Further Tales of Woe: Part One
Gilly the Usul smiled, breathing in the crisp autumn air. "I love it here," she mused aloud, bright blue eyes drinking in the rich colours of the Haunted Woods.
Really, the bad reputation is undeserved. There are so many charismatic figures here - who would want to forget endearing Sidney, with his patchy suit and unique speech impediment? Or my new favourite, the gypsy camp.
Gilly waved as she strolled past the gaudy tents of the caravan, offering her cheerful grin to her friend, the Elephante storyteller.
In all honesty, I would never choose another place to call home. So what if the Money Tree is friendlier than the Brain Tree, or if fairs aren't supposed to be dilapidated and full of con artists? Every day is an adventure in the Haunted Woods.
The young Usul smoothed her patched skirt as she carefully sat down in the shade of an eerie green-hued tree. Dipping her gloved paw into a hand sewn pocket, she drew out her meagre dinner for a picnic of sorts. All she had to eat was a lone slice of stale bread topped with some gooseberry jam that a gypsy had kindly donated to her. Homeless and poor, Gilly had lived for years through the help of donations, and still her optimism persevered.
"Who knows what tomorrow may bring," she whispered to herself, before crunching into her makeshift sandwich. As small as her meal was, Gilly made it a point to scatter some crumbs about, so as to treat the stray petpets that timidly roamed about the woods.
As night fell, Gilly watched the garish lights of the fairgrounds flicker to life. Sounds floated through the evening air - the creaking of the ancient Ferris Wheel, the clanging of the rusty Test-Your-Strength bell, the shouts of vendors.
It made her feel rather small, and out of place...
Curling her bushy Usul tail around her for warmth, Gilly stood and stepped meekly onto the path. She needed a place to spend the night...
It was the first time in weeks that she was on her own. She'd spent so much time with Sophie and Bruno that, for the first time, she could really feel the pain of loneliness. She missed Sophie's wry wit and Bruno's gentle friendship.
They had both chosen to return to their solitary lives after having lifted Neovia's curse. Gilly hadn't protested; after all, she too spent the majority of her time on her own. But now...
Now that they were separated, she found herself wishing that she could see those two siblings again.
"Two siblings... Wait!"
The Usul's face lit up in the inky blackness of the forest.
"Bruno told me once that he had a little brother, too - Reginald! If Sophie and Bruno want to be alone, then maybe Reginald can be my friend!"
Gilly dashed down the path, stumbling over unseen obstacles in her desperate rush to find companionship. She wasn't sure why the pangs of solitude had suddenly converged on her so sharply, but she couldn't rest until they were sated in some way.
After what seemed like forever, Gilly finally stumbled into the thick grey mist that surrounded the antiquated town of Neovia. Bruno's description had helped her to find it quickly, but she was still very much out of breath. Her shock-orange hair had tumbled free from her hood and scarf, and was windswept across her thin face. Breathing heavily from her brisk flight through the forest, Gilly stepped slowly across the cobbled town square.
Sitting on the stone rim of the fountain to catch her breath, she gazed at the various buildings, all tall, dim, and grey. They had many ornate decorations and stylized facades, and they seemed to speak of sophistication to Gilly.
She swallowed hard, realizing that this wasn't her best-planned idea. It was the dead of night - what aristocrat would appreciate a half-starved orphan knocking on their door at this hour? The Usul sighed, dejected head sinking into her paws.
"I don't even know where Reginald lives," she breathed in defeat.
"'Reginald'?" came a voice from within the fog.
Gilly peeked up from between her gloved fingers. She didn't startle easily - someone with luck as bad as hers quickly became accustomed to sudden appearances, disembodied voices, denizens of evil, etc. She had a particular history of Pant Devil robberies, and of course, the infamous Eliv Thade incident...
Then there was Sophie...
"Do you know him?" she called, hope creeping into her tone.
A light 'thump' sounded behind her - a figure had dropped from one of the sharp-peaked homes. As he strode forward, the swirling mists cleared to reveal the speaker's form. He was a tall, slim Lupe. His brick red and cream fur was groomed to immaculate perfection, topped with a gleaming chestnut-brown ponytail; his suit and trousers were perfectly tailored and matching. The Lupe had a thick tome under one arm, and his curious lime green eyes shone with a sharp glint of intelligence.
"I am Reginald," he stated calmly, unruffled by Gilly's disheveled appearance, "but I prefer the sobriquet 'Reggie', as it's far more casual, thereby better suiting my personality. By your quaint garb, I believe it's safe to conclude that you are indeed 'Gilly' of the Haunted Woods? Brother Bruno has praised you on many occasions for the assistance you provided our fair town - I feel as though I know you already."
He extended a paw for her to shake in greeting, but Gilly was too confused to react. "Sob-ree-what?" she muttered, nose wrinkled quizzically. Reggie smirked, shaking his head in amusement.
"I apologize if my idiosyncrasies are too verbose for your country vernacular... I have a tendency to keep my nose in the books, and my head in the clouds. As you can see, besides my bookwormish habits, I'm also a bit of an insomniac - I simply cannot sleep, not since the curse. So I spend my nights on the rooftop, reading by moonlight."
Gilly timidly accepted his outstretched paw, offering him a meek smile.
"I... I don't sleep a lot, either," she said meekly. "Not since I was locked in Eliv Thade's castle. But I got pretty good at anagrams - do you like word puzzles, or just straight reading?"
Reggie laughed, draping his long arm across her thin shoulders to steer her down the shadowy streets. He decided to make an effort to simplify his vocabulary, so as not to confuse the short Usul again.
"Well... mostly straight reading," he admitted to her, grinning sheepishly. "My parents are very traditional, and spend the majority of their time at various social get-togethers, preserving their sophisticated image. And since my elder brother and younger sister both left home when I was young, my time was spent alone, perusing the family library. I've read every volume on those shelves," he added proudly - but there was a touch of sadness in his gaze.
Gilly looked at the tall Lupe with admiration reflected in her sky-blue eyes. Even though they'd just met, she already trusted Bruno's handsome little brother, and felt they had a great deal in common. It seemed he too over-thought situations, and couldn't sleep at night because of it...
"Here's my house," Reggie announced with slightly less enthusiasm. Too many lonely hours had passed within those walls for him to feel truly at home there, but he still had some pride in their aristocratic heritage. The majestic peaked house had elegant arched windows and a tall dark hardwood door, adorned with an antique iron knob fashioned to resemble an Eyrie rampant.
Gilly stared in awe, curling her bushy Usul tail self-consciously. Reginald had such a fancy home! She had no idea that he, Bruno, and Sophie were rich... Even the Elephante storyteller had failed to make that clear.
Feeling insignificant once again, Gilly adjusted her threadbare hood to hide her wavy orange hair, and smoothed the wrinkles from her patchwork skirt before meekly following the Lupe into the manor house.
"You can spend the night in the parlor, on our spare sofa - then tomorrow I can speak with Mother and Father, to arrange some better accommodations for you," Reggie called over one shoulder.
Gilly stiffened, eyes wide. "Wait - are you saying I'll be staying here? L-living with your family?! I could never impose upon you like this, Reggie! I wouldn't dream of-"
He snorted, cutting off her protests with a raised hand. "You're quite malnourished, my underfed friend, and if you ever hope to reach a healthy weight, you'll have to eat real food. I can't imagine what you've been sustaining yourself on, but it can't have been much..."
As he strolled casually through the parlor, fluffing the pillow cushions on Gilly's sofa, he added: "And... I'd like to have you around for a while, Gilly. I'm bored out of my mind here, reading the same stories repeatedly in a town that never changes. I'd love to hear some of your stories - you mentioned a haunted castle earlier, and I'm dying to know your perspective on what transpired in your adventures with Brother Bruno and Sister Sophie. You've led such an exciting life - please impart some of your worldliness on a restless middle child."
He handed her a blanket, smiling encouragingly. "Good night, Gilly - we'll have plenty of time to chat in the morning. Sleep tight!"
He snuffed out the room's candle as he exited, leaving her in the dark.
What an odd fellow - he's so smart, but he doesn't seem to see how nice a life he has. If I had a beautiful mansion like this, with loving parents and siblings, and limitless food...?
Gilly sighed, snuggling comfortably beneath the heavy blanket. She yawned, curling her thick-furred tail about her slim body for warmth, before sinking into a deep dreamless sleep. She hadn't slept in so long... Finally she felt at home.
To be continued...