Anla startled awake a few hours later. Silfa was still sleeping, but Al was gone from his bedroll. The rope she had tied around his leg was still tied to hers, but only hers. She fumbled with the knot for a few moments before it came loose.
She found Al on a large boulder, staring ahead into the woods. It became apparent as she grew closer that he was crying. She sat next to him and said nothing.
“It was frightening,” he said softly. “I was trapped inside, not feeling anything. I always wished that I couldn’t feel when things were their worst in my life, but I will never wish for that again.”
“You’ve never gone through that before?”
“I’ve never pushed myself that hard. They taught, over and over again, to be careful with magic. They don’t call it ‘burning out’ but just ‘burned’ when you use too much, and they warned that it was devastating. I’ve never had the need to use that much, so I’ve never reached the burned stage.”
“What should I do if it happens again?”
“Watch me, like you did. Take care of me. Protect me. I’ll be less than useless. Take away anything I can hurt myself with. Give me something to fixate on or something nice to touch.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and sniffled. “As it is, I’m still very melancholic. Can we do something to take my mind off my mood?”
“Hierarchy,” Silfa said, joining them. “Do you have any playing cards?”
“That sounds like a good idea,” he said. “I’ll go get them.”
“I don’t know how to play?” Anla said, “Is it complicated?”
He rose and walked back to the overhang. “No. It’s like Old Maid or Go Fish.”
Silfa taught the rules to Anla as they sat on the ground. “Everyone gets six cards. You want all six cards to match from the same suit. You can pick from the pile or from the card the person before you put down. You have to pick up a card and put one down. When you have a full match, you say, ‘Hierarchy!’ and put them down. Everyone else has three more turns to make their own set.”
“What if everyone gets sets?”
“Well, that’s why it’s called Hierarchy. Everyone wants to go for the spades because those are the highest points. You get four for those, three for hearts, two for diamonds, and one for clubs. If two people have the same suit, they get nothing even if they went out first.”
“So there’s some strategy in going for a lower suit or even completing the same suit to erase someone else’s points?”
“Yeah! That’s what my daddy keeps trying to teach me and my sisters.”
“Your father sure teaches you a lot, huh?” Anla said, smiling. It was nice to know that the people who ruled them were normal, despite being so far removed from the commoners.
“He says it’s important for the future of our duchy to have productive and knowledgeable heirs,” she said with that tone of mimicry she had used earlier. “Sharka’s best resource is its youth.”
“Yes, you are right about that.”
Al was perplexed when Anla won three hands in a row with spades. “Are you cheating?” he asked.
“I am not!” she said. “A lady never cheats, right Silfa?”
“Al, it’s rude to ask a lady if she cheats. If she is then she probably has a good reason for it.”
“But I’m not,” Anla finished. “Everyone keeps dealing me spades. I can’t help but go for the best fruit.”
Silfa dealt and took on an air of maturity. She sat properly, her cards resting in her lap when it wasn’t her turn. “How did you two meet?”
Al looked up at her quickly, then back at his hand. “We met a few days ago, actually, in a tavern in Outrick. Anla was already looking for you. I was just touring the area.”
“So, you’re not married?”
“No. Just frien-, um, partners.”
“Not friends? You seem like friends.”
Al let Anla answer this. “Al is upset because I made him promise something before I told him a secret.”
“Is it because you are an elf?”
Anla looked at Al quickly, who was studying his cards rather intently. “That’s a large portion of it, though I’m actually only half-elven.”
“That shouldn’t matter. My father says that we need to learn to work with people from different countries and different ways of living. We have to learn to trust them based on their merit and actions, not on what others like them have done in the past.”
“Did you put her up to this?” Al murmured, flashing a displeased look at Anla.
“No. She’s just precocious.”
Anla sat on another full hand of spades, but threw her turn instead of winning. There was too much tension that Silfa wasn’t sensing. “Al, why aren’t you friends with Anla? Is it because she’s from the Dreelands?”
He inhaled sharply and put his cards down. “Lady Silfa, what Anla is using is called a metaphor. Do you know what that means?” She shook her head. “It means she would rather not say what she really means so she is saying something similar.”
“So, you’re unhappy with her not because she’s an elf but because she’s something else?”
“Yes, that’s the crux of it.”
She pondered this for a moment. “But, then it’s really just the same thing, whatever it is. She can’t help it, so why hate her for it?”
Al’s jaw tightened. “It’s complicated, Lady Silfa.”
“It sounds simple to me. I don’t…”
Anla put her hand on the girl’s arm. “I think Al gets the point, Silfa.”
“But, I think…”
“You know what?” Anladet said brightly, putting her cards down. “I think we should go see if there’s anything we can find in the forest. Maybe there’s some fruit or something.”
Since it was the late afternoon, they had the choice of staying in their schist overhang for the night and entertaining Silfa or hiking through the night again. There was no immediate rush. They could take their time at this point, though they would need to replenish their food soon.
Silfa helped with the last issue. They found several kinds of berries, wild potatoes, morels, cattails in a small marsh, seeds, nuts, and some wildflowers that made a salad. Their ward was a fountain of knowledge, pointing out trees and naming them by their shape and bark. She could list all the kinds of birds and beasts Sharka had, even identifying some by the tracks she found. Though Al knew some of those foods were dangerous, her confidence in her knowledge made him trust her, especially since she had pointed out the difference between the nutritious and poisonous several times.
“We need to take precautions tonight,” he said as they brought shirtfuls of food back to camp.
“I thought you said they were going to leave us alone,” Anla said.
“Likely they will, but that’s not a guarantee. They could try again, resupply nearby and keep her for a month. I would rather be careful.”
“Try what?” asked Silfa.
Anla and Al shared a look quickly while Al itched his very bitten calves. She cleared a small circle to put all their food for sorting. “Silfa, do you know why those men stole you away from your home?”
She shook her head as she dumped all of her scavenged items. “They wouldn’t speak to me. I heard them talking about something big, but they just kept telling me to shut my mouth. Then they gagged me and kept me in the tent while they talked a lot in front of the fire.”
“We can’t tell her,” Al said softly to Anla.
“Silfa, if you had the choice between hearing a terrible truth or a nice lie, which would you prefer?” Anla asked.
“Daddy says it’s always important to hear the truth.”
“Those men were going to kill you. They thought they could turn into noble men if they…well…if they drank your blood. I’m sorry to tell you that, Silfa. There are some very bad men in this world.”
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked quietly, again taking on an air of maturity she must have trained in for quite some time.
“No!” they both said. “Lady Silfa, why would we do that?” Al asked.
“For the same reason as the men. And women, there were two women.”
“No, no, no,” Al said. “Those people were bad and stupid. It doesn’t work. Besides that, we like you. We don’t want to see you dead. We want to bring you back to Hanala, to your family.”
She nodded demurely and folded her hands in her lap. Al held his breath to see what she was going to do. It took about six seconds before her face crumpled and she started crying.
“Oh, okay, Silfa…” he said as she flung herself into his lap. He gently stroked her hair and rocked with her, as if she were someone he had left miles away.
Anla smiled and prepped the fire again for dinner. She regretted telling her. Maybe she shouldn’t have heard the truth, that she had heard hard truths beyond her age far too much in her life. Silfa cried for a solid fifteen minutes then wiped her tears away. “I’m sorry,” she said softly when she was done.
“No, don’t apologize,” Al said, hugging her. “You are the duke’s daughter but you are also a little girl. That was a very scary thing you went through. Most adults would cry if they were kidnapped and it would be totally fine.”
“Even you?” she asked.
They ate what they had left: the food from the forest, a hunk of bread that barely went three ways, and the remainder of the cheese. They camouflaged the opening of the overhang with bushes Al pulled straight up from the ground and doused the fire early. They slept with Silfa in between Al and Anla, who promised her they’d watch over her.