The weather was nice enough that Isadora wondered if the other four back home were running around the forest yet. It made the adults jittery, but the land was domesticated around the citadel and the village. It had never hurt anyone before, although there’d been one incident where Mishal had sworn a root had tried to grab his foot.
That hadn’t been long after Mishal started trying to be years older than he was, and Cassius had reverted as if in retaliation.
There was a river running parallel to the road that had been there for three days. A forest stretched beyond it. The Wilderlands were quiet, and so was Mishal beside her. He’d been quiet ever since their conversation of missing home and his birthday. She didn’t know if this was some mood because of that, or if he was bored.
He’d never admit that. He was still a child, and a veracious learner at that, and he’d been stuck on a horse for over a week. Still, he’d never complain, not even up to the point where he died of it.
She didn’t press, though she wanted to. He’d probably retreat, like he always did, and they’d get nowhere.
There was a light breeze that only moderated the sun beaming from above. The sound of the gears of the walking carriages clacked behind them, steam hissing and dissipating on the wind. She had shed her coat and gloves already, baring her arms to the warmth of the sun. Mishal was still wrapped in his jacket like it was the Moon’s Vigil again.
She wondered of the others. She hoped they were all right. Ember and Rowan could take care of themselves well enough, but Cassius was so sensitive and Alanna so young. It was already the longest she’d ever been away from any of them. She’d never been away from any of them.
A wish in exchange for absence of the ones loved the most. She sighed. There was no perfect scenario. She had, in truth, been sick of the citadel and seeing the same everything all the time.
She shifted in her saddle. Her thighs hurt. Her back and shoulders ached. She wished there were even a few comforts on the road, as there were back home. She missed hot baths.
Then she realised Margaretta had turned from her place at the front of the party and was straightening her horse to approach her and Mishal.
“I apologise that I have not come to speak with the two of you since we departed,” Margaretta said, pulling her horse around until she rode on Isadora’s left. “You must have questions, and I wanted to explain in more explicit detail the undertaking we have before us.”
She glanced at Mishal on her right. He nodded, the distant glaze over his eyes replaced by attentiveness. He had something to focus on now. She turned back to Margaretta.
Margaretta nodded when they gave her a silent invitation to continue. “You know we are heading towards the Castle in the Valley. We’re first heading to the village south of the ruins, where we’ll restock and collect our bearings. Then we’ll head north over the hills the block in the ruins. I’ve heard in the recent years, rocs have been making their nests in the area, and they’re not friendly in the slightest. We’ll have to be careful.”
“I do have a question, actually,” she said. She shifted her weight to better face Margaretta. “The three kingdoms, at least two of the them fell because they had lost their trueblooded rulers. What about the third?”
“Its people disappeared,” Margaretta said. “There are reports of some kind of slaughter, but certainly not high enough in number to encompass the whole city, and there isn’t a single report of what happened to the truebloods. It’s assumed that something happened to them, however, as the kingdom fell to ruin, and its people disappeared.” She shook her head. “Nobody really knows. The Canopy Kingdom was the last to fall, and the land quickly took over after. Nobody can even get close to the ruins. Nobody even knows if they’re still there.”
Rowan would be more productive at asking questions than she was. What had they said about it?
“I thought nobody’s gotten close to the other ruins either?” Mishal asked, brow bent in a thoughtful frown.
“Nobody has accessed any of the ruins, but the ones that fell in the jungle aren’t even visible from a distance. The Wilderlands remains a tightknit forest there, closing off everything inside from any who would try to access it. At least for the Valley Ruins and the Sundown Ruins, you can see the walls where the kingdoms once stood.”
She frowned. “If nobody can access the ruins, what makes you believe we can?”
Margaretta’s expression grew tense and she turned, staring ahead towards the horizon. Her features looked severe, even with the pale hue of her hair to frame and soften her face. “We have something the other expeditions do not,” was all she said in place of an explanation.
She exchanged a glance with Mishal. He looked unsettled, but he wouldn’t voice his own thoughts unless pressed. She nodded to herself. “That sounds like something you say to convince yourself that the outcome may be different than past attempts. How is there anything to distinguish us from those who have tried and failed in the past? Tried and failed and died?” She knew little about the ruins’ gruesome histories, but Margaretta stiffened at her words, and it was all the confirmation she needed.
“Just because your parents are not present does not mean you have free rein of however you choose to act. Mind your place. We do have something to set us apart from other expeditions. To go into this blindly would be foolish.” Margaretta tapped her horse and he began to move faster forward, back towards the front. “It is not your place to wonder how, it is your place to take in this opportunity. We record history, and in some instances, make it, but you will stay in line while we do so.” And then her horse trotted away.
She stared at the back of Margaretta’s head in complete surprise. She’d asked a question. And maybe she had pressed her luck, but to get so defensive?
Someone laughed behind her, and she turned to see one of the scholars who had some skill with a blade. Forestter. “Just wait until we’ve been on the road a few months,” he said, as if nothing had just happened. “We’ll all be ready to kill each other then.”
“Seems like Margaretta’s getting started early,” Mishal murmured under his breath. He looked as perturbed as she felt.
She nodded her agreement, and was uneasy about it the rest of the day.