She’d been marching more so than running, as the vines did creep, too careful in the once dappled light above her to really see. It’s touch in her mind, a leading whisper. She’d been too young to die, though the hold of death on the young is unmistakable.
But Claudia was not lost in the roots, no, she was, she was still tied down beneath the forest, as she felt the lesser King’s fire eat it away.
The forest had swallowed only the edge of her senses, but the urge to run from it all, was too much to avoid.
Even as all her edges went numb, and feeling returned, she pulls herself up, from not wood ashes to find a blurry sky and stinging eyes. She thinks to cry it out, but knowing better for her unknown place she stays still. She hears no fire, and so she stays still.
She hears a rustling, skirts of rough fabrics, furs and feathers, and the careful thump near to a deer’s hooves moving towards hers.
Uncertain for the moment, Claudia stays still, and the rustling stops.
She feels a hand upon her head, and then there is a wet cloth on her face, gently downward from her brow, and out, freeing her face from the soot. Her eyes from the dust.
“Look at you, little one.” the voice soft and head tilting, “Spell-bound thing, what’s made you blue and grey?”
It wasn’t in her head at least and so Claudia doesn’t complain.
“Oh, sweet-thing what’s bound your tongue?” the voice askes, an old woman she thinks.
Claudia says nothing at first, too busy seeing with her eyes, not wanting to taste the forest-ashes. She instead pulls at the cloth, taking it lower on her face, so that her mouth was clean. She should be careful what she says, looking the creature up and down, not fully human shaped that’s plain as day.
At her height sitting up, she can see her feet, hooves forked by proper toes in a pair, her hands baring too long claws. She wears a skirt and cape, and not much else.
She sees the base of what could be more arms from beneath her cape, but neither hand nor claw. If she has a tail, it is unknown to Claudia.
She almost hears a whisper in the ashes, ‘Oh little girl, who’s bound your tongue?’ and she can’t answer. So instead, “Do you have a tail?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Do you have a tail?”
“Ah, that makes sense.” She pulls her skirt up a bit to reveal that she did, with a shape in common to that of a lizard. “Now, how did you get so dusty?”
“Well, how did this place get so dusty?” Claudia replied, referencing the fire. The cruelties she knows did not invite it.
The woman smiles and corrects, “My worry is that you know or not. The forest has its politics after all.”
“I guessed.” Claudia said, “So is dancing on tongues the practice of princesses down here?”
“I don’t imagine so, though I can’t say how such a thing would be organized.”
“What were you hoping for?” the woman asks.
“I couldn’t tell you; it all seems a bit lurid to me,” Claudia admits, “The forest kept calling my name.” she looks to the ground, like the path would be clearer for her gaze.
“Oh, and what is that?”
“Don’t you know? You said it too.” Claudia jokes, how rare it was that her name was called properly. She was ‘sweet’ and she was ‘little’ and so her ‘name’ was close enough, she thought.
“You’re a liar, I’ve said no names.” the woman contests uselessly.
“Oh really? And what’s yours?” Claudia plays along.
“Impossible child! I meant you no harm, why shouldn’t I know your name?” the old woman asks simply, Claudia almost feels sorry before responding.
“If its no matter for you, than it’ll be no matter to me. Still you first.” She said sing-song, which was easy enough so long as she looked away.
“What a thing to say! And where was your cleverness? Some silly old witch?”
“I suppose so, though she’s dead enough that it’s all fairy-tales now.” She said, thinking of her favorite book.
The one Aunt Gillian always read to her. She wanted to go home.
“That old huh?”
“I suppose it would be an easy thing then, to walk back in and find whatever way you’d like?” the creature offers.
“Um. No” she said, seeing the trees as only a danger. Making a point not to see them now. She’d been trapped beneath and within after all, and she didn’t know anything about this woman. The offer was strange, and so she didn’t trust it.
Even as the ground seemed to rumble.
“Suit yourself, sweet thing!” the creature says before bolting off, and into the forest. Claudia stayed put even as she watched it run, not wanting to follow after into a place that had pulled her so far down.
But she couldn’t move forward either, she wasn’t sure where she’d be going in that case, and she couldn’t help thinking she’d been led too far aways already. She couldn’t even tell how long it had been.
She could be dead for all she knew.
“Look, it’s a wood elf!” someone said, and she turned her head from it, listening carefully to spite it all.
“I am not” she corrects.
“What are you then? Gazing lost into it?” Claudia doesn’t answer, not wanting to explain. She really couldn’t. It was too much to look from, the ash dirt on her skin.
How the forest pulled her about.
The feeling once tensed around her ankles.
Unkindly still, she’s locked with it.
Where can she go that she’ll be found?
What was once the disruption of a voice, appears before her as a man or at least almost that. A little large she noticed, as he gazed into her face, to close for comfort, but less a bother than when the forest was visible
“What a fancy face, I’d think she was the Snow-bride if not for the King’s belt.” He says to his companion, who did move forward to her.
“Silly thing, looking like that.” The other responded, taking time to confirm her likeness. Before pulling his hand away.
“Unless the king would want an encore.”
“Of that frigid dame? Unlikely.”
“Oh don’t be too hasty, this little tame thing. Might be a thrill either way,” the first one laughed, “We could even say she was a gift with the ashes on her.”
“A gift from what? The forest? The sky?” if she feels a wondering vine on her leg, if she moves to flick it off, they don’t notice. Even as she listens to them clearly.
“Well, ours in tithing.”
“So he can burn his fingers? I don’t think so.” the other says, “I wouldn’t even bother.”
“He is stronger still than us both.”
“But do you think it will amuse him? The wicked face of his enemy?”
“Well, why not?”
“Why not?” they ask incredulous, “If I must, she is a hazard.”
“The very image!”
“Alright, Well, Very-Image? Do you have anywhere to be?” that first voice asked gesturing to her.
“Are you talking to me?”
“Of course, where do you want to be?” he asked, “I don’t imagine you’re meant to stay here, since your such a curiosity.” He said, looking around the ashen field that was once her prison.
Claudia wasn’t so sure, but his offer was a better bargain then most. She was unlikely to be found alive if she stayed, and truly, she’d rather avoid the regrowth of that forest if she could.
“Alright.” She says, “Where will we be going?”