Three

The two walked hand in hand to the garden wall. The howling of the beast had gone silent for a while now. It was impossible to tell how far away the creature had gone. She gave a fearful look to the stranger beside her. "What do we do now? I told you, I can't go over the wall." "I know you said that...but I'm curious...could you show me what happens when you climb the wall? You already explained, I know, but I want to see it. Maybe there's so way I can interfere with it while it happens." Aleix pulled out the dagger. "Alright...but I don't think you'll be able to stop it." She walked up to the wall and started to climb. Like the last time she tried, she was able to get up high enough to touch the top of the wall and see slightly over it. When she pulled herself up higher, the garden reacted. Vines wrapped tightly around her ankles and wrists, snaking back down to the earth below. "She's bewitched the plants..." Aleix took the dagger and cut at the vines. For every cut, two more grew in its place. Soon, most of Lucrecia's arms and legs were covered in green. "I can't hold on any longer..." Her grasp slipped and she fell backwards. As she fell, the vines fell off of her, returning to their previous, decayed state. Aleix dropped the dagger and caught her. "Is there anywhere inside this inner circle that isn't covered by these plants?" "No...all of it is. I've tried looking for a place before. No matter how much of the garden dies, the vines stay. Even when they're dead...they're never really gone." Red marks lined her limbs. Aleix took her wrist in his hand and turned her arm. "Are you alright? Does it hurt?" "I'm fine. It only stings a little." She blushed at the contact. The only time the old woman had held her wrist was to pull her across the room. That hurt far more than the vines did. "I'm sorry for asking that of you. I didn't realize how tightly those vines could constrict." "It's alright. Now we know for sure there's no way I can get over the wall. Cutting didn't work. We'd have to know the spell to undo whatever magic she put on it." Lucrecia wondered how long it would be before the stranger would leave her. No one would stay trapped in a place like this if they could get away, and certainly not to keep a promise to someone they had met that day. "I'm going to assume she doesn't keep any spell books or anything like that around the house." Aleix said as he helped her up. "She doesn't allow anything in the house that could give me power. The only books I have are picture books and stories about the world." "There has to be a way. How does she move in and out of this place? I saw her move through the earth when she left me in the labyrinth...but surely that's not the only way she can get in here." Aleix paced in circles. "You're sure you've never seen any way she gets in?" "No, she always surprises me. Wherever I am, she always sneaks up behind me." Lucrecia lowered her gaze. The hope she felt earlier had mostly faded away. "Hmm...I have another question. Do you know when she'll be back? I have the oddest feeling she won't like me being here, and I don't want to be around for her to find me." "She usually returns three days after the cupboard is empty." She thought back on earlier. She was glad she had chosen against eating again that morning. That would give them an extra day. Who am I kidding? He'll likely be gone before then anyway... "She must have a spell on that too. So, from today, how many days would it be?" "I have enough food for tomorrow. So, five days from now. Six if I skipped eating again." He took her hand. "Let's go inside again. Being out here is making me feel uneasy." Lucrecia didn't say anything in response, but kept close to him. When they were inside, he closed the door behind them. "Now, you said something about not eating again. What happens when she comes back? Does she do something to you?" Lucrecia sat down at the small table in the kitchen. "Sometimes. Sometimes she brings her friends by to play with me. Other times she brings back her bone trophies before she puts them out at the gate. But that's not really..." Aleix pulled up a chair beside her. "What is it that you're really afraid of?" "It's strange to explain. When she comes, a part of the garden dies forever." A feeling of dread came over her as she spoke. She knew what would happen when the garden died. She'd known for along time. Why am I so afraid to say it aloud? "The garden dies? What happens when everything dies?" "Then I go into the maze. You see, she keeps me here as her gardener. I've been tending to the garden since I turned eight. The garden was massive back then. I could barely see where the walls were. It took me a few years to even realize it was dying, and another few to notice the pattern." She thought back to the old woman laughing at her when she had asked what was happening with the garden. "When I was a child, I thought I could stay safe as long as I kept the garden up. That's what she told me. She's been intentionally killing it all this time...waiting for me to notice and mock me. Most of the garden is already gone. When she comes again, there will only be a few patches left." "What a cruel monster." He put his hand over hers. "Then you absolutely have to come with me. She's planning on killing you off anyway. If we work together, I'm sure we can solve this puzzle. And when we do, you can go out and see the outside world. You'll know then the real difference between people and monsters, ugliness and beauty." "I do...I do want to see it, but I..." She looked out the window. The light rays that trickled in through the holes and cracks in the mountain were beginning to fade. "I don't think I can leave." "Don't talk like that. If you give up, you'll definitely never leave. You said you wanted to see the outside world. You can. We just have to work together, and then you can go wherever you want." She tried to picture what the outside world might look like. Her mind could only paint pictures like the crude drawings in her picture books. What did the real sun look like? Feel like? Her books had described the sun's rays as warm. A warm world sounded beautiful. "But what are we going to do? We don't have any clue where to start." "We'll find a way. I don't have any ideas yet, but we can think up more tomorrow. It looks like it's about to be nightfall. I don't want to go back out there in complete darkness." "Yes, that would be for the best. The beast is more active at night on top of that." "Oh, is that so? So...it's primarily nocturnal...I wonder if we can use that in any way." He glanced up at her, and then away. "Ah, but we'll wait until morning to deal with that. For the time being, why don't we talk about something else?" "Alright...May I...would it be alright if I ask some questions of you?" Lucrecia tapped her fingers against each other nervously. "About the outside world..." "Of course. Though I don't know how well I can answer you. I've spent most of my life in a secluded town. What I know of the world, I've learned from stories I overheard travelers telling." "This may sound like a stupid question...but I've been wondering something." She faced the ground. "Well, you know, I have never seen another human before...so I don't really have a frame of reference for what others look like..." "Uh huh." "And I was wondering..." "Yes?" "I don't know if I should address you as Sir or Miss." Aleix sat dumbfounded. He laughed and scratched his head. "That...is something I have never been asked before...She really hasn't told you much of anything. For me, it would be 'Sir', but there's no need to be so formal. Um...you do know what you are, right?" She blushed. "I am a woman...right?" "As far as I know." "How do you tell?" With the stone people like the old woman, it was easy. The men and women looked absolutely nothing alike. The men were bigger, at least two or three heads taller, with darker skin and heavier foliage covering their bodies. She knew there were other details of difference, but the dense foliage prevented her from ever really getting a good look at the form of the men beyond that. When she looked at Aleix, she noticed some differences, but she had no clue how different two people of the same gender could look with with her kind. The old woman had told her some things that didn't quite match with Aleix and other things she couldn't see, and she had no idea if any of that had been true in the first place. "Um...well...adult women tend to have smaller, curvier frames. Softer features. And there are some...anatomical differences that uh, are not something you can see with clothes on. But uh, we'll leave that for a later discussion." Aleix's face had turned a deep red. "I don't think I understand what you mean by softer features. You're skin is very soft like mine." "No, that's not really what I mean." He smirked. "Though no one's ever told me I had soft skin before." "Really? But you're so much softer than the old woman is!" "Yes, but all humans would be soft in comparison to her. Don't compare me to her. What is my skin like compared to yours?" She touched the top of his arm and then her own. It was slight, but she could notice a difference. "That feels almost the same to me." "It's not a complete guarantee. Some women have much rougher skin than me. It's more judging by the features you notice across the whole person. Do they have the majority of a certain type of features, like a deeper or higher pitched voice...But I suppose, now that I think about it, there isn't a huge amount of difference between human men and women. There's so much overlap with a lot of things. We're certainly not like birds. Some of them have males that look like completely different animals from the females. With humans, it's a lot more subtle." "Birds look that different from each other when they're the same kind?" "It's not just between the males and females either. Some birds change color between seasons and from infant to adult. The males are usually the pretty ones. Bright blues and green, purples and red." "Like flowers!" . "Yes, exactly. Oh, humans have different colors on them too. It's not tied to gender or seasons. Humans just look a variety of ways." "What do you mean? How so?" "Hair, eyes, skin. They come in different shades, but it doesn't really mean anything like in some other animals. Humans are sort of a mixed bag of random things. There's sort of a general pattern, but there's a lot of variance. It's strange...but I've never really thought deeply about it before. Heh, we're more like dogs than birds, for sure." While Lucrecia was intrigued by all of this new information, she was still confused. "If there's so much variance, how will I know?" "I think the easiest might be looking at the general body type. The chest, at least in an adult, would usually be a dead giveaway." He pointed to his own chest. "You see, mine doesn't look like yours." "I was wondering about that, but I thought it might be rude to ask." He laughed. "Don't worry about it. It would have been rude though, if you'd asked a lady why her chest was so flat. She'd probably be offended." "Wait, women can have flat chests too...I'm confused..." "Ah, I think this will be a lot clearer once we get out and you see more humans. It's really hard to grasp some of these things without looking at people." He smiled. "See, you have to leave this place. So, you can see what our people are like. I can't promise everyone will be worth wanting to look at...in fact, if my village was anything to go by, most people are not very..." "I'm sure they'll be beautiful." She felt a bit of vengeance in saying that. "May I ask another question?" "Yes?" "What is the sun like? And the stars and moon?" Lucrecia was a little frightened to ask those questions. She had imagined such wonderful things about them. He put his hand to his chin. "The sun...it's like a bright light in the sky. It's so bright you can't look at it directly without it hurting your eyes. It lights up everything. The sun makes the day. It's sort of a hot white-yellowish color. That doesn't really effect the color everything else is. It brings all the other colors to life." Lucrecia leaned in. It was like she was hearing a new fairytale. "The stars are like sparkling dots in the night sky. They're white too, against a bluish-black sky. The moon is usually white too, but sometimes it looks like a yellowish-orange color. It changes shape over the course of a month. Sometimes, you can still see some of the stars and the moon in the daytime too. That's usually only in the morning and just before sunset. They're not as bright then, though. Ah...is this answering your question?" He stopped himself. "I'm not sure how much you know. I don't want to sound condescending." "Don't worry about that. Even if I know it, it's different hearing it from you than reading it in a book. Tell me, are there really stars that fall from the sky?" "Shooting stars? Yes, I've seen a few. They're rare. My grandmother used to say that if you make a wish on a falling star, it'll come true. I wouldn't put much stock into that. Is there anything else?" "Yes...I'm sorry, I have so many questions..." "Ask away. If I can, I'll answer what ever you ask." The two talked late into the night, until they were both too tired to stay awake. That night, for the first time ever, Lucrecia was able to stay asleep. She was so at ease she didn't notice herself drifting off in the middle of their conversation, and no howl of the beast could reach her. She didn't dream of the maze that night. Her mind worked to paint her an image of the outside world. It was still patchy in places and sketched around the edges, but the moon and sun were becoming clearer. Bright lights in the sky ruling day and night. Birds that matched flowers. People who looked like her. People who weren't monsters. In her dreaming landscape, Aleix was there, still holding her hand. She was certain that must be what standing in the sun felt like.
Four | TOC