Chapter 12 The Road to Tole
After another good night’s sleep in the comfortable clearing, the only bright spot in the otherwise drab dark forest, they again started on the long trek to Tole. Jen armed with the dragon scale shield, and everyone else girded in tough leafy armor and acorn cap helmets, they again headed toward the black mountains. “I’m telling you the only pass through those mountains is right where the dragon cave is,” Budrick told Mowbry, both right behind Jen.
“I want to avoid the dragon if we can,” Mowbry declared.
“There’s no danger. I think he’s been asleep for a decade. I could tell by the size of the overgrowth around his cave.”
“What do the birds say?” Princess Nallah asked.
“They say this mountain range is full of good passes,” Mowbry said.
“But they fly, don’t they?” Mr. Anderson interjected. “They could fly right over a cliff and think its a safe pass for earthbound travelers.”
“What is that word?” Princess Nallah inquired. “Hearth bound?”
“Earth,” Mr. Anderson corrected. “My planet. My realm.”
“Threa bound would seem more appropriate,” the princess suggested.
“You are correct, of course, Your Highness,” Mr. Anderson apologized.
“We shall see where this trail leads,” Mowbry said. “And go from there.”
“I know this is new to me, but don’t your people have maps? You have occupied this land for how long?” Gina asked. She and Julie were up front with the rest of the leaders, mostly so Mr. Anderson could keep an eye on them.
“Oh, we have boundary maps, but they are not very detailed,” Princess Nallah explained. “Should I ever have any influence again, I shall suggest it.”
Jen turned and said, “We will put you on the throne, Princess.”
“A princess in power? I think not,” Nallah said.
“A queen,” Gina corrected.
“Who ever heard of a ruling queen?” Princess Nallah asked.
“Me,” Gina said.
“Me too,” Julie said.
“And me,” Jen called back.
“In our realm, there have been several successful ruling queens. Or you could try for a democratic republic, like we have,” Mr. Anderson suggested.
“There is a nation in our realm that is a kingdom with a ruling queen, and it is also a democracy,” Gina tried to explain.
“A queendom? With a democracy? Are queens democratically elected then?”
“No, it is still a monarchy, with a line of succession that favors male heirs,” Mr. Anderson tried to explain. “In the absence of a male heir, a queen can rule. Some of the longest and most successful reigns have been by queens. But they have a parliament to pass the laws.”
“And the parliament is democratically elected?”
“Part of it is, the other part is again hereditary. And they have a prime minister who is democratically elected. But our country is much different. We have no nobility, all of our senior officials are democratically elected. We all cast our ballots, then somebody else decides who will be our president.”
“That doesn’t make much sense,” Nallah sighed.
“Nothing about politics makes much sense. Except that we have term limits, and if an overwhelming majority vote for someone else, then there is a peaceful change of power.”
“I was never born to rule,” Princess Nallah sighed. “My brother was the heir, and I have – had an older sister who could have married and her husband would have ruled in the absence of my brother. I have no husband, nor even a boyfriend. But you say that in the absence of a male heir, this nation you speak of will have a ruling queen?”
“You will rule as Queen Nallah the First,” Jen called over her shoulder.
“Right now, I will be happy to just get that evil Rokko out of power, to avenge my family, and destroy an empire,” there was a note of anger in her voice, a harsh edge that was a little frightening. A tree uprooted and flew away just ahead of them. Mr. Anderson and the girls stopped.
“Maybe we should rest for five minutes, drink a little water and calm down,” Mr. Anderson suggested.
“That’s a great idea,” Julie quickly agreed, sitting on a log as if she were in a game of musical chairs and the music just stopped. Gina sat beside her and Jen came marching back and set the shield down. It was not very heavy, but even so, her arms were tired from carrying it. She switched hands frequently, even though it was designed to be carried on her left arm.
“Why am I following you?” Bleat asked.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Anderson said. “I don’t think you were invited.”
“Certainly not,” Mowbry grunted.
“But can’t a goat pick a way through mountains?” Julie suggested.
“I am a faun,” Bleat said. “And I am more agile than a goat.”
“In case of dragons, we can always give him as a sacrifice,” Budrick suggested.
It took Bleat a moment to realize what Budrick was saying, then he fainted. “I love it when he does that,” Budrick giggled.
“That’s just mean!” Julie snapped at him.
“I’m sorry, Miss Julie,” Budrick did not want her to think of him as mean.
“But it is kind of funny,” she giggled.
Jen spoke up, “That’s the kind of stuff Uncle Bob used to do.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Anderson smiled at the reminder. “He used to get into all kinds of trouble. Now he’s back living a boring life with Aunt Helen, and here we are talking to goats. And he was the wild one in school. I was always having to intervene on his behalf.”
“What do you mean, intervene?” Jen asked, very interested.
“Oh, he’d pick a fight with kids much larger than himself, usually a grade or two older, and since I was his big brother, I had to make them leave him alone.”
“But he started it!” Gina was obviously listening to their conversation.
“And I had to finish it. Usually without raising a fist. I was just bigger than they were, and I told them to leave him alone. And then I would pound him when we got home.”
“You giants are a violent race of people,” Mowbry noted.
“Yes, I suppose we are. But we’ve got our good side, too.” He smiled. “We really know how to cook our meat.”
“I do miss hamburgers,” Jen sighed dreamily.
Mowbry scowled. “Time to march!” he shouted. They all rose to their feet; the humans slowly and stiffly, but all of the fairy folk seemed to be rather spry and bounced up with no problems.
They were in the foothills of the black mountains, and the forest was exceptionally dark and treacherous. It was if half of the trees were dead and there was no rot to clear everything away, the wood just kept piling up. Trees would topple, but hang in the other trees and completely fail to fall. Dead undergrowth blocked their way at every turn, and they had to pick their way through. Lefty volunteered to go ahead and clear a trail, but Mr. Anderson reminded him that they were in a high fire-hazard area. A forest fire would turn into an inferno and cook them all should one start before they were out of the woods. Princess Nallah, while not blazing the trail, cleaned it up by moving logs and branches with her wand when she came by, clearing the trail a little for the others that followed.
It was slow going, but they managed to make it almost to a pass by nightfall. It was not the pass that Budrick had been near the dragon’s lair, but it seemed viable to cross in the morning.
“We camp here,” Mowbry said.
They again set up camp as best they could. It was not such a lovely place as the clearing by the spring, and the trees had a dismal, threatening feel to them. They were twisted and gnarled, as if they did not wish to grow there and did everything in their power not to. “Go away, go away,” a decidedly unhealthy looking squirrel scolded.
“Why should we go away?” Gina asked.
“No good. Go away!” the squirrel chattered on.
“Not a very well thought out argument,” Mr. Anderson noted. “He might make a successful politician.”
“Daddy? What if the squirrel is right? Maybe we shouldn’t spend the night here,” Jen suggested.
“Honey, I have never taken advice from squirrels before, and I’m not about to start now,” he smiled, as he continued to create their fire circle with a ring of stone.
“This place is creepy,” Julie noted.
“Nonetheless, it is where we will spend the night, so we might as well be comfortable.”
Budrick came up to report to Mowbry. “There are not a lot of warm, friendly crooks in the trees for us to sleep in. The bark is infested with pests.”
“We can try to make camp like the giants,” Mowbry suggested. “They seem to get along alright.”
On General Mowbry’s command, they all started creating lean-tos with little fire circles next to them. It was not easy, because very few branches were straight enough to use as poles, and even the Anderson and Carter families struggled to find enough straight dry grass to make a bed.
Bucspat tried to grow some grass for them, but all he could coax out of that malnourished ground was some gorse and brambles, which was all that seemed to want to grow there. The beds were very poor, and the broken branches they managed to gather for firewood did not want to light, not without a lot of coaxing by the one-armed fire master, Lefty.
“What kind of talented army do you have here,” Princess Nallah asked of Mowbry. “I have seen what these people can do with a little bit of fairy cake and some motivation. Why are they not motivated?”
“Motivated they are, but this place resists talent.” A raven squawked and Mowbry looked at the princess. “I have absolutely no idea what he just said.”
She raised her wand to a withered apple high in a tree, and tried to bring it down. It twitched a little bit but stood fast. “Sir Dave? I could use a hand here,” she addressed Mr. Anderson. He stopped fighting with his own lean-to and touched her on the shoulder. The apple flew from the tree and dropped neatly into her hand. She looked at the worms writhing out of it, and dropped it heavily to the ground.
“Well, talent will work with a little help. Get the matter morphs and the matter shapers out here working, and let’s put together a camp.”
The raven squawked again. “Sir Dave?” Mowbry inquired.
Mr. Anderson understood, and touched Mowbry on the shoulder, then waited for the raven to squawk again. It came down on the ground, picked at the apple, then squawked again, and this time Mr. Anderson also heard it. “Flee!” was what the raven said.
The talented army got to work and started to make camp, with Mr. Anderson running here and there, touching people on their shoulders, arms and elbows, enough to boost their talents to actually function. In an hour the area was turned into a proper army camp, with little huts made of enlarged hollowed out mushrooms neatly lined up in rows and columns, a blazing fire in the middle, and sentry towers at each of its six points. The matter morphs had altered the brambles and gorse into feathers and linen, which made wonderfully comfortable mattresses, and shortly after dusk with a brilliant fire blazing in the stone fire circle, everyone was bedded down for the night.
The crescent moon was high in the sky, barely illuminating anything in the dark forest, when Jen was suddenly aware of shouting in the camp. The sentries were calling the alarm. “Alert! Alert!” they shouted.
Jen and her father, and even the two Carter girls sleepily stumbled outside to see the campfire dying low. Princess Nallah and Mowbry were already outside, and the two sentries were pointing toward the forest, in the direction of the pass.
“What’s going on?” Mr. Anderson asked.
“Something large is near the camp. It could be anything,” Princess Nallah explained.
“Could it be harmless?” Jen asked.
“Possibly,” Mowbry said. “But we’d better not take any chances. Where is your shield?”
“Next to my mattress,” Jen yawned.
“You’d better get it, just to be sure. Somebody help me stoke up this fire!”
Jen stumbled back into the dark mushroom, and wished that she had a light to see by. Then she started glowing and fairy light appeared above her bed. She looked around to see who was doing it, and glancing at her glowing arms, she understood that she was producing the illumination. “Cool!” she said, even though she was the only person in the room. She grabbed her shield, but before she could come out she heard a terrifying roar, and people screaming.
When she got back outside, she saw a large bird, taller than her father, with wings so big they could almost cover the whole camp. It appeared to be tan in color, with a dark brown mane of feathers around its massive head and down onto its chest. The black hooked beak seemed to be for tearing and ripping flesh. It had two long tail feathers that twitched from side to side angrily. It roared again and started scanning the crowd, apparently to choose its first victim.
“Dude, you’ve got issues,” Gina said.
“Of course I have issues,” the bird shot back. “I’m hungry, and travelers are scarce.”
“Would you take a goat?” Budrick inquired.
All eyes turned toward Bleat, who realized what they were suggesting and promptly fainted.
“Not good enough!” the bird replied.
“What are you? Some weird eagle?”
“Eagles, bah!” the bird said. “You don’t recognize a griffin when you see one?”
“Where?” Mr. Anderson asked.
“I am a griffin!” the bird snapped. Princess Nallah nodded, confirming his assertion.
“Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?” Jen stepped forward, her shield firmly on her left arm.
“Because there is nobody my size,” the griffin replied. “And it would be hard to eat something like me in one sitting.”
“Have you tried vegetables?” Julie asked. “They’re good for you.”
“I am a carnivore,” the griffin declared. “I eat only meat.”
“Like you giants,” Budrick said.
“These are giants?” the griffin asked, looking at the four of them.
“We are. So we are almost like kindred spirits, when you look at it,” Mr. Anderson said.
“More like exotic treats,” the griffin snarled. “Which one do I eat first?”
“Why don’t you just be off and leave us alone?” Mowbry suggested.
“Because I guard this pass. And since I guard the pass, you must give up a member of your party as my payment for using the pass.”
Mowbry glanced at Princess Nallah, and she nodded. “We were unaware of that particular custom,” he said. “Leave us be and we will choose a different route.”
“I will give you until sunrise to choose your sacrifice,” the griffin rumbled. He pounced into the air, and his massive wings broke branches with the wind they produced by flapping. A moment later, and he was gone.
“That sucks!” Gina said.