Chapter 4: "The Rose" and "The Valley"
The company emerged from the forest after two nights. The treeline broke away very sharply, revealing a valley of untended orchards and groves. But Kori wasn’t paying much attention to the scenery; he was too enamored by the gorgeous girl that had chosen to walk beside him. Marielle seemed to just float along the green valley like one of the butterflies or a flower petal on the wind. Kori tried hard not to stare at her. Though, every now and then, he got the feeling that she was looking at him…but that was probably just his imagination.
They had already spent two days and two nights within the forest and had been along the valley now for a few hours, but not a single word had passed between them…only glances with unclear meanings behind them.
Just as Kori was getting up the gumption to finally say something—for about the hundredth time since they’d left—Marielle gasped and chirped an enthusiastic “Wow!” Then she disappeared from his side and hurried over to a patch of bright flowers.
She cradled the blossom in her hand and looked back at Kori. “Look at them. Aren’t they the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen?”
Kori pried his gaze away from the actual most beautiful thing he’d ever seen and looked at the flower in her hand. “I see. They are pretty.” He said uncertainly.
Kori took a deep breath. “You are a million times more beautiful than anything in this field. Do you know that?” He could feel his face burn red with shame, but he just couldn’t help himself. It was too much to bear in silence.
She didn’t look at him for a long minute after that; she just continued to stroke the flower and stare at the colorful patch of land in front of her. Then, after what seemed like forever, she reached out a soft hand and touched his, “You’re very sweet. But you hardly know me. Why say such things?”
Kori nodded with desperation. “Because I…just…I felt compelled to speak the truth. You’re right though, we hardly know each other. I suppose I hope to change that…if you’re willing?” He took a big step backward and extended his hand. “My name is Kori and I am a tinker from a village in Drosston.”
Marielle’s face lit up and she perked into an attentive kneeling position. “Well, hello Kori. I’m Marielle from the pointless village of Belladonna.” She laughed and furrowed a brow, “What the heck is a tinker? I’ve never heard of that.”
Kori grinned mischievously. “It’s a lot like an inventor. The short answer—without showing schematics and tools—is that I make things. Everyone in Drosston has an odd vocation; it makes us useful to the kingdom. Otherwise, we would find ourselves without protection and order. Our country isn’t looked upon well. We are…um…different.”
Marielle looked confused.
Kori glanced forward down the road and watched the rest of their fellowship winding slowly across the flowered field. “Drosston is a hidden place. It’s closed off from the rest of the world.”
Marielle crept closer to him with a curious smile, “Hidden? Why?”
“Truthfully? My people are cursed…have been for ages. It’s said that one of Drosston’s earliest rulers was a cruel and, more importantly, vain man. He went mad and started believing that physical appearance was reflected in the prestige of his nation. So he actually had his soldiers round up the deformed, the elderly, and the ugly and he had them executed. Once everyone in his kingdom was perfect, he believed that Drosston itself would be perfect.” Kori shook his head slowly. “He was very wrong. One of the victims of his massacre was apparently a witch of sorts. She cursed Drosston and anyone born within its lands. Now, my people grow uglier with every impure act. Every lie that’s told, every act of selfishness, every cruelty…these things become permanent blemishes on our faces for all to see. We are a nation of hideous, unrepentant people and we are not proud of that heritage.”
Marielle covered her mouth, “That’s awful.” Then she looked off to the side as if contemplating something too difficult to understand. “So,” she said almost absently, “So, you’re cursed?”
Marielle stared at him blankly for the longest moment he’d ever felt. Then her entire appearance softened to its former sweetness and she smiled; it weakened Kori’s stance to look at her that way. She reached up and touched his cheek. “Kori, you have kind eyes, strong features, and an adorably bashful smile. I don’t see anything ugly in you. I guess that tells me everything that I need to know about who you are, doesn’t it?”
Kori smiled uncomfortably. “Life has been easy for me. No real troubles or conflicts to speak of. It’s been a simple matter to keep myself from the ugly parts of life…so far.” Kori twisted up his face, “I suppose that I’ve assumed the same of you because—honestly—you are the most breathtakingly gorgeous thing I’ve ever laid eyes on. But I must remember that you don’t share my curse so perhaps you haven’t had it so easy?”
Marielle shook her head, “Not easy. No. Not terribly interesting either, I suppose. My mum died when I was young and my pa did his best to raise me right after that. He was a good man. A great man, I’d say. Then the water in the well dried up. Then the cattle got sick. Then half the crops wilted. Then…then…then. It felt like a curse, Kori. The kind that twists luck against you. My father lost everything in one year…including whatever faith he’d had left. Then the blight came for him. Oh, he was tougher than most, but it’s a strong sickness. It was strange caring for the man who once cared for me. We grew closer during that time; I’m fairly certain I was his best and only friend at the end. Hmm, maybe he was mine too. Silly old man. I loved him.”
Kori took her hand. “When did he pass?”
“Just before the Woman visited my dreams, actually. It was like she knew that I needed a new purpose. After all, I’d spent years tending my father’s bedside. He was like a child by the end and I was all he had. His care made me stronger each day but, truthfully, consumed much of my life. After I lost him, I needed something to tether me to myself. The day that I realized that became the night that I dreamed of the Woman.”
They grasped hands tightly and walked side-by-side through the floral valley, sharing every story that they could recall.