Chapter 27: Crossing the Creek.

  Slayd awoke hungry and a little chilly. He couldn’t really say what had roused him from his sound sleep, but he could tell that he had rested very well indeed. He yawned and stretched, looking around him at the dim world. The heavy grey clouds were back in the sky, giving him very little light to sightsee by. He sighed. “I suppose I should be on my way…”
   His stomach growled a protest, and he giggled. “Well I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to feed you. I feel quite foolish about it already, so if you wouldn’t mind I would appreciate it if you kept your opinion to yourself.”
   He tucked the Locust King’s mantle close around him and set off again down the gravel road. He wandered a little slower this time, partly because he was hungry and partly because his resolve and anger from the day before had begun to wane. He found himself wondering if he had done the right thing, leaving his guardian to set out on his own. He kicked a stone along the side of the road. “I suppose Guile made things a lot easier,” he mused to himself, “and he did keep me safe from dangerous things while we traveled together… Except for himself that is.”
   He began to get angry again. “What right did he ever have to treat me like that? Just who does he think he is, anyway?” He frowned to himself as he walked, thinking over some of the new memories that were shifting around in the back of his head. “I suppose… I suppose he thinks he is not only my guardian, but my disciplinarian as well. He has always been the one to correct me when I’ve done something wrong, hasn’t he? And he certainly has not put on any pretenses of being a kind person; he has always been rough, and honestly so. Do you think it was too impetuous of me to leave so suddenly?”
   Of course no one answered, unless you counted the wind rustling through the grass and the crunch of gravel beneath Slayd’s feet. He sighed and shook his head. “But it was horrible, what he did to me. I’m still sore. He hadn’t healed me all the way by the time I had woken up…”
   He rubbed his side, flinching when his fingers made contact with one of the gashes running up his torso. “No. I don’t want him with me at all if I know he’s capable of doing this to me. I will find some other way to keep myself safe from danger. I don’t need him.”
   He huffed to himself and slipped back into silence, taking in the fields he was passing by. They seemed less cultivated this far away from the citadel, and he only occasionally spotted someone working the land (and always very far off). He pulled out his little scrawled map he had received from the Locust King and studied it again. He didn’t know how accurate it was regarding distance, but he thought he might be nearing that little squiggly line he assumed was supposed to be a river or a creek. He guessed that he was pretty far away from the citadel by now - maybe over twenty miles.
   A sharp breeze pricked at the back of his head, accompanied by a few drops of water. He looked up at the cloudy grey sky and frowned. “Oh now that will not do at all. I do hope it does not decide to rain very heavily while I am out here without any place to be indoors and dry. I have had enough of slogging through wet places.” He wrinkled up his nose, remembering all too well the squishy, sandy marshes of the Spider Queen’s dominion.
   He pressed on for another mile or two, thankful that the rain gods seemed to have heard his wish and granted him only a fitful drizzle. The thickening clouds made the land even darker all around him, and Slayd was beginning to realize that he would probably not have the stars to light his way tonight.
   A faint bubbling sound greeted his ears between spats of rain and wind, and Slayd perked up a bit. He peeked over the little run-down stone wall that had been following the side of the road, and grinned a little to himself. “Well, I guess that squiggly line on my map was a creek after all. I think I am making good time.”
   He followed the road until it led right up to the bank of the brook, and there it abruptly stopped. “Oh dear… it seems as though there used to be a bridge here at some point, but I am afraid it must have been washed out or fallen in a long time ago.”
   He kicked at a wooden post embedded in the mud and examined the far bank. It might have been just a creek, but it was still too wide to jump across and probably too deep to simply wade through. “It looks as though I will have to swim for it…” He was not looking forward to that.
   Movement in the rushes several meters away made him jump and back away from the creek, eyes wide. A wild animal? Whatever it was, it was brown and hunched over, and shuffled back and forth as if it didn’t quite know where it was going.
   “Ohh, bless my aching bones, deary me, deary me,” the creature moaned, and Slayd blinked and stared. It was an old woman, dressed in burlap and slowly hobbling towards Slayd. Necklaces of small animal bones were draped all around her neck, rattling as she shambled. She was doubled over so far her knuckles almost touched the ground, were it not for a short knobbly stick that she leaned heavily upon. “What have we here? Good evening, good evening! It be not too often that good old Polli sees a visitor coming ‘round these parts, don’t you know. Good old Polli.”
   Slayd smiled. She seemed nice enough. “Hello. I haven’t seen too many people around here either, to tell you the truth. It’s nice to meet you, my name is - ”
   Her squinty wrinkled eyes grew wide. “Ohh, I know that voice, I heard it long ago, I did. Long ago, long ago. You passed through here a-seeking something, though I know not what. Ohh… Now haven’t you blessed good old Polli with your precious voice! Good old Polli. We all thought you were lost, lost beyond the world. But here you are! Ohh bless my old aching bones! Bones, bones. Are you hungry?”
   Slayd stared open-mouthed at her for a moment before nodding enthusiastically. “Thank you, I am famished! Do – do you live around here?”
   The old woman nodded. “Yes, yes. Home is right here. Here, here. Would you like to come in? Good old Polli was just about to make a stew. Good food, good food! Are you hungry?”
   Slayd tried to ignore her redundant words and glanced around. “But… I do not see a house or anything. Is it further down the stream?”
   “No, no. Home is here. Would you like to come in?” And with that she walked right into the water and dug her fingers into the mud. She pulled at something until Slayd heard a mucky squish, and he leaned far over her shoulder to see what she was doing.
   There was a door under the mire. She had pulled it open by a metal ring stuck in its center and was busy gathering the edges of her burlap skirt with one hand, oblivious to the fact that the hem of her clothes had already been dragged quite thoroughly through the muck. Slayd could see rough steps descending into darkness, and the mud was already encroaching on the threshold, slowly oozing down the steps.
   “No dawdling now, deary. Good food, good food!” She cackled happily and shuffled down the steps, waving for Slayd to follow.
   Slayd was having second thoughts, but his stomach made the decision a little easier. He cautiously followed the old woman down the stairs.
   As soon as the door shut behind him (or rather, above him), the stairs were lit by a soft orange shine. Tiny little glowworms crawled along the walls and ceiling of the rough-hewn tunnel Slayd found himself in, lighting the way. Slayd didn’t have much of a chance to study them though, as Polli was moving along down the tunnel with a speed that belied her shambling gate. He had to run to catch up with her. “Stew is good for growing boys, although bless my bones I didn’t think you were still a-growing. So young, so young! When did you get so young? Heh heh, or maybe old Polli’s just a-getting too old, eh?” She jabbed Slayd playfully in the ribs and cackled. He flinched against her touch, painfully aware of the half-healed gashes all over his body.
   “Ah, ah! Here we are. Just you wait a bit now and good old Polli will make you one fine supper! Supper, supper. Here we are!”
   The tunnel ended at another door that looked exactly like the first, except this one was upright and not covered in mud. Polli pulled at the metal ring in its center and threw it open with a loud creak. She shuffled inside and Slayd followed, his gaze taking in the tiny home.
   Bunches of herbs and dried flowers were hung on strings from the ceiling, accompanied by frog’s legs and fish bones. Uneven shelves lined every wall, crammed full of jars, boxes, books, and myriads of odds and ends. A bright flame burned in a fireplace in one corner, with a massive pot boiling over with water set over it. It was here that Polli’s attention had been drawn. (It struck Slayd as very odd. He could not for the life of him imagine how she managed to kindle a fire underneath a creek).
   She pulled a burlap sack off of her hunched back and set it on the floor, rummaging around in it and humming to herself. Apparently she had been out gathering vegetables and herbs before she found Slayd, and these she pulled out and put inside the pot. “Now, how did you get to be about these parts again, deary? It’s been so long, so long.”
   Slayd shrugged, wondering just how much of his story she knew, and if she would even understand or care if he tried to tell her. “It really is a long story. I just left the Locust King’s citadel a day and a half ago, and I am on my way to the Beetle Kingdom.”
   She nodded absently, most of her attention absorbed by the boiling kettle. “I see, I see. Never you mind good old Polli’s questions. She’s just a-curious now. She’s only seen you from afar before, and heard your pretty voice. Heard you in a crowd a-singing for the Locust King, a long time ago.”
   Slayd shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him to sing any songs. “It was a very long time ago, wasn’t it?”
   She nodded and cackled. “Ohh, listen to old Polli! You’ve got her all giddy as a little girl, seeing you here again! Again, again. For you see, we common folk have heard that when the Heir returns, the revival of the Lich King is surely on its way. Surely, surely.” Her eyes twinkled and her face wrinkled up into a nearly toothless smile. “Supper’s ready, deary! Fetch me those bowls there, will you?”
   Slayd did as he was told and she ladled a heady, delicious-smelling stew into them. She handed one to Slayd and guided him to sit at a short cluttered table. “Now, where is that wily scoundrel of yours that takes himself to be a guardian? Wily scoundrel,” she shook her head.
   “We, um, had a falling out,” Slayd said, wondering why she brought Guile up. “I left him at the citadel.”
   “Ohh, that won’t do, won’t do at all! Bless my poor aching bones, child, why is he not by your side? Even the likes of poor old Polli knows that he is your protection in this world, and your guide! Without his evil eye to watch over you, you are lost… evil eye, evil eye.” She shook from head to toe, making the bones around her neck rattle.
   “Umm, Polli? Guile doesn’t even have eyes,” he said gently.
   The old woman shook her head violently. “Ohh, but the way he looks at you. He may have had them taken out, long ago, long ago, but you can still feel them staring you down, getting under your skin. Feel them. Evil eye for an evil man.”
   Slayd frowned, swallowing a big spoonful of stew. “Then isn’t it better this way? If Guile is evil then I certainly should not be with him, right?”
   Again she shook her head, rattling her necklaces. “Evil is as evil does. Now your wily old guardian, he is a queer sort of evil. Don’t question it. You need him, because our Lord gave him to you. Gave him to you.” She said it firmly, as if it made perfect sense and carried the final solution to all of Slayd’s problems.
   Slayd sighed and shrugged it off. He didn’t really expect her to make a whole lot of sense regarding this to begin with. “Well, I cannot help it right now that he’s not here, so I suppose I will just have to make do without him.”
   Polli nodded slowly, chewing her food thoughtfully. She didn’t say much of anything until she had piled a second helping into Slayd’s bowl.
   “Now I do suppose you are right, deary. Make do, yes, yes. You will have to. But you shouldn’t be a-wandering ‘round these parts without being prepared, and good old Polli can help you with that, yes she can.”
   Slayd looked up at her hopefully as she bustled around her tiny kitchen. “I would thank you very much for any help you can give me, although I cannot say I can do much of anything for you in return – at least not right away.”
   She waved his words away with a knobby hand. “Ohh, don’t you go a-worrying about paying old Polli back. She’s had far too many suppertimes with nobody to talk to save the frogs and the muskies, so you can just be thinking that you are doing your share by keeping me company just now. Your share. Eh? Are you hungry?”
   Slayd beamed at her. “I think my stomach has finally decided it’s full. Thank you so much.”
   The old woman squirreled their empty dishes away and began rifling through her cupboards and shelves, making a small pile of clothes, bundles of food, some candles and bits of string. “Now you be sure you’re all fat and happy now, for it’s still a long way to the Beetle Kingdom, deary. Long way, long way. I’ll be packing you a few lunches, but I’m afraid stew doesn’t carry very well.”
   She wrapped up everything in a small bundle Slayd could carry easily on his back, and dumped it in his lap. “Well, there you are. I won’t be a-keeping you any longer, for your journey is a long one and good old Polli doesn’t have too many words inside of her to entertain the fancy folk such as yourself. Fancy folk.”
   She patted him on the shoulder and tugged him by his hand, leading him back through the tunnel. She plucked a few of the glowworms off of the walls and dropped them into a small jar, clucking like a mother hen as she did so. “Beyond my little creek the wild lands begin. Wild lands. Once you reach the rocky road, there will be greater danger, there will, there will. Creatures dwell there, on the mountainside. Creatures that pay no heed to the strong hand of the Lich King, nor to the sign of his Heir.” She eyeballed the pendant resting against Slayd’s chest. “No heed, no heed. If your wily old guardian were with you there wouldn’t be room for worry, but since he is not, you go quickly and quietly and watch your steps. You would do well to be cautious, cautious.”
   They reached the trap door that led back up to the creek, and Polli shoved it open with little trouble. A light drizzle of rain greeted Slayd’s upturned face, and he hastily exited the doorway to prevent much mud from oozing down the stairs. “Thank you, Polli. I really appreciate what you’ve done for me, you have been so kind.”
   “Ohh, don’t you go a-worrying about thanks. You’ve been kind to good old Polli now too, haven’t you?” She cackled and jabbed him in the ribs, making him wince again. “You keep your wits about you and you just might make it to the Beetle Kingdom all right. From what the fancy folk say, you have your good old master there a-waiting for you, I reckon. Good old master. He be a hero and a savior, and you will do right by following him again. Ohh, good old Polli! You be careful now, it’s going to rain. I can feel it in my old aching bones!”
   She shooed him off without another word and disappeared beneath her trap door. Slayd chuckled, gazing around at the drizzle falling from the sky. “What a funny little old lady. I suppose I should have asked her if there was a way to cross the stream before she - ”
   He paused and raised his eyebrows at the creek. Stepping stones had appeared in the mud, crisscrossing the water all the way to the other side. “Well now. That certainly was not there before.” He decided not to question it and hopped his way across, taking care not to slip on the mossy stones.
   Polli had told him that the wild lands began once he crossed the creek, and he realized what that had meant now, by the way this side of the creek looked. There were no longer any fields bordering his path and even the road itself was hardly there, overgrown by grasses and weeds. The remnants of a crumbling stone wall struggled to follow the left side of the road, but as he walked on even that slowly disappeared into the long grass.
   Slayd adjusted his new pack on his back and clutched the Locust King’s mantle around him tighter. He found himself feeling very exposed and unsafe, which put him on edge. He was still in the Locust Kingdom, but this land was indeed wild. He could tell that at one point there might have been people that lived out here, but no longer. He wondered what made them abandon this side of the creek, and that made him very nervous. He constantly glanced all around him as he walked but never saw anyone, not even far away.
   The mountains that had been so far in the distance before drew ever nearer, and Slayd began wishing that they would just stay on the far off horizon instead of looming huge and intimidating just ahead. But they inexorably persisted in coming closer. A shadow of that prickling sense of discomfort he had felt so often in the Spider Kingdom ghosted through the hairs on the back of his head, and he shivered in the chilly breeze.
   “I think I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t left Guile and Jyrr behind…”


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