Perils of the Gotten Road
She doesn’t like to rely on anyone – least of all some questionable stranger stalking ill-trodden muddwood trails. But she’s known, for the better part of this day, that something has gone wrong. We’re badly off course.
Stenaya hasn’t spoken for three hours. She’s been walking ahead of me – ten, twenty, sometimes even thirty meters out front – ever since we broke camp this morning. Any time I try to narrow the gap, her pace quickens and her eyes dart about the Emerwold likes she’s waiting for something to drop down upon us.
Three hours ago, I asked whether we should consider turning back. She didn’t reply. She didn’t even acknowledge the question in any way. She just kept walking.
Two hours ago, I tried to point out that the terrain has been shifting. But before I could utter three words, and without bothering to stop or even look back toward me, she raised a flat palm in the air as the universal sign for: Just. Stop. Talking.
An hour ago, I thought it might lighten the mood if I just whistled a little tune as we walked. That was the first time today that she fully acknowledged me. She immediately stopped. Turned to face me. And shot me a glare that made me wish she’d just run a dagger through my eye. We’ve both been marching silently ever since.
Whether she wants to discuss it with me or not, the terrain is evolving. Or… maybe it’s devolving. Depends on your perspective.
The path – or, what semblance of it we manage to pick up through the underbrush – has trended downward for the better part of the afternoon. And while that may make the journey seem less arduous, it definitely weighs on my mind. The air grows thicker. The damp aroma of moss and fern crowds my lungs. The bottonflies – always a nuisance – now swarm in coordinated phalanxes. They float upon humidity, as a unified and chaotic beast. The ground is spongier. And the mushrooms… Great gods! I’d heard tales of them before. But there’s something unsettling about walking between stalks of fungi that rise to thrice my height. In the perma-twilight of the deep forest, they emit a subtle-yet-eerie glow. We haven’t seen another traveler on the road in two days. We shouldn’t be this low. We should have made it to Sekion by now. And it shouldn’t be this hard to stay on the Gotten Road.
We may very well have continued like this until nightfall. But after spending fifteen minutes in a fruitless struggle against the latest bottonfly swarm, I suddenly look up and realize that she’s almost right in front of me, motionless, and staring anxiously at something on the trail ahead. Her hand slides cautiously inside her left-front pocket – an extended edifice that provides access to the dagger that's strapped to her thigh.
We’ve turned a bend in the trail and, some ways ahead, there is a man, heavily cloaked, crouched to one side of the path. He seems foreign. Far too pale to be Elladoran – or even Tallonai. But if I’m being honest, I’m mildly relieved that he’s not Inqoan. We’ve been seeing more of them in this region. Their grey, mottled skin, their pale eyes, and their chiseled teeth - they make me uneasy.
He notices our attention and rises, waving and smiling. He begins walking toward us and my attention is split between the stranger and Stenaya. She’s nervous, though most wouldn’t know it by the look on her face. He’s still more than ten meters away when she breaks the silence.
Stenaya: That’s close enough.
He obeys, refreshes his smile, and raises his arms in a show of surrender. His hands are empty, but I can’t help but notice the ebny blades hanging off each hip – their polished black surfaces reflecting the fluorescence of the giant mushrooms above.
Stranger: Your caution is wise. These are dangerous parts.
Stenaya: You don’t say.
Stranger: There are many who would prey upon the weary traveler. That’s why we’re here.
She cannot hide her alarm at his use of we. She scans the underbrush while carefully keeping him in her peripheral vision.
Stenaya: Who else is here?? Show yourselves.
His ensuing chuckle does nothing to calm her nerves.
Stranger: Forgive me – I was unclear. I’m alone. My name is Valnoran. And I was referring to my order - the Sylvan Guard.
She furrows her brow and hesitates before responding.
Stenaya: You don’t look like the Sylvan Guard.
Valnoran: Oh, really? My arbyrkin would beg to differ. But please tell me: What exactly does the Sylvan Guard look like?
She doesn’t appreciate his simple question because she doesn’t really have an answer.
Stenaya: Well, I... I don’t know. There’s some kind of uniform?
Valnoran: A secret handshake? A flaming sword? A magic flute?
Stenaya: No... But I’ve seen drawings. Capes. Armor. Banners?
Valnoran: Ahh, yes. The artists have broad license, and they use it well. Truth be told, there was a time, ages ago, when we had more generous patronage. But ours is an ancient order and these are simpler times.
She’s already grown weary at the moving of his lips.
Stenaya: What do you want from us??
He seems almost startled by the question.
Valnoran: Well... I suppose I want for little. The muddwood provides all I need. I’m only here to help.
Stenaya: We don’t need any help. We don't treat with strangers. We just want to be left alone on our journey.
Valnoran: And how do you plan to complete your journey... when you’re lost?
Stenaya: That's a bold presumption.
Valnoran: I’ve been listening to your footsteps for an hour. The nervous plodding of anxiety.
Stenaya: Don’t be ridiculous.
She makes no attempt to hide her annoyance.
Stenaya: We have dirt on our boots. From the same road we’re traveling. Is that supposed to be some kind of revelation?
He spreads a discomfiting smile over us and makes a show of surveying our surroundings.
Valnoran: Look around you. Does this really look like the Gotten Road to you?
He allows this to sink in while Stenaya struggles for a proper response. She has none.
Stenaya: We’ve been on the Gotten Road for many days.
Valnoran: I don’t deny that you were on the Gotten Road. But this is what the locals call the Sunken Trail.
Her incredulity does not mask her frustration.
Stenaya: Seems pretty dry to me.
Valnoran: I didn’t name it. But you’re a half day’s journey from Sparcypethi.
She shoots me an anxious glance. We are not going to Sparcypethi. I have nothing to contribute but confusion. And to be honest, Valnoran’s revelation makes perfect sense – whether we want to believe it or not. She waffles for a brief moment before strengthening her resolve – and her tone.
Stenaya: Thank you, kind sir. We appreciate the information. We’ll be turning back now.
Valnoran: You don’t know how you got here. What makes you think you can get back?
She glares into him with wanton annoyance while she grits her teeth.
Stenaya: We follow the trail back. What's so hard about that??
Valnoran: The same trail you mistook for the Gotten Road?
I’m quite certain that she’d like to strike him. But she hasn’t found a justifiable excuse to do so. It’s probably just my imagination, but the background drone of bottonfly swarms seems to rise. She keeps glancing at me for some kind of support, but I don’t know what to offer. It's strange how loud the forest can become at times. Maybe that droning is… something else?
Stenaya: What exactly are you proposing?
Valnoran: I’m but a guide. A steady hand to ease your journey.
Stenaya: We have no money.
Valnoran: I don’t remember asking for money.
Stenaya: It won’t take us long to get back on course.
Valnoran: Syrus is falling and you’re nearly two days’ walk from the Gotten Road right now. And that assumes that you can successfully backtrack over the Sunken Trail. Look around you.
She peruses the environment, but she has no idea what he’s driving at.
Valnoran: The emberstools are in season. Any day now, there will be a new obnoxion across the land. And if you’re trekking through the muddwood when that happens, this may become your final destination.
Several aborted retorts rise in her throat, only to be choked back before they can escape. She doesn’t like to rely on anyone – least of all some questionable stranger stalking ill-trodden muddwood trails. But she’s known, for the better part of this day, that something has gone wrong. We’re badly off course.
Stenaya: I need to consult with my companion.
Valnoran smiles and waves an arm in a sign of graciousness. He takes several steps backward to make it clear that he’s granting us some space. As she turns to me, I can see the pieces of the dire puzzle etched in the lines of her face. But before she can speak a single word, a voice – a new voice – cries out from the opposite direction. From whence we just came. Whomever it is, they are alarmed and out of breath.
Voice: Stand down! Leave these travelers in peace!
A second man swings around the bend. If I thought Stenaya was anxious before, she’s now on full alert. Her left hand, previously buried in her pocket as she craftily brandished her dagger, now springs forth. She raises it to the newcomer, then to Valnoran, then back to the newcomer again.
Stenaya: Stay back! Both of you!
The newcomer pulls up, nearly twenty meters from us, and clearly signals submission. He wants Stenaya to believe that he’s no threat – but his gaze is locked on Valnoran. They are both dressed in strikingly-similar attire, right down to the weapons hanging from their sides. But the newcomer is far more familiar. An Elladoran. His bronze-brown skin soaks in the forest’s middling rays. Thick locks of black hair peak out from under his copious hood. His eyes are mesmerizing emeralds.
Newcomer: Great gift, I’ve arrived in time!
Stenaya: In time for what?
Newcomer: To intercept this snake.
He points to Valnoran with all the admonishment he can muster.
Newcomer: This cretin would have you dead.
Valnoran: Don’t believe him.
Stenaya: And you? You’re someone… better??
Newcomer: I’m Nevils, a brother of the Sylvan Guard.
This makes no sense.
Stenaya: But he’s a brother of the Guard.
Nevils: Nonsense. He’s a tyran. An impostor. He trades on our good name to prey upon vulnerable travelers.
Valnoran: If I wanted them dead, they would already be dead.
My head is spinning. The bottonfly stings are not helping the matter. But I’m at a loss to explain exactly what’s playing out before us.
Stenaya: He has yet to show us ill will.
Nevils: Indeed. He wants you alive.
Valnoran: I can guarantee there’s someone in this little gathering that I’d like to see dead.
Stenaya’s dagger droops. It’s not that she feels any safer. But the bewilderment drains her resolve. Nevils senses her confusion.
Nevils: They take the stragglers they find on this road and mislead them to the headwaters of the Oastern Run. Sacred ground for the Wanders. It’s where they make human sacrifices to their… their river fairies.
Valnoran: These aren’t rubes. They realize you’ve used a belittling term like fairies to make it sound like you’re not a Wander.
Nevils: You have no basis to claim I’m a Wander!
Stenaya: What identifies someone as a Wander?
Valnoran: You have no basis to claim that I'm not a Guard.
Stenaya: What identifies someone as a Sylvan Guard?
Nevils: If you leave now, I might just let you live.
Valnoran: Which only proves that you’re not a Sylvan. It’s my sworn oath to strike down tyrans like you.
Stenaya: Do we really need to strike anyone down??
Nevils: I won’t allow you to undermine our order. You’re a parasite on the righteous.
Valnoran: Mind your tongue.
Nevils: I’ll mind your tongue – once I remove it.
I keep thinking that someone should say something. Interject somehow. Bring this random confrontation down a notch. But before I can formulate any helpful words, Stenaya yanks me backwards, violently, into a scratchy thicket of envyrabushes. I can barely release an objection before I realize what she was doing. Nevils and Valnoran have abandoned the debate. They fling themselves upon each other, blades drawn, with reckless fury.
What follows is terrifying – and strangely exhilarating. I’ve never actually witnessed combat. Real combat. Two people earnestly vying to slay each other. I’ve seen a few squabbles break out in the streets. The occasional drunks tossing haymakers in an alley. Schoolboys sparring over insults. But this is something altogether different. This is primal.
Every latent noise of the muddwood fades away. The bottonflies call a truce. The prickers of the envyrabush grow blunt. The dense air of the river basin ceases to flow. Even the emberstools seem fixated on this inexplicable drama. There is nothing across the vast Emerwold now but these two strangers suddenly intent upon killing each other.
The contest is jarring, not just for its savagery, but its brevity. I had pictured boot-to-boot combat as a protracted saga. A duel for the ages. A grand test of strength, skill, and stamina. But it is more akin to a paragraph - an anecdote. Ebny flashes. Thrusts are parried. A dodge. A sidestep. A failed maneuver. A lunge. A desperate recovery. Flesh wounds. Flayed cloaks. And before I can properly comprehend what has happened, Valnoran is laying on his back to one side of the fading trail. Nevils has opened him up like a festival carokin. I’m grateful that I can’t actually see Valnoran’s essence, but a generous pool of blood swells to either side of him. His matte face is ghostly pale and utterly still – his vacant eyes forever staring at some random point in the canopy far above.
Nevils: I’m sorry you had to witness that, ladies.
He doesn’t turn to assess our location. Without acknowledging us in any way, he kneels over Valnoran’s lifeless form and begins rummaging through blood-soaked pockets.
Nevils: These rogues are the bane of our order. But at least this one will lead no one else astray. The critters will eat well tonight.
Stenaya slowly emerges from our bush while Nevils continues his looting. For some reason, I’m hesitant to follow.
Nevils: We still have some daylight left. If the weather stays favorable, and the obnoxion holds off, we may be able to get you back on the Gotten Road by tomorr–
His words are aborted by a sickly grunt. It’s a guttural expression of pain – and surprise. Stenaya’s blade didn’t simply pierce his lower back. She made a point to rip it laterally through the soft innards of his lower torso, inflicting maximum damage before finally exiting just under his spine. Leaving nothing to chance, she repeats the maneuver on his other side, producing another grunt from Nevils as he slumps directly on top of Valnoran. While prone across his own victim, he manages to produce one, last, breathy word.
I’ve apparently managed to free myself from the envyrabush, but I’m powerless to move. I feel as though I’m standing inside my body – a separate container that is both foreign and useless. Stenaya turns to me with no particular emotion.
Stenaya: C’mon. Help me get these assholes off the trail.
I don’t move. I don’t speak. I barely manage to breathe. After struggling somewhat with Nevils’ corpse, she looks back up to me.
Stenaya: Are you gonna help me here, or what??
Without bothering to stand up, she stares at me for hours. For days.
Me: I… I mean… What did you do?!?!
She drops Nevils and stands upright to face me, wiping globules of blood and viscera from her jerkin.
Stenaya: What does it look like I did?
Me: Well, you… You killed a man. An innocent man!
These words are not lost on her. A cloud darkens her features. Her face twists into a knot as she looks down upon Nevils.
Me: What do you mean?! You murdered him! He was gonna help us!
She looks back to me with a disarming earnestness.
Stenaya: Was he??
The question catches me off guard. I'm not sure how to process it.
Me: Yes! He killed this guy to protect us! He was gonna get us back to the Gotten Road!
Stenaya: How do you know that?
She waits while I search all the dusty corners of my mind for a logical answer.
Stenaya: Did it occur to you that they may have both been tyrans? And that we would ultimately be attacked by whomever came out alive?
Me: Well… sure. I... I suppose that's possible. But you don’t know that. Nevils might have been an honorable man. A real Sylvan Guard!
Again, these words weigh heavily upon her as she genuinely reflects upon their meaning. She’s no psychopath.
Stenaya: Even if we assume that one of these two truly was a Guard, we have no way of knowing if the Guard was Nevils. For all we know, the villain just murdered the hero, and we would be next.
Me: I… well, sure. I… I guess that could be true.
Stenaya: So leaving Nevils alive gave us a fifty-percent chance that he was a villain. And we'd be attacked, at a time of his choosing, whenever he had the best opportunity to kill us both.
Me: Stenaya! That means there’s still a fifty-percent chance that you just killed a hero!
Stenaya: That’s true. But with them both dead, there’s now a zero-percent chance that we’ll ever be attacked by either one of them.
Her words hang in the thick muddwood air. I’m powerless to strike them down. I wish they’d be scattered by a passing bottonfly swarm. But they won’t go away.
She’s not wrong. But she’s definitely not right. The only thing I know with certainty is that both these men are dead. Both of us are alive. And we’re not in any immediate danger of joining them in the afterlife. That’s the extent of my ability to make sense of the situation.
Stenaya: C’mon. Help me get these guys off the trail. Syrus hangs low. And we need to make it as far back toward the Gotten Road as we can before nightfall.
I don’t know what else there is for me to do. Without leaving my stupor, I somehow manage to lean over Nevils’ lifeless feet, and we begin the process of dragging the highwaymen into the underbrush.