Chapter 9: The road less travelled by
Chapter 9: The road less travelled by
Mary felt like taking a breathe of consciousness after dreaming in the unknown depths of slumber. She opened her eyes and rubbed them gently to rinse the remaining fogginess.
"Rise and shine, sleeping beauty." a familiar light teasing voice sounded the air. It didn't take a second for Mary to know who it belonged to.
It was morning already, and soft beads of gold-white sunlight fell through the canopies.
Mary sat up and glanced towards the one who greeted her, her very strange companion- Jack Frost. He was cleanly awake and his healthily upbeat attitude was essentially rolling off him. He was spotting his trademark grin. His hair was no less out of place than they'd ever been (nor was the rest of him), giving away no sign of him having even laid down and slept at all. This worried her a little before she entertained the possibility that spirits don't require sleep. This whole ordeal was new to her, after all.
"Aren't you an early bird, Mr. Frost." said Mary politely, effected by the contagious smile. "And here I thought I'd have to wake you."
"Come one, is that what you take me for? A lazy bum?" Jack pouted, sounding hurt. Baby Tooth, perched on his shoulder, was dashing her head between Jack and the human girl, catching their exchanges.
"What time is it? I didn't wake up late, did I?" Mary asked, anxious. Herself being an unusually early riser, she was slightly anxious that yesterday's long walk had trapped her in sleep longer than she had anticipated. She immediately flipped over her blanket, reaching for a comb to brush her hair.
"Don't you worry, it's still plenty early." The Guardian whistled. His hands were nimbly weaving threads of gold grass, which he'd somehow found; his fingers were braiding them so lightly that Mary suspected he was barely paying attention to the task. "I wouldn't normally be seen awake at this hour. In fact, I'd be happily snoozing away right now, if not for this pompous fur ball."
He ducked down and grabbed something with one hand. Mary looked over curiously until he held out a cat with a familiar pattern - white, red, brown, orange and black, by the scrape of its neck.
"Luna?" Mary gaped, as she couldn't quite believe it. Her cat meowed indignantly at the treatment she was receiving, hers paws jerking in the air.
Jack lowered the cat onto the ground, where it turned to give him what was undoubtedly an almost nasty look before crawling onto Mary's lap and settled in her welcoming arms.
"Oh you little devil, Luna. You've surprising me lately. Since when have you enjoyed having outings so much?" Mary cooed adoringly, stroking her head gently. "How on Earth did you find her, Jack?"
"I didn't." He said. "Her claws found my face, if that's what you want to know."
"Oh, I'm very sorry." She apologised. "It's strange; Luna is usually so tame." Mary scratched Luna's belly as it rolled over on her lap. But when Mary spoke, it had an awful lilt of disdain. "But now that you're here, what are we going to do with you, you stubborn old cat?"
"We take her with us." Jack stated. "What else do we do?"
Mary shook her head gravely. "We can't. We have 7000 miles to walk and the journey has only begun. I can't take my cat on such a trip. Cats are territorial creatures. They like what is familiar, change upsets them." She relaxed her gaze, which was taken over by a sad longing, a calm acceptance. "It'll be better for her if I leave her behind."
"How do you know that?" Jack said impatiently. "She's followed you here, hasn't she? And you're going to reward such loyalty with banishment?"
"What?" Mary said, a frown appeared between her brows.
"Tell me, if she was your ordinary, would she have done it? Would a normal cat follow you all the way from the Real World?" Jack pushed on defiantly, ignoring the displeasure emanating from her presence. Mary's hands were clenched, no longer offering Luna a reassuring touch. "You think you're doing her a favour by abandoning her like this?"
"Yes. I'm doing all of us a favour." Mary replied curtly.
The surprise transformed into disbelief in Jack with dizzying speed. He beheld his companion indignantly, who returned his gaze equally condemning, as if he was seeing a completely different person.
"I thought, from how you act, that you were a loving person towards your pets." He said quietly. "But in fact, you don't care for her at all! You're just a cold person. You would discard a loyal companion without hesitation in an instance even when she clearly valued you. You surprise me."
"Enough." Mary's voice sliced through the air, so sharp and terrible that the forest suddenly seemed silent. How could a human do that, Jack wondered. "You were wrong about something. I do care for Luna. And you have absolutely no idea, no idea how much." She gave him a dark, fierce look that reminded him of the night they met, when she believed him to have stolen her sister and was loathing him for it. "There is no friend I love better or know longer than Luna. The only reason why I chose to do it, and choose to do it still, is that I love my sister more." She continued grievously. "I need to take her to Mother Nature as quickly as possible. I can't be delayed by anything, least of all the few whom I love. Do not inveigh against me or my judgment. I may not be right, but I have enough sense, at least, to let go."
Jack looked at her and suddenly that gnawing, horrid feeling of guilt came to awash him. The words he said to her just now echoed back, too, as if to make him feel even worse. He called a cold person, when he knew no one cold and uncaring would agree to travel a continent for a sister. But she made the decision so quickly and efficiently, it took him off guard! He was deceived into thinking that she had no qualms about leaving Luna behind. And while the cat treated him like he was an unruly guinea mouse, it can't be said that it viewed Mary as the same.
In truth, he knew he couldn't blame Mary for her decision. He probably wouldn't have been able to be so swift and decisive about it, if it came down to him. He also knew that she shouldn't have needed to explain it to him. Of course, they could not keep the cat without jeopardising it and the mission. Taking care of Luna was not an option.
But some part of Jack hoped. In his mind was a view of an odd little family, which had two sisters and a cat. The parents had been missing, but they had each other. They didn't seem lonely at all. Yet his mental picture would never be complete now that the three was getting separated, with little chance of being reunited. It made him unbearably sad. His heart, without intending to, went out to them.
Mary, seeing Jack's ashamed look, softened. She wasn't one to remain angered for long.
"Of course, we won't just leave her in the wild. When we've got to Aberyst, I'll make sure to find someone who's willing to take her in." She then slid back to the task of folding up the blankets. In a couple of seconds, they were turned into a perfectly compact bundle. Luna watched her lazily through narrowed hazel eyes.
The scene, his companion's erect posture and efficient gestures, was not what Jack was used to. He was more used to children, who were inexperienced and innocent in a way that had always been easier for him to handle. He had never paid much mind to the adults. Their world was so much more complicated and in turmoil than a child's. They were difficult in mind to persuade, and even more so to change. Mary, in a way, was unlike any kind of adult he had seen; and in others exactly like one. Her disciplined complexion was simply so different from the carefreeness and fun he is used to seeing in children. So one thing was for sure, her ways were still somewhat of a mystery to him.
Guess I'll have to get used to it… Well, if we're going to spend the next 7000 miles together, I doubt we won't have time, he thought with a reluctant smile.
"But I am right about one thing. That bratty cat has followed you all the way here from the looks of it. What makes you think she won't for the rest of our journey?"
His companion didn't say anything, likely to occupied in taking down the tent and packing up their stuff. Shrugging, Jack joined her.
Mary made Luna a makeshift cat leash from some clean ropes with fast and efficient hands. Gently, she coaxed the tortoiseshell into it, who was surprising obedient. Jack had never seen a cat walked on a leash before, but Mary assured him it was not out of the common. And everything was easier since Luna appeared to have no objections to her new collar and accepted it rather nonchalantly.
Mary planned to leave Luna in the hands of a good owner as soon as they could find one in Aberyst. In regards as to how they could actually come to Aberyst, well…
"We should have a look at that dead-end you spoke of. Perhaps we can look for a way around it." Mary said as they took down their tent.
"Those bushes aren't ordinary ones you find on garden's hedge. Take my word when I say it's be useless to do it." Jack gathered up the poles and rolled up the rainfly.
"What I meant was," Mary's hands worked industriously to fold the parts of their tent without having to looking at it. "Despite having no travellers in sight now, this path is still sparsely used. You can see it in the tracks. There were relatively fresh ones, imprints on the road, with no sign of backtracking so far."
Jack widened his eyes in and gaped at this revelation. "You keep tabs on wheel tracks?"
Ignoring his open-mouthed stare, Mary levelly continued. "Whoever left those one-way tracks could have used some hidden alternative route, which we might find if we press on. That's why it might be a good idea investigate what's ahead." With a sigh of satisfaction, she successfully tucked their tent back into the bag.
Jack blinked at her - or rather her sharp reasoning with surprise, and perhaps a little bit of awe.
"What a weirdo you are." Jack finally said in an amused tone. However, in all honesty, he was quite impressed. Her observation had been spot-on accurate, and her down-to-earth mannerisms had not ceased amuse him yet. "Well Baby Tooth," He addressed the still sleepy fairy rocking back and forth on his shoulders, bending down to pick up their bags and swung them over his shoulder. "Looks like we'll be following the little lady's idea. You in?"
The mini tooth fairy nodded, her tweet interrupted with a yawn.
Mary, on the other hand, was a bit ruffled by Jack's comment. She said something well grounded just now, did she? What's there to joke about? And the fact that he's just going along with everything she says aggravated her, as surprising as it sounded. It seemed like he was testing her, just to see how she would react. If she failed, she had a feeling he would be so smug about it. "I spoke only of my observation. I do not mean to make you listen to my every word. You are the better traveller out of us. If there's a problem, you only have to say so." She frowned in displeasure.
"I didn't say there was a problem now, did I?" Jack replied with a smug grin, almost glad to know that he could rile her up like that a bit. So it was in a good mood that he cheerfully swung his staff around at the thicket before turning to find his way back to the road.
Mary was stood quieted for moment as if in aftershock, then he heard her light steps as she quickly caught up.
It wasn't as normal as a copse had overgrown on the seldom-trod path. It would be more accurate to say that the thorns had pried through the earth with a force that broke the ground nurturing all other greenery. The thorns grew tall and serried, having no elegant form or pattern; in fact, they very much resembled a mass of coiling, barbed wire - a laced wall of spikes and prongs, the colour of which are a chaotic mixture of dull green, orange red and blackened brown.
This was their dead-end. A brick wall could have served.
Mary leaned forward to observe the thorns, from a safe distance in case it was a poisonous type. Something about these plants unsettled her, and made her wary and uneasy.
"What do you think? Scared much now? Going back doesn't look like such a bad idea now, does it?" Jack asked lightly, gazing at the eerie thorn canopy shadowing them.
"I'm thinking...that I surely don't recognize the plant." said Mary cautiously, ignoring the last bits of his sentence.
"Wouldn't blame you. I bet these are made from some sort of Sorcery. Someone doesn't want people travelling on this path." Jack inspected a thorny leaf with the tip of his staff. "Don't want them to go to Aberyst."
Mary straightened, alert and analytical. "Do you think something happened to the town?"
"Who knows," Jack shrugged. "But if something did happen, then the question is, should we stick to the original plan and go to Aberyst? That is, if we could somehow bypass these..."
"I don't see anything else we could do. If not, there is no other way we can leave Murmur's Wood." Mary broke out her map again. Her eyes roamed through it and rested on the patch labelled 'The Glade Town - Aberyst.' Besides, there is a station very close to the town where we can catch the next train."
Jack sighed and took a quick look at their surroundings. "Fine. Let's find this offbeat road."
They began to inspect the ground, fumbling the traces of recent travel beaten onto the worn road.
The longest minutes flew by and no one counted them, save through the effort it took to poke the surroundings, like riffling through a series of unordered documents in numerous drawers. But finally, luck shone on them as Mary pushed away some thickset, lower branches and let out an elevated cry.
Jack was by her side in an instant and bent to look at the direction Mary was pointing: a thin trail into the forest thickets, small and quite cleverly concealed in layers of foliage as to be almost invisible to a dismissive eye. It led askew the passengers down a narrow way on the side of the original path. Ahead was dense vegetation as far as can be seen; there was no doubt that only a rare few travellers exploited this passage. Nonetheless, there was evidence of hoof prints of in the leaf-brown ground, signalling that even if neglected the path was useable, as Mary once again pointed out.
"I think we should have a look." Mary said, beaming with excitement.
"I'm glad to see you're so bold." Jack said, a playful grin on his lips.
"What? Is it a bad thing?"
"I just said I'm glad, didn't I?" Jack said, seemingly satisfied with her reaction.
Mary sighed. Is teasing a game of his? Something he does when he's bored? Then again, she probably should not be riled up by his quirky antics.
"You've travelled to Aberyst before, or so I've heard. Have you never had to use this one?" She indicated the small road they just found.
"Never. But any trip through the woods is not something I enjoy."
"Why?" Mary asked, glancing at him.
Jack smiled mysteriously. "Forest bandits."
There was a rather dramatic pause, in which Mary froze and looked incredulous in every sense of the word.
"You do strike me as one who jokes, Mr. Frost. But I'm not one to often entertain them. Are there really bandits?" She eyed him carefully, finding it quite hard to believe.
"Of course. Would I play tricks on you?" Jack chuckled. Before she could say yes he smartly interjected. "Come on, I swear I'm not kidding about this. And it's not the least of our worries anyway. Some trails fall out of use exactly because they're unsafe. We'll need to be extra careful."
"That's not what I asked." Mary interrupted, surprising even herself by losing a bit of patience. "Why on earth haven't you warned me about bandits?"
"You don't have them in the Real World?" Jack pretended to ask.
"None in Winston!" She replied as-matter-of-factly, a tone which amused Jack to no end.
Exasperated, she demanded that he be more serious, using her most reprimanding tone, one that was often applied whenever her younger sister had been too energetic to stay properly still.
"Are they heavily armed?" She asked in a voice that silently warned him not to mess further about.
Heedless of her warning, Jack continued with much the same attitude and lightness. "Of course they are. What's the point of being bandits if they aren't?" The fact that Jack was repeatedly asking rhetorical questions made his new companion wonder if it was a habit of his (one she would probably have to get used to).
"How troublesome. I hate to imagine what will happen, should we encounter them." Mary frowned, adding. Internally, she knew she would not be completely defenceless against such an attack. But if the bandits were carrying weapons, it would be unreasonable to think they would emerged unscathed. After all, they had no arms on them whatsoever, save for Jack's staff, if it could be considered as such. Mary began to question the relative wisdom of such a lack.
"Hey, don't worry, okay?" Jack said, looking, grinning over his shoulder at her with shining, and in her opinion absurd, confidence. "You've got me. Whoever they are, I can handle them."
Mary was wary of his utopian declaration; but something about that big, glowing, idiotic smile on Jack Frost's face told Mary that she would feel guilty indeed if she spoilt it. Thus, she decided to let it be. Instead she would, by herself if need be, watch out for any bandits, and perhaps keep the alert to herself just in case.
After his bold statement, Jack gallantly insisted to take the lead and go first. Mary simply shook her head and allowed it - under normal circumstances she would maintained that it was very much unnecessary, for she too had experience in such terrains.
Only not this time. The reason for it was that, on a pragmatic level, if there indeed were a sinkhole somewhere ahead, Jack would be able to fly his way out whereas she wouldn't.
Their onward pace was slow, due to uneven grounds and other obstacles. But their steadfastness paid off it seemed: The trail grew wider as they trod on, the bushes and trees also cleared into a comeliest path.
The thick body of trees of the forest had retreated, leaving behind mostly smaller shrubs. Above the company's head the canopy had scattered, and thus sunlight was allowed to fall upon them. On both sides the ground parted into steep mounds, interlocking and uneven. Yet, they were engulfed in smaller leafage, young and green and whose every leaf seemed to gleam emerald and sparkle exuberantly under the sky. Dotted here and there were tiny blooms of white, mauve and red. The path itself was no longer soft soil, and instead had grown into solid, grey rock – so smooth it looked almost regal. It was as clean as if swept, too, save for a few forgotten bronze and tanned leaves laying idle.
An old fortress of sort laid broken and abandoned right atop the rise in typography, staring at the two lone travellers with time-served eyes. Its windows were bare, and its walls covered in green moss and the occasional stems of white flowers.
Jack admired the change in landscape, and he noticed his companion was absolutely absorbed in it as well. A sense of wonder floated in her eyes. It was pleasant to see the steel edge in them fall away.
"It is so beautiful." Mary commented softly.
Jack concurred. "It's hard to believe that people haven't been using it for a century or two."
"Why is no one using this route? Those buildings over there looked as though they've served better times." She marvelled at the tower ruins that lay a distance from the old paved path, hidden behind a layer of mist and a veil of greenery.
"It was on an old trading route, but it was abandoned when the road was cut off, too." Jack stared fixedly at the deserted windows, nearly expecting a head to emerge from it.
"Well, that's too bad, but I shouldn't be very surprised." Mary said calmly. "That old fortress had trace of scorch." She pointed to the parts where, if looked closely enough black scars and ash could be spotted. "Am I right to guess that a great fire likely broke out long ago, most probably during a fight to storm the fort? People evacuated and have never come back since."
How keen is this girl? Jack thought in alarm. Seeing from so far away and deducting with such accuracy and confidence, where does she get it from? When reason kicked in, Jack wondered if he had spent too many centuries away from grown-up people of the world. Perhaps that would explain why he was utterly bewildered whenever he listened to his companion. Maybe Mary was just what a common young girl these days is expected to behave - the new social fashion. Although something told him this wasn't true, whichever ways, he thought, she sure likes to play detective. "Tch, let's go."
"What's the haste? I'd like to stay and see a bit more." Mary looked at him strangely. It was usually her ushering them on.
"You want to see of it leads to Aberyst, right? Better hurry up or we'll have to make camp and start early tomorrow."
Mary sighed. recognising his point. "You're right. We need to catch the earliest train, after all."
Back at the Pole, it was decided that Mary and Jack would enter and travel through Murmur's Woods and reach Aberyst. Near that town is a train station, where they could hopefully catch the well-known Wraxall Express' Night Train. It would take them to North Snowhill Station, located just under the foot of the Snow Mountains. These eternal wintry peaks are different form the Perennial Mountains. The former is famed for its billowing gales and snowstorms that can occur out of the blue, which rightly made it formidable to traverse.
Any path beyond that was difficult to plan.
Mary knew she shouldn't be so anxious about the prospect. But she wanted to quickly reach Aberyst, their last urban stop before bracing the mountain cold, and obtain a more updated map. She disliked not having a plan, or more precisely, not knowing what to expect and prepare. Yet she had heard of some journeys which were exactly like this, in the sense that there was always a great degree of uncertainty for the traveller. She knew their company would not always be so lucky to find shelter or water or food. Yet still they dared. So she thought to herself not to worry. What would come would come, and she would endure it as did. Not for herself. For her little sister, whose life was in their hands. For the Guardians, too. It was best for all those involved if the quest was completed as soon as it possibly could. Lily would be saved, and the Guardians would have the information they wanted.
Next chapter we'll finally arrive at Aberyst, I promise. And hopefully we'll see an end to this snail pace ;) Hopefully we'll also see what strange things have been haunting the town and preventing outsiders from it. I'm looking forward to writing it.
Drop a comment below if you feel like it. It's Christmas holiday, let us enjoy ourselves and read fanfiction!
Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happiest New Year, everyone!
Next chapter: The company arrives at Aberyst. Next stop, Snow Mountains!