Alexandra A. Cheshire
Published by Howling Wolf Books at Shakespir
Copyright 2015 Alexandra A. Cheshire
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All characters, events and places in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual people or places past or present is strictly coincidental.
Table of Contents
The frog started it all. Well, I guess really it was the attention I paid it. The frog was just going about its froggy way, hopping along the edge of the marsh and catching small insects with its tongue. As frogs go, it wasn’t especially remarkable. Simply greenish grey and slimy with big eyes and a long sticky tongue. I huddled down in between bushes and watched it for I don’t know how long. Watching the frog was far more entertaining than watching my mother’s uncle sleep off the latest bottle of booze.
I was newly orphaned, my parents having died of an illness sweeping our home community. Of nearly a thousand people, less than a third survived. Most of us were children and sent to whatever living relatives we had elsewhere by the few remaining adults. So I was shipped off to mother’s uncle, the town drunk of a settlement a quarter the size of my home.
Rumour has it mother’s uncle was once a well known and well liked blacksmith. I have no idea what happened to him, but now he’s a well known and widely feared old drunk with a fearsome temper and a tendancy to throw large and heavy objects at anything he doesn’t like. Primarily me.
Worse, because of his reputation, no one else in the settlement will make any attempt to help me. I’m left scurrying to try and meet all his demands when he’s awake. And to my own devices when he isn’t. But I don’t dare hang around the village or with the village boys. I don’t even get to go to school with them. Mother’s uncle doesn’t see any point to educating or even feeding me. I get by on whatever is left over after he passes out.
But, for now, he’s sleeping it off and I can wander the land around the settlement to my heart’s content. It’s nicer out here anyway.
The frog hops off into the marsh proper and something new catches my eye.
It appears to be a point of light, barely visible in the afternoon sun, but it’s darting about in random directions. Could be some insect I’ve never seen before. All I can see of it is the light. I creep closer, attempting to get a better look.
“Lead people astray, they do.”
My head whips around, orienting on the source of the words. Quickly, a woman comes into focus.
She looks ancient, all wrinkles and grey hair, bundled up in shawls despite the summer afternoon heat and hunched over a walking stick as gnarled as herself. I’ve heard of her. The locals call her the marsh witch and fear her more than mother’s uncle.
I swallow hard, scrambling back from her.
She shakes her head, irritation flickering across her face, “They lie, boy. Whatever tales you’ve heard of me. Those villagers wouldn’t believe the truth if it were rubbed in their faces.”
Whether the locals lie about her or not, I’m not sure I care to know if there’s any truth to the tales I’ve heard. There’s nothing disarming about her presence. Nothing harmless in the feel of her. Just strangeness and I can’t help being afraid.
She sighs, seeming to deflate a little, but it doesn’t reduce the strangeness of her. Shaking her head again, she studies me, her gaze critical.
“Must be new around these parts. Leastwise you don’t look like one of those imps. You friends with them?”
I think she means the boys from the settlement so I shake my head.
“Didn’t think so,” She nods to herself, “You got family here?”
“Old Uncle Sirus.”
She snorts, grizzled hair flying around her head as she shakes it, “Old sot ain’t family to no one… as I’m sure you well know by now. Orphaned, huh?”
My nod is timid.
“You’re a patient one,” Again, her gaze is critical as she looks me over, “Curious too, I wager. Means you could be a good sight smarter than the run of villagers here. Ever been to school?”
While the truth is I did start school before my parents died, I haven’t attended enough classes to really have learned anything my father hadn’t already taught me. I don’t try to speak, I just shake my head.
“Old sot won’t let you go?” She interprets, “He’ll never do right by you, boy. And the villagers so afraid of him, they won’t try neither.” She continues to study my a moment longer, “Well, I’ll leave this out… You ever want to make something of yourself… ever want to be more than whipping boy for that old sot… I can find you a bed and hot meals and some book learning… teach you enough to give you a real start in this world. Think about it, boy.” With that, she turns and hobbles off towards the forest on the far side of the marsh.
I don’t move. Both the frog and the darting light are gone now and I’m left with my thoughts.
Life with mother’s uncle won’t get better, I know. But the tales of her are fearsome and troubling. She’s right about my receiving no help from anyone else around here. I’m left not knowing what to do.
Creeping in between bushes again, I curl up.
A huge round bright white moon shines strongly down over the edge of the marsh, bathing everything I can see in cold white light. The shadows have edges sharp enough to cut something and the ordinary night sounds are magnified. I’m still curled up in the bushes, not wanting to go back, but not sure what to do.
A faint crashing, as of something big blundering through the brush, comes closer and closer. As it grows in volume, I begin to hear an all too familiar cursing. Mother’s uncle is awake and looking for me.
The settlement here is surrounded by farm fields and then forest on three sides. The fourth side is the marsh, which also backs onto forest. I know there’s no safety for me in the settlement. No one will risk mother’s uncle’s wrath to help me. They say the marsh witch lives in the depths of the marsh. So I creep around the outer fringe of the marsh, trying to keep as quiet as possible, and get to the forest beyond.
My father used to take me hunting with him and I’m hoping he taught me enough I can survive for a while. Or at least until I can reach a settlement far enough away no one will consider sending me back here.
The fringes of the marsh stretch out forever ahead of me and mother’s uncle keeps getting closer, as if he can somehow sense where I am. If I run, he’ll know where I went for sure, but it’s so very hard to keep moving quietly through the brush.
Then the forest at last. Once I’m among the trees, I stand and run and the sounds of mother’s uncle crashing and cursing fade into the distance. I don’t care where I’m going, so long as it’s away. I’m not even losing anything in my flight. What little I was able to keep after my parents’ deaths was long ago destroyed by mother’s uncle. I just have to survive for now and hope I can get far enough away.
I run until the trees get too thick for the moonlight to reach the forest floor. I can’t begin to tell what time it is. I can barely see my own hand in front of my face. I definitely can’t see any detail of where I’m going or what I’m running through. Then my foot catches on something, probably a tree root, and I pitch forward into something unforgiving. Flying head first, I see stars, then nothing at all.
It feels like home. Warmth, as from a well tended fire, and the soft light of oil lamps. The smell of good stew on the hearth and the feel of a blanket covering me. But my head aches in a way I don’t ever remember experiencing before and something feels ever so slightly strange.
My memory returns in a rush. I can’t possibly be at home. Although I’m certainly not at mother’s uncle’s shack. I slump back into the thin pillow, confused and unable to think of where I could be.
“Even without the head wound, you’d‘ve died of exposure, boy.”
I shiver at the voice. How had she found me? I’m sure I’d been running away from the marsh.
“Landed on my doorstep, you did,” The old woman continues, “Just as well. That drunk old sot’s had the villagers tearing up the forest looking for you. They won’t find this place, so they won’t find you.”
Which means she actually lives somewhere in the forest, not the marsh. I guess it could be hard for someone who doesn’t venture this way often to tell. And I know the locals avoid the marsh and the forest behind it.
“If you don’t want the old sot to find you, you’ll stay where you are. Besides which, you did take a nasty blow to the head. You’ll be a while recovering from it.”
My head does feel tender. When I reach up, I find a good sized lump on one side. I’m also finding it hard to move much. I ache all over and several places sting where they touch my clothes or the blanket.
“If there’s anything you need, let me know,” The old woman moves close enough to pick up a cup from a small table beside the bed, “This is fresh water. Let’s see if you can keep a bit down.”
I can barely raise my upper body enough to sip from the cup. At the first drop, my stomach churns and my head spins. I sip just a little more anyway before dropping back onto the pillow.
“Try some more in a little while.” She sets the cup back on the table.
It would seem fleeing through the forest in the dark really wasn’t a good idea. I’m scratched and bruised and sore all over my body. I’m being treated for slight poisoning from at least one plant I blundered through and some of the other scratches are infected. While my memory seems fine, my head begins to ache constantly. I’m confined to bed and thoroughly miserable.
The old woman might not be the fearsome witch the locals claim, but she’s still a strange old woman. The inside of her home looks ordinary enough, well aside from several shelves of books and curiosities. I’d guess she’s better educated than the average person here. Most common folk can read adequately for their day to day needs… standard contracts for work and such, but she actually spends time reading books. I didn’t think anyone other than my father did. She also isn’t much for company, only speaking when necessary and making no attempt to be cheerful.
Gradually, under her care, I do get better. She’d said I’d be a while recovering and she was right. But there comes a day when I can move from the bed to a chair beside the fire. And then a day when I can sit outside during the afternoon sun.
Her home, I discover, is hollowed out of a grassy mound somewhere in the depths of the forest. There’s a slight clearing around the mound, but the door is concealed by a curtain of tangled vines. No one would give it a second glance, much less consider someone might be living here. What’s more, she’s been careful not to wear paths in the ground leading to her door. The mound might be grass covered, but the forest floor, even within the clearing, is just that and littered with brush and debris. Nature is allowed full sway and it conceals the woman and her home well.
Seated on the mound in the afternoon sun, I find the forest suprisingly quiet here. A few small creatures skitter around just out of sight. The occasional bird chirps from the trees. But overall I feel like we’re alone here.
With nothing better to do, I spend my time outside observing the trees and sky. What few creatures I do see absolutely fascinate me. When I get inside, it feels like the walls are closing in on me. There doesn’t seem to be anything to do. I remember she’d offered me book learning, but I’m hesitant to remind her. Hesitant to speak to her at all, really. The strangeness about her makes her hard to approach.
Then, one day when I’m seated by the fire while a storm rages through the forest outside, she pulls her chair close to mine.
“You’re still afraid of me,” She shakes her head, “I’ve offered you no harm.”
“Thank you for your aid.” But my voice is small and only barely audible.
She sighs, “You’re nearly well enough to be on your way, if that’s what you want. I won’t stop you. And I know you won’t tell the villagers because you won’t return that way.”
Which is true enough. I still think a bit on just how far I would have to go before no one would even try to send me back.
“I did once offer you some instruction,” She continues, “You’ve seen how I live here, but not necessarily what it takes to survive in the forest. It’s no short walk to the next settlement of any size.”
I guess my disappointment must show in my face because her expression softens a touch.
“I can teach you a few things which would make surviving out there a great deal easier. Can you read at all?”
“A bit.” Or at least what little my father was able to teach me before his death.
“A start,” She nods to herself, “Well, you’re healed enough to begin learning.”
I just nod.
So I learn to read better. Or at least enough to read the few books she keeps on the shelf in her home. There’s one story which I’m sure must be a tall tale. The creatures described and the events involving them are far too strange to be real. The rest of her books are about forest plants and creatures and uses of herbs in food and for medicine and some general observations on the natural world. It’s useful to some extent, at least as a beginning to learning about the world around me.
Some of what I’m learning from the old woman I’d already been taught by my father, but I quickly discover for everything he was able to teach me, there are a thousand other things which he never touched on. Maybe he didn’t know them or maybe he thought I was too young. It’s hard to know now.
One thing I am encouraged to do is to record my own observations. The old woman teaches me to write properly and to draw so I can sketch out, label, and describe the things I see outside. Those two things, the observing and the recording, occupy the majority of my time and I lose track of just how long I spend learning from the old woman and the forest.
Late one night, as I cap the inkpot, I catch the old woman studying me critically.
“I figured you for a smart one,” Her dry chuckle resembles more of a cackle, “Didn’t count on just how patient or how well you’d get lost in your work. You’re nearly a grown man now.”
I frown, thinking back and attempting to calculate my own age. I’ve been recording my observations on the passage of seasons, but I can’t begin to recall just how many cycles have passed me by here.
“You’ve been here a decade,” Evidently she can see or sense my confusion, “Quite the naturalist, you seem to be.”
“I guess.” But my brain is trying to wrap itself around the idea of having been here ten years.
She chuckles again, “Back when we first met… remember that day?”
I nod. I doubt I would ever forget it.
“What was it you were watching when I found you?”
She shoots me a reproving look, “Well, mayhap. But what did the frog call your attention to?”
“I don’t know… seemed like a tiny light moving in random directions.”
“So they appear,” The old woman nods, “Some call them wisps, which isn’t entirely accurate. But it’s a whole other side to this world we live in. You’ve been observing what some call the ‘natural’ world for a decade and I know you find it fascinating.”
I can’t help a frown, “What more is there? What was it I saw?”
“While I could tell you, I think it’s time you ventured farther on your own. You know how to survive the forest. You know how to record your observations. Time to step beyond.”
I nod, uncertain what to say. The notion of there being another side to the world… one I’d barely glimpsed before now… I find it hard to believe. Like the one book I’m sure is tales to amuse.
The next morning I find myself outside, bearing a pack containing some food and survival gear, but also the things I need to record whatever I learn out here. Most of my recordings on the natural forest, I leave with the old woman. I can remember anything I’m likely to need.
Recalling I’d seen the wisp on the fringe of the marsh and not having any better idea where to go, I set out for the marsh, intending to remain on the opposite side from the settlement. I have no idea whether mother’s uncle would still be alive, but also no interest in finding out.
By now I know the forest well enough to safely see myself to the fringe of the marsh. And, as planned, I come out of the forest across the marsh from the settlement. Or, at least, where there used to be a settlement. There is a slight rise to the edge of the forest which allows me to see the ruins of a few houses and not much else. The damage looks old, from my vantage point, and there’s nothing else to be seen. Putting it out of my mind, I settle into some brush to wait and see what there is to be seen.
The day passes near silently. I see and hear a few marsh creatures, but nothing bigger than a turtle. Nothing more unusual than a turtle either. No tiny darting lights or anything else at all unnatural to my mnd.
I know the forest well enough to know I won’t find what I’m seeking in there. While I doubt there’s much to see in the ruined settlement, I’m not sure where else to look right now.
I ease myself to my feet and hike around the marsh. I have no desire to plow right through the wet and uncertain footing. Besides which, I’m well aware the marsh has its share of unfriendly denizens.
The settlement isn’t just a ruin, as I had thought on first glimpse. It’s a charred ruin, although obviously well weathered now. Somehow, something burnt the whole place nearly to the ground. There’s no sign now of what could have done it. There’s also no sign of another person having been here in years or longer. Well, it can’t be too much longer. I’d only been gone one decade.
As I look around I quickly realize there’s an unnatural silence over the place. Also no sign of wildlife having moved in. I recall reading how nature will retake an area after a fire. And yet not here. The charred ruins are weathered, but nothing is growing around them and no animals are anywhere to be seen. Something unnatural happened here. I just can’t begin to tell what.
“Disturbing, isn’t it?” The voice is familiar and I turn to see my elderly mentor not far away, hunched over her walking stick.
“Do you know what did this? Or when?”
“Not precisely either,” She admits, “At a guess, I’d say six or eight years ago. So you know, I wasn’t actually aware of what happened. I was avoiding the villagers so I wouldn’t be questioned about your disappearance… they were sure to believe you missing, if not dead, after your flight into the forest.”
“But what could burn down something like this and nature not take over to heal the land?”
She cackles, “Well now, there’s a mighty good question. I can think of several things which could possibly do the burning. Not a one of them could keep nature from taking the place over. As for what could do the second, my advice is to leave for now, learn a few things, and come back better armed. Know I’ll be home should you ever pass this way.”
“Thank you.” Although, considering my ability to lose time in my observing, I doubt she’ll still be alive by the time I might return.
“We’d both best be well away before dark.” She adds before hobbling away.
I can see the sense in her advice, so I pick a road leading away and follow it.
About a day and a half away traveling on foot, I come to a small town I don’t remember hearing about as a child. It’s surrounded by a stockade wall with heavy gates, which are propped open when I reach them. An armoured guard eyes me as I pass him, but doesn’t speak or move. Undoubtedly I’m more of a curiosity than a threat, dressed as I am in clothes made from forest materials and carrying no weapons.
Once inside the wall, I find the town isn’t much more than a larger version of the settlements I recall from my childhood. There are more businesses and more people, but no real improvements beyond the defensive value of the outer wall.
I don’t have any kind of currency and I don’t own anything of value, which means, while I can look around… maybe even ask around… I can’t stay here long. But, with a feeling I don’t want to call attention to myself or my quest here and now, I opt to pass through and continue along the road on the other side.
This is a much better traveled road and I encounter more people. Some are on foot, but more are riding or driving carts. Very few of them so much as nod to each other or me. Most of what I’m sensing is an undercurrent of tension throughout the area.
It continues as I travel, this odd sense of tension I can’t begin to explain. Every settlement I pass through has a wall surrounding it and amoured guards at the gate. Every traveler on the road is at best indifferent to everything but their own destination. I don’t recall any of this so something must have happened in the years I spent hidden away in the forest.
Some of the stretches between towns are long and there can be nothing or nearly nothing along the roads for days at a time. While I don’t mind spending nights in the open, the most frequent complaint I hear from other travelers is the lack of accommodations and supplies. More than once I spend my nights assisting those with less in the way of survival skills to ensure they have food and are relatively safe in the open.
Which is also how I get the majority of my news of events in the world. Grateful travelers are far more willing to share what they know with someone who has helped them than townsfolk will with a coinless transient.
My mentor was right in her guess of six or eight years ago for the destruction of the settlement. The stories I hear from my night time companions place the first attacks seven or eight years ago. One of three facts agreed on in all tales. The other two are the attacks are all fire and anyone or thing venturing to remain in the ruins after dark is never seen or heard from again. What varies and where arguments start are the sources of the fire and disappearances. It’s much harder to discern a thread of truth in the details of who and how and why. Even in the tales from those who survived the attacks, it’s hard for me to tell truth from speculation.
Well, actually, one other thing is universally agreed upon. Only small, open settlements are attacked. Those with walls and guards haven’t seen so much as an inexplicable spark. And, in light of this fact, there aren’t many small, open settlements left. All the residents of the region are gathering together inside the walled towns and travel is only of necessity.
I’d begun my journey late in the summer and find autumn comes quickly with chilly nights and crisp days. I don’t mind the autumn, but I do mind the storm season which seems to fall between the cool, crisp days and full on winter. These storms can last days at a time and come with high winds, thunder, lightning, and hard rain or even hailstones. It’s horrid weather for traveling, worst for those on foot. Especially where the road crosses streams or rivers which rise to wash it out.
During the first of the seasonal storms, I come to the shattered remains of a bridge across a raging river. There’s no going around. Certainly no going through. Anyone venturing into these waters would be swept away and very likely drowned.
I stop on the bank, well back of the high water, to survey what I can see through the driving rain. My pack is waterproof, as is the large, shapeless garment I wear over both my pack and the rest of my clothes. My forest shoes, I had long ago traded for some good, waterproof boots and my tightly woven hat has a stiff, broad brim. While I may be a bit cold, I’m not wet through. Still, I have no desire to attempt to camp in this weather. And there are next to no other travelers now.
Studying the terrain to either side, I can’t see much other than trees and underbrush until I look more carefully. To my right, I can just make out a faint path… possibly an animal trail… which follows the riverbank. Hoping it leads somewhere with shelter, I follow it as it winds through the trees, moving in and out of sight of the river. Eventually, to my surprise, I come across a snug little log cabin with a chimney pipe. There is light behind the oiled paper windows so I mount the two steps onto the porch and knock on the door.
The man who answers the door looks to be a relation to my mentor. He’s ancient and craggy, bundled in too many layers, and hunched over a gnarled stick. Bright eyes study me critically.
“This isn’t an inn. Go away!”
“There isn’t an inn within two days of here,” I’m quick to point out before he can close the door, “I’m a single traveler, seeking a roof over my head for one night. And I can work for my keep.”
Again, the bright eyes study me critically. “Mayhap I have some chores need doing. But you aren’t to speak of this place to anyone, you hear?”
“Of course.” And, with that, I’m allowed inside a surprisingly large room.
There’s a black metal wood burning stove to go with the chimney pipe I’d seen and a box of well seasoned firewood nearby. The furniture is log, the same as the cabin, and very simple. There’s a narrow bed, a small table, a chair, and a chest of drawers. What’s more interesting is the herbs hanging in bunches from the rafters and a single shelf containing two books and a dozen curiosities of the sort my mentor collected.
I’m careful not to drip too much water on the floor as I shed my outer garment and pack. The garment gets hung on a hook on the back of the door and the pack gets set nearby and my boots join it.
“Know a thing or two about the weather, do you?” My host sounds surprised.
“Ten years of observing the seasons and weather patterns,” I move close to the stove so I can warm up, “And a little survival know how.”
“More than a little, I’d say,” His chuckle is dry, “Usually if folks blunder this far into the forest, it’s blizzard conditions out and they’ve lost the road completely.”
“Looked like an animal trail and animals usually have a dry place to go when the weather gets this bad.”
My host nods to himself. “You’re smarter than the average traveler. And just mayhap you can be of some help to me.” He shakes his head, “Food first. Even if you aren’t wet, you’re cold and I doubt you’ve had much chance to eat.”
The food is mostly cold and preserved, but the cabin is warm. My host reminds me a great deal of my mentor. There’s a strangeness about him, but I’m too used to it now to be uncomfortable. I’m sleeping on the floor, near the stove, which is no worse than the places I’ve slept since starting this journey.
It’s hard to distiguish when night turns to morning. The storm persists unabated, which means I won’t be able to cross the river for some time yet. However, over breakfast, I find my host studying me with a critical eye.
“I’ve a task for you this morning… since you said you’d earn your keep.”
I nod, “So I did.”
And so, a short while later, I find myself dressed in my wet weather garb, trudging through the soaked forest. My pack and much of my gear had been left with my host since I shouldn’t need it for this task.
As I trudge through the soggy underbrush, my eyes are open for the landmarks described to me. There are a series of large rocks and trees unique enough in appearance for me to identify them. In my mind, I note each as I come across it. By the time I reach the last one, the morning is mostly gone and I’m deep in the forest. Ahead of me, I can see a grassy mound with a dark hole in the side, close to the bottom. I keep a cautious eye open for the resident of said mound as I approach close enough to leave the tightly sealed flask of liquid I had been entrusted with delivering. My host hadn’t specified more than I’m to make the delivery, so as soon as the flask is set down, I turn to head back.
I can’t help a wary frown as I turn back to the mound to see the oldest, most shriveled up, sunken in, little woman I’ve ever encountered. She has an aura of strangeness to the point where I’m not sure she’s human, but I don’t know what else she could be.
“Delivery from the old grump?”
I can only assume she means my host, so I nod.
“Well, either he really likes you or he wishes to be rid of you,” Sunken bright eyes search my face, “Me thinks ‘tis the former.”
I can’t help my wary frown.
She breaks out in a wild cackle, her face forming a whole new set of creases, “Truth be told, there’s little in this forest as will harm them me and him like. Those we don’t… well…” Again, she cackles, although this has a disturbing note to it.
There’s nothing I can do to prevent a shiver.
“I’ll let you be on your way back,” She picks up the flask, “Like as not, I’ll see more of you.”
While I’m not certain about the idea, I nod politely and head back the way I’d come.
I arrive to find my host poring over a massive old tome bound in plain leather. He makes no effort to look up as I enter the cabin.
“You’re back in one piece?”
“Hot food on the stove.” And then he’s lost in his tome again.
I help myself to what turns out to be a vegetable mash of some kind. It’s hard to tell exactly what went into it. At least it’s filling and tastes good. Once I’ve eaten and cleaned up my dished, I go onto the porch to observe, if nothing else, the storm.
Which continues for another four days. I spend most of my time observing the storm, the forest around me, and the various creatures as they do their best to survive the deluge. My host appears to spend most of his time poring over massive old tomes from some unidentified source which look nothing like the books on his shelf. He doesn’t speak much and generally leaves me to my observations unless he needs something. Even then, what he needs is seldom complicated or onerous.
The fifth morning, I wake to a seeming unnatural silence. Stepping out the door, I find the sky grey and overcast, but no rain coming down. Undoubtedly the river will remain swollen for some time. It can take weeks for this much water to wash on down the line. This simply affords me an opportunity to observe the river as the water level drops.
It seems, so long as I’m willing to run errands for him, my host doesn’t care how long I remain. And, as with my mentor, I lose track of the time and days in my observing and recording. Except, unlike in my home forest, all around me now are hints of the other side of this world my mentor mentioned. Inexplicable flickers of light or shapes in the river or the cryptic comments of the ancient, sunken woman when an errand requires I visit her. Visits which become increasingly… and somewhat suspiciously… more frequent. As if my host thinks I need to learn more of and from her.
“Well,” Sunken bright eyes observe me critically, “Does the old grump do anything for himself these days?”
I respond with a shrug. I don’t concern myself with what my host does, especially since I’m so rarely inside his cabin. I spend most of the time I’m not sleeping either observing or recording my observations.
She cackles, an almost wry sound, “You’re two of a kind, plain to see. Have you any idea how long you’ve been with us?”
Again, I shrug. My ability to track time is nearly nonexistant.
“A full year, it’s been,” Again, the wry cackle, “What do you seek, to come so far only to sit and observe so much?”
“I don’t know exactly what it is I seek,” I admit, “What set me on the road…” I recount for her the tale of the fate of mother’s uncle’s settlement. Or at least as much of it as I know. She listens with a deepening frown, concern growing ever more prominent in her expression.
“Not a puzzle easily untangled,” She nods to herself as I fall silent, “Have you ever sought to put right a perceived wrong?”
“Not since I was a very small child. My father showed me early the consequences of intervention in natural processes.”
“Aye,” She nods sagely, “Most often wisdom is to leave well enough be. Still, intervention becomes necessary when nature is circumvented… This case certainly sounds like such.”
“But to intervene without more information,” My frown is wary, “I still have no idea what could do such a thing, nevermind how to counter it.”
“Wise far beyond your years, you,” She cackles, “What would you do for one able to tell you what you need to know?”
I remain wary, “I think I would prefer to find the answer myself. Too often, the cost of information is too dear.”
Once again, she cackles, “I knew you to be a wise one. If you would deliver an item to the old grump for me, I’ll give you a little direction.”
“That I’ll do.” I’ve been running items between the two for a while now.
“Walk upstream along the river on this side of the bank ‘til it vanishes into the rocks. There, you’ll find a cave. Be wary in your exploration. Eyes, ears, and mind open.”
“Thank you.” I nod, “And the item to be delivered?”
“Is this.” She produces a sealed pouch, “Mind you’re gentle with it.”
“Of course.” I accept the item and am soon on my way.
Suspecting I’ll need all my gear for the recommended task, I carefully prepare and pack before setting out upstream along the river. I have food and water as well as anything I may need for recording my observations. Because we’re well into the rainy season, I also take all my wet weather gear.
Fortunately, as I set out, the rain is light and the river flowing normally. Everything is wet, but I can see where I’m going and most of the wildlife is in hiding, waiting out the rain.
The river bank is steep, slick, or overgrown in many places, so I content myself with keeping the river in sight. So long as I’m headed upstream, I shouldn’t miss my destination. Unless it gets dark before I get that far. One thing I wasn’t given is any idea how far upstream I have to go before the river vanishes into rocks. While I hope this won’t take long, I have no idea how long to expect it to take.
And, two and a half days later, I finally reach a point where the river spills out of a narrow gap in an otherwise sheer stone wall. The cave, I quickly spot not far away. Or at least I’m fairly certain the man sized crack in the wall will lead me into a cave. I don’t see anything else even close to one in the immediate vicinity.
The crack is just large enough for me to pass through, pack and all.
Once inside, I find myself in a surprisingly bright tunnel lined with lit torches. The stone floor is smooth and clear of any debris. The walls and ceiling are raw stone, but the whole place leaves me wary. It’s as if someone or something lives in here. Still, I venture in, all senses alert. I won’t learn anything by turning away now. I don’t think either my host or the sunken in old woman would be trying to kill me off now.
The tunnel runs relatively straight and level for so long I end up having to stop for some sleep long before I reach the end. I eat a little as well and am grateful I brought as much food and drink as I did.
When I feel adequately rested, I press on in what I hope is the right direction. The tunnel looks the same both up and down, so it’s hard to tell. Or at least until it widens into a much larger cavern.
There are torches along the walls in both directions, but these don’t shed enough light for me to see the ceiling or more than a fraction of the way across the cavern. The floor is the same stone as the tunnel. I start to venture forward, only to discover as I move away from the wall torches, there isn’t another light source and I’m quickly headed into darkness.
Finally, feeling in need of a rest, I sit and rummage through my pack for food. My senses remain alert as I eat and rest, but the cavern is deafeningly silent. There’s something mildly disturbing here. I just can’t think of what or why it’s bothering me.
As before, once I feel well enough rested, I press on. I remain where there is at least a little light from the torches and so skirt the outside edge of the vast cavern. Eventually, I spot what appears to be either another tunnel or at least passage to another cavern, except, as I get closer, I realize it’s a huge opening in the wall. I also quickly discover there’s more light here. An ever increasing amount of light, actually, but definitely not daylight.
“So finally you find excuse to visit me?” The words are hard to distinguish through the rumble which is strong enough to shake the cavern. I can’t see the speaker, but guess whoever it is to be huge.
I finally reach the opening in the wall and move so I can see inside. Huge doesn’t begin to describe the creature inside, bedded down in a nest of brightly shining silver and gold objects. Scaly, definitely. Monstrous… well, I’ve never even heard of anything like this. The creature appears to have four heavily muscled legs and two massive leathery wings. Large reptilian eyes study me even as I study the creature. Each digit is tipped with a glittering curved talon and its teeth match.
I swallow hard, but can’t seem to find my voice.
“I’m sure you seek something,” The rumble is even stronger now, “Seems no one seeks me out without at least one question to be answered.”
I swallow again, unable to take my eyes off the creature, “Wha… who… I…”
“Have you never heard of dragons before?” The rumble sounds bemused.
Slowly, warily, I shake my head.
“I’ll no more harm you than the hag or the old grump,” The rumble is amused, “What query do you have?”
I swallow once again, then attempt a deep breath, “‘Tis this…” Surprisingly, I manage to get my whole story out in a coherant fashion. The dragon is intimidating, regardless of its attempts at reassurance. As I finish my tale, I find it looking thoughtful.
“A puzzle, that,” Concern comes through the rumble, “And not one I have all the answers too. Still, I may be able to provide a beginning and some assistance for you in resolving the rest.”
“In exchange for?”
A rumbling chuckle reverberates through the cavern, “You are an observer of things, are you not?”
“I seem to be.”
“I would love to hear some of your observations as you find time to return to see me. Not this time, mind. Your errand is more urgent than you know. But do return to share with me.”
“Now, as for what you face…” The dragon launches into what turns into a fairly complex explanation and I listen as carefully as I’ve ever listened to anything.
Approximately one day and one hair raising dragon ride later, I’m back in the settlement where mother’s uncle lived, carefully hidden and awaiting dusk. I know several others of races I’d never heard of previously are likewise hidden and waiting. The more I listened to the dragon, the less I felt I knew of the world. For all my years of observing, I now realize there’s so much I never saw. Never even heard of. There’s so much more to learn than I ever dreamed possible.
But, for the moment, my attention needs to be focused on the task at hand. While the plan seems simple on the surface, there are so many things which could go wrong. I understand my part and yet, I’m not certain why I’m here. I know so little of what we’re dealing with.
Dusk comes far too quickly to suit me and I can’t help shivering as the sky begins to darken. There’s a growing wrongness here, far beyond what I’d experienced on my last visit. As much as I would hope my companions are able to handle what we suspect is coming, I’m not sure I can.
And then it’s true dusk and the sense of wrongness solidifies into unnatural shadow shapes on what’s left of the walls of the ruined buildings. There’s nothing to cast shadows, but the shadows are there, growing stronger as the daylight fades.
And then come the real troublemakers. These appear as glowing balls of flame about as large as my open hand. They dart about all over the place, lighting it in patches and creating even more disturbing shadows.
The dragon believes what happened both originally and later is a result of the combined abilities of these two types of creatures. The shadows are called just that and feed on any of the living matter which would otherwise overtake the ruined settlement. The glowing balls of flame are called pixies and are very likely to be what burned everything down in the first place. One of the things we’re here for tonight is to discover why, but also whether it’s possible to end the problem without ending the creatures. The dragon seemed certain neither set of creatures had acted purely maliciously.
One of my companions is what the dragon had introduced as a sprite, which seems to be a diminutive woman wearing a dress made of leaves. Her hair is long, spilling over gossamer wings, and her fingers end in very sharp little claws. As soon as the pixies appear, the sprite flutters out of hiding, drawing all attention to herself.
That I don’t speak the language referred to as fay may or may not be a good thing right now. Evidently the pixies are not happy to see the sprite and whatever conversation is to be had doesn’t appear to be going well. Finally, the sprite sighs and signals for the rest of us to come out.
I’m not the only one looking wary as I emerge from my hiding spot and approach the cloud of flitting, fiery creatures. There are four of us, myself only one of three humans. The fourth is a dragon… not the one I’d spoken to… who is the only one seeming unconcerned about the situation.
“As I thought,” The sprite announces for the rest of us to hear, “The humans of the settlements were acting less than respectfully in the pixies’ territory… over cutting wood and failing to leave gifts in exchange and other such foolishness. And they’re refusing to cease hostilities until amends are made.”
“Can the humans be persuaded to make amends?” The dragon rumbles.
The other two humans in the group exchange a rueful glance before the female and smaller of them speaks, “The settlement leaders won’t see any reason to. They think to trust in their walls and arms.”
“And should a dragon take up their cause?” The rumble carries a note of curiosity.
“They’ll still think to trust in their arms,” The human woman shakes her head, “I think we all know the general run of humans aren’t the most reasonable of creatures.”
I consider the problem for a moment, “In general perhaps, but what of specific individuals? Not necessarily the settlement leaders, but maybe those with the most to lose should the problem persist?”
The others consider my idea carefully.
“We can try,” The human man doesn’t look entirely hopeful, “Still, this is more than we’ve known in nearly a decade. Although, perhaps the backing of a dragon may help our cause.”
“I will aid as I can.” The dragon rumbles.
“I will calm the pixies as I can,” The sprite adds, “If only to buy you time to convince people.”
“You,” The dragon rumbles at me, “Had best report back our findings here. I think my sire wishes longer discourse with you anyway.”
I just nod. I have no problem with returning to learn what I can of the first dragon I met.
I end up flown back. I don’t think riding the back of a dragon will ever be my favourite form of transportation. Although, I will admit it’s quicker than walking.
What surprises me is to find my host and the hag waiting for me. When the dragon first said it, I thought hag to be derogatory, but in truth, she calls herself as much. It seems hag is merely a name given a human magic user, usually female, who has somehow exceeded her own mortality. Yet another thing I can’t help being curious about. Especially since, as things stand, I’m unlikely to live long enough to learn as much as I’d like about the world newly opened up to me.
“Your back in one piece.” My ever dour host eyes me critically.
“I expected as much, given his companions,” The dragon rumbles, before addressing me, “And what have you learned?”
The four of us settle in while I recount the tale of my discoveries at the settlement. As I finish, all three of my companions are nodding to themselves.
“Will be the work of a while,” The hag observes, “But not, I suspect, your work.”
My host chuckles dryly, “He’s an observer… we’ve seen that much. He’ll work out what that means in time.”
The hag cackles.
Neither of them remain long and I’m soon left with the dragon.
“They do think highly of you.”
I can’t help my grimace, “Seems odd… all of this…”
The rumbling turns amused, “I’m sure you’ll ‘observe’ more of what’s happening around us.” The amusement stops, “A second request of you, if I may.”
“What is it?”
“If, in your observations, you encounter a creature with the appearance of a sprite, but not the abilities, would you befriend her and keep watch over her?”
I frown as I nod, “Would be an odd creature indeed.”
“And a lonely one.” The dragon rumbles sadly, “But, for the moment, I’m sure you have questions…”
Alexandra A. ‘Lexa’ Cheshire lives in British Columbia, Canada. She is a wife and mother who enjoys to read and write fantasy and science fiction.
She can be found on facebook.com or goodreads.com by searching Alexandra A. Cheshire. Readers are more than welcome to post reviews of this and any other works on amazon.com or goodreads.com.