The next morning, Arthen could hardly believe where life was taking him in such a sharp contrast from where he was the day before. The three of them–Arthen, Booker and Frayne–were trekking through the wilderland eastwards to Barsteen, the permanent settlement of one of the nine great Dimanth Tribes–the Stahlgs.
The events of the previous day occurred so quickly that Arthen could hardly remember how it was possible for it all to happen in such a small amount of time. When Booker and Frayne learned of how well Arthen knew of the Stahlg language, Booker immediately offered Arthen the job of their interpreter. Frayne was apprehensive at first to the idea, perhaps thinking that Arthen was a false expert, but soon he came around to the idea after a private talk with Booker.
But Arthen understood Frayne’s hesitation. Arthen himself did not believe that he could accomplish acting as a respective interpreter to any fluent Stahlg speaker. It was a loose secondary language to him that he still bore an ill taste as it reminded him heavily of the Farmer’s everlasting angry attitude, and Arthen had begun to avoid speaking the language some time ago. Not only that, but Arthen did not fully trust Booker and Frayne, two strangers in Acres passing by to go on a mission that Arthen didn’t fully understand nor knew the kind of danger that could occur.
Booker had told Arthen their mission to Barsteen was to make a diplomatic agreement between the Stahlg tribe and Booker and Frayne’s employer, who had not been named. Arthen’s job in all of it was to relay and translate messages from one party to another. Booker had said the mission was to be simple enough that Arthen should not have anything to fear–which made Arthen even more nervous.
Accepting the job was a final conclusion that Arthen had nowhere else to go and no other job prospects in order to survive. Booker offered him what amount of money he had left after their supply-purchasing, whatever extra clothing they weren’t already wearing to help him with traveling. By the end of the day, Arthen was given an almost full sack of money, relatively new boots, a shirt to go under his poncho, and a small knife for protection. For all of this, Arthen was grateful for the two of them to extend his life for a few days more.
“How are you, Torch?” Booker called from the lead.
“Fine!” Arthen replied. The soles of his feet had healed quickly after trudging through the wilderland, but they still ached heavily. His strength from all his ordeals with the wolves and Abner’s home had not yet fully returned and he followed his new companions’ paces struggling to keep up.
“It’s fine to call for a rest whenever you are tired. Us older men need our stops as well whenever we can.”
Booker gave a look to Frayne for a friendly response to his comment, but Frayne returned no such fraternity. Frayne had been buried in a book ever since they left Acres. His walk never missed a step as his eyes never left the pages. Arthen found it peculiar for him to be so worrisome about his knowledge of the Stahlg language to the point of paranoia, but chose to read a book entitled Gile Fitzwalter’s Journal Recordings of His Study of the Sásta–A Plant Troublesome on their journey to the settlement.
It would be a thirteen day journey by foot to Barsteen as Booker estimated. The first three days were spent trekking through the northern expanse of Brockway county toward the town of Bristlecone on Adgonna’s Height. They made sure to steer clear of Caster Hill which was reported to have been claimed by mid-level mountain tribe called the Harnacks. Booker had no information on the friendliness of the Harnacks, so played it safe and steered clear of their new hill they conquered.
After the third day, they rented beds at an inn in Bristlecone and rested up to make the trek to Feeney by nightfall. The town of Feeney was a bridge of a town that lay on the mouth where the Western and East-western Tines met and was the only bridge crossing the Brockway side of the Trident north of the first split. Both of Feeney’s bridges were only open Monday through Thursday so it was important that they made it to town before nightfall on that Thursday. Once they left Feeney it was three days of traveling through the wilderness of northern Moorcroft county on their way to Ravenswood.
Much of the area between Feeney and Ravenswood was laden with old rusted swords, swept up armor, and lingering graves and bones that littered the ground and trail. They were the remnants of the many series of Trident Wars between Brockway and Moorcroft counties disputing the claim of the area between the tines. Abandoned villages of generations past covered in moss and weeds lingered from hundreds of years of battle.
Closer to Ravenswood were newly abandoned corn fields with old dried corn stalks of white being swept across the wide blanket of desolate tilled earth. The town itself seemed in no better condition, even worse than Acres. A town with a size fit for at least a hundred citizens held barely a dozen solemn people left tending. The three of them found no inn or well and decided to rough it again on the town’s border that night.
“There’s one more town after this, right?” Booker asked Frayne. “Before we make it to Barsteen?”
“Yes. Grayling. I’d hate to see the state that town’s in if Ravenswood is this bad.”
Booker shook his head in disappointment. “A town has fallen this much while being so close to it’s capital, Cruamur?” He sighed.
When they discovered that Ravenswood had a ferryman among its small population, they debated whether to book a passage across of the Northern Tine while there or risk proceeding north in hopes that Grayling had a bridge or one of the minor bridges along the trail had been maintained enough to cross. Booker was wary of crossing the river so close to Cruamur where they could be captured by one of Vello Ashsong’s nightriders which was the point in the argument to finally persuade Frayne to stay on the west side of the Northern Tine for a little longer. After Grayling would be their last three days of the journey as they would be navigating the slopes of the Raggeds following where the Northern Tine made birth near Barsteen.
“I’m sure Grayling will be a fine place to cross,” Booker said. “I’ve heard of the friendly folk there from that fellow in the well at Feeney. I’m sure they have a fine ferryman there.”
Frayne gave a skeptical sigh at this.
It was after another three days of trekking north following close to the Northern Tine up the Valley of Lenore when they reached the outskirts of Grayling. A gray field of barren stumps and broken branches lay to their backs, in front of them was the landscape of what was left this far northeast in all Ialnem. The last town they meant to encounter before the realm of the Stahlgs was utterly quiet and devoid of any life. When Booker stopped as Grayling was close enough to be clear eyesight, Arthen and Frayne did as well and looked upon the scene. Booker gave a quiet sigh through his nose.
Clearly abandoned years ago, Grayling lay like the bones of a crumbling giant’s skeleton splayed across the field. Arthen imagined how Drywood must look now after the black charring turned to white ash that broke off into the air at the slightest breeze. Grayling was at that state. A cold isolation left after what would’ve been the white hot incineration that destroyed the town, the people’s lineage and history. The stories.
Booker continued to stare hard.
Frayne put a hand on Booker’s shoulder. “It’s getting dark. I saw a few rabbits in the fields. How about you teach the boy to set some traps finally? I think I’ve taught Gleim everything there is to set up a good campfire.”
“Ah, yes,” Booker said, blinking.
As Frayne stoked the fire while reading a new book, Arthen and Booker scouted the nearby thicket of woods to hunt rabbits for their dinner. Booker set some very clever traps to claim their next meals that worked fantastically, leaving Arthen the role to spectate.
“You learned that being on the road?”
Booker shook his head slowly, tying the dead rabbits together. “I was always the one to find food in my duet when our rations had run low. My duet brother was never–well–one to find food for himself.”
“Your duet? You were in the Golden Legion?”
“In another life.” Booker gave a weak smile back to him. Arthen decided not to push the subject.
They started to make their way back to Frayne by going back out of the woods.
“These woods are always very peculiar,” Booker said, apparently to break the silence birthed from the sudden end of the last conversation.
“Why is that?”
“The ground is littered with freshly fallen brown leaves. It’s late summer still, isn’t it?”
Arthen thought nothing of it having lived around the kinds of woods in north Ialnem for so long. “Yeah, it does that here. They seem to fall earlier and earlier every year.”
“Thin trees. Dry. Brittle.” Booker sighed. “I’ve seen better woods more south. Wider and greener leaves. Less needles. But nothing like the Forest. You’ve ever seen that kind green?”
“Yes,” Arthen replied. “Once, when I was a small child.”
“I myself have only seen a small number of healthy, green woods in my years on this Earth.”
They reached the edge of the woods to the barren field of decaying brambles and stumps of woods that once were. The view was capped with the town of Grayling’s debris blown houses. Booker slowed his pace looking out onto the scene. The darkness of night had covered them, but the depression of the landscape was still visible like a dying campfire. Mialdin’s Star was so dim in this part of the world making everything so desaturated and ashen-colored. Booker made a full stop gazing outward, entranced. Arthen stopped with him.
After a few seconds of silent surveying, Booker finally spoke. “Then there are those woods that are tangled and thick with those close sickly trees and bushes that make the air almost suffocating. Just unhealthy overbearing trees riddled with disease and fungus.”
Arthen looked at Booker’s eyes which looked strained and tired. Sensing a growing tension in Booker’s mind, Arthen tried to make a silly observation, “The world seems to get wider the longer you look at it.”
Booker looked down to the ground and gave a short breath of a laugh and smiled at Arthen. “Hard to imagine the countless millennia ago that this all used to be the Forest.” He pointed to the east. “From the mountains–” then pointed west, “–to the sea.”
“It’s a lot different now.”
“I remember a story my mother used to tell me of the trees that grew here. Before the Eves came to consciousness and inherited the Earth when the animals and vegetation reigned. Giant ancient trees that lived for thousands of years. They would become old, decrepit, and greedy of sunlight. Killed any small seedling that tried to grow among them.
“But the phoenix was there. The phoenix’s job was to burn and clear the forest. She used to say that the phoenix’s lifespan was the forest’s lifespan. And when it would die in the ashes, it would be reborn with the forest again. Growing alongside it. They were a partnership, ever growing, learning, adapting with and to each other.”
“The phoenix always knew when it was time for a change,” Arthen said. He had heard the fable in his youth as well.
Booker smiled at him broadly, sensing the growing connection between them. “Gleim, I have not been completely truthful about our mission.”
Arthen looked at him. “How do you mean?”
“I’m sorry,” he started. “We told you this was a diplomatic mission so the job would be more agreeable to you. I didn’t want to bring anyone into this mission if their life may be at stake, but Frayne and I need a failsafe.
“But now that we are so near Barsteen you need to know the true task we have ahead of us. We had sent a comrade of ours, Oakley, as a diplomat to become part of the Stalhg’s society and then appeal to their king to reach this agreement with our employer. But we have lost word of him a month into his residency there and it has been three months since our last letter from him.”
“So your job is to get him back?” Arthen said.
“Yes, with a great deal of stealth. That is why Frayne is here. He himself is a good diplomat but he has a knack for infiltration. I have a knack for playing to people’s good side.”
“And how am I a failsafe?”
“If we’re captured we need you to talk us out of the situation.”
Arthen felt his stomach drop. “I couldn’t even negotiate a fair amount of food for my mother’s pendant the other day. How do you reckon I can talk to a king out of a potential hostage situation?”
“Like I said, Gleim, I have a knack for playing to people’s good side. You’d just have to translate my words.”
Arthen wasn’t fully convinced about this.
“I can tell you’ve been a small village boy your whole life, Gleim. Jumping into this kind of job is very shocking for you, I sense. But, Gleim, I am holding confidence with you by telling you our plans. If it ever comes to it, I will protect you with my life.”
And Arthen felt immense gratitude for Booker. He could tell he sincerely meant what he said. Arthen could feel that something had happened to Booker while in the Golden Legion to have this servitude of his own life to another comrade.
“And we must do what it necessary to help Oakley. Our friend is out there, trapped.”
Arthen took a deep breath. “So now we save him.”
“So now we save him,” Booker reiterated and clapped his hand on Arthen’s shoulder with an even bigger smile than before.
It felt strange to Arthen, having this trusting connection with someone. At first he felt wary about it, how it seemed too good to be true, that Booker seemed to be playing him. But relief slowly spread through Arthen’s body feeling the heavy armor of doubt come off his chest and shoulders. Arthen realized that this was the first time ever in his life that he felt the adult anxiety of the cruel world and the distrust of general society gradually fly away into the breeze. Booker had found Arthen at his lowest point and it brought together the happenstance of Arthen knowing the Stahlg language and Booker and Frayne’s need for an interpreter. And Arthen felt this connection similar to his first meeting with Reflynn, how this happenstance of finding someone after leaving a previous home led to him clinging on to the presence of the person who saved him. He felt the need to reciprocate the exchange of trust from Booker to him, so he did by putting it in the intention on finding and saving Oakley, a man he had never met, but a man he now would be willing to put his life on the line for.
“Let us return to Frayne,” Booker said.
As the walked back, with dead rabbits in hand, Arthen could feel the difference in his step, his back straighter and his head held higher.
Arthen awoke sharply with a jab to his stomach from something heavy. He let out a deep seeded moan. He looked up to see early daylight shining down upon a grizzly looking beast of a man who stared down on him. The man was adorned with a crude iron helmet and covered with a cloak made of thick gray fur.
“Ib nie supaght?” he said to Arthen. Why are you here?
“Wait–” but then Arthen was punched squarely in the face by the grizzly man’s massive fist, and then the world went dark.