Chapter 30: JJ & J
The woods of Fortis didn’t have many trails to them. When JJ and Juba left Springborough, and walked across the wide open field of grass heading toward the woods, the young boy could not see a trail himself, and had no idea just where it was they were headed to. But Juba knew the way, almost as if by instinct, as if he could find it with his eyes closed, and the Captain had to admit that the only reason they had gotten anywhere on the waters of Cornwall was that it seemed that Juba had a remarkable sense of direction. They walked across the field straight toward a trail, and didn’t have to think twice going from grass to dirt path, from open air to tree covering, from the warmth of the sun to the cool of the shade.
JJ remembered Fortis, but only in the sense of the community it had. It hadn’t been that long since his family up and left it, and went to reside on the cliffs. Jage remembered some of the people, although most seemed to disregard him because of his age, but he remembered one woman who would throw him an orange if she saw him flushed and sweaty from a long day of running in the fields. He had one other friend, a boy named Spencer, who spent most of his time at the docks, working on the sailboats, but when he was in town, Jage and he would get in trouble together. They would build structures, and then go far away and throw rocks at the structures, trying to level them.
Spencer had a sister, Avery, who was a dress maker in Springborough so Jage never met her, and a younger brother Landon, who was one of the Fortis people, Jage remembered, that was always in the forest. Upon hearing that a great number of villagers lived in the trees, it suddenly made sense to JJ that Landon was one of the tree dwellers. So, the three siblings that Jage knew were all separated, and in various areas. Jage wondered if any of them would be there when he returned with Juba. And he had to wonder whether or not Spencer would allow an attack on Springborough if it might come down to hurting his own sister, Avery He was hoping he was there to ask.
“There’s not just the people of the field, and the people of the trees, and the people of the ground,” Juba started, entering into a conversation Jage wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to hear.
“Where else could Fortis people possibly be?” Jage asked. “On the water? Sure. Like pirates?”
“Ha, well, there was us,” Juba said laughing. “But, if we were caught by Baku, we’d be labelled pirates of Cornwall, and not people of Fortis. No, once a pirate, never a land walker, we say. But, Fortis, technically could be anybody residing West of Springborough, but not citizens of Springborough. So, you had people in the clearing, the people in those huts, where you and your family used to stay. You have the people beyond the clearing up, up in the trees, and the people in the shallow grounds below them. But, more West, before the waters, before the Oak Bridge to Sanbay, there was a cave. In that cave, there are more people.”
“How many more?”
“No one knows. And no one knows if they are alive anymore. And if alive, nobody knows if they are really people any more.”
“What are you saying?”
“Imagine living in a dark room where you can’t even seen your hand in front of your face. Imagine not knowing what daylight looks like. Imagine eating the things that slither beneath the earth. Worms and grubs. They say there was a stream down there, so perhaps the people are eating fish, but if they were to stoke a fire to cook the fish, we’d have smelled it. And we did not. And making a fire in a cave is dangerous because the smoke can take over the air, and that would suffocate you. So, if they are eating fish, they’re eating the fish raw.”
“You’re joking,” Jage hoped.
“Not a joke, not a joke, Captain,” Juba continued. “Might not be all true, but it’s definitely not something I’m just saying in order to get a laugh. No, we- Ha, I said “we” as if I wanted to work that hard… No, I was leaning back on the waters with fishing nets. But, they- the people of Fortis, mined the cave for iron that was sold to Baku. People worked night and day in the thing, getting every ounce of material that they could, and once the work was done, most of us came back. Some stayed behind. We figured- eh, they’ll change their minds eventually. But, they never did. Never saw them again.”
“Perhaps they died.”
“How long ago was this? Before the bridge was destroyed? Perhaps they walked out of the cave, decided they no longer wanted to live in Fortis, so they walked across the bridge to Sanbay.”
Jage thought about it. Villagers, hungry for war, humans living in trees like monkeys, living in holes like squibbixes, and now living in caves like bats. It was a far cry from what he remembered about his home village, and the rock throwing with Spencer, and the bonfires at night that they all danced around, and the woman with the oranges, and the rainy days of watching the puddles collect water in the streets, and the sunny days of fetching water from the well and making sure every hut had some to cook and wash with.
The boy Captain looked at his first mate, studying his face, and because Juba never looked back at him, he ventured a guess.
“You’re putting me on. There’s no cave people.”
Juba looked at him and scoffed, “I am not!”
“I’ve never heard of them before.”
“Never heard of skeleton people as well, have ya? Yet, Springborough is now rampant with them.”
“That I believed after we saw a half-sailor man filled with grey gas yesterday morning crawling about his boat. Half people who vanish into dust and skeleton armies seem to go hand-in-hand, but raw flesh eating cave people…”
“Was that just yesterday morning?” Juba asked, shocked at how much had happened in two days.
Suddenly, in front of them, two figures could be seen. Jage cursed at himself for the simple fact that they had decided not to take any weapons with them on the journey. They had felt that if someone from Fortis were to capture the two of them, were not to believe their stories of coming back from Springborough in the efforts to promote diplomacy, it would probably also be helpful not to be carrying any of Springborough’s forged weaponry as well. So, they were empty handed and unarmed as the two figures got closer.
It was the guards that had gone to fetch Jimmy’s bones, and now they walked the path back to the castle, carrying a sack that was dripping with sea water. Both the guards looked at Jage and Juba, at first suspicious of the two sailors walking toward them, and then all four of the men recognized each other and smiled.
“Ahoy there!” One guard shouted, and at first JJ was surprised to hear such a sailor greeting from a guard of Springborough, and then remembered he had conversed with these two when showing them where The Hampton Chase had crashed into the rocks, and where he had stumbled on Jimmy’s bones.
“How’d it go?” JJ asked.
“Ran into a crowd of skeletons, but we handled them mightily,” The guard responded with a smile.
“Skeletons on the rocks, too?” Juba asked.
“Why? Where else?” The other guard spoke, his eyes darting around them.
“Back at Springborough, the whole town seems to be under siege,” Jage answered.
“Then, what are you two doing here?” the one named Aidan asked suspiciously.
“On our way to Fortis. Heard the natives are getting restless, wanting a fight, and we’re gonna go and try to talk them out of the dying.”
“Have you seen any around?” Juba interjected.
Both the knights shook their heads, giving a cursory look around the woods as if they were presently surrounded by skeletons and Fortis warriors. But, the woods were just thick trunks of trees, and rustling leaves, and saplings, and birds whistling, and the occasional broken twig of a small rodent escaping from being dinner for something bigger. The four men stood in the middle path, somewhere between the docks, and Fortis, and Springborough, as the sky grew red with the setting sun.
Jage pointed to the sack they were carrying.
“Did you get all the bones of Jimmy?”
The one called Ethan sighed and looked at the bundle, “I believe so. I’m not a doctor. Seemed like all I could see, and enough to fill a body with.”
“Perhaps we can kill another skeleton, and use it as a reference.”
“There’s an idea,” Juba smiled. “There’ll be plenty of specimens in Springborough, unless the royal giant buries them first.”
“Then we should get going. Help them out. Good evening and good luck!”
And with that, the two pairs parted, the guards going to Springborough, and the sailors going to Fortis. But, before they disappeared from view amongst turns in the trees, Jage turned and shouted, “See ya, Jimmy!” and listened intently to see if he had inherited, like his sister, the ability to hear the dead.
All he heard was the breeze.