Always be with you

Chapter 8: In the Woods

Chapter 8: In the woods

It was an awkward silence between them, Jack decided.

And he had good reason, too: he and Mary had barely spoken to each other since the night before. It is noteworthy how, in the three centuries that he'd been invisible, he never had any problem picking up a smart line with other people (those who could see him that is) even though he rarely had anyone to share a talk with. But now, now that he did have someone to strike up a conversation, his wit decided to fail him. This silence brought him back to a time when he was like a wind: solitary and carefree, but also invisible.

Mary, however, didn't seem too bothered by the prolonged silence. She was immersed in their surroundings, observing the signs and the landmarks. Once very often, her gaze would shift to the map she was holding in her hands.

They'd been travelling through what's called 'Murmur's Wood' on the map. It lined the border of the Unguarded Realms.

It was unlike any other wood she had ever seen - It really did seem very magical in a very queer way. On top of that, it was mysterious, too. Mary was especially impressed with the trees. How massive they were. Eerily massive, she should say. Their muscular trunk stretched up into majestic heights, where their boughs locked into one another and their dull green canopy solemnly watched them. Both travellers were justifiably dwarfed in the midst of the ancient trees.

What did she think of Jack? Well, the answer is not exactly downright. He was a wizard in her eyes - a magician of ice and snow, walking like a strange dream beside her. She had noticed the ground freezing beneath his feet and the thin layer of frost forming in his presence upon the balustrade the night before. Somehow, he gave off a subtle white light that radiated perfectly with in the dim of the place - a light she was sure he was not conscious of. To her, his presence was that of another world - beautiful in a way, but somehow different. For one who wore his heart on his sleeve like Jack, for her he was surprisingly difficult to grasp. Hard to know.

He made for a curious companion on this journey, but it was rather… heartening that she was not solitary in this mysterious Murmur's Wood. That was all that mattered to her truly.

Mary turned her attention back to the map for a while, absent-mindedly brushing aside a stray strand of hair and tugging it back into her ponytail. Now that her surroundings had slowly begun to match the description of the map, it was easier to locate exactly where they were in the woods. Jack's memory had been accurate, it seemed (Thank heavens! She disliked not knowing where she was going) If she'd read the map correctly, which she had some confidence she did, they should arrive at a town called Aberyst at late noon the next day, at the latest sunset, taking into account their current walking speed.

Walking speed...Mary wondered how easily it would've been if Jack had flown there. How long would he have taken? She remembered that Guardians could not fly easily outside the borders of the Guarded Realm and the Real World. But even so, Jack still retained his abilities here, and she could not get rid of the aggravating thought that she was the slower one in the two, although she was the one who wanted to quickly complete the journey most.

They'd walked on for quite some time now. Between every few hours of trekking Mary would suggest that they rest for 5 minutes in order to preserve their stamina. They had a whole day's worth of travelling after all. It is a common survival strategy to rest between periods of travelling to restore one's strength.

But despite Mary's request, Jack thought she was pressing on quite vigorously. Mary was impatient to be back on her feet even though Jack felt she had barely rest herself. Being a spirit, Jack does not feel the taxation of exhaustion as much as normal humans do. But even though he did not feel as physically drained, he knew of how exhausting a daylong trip like this can be to Mary. He thought it was admirable that she didn't complain at all even as night was drawn over day.

A few hours before sunset, Mary suggested that they begin making camp. If they delayed this process til near sundown, there would simply be not enough time. She asked if Jack knew a place suitable for encampment, to which he teased her for using such fancy words. Exasperated, Mary told Jack to give her a straightforward answer, to which he finally said no.

“I'll go ahead and look for one." He offered, and she nodded gratefully. "Don't worry. I won't go too far." He grinned, half-teasingly and half-assuringly.

"You may be used to handling children, Jack Frost, but I am not a child." she told him in a firm tone. "I'm not afraid to be on my own."

Jack had his own protests, but decided to take her word for it.

He returned with news that within half-an-hour walk from where they were standing was a snug clearing with shrubs and undergrowth enclosing the area. Thanking him, Mary decided that it was indeed best that they made camp there.

After having been guided to the spot, Mary proceeded to fish out the requisite tools for setting up shelter and the like. All of the necessary supplies for the journey were provided by Santa himself in a hardy, cloth eye-catchingly striped cross shoulder bag. The bag itself was explained to be able to store an insane and possibly limitless amount of goods, a claim that Mary was first wary of. However, after examining it, she was indeed astonished to find that it was true ("What did I tell you, eh?") She could make out what felt like parts of a tent, blankets, sleeping bags, lanterns, rope, etc. among other things.

'If you want to deliver presents to every single one of the millions of children in the whole world in just one night,' North raised a single finger, 'you're gonna need something like this, m’dear.' North patted Mary with his heavy hands and presented her with the purse.

North was doing what he did best again, inspiring wonder. He made her a little speechless, as she didn’t quite believe that a bottomless bag could possibly exist.

The memory now had become a fond one. She enjoyed the company of the huge jolly man and his great enthusiasm in everything, amongst his other qualities. He welcomed people, even one as wide-eyed and confused as her, with the same demeanor and cheer; and he ignited in others a bright spark of great wonder. She was sure that was the same way others feel about him.

After half of an hardworking hour, Mary could look at her work with pride. The tent was raised and lined with soft, thermal materials for sleeping. She had sprayed some insect repellent, but decided against lighting a mosquito coil because she wasn't sure if Jack would be accustomed with its smell. She guessed that he might never have had proper camping experience; perhaps it would be best not to light it.

She set up a Dutch stove a standard 6 meters away from the tent (she marvelled at how the kit had a Swiss-like design) and even prepared some food and beverage for the two, though she was rationing them - who knows how long this journey was going to take...

The rustling of a thicket made Mary froze in alarm, but it turned out to be a familiar white-haired Guardian in a deep blue hoodie. And Mary calmed quickly. Jack had offered to help her set up camp, but instead she had asked him to scout their campsite for any possible danger, or perhaps just to get to know the terrain a bit more. Jack complied, though he had traversed Murmur's Woods a few times before.

"I'm home!" Jack announced.

"Welcome back." Mary resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Did you find anything interesting?"

"I did, but I don't think you'll like it." Jack said, walking into camp at a leisurely pace.

“What is it?"

"This path we're using is a dead end..."

Mary shot up from her seat. "What?"

“...Blocked by thick, giant thorn bushes." Jack seemed to enjoy not revealing all his findings at once to tease her.

"They're plants. Do you think we can cut through them if we tried?" she said levelly.

“They’re as thick as North’s biceps. If you insist on hacking your way, I’d say it would be pretty fun to see."

Mary went to the map again, quickly eye-checking the route. She grimaced.

"This can't be right. The path on the map is still useable. It leads straight to Aberyst. But," she slumped and sighed a bit, ", then again, who knows how old this map is. Maybe things have changed. Roads that don't exist anymore may show on the map." To this Jack would agree. Rare are maps detailing the territory of the Unguarded World. The ones they had in possession was quite likely to be outdated in some places.

Mary looked at Jack. "Do you know of another way?"

"Uh-uh." Jack shook his head.

"Do you think we can find a way around the forest if we turned back?"

"Negative. The woods grow alongside a cliff between this world and the next. There are no ways around it, only across. No way over it, either, since Guardians can't fly very well here."

The camp sunk into soupy silence that was thick with thoughts, evaluating a way they can overcome this situation. They could not give up, could they? So early in the journey, too.

After a long time, Mary said solemnly "We'll think of a way. But for now, we should rest and have something to eat." Let's not rush it, let it come in its own time. Mary told herself so.

Mary went to warm some of the soup North had provided beforehand. After scooping out a portion and blowing the steam, she gave it to Jack, whose face was shining with an amused smile.

"Now who's treating who like a child? You don't have to give me the soup to me first. And you don't have to blow it for me." he said with amusement, to which Mary flushed.

"Just take your soup." she spluttered, feeling annoyed.

"Aye, aye, ma'am!" Thinking he shouldn't risk it, Jack replied obediently. Setting the bowl on his lap, he tried to make peace. "Look, I'm sorry I teased you. I just thought since you're more tired, you should eat first."

Mary seemed to sigh, but her look clearly said she forgave him. She wasn't really mad in the first place. Only perhaps flustered.

"No. I'm sorry, too. You must also be tired." She said, taking a sip from the bowl. “The fact that you’ve agreed to accompany me here, I-I can’t say how grateful I am. But shouldn’t have to."

Jack laughed in the midst of stirring his soup.

“No more than you should, Mary.” He said. “But we’re here because we wanted to, right? Why feel bad when it’s my choice?"

"But-" she tried to protest.

"And don't fuss it over. I'm a Guardian. And that means," Jack illustrated his point by making dramatic gestures. "we're the toughest spirits. Especially me, you know. Don’t forget, I can fly - I'm not even that tired. A day's walk is nothing compared to the work we Guardians do everyday."

Mary looked dubious at first, but finally chose to simply take on trust in Jack.

“You seem pretty confident. You remind me of Peter Pan in the books, maybe even more so than you do Jack Frost." Mary said, eyes shimmering in thought.

"What do you mean? I am Jack Frost." Jack said, perplexed.

"The Jack Frost in the legends was an old man with a white beard and ancient face." Mary explained. "You're the exact opposite. You're a flying, stubborn, devil-may-care boy. Not to mention you have a fairy follower. That sounds much more like Peter Pan, wouldn't you say?" Mary said.

"No, I wouldn't. That makes no sense." Jack protested. "How can I be anything other than who I am? And I've always looked like this. Your legends are the ones at fault for getting it wrong."

"I see that now. But at least the legend got your mischievous personality alright." Mary smiled peacefully.

"Hey, I'm not-…Well, maybe. But only a little." Jack said, feigning exasperation. "And what's this about a fairy? Am I starting to sprout wings and look like Tooth now?"

"You know I meant the little fairy who has followed you here." Mary said.

"What are you talking about? No one has followed us here. Am I being kept in the dark about something?"

"Oh, so you haven't noticed. Well, try feeling the hood of your jacket." Mary suggested.

Perplexed and a tad skeptical, Jack put his right hand into his hood. He was quite startled when his fingers brushed a feathered, bird-like being in his hood. He pulled the creature out and held it out to examine what it was. Or rather, who it was. It was…

"Baby Tooth?!" Jack exclaimed in absolute astonishment. "What are you doing here?"

The little fairy chirped and gave him an apologetic look. She flew out of his hand and whispered something inaudible and high-pitched in his ear.

"She's saying that just as North has his own communication device, Toothiana sent Baby Tooth here to help us through the journey." Jack smiled, amused. "Well, I'm sure glad to see you here, Baby. But that was one hell of a surprise, you know?" He gently placed Baby Tooth on his left shoulder, where she continued to smile sheepishly.

"How on Earth did you notice her?" He turned his attention to Mary, who looked calm and innocent. She pretended not to hear him and calmly swallowed a spoonful of soup.

Jack sat back down, grumbling on how he could have missed such a thing as Baby Tooth slipping into his hood.

After they'd finished eating, Mary pointily suggested that they get some rest. She swiftly cleaned up the bowl and packed everything dirty into a separate bag. Finally, the campfire was let to go out. The glowing embers curtained the camp with a soft, sleepy, warm light, like the sunset before day's end.




Author's comment:

For anyone who's interested, it is true that Jack Frost was portrayed as an old man in the legends. Some even argue that he is a variant of Old Man Winter, or even Father Christmas himself. But DreamWorks certainly made some…improvises with the character (Honestly would half of us have gone to the theatres if Jack Frost wasn't a complete babe? *wink).

He is still mischievous, sprite-like and reckless as he was in the legends though. And not to mention, he is happiest when he can do as he pleases. Which is sort of why I'm reminded of Peter Pan.

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