For Alex, the wagon ride was almost unbearable. He’d spent every day of his thirteen years in the city, where the horizon in every direction was formed by a physical object one could touch after no more than a few minutes’ walk. Now here were tiny villages, beyond them isolated farms, beyond them vast, empty plains. Above it all was the greater emptiness of the sky, with no crowding rooftops to divide it into pieces small enough for the mind to accept.
In the twilight of the first day, the horizon ahead was an unblemished line. By the next morning, it had cracked and broken, and ran like a jagged scar along the junction of earth and sky. There, Alex knew, were the mountains. Each day they grew closer. By the time darkness closed off the seventh day, the wagon was winding stubbornly up their foothills.
When Alex woke, in the gray light of the eighth day’s dawn, the wagon had stopped, the stillness sickening after seven days of almost constant motion. They’d arrived at the edge of a camp, whose tents and stalls covered the floor of a narrow valley, and lapped up along the lower reaches of the surrounding hills. The mountains towered just beyond. Far across the field, the dark green of the forest showed through the seams of the camp.
He was startled badly enough to chafe his wrist on the manacles that bound him to the wagon’s bed when a voice bellowed, “Up! Wake up, you pigs!”
The man opposite Alex spat back, “Get down to the pit yourself, devil.”
A moment later the man flinched forward, and Alex saw the glint of a spearhead receding through the bars of the cage at shoulder height. The guard behind it said, “Next time it goes in.”
A few feet from the back of the wagon stood a fat man in flowing red robes, his long gray hair stirring in the cold breeze, his attention divided between inspecting the prisoners and haggling with the leader of the city guards who’d brought them.
Were Alex free, and back in the city, now would be the time to sidle inoffensively near, to find with furtive glances the fat man’s purse, to probe the place with practiced fingers, to move casually away, triumphantly unnoticed, five or ten or twenty gold pieces richer.
Only after the fantasy had passed did he begin to listen, with a burst of heat in his cheeks.
“It’s less than promised because you’ve delivered less than promised,” said the fat man.
“Sixteen by my count.”
“Fifteen and a half is not sixteen. How much do you think that babe you’ve brought me can carry?”
“I heard carrying’s not the main point, but running.”
“You go in there and try running. I’ll give you ten percent on anything you bring out. That’s twice what I give my best eggers.”
“I wouldn’t run.”
“Fight then? Fighters don’t last. Fighters get eaten up in our world, shat out in the one beyond the gate.”
The fat man dismissed the guard with a single step toward the wagon. To the men inside, he growled, “My name is Dern, and you belong to me. Do your job, and you’ll gain your freedom, and more money than you’d make in a year of mugging. I always tell my men, eggs are heavy, but so is gold. When you—”
“One of them things give you that?” Alex looked to his right to see the thick, bald man three spots down the line grinning raggedly. “One of them gate-dogs?”
The scar began just below Dern’s left ear, and ran jaggedly down the side of his jawline before dropping off his chin and out of sight. Dern gave the man a tight-lipped smile. He must’ve known how it made the scar twist and crawl like a living thing, or a dead thing unnaturally revived. “No gate-dog, as you city people call them, did this. One gets close enough for that, it does more. Much more. So you needn’t fear for your lovely face, oh my fair one.”
Tired laughter filled the cage. The man who’d spoken twisted his head back and forth to scowl at his fellow prisoners, reserving none of his feeble wrath for Dern, whom he’d apparently identified, too late, as an unassailable foe.
“That inquisitive nature will serve you well as a scout, my fair,” Dern said. He turned to one of the guards. “Take this one to Farrier. And… Scout,” he said, pointing to another man. “Scout,” he repeated, pointing to another. When he came to Alex, he raised his arm in a dismissive wave. “And.”
Farrier was short and slight, with a narrow, richly wrinkled face and short-cropped gray hair. His impatient, distracted manner revealed an essential preoccupation.
In the city, Alex wouldn’t have approached the man in his current state. The thing to do with this type was to wait until those ever-seeking eyes had found what they sought, probably drink. Stumbling down an alley, or lying unconscious where they’d fallen, such men were gifts from the gods. The only trick was reaching them before the city’s countless other eager hands.
Two guards had marched Alex and the three men to his tent, tethered them to a hitching-post in front, yelled for Farrier’s attention, and finally gone inside the tent, apparently to wake him. The guards had gone, and now Farrier stood watching Alex and the men.
“Scouts,” Farrier muttered, apparently to himself. “Muggers and thugs and vagrants. And here’s the prize. Milk-breath pickpocket. I’ve been a lot of things, but never yet an infanticide. But there’s always another downward step left to take, the sages tell us. The steps go down and down and down.” He turned, and slipped back into the tent.
One of the men said, “He’s mad.”
Alex forced a laugh, looked to the man for approval. His fellow prisoners had spent the journey from the city either brooding on their fate or boasting about their prowess in brawling and whoring. Alex had been unable to establish a connection with any of them, and this would have to change.
From his earliest memories of the orphanage, to the three hellish months in the workhouse which had followed, to his time, lately interrupted, on the street, Alex had been part of a group, and strong, or alone, and weak. One of the sisters at the orphanage had liked to tell them that a stone was a child’s weapon, pitiful and small, but a wall of stones could repel armies and decide the fates of kingdoms. Alex thought of this often.
The man looked down at him, not smiling. He growled, “That’s funny, is it? Sent in there by a madman?”
“You’ll be in hell before the first dawn,” said another man; the first to be singled out as a scout.
“You’ll be there to greet him, Fair One,” said the first, and he and the other laughed.
The third man scowled down at Alex. There was a rustling at the tent, then Farrier’s voice. “Fair One, is it? Take this, Fair One.”
The man looked up in time to catch a sheet of what Alex took for black fabric. He’d thought black was black, as white was white. But this seemed to suck light and color into itself, to devour them, to actually glow black. It hurt Alex’s eyes to see it.
It did worse to Fair One. He’d held it for perhaps five seconds before he doubled over at the waist, and vomited.
“That,” Farrier said, over the man’s wet retching, “is a gate-beast hide. The only one in camp. Took it myself. Pass that along now.”
Fair One remained doubled over as he passed the hide to the man to his right, who held it out in front of him almost at arm’s length. Alex watched the man’s face squirm, at the same time aware of a rising sensation of sickness in his own stomach.
“That’s the feel,” Farrier said. “Pass it along now, Iron Gut.”
The man passed the hide to his right, and belied his new name by putting both hands to his stomach. The man to Alex’s left looked down at the hide purposefully for a second or two, then bent at the waist, and gave forth.
Farrier said, “The living beasts feel the same. The eggs, stronger still. That’s how you’ll avoid the one, and find the other. Now pass it along, Stomach Breath.”
Alex accepted the hide. Though it felt smooth when he brushed his fingers over it, when he held his hands in place it felt pebbly, even grooved in some places. He realized he was examining the hide without looking at it, eyes aimed absently ahead like a blind man’s. He glanced down, and averted his eyes again almost immediately, as the nausea that had been bubbling in his belly like a tainted stew rose sharply.
“Good, Pup,” Farrier said, taking back the hide. Alex realized Farrier, too, was keeping his eyes off it, had been since he’d fetched it from the tent.
“The boy seems to have more brains than the three of you combined,” Farrier said. “Care to try again, Fair One?” He handed the man the hide, leaning over to avoid the steaming puddle between them.
Alex was amazed to see Fair One hold the hide in front of his face and stare straight at it. Fresh sweat popped out on the man’s forehead, and the blood drained from his face. He gave a snort of despair, bent, and vomited.
Alex listened to the rest of Farrier’s talk with little interest, once the key fact was established: the work of the scout, it soon become clear, was conducted singly; Alex would be expected to venture into those woods alone.
When Farrier passed around one of the long pennants used for marking positions—the letter D emblazoned in black across its blood-red canvas—Alex’s fingers moved with dexterous precision over the small fastening hooks in the hem of the banner.
Hours later, he and the men were led to a small tent not far from Farrier’s, and fed, and chained in separate corners. Alex waited. When the men were asleep, and the camp quiet, and the night dark, Alex’s fingers slid the two hooks from their place within the cuff of the left sleeve of his tunic. Less than five minutes later, the manacles lay empty in the corner.
Farrier was not in his tent. Something else was missing, something Alex hadn’t realized he’d been expecting until he met with its absence: there was no nausea. In such a confined space, it should’ve been impossible not to feel the effects of the hide.
He stepped outside, and moved off through the camp. There was a sensation; not nausea, but the mental antecedent of that physical symptom. It was a recognition of wrongness, as if the night itself were offended by the deeper darkness in its midst.
The camp was tightly packed, until he came within twenty yards of the forest. There the tents ceased, as definitively as surf rolling up a beach and, reaching its appointed limit, rolling no farther; as he walked on, the camp slid away behind him like the surf’s retreat.
The edge of the forest was no more than a few hundred yards long, bordered on both sides by sheer, rocky slopes. Farrier stood facing it, within arm’s reach of the first trees.
Alex was aware of the nausea, aware also of its insignificance beside the deeper sense of wrongness. He saw the hide, hanging loosely over Farrier’s left arm, though he didn’t need to see it to know it was there.
Farrier turned. “The damn pup! What in the nine worlds are you doing here? Who let you out? No, a foolish question. Let yourself out, did you?”
“Clever fingers, eh? But not clever enough for that, not on their own. What’ve you got, Pup?”
Alex’s fingers slid briefly over both hooks, but emerged with only one, which he held out to Farrier in the palm of his hand.
A blow wouldn’t have startled him, but Farrier’s laugh did.
Farrier plucked up the hook, said, “From the banner. Clever fingers indeed.” The man was no picker of locks. He obviously had no idea one such tool would’ve been useless by itself, on a lock as heavy as the manacles’. “But who told you where to find me?”
“I went to your tent. You weren’t there—that wasn’t there—so I followed it.”
Farrier stared down at him, snorted in disbelief but continued staring. “Well, well. Perhaps the pup is a bloodhound.” He laughed, more heartily than the small joke warranted. The man was somehow uplifted, though there was no smell of drink.
Farrier became suddenly serious. “Don’t you know, Pup, runners’re killed on sight? What’ve you come to me for, when you should be—”
“Please,” Alex gasped. “Please, don’t send me alone. Let me go with you.”
Farrier shook his head. “Not with me, Pup. No.”
“Please. I’ll be useful. Carry the supplies.”
“You can barely carry yourself.”
“I can find them. I can feel them.”
“So can I. I was at this when your daddy was no more than an arrow in your granddad’s quiver. You’re no use to me.”
“Eight gates, boy, you should be halfway down the hills by now. You’re wasting darkness.”
Alex hadn’t considered outright running, and now his mind recoiled at the thought of those endless, empty plains. He lowered his head, not wanting Farrier to see the tears gathering in his eyes.
“Then you’d best get back to the tent,” Farrier said. “Go, Pup, or I’ll call the guards myself.”
Alex turned, glancing first at the forest, dark and still and waiting in the windless night. He walked off, across the bare verge, into the sleeping camp. He found Farrier’s tent, from it found his own. He crossed the dirt floor, sat in his corner, lifted the manacles, latched them in place around his wrists.
The next two days were a dream, drearily long, desperately brief. Alex missed a great deal of Farrier’s lectures, preoccupied with his own thoughts.
He’d be allowed to accompany Farrier, or he’d be sent into the forest alone, possibilities which weren’t symbolic of life and death, but were life and death themselves. Though he was sure it would be the latter, he couldn’t rid himself of the hope which lingered in his stomach like a parasite, intent on drawing life from him until the last moment. It was that idiot hope which kept the hook—worn and dull, but capable, he was sure, of the work for which he reserved it—tucked away in the cuff of his sleeve.
In the late evening of the second day, Farrier entered the tent. “Tomorrow dawn, we go,” he told them. “Iron, I want you to the north to begin with. Stomach, north and east. Fair One, dead east.”
For a moment, he hesitated. Finally, he said, “The pup will come with me.”
Alex stared. A word of gratitude was wanted, but he couldn’t speak.
They were up and fed before first light, and assembled on the bare ground at the edge of the forest before the sun had cleared the hills. The space was full to overflowing, the knots of men talking among themselves, and shooting appraising, sometimes hostile glances at other groups.
One party was comprised of two men and six or seven mock-men. The creatures’ heads showed high above the crowd, making Alex think of the surrounding mountains, several of which rose above the very clouds. The shortest was easily eight feet tall; the tallest would’ve been well over ten, had it stood anything approaching straight. But its head and neck—pale blue, broken by wide, irregular swathes of paler pink, like the rest of its body—drooped considerably, so that its massive shoulders were its highest point.
Farrier scoffed cheerfully, and said, “There’s always some clever fool who thinks of that. They’re big and strong, but see how they wilt, like cut flowers. They don’t last long in our world. Know where they come from, Pup?”
“The Snow Gate. In the far north.”
“But beyond that?”
Alex had seen several mock-men in the city, though seldom the same one twice. He’d never thought to connect their fragility with their place of origin; never considered that place at all. The Snow Gate, like the others throughout the world—like the Forest Gate, mere miles to the east of where he stood—was a boundary, not just physically but mentally.
Farrier went on, “It’s a strange world. Ugly. The land lies…strange. The air’s thin, so a man’s breathless all the while he’s there. And light. A man is lighter there, Pup. He fears he will go floating off into the sky with every step.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Once. And that was enough. I went with a trading band, but the picking was thin, and they turned slaver soon enough. We took three mock-men back with us, and left eleven of our own. We couldn’t even bury them. The earth there’s…not earth. Not soil or sand or rock.
“They’re perfect terrors there. But whatever god created them made them for their world, not ours. Perhaps we should worship the one who did, for showing us that mercy.”
He seemed to want to continue, but stopped himself, becoming aware of the changed note in the noise of the crowd: a low, expectant buzz Alex had noticed some minutes before.
“And now, unless I err… Look to the east, Pup.”
Alex did. It was less than a minute before the first blinding sliver of the sun appeared over the hills.
“That’s the signal,” Farrier said. “Let’s be off.” He moved toward the forest with the rest of the crowd, and Alex followed.
The sun was barely risen before Alex lost sight of the last remnants of the crowd. Their distant voices could still be heard occasionally, but he was amazed by how quickly they melted away into the forest, like butter into hot, dark bread.
As the sun rose higher, the forest grew no brighter. The trees weren’t overwhelmingly close on the ground, but their soaring canopies were covetous of every scrap of sunlight, leaving precious little for the creatures who moved through their great, overlapping shadows.
Farrier said, “Hear that?”
Alex heard nothing but their footsteps. He shook his head.
“What do you hear, Pup?”
“Nothing’s something. Where’re the birds chirping, the bugs buzzing, the countless wild creatures with their countless wild cries?”
Alex noted the cheerful lilt and jaunty words, which signaled Farrier’s spirits were in the last, highest stage of elevation. He reminded himself to beware the decline which could be expected to follow. He said, “Should there be? Birds and bugs?”
Farrier laughed. “In the forest? Far from man and dog? We should be fairly deafened, and bitten half to pieces. Gods and gates, Pup, have you never been outside the city?”
“Gods and gates. Well, I’ll tell you, Pup. Only three kinds of creatures are silent: those that sense death, those that seek to deliver it, and those that’re dead already. Do you understand?”
“Just so. That’s why they don’t use mules or horses for the carrying. You can’t get them in here, not for their very lives. They’ll kick a man dead, kick each other to bloody tatters, before they get within a hundred yards of the forest when it’s full.”
They walked on. Some time later, Alex stopped short, and said, “I feel something.”
Farrier kept walking as he replied, sourly, “Just now? What do you think we’ve been following for the last hour and more?”
Alex jogged a few steps to catch up, restraining himself from saying more.
“We’re almost in sight,” Farrier said. “Feeling it now’s no trick. Might as well wait till you tread on it.” The man sighed, and said, “Never mind my bitter spleen, Pup. Old men weary fast. Heed the feel. Is it like the hide?”
The nausea was the same; more a resigned protest of the stomach than a serious threat of revolt. The thing behind it, the wrongness, was different. It was subtler than that of the hide, but deeper; a rejection less urgent, but more profound.
“No,” he said. “It’s different. It’s…”
Now Farrier attempted jocularity, but it was humorless, hard. “Spit it out, Pup, before you’re as old as me.”
“The eggs,” Alex said quickly.
“Just so. Where?”
“I told you they were close. Where?”
Alex raised his arm, intending to indicate as large an area of the forest as possible, but realized vagueness was unnecessary. To his surprise, he knew precisely where they were going.
He pointed to a clump of trees perhaps fifty yards ahead. “There,” he said. “Not the biggest, the one beside it. On its right.”
“The one with the knot facing us?”
“No, the one with the forked branch, one fork behind the bigger one, one in front.”
The clutch was wrapped around one thick root; embedded there, sunken into the wood, so that it seemed a diseased outgrowth of the tree itself. It was perhaps a yard long, half that wide, covered with thousands of tiny pinkish-red spheres. At least, Alex’s mind told him they were spheres, because it had encountered that shape before. But it wasn’t right. It was as if the clutch’s true form wore the strictures and dimensions of the world in which it found itself like an ill-fitting shirt, forcing them to bend and strain in some places, hang slack in others. Its colors, too, were wrong, in ways Alex didn’t wish to—didn’t know how to—consider.
“Bring me stones,” Farrier said, squatting down beside the infected root, his hands already busy clearing leaves and twigs from the ground to either side. “And sticks. Not too dry. Supple, not brittle.”
“As many until I tell you stop.”
As Alex gathered, Farrier rummaged in his pack, occasionally glancing at Alex impatiently. Alex had the impression Farrier wanted him to wander farther in his task, out of sight. But Alex resolved to take no hints on that matter, to make the man order it explicitly. In the end, Farrier only said, “That’s enough.”
Alex squatted down to watch. Farrier arranged the stones to form rectangular troughs on either side of the root, then set the sticks inside. He reached into an earthenware jar, drew his hand out in a loosely closed fist, opened it to reveal a clump of orange-brown powder.
“Sage, sandalwood, chestnut, dried honey,” he said. “Mixed already, so you needn’t worry about the proportions. But the amount’s important. Too much or too little and you’ll foul it.” He sprinkled the stuff over the two beds of sticks, then took up flint and striker. When both beds were burning, he propped a small sheet of canvas, suspended on slender metal stakes, above the root, creating a sort of miniature tent. Thick smoke, sharp and sweet, filled the space beneath the tent, and spilled out around it.
They lunched, Farrier picking absently at a few pieces of bread, as if for form’s sake. Alex’s time as a prisoner had done nothing to break the habit—established at the orphanage, and reinforced in stark style at the workhouse—of eating as much as possible, on the rare occasions when the opportunity arose. He ate bread and hard cheese and salted beef until Farrier told him to stop.
“If you pile it right, it’ll time itself,” Farrier said, removing the tent. “When the fire dies, they’re done.” He waved away a few wisps of spicy smoke, and stamped at the embers in their stone beds. He peered at the clutch, blew away a thin layer of ash, and stood back.
The eggs were definitely spherical now; not perfectly so, each bulging somewhat out of true, like the balls of rag and wadding the boys at the orphanage had made for their play. But they were of one and only one shape, showing no signs of squirming into any other. Their color, too, was altered, now a pale, pinkish gray, a color for which Alex didn’t know if there were a name, but for which a name could, in theory, exist.
He looked up to see Farrier’s arms stretched high, securing a banner around the trunk of the tree. Farrier glanced down, said, “Pick it up, and let’s be on our way. The day’s moving without us.”
Alex poked tentatively at the clutch, found it tough, leathery. He slid his fingertips beneath the edge, and made to rise, but stopped with a jerk. “It’s stuck,” he said.
“It’s not,” Farrier said, sinking to his knees beside Alex. He took a firm hold on the clutch, braced himself, and levered up its edge perhaps a foot. Alex peered beneath, caught a glimpse of the raw, scarred wood on which the clutch sat, and flinched back when Farrier let it drop, with a carpenter-shop clap of wood meeting wood.
“The smoke kills the little beasts,” Farrier said, “but the thing’s still unnaturally heavy. That’s why you’d be no use as an egger. It’s mule’s work. Better a scout, eh, Pup?”
They found three more clutches that day. Each time, Farrier drew a small circle on the map he carried in his pack, using the short stone pillars spread throughout the forest—each numbered and marked with one of the thirty-two points of the compass—to approximate the location. When, in the deepening dusk, they returned to camp, Farrier left Alex with the guards stationed at the edge of the camp, who handed him a bowl of stew from the cauldron bubbling there, marched him back to the tent, and secured his manacles.
Fair One and Stomach were already in their corners, empty bowls before them. Alex set to work on his stew, hearty with potatoes and mushrooms and chunks of beef or venison. He’d managed only a few spoonfuls when Fair One said, “Hey, boy. Give us your bowl.”
Alex pretended not to hear, but increased the speed with which he was shoveling the stew into his mouth.
“Boy!” Alex looked up. Fair One’s crooked brown teeth showed in a mocking grin. “Your bowl, I say.”
Alex replaced the spoon, set the bowl down, and looked at the uneven dirt floor, wondering if he could slide the bowl across the tent without spilling its contents.
“Now,” Fair One spat.
“Now what, Fair One?” Alex jumped at Farrier’s voice, looked up to see the man in the entrance of the tent, a folded square of parchment in each hand. Though Farrier’s expression was hard, the change in his attitude was unmistakable. Behind his stern demeanor flashed a laughing confidence, as if any trouble that might present itself were merely an opportunity to exercise his own limitless capacity for besting it. “Are you asking the boy for lessons? That’d be wise. Did the tallyman lie when he told me you hung no banners today?”
Fair One began to splutter some excuse, but Stomach interrupted. “Iron’s still out.”
Farrier glanced at the empty corner. “Yes.”
“Could be he got lost,” Stomach suggested. “Or run off?”
“Could be,” Farrier said coldly. After a moment, he moved forward, and handed Stomach one of the folded sheets. “Here’s your map back. One find isn’t bad for a start. We’ll look for more from you tomorrow.”
Stomach nodded, accepting the map. Alex saw the small circle of ink, and the line the tallyman had drawn through it after adding the location to the master map, from which he’d direct the eggers.
“And yours,” Farrier said, handing the other sheet to Fair One. “Still unsullied as a maiden. Go on protecting its honor, and see what you get.”
“Yes, sir,” Fair One said meaninglessly.
Farrier turned to Alex. “I’ll be striking south tomorrow, Pup. I won’t be coming in for the night, nor for some nights to come. You’d be wise to do a day’s work, and return for your dinner and rest.”
“I’ll go on with you,” Alex said quickly.”If I may.”
Farrier hesitated for a moment, but said, “You may, Pup.” He stepped back, made to leave, then told the men, “Dern knows my wishes for you in the span I’ll be gone.” He took another step toward the door, and added—unnecessarily, Alex thought—”I’ll be striking south.” He went out.
They moved out again at dawn, and had smoked and marked two clutches before the morning was over. It was shortly after lunch when they found the man.
Farrier stopped short, and said, “Wait here, Pup. You’ll not want to see this.”
Alex said nothing, but when, a moment later, Farrier moved on, he followed. Farrier threw one annoyed glance over his shoulder, and said sharply, “Fine then. Walk on, and wish you hadn’t.”
A moment later, Alex noticed the first speck of red on a tree trunk. He began looking for them, and found more, always facing the direction in which he and Farrier walked. They grew larger and more frequent. One tree showed a streak nearly as long as Alex’s forearm.
Farrier stopped again, at the edge of what Alex took for a little clearing. The man waved him forward, and said, “You want to see, see then.”
Alex came to his side, and stared. The clearing was bathed in blood, and dotted with hunks of meat that made Alex think of last night’s stew. Except these were not the gray of cooked beef, but the sickly purplish red of raw, rotting flesh. The stench was devastating, though they were almost directly upwind.
The place wasn’t really a clearing, or hadn’t been until recently. But the bushes and saplings which had covered this small stretch of ground, apparently as thickly as any other in the forest, had been beaten flat, snapped at the base, in some cases uprooted.
Alex looked away, and saw, stuck to the tree directly to his right, a ragged, pale-gray strip of something which would have been mercifully unidentifiable but for its thick black stubble, which marked it unmistakably as part of a man’s face.
Alex turned, took two faltering steps, dropped to his knees, and vomited.
They didn’t speak of it until they made camp, hours later and miles away. As they sat on opposite sides of the fire, Alex attempting to keep down a few pieces of bread, Farrier making no such effort, the man said, “He was one of Stevens’ men. The blue banner with the gold S. I checked his pack while you were otherwise occupied.”
Alex thought Farrier had done more than that while Alex had been gasping for breath and trying to subdue his outraged stomach. Since then, Farrier’s silence had been melancholy, but not jagged, as it was when he was in need.
Farrier said, “Did you see the clutch?”
Alex shook his head.
“Most likely he interrupted one in the laying. It can be difficult to distinguish the feels, when the beasts are still.” He paused, then went on, “I don’t know why they destroy a man so utterly. Or a deer, a wildcat. Once I saw a bear that’d been taken thus.”
Farrier shook his head slowly, said, “I couldn’t describe it, I think.”
“Once. But I couldn’t tell what I saw. Darting and…striking, everywhere, all at once. There was only one, I’d swear to that, but it was like it was five, ten, a dozen. Striking, tearing, dragging. A streak of night in the middle of the day.”
“That was when you killed it? The one you skinned?”
Farrier shook his head. “That was when I hid. No, I took that hide many years later, from a beast I found already dead. I’ve heard men claim to’ve killed one, and I’ve spat on their lies.”
Alex meant to speak, but Farrier went on, staring into the fire. “I’ve lived long, Pup. Had my fill and more. The sweetest meal will sicken, if it goes on forever.” He pried his eyes from the fire, looked across at Alex. “It’s best you go back tomorrow, give word at camp. Take his map. You’ll get a quarter credit for his claims, by finders’ rights.”
“But you’d get that.”
“Listen to me, Pup. You’ll go back. I’m going to press on.”
“It’s best, Pup. You know enough now to—”
Farrier scowled. “Damn you, Pup. I’m trying to help you.”
Alex lowered his eyes to the fire. “Please,” he whispered. “I want to go with you.”
Farrier brooded. Finally he said, “Weak and stupid and soft old man. You’ve been told, Pup, damn you. Walk on, then, and wish you hadn’t.”
Alex awoke to a shaking of his shoulder, and Farrier’s low, urgent voice. He couldn’t make out the words immediately. By the fact that he could see, hazily, the interior of his blanket, he took it daylight had arrived. The thing to do, then, was rise. But Farrier was saying, “—quiet and still. Thought it’d change direction, but it hasn’t. For your life, Pup, stay down, do you hear?”
In an instant, Alex was fully awake, lying tense but motionless beneath his blanket.
“Do you hear, Pup,” Farrier hissed.
“Yes,” Alex whispered.
“Quiet and still, Pup.” Farrier’s hand withdrew, with a gentle rustling of leaves.
Alex felt it soon enough, a pulsing, quivering embodiment of the wrongness of the hide. His mind worked furiously, vainly, to reject its presence. Shortly the sensation split in two. Attempting to follow both halves brought true, rollicking nausea, so Alex focused on one, which was diminishing rapidly. In seconds it was gone, and Alex’s attention shifted to the other, which seemed stationary.
After a few minutes there was a rustling of leaves, and Farrier said, at a normal volume but with a residue of tension, “It’s gone, Pup. Rise now, if you haven’t gone back to sleep.”
Alex laughed, grateful for the joke. The suggestion that he could’ve gone to sleep amidst that grueling violation of nature was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard.
He drew the blanket from his head to see Farrier crouched beside a tree, examining what Alex realized must be a freshly laid clutch. Alex climbed out of the blanket, trying not to disturb too many of the dead leaves covering its exterior.
While the clutch smoked, they repaired their camouflage, sewing new leaves onto the blankets where the old had crumbled away. Since Farrier had given Alex the blanket on their first night in the forest, the thing had consumed most of his idle time; by now, he thought, he’d attached more of its leaves than had Farrier.
As they worked, Farrier glanced often at the little tent, from beneath which aromatic smoke rose in lazy billows. He seemed perpetually on the verge of speaking, and perpetually hesitant. Alex didn’t think Farrier would order him away; not after the recent intrusion. If he did, Alex would flatly refuse.
When Farrier spoke, it wasn’t an order he gave, but something like a confession. “Pup,” he said, “I don’t know what you think of me, but this will likely lessen your opinion. I can’t help that. I’m not man enough to send you away, nor to resist a thing that’s been with me since I was almost as young as you.”
Alex wished he could tell Farrier he knew of his need, at least generally. But that would only heighten the man’s shame; Farrier was clearly under the impression that this was all a revelation.
Farrier went on, “You know why we egg. Why the clutches are worth such trouble. Why men risk their lives for them, willingly or no. They’re rare, of course. The things only come through one year in every six or seven, and then only for a few weeks. But there’s more to it.\”
Alex nodded. He’d heard stories enough, though he’d never known an egg-eater himself; it was a rich man’s indulgence, and any contact he had with rich men was necessarily as brief and impersonal as he could make it. He hadn’t seriously considered the possibility that Farrier tasted, partly because he hadn’t thought Dern would trust such a man—drunks made poor barkeeps—but mainly because Farrier was nothing like the picture of the typical egg-eater Alex carried in his head: the effete, poncing son of money, whom common sense would seem to mark, of all men, as least in need of succor.
“I have the habit,” Farrier said. “Though on my oath it’s more than that. It’s a towering thing, a giant. You feel you ride it, looking down on the world from its shoulder. But should you resist, you find in truth you’re merely stuck between its teeth, a morsel yet to be, soon to be, consumed. Well, I feel my strength ebbing, boy. I’ll taste now, and you may think what you will of me.\”
Farrier stood, and moved to the tent, where the smoke had slackened. He disassembled the tent, stamped out the embers, blew away the ash, all with a self-conscious slowness which betrayed impatience more clearly than haste would’ve.
He produced a short, serrated blade, and carefully sawed away an egg. This he brought to his mouth, and ate.
Some time later, as they walked—more east than south, as they’d begun to do, Alex thought, the previous afternoon—Farrier asked, “Pup, what blighted fortune brought you here?”
Alex had no desire to talk about that, but thought Farrier would misinterpret reticence as reproach. “They took us from the jail.”
“I know. But how’d you come to be there? Picked a pocket with a bear trap inside?”
“I’ve never once been caught picking.”
“We tried a man’s house. Richard said—it’s a gang of us, me, Richard—”
“Richard said the man was away. I don’t know why he thought so. Well, we went in at night, and set to. We’re there no more than a few minutes when there’s a hand on my collar, choking me, shaking me, and all the time the man’s yelling for the guards. Well, they came. Took me to the jail, a few days later put us in the wagon and rode us out here.”
“But where’re your friends? Not egging?”
“Oh, it was only me that got caught.”
“How’d that come to pass?”
“Well. It was only the one man. As he had hold of me, the others ran out.”
“No servants? No sons?”
“No. Just the man, and him kind of…him not a young man.”
“But the guards came quick?”
“Well, no. They’re generally rather slow of a night. The barkeeps have what’s called the guards’ due, and many of them like their ale just fine, so—”
“And how many were you? You, Richard…”
“Four. Five, if you count me.”
“Five. And together you couldn’t overpower one old man?”
“I almost twisted loose. But he was strong enough, in the end.”
“I’m talking about the five of you together. Didn’t—”
“They ran out quick, though. Quick as anything.”
“Yes.” Farrier fell silent, and Alex hoped the conversation was at an end. Part of him, though, hoped not, as if there were something to be gained by it. But Farrier only sighed.
The next day they hung their last banner, Alex intensely relieved that the long excursion must soon end. But as the day wore on, the sun failed to appear in front of them; instead, in the evening, he looked back to see the forest directly behind them bathed in the deep red light of its setting.
“We’re still going east,” he said, hoping to be corrected.
“Yes,” Farrier said.
“But we’re… I’ve no more banners.”
“Then shouldn’t we—”
“You should, Pup. You should turn now, and make your way back.”
The silence that followed lasted the rest of the night, and continued into the next day. Though Farrier tasted whenever the desire struck him, the eggs no longer brought high spirits, instead seemed to turn his mind inward. He said little until the late afternoon of the next day, as they crouched beside a stream filling their water skins.
“This runs north and west for two days’ walk. It ends in a little bog. From there it’s arrow-straight west to camp.” Alex thought Farrier would urge him again to return to camp, but the man only stood, and continued on.
For some hours the ground had been trending upward, sometimes sharply, sometimes almost imperceptibly, and now they climbed one of the steeper rises. The stream disappeared, but its burbling rush remained.
As they climbed, Farrier’s pace slowed, though not, Alex thought, from fatigue. The man was holding himself back. For Alex, it was an effort to keep moving, though his legs felt loose and strong, his breathing effortless. His body had no need of his heart’s swift flutter.
The crest came abruptly, the trees marching up to the brink and over like ranks of frozen suicides. Beyond, the drop was steep, and farther than Alex had expected. Some hundred feet below lay a valley, shaped by hills to either side, by true mountains perhaps a mile ahead. The trees marched down the slope from the ridge, and stopped not far from the bottom; didn’t stop, but died, their broken corpses marching on, some fallen, some standing, all of them withered and bare.
On a little patch of naked earth in the midst of the dead trees stood two stone pillars, six or eight feet high, ten or twelve feet from one another. The space between was empty, and was not, was lit by the sun, and was not, was a part of the world Alex knew, and was not.
He must have said it aloud, because Farrier answered, “Just so.” The man hesitated, then continued, voice hard, “And here, we part ways.”
Alex’s eyes snapped to Farrier, who’d lain his pack on the ground beside him, and was staring down at the gate.
Farrier said, “You can find your way back. Remember the stream, the bog. I’ve taught you everything I could. You’ll make a fine scout, Pup. Remember—”
“You’re going through? Then…I’ll go with you.”
“You will not, Pup. I was weak enough to pity you, weak enough to take you with me. But I’m not so weak I’ll let you follow me into that hell. I’ll strangle you where you stand first. That’s their world. Can you imagine the gods, the world, that would shape such creatures? No man’s ever gone through and returned, and I’ll be no different.”
“Because I’ll control this, even if I can control nothing else. I’ve promised myself this death. A promise a man makes to himself is no less a promise. Do you understand?”
“I hope you never do. I hope you never know how far down the steps go, Pup. Down and down and down, and for me, it’s deep enough.”
Farrier turned and walked away along the ridge so abruptly he’d almost disappeared amidst the trees before Alex could force his frozen muscles into action. He followed at a run, so clumsy with shock the trees seemed to lurch out to meet him, jarring his shoulders, finally knocking him to the ground. He clamored to his knees, and watched Farrier draw steadily away.
“Wait,” Alex said. “Please.”
Farrier walked on. Soon he was only a suggestion of movement between the trees; then he was lost completely.
Alex stared, long after Farrier had disappeared. He found, to his surprise, that if he were to die, he would prefer to do so alone. The discovery was more disturbing than the gate; a portal to strangeness accessing not another world, but a previously unsuspected part of his own mind.
Alex finally rose, and retraced the few steps he’d managed. He sank down beside Farrier’s pack, pulled his blanket from his own, and lay on his belly, only his face uncovered.
He lay watching the gate, the ineradicable parasite of hope again squirming in his belly. Farrier would return. He wouldn’t leave Alex to die. Therefore the hook should remain in its place, in the cuff of Alex’s shirt.
Nonetheless the hook was out, held lightly in the fingers of Alex’s right hand, when Farrier appeared. The man had nearly reached the limit of the living trees before Alex saw him, his tiny form flitting quickly through the deep shadows. A moment later he emerged into the failing sunlight, threading his way between the dead trees.
Farrier didn’t stop until he was within a few feet of the gate. Now he’d turn, climb back up the hill. But he paused only long enough to execute an indistinct movement of his arm, which Alex interpreted as the raising of his hand to his mouth. Then Farrier stepped forward, and disappeared.
A wave of weariness unlike any Alex had ever known washed over him. He lay his face down on his folded arms. In seconds he was asleep.
When he woke the next morning, he was conscious only of his full bladder. As he emptied it against a tree, he remembered. Despair crept back into his mind, but not to its center; not while he had a task to perform. When he’d finished, he realized his mouth was dry, and he moved off toward the sound of the stream.
It was narrow and quick where he came to it, bending away to follow the ridge to the northeast, flowing downhill, swift and straight, to the west. The water was cold and delicious, not lukewarm and tasting slightly of leather like that in his water skin, which he realized now was still full from the day before. He drank until his stomach felt full, and when this feeling faded he realized he was hungry.
He returned to the packs, and rummaged through them. There was plenty of food: bread and cheese, the berries and mushrooms they’d gathered, even a few strips of salted beef, which Farrier had done a better job of hoarding than Alex had. He unfolded Farrier’s map and spread it on the ground to eat on, as they’d often done. As he ate, he gazed at the map idly, not quite absently.
The gate wasn’t marked, but it was easy enough to estimate its position, and so his own. The line of circles representing their finds curved out from camp, dipping south sharply before shallowing, finally straightening to march dead east, then ending abruptly. Not far from the final circle was a thin, sinuous line Alex took to be the stream. It wound its way into a curving row of wide arches which must be hills; on one of which he sat, eating his bread and cheese, berries and mushrooms.
The line followed the hills along for some time before ending in a small, irregular circle: a lake. Alex didn’t know why he should be glad of the lake’s existence. Possibly he’d grown fond of the stream, imagining it almost a friend, and was relieved to find its origins identifiable and near, rather than lost in ambiguity beyond the edge of the map.
When he’d finished, he put the map and the remaining food into his pack without thinking, rose, slung the pack over his shoulders, and walked back toward the stream.
This time he kept the stream at a distance, seeing how long he could follow it by sound alone, as a sort of game or test. It was afternoon before a random break in the trees provided a glimpse of the water, rushing more slowly here than it had higher up. He went to it and drank, and the water was no less delicious.
Some time later he found himself walking beside the stream, enjoying the illusion that its current was sweeping him along like the leaves and twigs floating on its surface.
By the time he lay down for the night—the sun quite gone from the sky, the last gray traces of daylight quickly following—he could no longer pretend he was doing anything but attempting to return to camp. He’d kept the thought from the center of his mind all day, but now there was nothing to distract from it.
The world—all the worlds there were—had contracted to the dimensions of the darkness beneath his blanket. He floated there, unseen; there was no one to see him. There was no one to know he thought, felt, existed; thought, feeling, existence seemed in immediate, perilous doubt. With no one to see him, he might disappear at any instant; in fact it was difficult to understand why he didn’t.
All that long night, panic held him in its ever-closing hand. But he must have slept eventually, because he woke from a dream of falling, not from anything or to anything, only falling through darkness. His world was no longer black, but gray; against all expectations, day had come.
He rose, stowed his blanket, and set off. It was some time before he remembered breakfast. He ate as he walked, slowing his pace only slightly.
In the late afternoon, the stream grew still, and spread out to cover a wide swathe of ground with shallow, murky water. The trees were stunted here, most barely taller than Alex, those that rose higher skeletal and twisted. This, Alex decided, was a bog.
He turned west. The sun, glimpsed through the trees, was low enough for him to be sure of his direction. He felt no sense of progress. Ahead lay days of walking, nights of fighting off fear; alone, every second of it.
But perhaps not. It occurred to him that despite all appearances, he wasn’t truly alone in the forest. He might run into one of the innumerable scouts and eggers. And since the men would be seeking clutches, he could increase his chances of a meeting—of rescue—by doing the same.
For some time he’d been ignoring the sickly ripple of a clutch somewhere off to the north and east, and now he briefly considered turning back, but decided to press on. Soon he was rewarded with a fresh sensation more nearly in line with his route. He began edging south.
He found the place without difficulty. By then the light had begun to fade. He was within twenty yards of the tree before his eyes could make sense of what they saw. When they did, he stopped short, and his right hand went automatically to his left sleeve.
Beside the tree crouched a patch of darkness deeper than blackest shadow, darker than moonless, starless midnight. He knew it had been crouching because, as he watched, it rose, slender, insectile legs unfolding to support a body which was longer than it was wide, but whose shape otherwise thwarted perception. He couldn’t count its legs; there were eight one moment, unnumbered multitudes the next. And they wouldn’t stay where they belonged; though he never saw them shift their positions, each was forever in a different place, often projecting from the creature’s sides or back, but bending as if still supporting its weight.
The thing had seen him; he knew that by its growl, which was not a growl, nor any sound at all, but a buzzing of his teeth, a vibration of his skull that threatened to slosh his brains to soup. The urge to flee was dull and small, as was the nausea; dull and small as the hook in his right hand, hovering there beside his left wrist. The only imperative was the hook, but his fingers fumbled with it clumsily, unable to bring the point to bear. They could not obey, or would not. His hand opened in a sudden spasm, and the hook dropped to the ground.
Alex moaned, sank to a crouch, swept his hands blindly through the dirt and dead leaves. He couldn’t take his eyes from the thing beside the tree. Its thrumming growl deepened. Though it remained in place, its legs twitched and writhed as if in propulsion; as if, in some inscrutable way, it were already approaching.
His fingers found something which was not the hook, and closed around it anyway; a stone, jagged on all sides, barely larger than his small hand. He rose, holding the stone at his side, his fingers strong and sure again, stronger, surer, than his mind. Like all boys, he’d fantasized his own death, many times. Unlike most, his noble sacrifices had never taken place on the battlefield; he’d never died fighting. He was more surprised than anything else. For a moment, he was more surprised than terrified.
He closed his eyes. Yes, the creature was moving: crawling along a dimension whose existence he’d never suspected, and could only perceive now because of the thing’s presence there, as one was only aware of the space between walls when a rat skittered through it. If he opened his eyes, he knew, he’d see it still standing there beside the tree. That perception, both illusion and truth, would hold until its arcane trajectory brought it to him. Then it would appear to flash across the space between them in an instant. And as it made the first strike, it would already be moving through that unnatural space between walls, positioning itself for the next.
It was close, closer, it was very close. It had no claws, but its claws gleamed. It had no mouth, but its mouth gaped. It had no teeth, but its teeth would rend his flesh from his bones, and scatter him across the forest like red dew.
His hand swung up, tight around the stone. There was nothing but empty air, then an impact that numbed his arm to the elbow, and shivered the nerves and shook the bones all the way up to the nape of his neck. His arm flopped limply to his side. He didn’t know he was falling until he landed, with a stinging shock to his tailbone. He opened his eyes, though he knew already the thing was dead.
It lay just at arm’s reach, as if it its rush had carried no momentum. It was a bulging puddle of shadow. He had no desire to look at it, much less touch it. He had a slight desire to vomit, but that, he knew, would pass.
Alex didn’t immediately notice when the wind shifted to blow from the west, the direction in which he walked; had walked, straight as an arrow, for the past two days. His legs were stiff and heavy, and his feet radiated ache so strongly he thought the ground must feel it with every step.
It was some minutes before he became aware of the scent. When he did, he stopped, and closed his eyes. He’d been holding one hand flat above his eyes to shield them from the sun, setting directly in his path, and the hand remained, though he was vaguely aware of how strange he must look, hand raised like an explorer gazing off into the distance, eyes firmly shut. But he could look as strange as he pleased; there was no one to see him.
The scent was thin with distance, but unmistakable: burning wood, cooking food. He smiled, opened his eyes, and moved on.
As he walked, he imagined the trees dropping away all at once, the camp appearing out of nowhere, its noise rising up just as suddenly, so much softer than the city’s perpetual bustle, but so much livelier than the forest’s skulking stillness.
Before he heard the camp, a lone voice rose up from the forest not far ahead.
Silhouetted against the sun’s ardent crimson departure, the form that stepped out from behind a tree ten or twenty yards ahead was only a shadow. But he recognized the shrilly commanding voice. He stopped.
“Give us—,” Fair One began, but cut himself off. “Where’s Farrier?”
“Ha! Knew everything there was to know, did he? Knew enough to make himself a dog’s breakfast, no better than Iron and Stomach.”
“It was dinnertime, not breakfast.”
Fair One was quiet for a moment, but roused himself to say, “How many did you mark, boy?”
“All my banners are hung. All his, too.”
“Is that right? Well, give us your map, boy.”
Alex started forward, right hand rummaging in his pack.
“Not a word to anyone, boy,” Fair One said. “These’re my finds now.”
Alex’s hand withdrew from his pack. His left arm swung back and forth as he walked, but his right hung still at his side.
“We’ll team,” Fair One said. “You sniff, smoke, hang. And I’ll protect you.”
When he was within a few feet of Fair One, Alex’s right hand swung slowly back. As his left leg came forward, his right arm did too, but very much faster. His whole upper body swung with it, and when his hand, half closed around the stone, met Fair One’s belly, his whole strength was in the blow.
The stone dropped to the ground, and Fair One dropped beside it, clutching his stomach with both hands, supported by his knees and the top of his head. The man gasped and gagged, and made some foolish, breathless sound which may have been intended as speech.
Alex bent, picked up the stone in his left hand; his right was numb, and bleeding again. It had bled for a day and a half the last time the stone had opened it, most deeply on the line where the fingers joined the palm. It would scar, and he was glad. To see it bleed again was somehow funny. To use the same stone as had killed the creature on this grunting, gagging thing was funnier still, and he smiled as he slid the stone into his pack and walked off toward the smell of burning wood and cooking food. He was still smiling when he reached it.
Conor Powers-Smith was born in Patterson, New Jersey, and grew up in New Jersey and Ireland. He received his master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in 2009, and currently lives on Cape Cod, where he’s a reporter.