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Alone in the Wilderness

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When Allan and his cousins were very young, no older than ten, and their parents had royal business to attend to behind closed doors, they liked to play adventurer in the halls of whichever castle they found themselves stuck fighting boredom in.

They were a clandestine order of heroes with top-secret codenames— just their favourite desserts, but it made the entire affair that much more thrilling. The courtyards of the castles became vast plains, the stairs became bold mountain passes, and the guards— who, Goddess bless them, played along without fail— became towering and ancient trees.

Allan never knew how cold and quiet the forest truly was until he spent his first night alone in the heart of one.

He considered himself quite brave, surely more brave than the average person, and to say he was scared wasn't exactly right. He found himself wondering, if something were to happen to him, how long it would take for someone to notice. How long it would be before someone found him lying still and forgotten on the ground, asleep on a bed of mouldering leaves and moist dirt.

Of course, that was all just his mind running away from him, wasn't it?

In the morning he stomped out the last of the embers from his fire and left the forest as quickly as his feet could carry him through the underbrush.

The first thing out of Rand's mouth when he saw Allan was 'Prince Cookie reporting for duty'. Allan couldn't help but grin and reply 'Prince Bonbon is glad to have you'.

Rand was his usual sunny self from the first step he took off the castle grounds. It hadn't been a terribly long time since he and Allan had seen one another, but Rand still managed to natter on for hours about all the little things that had happened in the meantime— flowers blooming in the courtyard, his bumbling attempts at learning to dance, exciting new bits of gossip. For a good part of the evening Allan found himself laughing and egging Rand on through a particularly engaging tale about a rat that evaded the castle's cats for weeks before popping up in the kitchen and scaring a chef so thoroughly that the rat was escorted off the grounds and the chef given a week of leave.

As night settled they found themselves nestled in a narrow valley between foothills, sleek with grass and cool with condensation. Allan wedged a hole into the soft ground and built up a little fire pit— as he leaned down, flint in hand to light it, he heard a soft snap of fingers behind him and the tinder ignited with a puff.

“It gets so still at night,” Allan said quietly, after they had eaten and the moon had risen above the swell of hills surrounding them. “It's so lonely out here.”

Rand replied with a gentle tap of his fist against Allan's shoulder and a lopsided smile. “We're not alone, though, are we?”

Despite Allan and Rand's protests, Samantha was on her feet within hours of being uncursed. She had never been very strong, and even when the three of them were younger and much closer to the same size she had never won at wrestling, but as she marched ahead of her cousins at a gruelling pace they both wondered how long they would be able to keep up.

When she finally slowed down all three of them were exhausted. They found a relatively clear patch of grass, sheltered by a tree and near enough to the river they had been following to hear the babble in the distance, started a fire, and ate in silence.

It wasn't until they were curled up in their bedrolls that Samantha spoke, almost for the first time that day. “This might sound ridiculous, at a time like this, but... do you remember when we used to play heroes? Pretending to be the chosen ancestors of Loto and all that?”

Allan giggled a bit. “How could we ever forget mean little Princess Pudding?”

“I was not mean! I only pulled your hair when you teased me.”

“Which was almost daily, if I remember correctly!” Rand laughed. “I guess we were all a bit awful.”

There was a pause, then Samantha sighed. “And now here we are.”

The sound of water filled the silence, a gentle white noise that made the night seem much less empty.

“Do you think we'll be okay?” Allan asked softly.

Samantha scoffed. “Of course,” she said, rolling over to go to sleep, “I'm going to yank Hargon's hair so hard he won't know heads from tails.”

Rand snorted and rolled over as well. Slowly their breathing slowed and deepened, and Allan listened until the sounds lulled him into sleep as well, calm and peaceful and absolutely dreamless for the first time since he set foot out of the castle and into the wilderness.