Chapter 7 Wilderness
The first light of morning, the sun not yet to the horizon, but its approach chased the darkness to one side of the sky where a few stars were still bold enough to twinkle, and the mighty army set off on its long march to the Tole/Dalrimple frontier, and the mighty navy with a phantom bustling crew sailed north up the Pimmissippi River. With Mowbry in the lead, the army walked along country roads past farms and fields, and lovely gardens. Roadside fountains and springs provided water, and the wildflowers in riotous abundance provided sustenance. They had more than doubled their size simply by being ‘the good guys’. Tula stayed behind with her parents, but Maylu brought her whole family along.
After several hours, stopping and resting for a few minutes here or there, they finally reached the end of the civilized region of Dool, and were confronted with the wilderness. “Why is it so dark, so creepy?” Jen asked.
“Where our people go, loveliness thrives,” Nallah explained. “Where are people do not go, fallow fields give way to dark forest, and things maintain their natural state.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Gina pointed out. “On our world the old growth forests are some of the prettiest places.”
“In our world, there are the forces of light and the forces of dark. The natural state is dark, and trees not influenced by light will remain dark. They will grow angry and withered. There are legends that tell us these dark forests are actually defeated armies that were stopped in their tracks.
“Woodsmen do not go very deep into these woods, for they are perilous to the single traveler. They may skirt the edges, but they refuse to enter.”
“That’s just silly,” Julie said.
“Silly or not, that’s how it is here,” Nallah stated.
The sun was low on the horizon, having crossed the sky during their march. “We bivouac here,” he said, sitting down to rest.
“Does that mean we are staying here tonight?” Gina asked.
“That’s what it means,” Mr. Anderson said. “Find a spot and make yourself comfortable.”
“We’ve got no tents, no sleeping bags, no pillows, no bug spray,” Gina listed.
“No food!” Julie added.
Mr. Anderson smiled tiredly. “Have you no imagination? There are plenty of things to live off of, and plenty of things to make a comfortable camp. Jen, gather up some dry leaves. Gina, I want you to find me some long sticks. Julie, I want you to get some firewood, short pieces, and dry. And you might as well bring some tinder and kindling while you are at it.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Anderson,” Julie admitted.
“Tinder is something highly flammable. Like dried grass, milkweed fluff, things like that. Kindling is really small dried sticks, like the twigs that fall off the ends of branches. Very dry, and they catch fire quickly. I will dig into our emergency kit and see what I can find.” He sat cross legged on the bare ground and opened his backpack, then started to unpack it, as the girls set out to accomplish their individual missions.
Within an hour they had build a lean-to stuffed with dried leaves for bedding, with a few space blankets over the top to make a mattress. They had also built a fire-circle and were in the process of kindling a little fire. Mowbry came over and sat on a nearby log. “You giants amaze me,” he said when he was comfortable.
“How is that?” Mr. Anderson asked, as he touched a match to the tinder, which flamed up and smoldered under the kindling.
“You don’t have a lot of talent, what we understand as talent, but you are very resourceful despite the handicap,” Mowbry pointed out.
“I should probably accept that as a compliment,” Mr. Anderson said.
“In the spirit that was intended,” Mowbry acknowledged.
“How do you stay comfortable out here?”
“Look around, what do you see?” Mowbry waved his arms around in invitation to view.
“A few fairy lights in the trees, but I do not see our army.”
“We have all taken to the trees. We can make ourselves quite comfortable.”
“Aren’t you afraid of wild creatures, or insects?”
“There is really nothing here to harm us at night, well, not much anyway. And what few menaces there are will be repelled by our hex-weavers.”
“You have hex-weavers?” Gina asked, perking up.
Mowbry smiled and nodded. “I see that interests you.”
“Yes,” Gina admitted. “I find it fascinating.”
“Well, I hope everyone gets a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day. The dark forest is not a lot of fun.”
“Good night, General Mowbry,” Mr. Anderson said.
“Good night, Sir Dave, and ladies of course.”
Comfortable between sheets of space blanket on a bed of leaves with a crackling fire beside them, with the firelight dancing on the underside of the lean-to, the girls found it hard to get to sleep with little noises, and so many stars. It was like the universe was much more busy and alive on this world than in their own. Pretty soon they heard the resounding snores coming from Mr. Anderson, and they started to giggle. Somehow it was reassuring, and after they cheered up, they also drifted off to sleep.
Morning found them awakened by a humming, throbbing, head splitting sound of many gossamer wings breaking the calm morning air. If one is familiar with the annoying sound of a dozen noisy cicadas in a gum tree, then one might be able to imagine the noise and the nervousness caused by it. It did not sound threatening exactly, but neither did is sound completely harmless. The humans had never heard anything like it.
They stood, still in their clothing from the day before, and looked around to see if they could see what was making the noise, as it got louder, and nearer. Finally a shadow fell across the tops of the trees, and they got a sight of the origins of their fears.
“It’s only some bees,” Mr. Anderson said, to reassure the girls.
“But look at the size of them!” Gina pointed out.
Julie cried, “They’re as big as mini-vans!”
“Hograths!” Jen shouted, above the din of all the beating wings. “That’s what Nallah said they were. Remember when they were afraid of the honey bees? And they eat people!”
“Run!” Mr. Anderson shouted to the girls, and he picked up a rather large stick that had been supporting one end of the lean-to, and he got behind the girls as they started to flee toward cover in the dark forest.
One hograth came down and he managed to deflect it with a mighty swing of his club, hitting it in the head, on one of its giant eyes, but others came down out of his range as the girls ran as fast as they could, and they picked up Jen, Gina and Julie and started to fly away with them.
“Jen!” he screamed, and another hograth attacked him, but again he managed to club it in the abdomen and deflect it away.
The noise abated and the sky cleared, the sunlight dappled through the canopy of the trees.
Princess Nallah was the first to appear on the scene. “We saw what happened,” she said. “We are all very sorry for your loss.”
“My loss? They are still alive! We must get them back!”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
“We have a very talented army here. No stupid bug is going to eat my daughter if I can possibly help it!”
“It’s too late, Sir Dave,” Mowbry said.
“Not if we leave right now. We need to find out where they are,” Mr. Anderson replied.
“They traveled in that direction, I think,” Mowbry said, pointing toward the ominous black mountains.
“Your Highness?” Budrick said, addressing the princess. “Could you maybe lift me up about the treetops? Maybe I can see where they are headed.”
“Maybe, if Sir Dave would take hold of my hand,” she said.
“Why?” Mr. Anderson asked, with mild suspicion.
“To increase the effectiveness of her talents. You have the talent for power, so you can add your power to her talent,” Mowbry explained.
“Alright,” he said, dropping his club and grabbing Princess Nallah’s left hand firmly. She wielded her wand in her right hand, and sent Budrick into the air, high above the treetops. Mr. Anderson felt the same warmth running through him that he had felt before, when Tula took his hand that first time; he felt a tingling sensation from somewhere in his core, down his arm into the hand that was holding Nallah’s. He also felt flush, and started to perspire.
“Anything?” Mowbry called up into the sky.
“I see them!” Budrick shouted. “They are in the foothills of the black mountains. We should be able to make it to them in a couple of hours!”
“Is that time enough to save them?” Mr. Anderson asked.
“We can only hope!” Princess Nallah answered, setting Budrick gently down on the ground.
Mr. Anderson let go of Princess Nallah’s hand and nearly swooned. He felt light headed and dizzy, and weak as a newborn kitten.
“Are you alright, Sir Dave?” Princess Nallah asked, looking at him with concern.
“Not sure,” he panted. “I feel drained.” He sat on the ground, and yawned.
“You have to exercise your talent, Sir Dave,” Mowbry advised. “It is like anything else, the more you do it, the stronger you become, and the less it tires you out.”
Mowbry whistled a little, and a bright blue happiness bird flew from a high branch and landed upon his finger. He whistled a little more, and the bird cocked its head, then nodded, and took off in the direction of the foothills where Budrick had pointed. It was whistling as it flew, and birds of all shapes and sizes took to the skies. “It’s my intelligence network,” he explained to Mr. Anderson, who obviously did not understand everything that was going on. “No army should be without one.”
Mr. Anderson had every reason to be at the head of the charge, but had so little energy he had great difficulty standing up. He wobbled to his feet, then tiredly sat back down.
“You are really out of shape, man,” Mowbry noted, as the first small bird, a finch-like creature with plumage as brilliant as a parrot, returned. Landing on Mowbry’s outstretched finger, he whistled a little at Mowbry, who whistled right back, and the little bird flew away again.
“Let us speed thither!” Princess Nallah urged.
“Momentarily, your Majesty,” Mowbry said distractedly, looking toward the skies. A dark shadow passed between them and the sun, and a moment later, a monstrously giant bird landed in the nearby clearing. It bellowed a greeting, and Mowbry squawked back. It was the size of a horse, and had some horse-like features. A ruffled crest of plumage rose from behind its eyes down the back of its incredibly long neck. Its tail feathers were ridiculously long, like those of a bird of paradise, and for all the world from a short distance away it looked like a beautiful horse’s tail.
“This is Pegasus,” Mowbry introduced the bird to Mr. Anderson, who was so exhausted he could not believe that he was seeing correctly.
“Pegasus was a winged-horse from ancient myth,” Mr. Anderson objected. “One horse, not a breed of birds.”
“I don’t know about your world, Sir Dave, but our myths all have a basis of truth. Pegasus has kindly agreed to carry you, so you can regain your strength while the rest of us toil.”
“Can this bird carry two?” Mr. Anderson asked.
Mowbry squawked at the great bird, and Pegasus squawked back, and they had a brief but effective interchange of squawks. Mowbry turned back to Mr. Anderson. “She has agreed to carry another rider. You are taking our princess with you I assume?”
“I would, Your Highness,” he addressed Princess Nallah briefly while answering Mowbry’s question, “But who I really need right now is Lefty the Fire Master.”
“Send Lefty to the front!” Mowbry shouted, and the word was called around until Lefty appeared at the head of the column.
“You want me to ride this ruddy great chicken?” he objected after Mowbry explained the mission.
“Can you?” Mr. Anderson asked.
“Not a matter of can I do it, it’s a matter of am I stupid enough to do it? I don’t believe I am,” Lefty objected. “What’s the mission?”
“Hograths,” Mr. Anderson panted.
“Save the giant children,” Princess Nallah summarized.
“Got it,” Left said, “Gimme a boost.”
With a flick of her wand, Princess Nallah helped Lefty and Sir Dave onto the back of the flying horse, and after a brief instruction squawked by Mowbry, they were off, flapping frantically around the clearing until a gentle breeze picked them up above the tree tops, and then they soared.