I am lost in the Forgotten Forest, beyond rescue, the satchel on my back and my staff my only companions. After weeks on my quest, I am faced with the impossible truth that I will fail.
It is time for vespers. My breviary is open on my knee, but there is not enough light to read by. The sky is overcast. If there is a moon I cannot see it. All around me the sounds of the night, nocturnal creatures scuttle through the undergrowth, hunting, killing, eating, being eaten.
A pack-hunter howls in the distance. A second one – closer – replies. I need to light a fire, but I have no flint to start one. I put my precious breviary away in my satchel and pull out my last morgia root. I gnaw on it, drawing comfort and strength from it, and improvise a prayer. A prayer that is more supplication than devotion.
A scream rents the air, and without a thought I run towards it, staff in hand. The scream was human, I know that. I know nothing else, only that someone is in pain or danger. As I run, the branches of the trees tear at my flesh. I crash through like a snorting Mellator bull.
I call out, “Where are you?”
“Over here. Help me.” The reply is weak, close to my right.
I find him bound to a tree, two slavering hunters circling. I roar at the animals, brandishing my staff, and they slink back. I untie the man. His bounds are crude ropes fashioned from dried duckweed. I have seen duckweed ropes before somewhere on my travels, but where?
He is a small man, wizened, of foul breath, dressed in roughweave huckaback, an artisan of some sort by the crude cut of his clothing. His arms are covered in tears and scratches oozing blood, but his injuries are not serious. I hand him my water gourd. He drinks as greedily as if I had given him kingsmead.
The pack-hunters remain within attack distance. I wave my staff and snarl at them in their own tongue, and they turn and disappear into the forest dark.
The artisan wipes his mouth and tells me his story. He is a certified water carrier, the eldest son of An, a dung merchant from the Deacon’s Gate in the town of Toronto. He was on his way to the great city of Washington to study water carrying methods in a large urban metropolis when he was set upon by bandits, robbed of his meager coinage, trussed up and left to the packs.
We make our way back to where I abandoned my satchel. As we go I tell him of my quest to find the tapes of the son of Nick.
An’s son is suitably chastened by my tale. He has heard of Nick’s son’s tapes, of course – who has not – but confesses that he thought the story was but a fairy tale.
“’Tis more than a fairy tale, and I have the tape logs to prove it.” I tell him how I stumbled across the logs while disposing of rubbish at the Water Gate in the Land-of-the-free. “Without the logs, the tapes are of little value, and without the tapes my logs are worthless. If I can match the tapes with the logs my future will be secured.”
We collect my satchel, and I show Anson the precious tape logs, hundreds of concertinaed pages of tightly packed print. He glances at them – disinterested. He picks up my brass lantern and asks why I have not used it to light my way. I tell him I have no oil and no flint. With a crooked grin he pulls a flint from his pocket. “I have one. I will light a fire.” He picks my reliquary from the satchel. “This will serve as tinder.”
I take it from him. “My prayers are not for burning!”
He pulls a dagger from a sheath under his clothes. “This, then,” he says, slashing pages from the only other book in my possession.
I snatch that from him. “Are you mad? That is a rare first edition of Vivien’s Diary. I haven’t even read it all yet.” In truth, I haven’t opened the book in months, but it is the only reading matter I have.
He eyes the precious tape logs. I glare at him and he starts the fire using dried leaves and ferns. I watch as he works, building it with twigs, then sticks and branches. The fire hisses and splutters like a bailiff, and it occurs to me then that Anson probably does not read or write. Not many can in the Northlands.
The firelight glints from my gold egg in the open satchel. His eyes light up. “You are a wealthy man,” he says. “This egg alone must be worth a king’s ransom. Where did you get it?”
“I stole it from a golden goose in a giant’s castle,” I reply, pointing to the sky.
His eyes open in wide amazement. “The castle at the top of the magic beanstalk?”
“The very same,” I reply solemnly. In truth, he has only to scratch the surface to discover that the egg is made of base metal painted to look like gold – a souvenir from a childhood holiday in Vancouver.
I uncork my bottle of scotch and offer it to him in the hope that the whisky will improve his dragon-breath. He thanks me and takes a mouthful, but his breath is still rancid.
Before we bed down to slumber I hand him my breviary. “Read me a passage,” I say, as a test.
He hands it back. “My eyes are tired, master.”
“Call me friend if you will, but I am no man’s master,” I say.
I read a passage aloud from my prayer book. He is snoring before I start on the second page.
I awake in the early morning to find Anson cooking a wild robbit on the open fire. The flesh of the humble robbit, dripping with hot fat and washed down with scotch, is a better meal than any I have ever had in all the great halls of Winnipeg or Montreal. We round out the meal with a mouthful of morgia root. Afterwards I read a thanksgiving prayer from my breviary.
My companion nods and smiles his approval, but no “amen” escapes his lips. It seems Anson is a heathen!
Anson says he knows the way. I pack up my satchel and we set out to the south.
“Surely Washington is to the east,” I say.
“Trust me, Friend,” he says, striding out.
Soon, the Forgotten Forest is but a memory. We follow a dirt track that leads to a paved road overgrown with low shrubbery. We meet no one, neither commoner on foot nor highborn in a carriage. There is wildlife aplenty – swamp-callers, boney-headed stampers, small-nibblers and sslithers in the grasses. Anson whistles tunelessly between his crooked teeth as we walk.
When the sun is at its highest we stop by a bubbling stream to quench our thirst. I fill my gourd. We take a bite of morgia root each. He grimaces as he chews.
I have to admit the root is hard on the teeth and pungent, but it has many healthy properties, not least the restoration of vigor and well-being. And it does much to combat foul breath.
We walk for a day and make camp. Staring into the campfire that night I remember where I last saw ropes made of duckweed. My nephews used it to tie one another up. The ropes had no strength and easily fell to pieces!
The following morning we continue in a southerly direction. My feet ache, my back aches, even my staff aches. Without my staff I would not have been able to keep up with Anson who seems to have limitless energy.
“Stop, rest a moment,” I say. I sit heavily on a rock. He stands, leaning on a giant cactus, impatient to continue.
“We are nearly there, Bob,” he says. Instantly, a ripple of terror runs down my spine. I have not spoken my name since I loosed his duckweed ropes and saved him from the pack. How came he by my given name? I am too timorous to ask. My name is written in my breviary, it is true, but Anson cannot read. I say nothing and we journey onward together in silence.
Not long after that he says, “See that rise ahead?”
“What of it?” I say, wearily.
“Come, I’ll show you.” He bounds ahead.
When I reach the rise I know what it is. This is the old Trak of Am, the road traveled by the locos of ancient times. There are vast miles of these roads criss-crossing the country, the iron rails long since gone, but the sleeps remain – millions of them.
“This Trak leads to Washington?” I say.
“For certain.” He nods, a contented smile on his weathered face. “All we have to do is follow the sleeps. We should be there in a week or ten days.”
We share the last of the morgia root. The root restores my courage. I take a deep breath and I say to him: “I have seen duckweed ropes before. They are not strong enough to hold an infant. You were never in any real danger from those pack-hunters, were you?”
“I was well trussed by the bandits. I owe you my life, my friend.”
I shake my head. “You carry a dagger. You could have cut yourself free. And you called me Bob this morning. How came you by my given name?”
“You must have told me,” he replies, grinning a mouthful of root.
“I never told you my name.” I spit the ball of masticated root into the stream and wipe my mouth on my sleeve. “You would be advised to tell me truthfully how you knew my name, son of An. If we are to journey together there must be trust between us.”
He takes a second bite of the mogia root, perhaps to block his mouth from speaking or perhaps to build his courage. He says nothing, but continues to chew noisily.
I give him my most severe countenance. “Unless you tell me now how you came by my name, we must part company. I will not travel with someone that I cannot trust. Tell me the truth.”
He empties his mouth into the stream, tilts his head to the side and fixes me with his gaze. “Are you sure you can handle the truth?”
(C) Copyright JJ Toner
Written for one of Chuck Wendig’s devilish challenges. In this one, we had to tweet Inventory to @YouAreCarrying to get a list of belongings. I got: a bottle of Scotch, a log tape, a brass lantern, a reliquary, a gold egg, a morgia root, a big stick, and Vivien’s diary.