps her quiet, and she reads for a moment. The handwriting is atrocious, but she withholds comment on that aspect.
"Some of these seem like they'd be useless," she says instead. "Who would possibly want to lose use of their legs simply to become a better kisser?"
"You'd be surprised, sister," he replies, and grins. It is entirely unsettling having a face smeared with white reveal even whiter teeth in such close proximity. Rose returns her attention to the bottles, and reaches for one that is filled with blue.
"I can only think of needing luck in here. I'll take this one."
The troll nods, and returns the others to his pockets once more. She had expected him to turn serious, to tell her that there was some kind of side-effect that would make her be unable to talk, perhaps, or simply to warn her about the dangers of the forest and wish her luck on her travels. He does no such thing and merely clambers back onto his mushroom to lay on his back and stare at the leaves far above. Rose waits for a moment longer to see if he will do anything else, and when he doesn't, bags the bottle and continues on her way.
High above, the spiders chitter and plan their next move.