Damn these municipal restrictions! Frustrated, Nora looked again at the photo of the inscriptions on the mysterious pear shaped box that Clara had found. She picked up a pen and copied the symbols onto a piece of paper. Glancing back over the message her friend had sent, her face softened at Clara’s pet name for her, Alienor. Clara had started called her that years ago, when she found out about the ouija board incident and the aliens Nora had been talking to. Was it really an alien, or….? Clara had asked, and Nora had laughed and said Of course it was an alien or! and the name had stuck.
Nora’s mood had changed with the reminiscence, and she had an idea. She was working from home, but all that really meant was that she had to have internet access. Nobody would have to know which home she was working from, if she could just make it past the town barriers. But she didn’t have to go by road: the barriers were only on the roads. There was nothing stopping her walking cross country.
Putting aside the paper with the symbols on, she perused a map. She had to cross three town boundaries, and by road it was quite a distance. But as the crow flies, not that far. And if she took the old smugglers track, it was surprisingly direct. Nora calculated the distance: forty nine kilometers. Frowning, she wondered if she could walk that distance in a single day and thought it unlikely. Three days more like, but maybe she could do it in two, at a push. That would mean one overnight stay somewhere. What a pity it was so cold! It would mean carrying a warm sleeping bag, and she hated carrying things.
Nora looked at the map again, and found the halfway point: it was a tiny hamlet. A perfect place to spend the night. If only she knew someone who lived there, somebody who wouldn’t object to her breaking the restrictions.
Nora yawned. It was late. She would finalize the plan tomorrow, but first she sent a message to Clara, asking her if she knew anyone in the little village.FloveParticipant
“Can’t we sit down over there for a minute? My feet are bloody killing me.” April nodded towards a park bench; she didn’t have much patience today for June and her philosophising, after all, wasn’t it June’s fault they were in this mess? “It’s too bad we can’t even afford the bus fare,” she grumbled as she settled herself on the wooden seat.
“Not too much further,” said June plonking down next to her.
April bent down to take off her socks and sneakers and massaged her grateful feet in the damp grass. “Think I’ve got a blister. And I’d kill for a cuppa tea. I do hope Finnley has kept on top of things.”
June snorted. “Not bloody likely. Anyway, while we’ve been walking I’ve been thinking … what if we sue?”
“No, you idiot, not, who Sue. I mean what if we sue for money? Sue the president for wrongdoings which have been done to us.”
“Oh!” April perked up. “There’s certainly been plenty of wrongdoings!”
June smiled smugly. “Exactly.”
Everyone seems happy about the rain, and I don’t blame them. I’m not daft, I know we need rain but it’s not so easy when you don’t have a home. But I am nothing if not stalwart and stoic, resourceful and adaptable, and I found a good way to keep warm and dry during the downpours. It’s amazing how much heat an animal gives off, so I camp down in stables or kennels when it’s cold and wet. It can get a bit smelly, but it’s warm and dry and when my clothes are damp and stinking I just throw them all away and get some new ones out of the recycling bins. Just to clarify, I find the new clothes first before throwing the ones I’m wearing away. I’m not daft, I know walking around naked would catch attention and I try to stay under the radar. Nobody really notices smelly old ladies wandering around these days anyway, but naked would be another matter.
There’s a stable I really like just outside of town, lots of nice deep clean straw. There’s a white horse in there that knows me now and the gentle whicker of recognition when she sees me warms my heart. I don’t stay there any two nights running though. One thing I’ve learned is don’t do anything too regular, keep it random and varied. I don’t want anyone plotting my movements and interfering with me in any way.
There’s not much to do in a stable when it rains for days and nights on end but remember things, so I may as well write them down. I’m never quite sure if the things I remember are my memories or someone elses, a past life of my own perhaps, or another person entirely. I used to worry a bit about that, but not anymore. Nobody cares and there’s nobody to flag my memories as false, and if there was, I wouldn’t care if they did.
Anyway, the other day while I was nestled in a pile of sweet hay listening to the thunder, I recalled that day when someone offered me a fortune for that old mirror I’d bought at the flea market. I know I hadn’t paid much for it, because I never did pay much for anything. Never have done. I bought it because it was unusual (hideous is what everyone said about it, but people have got very strangely ordinary taste, I’ve found) and because it was cheap enough that I could buy it without over thinking the whole thing. At the end of the day you can’t beat the magic of spontaneity, it out performs long winded assessment every time.
So this man was a friend of a friend who happened to visit and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse so of course I sold the mirror to him. He was so delighted about it that I’d have given him the mirror for nothing if I knew he wanted it that much, but I’m not daft, I took the money. I found out later that he’d won the lottery, so I never felt guilty about it.
Well, after he’d gone I sat there looking at this pile of money in my hands and knew exactly what I was going to do. But first I had to find them. They’d moved again and we’d lost contact but I knew I’d find a way. And I did. They’d given up all hope of ever getting that money back that I’d borrowed, but they said the timing was perfect, couldn’t have been better, they said. It wouldn’t have meant all that much to them if I’d paid it back right away, they said, because they didn’t need it then as much as they did when they finally got it back.
They were strange times back then, and one thing after another was happening all over the world, what with the strange weather, and all the pandemics and refugees. Hard to keep food on the table, let alone make plans or pay debts back. But debt is a funny thing. I felt stung when I realized they didn’t think I intended to pay them back but the fact was, I couldn’t do it at the time. And I wanted it to be a magical perfect timing surprise when I did. I suppose in a way I wanted it to be like it was when they loaned me the money. I remember I wept at the kindness of it. Well I didn’t want them to weep necessarily, but I wanted it to mean something wonderful, somehow. And timing is everything and you can’t plan that kind of thing, not really.
It was a happy ending in the end though, I gave them the whole amount I got for that old mirror, which was considerably more than the loan.
The rain has stopped now and the sun is shining. My damp clothes are steaming and probably much smellier than I think. Time to find a recycling bin and a fresh new look.
Well. I did it. I made my escape. I had to! Nobody came for three days and I’d run out of biscuits. Thank the lord my hip wasn’t playing up. I decided not to take anything with me, figuring I could just steal things off washing lines when I wanted a change of clothes. I’ve always hated carrying heavy bags. I reckoned it would look less conspicuous, too. Just an old dear popping out for digestive perambulation. Nobody suspects old dears of anything, not unless they’re dragging a suitcase round, and I had no intention of doing that. I did put a couple of spare masks in my pocket though, you can’t be too careful these days. And it would help with the disguise. I didn’t want any do gooders trying to catch me and take me back to that place.
I had the presence of mind to wear good stout walking shoes and not my pink feather mules, even though it was a wrench to say goodbye to them. I used to love to see them peeping out from under my bath robe. One day I might strike lucky and find another pair.
I’ve been eating like a king, better than ever! I accidentally coughed on someones burger one day, and they dropped it and ran away, and I thought to myself, well there’s an idea. I stuck to random snacks in the street at first and then one day I fancied a Chinese so I thought, well why not give it a try. Coughed all over his brown bag of prawn crackers as he walked out of the restaurant and he put the whole takeaway in the nearest bin. Piping hot meal for six! Even had that expensive crispy duck!
Tonight I fancy sushi. Wish I’d thought of this trick years ago, I said to myself the other day, then my other self said, yeah but it wouldn’t have worked so well before the plague.
Not having much luck with the washing lines though, lazy sods either not doing any laundry or putting it all in the dryer. Weeks of sunny weather as well, the lazy bastards. Lazy and wasteful! You should see the clothes they throw in the clothes bank bins! If the bins are full you can get your arm in and pull out the ones on the top. I change outfits a dozen times a day some days if I’m in the mood. I do sometimes get an urge to keep something if I like it but I’m sticking to my guns and being ruthless about not carrying anything with me.
“Oh Sha, can’t I sleep a little more? My head’s still dizzy after that cryo gin treatment. All those shots, I don’t remember what I did afterward.”
“You tried to seduce that young Canadian boy. I can tell, his lady wasn’t very pleased. If she could make voodoo dolls you’d be in big trouble.”
“Ah! Shouldn’t be so far from that acupuncture treatment in Bali when you didn’t want to pay the price. Remember your face afterwards? I bet that girl had used those needles on sick pangolins without cleaning’em.”
“It hurt. But never had my face skin so tight in my life!” Sha cackled.
“And lips so big you could replace Anjelyna Jawlee in Lara Crop.”
“She’s already up. Wanted to take a walk on the beach with the cows, she said. You better don’t invite us, I said.”
They put on their tight yogarments, a beach hat and left for the class.
“I don’t like walking in the sand like that,” said Glo. “With or without shoes, the sand come in between your toes. I could still have eaten something, my stomach sounds like a whale during mating season.”
“They sent a message this morning. It said: ‘Come, Fast’.”
When they arrived at the practice room, they wondered if they took a wrong turn. Maybe the cryoga class was in another bungalow.
“Why all those tables and milk bottles?” asked Glo.
They went to see the lady with the beehive hair that looked like a teacher.
“Sorry, young’un,” said Sha. “Wasn’t that supposed to be cryoga class?”
“Oh! no,” said the teacher. “It’s cryogurt class today. How to make your own yogurt ice cream and apply it on your body to flatten out tight those wrinkles.”
I’ve been up since god knows what time. Got up for the loo and couldn’t face going back to the awful nightmares. That girl that came yesterday said she’d been having nightmares, she said it was common now, people having nightmares, what with the quarantine. I think I might have just snorted at the silly girl, but when I woke up last night I wondered if it was true. Or maybe I’m just a suggestible old fool.
Anyway, I stayed up because lord knows I don’t want to be in a city in America at night, not waking and not dreaming either. I’ve had a feeling for a long time, and much longer than this virus, that it was like a horror movie and it would behoove me not to watch it anymore or I’d be having nightmares. I didn’t stop watching though, sort of a horrified fascination, like I’d watched this far so why stop now.
In the dream I was on a dark city street at a bus stop, it was night time and the lights were bright in a shop window on the other side of the sidewalk. I had a bunch of tickets in my hand all stapled together, but they were indecipherable. I had no idea where I was going or how to get there. Then I noticed the man that was by my side, a stranger that seemed to have latched on to me, had stolen all my tickets and replaced them with the rolled up used ticket stubs. I made him give me back my tickets but then I knew I couldn’t trust him.
Then I realized I hadn’t finished packing properly and only had a ragged orange towel with bloodstains on it. So I go back home (I say home but I don’t know what house it was) to pack my bags properly, and find a stack of nice new black towels, and replace the bloody orange one.
I’m walking around the house, wondering what else I should pack, and one room leads into another, and then another, and then another, in a sort of spiral direction (highly improbable because you’d have ended up back in the same room, in real life) and then I found a lovely room and thought to myself, What a nice room! You’d never have known it was there because it wasn’t on the way to anywhere and didn’t seem to have a function as a room.
It was familiar and I remembered I’d been there before, in another dream, years ago. It had lovely furniture in it, big old polished wooden pieces, but not cluttered, the room was white and bright and spacious. Lovely big old bureau on one wall, I remember that piece quite clearly. Not a speck of dust on it and the lovely dark sheen of ancient polished oak.
Anyway in the dream I didn’t take anything from the room, and probably should have just stayed there but the next thing I know, I’m in a car with my mother and she races off down the fast lane of an empty motorway. I’m thinking, surely she doesn’t know how to take me where I have to go? She seemed so confident, so out of character the way she was driving.
I got up for the loo and all I kept thinking about was that awful scene in the city street, which admittedly doesn’t sound that bad. I won’t bother telling the girl about it when she comes to do my breakfast, it loses a little in the telling, I think.
But the more I think about that lovely room at the end of the spiral of rooms, the more I’m trying to wrack my brains to remember where I’ve seen that room before. I’ve half a mind to go back there and open that dark oak bureau and see what’s inside.
The journey to the Pistil itself would have been worth its own story, thought Charlton. They had to avoid road blocks, crowds of chanting christians that had certainly vowed to spread the virus as fast as possible, and howlers who you were never sure weren’t the real thing from Teen Wolf. They had to be, in such a landscape. Once arid, it had turned greener in just a few weeks. Rain was now weekly when drops of water used to only show up with the bottles of water from the tourists.
Despite Kady’s advice not to take anything, he’d still brought the book of drawings. Kady had said nothing about the book, nor the clothes, or the snacks. Charlton was sometimes literal about what people told him, but he also knew it. So he didn’t say anything when he saw Kady had her own backpack with clothes, some money and food. During the trip, he tried to reproduce the experience with the drawings and the dreams —but nothing happened. Charlton felt a little disappointed.
They saw the pistil long before they arrived at its foot. It was at the end of the day and the sunset was splashing its reds and purples all around it. Charlton had had time to get used to its tall presence in the landscape. Yet, seeing it at a close range from below was a strange experience. Taller than the tallest man-made tower. He wondered what he was supposed to feel in its presence. Awe? Electricity? Enlightenment? Bursts of inspiration? This should at least be a mystical moment, but all he could feel was annoyance at the crowd of people crawling around like aphids avid to suck its sap.
Kady looked more annoyed than surprised. She was walking past the flock as if she knew exactly where to go. Charlton followed, feeling dizzy by the sudden increase of activity and smells. He soon got nauseous at the mix of incense and fried sausages.
“There are so many of them,” he eventually said. “How come? It was so difficult just for the two of us to avoid police controls. Do we have to wait with them?”
“Nah! They’re just the usual bunch of weirdoes,” Kady said. “They’ve been here a long time. I bet some of them aren’t even aware there have been a virus. But stay close. I don’t want to lose you, it’s a maze before the maze. I just need to see someone before we go in.”
They walked for about another ten minutes before stopping in front of a big tent. There, a big man with a boxer’s face was repairing all kind of electronics on a table with the application of a surgeon. Phones, cameras, coffee machines… Charlton wondered how they got electricity to make it all work.
“Hey, Kady!” said the man. “You’re back. Did you give it to her?” His face looked anxious.
“Her favourite perfume,” he said with a broad smile.
“I told you she still loves you. I also brought you something else.” Kady dropped a box on the table among the electronics. Charlton didn’t think it could be possible to witness the expression of a ten year old child on such a hard face, but what was inside the box certainly did magic.
“You brought chocolate?”
“Did you find the chestnut one?”
“My favourite,” said Max to Charlton. “Is this your friend?”
“I told you, you’re always welcome. Did you know she saved my life in there?”
“Saved your life?” asked Charlton looking hesitantly at Kady. “No, I didn’t know.”
They had to stop to get some rest. Rukshan knew the signs, the song of a black swan, a nesting bear in the forest, cubic clouds… All strange omens not to be taken lightly. He told the others they’d better find shelter somewhere and not spend the night outside.
As soon had he make the announcement that he saw the relief on their faces. They’d been enthusiastic for half a day, but the monotony of walking got the better of their motivation, especially the kids who were not used to such long journeys out of the cottage’s safety.
Fortunately they were not far from the Sooricat Inn, a place lost in the woods, it still had four walls, warm food and almost certainly a hot bath. Let’s just hope they’re open, thought the Fae.
When they arrived, the owner, an old man from Sina, looked at them suspiciously.
“Ya’ll have your attestation? I can’t believe ya’re all family. Don’t think I’m a fool, ya’re a Fae, and this little fella there, he’s smaller than the children but has a beard. Never saw anything like him,” he said with rumbling r’s pointing at the children and Gorrash with his chin. The dwarf seemed offended but a stern look from Rukshan prevented him from speaking.
“Anyway,” continued the innkeeper, “I can just sell ya food. Not’ing parsonal. That’s rooles, ya’know with the all stayin’at home thing from Gavernor Leraway, I can not even let ya’in. Ya can buy food and eat it outside if ya want.”
“Oh! I really shouldn’t. I don’t like breaking rooles.”
“I knew you more daring, Admirable Fuyi,” said a booming voice coming from behind them. They all turned around to see Kumihimo. She was wearing a cloak made of green and yellow gingko leaves, her silvery white hair, almost glowing in the dark, cascading beautifully on her shoulders. A grey cat strode alongside her.
“Oh! that’s just the donkey, Ronaldo. It got transformed into a cat after walking directly into a trap to get one of those darn carrots. He knew better, don’t pity him. He got what he deserved.” Kumihimo’s rant got a indignant meow, close to a heehaw, from Ronaldo.
“Kumi! I can’t believe it’s ya!” said the innkeeper.
“You two know each others?” asked Rukshan.
“It’s a long story,” said the innkeeper, “From when I was serving in Sina’s army, we had conquered the high plateaus. I gave up the title of Admirable when I left the army. After Kumi opened my eyes.” Fuyi’s eyes got wet. “Ah! I’m sure I’ll regret it, but come on in, ya’ll. Let me hear yar story after you taste the soup.”
It wasn’t such a bad day, thought Olliver, and it might even be a good day. The birds are singing, we saw a boar and a few deers already. Animals are getting back and they don’t seem to fear the humans so much.
Rukshan was walking first and Fox was following him with a heavy backpack. Tak and Nesy were mostly playing around and marvelling at everything their path crossed. Olliver envied their innocence, the innocence he had lost not so long ago.
Except the animals and the two guards they had to hide from, the day had mostly been uneventful and Olliver’s mind was wandering off into the mountain where he could feel useful and strong. He felt strangely blissed and suddenly had the impulse to walk toward a patch of yellow flowers.
“STOP! Pay attention where you walk,” said Rukshan. “Come back to your left two feet and walk straight. I told you to follow my every steps.”
“Okay, uncle Ruk!” said Olliver a bit ashamed to have been caught not paying attention.
“I don’t understand,” said the Fae. “Glynis’s potion doesn’t seem to work for you. The aetherical tentacles around the traps don’t seem to detect us but only you, and you also seem susceptible to their power to attract you. It’s not the first time I had to warn you.”
The Fae could see the etherical traps and especially the free flowing tentacles or the tension lines attached to trees, stones, wooden posts, anything that would cross a trail at different heights. With the potions they should be impervious to detection and affections by the traps. Olliver hadn’t thought that far. He had thought that by following them he could manage not to be caught. Right now, he feared more Rukshan’s piercing eyes than the traps. He looked at Fox involuntarily.
“It’s my fault,” said Fox looking a bit contrite. Sweat was pearling on his face. “It’s becoming too dangerous for Olli so I must confess something.” He put his heavy bag on the floor and opened it and a dwarf’s head peered timidly out.
“By the fat belly of the giants! What made you do such a stupid thing?”
“You didn’t think at all!” said the Fae. “The potions were not just for the fun of drinking something pungent and bitter with the taste and texture of yak wool.”
“Leave me out of this teleportation stuff!” said Gorrash.
“What an idea! But I already thought of that my little friend. You two are going to to back.”
“No we’re not! If you make us go back we’ll follow you from a distance.”
“Oh You, I’m sure it’s your idea,” started Rukshan.
“No, it’s mine,” said Olliver. “Uncle Fox had almost convinced Gorrash it was better to stay, but I couldn’t let him be stay behind after just being reborn. You said it once, we don’t leave our friends behind.”
“I’m sure it was under another set of circumstances,” countered the Fae.
“Anyway you see the traps, I can follow your instructions. And if there is any fever problem I can teleport Gorrash back to the cottage.”
“I do not totally agree with you but I see you have learned to make an argumentation.”
Fox felt the Fae relax. “Agreed, you come with us to the Great Lakes to meet the Graetaceans and you’ll follow what I tell you to do from now on. I’ll treat you as a responsible adult.”
“Yay! We’ll meet the Graetaceans!” said Nesy.
“Olli and Gorrash will stay with us,” said Tak jumping around his friends with such a broad smile. Rukshan thought he was growing too soft on them all, with the new generation growing he started to feel his own age.
“Are you sure this is a good idea? Replacing all our culture with carrots seems a bit extreme.”
“We entered unheard of territory. And yes, carrots are the future of our community. We need more carrots.”
“Do you mind illuminating my inferior mind?”
“What do you think? People are allowed to go out only in a few cases. Walking your dog, buying food. It is easier to grow carrots than to breed puppies. It also take less time. We need to be able to go out at will. Take a bunch of carrots and no policeman can tell that you weren’t out for illicit purpose.”
“Oh! You’re so clever. No wonder you’re the head of our new cult.”
It was the new moon. Rukshan had been walking into the dark of the forest for some time. The noises of nocturnal animals felt like deep silence after his return from the land of the Giants. There, day and night, the giants were restless. You could hear them growling and shouting. It didn’t matter if it was a nasty fight or a friendly brawl, the noise had been taxing for his nerves and his right eye was still twitching randomly.
Rukshan stopped a moment. The silence almost made him cry of relief and he thought in that moment the enchanted forest deserved its name.
He took a deep breath. His nose wiggled, tickled by the scent of smoke from a fire. He was close to his destination, then. He had been following symbols traced with moon paint on the trees, a trail that only his Fae eyes could see even without moonlight. Humans would not to see it the same way. This trail of symbols might even have been left for him by someone who wanted to be found when he would come back.
Rukshan had found the start of the trail by chance behind the cottage after diner today. He had told Glynis he needed fresh air. The truth was that he had been alone for so long now that having so many people around him made him feel a bit claustrophobic. He had spotted was a faint glow behind a jasmin bush and had thought it was one of the baby snoots. As he was feeling the need for some pet company he had walked up to the bush. Instead of a creature there was the first glowing symbol, a spiral with seven sticks that looked like a hand with seven fingers. Not long after Rukshan had found another symbol, and another. It was clear the hands made a trail for him to follow. So he had followed.
Soon, he found a wooden shack. Smoke was coming out of a hole in its roof and light from the windows. Rukshan could hear two people talking together. One was asking questions and the other answering them. He recognised the voices.
He didn’t bother to knock on the door.
“I’ve been waiting for you”, said Kumihimo the shaman.
“I’m her new apprentice”, said Fox. “You’ve been away for so long”, he added as if apologising for something.
A wet and warm thing touched Rukshan’s hand. Ronaldo the donkey brayed to welcome him. “Of course you are here too”, said the Fae. He found an apple he had put in his pocket after diner and gave it to the donkey. Ronaldo rolled up its chops and gave a heehaw full of joy, sparkles in its eyes.
“Good, you haven’t forgotten good manners”, said the shaman. “Now, seat! We have much to talk about.”
“It’ll be shady inside the mine, and the sun will be going down by the time we walk back to the inn.”
“Do we have to go inside?” The feeling of apprehension had been steadily increasing as they neared the location, and had now ramped up to an ominous dread. Not wanting Hilda to see how frightened she was, she added, “I mean without equipment, all we have is one torch. What if the batteries run out? We’re not very well prepared, are we?”
“So what’s new?” replied Hilda with a snort. “We’re not going to get an exclusive scoop by telling all and sundry our plans, are we? Not to mention sharing anything we might find.”
“If we get lost, nobody will know where to look for us.”
The sense of being left behind had deflated Lucinda. Everyone off having adventures, and here she was left minding the dog. She liked the dog, but not the feeling of missing out on the excitement, and the clues she received were few and far between.
It was a particularly muggy day and not ideal for a long walk. She felt listless and heavy in the humid air. Before walking very far at all along the riverside promenade, she felt clammy and tired, and found a bench under a shady tree to sit on. Fabio cocked his head to one side and looked at her. Lucinda closed her eyes for a few moments, and started to admonish herself for her lack lustre and frankly boring state. “Buck up, for Pete’s sake!” she told herself, but was interrupted by Fabio’s frantic barking and pullling at the lead.
A man on stilts was coming towards them, wearing long shiny trousers in black and white vertical stripes. Lucinda started at him openly, somewhat shaken, but curious. She could have sworn she’d seen him in a dream the night before.
The peace shattering sound of a loud motor boat engine intruded into the scene, and when Lucinda looked back to the stilted man in stripes, he’d vanished. The sound of the outboard motor receded as the boat disappeared around a curve in the river; the waves it created splashing on the river banks long after it had disappeared.
Albie was hurt by Arona’s mockery, but tried to put a brave face. Derailing of the quest was expected, and he had to prove his bravery.
He had started to realize people outside the Doline had a different way of speaking —very vulgar, his Ma, Freda would say; and they weren’t even nobility, so he couldn’t know for sure what was proper or not. Maybe it was all make believe. In any case, he found the new style rather daring… and exciting.
When he came back, he had to raise his voice to be heard.
“HRRMEMN! Mil… I mean… Friends! Arona is right, it’s going to be a long trek, and the road doesn’t get any better than this.” He pointed at the lone road in the middle of the sandy reddish expanse traveled by deceptive winds.
“How long?” Sanso asked apprehensively.
“By my count, maybe 7 days of walk due East of the place, and that’s if we keep walking during most of the day.”
“Don’t be daft, boy!” Mandrake interjected. “It’s not like Arona not to have a plan.”
The following silence was astounding, so he added, his meowing voice thinning as he spoke… “like an e-scooter from Jiborium Emporium? maybe?”
“You’ve become all so strung up now, haven’t you?”
“Well, it’s not like it’s the friendliest place on Earth, is it? I think I spotted 3 scorpions and one fat brown viper not moments ago, and they didn’t look all too happy with their new neighbours.”
“Ah, but I told you, we need to go to the local shaman for protection and safe passage first. There at her camp, we’ll get a rental jeep with a GPS. From there, to reach the Inn, it shouldn’t take us more than 10h… and 21min drive. Más o menos, amigos.”
She winked at Albie “is it enough a plan for you, young man?”.
Did madness run in Maeve’s family, was that it? She’d admitted that her Uncle Fergus was a paranoid old loony, and it was becoming obvious that Maeve herself was becoming a little unhinged. What was she doing, galloping out of Shawn Paul’s door, and what was all that gleeful cackling for? It was going to make Lucinda’s plan to get the twelve addresses harder, with Maeve being so unpredictable. She would simply have to be prepared to take advantage of it and seize any opportunity that arose.
The fact was, there was no plan to get the addresses, but she knew she had to have them. She had to find the connecting link between them.
Oh bugger it! Lucinda muttered. Just go for a nice long walk, my girl, and stop thinking about it. She glanced up sharply at the doll, but no, the voice had been her own. This time. I’m going as mad as Maeve, she mumbled as she rammed her feet into a pair of walking shoes.
“Mad as Almad.” With a pained expression Lucinda spun round to glare at the doll before slamming the door on her and stomping off down the corridor, loudly complaining that that idle cleaning woman had left bits of paper on the floor in between Shawn Paul and Maeve’s doormats. She bent down to pick it up to put it in the bin outside, noticing that it was an old newspaper clipping with a paperclip attached to it.
“Oh my god!” Could it really be that easy? It was an advert for a trip to Australia. There was a photo of an old woman standing in front of an interesting looking old hotel. The old woman in the photograph had been smiling, the welcoming hostess, when Lucinda first looked at the picture, but she seemed to be frowning now, a searching intent look. Lucinda shook her head and blinked, and looked again. The smiling face in the photograph looked quite normal.
The City of the Seven Hills wasn’t a pleasant city by many aspects, but at any time of the year, it was a sight to behold.
Margoritt was walking with force into the streets, a warm shawl wrapped around her head like she’d seen the nomads do in the deserts, equipped with odd dark specs she’d made herself ages ago with twisted copper wires and cut bottle bottoms blackened over the smoke of dead branches from the Ancient Forest when she’d started to stay there for her escapades over the years. She liked how the narrowed down vision from the dark specs made the reflection of the sun over the tall white buildings less blinding.
It was the time of year where the first colds started to take the land by surprise, and it was more enjoyable to stay in the City rather than in her lodge. She was glad to let her little company of friends remain there, so she had the blacksmith make a few duplicates of the key. It was merely a symbolic gesture, after all, the front door’s lock had never worked.
“It’s going to be the Sprites’ Summer, what a shame…” she liked to talk, but in the City, people didn’t pay much attention to each others, so she could speak to herself, and nobody would care. Sprites’ Summer was that blessed time when the Forest started to change colours and pare itself in gold before the biting colds would strip the trees down to their bare branches and bark. She loved the Forest this time of the year, but she had to come back with Mr Minn when he’d come to check on her. Her knees were painful, and she needed some needle work done on them. Only in the City could you find the best needlepractors.
A flash of green light flashed at his side and a cloud of shimmery yellow energy enveloped him in a white blur. He couldn’t seem to control the energy, and it moved erratically as he came, like a breeze. He stumbled into the middle of a wall that jutted from the floor to the ceiling and slammed into the wall with a thud. The wall cracked.
It was dark beyond a dozen feet at the most, and it wasn’t like the other telepaths either. He stood still for a moment, staring at the wall, wondering if he could get in there at all. Then she said, “That would take more than twice as long as walking.”
The telepath looked at her, eyes wide and mouth agape. For the instant before the wall snapped, she was alive, alive, but she was a shell. He had been able to see, and if she had been in any way injured or hurt, he wouldn’t really have had an advantage. The wall snapped and she came to. It was nearly pitch black, and nothing seemed real to her. She opened her eyes and there was the same bright bright green and blue as the one of teal was now.
The world seemed different, a distant place. She wondered how she would react the instant he found out. But she decided it would be best to give him time to adjust on her own. She reached for him and held the soft green gem. When she looked at him he stared back, blue eyes wide with surprise. How long had he been awake? How long had he been asleep? She wondered why he hadn’t opened for her yet. She reached into her pocket and pulled up his watch. A long minute passed, when suddenly the light came back on in front of her, and she realized she was sleeping. Then, suddenly! He was waking up again, and even more excited than usual, he started to run about her. He kept running, never looking back. He got so nervous that he almost lost himself. His eyes were twitching violently, and she was glad that no one was close enough to wake him, since he knew she wouldn’t want him to fall asleep for anyone, or anyone else. She put up her foot and started to sprint after him, but as she was running in that dark, pitch black, direction, the sky turned white and she stopped at a light.
Talking with the dogs. That’s what Fox had to do. Easier said than done, he thought scratching his head. His previous encounters with dogs were rather tumultuous and limited to being hunted down in the forest during a hunting party or being chased at the market because he had caught a hen. He had never really talked to dogs before, unless taunting counted of course.
Rukshan had said it was urgent, but Fox found there were so many little things to do before, like tidying up the cave, putting some suncream on his sensitive red head skin, or trying to see if Lhamom needed help.
But after some time, Fox realised he had to go eventually. Everyone else was busy with their own part of the plan. Rukshan was building the sand mandala on a flat surface that he and Olliver had cleared, and Lhamom was finishing a makeshift screen to protect the mandala from the wind with a few bamboo poles and rolls of fabrics she had found on her journey here. It was very colourful fabric with Bootanese patterns that Fox wouldn’t have used to cover a chair. It felt too busy for him.
So, he went to see Lhamom as she was struggling to plant the last stick in the rocky ground.
“Have you talked to the dogs? she asked.
“Ehr, not yet,” mumbled Fox who felt a bit ashamed when Lhamom frowned. “I think I need to give some kind of present to the dogs and I was wondering if you had something suitable in your many bags.”
“Oh! Sure. Can you finish that for me then?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Fox. He replaced her with the bamboo stick and, as she was walking away, he shouted: “I don’t think chocolate will do this time.”
“Oh! I know,” she said with a smile and a wink. It cheered Fox up a little bit, but a gush of wind called him back to his task of holding the pole. Once he secured it he put on an awkward smile, but noticed that Rukshan and Olliver were too busy to have noticed.
Lhamom came back with a big ham which Fox thought was more than suitable. He thanked her and made a joke about leaving her with her pole that he thought afterword he should not have done and walked away from the camp in the crunchy snow.
Fox had been aware that the dogs were observing him, and especially the big ham he was carrying. A few of them had begun to gather at a distance and they were beginning to whine, which attracted more of them. When he estimated he was far enough from the camp he put the ham down. He couldn’t transform into that many layers of clothes so he started to undress, watching wearily the dogs that were now growling.
It was freezing outside and Fox was shocked by how skinny his body had become. He shivered badly and focused to change into his natural red fox. It took him a little bit longer than usual but when the fur grew and started to keep the warmth close to his body, he growled with pleasure. The world around him changed as his senses transformed. Colours were different and slightly less varied, sounds were more crisp and a profusion of noises he couldn’t hear as a human suddenly vied for his attention: the sound of the wind on the rocks, the harmonics of the dogs’ voices, and the scents… simply incomparable. He wished he had kept the ham for himself.
“It’s a fox!” barked a voice.
“Let’s kill it!” said another.
“Where’s the two-legged gone?” asked a young dog.
“Who cares? It brought us meat. It’s gone. Let’s eat!”
Fox suddenly regretted he had made a full change.
The next morning Fox woke up exhausted. He was surprised he could even sleep at all. The sound of someone walking in the snow filled in his ears and he looked around him. There was nobody in the cave with him, except for one little rat looking at him from the top of a bag of food. Fox shooed it away with wide movements of his arms and he regretted immediately when all the warmth kept under the blankets dissolved in the cold morning air. But he noticed there was improvement in his health as he felt hungry.
He decided it was no good being lazy in a bed and put on a few more layers of clothes. He took some dry oatcakes from the bag where the rat had looked at him earlier, and made sure they were securely wrapped before he left the cave.
The air was clear and crisp, and the ground had been covered in a thick layer of blinding white snow. The brightness hurt Fox’s eyes and he had to cover then with his hands. He walked towards Rukshan’s voice and his heart leaped in his chest when he recognised their friend Lhamom. She had come at last. She looked at Fox.
“You look dreadful,” she said. “It is time I got to you.”
“Yes,” said Fox, and he was surprised that this simple word could carry such great relief.
“This is the magical artefact we were looking for. I found it on my way to see you and fortunately I had chocolate bars with me that I could trade for it with the monks.”
Fox’s stomach growled. Maybe he would have preferred she kept the chocolate.
“Does that mean that we can go home?” asked Fox, a tear in his eyes.
Rukshan gave his friend a strange look before answering.
“Yes. We are going… home.”
The air was crisp and dry in the mountains. They had been walking for days under the guidance of their local guide Strumpjioku, whose name was simply pronounced Sok despite or because a very complicated writing system. It seemed to interest Rukshan a lot but Fox had had some brain freeze trying to understand their guide’s nebulous and proud explanations about it.
Of course, it might have been caused also by the lack of air. They were so high in the mountains, and at times Fox had even seen and heard things that should not have been there. Especially during the long nights when packs of wild dogs barked endlessly. Fox understood their language. They were hunting things. It wasn’t clear what, but Fox could sometimes sense a lingering smell carried by the otherwise empty air that he couldn’t identify.
They had established camp for the night and Sok was busy cooking for them. Fox growled miserably. He didn’t fancy too much the spicy food that seem the only thing they could get in those mountains. He missed the running hens of Margoritt’s cottage in the forest and her secret mushroom sauce that was to die for. He would even have eaten her ratatouille with only vegetables.
Rukshan was trying to cast a fae spell in order to contact their friend Lhamom who had left them for a special ceremony in a temple. She said it was for her friend Donny whose mother had passed away recently. Being in a hurry as they were, they didn’t insist to wait. Lhamom said she could catch up on them later. The spell failed again and Rukshan cursed.
Dogs started to bark loudly. Not too soon after the strange smell became stronger, and it made Fox nervous, especially hearing to the hunting dogs.
Fox approached Rukshan.
“The dogs are hunting something, he said.
“As long as they don’t hunt us, retorted Rukshan with a shrug. He seemed upset by his failed attempt and not too eager to talk.
Fox caught Sok looking at them, but the guide turned back to his cooking when he saw Fox looking at him.
“That won’t help me sleep”, mumbled Fox more grumpy than usual.
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