Chapter 15: Mrs. Berrywood

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The crackling voice identified the stranger as a woman. The light of the lowering sun blinded my eyes as I squinted in an attempt to see her face. I could only make out a tender figure, walking slightly bent over as she came closer.

"Our friend is sick, ma'am," Rowan said. "She's poisoned and she urgently needs an antidote."

The woman took another step closer, yet her face was still veiled in shadows. "What kind of poison?"

Rowan shook his head helplessly. "I don't know, ma'am. She got bitten by ... something in the woods."

I heard the woman take in a sharp breath. In two steps, she was beside us and she squatted down next to Ellie. This close to us, her face was finally revealed: she was an elderly woman with gray hair tucked up on top of her head and bright, azure blue eyes. Laying a wrinkled hand on Ellie's forehead to measure her temperature, she clicked with her tongue when she noticed the heat radiating from the Dwarf's skin. Her gaze flicked over the wound on Ellie's arm. The flesh around it had turned black and seemed to pulsate.

The woman looked up, her blue gaze meeting ours. "I think I may be able to help, but we'll have to be quick. In this state, she won't last long."

Although the woman's statement only confirmed what we had already suspected, the news hit me as if a heavy stone had landed on my chest. My heart ached for Ellie, and it surprised me how much I had grown to care for the Dwarfs, despite the short time we had spent together.

We hurried back to our horses, who were grazing a bit further down the road. Rowan carried Ellie to Rynn and let Larry climb into the saddle before placing her in front of him so that he could support her while they rode. A real gentleman, Rowan offered the elderly woman a spot on Eros, which she gladly accepted. She told us to ride in the direction of the river and we took off.

I urged Inna to ride next to Eros and turned my head to the woman. "Who are you?"

The woman smiled with so much kindness that a pleasant warmth spread through my body. "My name is Diana Berrywood, child. I live in Anthrali; that's where I'm taking you. It's not too far away."

Anthrali. Wasn't that the village where Xia Jutín's grave was?

"Forgive me if I'm being blunt, Mrs. Berrywood, but isn't it dangerous to walk so close to the forest?" Rowan asked, frowning.

Mrs. Berrywood laughed, a melodious sound. "That's an odd question to ask, considering you just stormed out of that forsaken place." Rowan looked sheepish, and she patted his shoulder in a reassuring manner. "I was just on my way back from a short visit to the brewer when I saw you. For some unknown reason, they built the brewery on the other side of the river, so old people like myself have to wear themselves out to get some booze. Perhaps it's their way of telling us that we should stop drinking at our age. It's not like I can handle the alcohol as easily as I did when I was young." She tapped her finger against her temple and laughed.

Rowan smiled. "In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with a mug of beer every now and then." He glanced over his shoulder at the bag that Mrs. Berrywood was holding, which contained several bottles.

"That's what I tell them! Ah, but when you're as old as I am, people treat you as though you are merely a disobedient child. Gives me a good excuse to act like one too if I want to," she said, winking at me. 

I grinned at her. I liked that woman.

The nearest bridge crossing the Lacdonian River luckily wasn't so far away and led straight into a small, picturesque village. Modest wooden houses and cabins lined the broad main street and several narrower side roads. A row of beautiful cherry trees that had just started to blossom marked the entrance to Anthrali. I picked a pink flower from one of the branches and braided it into my hair. Rowan smiled at me when he saw my new accessory, his eyes paying me a silent compliment. I lowered my gaze before he could see the wild bloom of color that was my face.

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