I walked down the market with my basket swinging back and forth as I kicked up dust. Tessa and I had divided up our supply list while the boys went off to find wood for the fire.
It had been over a week since Father threw me out of the house. Since I met my new friends. The best week in a long time, hence the skip in my step.
I didn't care who saw. Didn't care what they'd said. I was happy, a feeling I was estranged with but thankful to meet again.
I never walked alone before, but I never felt like I belonged more. I wasn’t my father’s shadow. I was me, and me alone.
I talked. Got lost with the Aldane sisters about the wildflowers right outside of the village along with the bright orange one Tessa put in my hair that morning. Smith tried to hold a conversation but only had questions I couldn’t answer.
The sun was caressing the tops of the house when I had my last conversation.
I was on my way to get the last item on my list when there was a tug on my hair. I turned on my heels. There is no reason to stand for that.
I turned to see half my flower sticking out of a horse’s mouth. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” I brushed my hand down his face.
He nudged me in the shoulder.
“Well, I like you, too. But I'm not sure if Tessa is going to appreciate you stealing my flower.”
I rattled on for a bit between giggles. Pulling away didn't seem like an opposition. He began to whine when I tried to leave, like the horses back home. “It was nice to meet you, but I should be going.” I gave him one last rub.
“If you must.”
It took longer than I like to emit to realize the horse didn’t say that. I jumped at the sight of a man mostly covered by a cloak with the hood down. He had light brown hair and blue eyes, just like me.
“Excuse me.” I dropped my hands and picked up my basket. I wanted to walk away, but my feet wouldn’t.
“That’s alright.” He ran his hand over his horse’s mane. “After our long journey, Equuleus needs all the love he can get.”
Equuleus nuzzled his head into my basket. “He might need some feeding, as well.”
“I’ll get on that as soon as possible.”
Before I could say anything else, Tessa was clamped to my arm. “Excuse us, we need to be getting home.”
The man and I called out our fair wells since Tessa already dragged me partway down the street. She pulled me all the way home without a word. Her hand gripped my arm, overlapping her fingers and thumb.
When we got back, I nearly tripped over the threshold.
"What took you so lon…?" Alwyn said, rolling his head over his shoulder.
“What’s going on?” Merlin said, coming to my side.
“I’d like to ask the same,” Tessa said, with her hand on her hips. “You disappeared for most of the afternoon. I couldn't find you. When I do you petting a horse and talking to some strange man. Why?”
“He ate my flower.”
“The man?!” Merlin exclaimed, jumping to attention with his chest puffed out.
“No, Equuleus. The horse.”
“What's the man's name?”
“I don't know. Didn't have time to ask.” I shot a glare at Tessa.
“I thought you said you knew everyone in town?” Alwyn said, waving between snarky and concerned.
“I don’t think I ever saw him before.”
“You were talking to someone you didn’t even know!”
“Tessa!” Merlin shouted, standing up, with his finger near his lips.
He turned to me, crouching down a bit to my height. “We have no right to tell you who you can and who you can’t talk to you.” I thought he was done until he moved that finger towards me. “But Tessa’s right. There are dangerous people. Not just ones that want to hurt you but ones that want to hurt one or all of us.”
“I know that! I’m not a child!” It took all my might not to stomp my feet in protest because I already lost the fight with my hot head.
“But here we ar~!” Tessa started, throwing out her arms.
“Enough. It’s getting late. We should have supper and think if we need to say anything more.”
For the first time that week, the four of us ate in silence. It made it awkward, and that made us eat slow, making it last even longer.
Every bit of sunshine was gone when we finished.
Alwyn took each of our dishes. He took mine last, drawing my attention to Merlin and Tessa, sharing some dagger-like glances. With Tessa running her hand through her hair,
With Tessa running her hand through her hair, they separated: Merlin towards Alwyn and the water bucket, and Tessa walking behind me.
"Let me undo your hair before bed, " she said, with a hand on my shoulder.
I yawned and followed her to my bed. We sat on the edge together in the same tension as at the table.
She started on my braids. I could feel my hair slither down my back. Her fingers glided through like water.
She worked up until the flower stem fell into his lap. "Did that horse really eat your flower?"
"Yeah, snapped it right out of my hair."
"I'm sorry for how I acted," she said brushing out the rest of my right braid. "I know you can take care of yourself: you proved that. But. It's just. The men of your kind are the nastiest of any I've encountered. Give me fairies; give me elves, trolls, and ogres. None of them can compare."
"I don't want you to not worry. But I need you to keep it from becoming action. I'm not going to learn to walk if you hold my hands the whole time." I ripped my head from her fingers. "You understand, right?"
"Yes, I do," she said, pushing some of my hair behind my ear. "Now let me finish. You look ridiculous with a quarter braid."
"Alright," I said as she pushed my head forward.
She only got a few more brushes in before asking, "Are you sure you never saw that man before?"
"No. I would remember those blue eyes."
"Guess you're right. Only you and one of the Aldane sisters have blue eyes in town. You didn't see a family crest or anything, did you?"
"I was more focused on the horse who was digging in my basket like a trough. But, you know, I think he had something on the clasps of his cloak. A cross and maybe a lion, somethings in the four corners?"
The boys' cleaning went silent and Tessa stopped brushing for a moment. I don't know what her expression was but when she spoke her voice was strained. "Probably just a traveler."
Merlin walked up to us. "Dorothy. Tessa, you should get to sleep. We have an early morning."
She made room on my bed and picked up my blanket. For the last week, one or all of them tucked me into bed. I've done it for so many years for everyone else, it was nice to have it done to me more than it was belittling.
As they left, Merlin closed the screen near my bed to block off my space from the rest of the one-room cabin. The three of them huddled at the other end, trying to play it safe if I wasn't quite asleep yet.
"I think we should get a move on in the morning," Merlin whispered.
"Aren't you overreacting? It's only one foreign soldier. He's probably just here for Uther's peace talks anyway."
"A kingdom with a cross on its crest. Come on, Tessa!" Alwyn said. "Unless he's taking a tour of all of Camelot, then he shouldn't be anywhere near here!"
"I don't think Dorothy's ready."
"She's going to have to be," Merlin said.
A loud clap filled the house.
"What was that?" Alwyn shouted.
"The back door?" Tessa answered.
"Dorothy!" Merlin gasped, sending the three of them in motion.
They flew past my empty bed and to the door that was repeatedly thudding against its frame.
"I guess we should have brought this outside," Alwyn said.
"Okay, Tessa fly back to town - you'll get there faster than any of us - and work your way back. I and Alwyn will work from this end. If my gut's right, we're going to have to work fast."
"Got it," Tessa said getting a running jump before she jumped into a little ball of light.
"I'll take along the river. She told me of a few places she likes to think over that way."
"As quick as you can!" Merlin said, running out right from the door.
The moon was little that night, making it hard to see in the woods. It's probably why I didn't make it all the back to my village.
I tripped on a root that I had thought was just tall grass. And it hit me. I didn't know what I was doing. I sat up against the root's owner and plopped my head on my knees.
If it was any other day, I wouldn't admit I cried a little in my confusion. Why would I want to go back to a place that hurt me? A place that hated me? What's the difference between my mother, father, and sisters and brothers, and the family I found?
I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders. I knew who it was before I looked up.
"Are you hurt?" He was looking at the rip in my dress.
I only shook my head.
"I'm sorry I didn't include you."
"I'm not ready to make a choice, Merlin. I don't know why but I'm not."
"Is that why you ran?"
"When I know I'll tell you."
"Have I told you about my uncle?" Merlin asked, sitting down in front of me.
I shook my head, again.
"Gaius is the court physician. He has magic like us, but he hides it for the job he loves. I use to live with him, but I hated living that. Just because I left, it doesn't mean I don't love him anymore. In fact, I make sure I go back to see him, several times a year. We can come back as often as you need."
"Won't the others get mad?"
"They understand what it is to be far from home. Plus, they'll use it as an excuse to see all the beautiful plants here again."
I threw my arms around, knocking us to the ground.
In the distance, coming closer, a voice rang out, "Merlin! Dorothy! Alwyn!" Tessa appeared in the trees in front of us. "You found her! We have a new problem!"
"What?" He moved out from under me.
"The village. It's on fire."
"What!" Merlin and I yelled.
"You go. I'll get Alwyn." She continued running in the same direction.
We scrambled to our feet and ran in the opposite direction.
In place of the night sky that I knew for the past 14 years was replaced by smoke and screams. Everything was red. Nothing was how I left it.
The streets seemed lifeless. I clung to the only living thing near, Merlin. He shielded me from cinders and debris.
When all was at its quietest, a horse and rider barreled out of the ashes right at us. On his chest was the same crest as the man I met earlier.
Merlin pushed me out of the way. I fell in a pile of hay, but I couldn't see Merlin. I called out with no response.
I got up, but no one was on the street. I called out again. I thought I heard something and ran down the street.
No one way there! Not a thing.
I turned to go back. There it was again. I turned back and called out.
Another rider came at me. I couldn't move. He got closer. Closer. Closer. I could feel the breath of the horse on my face when another shove came to my side.
This time, there was no soft cushion. My head hit the street. My eyes open to shadows.
"You have to get out of here!" a voice said.
A face came into view right before my eyes shut again.
I woke to the sun. A field mouse ran over my hand. I was laying in the wildflower patch right outside of the village.
I looked around. Merlin was laying near me, still asleep. Tessa and Alwyn were nowhere in sight.
In the corner of my eye, off in the distance was a horse and rider at the edge of the woods. They both looked my way. Equuleus and the man.
My name rang out from behind me. Tessa and Alwyn were coming up behind me.
Tessa made it first, practically throwing herself down next to me. "Are you alright? What happened?"
"I'm fine!" I answered, looking back to the edge of the wood - they were gone. "I'm fine."