This is going to be my last post about Stella and Griffin for a while. I’ve decided to expand this story, and it’s going to be my focus for Camp National Novel Writing Month in April. I hope you won’t mind the wait! It will be worth it (I hope). If you need a refresher before starting this story, check out their last adventure here.
Sorry in advance for a cliffhanger….enjoy!
Unsettled, But Setting Out
My dislike for the crone increased with every minute. She was patronizing, cryptic, knew far more than she was telling us, and there was an aura of otherness about her that made my skin crawl. The fact that she owned a grimoire was extremely suspicious. I was tempted to arrest her, but if I did that then our only lead to the location of the Soul-Eater would be lost.
I ground my teeth. “Then I guess we’d better be on our way.” I glanced at Stella. She was staring at the table with utter fascination. I followed her gaze. Her eyes were not fixed on the map, as I had originally thought, but on the pushed aside grimoire, still open to the page about the Soul-Eater. I didn’t know what was so interesting about a shapeless blank blob on an aged page with crooked writing, but I decided it couldn’t be good, whatever the reason was.
“Stella,” I called. She flinched violently and stepped back, a look like guilt flashing across her face before she lifted her eyes to mine. I frowned.
Horatia laughed. “Such a rush…”
“You just reminded us our time is short,” snapped Bart suddenly. He had been unusually quiet during the entire visit but now appeared defiant; meeting the old woman’s piercing eyes with a firm, level gaze. It was as if he had been deliberating some weighty decision in his mind and had finally settled it.
“He speaks at last,” Horatia said.
I bristled, ready to jump to Bart’s defense should she turn her sharp tongue on him, but he merely shrugged and turned to me.
“Shall we go, Master Griffin?”
I searched his eyes, looking for a sign of what had been passing in his mind, but there was only his usual steadfast and earnest loyalty. Nothing to indicate Horatia had told him anything untoward or disturbing. I nodded. “Prepare the horses.” As he started forward to leave, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you Bart.” He said nothing, just inclined his head and left the cottage.
I turned back to face the room and found Horatia watching us intently. “What did you say to him?” I demanded, my temper rising.
“Nothing for your ears,” she said airily, waving a hand. Red flickered in my vision.
Suddenly Stella appeared at my side, one hand fisted in her skirt, the other coming to rest on my arm with a feather-light touch. “Come on Griffin, let’s go.” She smiled and inclined her head towards the old woman. “Thank you for everything, Horatia,” she said sincerely. “We will defeat the Soul-Eater. I promise.” She fidgeted slightly, rocking on her feet. Her hand on my arm trembled ever so slightly. I frowned. What was wrong?
Horatia had turned her intense gaze on Stella. For a few moments she said nothing, just seemed to study Stella as if she was a riddle that needed answering. At last she nodded and grinned, revealing straight, even teeth. This unnerved me more than anything because of the unexpected sight. “You are welcome, star-girl. We will meet again.”
Stella said nothing else, just turned on her heel and pulled me out with her. I gave one last look back at the old woman, still grinning and then left the cottage without a word.
Outside, Bart was ready and waiting with the horses. Stella shrugged away his offer to help her into the saddle and hoisted herself up. I watched her, an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something was bothering her, but I couldn’t say what. Perhaps she was just thinking about Roy, or perhaps my confession outside of the cottage had unnerved her. That idea left me feeling anxious to appease her. I grunted and shook myself as if to shake away the feeling. Out of habit I double checked my saddle bags and touched the hilt of my spare sword, tucked away among my bags and supplies. Then I took the reins from Bart’s outstretched hands and mounted. Bart quickly followed suit.
A quick glance back at the cottage revealed Horatia watching us from the window of the cottage. She grinned at me when she caught me looking, and turned away, spurring my horse forward. “Let’s go,” I said gruffly. I would be happier once we put some distance between us and this village and that strange old woman, even if I had my doubts about her information. Our path would lead us through the rest of this wood and out onto the main road for many miles before reaching the river. “If we keep a steady pace,” I said, “we should reach the river by tomorrow night.”
“That only leaves us one day to reach the tree and stop the Soul-Eater,” said Bart doubtfully. “Perhaps we should consider riding through the night.”
I shook my head. “No. We’re going to need every bit of strength in us to face this thing, and no small amount of courage. I won’t have us face it swaying on our feet in fatigue.”
Bart nodded. I looked at Stella, who hadn’t said a word since we left the cottage. She held her reins in a tight grip and had her eyes straight ahead. “Stella?” She jolted, as if coming out of deep thought.
“Hmmm? Yes, whatever you say,” she said absently. Bart turned his head sharply at her, concern etched on his face, and my frown returned. Had she even been listening?
The village was well out of sight now, but I glanced back anyway, half expecting to see a glimpse of a grinning old woman, bent and twisted in shadow. There was nothing but quiet woods and the worn path we followed, dappled with afternoon sunlight. “Are you alright?” I asked, returning my focus to Stella. She shrugged and gave both of us a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“Yes, of course, I’m fine,” she answered. “Just a little tired, I suppose. And Horatia gave us a lot to think about.”
Bart and I shared a look and a string of silent words. “Perhaps we should rest now, for a little bit. Take some refreshment,” Bart suggested.
Stella shook her head. “No, I don’t need anything. Let’s just keep riding.”
“You’re sure you’re alright?” I asked, not wanting to let the issue drop.
“Yes!” she snapped, glaring at me. “I said I was fine. Let’s just keep riding. We can ride until we can’t see the path anymore. I agree we should get some rest, but I also want to have as much time as possible to defeat the Soul-Eater. We don’t know what we’re walking into, so the more time we have to scout things out, the better, I think.”
I was taken aback. It was a good plan, one I probably would have followed had she not been with us, but I was pleased she suggested it. Still, though it was a practical and good plan, it did not answer my question of what was on her mind. For a few moments, the only sound between us was a soft clop-clop of horse hooves on the path. “Very well,” I said at last. I would let the matter drop for now. “We’ll ride on.” But when we stopped for a rest, I would make her talk one way or another.