The Pursuit of Happiness
By Paul Rheaume
Brin : “merchant-clever” a little frustrated, ultimately good hearted, observant, idealist. Portly.
Treeman: childlike, very in tune with nature. 7” hairy. Bonds with Brin over food.
Annis: sociopath. Dangerous. Untrustworthy. Schizophrenic. Possessed by a power mad little god. She was raised by the Priests of the Sacred Grove.
Perris: single minded. Neurotic, paranoid. Made up the god that he worshipped. Is needed for his faith to keep the little god at bay.
Old lady/Griala: quick witted, sharp, wise, secretive.
Tarol Undershine: A military tactician who surrounded himself with brute force to keep himself safe. Travels the world with his roving band of brigands and warriors, destroying and looting whatever they turn their eye to. Weak of body but with a mind that has managed to keep his rather large company well fed and safe. Only a select few handmaidens and scouts ever see him, he barks his orders through an intricate system of tubes and horns that come out of his large wooden covered wagon.
The Priests of the Sacred Grove: An ancient brother/sisterhood of priests dedicated to preserving balance in the world. They believe that there are little gods in everything. Each person has a god that lives inside them. They renounce any names they may have had upon swearing the sacred oath believing themselves to be mere vessels for the gods that live inside of them.
The Elder Priest of the Sacred Grove: The oldest of the priests. He is looked to as a vessel for all the gods that have lived in the Elder Priests before him. The little god that inhabited Annis was supposed to transfer to him with the passing of the person he succeeded.
The Little God: The little god that lives in Annis was once the god that inhabited ….what?
Chapter 1 – The Merchant and the Dancer Page 5
Chapter 2 – As the Arrow Flies Page 8
Chapter 3 – Word as law Page 10
Chapter 4 – Of Roots and Prayer Page 13
The Pursuit of Happiness
The Merchant and the Dancer
The wind held something in it that brought tears to the eyes. The bitter cold that followed froze them. It was difficult to move quietly in the early morning frost. Everything was so crisp, so loud. The forest air could carry a sound, distorted and hollow, from miles away. It could also be coming from just behind the next hill. One could never tell. Fur padding on the shoes helped a little. They looked a bit ridiculous, but helped to muffle the sound of crunching leaves and breaking twigs. Brin knew, at this point, it didn’t matter, as he was being followed. He had been since two days ago. He was unsure as to why. He carried nothing of any real value. He was a simple merchant who found himself in the shoes of a messenger. He had half a mind to just stay put and wait for his pursuer. Better to face the devil than to let his mind build up who it may be. Was it a hunter? Any hunter worth his salt would know the tracks he left was not made by a forest animal. But yet, he was still followed. Not a good sign.
He ducked behind a large oak to catch his breath. The tell-tale smell of fire had disappeared with the shifting of the wind. He would have to be more cautious now. He had no weapon save a whittling knife and a crooked walking stick that he had found along the road at the beginning of his journey. It would make a poor spear. The blood pumping in his ears was a constant drumbeat signaling danger. When he paused for a breath or a drink, it created a cacophonous reminder to his current plight. Annis would have shimmied up a tall pine and held her bow silent until the interloper showed himself. It had always amazed him how she could stand, unmoving, for hours. But Annis wasn’t here, and age weighed heavily on Brin’s considerable body. His days of climbing trees were well past. If it weren’t for his current situation, the notion would be humorous.
It was a week since he had left the village of Crydon. It had been more like a group of six farms that butted up against each other with an inn and a statue of a farmer in the middle. But the food had been well spiced and the company was friendly. He spent a few nights over a bowl of hunter’s stew consisting of both deer and rabbit in a thick brown sauce served over cubes of bread and mugs of the local ale. He was fairly sure that he had made no enemies in the nights he had rested there. He had done his best to keep any conversations to simple things like the crops and weather. He gave no complaint when he saw that the prices were just slightly higher for outsiders. Who was he to deny them larder for the winter? Coins were just rocks from the ground that someone polished pretty. They came and went like the seasons. You quickly got the idea from the ready smiles and the tavern songs that nothing terrible had ever happened there. Crydon hadn’t had any sense of local government, just a group of local people who knew that there was comfort in numbers. So be it.
He hadn’t noticed his tail until three days ago. He doubted that anyone from the village had ever travelled so far. That left two answers. That he had recently picked up his follower or that he had been followed for long before Crydon. The latter was unsettling.
Brin unwrapped his roll and took out one of his few remaining loaves of bread that he had purchased in town. The thick brown crust staved off the bread going stale. Thinking always came easier with a full stomach, and he certainly had some thinking to do. Just continuing on to the sacred grove wasn’t really an option. He had pledged, long ago, never to reveal its location. The pledge was long and was centered on swearing to many different gods and the letting of blood from his finger. Brin was hardly a superstitious man, but there was something about these priests that he decided would be better not to cross. That he brought an enemy into their camp would not be a conversation that he would like to have with the priests. They were skittish enough as it was. The need for secrecy with this group was paramount although Brian could never figure out why. The priests were a quiet, unassuming people who lived closely attuned to nature. They hid no gold as far as he knew and so had little to fear from outsiders. But still they kept themselves unknown to the world. That was the way they liked it and the world got along just fine without knowing they existed. It did, however, narrow his choices. It was unlikely that he could still lose the person following him, he was too close now, and he could not lead them any closer. If he did that, the priests would never let themselves be found. There was really only one option. Better the devil you know. If he was met with a sword, well, that he could handle, if he had to. His girth hid a quickness that surprised most. He did make for a fairly easy ranged target, however. It was best to lay low until he was in striking range. He figured that he had about two hours, on the outside, before they would meet. Strategy was key here; he put to mind as he surveyed the outlying landscape. The ground was relatively flat, so no adjustments could be made for higher ground. Even the trees had thinned out for the past few miles. This was hardly an ideal place to make ones last stand. Chewing slowly, he weighed his options. Eating always made him think better. He wiped the crumbs from his chin as it came to him. He found a stump, sat down and smiled. It was worth a shot.
By the time the silhouette crested into view Brian had a roaring fire burning and some root vegetables slow roasting. It wasn’t a rabbit, by any means, but it still left a comforting aroma on the breeze. He was fortunate enough to find a few ripened roots over the past few days. It was foolhardy to waste resources as such. Root patches don’t show up every day, especially in this frost. But, it was most likely a pretty strong signal to whoever was coming that he knew someone was behind him. The pops of the dry wood burning and the ensuing sparks floated on the breeze towards the interloper. If this didn’t work, he knew he was in trouble. He pretended not to notice the large man approaching as he poked his stick in the food to test doneness.
Brin waved his cooking utensil at a stone that he had placed at the other end of the fire. The large man slung his pack from over his shoulder and onto the rock. His broad, bearded face showed no emotion as he rummaged through his pack, producing a fair sized parcel made of what appeared to be birch bark. He was a large man, exceptionally so. His beard hung long and the state of his clothing suggested that he slept outside more often than not. His thick fingers struggled with unwrapping the delicately tied package.
“Ho, stranger.” Brin announced, as calmly as he could. “What brings you to follow in my path? You are welcome to share my fire. My roots appear to be almost cooked. I am called Brin and am glad for the company.”
The hulking mass lifted his head to meet his gaze for but a moment before returning to his task. The grey eyes immediately told Brin that this was not a man that would put up with witty banter. He needed to re-evaluate his plan and quickly. Cleverness would be unlikely to win the day. A quick exchange of a meal and quips would have suited him for most folk. He would at least know where he stood. This man was different, unnerving. This open air meeting would, most certainly, be an error of judgment on his part. He sat and watched silently as the man finally was able to unwrap the package. He pulled out a metal box that, when opened, contained meat packed in salt. The meat had been pre-set in skewers that were carefully lifted, shaken to remove any excess salt, and set above the fire to toast. He then pulled a fur blanket from his pack and set it next to the rock near the fire. As he began to clap his hands together to remove the excess salt, Brian attempted to verbally engage him again.
“I have water…”
He was cut off short as the man spun more quickly than Brin would have ever imagined and put one hand to his mouth; fingers up and palm out in the universal sign for silence. Brin froze mid-word; his eyes open wide in anticipation of attack. He had no idea what to expect next. The man slowly lowered his hand and turned back to his pack. He removed a deerskin pouch, opened it and threw a pinch of the contents into the fire.
Immediately, the cooking fire exploded into a blaze of color. Brin quickly brought up his arm so as not to be blinded. He steeled himself for some sort of attack that never came. When he saw the light at his feet diminish, he peeked up above his forearm and saw the most curious thing. The large man who must have weighed at least seventeen stones was dancing on the rug in a fervor that Brian would never have thought that someone of his size could muster. His arms flung about haphazardly in a rhythm that was unheard but clearly felt. The man’s crazed movements depicted (as near as Brin could tell) the flight of some angry bear-bird who wished to give thanks to the mountain god. Or something like that. His dance interpretation skills were far outweighed by the realization that if this man wanted him dead, there would be nothing he could do to stop him. His shaggy frame belied a quickness of motion that was eerie. Brian was watching a human thunderstorm.
And then, as quickly it had begun, it was over. The man gave a final shake of his body; much like a wet dog would, and sat down with a thump that Brin felt in the ground from across the fire. He ham fistedly grabbed the two skewers from the fire, the heat apparently causing him no discomfort, and tore a ragged piece of meat from the stick. Oddly enough, the meat that had been packed in salt now appeared to be juicy and sizzling with crackling fat. It dripped down his beard, though he seemed to pay it no mind. The large man just stared at Brin, chewing slowly, his large jaw working back and forth. Further study of the man in front of him raised far more questions than it answered. He had hair everywhere. His long hair and ample beard hid most of his face, but the parts that it did not hide were the most unsettling. Upon closer inspection his gray eyes seemed almost too large for his head. Even his hands, or what he could see of them poking out of his long sleeves, had tufts of long, shaggy hair. He wore no boots but all he could see of his feet that wasn’t completely covered by hair were his enormous toes. The large vest that he wore was made out of woven leaves….
He was staring across the fire at a treeman.
All thoughts of getting an upper hand in the situation fled his mind. He sat down with a considerable thump of his own on the log he had placed near the fire and let out a long, whistling breath. The treeman copied the sound. Only his whistle seemed to call a small bird to alight on his shoulder and pick a bug out of his ear.
From what he could piece together from childhood stories, the treemen were little seen guardians of the forest. According to his mother, they stole away children who wouldn’t wash their clothes in the river. He doubted if that particular piece of folklore held any merit, but the man sitting before him certainly fit the description. Brian could not recall any stories about them being particularly violent but it was best to be safe. Mostly they were known for their reluctance for contact with anyone except for their own kind. This meeting was unprecedented. He became sorely afraid that the reason that there were so few stories about the Treemen was due to so few surviving the encounter. His demeanor did not shout out killer as much as it did child. That man sitting across from him, however, was in no way a child.
Chapter 2: As the Arrow Flies
Annis pressed her back against the remains of the ancient stone wall and listened for any scouts that she may have missed. The swiftly moving air kept any scent of her quarry downwind but was also continually whipping her long chestnut locks into her eyes and mouth. She tore a strip from her well worn leather jerkin and tied her hair back, looking down while she did so.
Three corpses lay at her feet, two with arrows sticking in their torsos and one with his neck at an unusual angle. Once she was sure that the footsteps she heard a few minutes ago were not returning, she squatted down to see if the projectiles were still serviceable. Pulling an arrow out of someone’s back is not as simple as one would think.
A well made arrow, at least the kind used against people, should be a difficult thing to remove. She thought back to her mentor; the arrogant sod, Gilliad, and how he would have her forge her arrowheads wider than any she had ever seen. When pressed as to why, he told her: “When you shoot someone with an arrow, you are gifting him with a death that some would consider… impersonal. It is not wise to allow your victim to take offence at your attempt and decide to do otherwise. When you make an arrowhead wide, it will become twisted with their insides when they try to remove it. It will hasten their death, which is only kind, as an arrow is a painful way to die.” He then showed her how to make the outside edges very sharp but to leave the back of the head with no edge at all. Little notches along the back would ensure that even if the arrow could be dislodged, it would take important bits with it.
Her mentor Gilliad may well have been the most dangerous man she had ever met, but even he did not know the secret of removing a well made arrow, especially, when he didn’t see it coming. But how could he have when she was the one holding the bow. His fiery libido wasn’t quite as threatening when the only thing stiff down there was an arrow in his groin.
Hunching down, she inspected the first arrow. The shaft was cracked. It was useless to her now. She pocketed the arrowhead and threw the rest into the tall grass that skirted the rubble she had been hiding in. The grass was deep enough to hide a body, so it should do for a few arrows. These ruins provided pretty decent cover, but there was no need to leave undue traces. There had been no one calling this home for at least a hundred years, from the look of things. Only one wall still stood as high as she did, the rest had been reduced to piles of stone surrounded by tall weeds. It was also excellent cover. Little ruins like this dotted the landscape providing excellent cover. She wasn’t sure what had happened here to run everyone out so long ago, but it had been enough to where no one had returned.
This close to the caravan was not a safe area to be in the daylight. Roaming patrols, such as the one that lay dead at her feet, were a certainty. The only benefit to stalking a caravan was that a caravan would not know the lay of the land. It made keeping out of sight much easier. Tarrol had his scouts out, for sure. But they also had the added duty of watching out over five giant tents, carts, horses and throngs of warriors milling about the encampment. There is only so much ground they can cover. Also, with their reputation as it is, they don’t have a lot of issues with people attacking them. Once word comes through an area that the caravan is coming , most folk run to safer grounds, quickly; usually, with a lot of screaming.
Still, as sure as she was that she could avoid detection in broad daylight, there was no need. She had been following the caravan for a month now and was pretty sure that she knew a way in. The guards drank pretty heavily at night from the rum caskets so they had become complacent. Even so, they were dangerous. Still, most of them would have staggered off to their tents by the pre dawn hours. The approach was fairly simple. It was once she was in one of the giant tents when her skills would be tested. The tents were palaces that could be moved. They were not for the rabble. There were many of the common soldiers that Undershine employed that never saw the inside of one. The guards that did work inside were not allowed drink and so would not be as quickly fooled as the common raider that slept under the stars.
The tents, themselves, were as large as city blocks and separated into many rooms. What information she had gathered about the of the inside layout was weak. When she had gotten close enough to cut a little slit in the side of the thick canvas, she discovered that the tents outer walls only gave way to another tent wall, studded with metal rings and more than a foot away. It is just enough room for a guard to walk through. From what was gleaned from overheard conversation, there was another similar guard walk leading to Tarrol Undershine’s inner chambers. A tent within a tent… within a tent. It must have cost a fortune. All of that work… the fireproofing with tar slag alone would have bankrupt a small city. It was an exorbitant strategy, but one that appeared to work very well.
But for now, it was time to hunker down and wait for nightfall. Tonight, it was finally time to make her move. Her success was in no way guaranteed, but the risks were worth it as Tarrol was said to be in possession of an item looted from Annis’s father.
Lifting her head over the ruined stone wall, confidence that she was not followed prevailed. She slid back down and began to rifle through the clothing of the three gentlemen that would be keeping her company until nightfall. Their packs contained a good supply of road food: biscuits and dried meat. She had named them Gerrod, Benj and King Tem. They had been one of the numerous scouting parties that had been sent out before the caravan moved out. They probably would not be expected to return for at least three days. Tannis had needed to know how well trained the caravan’s men were. As it turned out, they were not trained very well at all. The first two scouts fell, quickly, under her arrows. When the third saw this, he just stood there, like a frightened child, while she ran up to him. The look of surprise that he had on his face as Tannis killed him with a perfectly placed kick to the neck was still there, Frozen for eternity. She recalled that it had made a satisfying “pop” when it snapped.
She held a war conference with her new friends to discuss what the best way in to the encampment would be. Sat up against the wall, they looked like royalty. She had tried to make a crown out of leaves and sticks in Tem’s hair, but the results were disappointing. His broken neck was poor at holding his head up and the leaves kept tumbling off. The long grasses that she had stuffed in his now stiffening mouth were a noble attempt at, but did not quite mimic, a kingly beard. She had smashed out all of Gerrod and Benj’s teeth with a rock in hopes of making them look like a queen and a princess with red, pouty mouths, but was disappointed with the results. The red around their mouth did add to the illusion but she had accidentally caved in Gerrod’s head in the front. If you have never caved in someone’s skull you probably wouldn’t know how bad brains smell. Not very princess-like at all.
None of them were very forthcoming with a good route into the camp. She could tell that they were far too afraid to give up anything. Tarol Undershine was not one to forgive betrayal. The stories that crossed the plains were of heads on pikes marking the path that his caravan moved through the world. Undershine did not hide. He left a path of heads for anyone foolish enough to follow. The unlucky ones that did, more likely than not, became part of the path. From what Annis had seen, there did not appear to be a shortage of fools. What stories she had heard, mostly from cowering peasants, told the tale of a wandering tyrant and his tireless army. Undershine was a superstitious king and believed himself to be cursed to never take root in one place. He was also known for looting any town, village, city or fortress he came across. That was what had caught her attention. The stories that were whispered, that of an army that never slept and carrying an ancient treasure, she could dismiss. She had already seen that his army sleeps just fine. In fact, he was pretty sure that the queen in front of her was dozing off.
That was royalty for you.
Chapter 3: Word as law
The marketplace bustled with moving carts, stalls and barkers. The smell of roasted meats mingled, uneasily, with that of horse’s shit. Thick smoke from various small blacksmiths in the area combined with the haphazard layout of the market to make visibility low. Parrid was in a particularly foul mood this morning, having had his breakfast unceremoniously thrown out the tavern window by an irate inkeep, demanding payment. The mindless shrieks from this overweight pile of excrement still rang in his ears. “No coin, no room! No coin, no food.” Over and over again. He was sure that he was being made an example of. He had promised the keep his payment in three days and was rewarded for his oath by being locked out of his room with a promise that in three days, when the keep was paid, he would see the return of his belongings that were in the room at the time of the incident. Even if he had had the payment for the bloated innkeeper he would never see it now. To think! Charging a warrior priest for lodging? That would never do! Lord Saaban (may his name reign fire down upon the ages) did not create this world so that the people that infest it could profit from what was made to offer freely. Such an offence to a warrior priest of Saaban should not go unpunished, but it was difficult in a city where the Lord of the Red Heavens name was not known. Lashing out in self-righteous anger would not serve the cause. These ignorant sheep must be hand-held to glory. His possessions were of no consequence. A warrior priest of the Red Heavens had no need of worldly items.
As much as he was loathe to do so, Parrid approached, then mounted, the stump of a great old may tree that stood in a clearing of the market. It was used by preachers and overly enthusiastic merchants. He loathed this part of his calling. The jeers, the clumps of dirt thrown at him riled him quickly. These people did not deserve salvation. The endless time spent spreading the word of Saaban to deaf ears grew tiresome. His only audience, an occasional drunk who overheard the closing to prayer “May the taste of my enemies blood be ever in my mouth!” That usually rouses a halfhearted hurrah from boys and people who have never actually seen a battle. It was rare, however, to have someone listen to the whole of his word. He let the red hood fall behind his head and allowed his steely grey eyes to search the crowds unhindered, searching for someone with an ounce of steel to listen to his message.
His countenance did not inspire fellowship, or so he had been told. His nose was long and sharp and his mouth was tied into a constant scowl. It made him look older than his 36 summers. The streaks of grey in his hair didn’t help either. He had never claimed to be a beautiful man, nor, did he think, was that something that Lord Saaban would need. His arms were strong enough and his legs would and could carry him many miles. When he first donned the red robe many years ago, he would often have a strong mental image of it flowing around it majestically. This morning it felt listless and damp.
“Raise your ears and your swords!” He bellowed.
“The great Lord Sabban shall reign fire down upon the blood-soaked fields of battle, cleansing pure those who have given to him their lives. Your spirits shall be forged and folded into Lord Sabban’s terrible sword SOL which shall, one day be swung against the darkness and we shall all become light.”
He hefted a stick above his head. This used to be the point where he raised his sword for dramatic effect, but apparently the King’s guards frown upon waving swords about in public areas-especially so, when the crown princess is visiting the market. It took him at least a week before he could open his eye from the beating he took by the hands of the royal guard. He also took no pleasure in the dungeon’s cuisine which, due to the king’s questionable humor, was a platter of food that could only fit through the slot in the door if all of the food had been previously removed. After three days of that, plus having a cellmate that sang sea chantys incessantly, he decided that it would be in his best interest to just put the sword away in public. All would be well; the day would come when they would beg for him to hold his sword.
“The great cleanser, Sabban the fire bringer, brings you his breath from the RED Heavens! The wind that blows is one of battle. Battle for the lands! Battle for the hearts of the people! Battle for the blood of the ones who have come before!”
“The battle of the ages is coming! Upon his red horse he comes, sword in hand, to devour those too weak to fight. He will crush the bones of the fools that dare oppose him in his teeth and from the resulting spittle-bone mix will create a new empire…An Empire of BLOOD!”
A strange old lady had stopped before him, her sunken eyes shaded by the ratty old hood covering the sparse strings of greasy hair that jutted out haphazardly. She waited, politely, until he was finished talking about the battle bit before she whacked him in the knee with her walking stick.
“Come with me now.” She calmly said.
He began again, ignoring the throb in his knee and suppressing the urge to kick the old woman away.
“The walls of all cities who proclaim his name will… OW!”
She had cracked him in the leg again. “Come with me. now.”
He reached down to cup his sore leg and immediately saw a group of the king’s guards looking around the market. They were easily recognizable by their red tunics with the golden roping around the edges. The front was emblazoned with a golden lightning bolt, the personal symbol of King William. The uniforms may have looked ridiculous, but the men that wore them did not. They looked dangerous. They were dragging behind them a cage of truth. The cage of truth was a globular cage that was made of steel bands banded together jaggedly that were thin enough as to only cause discomfort at first. It has been said, however, that that discomfort would soon grow to pain leading, eventually, to madness. Parrid was surprised to see it as it was a cage usually reserved for the most vile of criminals such as traitors to the crown. The accused would be crudely stuffed in the cage and dragged behind a team of horses along a rocky road until they confessed to whatever it was they did or didn’t do. It wouldn’t kill you, but your body would wish that it had.
“Here! Boy! Look here!” the old lady said with some urgency. She rapped her cane against the stump to draw his attention. She removed her hood and hissed “Those men are looking for you, and if you don’t follow me right now, they will find you. After that you will be of no use to me.”
Dragging his gaze away from the large metal ball, Parrid turned and met the eyes of the old woman. His jaw dropped. Her eyes were stunning. He had seen brown and blue eyes, sometimes green…but these were every color. Reds and yellows danced with blues and violets. The colors were moving, as well. The rest of her face just melted away beneath the swirls that radiated from her eyes.
“Come with me now, Parrid. We don’t have much time. Throw aside your robe and follow me.” She said in a voice far too young to be so old. She pulled her hood back over her head and walked between a group of stalls.
Colors dancing in his vision still, he discarded his robe and did as he was told, following her into the maze of stalls and beyond. His will no longer his own he did not think to turn around and watch as the guard focused their attention on the robe he has discarded moments before.
Chapter 4: Of roots and prayers
The treeman still had not uttered a word after an hour. Brin had attempted to engage him several times without any success. He did help himself to the roasted roots, sniffing them curiously before devouring them in two bites per root. When he ate the first one, his eyes opened wide in surprise and he made some sort of happy growling sound. The other roots disappeared into his maw shortly thereafter. He seemed to enjoy the warmth of the fire on his feet, but had little use for the smoke which the wind would sometimes carry to his face. He would shake his head and make faces, as a child would, to show his displeasure. Brin had no doubt that the treeman was dangerous, but after close scrutiny he doubted that he was a cold blooded assassin. If it had wanted to kill him, it would have had no problem doing so before. Still, he had no idea of what his next move should be.
It was too late to run. Looking at the Treeman’s frame, Brin could tell that he would make it all of four steps before he was caught – and hopefully not eaten. Communication seemed to be a wall as well. Either he was not interested in talking or didn’t know how to. Searching his surroundings he realized that there was nowhere to hide, either. Desperation seized him. Even if he made it to the Priests of the Sacred Grove, what could they do? Pray that his death was not overly painful?
Brin jumped back to his immediate surroundings as the Treeman stretched his arms out and cracked his back audibly. The reach of his arms was unsettling. The creature easily had twice the reach of a tall man with hands three times the size. After his back stretch, he reached down into the frozen ground in front of where he was sitting and came up with an armload of the mostly frozen soil which he unceremoniously threw over the fire, extinguishing the embers. Standing up, he caught Brin’s gaze and said in a low, rumbling voice, reminiscent of an oncoming storm:
“Excuse me good sir, but where are we going?” Brin cautioned. “I promise you that I harbor you no ill will and would never tell a soul that I have so much as seen you.”
“We go.” More thunder rumbled from his mouth, deeper now.
“But you see, I am a merchant on my way, overdue I might add, to pick up wares in a distant town. If I hesitate, even for a day, the seller will sell my goods to another. This is my livelihood, good man, and I cannot afford to…”
The Treeman took two steps forward; faster than Brin could ever imagined that it could move. It reached down with one long arm and swept everything that Brin had with him into one giant hand. His bedroll and provisions were dumped, unceremoniously, at his feet. The Treeman leaned over so as to be eye level with him. Brin could feel the hot breath exhaled from oversized nostrils. So close to his face, his curiosity about the creature faded and quickly became rapt attention mixed with fear.
The treeman blinked twice and put one of his enormous, heavy hands on Brin’s shoulder.
“We go. We go, see tiny gods.”
A giant smile opened up on his face. His eyes shone. He threw his head back and laughed.
It was then and there that Brin knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this thing, this Treeman-in case he had had any doubts before, had the upper hand. Now, with the revelation about the ‘Tiny Gods’ he would have no choice but to oblige. He seemed to be stuck between a resolute giant and a group of irate hermit-priests.
Half of the day had passed and the trees had become thick again. The sun that was now just past mid-sky warmed the frost off of the ground and made a fine mist that obscured the view. The roots and briars that were constantly tripping Brin seemed not to bother the Treeman at all. His feet just seemed to know where to go without looking. Brin was not so lucky. The giant’s pace was unrelenting and whenever his did not match it, he was nudged along by a gentle push and a reminder that “We go.”
There was no map to get to the sacred grove; one had to use other means. The first few times the priests allowed him into the grove, he was taught the path of senses. This was a methodology that had nothing to do with maps or logic, but seemed to be the only way to find the grove. He had tried all other ways he could think of. Making maps failed spectacularly. Counting footsteps inevitably led him to the edge of a small cliff. Marking landmarks never worked as he could never find the landmarks again. It was if the terrain was constantly shifting. He had decided long ago to not think too deeply about the landscape here.
His was trained during an entire harvest season by the nameless priests. The training was simply how to locate their outpost. This, alone, was no easy task. He knew that it was an honor of the highest sort-not to mention profitable, to be able to be the merchant selected to bring provisions to the priests. The ancient coin he was paid with was always plentiful and his loads were always light. The priests had very little in the way of material needs. The ones they did have were often a pain to procure but it always ended up in his favor in the end. The only stipulation that the priests imposed upon him was that he never mentioned who he was dealing with or how to locate them. The wages he was paid made that easy. Two trips a year, one to take the order, one to bring in the provisions and he was assured never to go hungry that year.
There were five parts to the path of senses that would lead him to the grove and it was never possible to take the same path twice in a row. His teacher had been a kindly, middle-aged woman who was quite wise in the lay of the land. Like the other priests, she had renounced any name. They would be gone for days in the forest and would subsist on foraged fruits and nuts that never left even his considerable hunger wanting. They would always sleep in the softest of moss beds and no bugs would ever bite their exposed flesh at night. He soon learned how to identify every type of tree and bush in the forest. He knew what plants he could eat, which ones would heal and which would kill. He learned to listen for underground rivers that would slake his thirst. Her daily lessons may have been arduous but he always awoke feeling completely refreshed. It was if the woods had granted them favor. Brin recalled her holding out her hand on his final day of lessons, her fingers spread wide.
“As you know there are many paths to a single destination. The grove, however, is different. There is only one path and that path changes with the whims of the Little Gods of the forest.”
She held out her thumb and held it to her nose. First , there is the path of scents. “There will be a time, when you seek the grove” the nameless priestess had told him those many years ago, “that you will smell a redflower in the air. You must immediately stop where you are and slowly move in a circle. When the grove wants you to find it, you shall. This path will show itself to you when the forest is in harmony. When you come to us with an open heart and pure intention this will be your way. “
“When you are hungry, sore and in need of comfort you shall find it in the path of taste.” She then held out her palm and showed me a handful of berries she had collected earlier. She let one roll down to the tip of her index finger where it sat there balanced precariously. It was bright red with curious yellow stripes radiating from where the fruit met the stem. “These are known as cat berries. They grow all year from the abundance of spring to the sleep of winter. They will only let themselves be found when you are in need. If you respect the bush and eat only one you will soon find another bush. Another will soon follow. The Little God that lives within the bush will lead you to the grove as long as you do not gorge yourself on the berries. It may seem a simple thing to do… “
She then pushed one of the berries into his mouth. It was the most amazing thing he had ever tasted. One berry filled his mouth with the taste of sweet red wine, and strange, spicy fruit. All fatigue immediately fell from his shoulders. It was one berry but felt as though it was as substantial as a mouthful of hearty stew. He swallowed and immediately reached for another from her hand. She closed her fingers around the berries and quickly snatched away her hand. The craving for another did not pass until an hour later.
“This,” She said with a grave stare, “is what you will have to fight to find your way to us. The berries hold a powerful sway over all that eat the fruit. Animals know better than to touch them. Humans have long ago lost such common sense. The berries let you think that you are healed but this is only an illusion. There have been people who have lost their senses and starved due to wanting for nothing else. You must find the strength within yourself to be strong of spirit and calm of mind to find your path.”
After giving him a little while to center himself she continued her lesson. She pointed her middle finger to the sky. “The path of the crows, also known as the path of hearing will be opened to you when you follow the caw of the crow to us. This is a very difficult path in that you must never be seen by a crow when you follow him. A crow will remember your face for as long as you live and will tell all of its brothers to lead you into trouble if he sees you. If you know that you have been seen, you will more likely be led to a bear than you will to us. The secret is to follow the caw of the crow from a distance. If you hear it get too close, hide yourself and quickly. Due to the long memories of the crow, most people lose this path first. Crows are never in a hurry, except to eat, so be patient. It may seem like you are being led in circles but if you relax and do not lose patience, you will be brought to our gates.”
She ran her ring finger down the side of his face, softly. “The path of skin is deceptive because it is the quickest way in but is quite difficult to follow. If you give yourself over to the wind blowing on your face, it will guide you. This does not sound difficult but the wind is a little god that is difficult to understand. If you do not have complete trust in its gentle pushes, it will recognize your lack of faith and send you in circles. If you can bring yourself to just let go and be led, you will be feasting with us before the sun goes down. “
They had been walking during the lesson and after she had finished he looked up and saw that they were, once again, at the gates of the grove. The arch always took his breath away. It was two giant trees that had grown together about four body lengths high and knotted themselves together in a beautiful, symmetric arch that only could have been nursed into being by the most skillful of botanists. The doors of the gates were alive with green, no matter the season. He turned to enter the gates when a thought struck him.
“Teacher…’” he said whilst furrowing his brow. “ You said that this was there were five parts to the path of five senses. You only told me of four.”
The priestess looked him squarely in the eye and said “The final path is one we have never found. The Little Gods have whispered to us that in the time of great crisis the forest itself will seek the path to our door for sanctuary. We have never been able to decipher its meaning. The Little Gods are seldom literal. Their words are the wind. “
“Everything in the world has a voice” she continued, ”and usually these voices speak in harmony; as things have a true nature and are known in a certain way. But the fifth path is almost an unconscious point of discord for the little gods. It is something that we, mortals, were not meant to know. Everything that we ask gives us a different answer. There is no better way to rile one of the Little Gods than to ask about the fifth path. Unless your bonds are strong and true they will never speak to you again.”
Brin was brought back to his present situation by a large finger nudging him in the small of his back and yet another reminder that “We go.”
The way of the five senses had failed him. He could smell no flowers and the air was as still as a grave in the forest. There were no berry bushes that he could see and if there were crows, they were eerily silent. Over the many years he had visited the grove numerous times and had never had any difficulty finding the path. He did his best to sweep out while walking, sometimes moving to his left, sometimes to his right. He tried to keep his eyes level with the horizon to see any irregularities that may be the beginning of a path. As much as it seemed that he opened himself to the way of the path, the less things became clear. Frustration weighed heavy on his shoulders. What if the priests didn’t want to be found? It would be hard to blame them. Potentially dangerous giants are seldom welcome in bastions of tranquility.
The Treeman had been spending less time poking him in the back and more time exploring the environment carefully. He would sometimes run ahead and disappear for a little while. His running reminded Brin more of an animal than it did a man. Human-like steps quickly gave way to a loping gait of a wolf. It was a strange thing to see. He knew that he certainly wouldn’t be able to contort his body in order to run on all fours and it made him all the more leery. He would return with a branch in his hand which he would carefully study before casually tossing it behind him. Occasionally, he would lift his head to the sky and let out a whistle and cock his ear as if listening for a reply. When none came, he would once again urge Brin onwards.
By the time the Treeman stopped for any length of time, it was about an hour before sunset. Normally this is the time when you hear the local wildlife begin to stir, but the forest was silent. With the sun disappearing, the cold was starting to seep into the land again. The skies above were beginning to cloud over. If they didn’t get to where going soon, there would be snow to contend with. He could smell it in the air. The Treeman hollowed out a small pit in the ground with the end of a branch that Brin would have had a hard time lifting, never mind using it as a tool. Disappearing again into the brush he soon returned with two logs. He placed both by the fire pit and began to unroll his pack. Two rocks emerged which, after smashing them together a few times, soon roared to life as a raging fire. It was then that Brin noticed the priests emerging from the forest in every direction.
“Ah. Little Gods.” The treeman said, his smile wide and his arms open. “Come. sit.”
Chapter Five: Crowns for the dead
The rough canvas brushed against her cheek as she pushed through the hole she had made an into the narrow cloth hallway. She had waited three seconds after she heard the guard walk by. It had taken nearly a half an hour, listening at the wall, to get the pattern of steps of the two guards down to memory. She figured that she still had at least three hours before the next guard change when it was a sure bet that she would be discovered. She slowly walked up behind the guard looking for strike points. She estimated that he had seven more steps before he turned around to return back down the hallway. She had to act now. Annis raised her bow, arrow notched, pulled back and released the silent missile. Her shot was true. A close range arrow in the back of the head ensured a quick death which was just what she needed here. It would be difficult enough to tear off his long ringed leather jacket put them it on before she was supposed to meet the second guard in the middle of the hallway. She decided against the boots and just removed the jacket from the crumpled mess that was once a man. She pulled it on and brought the hood up, over her head.
This is where it would get tricky. If there is one downfall to a caravan it is that it is very difficult to light effectively. The main tent was a maze of hallways, small rooms and chambers. All of them could be lit from wall sconces. This hallway, however, was so narrow that any sconce would instantly be a fire hazard; tarred walls or not. She swiped up the torch, rubbed two fingers in the soot on the side and drew above her lip, a surprisingly accurate representation of the mustache that the dead guard had been wearing. She knew she would have to run to the corner in order not to be late. She did. Somehow, she managed to turn the corner almost the exact same time that the other guard did. They matched pace, walking towards each other. It was about six paces away before the second guard realized what was happening. She saw his eyes grow wide. Wasn’t sure what gave her away. Was it her walk, her stature?