Things Go Missing
The wild game melted delicately upon her tongue and Willow let the flavor drip into her mouth and into her being. She wondered how Galeal had been able to catch several small animals, they appeared to be rabbit, so quickly; he and Judah hadn’t been gone for long, and he’d collected fire wood as well. Whether it was because she’d been wounded or because of the encounter on the bridge, she’d been given one whole rabbit for her dinner and despite what she’d been taught during her years of learning in the village, she did not demurely decline the extra portion. Instead she dove in ravenously, barely conversing as she savored every single morsel of succulent fatty meat. When at last she had enjoyed her fill she took a long drink from the cup Judah offered her. It was a combination of sweet mead and tart cider and it refreshed her palette and her soul.
“Thank you.” She handed the cup back to Judah and he looked at her expectantly. She waited, not understanding, until he moved his eyes toward Galeal, who was only now beginning to eat his portion, having tended the fire and smoothing out spots within the clearing and covering them with wool blankets for each of them to sleep upon. Willow cleared her throat and leaned forward. “Thank you, Galeal, for the incredible food.”
Galeal didn’t look up at her, but bowed his head, acknowledging her words and she as before she thought she saw a smile cross his lips. It was difficult to say because of the flickering shadows caused by the flames and his face was cast mostly in the darkness, but she gave him the benefit of her doubt and presumed he had indeed smiled at her compliment. From the corner of her eye, she saw Judah nod his approval before he finished the cider mead and rose to stretch his legs. Willow rose quickly, intending to follow him until he held up a hand to her.
“All in good time, young Willow,” he said and walked away. She watched him reach a hand down toward Galeal as he passed hm, squeezing the dwarf’s shoulder. A few moments later Galeal finished his dinner and rose, following the path that Judah had just taken. Willow sighed.
“How are you feeling now?” Poppy asked, dropping onto the ground next to Willow. She pulled out one of her own wool blankets and covered she and Willow as they leaned back against another well-placed log in front of the fire.
“Better with food, for certain,” Willow told her friend, “but I am eager to have my conversation with Judah.”
“Of course.” Poppy nodded and looked in the direction that Judah and Galeal disappeared into the trees. “What do you make of the dwarf, Galeal?”
Willow considered this a long moment. The stories that they’d heard told as youngsters in the village, mostly by the Elders during festival nights, had always categorized dwarfs as tricky, not-to-be-trusted, ne’er-do-wells. In fact, in some stories they were portrayed not just as cunning but as evil, almost like that of a shape shifter. But Galeal did not fit any of those descriptions in the least. She shared this with Poppy. “What about you?” Willow asked. “What are your thoughts on Galeal?”
“I see no reason to believe that he is anything but clever and quite helpful,” Poppy said. “Anyone who can hunt down four rabbits after darkness has fallen is definitely worth keeping an eye on, but he seems loyal to Judah, and Judah I trust.”
“Tell me about him,” Willow said. “About Judah.”
Poppy stared into the fire and thought a moment. “He is gentle, almost like a grandfather, and, despite his older age, he is nothing like an Elder.” Here Poppy scrunched up her face. Neither Willow nor Poppy were fond of the Elders and avoided them unless there was a mandatory ceremony that required them to be in close proximity to the Elders. “He is witty and extremely wise.”
“In what way is he wise?”
“He holds much knowledge of the histories of the villages and of our people, but he also has a wider knowledge, of the realm beyond our villages. He has been there and he has seen some of the lore that we have only heard about through the Elders and in our learning.”
“What kind of things has he seen?” Willow found herself deeply curious. “Places? People? Creatures?”
“Yes, all of them and more. I would bet he has stories to share that would keep our heads spinning and our minds whirling for quite some time,” Poppy told her. “Far more than the tired tales that the Elders repeat year after year.” She paused and sighed. “That is why I so desperately want to be a teller of tales. That is why I am determined to rewrite my destiny.”
Willow nodded knowingly. She had heard many stories woven by her dear friend and marveled at the twists of turns and the way she created such magic with her words. But, during her Ceremony of the Fates, Poppy’s destiny had little to do with words or stories or anything that breathed life into her. Willow could still see her friend’s face, deeply saddened and her eyes so filled with joylessness when the two girls snuck out of their villages to meet by their favorite willow tree whose branches formed the perfect cave away from Elders and Fates and Festivals and families. Poppy could barely speak the word to her friend. “Healer,” she’s said. “I’m to be a healer.” And then her eyes had filled with tears and the two of them had sat together under the weeping branches of the old willow tree for many hours. When at last she’d composed herself, Poppy had turned to Willow and finally asked her what her fate was to be. Willow puffed out her chest and stuck out her chin, trying to look as ridiculous as possible as she spoke her destiny: Warrior.
“I as well remain equally determined to rewrite mine,” Willow said. “As I can assuredly attest, I am indeed no warrior.”
“And yet you have a sword and a shield,” Poppy said.
“Indeed I do,” said Willow. The two girls grew quiet, each lost to their own thoughts and to the glowing flames that waved and shimmied about in front of them. “What does Judah say about your desire to change your fate?” Willow asked after a while.
“Judah says that such information is between he and the young Poppy,” Judah said from behind them. He smiled when Willow turned to look up at him.
“Is she not allowed at least to say whether she continues this journey or returns to the village?” Willow asked.
“There is only one option where the journey is concerned,” said Judah. “As you know and as I reminded you the other night, once you leave the villages, you cannot return. The continuation of the journey is not contingent on the young Poppy’s destiny. The journey is decided.”
Willow nodded and turned to look at Poppy, her face lit with the warm glow of the fire. There seemed a serenity to her friend’s face and very presence and curiosity burned inside Willow to know if that meant that she would be a teller of tales after all. Poppy reached for Willow’s hand and squeezed it beneath the blanket and smiled. On the other side of the fire, Galeal was back to work tending the fire, adding wood and shifting around the piles of wood to make them handy during the night.
“I suggest that we get some sleep as the day’s journey tomorrow will at times be difficult for you both,” Judah said.
Willow wondered what that could mean. This day’s journey had been more difficult than she’d anticipated and she’d rather hoped that once they’d met with Judah that their journey would be easier rather than more challenging.
“Galeal has arranged blankets for comfort and proximity to the fire, but you are welcome to shift yourselves according to your needs.”
Poppy squeezed Willow’s hand again and the two girls leaned their heads back against the log and closed their eyes and Willow willed herself not to dream but to sleep only.
Willow felt someone nudging her leg and roused suddenly. Opening her eyes, she saw Poppy propped up against the log with a wide smile on her face. “Tis time, my friend, for the story of the sword and the shield,” she told Willow. Willow groaned and rolled away from her friend, squeezing her eyes shut and seeking to sleep a little longer. Behind her Poppy hummed a soft tune before nudging Willow a little harder. “Tis the first light of the dawn just as you promised and I will hear my story now.”
Willow pushed herself up and leaned against the log, her eyes still heavy with sleep. She was relieved that she’d had not dreamed last night and for that she was willing to relax and tell her friend the story of how she discovered the sword. As she thought the word, she instinctively reached beside her to check that it and the shield were still safe, but her hand touched only dirt. She stood and looked around the ground where she’d been sleeping, searching behind the log and by the blankets Galeal had set up for them last night.
“It’s gone,” Willow said.
“The sword. It’s gone,” Willow repeated. She looked around for Judah and Galeal and found that they, too, were gone and that the fire was pretty much dead and the piles of wood that Galeal had collected and carefully stacked around the fire were untouched. “It seems my sword is not the only thing that has disappeared during the night.”
(Day 4 word count: 1644 for a total of 7505/50,000)