Dragontide's Daughter by Strewnpapers | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

Chapter 5: Desperation's Folly

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The slim judge straightened, fixing Ellie with an accusatory glare. “This is an actual Moon Flower plucked from Thornveil Wilds. I would know that glow anywhere.”

A ripple of shocked gasps echoed through the crowd. All eyes turned toward Ellie, their earlier adulation warping into appalled scrutiny.

“Is this true?” The stern judge's nostrils flared, her eyes narrowing to slits. “Did you venture into the forbidden forest and steal this sacred bloom?”

Ellie wished the ground would simply open up and swallow her whole. There was no use lying, that would only compound her ill-advised actions.

“Y-yes,” she stammered, forcing the admission past a throat gone abruptly dry. “It's true. I made a clay flower, but it broke just before the competition. I-I was desperate to win the prize money for my grandfather's cure, so I . . . I went into the Wilds and took a real one.”

A chorus of dismayed murmurs and cries washed over the once-celebratory crowd. Ellie felt Tyler edge closer, lending a subtle gesture of solidarity amidst the rising tide of rebuke.

“I can explain—” Tyler began, the slim judge looked at him, face contorted in fury.

“Silence!” he snapped; his words edged with venom. “This reckless, thoughtless violation of sacred ground will not be excused!”

Ellie shrank back, feeling as though a titan's hand was squeezing her.

“Do you have any inkling of the consequences of your dire trespass?” The man advanced, jabbing an accusatory finger toward the glowing Moon Flower. “That bloom is the anchor that maintains the protective wards around this cursed forest and keeps its vile entities at bay!”

The slim judge scanned the bewildered faces in the crowd. “By plucking it from the sanctified roots that gave it life, this foolish girl has jeopardized the whole of Crystal Shores! Even now, the barriers that shield us from the Thornveil Wilds' wrath are weakening!”

Cries of dismay and fears of rising water billowed up from the masses. Ellie stumbled back a step, her eyes stinging with tears of shame. Her hands flew to her mouth as the crushing reality washed over her in suffocating waves.

It was true—she had brought calamity upon her own village with her pursuit of a cure, however noble her intentions. The curse Grandpa Joe had long warned her about, the scourge no Crystal Shores resident dared tempt fate by breaching the Wilds. And she had unleashed it through her own desperation.

Shouts of “Shame!” erupted from every direction, a deafening torrent of contempt and condemnation raining down upon her. It felt as though the very air turned to crushing stone, pressing her ever downward.

Tyler stood in a defensive stance before her, throwing his arms wide in a futile shielding gesture. “You're not listening! She never intended this—she just wanted to save her grandpa!”

But the din drowned out his frantic pleas for understanding. Ellie fell into Tyler's arms. All around, faces twisted into masks of livid fury and fear. And in their midst, the Moon Flower pulsed ominously, its gentle glow now a sickly beacon of catastrophe.

The slim judge raised one arm, silencing the riotous outcry with an authoritative sweep. When he spoke, his tone was low and grim.

“This offense against our sacred ground is unforgivable. And until that Moon Flower is returned to the Thornveil Wilds with due reverence and sacrifice, the curse shall only intensify, and Crystal Shores will be swallowed up by the great lake Dragontide.” His eyes bored into Ellie's, devoid of mercy. “Just pray the elders are more merciful than the forest spirits you have so foolishly incurred.”

With that, he turned and strode away, the crowd parting in waves. Ellie remained in Tyler's embrace, utterly devastated amid the rising clamor of fury all around her. No sum of prize money, no cure in all the world, could undo what she had wrought.

The bearded judge climbed down from his pedestal and strode toward Ellie, his face etched with fatherly concern rather than anger.

“Silas, what are you doing?” The stern judge's voice cut through the tumultuous din. “Forget about the girl, this matter requires swift action from the elders.”

But Silas ignored her as he planted himself before Ellie. “Brienne.” He uttered the stern judge's name like a rebuke. “Stay back.”

Ellie remained frozen in place, tears streaking her cheeks as Silas towered over her. “Look at me, child.” His gruff tone softened ever so slightly. “Is what they're saying true? Did you take that Moon Flower from the Wilds?”

A nod was all Ellie could manage, a fresh wave of sobs wracking her slight frame.

“She had a good reason, sir,” Tyler insisted, pulling Ellie closer to him. “She just wanted to help her grandpa.”

Silas held up a calloused hand, his gaze never leaving Ellie. “The road to ruin is paved with good intentions.” His words rang with the weight of experience. “But we mustn't dwell on the wrong once committed—only how to make it right.”

Reaching down, he plucked the ethereal Moon Flower from Ellie's project, its delicate petals bathing his weathered features in ghostly luminescence. “This is what you'll do.” He placed the flower into her hands. “Return this bloom to the heart of Thornveil Wilds from whence it came. No harm, no foul, as your grandpa might say.”

Tyler picked up the box that had contained Ellie's shattered clay flower. “Put it in here, El. We'll get it back where it belongs.”

Ellie simply nodded, numb with remorse as she reverently nestled the Moon Flower's glowing form amidst the shards of her ruined artwork. Tyler slung a supportive arm around her shoulders as the indignant crowd still clamored for penance.

“We'll make this right, sir. I promise,” Tyler said.

Silas leaned in closer, his gruff whisper cutting through the clamor. “I understand your plight, girl. Don't let their scorn weigh on you.” His eyes shone with empathy. “Return that bloom with a pure heart, and all will be well once more.”

Ellie reached up to swipe the tears from her flushed cheeks, struggling to find her voice amidst the maelstrom. “I'll do it right away.” 

Silas awarded her a gentle smile. “That's the spirit.”

“We need to get out of here.” Tyler's urgency couldn't be denied, casting a wary glance over the seething mob. “Away from these hot-heads and back to Thornveil Wilds before anything else happens.”

With a determined nod, Ellie allowed Tyler to guide her through the parting crowds. Behind them, Silas was heard calling out the new grand prize winner—Tobias Underhill.

Almost running, they fled the chaos, leaving the cries of outrage and condemnation behind. Through the whirling haze of tears and shame, Ellie kept her head down, allowing Tyler to lead her away from that wretched scene. How could she face her grandpa and mother after such catastrophic foolishness? The very thought hammered another spike of anguish through her heart.

For now, she forced those haunting notions aside, focusing instead on the path ahead. Ellie recognized the familiar sights of Crystal Shores flashing by—the dingy shops, the rickety pier where Tyler used to dare her to jump from its creaking heights . . . And there, looming in the distance, was the ramshackle house where her beloved grandfather whiled away his remaining days. A fresh wave of grief threatened to buckle her knees imagining how she had imperiled the very life she sought to save.

But there was no time for regrets—not yet. They needed to return that accursed bloom to its rightful resting place before further calamity befell them all. Tyler's steady grip on her arm was the only tether keeping Ellie's feet churning forward.

At last, they reached the dilapidated bridge marking the boundary of Thornveil Wilds. Ellie stared at the shadowy tangle of foliage beyond, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She held the precious box close, feeling the pulse of the Moon Flower's ghostly radiance through the worn cardboard.

“Stay here,” Tyler said. “I'll put it back where we found it.” 

Ellie shook her head, unraveling herself from his supportive grasp. He had stood by her thus far, but she wouldn't allow him to brave the Wilds' perils for her own careless blunder.

“No.” Her voice was a choked rasp. “I'm the one who took it. I have to be the one to return it.”

“El, you've already been attacked once! Let me—”

“Tyler, please.” Ellie fixed him with a look that allowed no further protest. Tucking the precious cargo under one arm, she walked over the broken stone bridge.

Taking a steadying breath, Ellie stepped across the threshold, the twilight shadows engulfing her. After a moment's hesitation, Tyler followed suit.

While the angry shouts withered into distant echoes, a deafening silence fell over the sinister woodland. Save for the whisper of the evening breeze toying with the twisted branches, the forest seemed to hold a watchful hush. Pale moonlight filtered through the canopy in slanted beams, casting stark illumination on the path ahead.

Ellie tightened her grip on the box and fixed her gaze on the luminous cluster of Moon Flowers blossoming in the nearby clearing. Long tendrils of glowing flora wreathed the forest floor in a fey carpet, radiating the same glimmer as the precious cargo nestled in the box.

Wonder and trepidation warred within Ellie as she beheld the entrancing blooms. How could such haunting beauty contain the seeds of utter devastation?

But she couldn't dwell on that now. Casting a sidelong glance at Tyler, she saw his own expression mirroring her guarded vigilance. With a resolute nod, she gestured toward the spectral garden, and they set off at a brisk pace.

Every snapping twig or rustling leaf made Ellie jump. The forest seemed to press in from all sides, watchful and foreboding, as though aware of the interlopers once again defiling its sanctum. Shadows danced in her periphery, tricks of the mottled moonlight or harbingers of more malevolent entities lying in wait. She fought the urge to flinch at every imagined movement.

At last, they reached the periphery of that haunting glade, ringed by twisted, looming trunks. Luminescent fronds swayed in a spectral breeze, beckoning them forward with eerie grace.

“This must be where I . . .” Her words trailed off as she traced the perimeter, searching for any indication of disturbed soil or a bare patch amidst the sea of white petals. Finally, her gaze settled on a dense cluster near the clearing's heart. “There.”

Edging through the shimmering foliage, Ellie approached that spot with measured tread. Kneeling amidst the soft, damp loam, she carefully opened the box’s lid, revealing the softly pulsating Moon Flower within the nest of shattered pottery.

With painstaking care, Ellie extracted the delicate bloom and its trailing emerald stem, striped with shards of dried clay. For a moment, she simply held it aloft, mesmerized by its haunting beauty and the glittering dance of moonlight across its silken petals.

“How does it keep glowing?” Ellie looked up at Tyler. “Away from the roots that gave it life, I mean?”

Tyler moved closer, crouching at her side. “Maybe it draws energy directly from the moonlight itself? Or the soil here has some kind of mystical properties?” He shook his head in bemused wonder. “Your grandpa always did love a good yarn about the living magic in these woods.”

With the delicacy of cradling an infant bird, Ellie brushed the remnants of clay from the stem with her fingertips. Then, setting the bloom aside, she dug into the soft earth with her hands, scooping out a shallow depression amidst the carpet of foliage and tangled roots.

Gently, reverently, she nestled the delicate stem and trailing tendrils into that makeshift cradle. With feather-light motions, Ellie tucked the loamy soil around it, tamping down the earth to secure its precious charge.

For a fleeting instant, an ominous stillness descended, as though even the forest itself held its breath while the trespassing humans performed their solemn rite. Then, with a subtle ripple, the ghostly petals unfurled with renewed vigor, their luminosity swelling.

It was done. Ellie sat back on her haunches, relief washing over her in a warm tide. Against all odds, she had managed to make amends for her unwitting transgression. The Moon Flower had been returned to its rightful home, the cosmic order restored . . .

A deafening crack split the silence like thunder, the ground itself seeming to convulse beneath them. Tyler instinctively threw his arms around her, shielding her from the unseen threat.

With a savage groan that sent tremors rippling through the loam, the soil itself began to churn and roil. Displaced clumps of earth and tangled flora burst forth as if propelled by some subterranean force.

Brienne the stern judge.
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