The ruined remains of the tower stood out solid and black against the red sky.
The fact that it had partially collapsed didn’t do much to negate the looming presence it seemed to have- indeed, its destruction made it seem bizarrely reminiscent of a corpse, a husk. The moon shone its piercing color high above them, casting eerie shadows over their surroundings and reminding them all that this night was seemingly unwilling to end.
As they rode away in the other direction, it was safe to say they were all glad to see the back of that place.
. . . . .
When the town’s protector and her family had finally made their way out of the destroyed tower, it was all the frogs could do not to let out a cheer. Indeed, they only managed to restrain themselves due to the possible threat of nearby predators- or perhaps even disgraced armies.
In any case, the Plantars carefully guided their charge up the gangplank, and she boarded the barge, all but silently. No one commented on the heaviness that seemed to weigh on her thin frame, nor the redness of her eyes. There was an understanding there that some things were better left unsaid- they owed her that much, anyways.
She had saved them- all of them. In a world like this, it wasn’t often that a situation of this caliber would result in everyone walking away alive. Evidently, Anne didn’t care what this world considered unlikely.
Mrs. Croaker nudged the reins of the tarantula tied to the barge- and just like that, they were headed back home.
They crossed the bridge connecting the tower’s remains to the mainland in moments, and turned onto the well-worn military road. It was sort of strange to be leaving the place where so much had happened so quickly, but none of them were feeling particularly inclined to stay.
Indeed, most had slumped over each other in exhaustion, doing their best not to move too much in favor of a short while’s rest.
Anne was not one of these people.
Roughly, with a sort of fervent energy, she wriggled out of the chest plate she was wearing, undoing the straps that held it in place and throwing it carelessly to the wooden floor. The shoulder guard, with its slightly faded insignia, was tossed a bit more gently beside it.
They all stayed quiet as she freed herself from the armor, as if there was some delicate balance here that would be shattered by either conversation or inquiry.
Once free from the heavy reminders, she sat there for a moment, breathing heavily. Her gaze flickered to the sword she had stolen, but it wasn’t thrown aside like the other items- instead it was held close in an iron grip.
The action wasn’t out of personal attachment to the object itself, obviously; she had originally taken it out of instinct, and from someone she hadn’t even known.
With the stranger’s sword ready at her side, she turned where she sat and leaned against the railing, facing away from the townspeople and gazing out into the dark forest that surrounded them.
Her eyes scanned the treeline, roving over fallen logs and mossy rocks as if they could spring to life and attack at any moment. The grip she maintained on the weapon left no doubt as to what her intentions would be, should anything jump out at them.
At any other time, Sprig would have thought this upright, vigilant watch would have left her visible to predators- but now he was sure that any creature who might come waltzing through the woods would approach the barge, see the look in the human’s eyes, and promptly turn around again. He wouldn’t have blamed them, honestly.
Make no mistake- it had been a very, very long time since he had thought to be afraid of Anne. Indeed, being afraid for her had become a much more common sentiment, especially as of late.
Even so, she was still a tiny bit frightening, in her own way.
It was a good way, to be sure- although Sprig was certain he would not have felt the same, had he not been on the receiving end of her loyalty.
There was something about the way she behaved differently in the face of a true threat. All the usual jokes and silliness would fall away in favor of determination, or even fierceness, and the girl would take up her sword and fight for them.
He had seen the expression on her face while she had defended them on the tower, and once or twice while fighting enemies even before that. He knew what it was meant to convey: you’ve made a mistake.
She had a similar look about her now, he decided. Tired though she was, she continued to watch their surroundings for any danger. He supposed it was a comforting concept, but all the same...
They won’t come back, he wanted to say. You can stop.
She might not have believed him if he tried to convince her they were safe now. He wasn’t sure of it himself- but wouldn’t it be right to tell her so, if only to give her a moment’s peace?
He shared a look with Hop Pop and Polly. All three of them were thinking something similar, he was sure.
Not willing to waste any more time, he scooted a bit closer until he was right beside her. Anne’s muscles stiffened ever so slightly as he drew near, tense with some strange feeling of apprehension. He reached out to her, then hesitated. His hand hovered an inch away from her arm.
She turned suddenly- enough to look at him from the corner of her eye. Just as quickly though, she glanced away, refocusing her attention on the trees, and the shadows cast within.
The silence seemed more palpable than ever as Anne resumed her watch. She shuffled her feet restlessly. Her grip on the stolen sword shifted.
Concerned and unsure how to proceed, Sprig’s gaze trailed from her hand to the weapon itself.
It was of toad make, obviously. Tempered metal hammered and sharpened by seasoned blacksmiths and makers of deadly tools. Pretty cool, honestly- but after today he was sure he never wanted to see another toad-made sword again.
He remembered the bright flash of colored steel as it was swung with the intent to end his life, and the way his friend had moved so quickly to block the assault despite nearly surrendering to her own weakness moments before.
Saving him hadn’t even been a conscious effort- in a way, it had been more. It had been instinctual.
He was grateful beyond words for that, really, he was- but that had been then, and this was now. Now there wasn’t anyone around with swords or the intent to harm. There wasn’t anyone to fight. There was only Anne, and the people she was hell-bent on protecting.
He placed a hand on her arm before the tension could hold him back any longer. He saw both of her hands clench into fists. The action was aimless, little more than a muscle memory.
She met his eyes again, but this time, she didn’t look away. He stared up at her, willing her to grasp the full meaning behind what few words he could muster.
“It’s okay, Anne.”
Her gaze flickered to the forest, then back to him. Slowly, hesitantly, she lowered the sword to join the rest of the equipment she had shed. It clattered to the floor, left there in a way betraying its unimportance.
She turned around so that she was no longer facing the trees. Carefully, she drew her knees up to her chest, resting her head on her crossed arms. Sprig turned again to look at Hop Pop and Polly, and was again confident they had the same idea.
The little family didn’t hesitate any longer; they leaned up against her, putting meager weight on their larger charge. It was a wordless reminder that all of them were still there- still alive. It was thanks to her, and she would do well to remember.
For a while, there was only the scuttling of the spider’s legs as it pulled them along and the creaking of old wooden wheels.
Anne’s breathing was slow and shallow. If she was crying again, it was too quiet to hear.
Slowly, gingerly, she untucked her knees and assumed a more ordinary sitting position. She stayed like that for a few seconds, staring off into space. Her shoulders relaxed as she leaned back against the railing. She allowed herself a tiny sigh of what might have been… not contentment, exactly, but acceptance of what they were offering. It was sorely needed, now of all times.
The family stayed like that for a good while, both utterly strange and wholeheartedly sincere.
After a bit, the human’s breathing became natural again, turning soft and gentle. Were it not for the fact her eyes were open, one might have thought she had fallen into a peaceful sleep.
The few townspeople that were still conscious watched the scene that was currently unfolding with tired smiles.
It was bizarre- unthinkable even, that they had ever believed her to be a monster. At this point, the notion felt like the memory of a memory.
. . . . .
By now, the silence had shifted to something more comfortable. The Plantars hadn’t moved an inch since they had settled down next to Anne, and at this point looked rather close to falling asleep. She couldn’t blame them, honestly. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been this tired- that sort of bone-deep tiredness that seeps in and stays until alleviated by rest.
It was just as well. She couldn’t move without disturbing her family, and she certainly wasn’t about to ruin a good thing. There was nothing to do but sit- and weirdly enough, that was fine by her.
With nowhere else to go, her gaze eventually traveled upward. The moon and the reddish light it cast had all but disappeared, and the sky had brightened considerably. Now the sun had begun its ascent, its rays creeping dutifully over the horizon.The long night was finally over.
Anne could see the town’s outline in the distance, far down the road. She could just make out buildings which had grown familiar in the past weeks. Soon they would be home- whether it was permanent or temporary was, for the moment, unimportant.
She closed her eyes and allowed herself to rest, just for a moment.