Into the Forest

 

Niander rolls over in his sleep and regrets it right away. His eyes snap open and he lets out a croak of pain. He is in pain. Nothing is sore, it all just hurts. The fifteen hours of Ka’ala have just nearly killed him. The night before he was dropped off by Master Al’Gurah’s driver, and needed to be helped out of the carriage. Both the driver and a grumpy Ring-Back hauled him out while Galel laughed himself into painful muscle spasms.

Niander slowly drops his blanket onto the floor. The smell of balms and oils reminds him of the painful hour spent rubbing himself down before dropping himself down to sleep. Without a window in his room he cannot tell what time of night or day it is. He feels like he just fell asleep but now that he is awake there is no chance of drifting off again. Gently he pulls himself off the bed, chuckling at the fact the last time he woke up here he was sore as well. Not at all like this but the memory remains.

On his feet, he attempts a few of the stretches Master Al’Gurah taught him yesterday. It helps enough for him to get into a fresh set of trousers. He makes his way out into the main house. The windows are dark and the fireplace is cold. It is still early in the morning, early enough to still hear Ring-Back’s loud snores. Niander walks over to the fireplace and attempts to light it.

Once it’s lit he takes the closest seat and rolls his ankles around a bit, still stiff. The door to his father’s bedroom is closed and somehow looks lonely. Aaron was not home last night. He is still on Guard duty and wouldn’t be returning for another two days. This and the memory of Galel’s family knots his stomach.

Just then he realizes he never met a mother, and Galel never mentioned one in their drunken conversation in the Ol’ Tanker. Was he missing his just like Niander? Tracing his lips with his forefinger, he wonders how it happened. Niander can remember the stories of how during the year of his birth a pack of wild wolves attacked several caravans on the slopes just outside the Black Gates. One of which tumbled down the cliff with his mother still in it. Maybe Galel’s mother had the same fate.

Shaking the thought from his mind Niander gets up and walks over to the fireplace and sets up the kettle and cooking pot. Maybe a good meal will be enough of an apology for Ring-Back. Well, not a good meal if his time as an assistant cook at the Abbey is anything to go by, but at least edible.

While the water boils, Niander rummages around in the pantry for potatoes, carrots and dried mushrooms. There are bottled spices he has never heard of, some taste sweet as sugar, others are bitter. One tastes like powdered wine. How that’s possible, Niander doesn’t know.

Chopping and slicing, pinching and dashing. Niander feels rather proud of his knife work, seasoning the water though is another story. Taking everything to the edge of the fireplace he stares at the lightly smoking pot. Shrugging his shoulders he starts dropping spices and vegetables into the pot. After everything is in he chuckles at what might turn out to be a terrible meal.

A knock at the door makes him jump, causing his lower back to lock up. “Who in the fires of Berial is that?” Niander walks over to the door, rubbing his back. Placing his hand on the latch he pauses to listen. He can hear a tired sniffle and a clearing of an early morning throat. Opening the door he finds a shivering scribe holding a lantern with one hands and using the other to keep his cloak tight around his neck. Niander looks him in the eye and asks, “Can I help you?”

“Master Badok, I have a letter for you from young Lady Tiger-Lily.” The scribe salutes, a difficult task while holding a lantern, and hands Niander a letter sealed with auburn wax.

“I’m not a master yet, you can just call me Niander.” He says running a nervous hand through his hair.

“Of course Master Badok.” The scribe salutes again and turns to leave.

Niander closes the door and turns back into the room to find the cook pot overflowing, he stuffs the letter into his pocket and runs over to pull it off the fire. He burns himself on the handle and spills quite a bit on his left foot. With a yelp of pain he falls to the floor holding his burned foot away from anymore danger. The hissing of the fire drowns his curses, ash slowly spills into the room and falls over him. The door to Ring-Back’s room opens and all goes quiet. Even the hissing fire seems to hold its breath.

“If the scribe could see you now.” Ring-Back says through a heavy yawn. He walks over to the pot and lifts it off the fire. He walks it to the hard wood table and places it on a rag. He takes a broom and pan from a cupboard and cleans up the ash with ease. After tidying up he turns his attention to the still whimpering Niander. “Need help?”

After mending his foot and giving him another run-down for the muscle soreness, Ring-Back instructs Niander to set the table while he washes up. Happy to do something simple Niander finishes well before Ring-Back’s return. They both sit and have a surprisingly nice breakfast.

After his second helping, Ring-Back says, “see what you didn’t take into account is that dried mushrooms expand.” He gives a little shake of his head, “next time grab the amount you think will make a sizable meal and quarter it. Also, there are only two of us, so better half that too.”

“Sorry.” Niander fiddles with his spoon. “Back at the Abbey we used fresh mushrooms and about twenty pounds per meal.”

“Don’t worry your empty little head over it, it happens to us all,” Ring-Back says wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “If’n you like we can go into the woods and forage for a few hours. May as well replace what spilled and got scorched in the fire.”

“Yes, I would love that actually. I don’t know much about edible plants.”

“What do you know?”

“The brown ones are safe?” Niander asks unsure.

“Good lord of Sram, you’ll kill yourself if’n you think that way.” He shakes his head again and hops off of his chair. “Go get your gear and let’s get hunting. There’s a chill in the air so bring gloves.”

“I don’t have gear.” Niander says, also getting to his feet. The balm Ring-back used on his foot stopped any blistering but left the uncomfortable feeling of raw skin.

“’Course you do, your old man had Riktus make you a set the day you fell asleep in battle.” He smirks, “also got you a nice little hunting bow before he went on guard. Check your wardrobe.”

Niander makes his way back into his room and sure enough he finds a package inside his wardrobe. Riktus converted his trousers and tunic from the Abbey into a fine set of hunting clothes. He cut and added material similar to the Masters uniform on the sides to make the tunic more fitted but flexible. He also added leather onto the shoulders, chest and abdomen as well as along the front of the trousers. There is also a worn pair of boots behind the package, Niander suspects they belonged to his father.

After changing he walks back out into the living room, Ring-Back is already waiting. Niander Smiles at his odd assortment of clothes. His brown leather jerkin nearly falls over bright blue leggings tucked into black leather boots, a well weathered tricorn sits cheekily on his head.

“What you smiling at?” he asks laying out the contents of a satchel onto the cleared table. His Vintian blade gleaming next to two dull iron daggers, a small trowel and hatchet are tied together with a leather lash and an assortment of smaller cloth bags stack neatly at the edge of the table, where Niander finds his sword and cloak.

“When did these come in? I thought I left them with Master Lorn.”

“Nah, he took them off of you before he took you away, your old man brought them back before he went off for Guard duty.”

“Oh, I thought he may have gone with me.” Niander says picking up his sword, “I suppose there were more important things.”

“Look kid, I don’t want to get in the middle of any father issues you have, Sram knows I have enough to last a few lifetimes. But yes your old man had more important things to do than look after a fainted son in the care of a Draco Ferian.” Ring-Back says putting everything back into his satchel. “If’n you like I can let him know you would rather he stays to hunt than keep the peace with the Fell.”

“That is not what I meant.” Niander says with a hint of defiance.

“Here take these,” he hands Niander the two iron daggers. “You can leave that heavy sword here. Leave the cloak too, you’ll tear it to rags before we get a mile in.”

Niander nods and puts them away in his room. Ring-Back hands him an unstrung hunting bow and is surprised at how quickly Niander learns how to set it up properly. They both take a moment to admire Riktus’ work on Niander’s hunting gear. The cleaver tailor added two hidden sheaths on the side of either thigh that fit and conceal daggers. The same concept was applied to the abdomen and lower back. Sadly neither could find enough knives to hide in all the pockets.

“Alright, let’s get going, we’re burning daylight.” Ring-Back says throwing the satchel over his shoulder and heads for the door. “Hope your memories good because mushrooms are tricky little bastards to figure out.”

The two walk out of the house and run into young Frederick Knoll, the boy sent to curse at Ring-Back. He jumps at the sight of the half man who hit him. “Mister Badok, I came to see if I could be of any use again.”

“That’s right, you sent this little shit to me.” Ring-Back balls his fists and begins to walk over to the boy when he notices something. “I only gave you one black eye. Who gave you the other?”

“No one. I fell.” Frederick says turning away. “I just wanted to know if I could help, if you don’t need anything I can always leave.”

“Wait.” Niander calls out. “Answer his question.”

“What does it matter, I get worse anyway.” Frederick kicks at a lump of dirt. “Sir, I just want to work.”

“How old are you, kid?” Ring-Back asks.

“Ten.”

“You ain’t need work, what you need it to nearly kill yourself doing kid things.”

“My family needs the money.”

“Well then, honest work it is.” Ring-Back declares. “Go grab the cart from the other side of the stables and follow us.”

A smile breaks across Frederick’s face and he dashes around the house as fast as he can. Within a minute the young boy races back with a deep basket cart in tow. He marches behind the half man and his new employer towards a path off the Badok property. Niander looks over his shoulder at the boy.

“Why are you being so nice to him all of a sudden?” he asks Ring-Back in low tones.

“Saw a bit of myself in the boy.”

“His height maybe?”

“Haha, you little shit.” Ring-Back punches Niander in the arm. “It was that black eye actually. I seen a few of those before.”

“You hit a lot of people then?”

“I ain’t talking about the one I gave him. I mean the one his old man gave him.” Ring-Back pulls a flask from his jerkin and pulls the stopper. “See mine is nice and even around the eye. The other one is sloppy, darker near the cheek, a strike from a drunkard.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“If’n you never got one, you never would. When you wear something like that you tend to stare at it every chance you get. In a window, a spoon, a bit of rain water.” Ring-Back’s voice goes to the same far off place his eyes have found. “My old man was a whole lot of things. A genius playwright. A masterful musician. Burned the floorboards of any stage. He was also a drunkard, a wife beater, and a vicious father.”

“I’m sorry -”

“Was it you that hit me?” Ring-Back shakes the memories from his mind. “Forget about it. And don’t bring it up to the boy either. The last man who tried to help me lost the use of his legs and a beautiful Vintian blade to boot.”

“I won’t.”

“What are you two talking about?” Frederick calls out. “Where are we going?”

“We’re foraging for mushrooms beyond the EverCoal.” Niander yells back.

The path slithers through a large patch of trees and opens to a small clearing with a set of black gates much smaller than the pair at the entrance of Weeping Valley with the three rings of EverCoal flanking them. A portly warrior standing guard nods off as the group approaches. Ring-Back clears his throat loudly but the warrior continues to nap. Sighing, Ring-Back kicks the guard hard in the shin.

“Huh, what?” the worrier wakes with a start, rattling his armor. “Ring? Baktu above you scared the piss out o’ me. Out for a bit o’ foraging?” the worrier eyes Niander and the Knoll boy. “Where’d ya catch these little birdies?”

“Morning Sid, these ain’t no bird just pains in me ass.” Ring-Back says. “If’n you want to place an order for anything nice I’d be more than happy to bring it to you for the proper coin.”

“Now that you mention it.” Sid says looking around suspiciously. Silly really when there was obviously no one around to see him sleeping in the first place. “I have been running low on Maya Vine. The misses has been a little lively, you understand.”

“Completely, let me and the boys have a look around and if we come by it, I’ll be sure to bring it by.” Ring-Back winks at the worrier. “Keep in mind though, Sid, it’s early Vall and Maya don’t like the cold too much.”

“Come on Ring, it’s only the second week,” Sid Says. “I’ll pay double if you bring us a pound.”

“For that sort of coin, I’ll give it a try. Now if you don’t mind the sun is nearly all the way up and I’d like to get in the trees before the dew dries up.”

Sid rubs his greedy hands together and smiles at Ring-Back. Pulling open the gates he steps aside and lets the three pass through.

“What is Maya Vine?” Frederick asks.

“It’s er… something to help a man last longer than normal.” Ring-Back answers. “You know, with the misses.”

“Oh, so it’s something for your head. So you can argue longer with her or something?”

“Look at this, it’s an edible mushroom.” Ring-Back pushes the boy out of the way in his hurry towards a small bundle of fungi. Niander laughs at the confused look on Frederick’s face. Ring-Back pulls out his gleaming Vintian blade and cuts the fungi off of the bark of a fallen tree near the road. “Oh good, see this is Pearl of the Forest. It is easy to spot since the tops are nearly round and the color of pearls. But if you look closely there is a slight green tinge on some of these. That means a Stink Beetle has laid some eggs in it.”

He holds the mushroom bunch up towards the two young men. In the sun the green tinge looks slimy and speckled with grass-green bits. “If you happen to miss this and eat the damn things, you will have one terrible week. Stomach cramps, diarrhea, and possible coma. If you so happen to eat this out in the bush, well you’re as good as dead.”

“Damn.” Niander says stepping away from Ring-Back, “should you be touching it?”

“As long as I ain’t licking my fingers I’ll be fine. Stink beetle goo will go bad if it’s touched in a matter of hours.”

“So you can eat it if you touch it or boil it?” Frederick asks.

“Only the surface gets damaged, there is still a lot inside the mushroom. And boiling it does very little. It’s really all the crap on our hands that hurt it.” Ring-Back pulls out one of the cloth bags from his satchel and gingerly puts the fungi in it. “Still keep the little bastard, potion makers and apothecaries love the stuff, and pay a good amount of coin too.”

Frederick stares out into the trees greedily. They continue down the road for about a mile and turn into the first trail that comes up. Frederick struggles with the cart but keeps up as best he can.

“See here, this is Dark Honey.” Ring-Back points to a solid black mass on the ground next to a large a shrub of Fickleberry. The mass was a single mushroom bulb the size of a dinner plate with a wrinkled surface making it look like many bulbs crammed together. It seemed darker than should be allowed in the brightening sun light. “It is a beautiful little bugger that tastes, as the name says, like honey. It is some of the best eating in the bush.” He reaches down and pulls it up. Instead of falling apart like any normal mushroom would, its stem snaps like a twig and keeps its shape. “You can eat it right away or put it away for months before you need to toss it. If’n you leave it too long though, it will grow a mold.”

“Mold will grow mold?” Niander asks.

“Almost, the mold is actually its way of dropping seed.” Ring-back says holding up the large fungi, “all these little ribs are dried mold, and if’n you break a piece off dust will come out, like a dry roll. It isn’t dangerous until it becomes moist. This whole thing is dry actually, that’s why it keeps so well. There is a main root, like all fungi, that connects the bulbs within fifty feet and is the only part that is moist and alive.”

“Like hair.” Niander says.

“What d’you mean?” Ring-Back asks putting the Dark Honey into the cart Frederick is pulling.

“Well hair is dead outside of the skin. The root is alive because it has blood vessels, but the rest is technically dead.”

“I suppose, I didn’t know all that though.”

“Just something I read in a book.” Niander says dropping his gaze.

“Makes sense, it don’t hurt none when I get it cut.” Ring-Back walks around a bit and finds another two large Dark Honey bulbs.

As the three continue deeper into the forest Ring-Back keeps up the commentary on edible plants. He shows them how to pick the berries from a Fire Sapling. Niander knows it’s a waste when cut incorrectly but watching the Dark blue berry turn a vivid violet is two incredible. When Frederick trips and cuts his hand, Ring-Back is quick to stop the bleeding with the soft bark of an oddly white tree. Niander has a hard time explaining how he knows about Dilly Flowers, but Ring-Back laughs and gives him a half-dozen reasons why it’s a good plant to have on hand.

“If’n you get caught in a farm town, an ounce of Dilly will get out of there with enough coin to make it back home on a full belly and a drunk head for more than half the trip.” Ring-Back says stripping well over three pounds of flower from a large bed sprawled in an open clearing. “Farmers use it on their animals as a way to keep them from catching any sort of stomach bacteria. It can even help a Migder under the fear.”

“The what?” Niander asks.

“The fear means that the Migder forgets you’re there to keep it safe and it starts to turn on you.” Frederick says. Niander and Ring-Back look impressed with the young boy. “My dad helps the Swift family with their Stead, and one of the females caught the fear after giving birth for the first time. She killed her mate and one of the three calves she just finished having. A few petals and a half hour later, she was mild again.”

“I just thought it was for, recreation.” Niander says shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, yesterday was the first time I’ve seen it.”

“It’s a great way to stop thinking that’s for sure.” Ring-Back chuckles and tosses the last of four bundles of Dilly into the cart. Stretching his back he cries out in triumph, “up there boys, that’s our pay for all this work.”

Niander and Frederick look up towards what look like a huge birds nests high in the tree tops. One looks big enough to fit a sleeping Frederick. Rubbing his hands together, Ring-Back drops his satchel into the cart and makes his way to the closest tree. He snakes his left hand around in the air while looking up at the canopy, visualizing his route up the tree. Cursing, he claps his hands and leaps onto the trunk. For a small man, or maybe because of this reason, he quickly makes it to the first branch. From there it is a matter of seconds before he makes it to a dizzying height, right next to the first of four nests.

Niander has trouble making out what Ring-Back is doing because of the foliage, but before he can get a better look the nest comes crashing down at his feet. Ring-Back barks in laughter and makes his way to the next nest, again he takes his time before knocking it off the branch and sending it down to the ground.

“Look at the size of them.” Ring-Back barks after landing lightly back on level ground. “These are Maya Vines.” He says to the confused expression on Niander’s face.

“Oh, what that guard wanted us to find for him.” Niander nods in understanding. Niander looks at the nests, they are made of one vine that either grew in a spiraled and cupped shape or it was expertly weaved by a large bird.

“S’right. After we dry it we’ll have more than a pound, and if’n Sid can’t pay the extra I can take it down to Cappy in the Lowers and get close to its worth.” Ring-Back nods to himself. “Oh and I found these in the big one.” He pulls out nearly a full dozen, plum sized eggs. “Let’s hope they ain’t too far along.”

Ring-Back sends Niander out to gather firewood while he has Frederick gather stones for a fire pit. On his search, Niander finds a Pearl of the Forest. Looking it over he can’t find any sign of green on the tiny pearls. Putting it in a sack he ties it to his belt and continues on his search for firewood.

“Is this enough?” Niander asks returning to the other two. “I couldn’t find any large logs, but there were quite a lot of dead sticks.”

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” the boy asks.

“Oh, nothing I was just using Feruh to haul this.” He says pointing at the bundle of firewood twice his size.

“And when did you learn to use it on yourself like that?” Ring back asks as he starts to build the wood up in the pit.

“I’ve always been able to.” Niander says.

“Your old man told me it took him two years in the Fell to use Feruh to make him stronger.”

“I didn’t make myself stronger, I made the wood lighter.”

“How’s that?”

“I used the wind to dry it out completely and then used it again to push up on the bundle while I carried it.”

“Smart, and practical since that means this wood will take a spark quickly.” Ring-Back strikes his blade on a stone and lights the tinder. “Freddie, go get the two clay pots from the cart and the water skin from my satchel.”

Frederick does what he is told. He returns with a clay skillet and what looks like a stubby stock pot. Ring-Back busies himself with chopping the Pearls Niander found, “Niander, get the Maya Vine in one of the larger sacks and use your wind to dry it out.”

“Sure,” Niander says. He focuses his mind on the vines in the sack, he can feel the breeze around him slow and finally stop. The leaves around their impromptu camp go still. Turning his dark orbs towards the sack he can see the wind swirling around it without disturbing any of the dry leaves that lie inches away.

Every time he exhales the wind swirls faster and faster, leaching every drop of moisture from the vines. Within a minute the vines collapses under their own weight.

“Now I think Cappy might give us exactly what the vines are worth.” Ring-Back says braking the burning wood into coals and adding more fresh wood. “I was going to seal it in the pot and put it over the fire, but that chars it. This way it’s pure and worth more an ounce than it would have all burned up.”

“Glad I could help.” Niander says smiling.

Walking back towards the small black gates, the three find Sid Fast asleep on his feet. Ring-Back wakes him and shows him the sack of dried Maya. The two of them haggle for a few minutes and eventually come to an agreement. Ring-Back fills three small sacks with half the Maya, and takes a heavy purse from Sid. The two men shake hands and say their goodbyes. Ring-Back motions for the two young men to follow him back up the path towards the Badok homestead. Not until they are well out of earshot does Ring-Back turn to the other two with a wide smile on his face.

“Alright, let’s split this coin before it becomes an argument.” He tugs on the purses strings and opens it up in front of the two young men. He hands Frederick two gold, four silver and six copper. Niander gets five gold and he keeps the rest. “Freddie, keep up your strength and you’ll get a bigger cut next time.”

“Wow. Thank you.” The boy jumps up and down as they continue to walk.

“Now do me a favor, Freddie.”

“Anything Sir.”

“Put the gold in your left boot, the silver in your right and the copper in your pockets. That way when your old man makes you empty them he doesn’t find the larger coin.”

“What?” Frederick looks both shocked and ashamed.

“Don’t worry kid, I learned all this when I was about your age.”

Frederick goes read and runs ahead a few yards so the other two can’t see him wiping his face dry. Niander watches the back of his head before looking over at Ring-Back.

“I know what you’re going to say.” Ring-Back says. “I said you couldn’t bring it up. I had a bastard for a dad too, so that sort of gives me a pass.”

“How did you know his father takes his money?”

“He probably sent him up here this morning to shill more coin off of you.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“Yeah, if I had only given him the copper he wouldn’t have thought too much of it, but because of the silver I suddenly became a way for him to get drinking coin without having to work for it.”

“Close enough.” Ring-Back narrows his eyes, Niander follows his gaze and sees a page standing at the front door to his home. “What does a black cloak want with us?”

Niander looks back at the page and sure enough she is wearing a black cloak, making her a page for a nobleman or a politician. She stands with her back straight and her nose pointing to the sky. Her furrowing brow makes it obvious she disapproves of their tardiness and foul odor.

“Master Badok, I have a letter for you.” She salutes Niander, hands him the sealed scroll and briskly walks towards the main road.

“I hate being called master.”

“Why is that?” Ring-Back asks trying to sneak a peek at the crimson seal.

“I just don’t like it.” Niander opens the door and walks into the house. Frederick runs in and out putting their haul away.

“Who sent you that?”

“Malcolm, but the seal looks different.” Niander runs his finger under the wax to break it.

“No-”

Ring-Back tries to stop him but he misses. When the seal is broken a woman’s beautiful and disembodied laugh echoes all around them. Before Niander can wonder who that was he steps away from Ring-Back. The man seethes with a white-hot anger, baring his teeth he grips his blade and launches it at the fireplace where it sticks deep into the stone. He growls and makes his way to his room, slamming the door behind him.

“What in Berial was that about?” Frederick asks.

 

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