Chapter 3: Katerina
Katerina pulled the bowstring and fired at the small rabbit that sat helpless in front of her. It would provide meat for a few days if she rationed it properly, for Kat was accustomed to not eating much. She was a girl of the woods. Specifically, the Callista Woods, on the border between Xastuvaria and Slogokar.
When Kat’s adoptive father had died when Kat was eleven, her adoptive mother had become an abusive alcoholic who prided herself on punishing Kat in various ways. Eventually, Kat had built up the nerve to run away, but there was one complication - Kat had no friends, no family, no one that would take her in even for a little while. She was alone.
The small, almost twelve-suns-old girl had fled to the woods with her prized possession - her shrink-sack. Kat could fit anything in her shrink-sack, which was about the size of a jewelry bag. There were only three items in the bag, though - the few quarter-crowns that she had to her name, a bone knife, and a ruby-red choker, complete with a pendant in the shape of a star engraved with L F, that she’d had ever since she was dropped at her adoptive parents’ door. It was made of a fine silk, which made Kat wonder if her birth mother was rich.
Who cared? The woman had left Kat to die. She didn’t care.
By now, the choker was dusty and dirty. Kat didn’t ever wear the filthy silk, of course. She just liked looking at it from time to time. This is what I would’ve had, she’d whisper to herself, when it was just Kat and the forest life. This is what I’m missing out on.
Kat cleaned the rabbit and studied the meat. It was high-quality, that was for sure. Before its death, the bunny had been well-fed and happy. The markets would pay well for it.
And Kat desperately needed a bath, and her clothes desperately needed washing.
Nodding, Kat grabbed her meat bag - well, a plastic black bag - which she had put the rabbit meat in, and slung it over her shoulder. The girl set out towards the road that would take her to Maywood, a small market town just north of Xastuvaria’s capital. Her feet crunched as they broke twigs and stepped on dying leaves. It wasn’t a long walk to the road, but it would be a while of walking down the dusty path if she couldn’t hitch a ride.
The entirety of Maywood knew Kat as the ‘little girl living in the woods’. Often, Kat would retreat from her hideout to spend quarter-crowns on a bath or a washing for her filthy clothes. When she did, the town would welcome her. They loved Kat. Some saw her as a hero for bravely fleeing her abusive family. Others viewed her as a valuable asset. A girl who’s survived in the woods for four suns? Wow! Still other townsfolk believed Kat to be an adorable hermit, a child of the entire village. That was fairly true, seeing as Kat would get unreasonably lucky deals on whatever she was buying.
She sure wasn’t living in royalty, but Kat liked her simple life in the forest.
Finally Kat reached the edge of the road. She smoothed her hair as best she could, untangling the knots that didn’t refuse to give way. Kat wiped a small amount of the grime off of her filthy face. She was probably a fright to behold, which she knew from experience.
Kat surveyed the road, which stretched far beyond what her eyes could see. It was a hot day, and muggy. Kat definitely didn’t want to walk that long, lonely road in such weather. So she sat, and eyed the ground, where she promptly located a patch of redberries. Kat recognized the bush indistinctly, but she was pretty sure that the bush’s fruit was edible. She immediately took a handful of the berries and ate them, the berries popping and releasing juices in her mouth. Yum.
“Ma’am?” Kat whirled around, only to find a boy staring at her. Kat cringed inwardly. She was a mess - disheveled hair, grimy clothes, dirty skin, and mouth stained red from the berries. He, on the other hand - tall; neat; wearing perfectly-fit, clean clothes; sporting combed red hair the color of autumn.
Something was familiar about the boy, but Kat couldn’t figure out what.
“Are you okay?” he inquired softly. Gods, he probably thought that Kat was mentally disabled. Kat nodded mutely, although her head spun slightly from the humiliation of the encounter.
Behind him was an ornately-designed carriage with the royal crest of Nydillan engraved on it. Nydillan? That didn’t make sense. Suddenly, the door of the vehicle burst open, a girl in a pretty dress leaping out.
“Rowan!” she cried. “Come on! The store closes in eighteen rills!”
“Be there in a second,” the boy called. At once, Kat realized who he was. She put it together - the abnormally ginger hair, his formal dress...
Crown Prince Rowan Raun of Xastuvaria.
Kat may have been uncultured, as a woods’ girl, but even she knew the integrity and weight of the situation.
Kat dropped into a bow. “Your Highness!” she exclaimed. “Forgive me for being so insolent!”
“Insolent?” the prince remarked. “No, you weren’t.” He looked confused.
Kat panicked and leapt to her feet, taking off down the road despite her head hurting something awful. He stomach ached, too, but Kat ignored it. She had just made a fool of herself in front of the crown prince. Her feet pounded against the trail, expertly dodging any rocks and divots in the dirt.
But then Kat saw black, and she fell.
“Ma’am?” Rowan called. It seemed the girl had fallen. He gestured to Amber to get in the carriage and follow him, and she obliged.
Rowan bolted down the path. Luckily, she didn’t make it far - for when Rowan dropped to her side, she was out cold. He was a smart boy. Rowan knew that the girl needed a ailmaster - and fast. Hastily he looked behind him. If Rowan could only find the cause of what triggered her ailment...
Then he saw it - the patch of what seemed to be redberries. He knew what they actually were - the berries were not redberries. It was a bush of cullenbere, a dangerously poisonous berry that mimics the appearance of a redberry bush.
Thank Gods Rowan had taken suns of classes in every subject possible. He knew how to identify a cullenbere bush.
Unfortunately, the cullenbere poison acted fast.
Seeing no alternative, Rowan hoisted the girl into his arms. He did not stop to think about how dirty she was or how expensive this particular outfit was. He just ran. Rowan sprinted to the carriage and gently set the girl down inside.
He shouted to the coachmen to “go, go, go!” and leaned back against the luxurious cushioning. Rowan glanced at the girl. Her complexion was pale, but it looked natural. Messily cropped, matted black hair framed her face, like she hadn’t washed in a while. Luckily, she didn’t smell, although Rowan could not explain it. Her body and clothes, too, were filthy. She must be a hermit, Rowan decided. A hermit in the woods.
After an eternity, the carriage stopped in a town. The coachmen informed Rowan that they were in Maywood. He thanked them, picked up the girl’s horribly light body, and started walking briskly towards the nearest person.
“Hello, sir,” Rowan greeted. “Does this town have an ailmaster?”
“Yes,” the man affirmed in a thick accent of north Xastuvaria. Rowan thanked him generously and picked up his pace once again, following the direction that the man pointed him in. The distance was too short to take a carriage, so he ran. It was faster.
Soon Rowan came to the ailmaster’s shop. It was small and wooden, and Rowan knew it had to do. He entered the shop and greeted who he presumed to be the ailmaster.
“Hello,” the ailmaster said in the same accent as the man before. “I’m new here - came from Aepiwaemore - so I’m sorry, but who are you and who are you carrying? Wife? Lover?” he inquired. Despite himself, Rowan blushed.
“Actually, I don’t know who she is,” he admitted. “She passed out as my carriage drove by.”
“Well, that’s mighty kind of you, son,” the ailmaster smiled. “I’ll take her from here.”
“Can I stay?” Rowan said abruptly. For some reason, he felt a strange sense of responsibility for the unconscious girl. The ailmaster raised his eyebrows.
“And you say you aren’t lovers?” he grinned jokingly. Rowan chuckled.
Kat opened her eyes wearily. There was a sharp, unceasing pain in her head that refused to go away. It felt like a dagger being stabbed in her brain, she thought.
A boy was standing over her, and a man dressed in an ailmaster’s attire. With a start, Kat recognized the boy as Prince Rowan, and she gulped. No doubt was she in trouble for being so rude to Xastuvaria’s crown prince.
“She’s awake,” Prince Rowan remarked.
“Wow, really?” the ailmaster commented. Kat decided that she liked the man.
“What’s your name?” Prince Rowan inquired. Kat winced. Yes, she was in trouble, all right. He needed to know her name so he could set a punishment for her insolence. But the consequences for her deeds might be worse if she doesn’t respond...
“Katerina,” Kat whispered, almost inaudible.
“Katerina...” The prince’s voice trailed off, obviously asking for a last name. Through her muddled mind and memory, Kat fished for a last name she could make up. She knew that, however new the ailmaster was, he’d recognize the name of her adopted parents, and Kat didn’t know her birth mother’s surname. She had been just ‘Kat’ for so many suns...
Then it came to her. Girl of the woods. “Callista,” Kat voiced. “Katerina Callista.”