7 Months Ago pt.1
David had grown used to the wilderness north of New Dorf. It was a long stretch of swampland to the nearest town; that stretch was interrupted by long overgrown paths that used to be roads. He was able to keep dry most of the time; occasionally he would be forced to trudge through some marshy grass or deep puddle. Making impromptu tools and weaving wild materials wasn’t new for him. Experience from his work in the fooderies, the use of his spear, and a basic net were enough to keep him fed.
The late spring days were hot and uncomfortably humid, even for native David. Each night was full of stars, noisy with the creatures of the swamps, and also humid. Songs of crickets and various cloaks drowned out the sounds of his dreams when he slept. He dreamt of his sister, and the hope that she’d grow up to be independent and strong. He dreamt of making his late parents proud as a craftsman or with a career in the fisheries. He dreamt of Ol’ Ephraim toppling backward out of a window. Down he would fall into the murky waters, but David would never hear portly drunk’s splash.
Of course, members of New Dorf had sent folk out to find him, but David had been able to avoid all but the third. One week after he’d left, he was surprised by Stever. The intimidating man had been waiting for him on the other side of a thick pass between two big marshy pools. Emerging from the brush, David found Stever sitting casually in a small shaded clearing. They talked for a while and Stever made several appeals to David. After much discourse over the matter, he finally said, “Come home, David. You’ve got Dr. Leah worried sick. She fought hard for your life in New Dorf and now,” he motioned to the great outdoors around them, “you seem to be throwing it away for this. What would your sister want?”
“My sister is dead!” David growled without shouting, “There’s no home for me in New Dorf… Not anymore.” His head was bowed in a seething grief that put Stever on alarm. “My whole family is dead. Besides Lukas, I barely knew anyone else. Dr. Leah is kind, but… I don’t want to live there.” The clearing they were in was at the top of a long hill, and overlooked the tall grassy slope in David’s way. He trudged to the edge of the clearing and gazed out at the wilderness he had yet to cross. “I don’t know what’s out there, but it’s the only thing ahead of me. I can’t go back to New Dorf. I won’t!”
Stever shrugged his shoulders slowly. His face was covered in sad understanding. His own past had caused him to leave an old life behind and start a new one in New Dorf. He kicked a torso-sized leather pack over to the teen, “Take that,…”. Then he reached into his dark brown, leather overcoat, “…and take this.” He held out a long, granite blade that had been hilted in triple-bound leather. It was serrated like a scimitar and was colored a dark, marbled charcoal. Instantly, David realized that it must have taken months to edge and sharpen the thing. He looked at Stever with disbelief.
“Stever… That’s way more than I need-”
“It was in Lukas’ belongings.” Stever interrupted, “He left a note saying that he wanted me to have it. …I can’t …I can’t keep it.” Stever held an expression that looked to David like defeat. He lifted the hilt toward David, “Please, take this off my hands for me, will you?” Stever pulled one of David’s hands onto the hilt, “I can’t keep it anymore. If you are really going far from here, take this thing with you…?”
After thinking of Lukas, and the family that left him behind, David closed his hand on the hilt and took the blade from Stever. Lukas was one of the last of his own family. He was taken by the swamps, like so many villagers before him. Holding the blade, David felt a certain sense of obligation to carry it with him, in memory of his fallen friend.
. . . . . . .
It had been weeks since David had seen Stever, and no Seeker after him had managed to find the teen. He kept to whatever high ground he could as he used the positioning of the stars to make his way north. David was hearty and determined, though his only goal was to find some other life for himself so the old one could die in the quicksand of forgetfulness. He figured he’d travelled further than anyone from New Dorf would have searched until he heard the sound of wood being whittled and a familiar song being hummed.
It was near the middle of the day and the sky was cloudless – except for the Mannah. The sun shone brightly, and the sky was abuzz with a faint purple-orange tint. David had just made it over a steep, rocky hill and dreading the pathless forest he was about to enter when he heard singing. The melody was a folk tune – one sang all the time in New Dorf. Why would a seeker be out this far, he thought, No one is getting paid good coin to find me, I’m sure of it.
The sounds were coming from behind a grassy boulder not far from David’s right. The teen’s first instinct was to freeze in his place. He thought of the forest ahead of him. This guy must have been waiting for me to cross the hill to catch me before I entered the forest. Sweet Mannah! How obvious are my movements?! Even if David did sneak past the boulder and enter the forest, a Seeker might be able to see exactly where he disturbed the brush and, track him. I’ll sneak around and enter the forest from another place and hope he doesn’t notice. This seemed like a good enough plan to David, so he began to crouch and softly scoot away from the boulder. That’s when his foot caught on something soft and tough. He tripped and fell to the ground with a surprised yelp.
Pain shot up his leg. David rolled onto his back and pulled his left leg towards his chin. Peering at his femur, he saw that it had been deeply scratched from near his knee to his ankle. Blood was seeping from the wound more and more quickly; he braced himself against the ground and ripped off a torn portion of his shirt. It wasn’t enough, but he quickly tied it around the center of his leg anyway. He was halfway finished when he noticed the large wooden stake jutting out of the ground. The beam was as thick as his arm with several long, menacing-looking points at its end. David marveled at the slim margin by which he’d avoided the business end of the stake – well, mostly avoided it. Despite the throbbing pains he was experiencing, the long gashes on his leg were an easy trade for his life.
Remembering, suddenly, that he’d been trying to avoid someone, David shot a glance toward the boulder and saw a tall man walking toward him. He was pale-skinned with pink blotches on his neck, arms, and legs. All he wore was jet black: his gloves, boots, skin-tight leggings, shirt, vest, and bandana. Besides his leggings, everything on the man fit loosely and there were no laces on his boots. As he approached he called out to David, “You wouldn’t be Jake, would ya?”
David sat up to look at him, and noticed the man had a strong limp on his right side. His stature and style were nothing like those he’d know in New Dorf. It almost seemed as if the stranger were supposed to look menacing, but instead looked… goofy. He wears his bandana around his wrist!? David thought, Nobody does that! Then David realized what this meant. I must be close to another town, he thought. I just have to make it through this. The strangely-dressed man began to loom over him, staring at him intently.
“You ain’t Jake!” He shook his head in disappointment, “Where are you camped out, kid?”
David shook his head in return, “I’m traveling through. I came from the south, and I’m going north in search of another town.”
“Another town?!” The strange man made a face that suggested he was confused by the very idea, “Don’t nobody live south of here but the swamp folk. Them folk aren’t real but fairy tales. Now tell me some’n true.”
“I’m no fairy tale,” David retorted, “I’m from a swamp town myself. I guess I’m one of the swamp folks you’ve heard about.”
“With all that proper talk? And you ain’t got no gills!” The man was reacting as if David were trying to scam him. “No! You ain’t no lizard-boy. I’ll give you but one chance. The sun is hot and ain’t to be out here all day with your bull-talk.” He pulled out a long wide machete. There was a strong dent in the middle of the blade; the weapon almost resembled a scimitar. “Where are the rest of you boys, now?! Where–?”
His last question was interrupted by a whirring sound and something round hit him hard on the back of his good knee. He fell onto his other knee with a cry, and was hit next on his right shoulder blade. He twisted in agony and hurled his blade at David, but David was so startled he was already scrambling away from the man. The blade missed his left ear by inches. He glanced back to discover, a black-haired, pale boy was standing behind the strange man. Before David could realize what was happening, the boy brought the club down on the man’s head, causing him to quickly go limp.
David was still trying to make sense of what was happening when a four other boys came running from the opposite side of the hill. Two ran straight to the one with the club, one slid into a crouch over the man in black, while the last slowed to a careful walk as he approached David. David eyed that last one warily until the boy with the club called out to him, drawing David’s attention. “Don’t you worry,” he said, pointing at David, “no one’s gonna harm you. We’ve been trying to catch this guy for weeks.”
The boy crouched over the limp man stood up and adjusted his thick-lensed glasses. “He’s OK, but you brained him pretty good, Jake.”
“You’re Jake?” David hissed. All of the boys seemed to freeze in place as they turned their stares at David. He immediately felt more vulnerable then he ever had in his life. In an alien place, surrounded by violent strangers, and with very few resources. He began looking around frantically. In the debacle, his spear had rolled away from him to some unknown place.
The boys shared glances with each other before bursting into infuriatingly confident chuckles. One of them held up David’s spear, “Are you looking for this? You’re lucky I saw it rolling down the hill.” The one with the glasses was already inspecting David. Their leader seemed to be the tall, dark-haired boy holding the club. He took the spear from the boy to his left and addressed David.
“Didn’t I say you didn’t have to worry about us? What would you do against all of us anyway?”
“I’ve had to fight meaner guys than you.” David said.
“Is that so?” Jake said. He looked the spear over for a moment. “These markings are strange… Where are you from?”
“The south.” At this, the boys broke into full out laughter.
“Sorry our trap hit you…,” Jake was trying to compose himself.
“It seemed to have only grazed him,” said the one with the glasses, “he’s got a serious scratch, that’s all.” That’s all!, David was thinking, that thing almost impaled me!
Jake looked over the spear one last time before tossing it to David’s side, “I guess a scratch won’t keep you from swimming with the lizards.” The other boys broke into smirks and giggles again, but David was too confused to retort. “The least we could do is offer you a meal for the night,” Jake extended a hand to help David up, “we’ve got plenty for the next week. Caleb will patch up your scratch.” Jake indicated the glasses-wearing boy, then motioned to David, “Come with us.” To David, it sounded more like a command than an invitation.
Leaning on his spear and with one arm around Caleb, David followed the boys to a small clearing blocked by a circle of bushes and made camp for the night.